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Making Mischief of the Holocaust

Review of:
Embodied Memory: The Theatre of George Tabori, by Anat Feinberg

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in American Theatre, Nov. 2000, Vol. 17, Issue 9, pp. 86-88.

IF GEORGE TABORI’S PLAYS WERE as remarkable as his life story, he might be one of the most important dramatists of the 20th century. A Hungarian Jew whose father died in Auschwitz, Tabori was in Berlin to witness Hitler’s ascension. Later, in 1935, he emigrated to London. His work as a journalist took him to Bulgaria, until Bulgaria fell to the Nazis, and then to Istanbul, until the British smuggled him out of Turkey to work in Jerusalem at a BBC radio station that, for some reason, never actually transmitted any of the broadcasts Tabori and his co-workers thought they were making. From Jerusalem, Tabori went to Cairo in 1943, where he worked for British Intelligence. Towards the end of the war and in the early post-war years, he wrote a couple of novels, became a British citizen, then moved to Hollywood, where he worked on film and television scripts, including I Confess for Alfred Hitchcock. Eventually he wrote several shows that opened on Broadway (the first of which, Flight into Egypt, was directed by Elia Kazan). In the mid-1960s, he worked with the Free Southern Theatre, the first racially mixed group of actors in New Orleans.

Although Tabori’s plays, screenplays and novels cover a wealth of topics ranging from Vietnam to interracial adultery, he has become widely known as–for lack of a better term–a Holocaust writer. Some critics have attributed his success in Germany to the debt that country feels it owes to the Jews, but it is, in fact, the American publishers who seem loath to publish a Tabori play unless it relates to the Holocaust. Cannibals and Mein Kampf have been published in English-language anthologies and My Mother’s Courage in Theater magazine; anyone wanting to read other Tabori plays will have to read them in their German translation. In America, of course, this is all a question of marketing; the Holocaust sells, and if the Holocaust writer’s father died in Auschwitz, well, so much the better. It adds a certain immediacy to the work, a window into the tortured soul of the orphaned writer.

THIS WASN’T ALWAYS THE CASE, as Anat Feinberg points out in her detailed book on Tabori’s life and works. In 1979, when Tabori sent The New Yorker a version of My Mother’s Courage, which recounts his mother’s bizarre escape from the Nazis, fiction editor Daniel Menaker explained in his rejection letter: “It’s both horrifying and funny, and there’s a great sadness underneath the energetic writing, but stories about the Holocaust are nearly out of the question for us, I’m afraid.” (Of course, that was before Tina Brown’s stint as editor, when the magazine moved from a posture of reverent silence to pious chatter.)

Part of what trips up Tabori’s success in America (and what fuels the Germans’ fascination) seems to be his persistent desire to infuse Holocaust stories with gallows humor and Borscht Belt gags. In the German program for Cannibals, Tabori justified his approach by claiming that sentimentality or even sympathy for Hitler’s victims is an insult to the dead because “the event is beyond tears.” But Tabori has always enjoyed the role of agent provocateur, well before he started writing about the Holocaust, going back at least as far as his evening of two one-acts in 1967, delicately titled The Niggerlovers, or even to his 1945 novel, Beneath the Stone the Scorpion, which drew a sympathetic portrait of a German officer at a time when people were not exactly yearning for such material.

Tabori writes with the vitality of mischief, gleefully substituting a jab where people expect a bow. Yet for all his efforts, Tabori can’t seem to avoid a certain breed of sentimentality, obviousness and aphorism. In Mein Kampf, after Herzl trims Hitler’s moustache and grooms him for his art school interview, Hitler says: “Jew, I appreciate your assistance. When my time has come, I’ll reward you suitably. I’ll buy you an oven, so you’ll be warm, and when you get old I’ll find you a solution …. “If this is wit, it’s strained to the point of groaning. At times, this kind of hokeyness verges on the serious: Distraught over his stillborn friendship with Hitler, Herzl reprimands himself at the end of Mein Kampf: “I was too dumb to know that some people can’t take love.” Ugh.

Anat Feinberg’s Embodied Memory is the first English-language study of Tabori. She has clearly done a great deal of literary and biographical research, and she succeeds in providing a useful overview of Tabori’s career. The book’s weakness lies in its not-so-critical analyses. She writes at length about Tabori’s admiration of Beckett and even goes so far as to compare Mein Kampf with Waiting for Godot, but her comparison is strained (if only because Beckett would never have written lines as belabored and silly as the ones quoted above). Feinberg deserves credit for noticing Mein Kampf‘s “intertextual allusions” to Godot–I certainly never would have noticed them–but by dwelling on this theme, she emphasizes trivial similarities over important differences in tone, in diction and in the vastly different worlds the two playwrights have created.

I SUSPECT SHE NEGLECTS THESE differences out of a desire to place Tabori in a class of dramatists to which he doesn’t belong. Tabori has written some fine plays that bear stylistic and sometimes thematic affinities to the work of Peter Barnes, another admirable playwright. As a director, on the other hand, his achievements have been inconsistent. More than once, Feinberg insists on placing Tabori alongside titans such as Peter Brook, Bertolt Brecht and Jerzy Grotowski, although in her heart she seems to know Tabori doesn’t operate on their level. When she really wants to inflate him, she deploys German words, which is especially ironic given that she’s writing about a man more comfortable with English. One chapter ends with the sentence, “If theatre is home (Heimat) as Tabori, a modern Ahasuerus, often maintains for himself, then it is a home which one shapes and molds individually, in a never-ending process of inventiveness.” Heimat has important connotations in German, but in this context, its usage–especially so close to the inflated and distasteful Ahasuerus reference–is just a sad attempt to dolly up a sentence that has little or no substantive value. If readers can overlook such instances of pseudo-intellectual fluff, Embodied Memory will help remind readers of the diversity of Tabori’s work.

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