Diary Product

I too must bear witness: I Will Bear Witness is nearly unendurable. But I must add immediately that it's well worth enduring, and that once you've endured it, you may feel stronger, more knowledgeable, and emotionally richer. I did, at least. Besides, only one-third of the event's unendurableness can be blamed on the artists involved; for the rest, you can blame history, which turned Victor Klemperer's otherwise less than world-shaking life into the Beckettian hell George Bartenieff recites for us.

Klemperer, born in 1881, was the hapless fourth son of Berlin's leading reform rabbi. Like many educated Jewish families of the time, they were highly assimilated. Klemperer's older brothers became doctors and lawyers; he dropped out of school, knocked about as a freelance arts journalist, then went back and earned his doctorate. When the Nazis came to power, he was a full professor, much published, a baptized Protestant married to a well-connected Gentile woman, and a World War I veteran. His dossier contained every good mark that could help a Jew under the Third Reich.

None of which helped, particularly. The piece Bartenieff and his director-partner, Karen Malpede, have made covers Klemperer's life, as recorded in his meticulous diary, from 1942 to 1945. It is a story of slow, agonizing attrition, varied mainly by brutality and an occasional horrifying shock. Klemperer and his wife survive—by sheer obstinacy, it seems at times—but everything is systematically taken from them: friends, family, profession, information, hope. Movie theaters and libraries are off limits; going for a walk is dangerous, expressing an opinion risky. Every day brings new deportations, deprivations, degradations. The diary itself becomes a source of terror, its sections deposited with Aryan friends, its current pages folded into old scholarly books which the Gestapo squads are likely to ignore during their increasingly frequent house searches.

George Bartenieff as Victor Klemperer: witness for the persecution
photo: Dixie Sheridan
George Bartenieff as Victor Klemperer: witness for the persecution

Details

I Will Bear Witness
Adapted by George Bartenieff and Karen Malpede from the diaries of Victor Klemperer, translated by Martin Chalmers
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street 212-677-4210

Ten Unknowns
By Jon Robin Baitz
Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center
212-239-6200

The Good Thief
By Conor McPherson
Jose Quintero Theatre
534 West 42nd Street 212-560-7284

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The awfulness of Klemperer's life is complicated by his humanist refusal to accept Jewishness as the sole determinant of his identity. He is German, he says over and over; there is another Germany of which the Nazis are not representative. He records with bitter relish the flashes of dissent that prove his thesis: the muttered "This won't last long" behind him; the woman who sees elderly academics cutting cardboard in a box factory and exclaims, "This is what Germany has come to!"; the Aryan lawyer who safeguards the country house in which the Klemperers are not allowed to live. Scrupulously, he records their opposite: the people who spit on Jews from passing cars, or shout, "Why don't you gas yourself?" When the friendly lawyer is jailed for his part in a projected coup, Klemperer's first reaction—recorded without shame or embarrassment—is relief that for once the Aryan rather than the Jew is suffering. (The gratification is of course immediately followed by a seizure of sheer terror.)

Gripping and revelatory as Klemperer's diary is, two and a half hours of it (with intermission) makes an unwieldy evening. Some repetition is necessary, but a more stringent selection might even heighten the cumulative harrowing effect. Bartenieff's performance, given in a Germanic accent and a high-pitched professorial tone, is forceful and convincing, rising to tremendous heights during the big narrative moments, but still lacks a full range of emotional colors. I wish Malpede's staging, often rigid during long passages of introspection, had found more physical expression for Klemperer's inner life; even words this riveting shouldn't have to do all the work themselves.

Still, to see I Will Bear Witness performed is to experience something central to the life of this past century. The ethical issues that come with the need to survive, in a world where every day is another confrontation and any group may suddenly find itself targeted for persecution, have probably never been explored with the deep cogency with which Klemperer lived them and wrote them down. That Bartenieff's reincarnation of him has flaws and repetitions is less important than the sheer tonnage of the reality it evokes. It even, in a way, confirms the essential truth of modernist art: Here, unmistakably, is a Kafka man, trapped in an ever narrowing Beckett room, exercising the impassive cunning of Brecht's Herr Keuner, venturing out to social scenes of Surrealist grotesquery, streaked with Absurdist farce and patched with neo-sensationalist horror. History even had a post-Holocaust irony in store for Klemperer: After the war, he became a Communist, settling in East Germany. As a result, though he died in 1960, his diaries had to wait for the collapse of Communism to see the light of day; they weren't published till 1995, a last enthralling testimonial to the worst century in human history—and to the human spirit's capacity for surviving even the worst.


The capacity for spiritual survival is also the subject at hand, sort of, in Jon Robin Baitz's Ten Unknowns. But Baitz hasn't thought deeply about this or anything else. His hero is an aging, blocked, alcoholic painter, a realist who holed up in Mexico when the Abstract Expressionists ruled the art market and is now being lured back by a desperate dealer who thinks he can peddle the oldster as a major rediscovery. Baitz contrives a lot of diversionary activity to pad out what's essentially a two-person confrontation: There's a pretty girl zoologist researching the mysterious disappearance of frogs from a local lake, and the painter gets an improbable young disciple, whose hand turns out to be executing the old man's conceptions. (To hear Baitz flap on about this, you'd think no painter in history ever employed an assistant.) After many dire hints of sacrifice, the lake receives something else in lieu of frogs, and the audience goes home, no doubt illuminated by the news that the art market is a wicked, money-hungry place.

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