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.
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.
Though not wholly specious, Ten Unknowns is much too busy contriving glibly effective scenes to come to grips with its material. The hero’s excuse for exile is nonsense; as the exceptionally informative current issue of Lincoln Center Theater Review points out, figurative painting never wholly disappeared—even an Abstract Expressionist like de Kooning sometimes practiced it. If Baitz’s Malcolm Raphelson couldn’t survive on the same terms as Phillip Pearlstein, Alice Neel, or Fairfield Porter, either he wasn’t any good to start with, in which case the play loses its point, or the inner torment blocking him has only gotten worse, in which case no drama can be expected from it. Indeed, though there are a number of unsurprising surprises, visible well in advance, and a tantrum or two to make the actors earn their wages, nothing happens onstage. A simulacrum of a play, Ten Unknowns looks and sounds like drama; it appears to have characters, a conflict, and a sequence of events. But none of these turns out to matter very much or convey much sense of life.
The script’s pallor has even affected the four excellent actors, whose work is good in inverse proportion to the length of their roles. Julianna Margulies is fresh and appealing as the frogless zoologist, while Denis O’Hare’s art dealer is a matchless cyclone of insecure hyper-efficiency. But Justin Kirk, as the club kid turned neo-figurativist, does his usual deadpan wiseass, and Donald Sutherland embodies the old painter with disappointingly perfunctory competence, heightened only by a generalized sense of regret; maybe he thinks as little of the script as I do.
Brian d’Arcy James and I clearly don’t agree about the script of Conor McPherson’s monologue The Good Thief. He performs it with glowing devotion, rushing into its recitation of beatings and betrayals with a grinning headlong eagerness, and a painterly relish for the dirty details, that makes me feel abashed for having any reservations at all. But I don’t understand two basic things: what McPherson thought was so important in this story of a hired thug out-thugged by his rivals, and why he thought narration by its hero—who might be but isn’t transformed by the experience—was a better way to tell it than, say, a TV movie of the week, which, barring the violence, is what it most resembles. I know there’s an Irish tradition of storytelling; there’s a tradition in drama criticism of complaining when the stories have no substance. Thanks to d’Arcy James, McPherson gets to share in that other Irish tradition—charmingly versatile actors rescuing mediocre texts.
A tribute to the late Lyn Austin, founder of the Music-Theatre Group, will be held March 19 at 4 p.m., at the Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street.
review of Conor McPherson’s “The Weir.”