Theater for Social Change: The Legacy of George Tabori

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LAWRENCE — George Tabori, whose own father died in Auschwitz, didn’t think the Holocaust was too serious a subject to be treated with humor. Instead, he used absurdity and dark comedy to baffle and create an ethical-witness relationship between the audience and the unthinkable.

Rebecca Rovit, now an associate professor in the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of Kansas, experienced this dynamic personally by attending some Tabori plays in Germany shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This informed his work on a chapter in the new book “Open Wounds: Holocaust Theater and the Legacy of George Tabori” (University of Michigan Press) edited by Martin Kagel and David Saltz.

His chapter is titled “Parsing the Jewish Question: Ethical Witnessing, Tabori, and the Theatrical Representation of the Holocaust.” Throughout his career, Rovit’s research has focused on theater and the Holocaust – both works written and performed by concentration camp prisoners as well as post-war works responding to the Nazi attempt of Jewish genocide.

Rovit said Tabori – born in Budapest, Hungary, exiled to England and the United States, and eventually returned to Europe – is almost unknown in the United States due to the few translations and productions of his work (some of which are at originally in English) here.

Given that American and European audiences have a different relationship to World War II, “I think there’s also a cultural difference in terms of what his plays ask of the audience,” Rovit said. “They are irreverent. They are very witty, but they are biased in the humor he uses. They’re in your face…almost deliberately transgressive.

Rovit wrote about Tabori’s 1990 play, “Weisman and Copperface: A Jewish Western”, which she saw perform on stage in Berlin. She sketches the opening tableau with “a painted back screen, reminiscent of a Hollywood Western (Tabori worked as a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s and 1950s). A vulture perched in a tree overlooks a sparse desert backdrop…A middle-aged man (the salesman, Arnold Weisman) enters…Weisman carries a bag containing his wife’s ashes. “You don’t look Jewish, especially now in the form of a pile of ashes,” he said, addressing the bag as he held it out to his daughter. ‘Here, hold your mother!’”

He soon encounters the other titular character, an American Indian.

Rovit said, “Within minutes, we audience members are thrust into a grotesque world that has us laughing, gasping, and then squirming uncomfortably.”

Audiences who intuitively understand — and perhaps share — the author’s status as an oppressed minority can laugh at such things, Rovit said. Germans and Austrians also laugh, she says, because of the way Tabori breaks taboos when tackling topics like Hitler satire.

So too, she says, is Tabori’s satirical “Mein Kampf,” which Rovit called “an absolutely hilarious prank on young Hitler in Vienna.”

Tabori, who died in 2007 in Berlin, wasn’t exactly riffing on Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler,” by Rovit’s estimation. The Brechtian concept of aesthetic distancing is a more direct antecedent, she writes.

She began researching Tabori for the book essay following a 2015 conference held by the publishers. Like that encounter, she says, the book is designed “to do justice to someone, in this case a true theater maker, who will go where other playwrights haven’t gone before.” He has very specific aesthetic and dramaturgical devices that he uses in his plays to help engender an active and questioning viewer.

Rovit said she taught Tabori’s play “The Cannibals” for years before she was asked to write an essay for the book. It is important, she said, for a course focusing on the theater of the Holocaust, or genocide more generally, to go beyond the classic “The Diary of Anne Frank”, in which, she noted, the audience never sees the authors on stage or hears their thoughts.

“It’s really refreshing and important to see how other plays on themes concerning genocide take different angles and especially how playwrights use very different strategies to engage the viewer,” Rovit said. “And I am not alone. Many of my colleagues are interested in what we call theater for social change. Instead of just crying for Anne Frank, are there ways – and I think there are – to create in us a kind of spectator-witness; i.e. someone who can not only be emotionally moved, but who could become more of a critical thinker and who questions themselves? »

Rovit said Tabori and many of the playwrights he influenced compel audiences to ask the question, “Do we have a moral obligation to bear witness to genocide and to expose war crimes?” This is a question we ask ourselves these days.

Picture: Rebecca Rovit, holding a copy of the new book on George Tabori to which she contributed. Credit: Rick Hellman/KU News Service

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