Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Thomas Keneally: Either Or

Author: Thomas Keneally
Title: Either Or
Director: Daniel De Raey
Where Seen: Theater J at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater / Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts, 16th and Q Sts. NW, Washington DC, 20036.
Length: 115 minutes plus one 15-minute intermission
Stage setups: one basic setup, small

I saw this at a Wednesday lunchtime matinee (May 30, 2007), to a sold-out very professional crowd. Apparently theater matinees appeal to business people not far away on K Street or Connecticut Ave. (So do baseball games.)

The play gives a biography of the double-life led by Kurt Gernstein (Paul Morella), vacillating between prison and membership in the Nazi party, where he eventually became the head of SS Technical Disinfection Services at the concentration camps and helped introduce Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide), which the Nazis used to replace carbon monoxide in gas chambers. Yet, Gernstein wanted to be a “good man: and frantically tried to get the word out to both the Vatican and other countries like Sweden and Switzerland. Each act of the play starts in 1945, where the Allies are debriefing him and may try him; then the play fashes back to 1933 (for Act I) and 1941 (for Act II).

One interesting problem of history is how the German people (referring to the Gentiles or practicing Lutheran and Catholics) were so easily taken in by Hitler and the Third Reich at a personal level. An early scene portrays the economic relief promised by the Reich, as well as the focus on aesthetic beauty (as in classical music) and personal perfection. But aesthetics were to be controlled by the state, not explored by individuals with personal freedom. Indeed, God (in the name of Jesus) had supposedly imputed the State with the knowledge of what is beautiful – the knowledge of “good and evil”. In our society, even with personal freedom, we become concerned that too much such “rational knowledge” in the hands of one person or a small number of people can become dangerous to everyone. Later, there is a line where Kurt is told to tell the SS what they want to hear as a “civic courtesy.” It’s interesting to watch how a promised economic or cultural liberation quickly turns into oppressive conformity with the state making up all kinds of criminal offenses to suppress dissent.

Curiously, you don’t hear “Hail to Hitler” (in any variation) in the play, and the subject of anti-Semitism for its own sake is little explored (although one character is a converted Jew going to a Lutheran seminary, whereon he is eventually kicked out). Dr. Edward Pruden, of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC at 16th and O (the Church met in the JCC in 1954/1955 while its present building was being constructed), wrote a lot, in his 1951 book “Interpreters Needed” (Judson Press) about the failure of Christian churches (whether Lutheran or Catholic) to respond to the Nazi threat in the 1930s.

One other note: As I recall, the second part of Ayn Rand 's novel Atlas Shrugged is called "Either-Or".

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