Lest We Forget
Theodor Adorno’s contention that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,’ a view contentious even to the man himself, highlights the moral, cultural and artistic challenges of reconciling art with The Holocaust. The most barbaric act in human history, The Holocaust was responsible for the death of seventeen million people, six million of whom were Jews, in Nazi concentration camps across Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s. An act of unimaginable horror and magnitude, perpetrated by a nation perceived as one of the worlds most artistic, cultured and civilized nations.
Since 1945, many autobiographical works by Holocaust survivors have become modern classics. Primo Levi’s If This Be A Man, Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning and Elie Wiesel’s Night, to name but a few. To that distinguished list, French writer Charlotte Delbo's powerful play “Who Will Carry The Word?” strives to be included, as does her most famous work, Auschwitz and After. In Blacklight Productions Irish premiere of “Who Will Carry The Word?” Delbo’s problematic play is given an opportunity to receive wider recognition. Yet it’s a production that makes some problematic choices. With its director often weighing in, technically and thematically, with a heavy hand, “Who Will Carry The Word?” highlights some of the difficulties that can arise when addressing this vitally important and powerful work.
If less well known to the wider public than many of her contemporaries, Delbo’s autobiographical works are widely respected by readers of Holocaust literature, telling of her experiences in Auschwitz, along with over 220 other women, after her arrest in 1942 for being a member of the French Resistance. While her novel and poems speak in detail of their arrival at the camp, their inhumane treatment, of the fate of the 180 women who died and the 49 who survived, “Who Will Carry The Word?” often focuses on the philosophical and moral choices underpinning their personal experiences and survival. At its heart, the question of suicide or sedition looms large. Death before dishonor, or death as dishonor? In the face of futile suffering, is it better to commit suicide and die with dignity, on your own terms, denying your captors the benefit of your labour? Or do you have a responsibility to stay alive, to persevere and persist in a living hell where three weeks is a lifetime, three months an eternity. Clinging through the minutes as an act of resistance, fighting for survival with only a slim chance of victory, living through each horror if only to inspire others to hang on until, finally, freedom deferred becomes freedom received. When one may finally leave that hellish place, with a duty to live anew while giving voice to the memory of all those who perished.
While there are many powerful and memorable moments in Blacklight Productions “Who Will Carry The Word?” there are also several significant issues. Technically, early signs are less than promising. The opening sees a woman seated, extreme stage left, at a table with her notebook, her coffee, and her cigarettes, proceeding to look thoughtfully into space as a French chanteuse sings an interminably long song from hidden speakers. Accompanied by recorded voices simultaneously speaking French during the song. A device that might play well in Delbo’s home country serves no useful function here beyond over extending an opening and battering the audience with a context they’ve already figured out. Compositionally, problems frequently arise from some curious staging, beyond those arising from failing to satisfactorily come to grips with the idiosyncrasies of the venue. With matter-of-fact arguments often being tossed back and forth like tennis rallies from either side of the too wide performance space, the scattered spread of the performance ultimately proves distracting. A situation compounded by key performers being regularly placed in weak stage positions, such as extreme stage left or right. As a result, the energy never consistently catches or flows.
A large cast of thirty, showing great competence throughout, ultimately prove counter productive, even if crowd sequences are often extremely well executed. The size of the cast might want to suggest something of the scale of the Auschwitz experience, yet scale sacrifices Delbo’s crucial sense of intimacy with, and focus on, specific personal horrors in too many places. An intimacy vital to tempering the pervasiveness of her ideas with the personalities of the people who inspired those ideas. A problem compounded by the scattered cast often being collectively staged in pairs, looking like cozy, cuddling couples constantly caressing each other. An attempt at intimacy perhaps, or to accentuate a sense of feminine care, it’s a device that ultimately results in the sense of horror often being minimized, making several scenes feel like a late night story-and-giggle fest at an unusually large slumber party.
Thematically, director Cliodhna McAllister often shows too much reverence for Delbo’s ideas. An imbalance that frequently proves costly to the people behind those ideas, who often become secondary to the points of view being debated. As a result, the whole is steeped in a didactic tone, one that yields far less of a personal or visceral experience, feeling more akin to attending an academic debate. A situation compounded by McAllister showing too little reverence, in one respect, for Delbo, by succumbing to the temptation to present “Who Will Carry The Word?” as a challenge to 'tell the stories of every woman who has suffered oppression.’ Something Delbo was vehemently opposed to. “I must not be discussed as a woman writer. I am not a woman in my writing,” Delbo has publicly stated.
For Delbo, as for many feminists, analysis of the horrors of Auschwitz have shown they were never gendered. While Delbo’s writings speak beautifully to the singularity of the female experience during The Holocaust, enriching our understanding because of it, she never claimed, and actively refused, special dispensation for her oppression as a woman. All humanity, irrespective of race, age, colour, creed, or gender were equally brutalised. With McAllister appropriating “Who Will Carry The Word?” for her own ideological ends, it becomes a case of the road to hell being lined with good intentions. For while McAllister unquestionably honours those women, and their experiences, something crucial gets lost of their wider, shared, human experience. Rather, it becomes replaced with a reductive, lecturing tone that foregrounds McAllister's stated theme of female resistance to unspecified oppression, with The Holocaust serving as another example of same.
If sound designers Brian Cullen and Jack O’Malley show excellent timing with Klaxon and rifle reports, the aforementioned overly long opening music/speech sequence shouldn’t have been left unchallenged. Cain Lynch and James Fagan’s lighting design works best when evoking searchlights, but far too often fails to successfully negotiate the restrictions of the venue and, on occasion, proves to be distracting. All of which positions its thirty strong cast in perilous water. Yet the thirty strong cast successfully rise above these perilous pitfalls, often revealing a heartbreaking humanity carved hauntingly on their faces, shown beautifully in sequences where a girl refuses to be separated from her dead sister, or a woman dances defiantly in the face of death, or refuses to become a killer of children. Exquisitely realized, such sublime and deeply moving moments often contrast with others where characters are made secondary to the ideas they serve. While all cast members are strong, some are incredibly strong. Yet with primary characters, who represent real victims, being curiously left unnamed in the programme, it’s impossible to highlight those particular cast members who stood out. Even so, principal cast members Aoife Honohan, Maureen Rabbit, Danii Byrne, Eilis O’Donnell, Hannah Osborne, Paula McGlinchy, Virginie Naudillon, Yannika Frank and Charlotte Hamel are all deeply engaging, and, on occasion, breathtakingly and heartbreakingly powerful.
“Who Will Carry The Word?” is an important work, still relevant today, reminding us of a time when, as Delbo says in, Thank You To The Others, ‘the tattoos identified the dead men and the dead women,’ lest we forget. For director Cliodhna McAllister, “Who Will Carry The Word?” is unquestionably a labour of love to which she is passionately committed, and in which she shows a lot of promise. If her love and passion aren’t completely blind, they are certainly prone to blind spots, in what is an ambitious production with a lot of soul. Like a rookie boxer, showing oodles of heart but not enough technique, “Who Will Carry The Word?” keeps on punching and punching. If some blows land lightly, others show incredible power. The knockout punch may never quite arrive, but “Who Will Carry The Word?” never gives up and can knock you to the canvas often enough as a result of some incredibly moving performances.
“Who Will Carry The Word?” by Charlotte Delbo, produced by Blacklight Productions, runs at The Complex until December 2nd
For more information, visit The Complex or Blacklight Productions