The Passover Question, or “What Makes This Gerstein Different From All Other Gersteins?”

Ari here. We’re both in rehearsal, Hannah Hessel and I, working carefully with Tom Keneally on cuts and adjustments throughout his titanic play, Either Or, a show with 41 scenes and (at least) 58 characters played by 10 actors, passionately directed (thus far at least, we’ll see how long the high-octane passion lasts; probably forever, or until he goes out in a blaze of glory) by Daniel DeRaey.

It hasn’t been entirely without its dramatic fireworks, our little dramaturgy sessions, Hannah and Ari sparing like siblings and Sir Tom Keneally gleefully absorbing the advice and enjoying the collaborative to and fro. Tom delivered a new draft of Act I Sunday night which cut out about 15 minutes worth of material (the read-through of the new act came in at 57 minutes–a week ago, with stage directions read, we were at 1:15). The sustained, rising tension line and fullness of the portraiture of Kurt Gerstein (what with the multiple worlds in which we see Kurt Gerstein navigate) made for an extremely absorbing Act I. So it’s fair to say that we’ve been on the right track in our fiery dramaturgy knock-down drag-outs on the 3rd floor in classroom 3 of the DCJCC. Going over 20 scenes with a fine tooth comb has led us to question every word, every interruption, with 8 previous drafts to refer to when restorations or further cuts are of the order. Sometimes I’ve advocated for an entirely new line and Tom has responded receptively in his patented Australian brogue, “Yeh, dat’s good,” only to have Hannah demur uneasily, suggesting that her artistic director might be overstepping his bounds by being a tad too creative. Other times, Hannah has suggested a clarifying phrase and I’ve frowned and poor Tom has been left to deliberate, “Who should I risk offending more?” Fortunately, Tom’s an author of 30 works of fiction and non-fiction and a wise man of 70 and he sees this highly-charged tussle as great fun and, even more satisfying, a terrific amount of attention to be lavished on a manuscript that’s already taken longer to fashion than most books he’s written.

The reigning dictum in all these collaborative tug-of-wars comes from the estimable team of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman who suggest the following: “Whoever cares more wins.” Marshall your care with insight and pusuasiveness and it’s likely that your investment will seal the deal.

Of course other times, the artistic director will pull a rabbit out of his hat and say, “There’s got to be a hierarchy here!” and hope that his position will triumph simply because he says so! He may or may not be right. Fortunately, the read-through bears out all our instincts and, communally, we all sense what’s working and still can point to a few lines that are not. We might have gone even further in our work, trusting our creative instincts all the more; that’s what I get out of yesterday’s read-through. Another conclusion: We’ve got a great team here, beginning, most notably, with my blog partner here, “Sister Hannah,” as Tom affectionately calls our dramaturg/assistant director.

After the read-through, actor John Lescault returns to a suggestion made to Dan DeRaey earlier in the day, before the rewrites were handed out. What if we eliminated completely the role of Franz Gerstein, Kurt’s resentful brother who, when we first meet him, is married to Bertha who is slowly growing more unstable, soon to find herself in an asylum for the misbegotten at the Hadamar Institute and, shortly thereafter, is pronounced dead? Her “euthanization” is the trigger that sets in motion Kurt Gerstein’s zealous drive to bear witness to all that’s transpiring in the name of racial purification and sanitization.

In short, should we cut Franz?

The rewrites point to a growing role for Franz in the story, and I make a case for strengthening, not eliminating Franz’s role. As Hannah points out in her last posting, there are, in fact, other iterations of the Gerstein story, most recently Costa Gavras’ film AMEN, filmed in 2002. In that rendition, there is no character of Franz Gerstein at all. We see nothing of Kurt’s relationship with the troubled Bertha; the film, in fact, begins with Bertha’s gassing. In Tom’s play, the romantic triangle between Kurt, Bertha and Friedl, and in other scenes, between Kurt, Bertha and Franz, forms a key dramatic component of Act I. And so, at last, the Passover question of this blog’s title: “What Makes This Treatment of Kurt Gerstein’s Life and Death Different From All Other Previous Versions?

As Hannah points out, Keneally is not the first author or artist to consider the fate of Gerstein. Keneally discovered Gerstein’s depositions going through archives of the Nuremburg Military Tribunal (Volume 1, pp. 866-870) while doing research for Schindler’s Ark (which would later go onto become the Academy-Award winning motion picture, Schindler’s List.) Gerstein was first depicted in 1963 in The Deputy, Rolf Hochhuth’s scandalously anti-church indictment of the Pope’s war-time silence. Later in the decade, the Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander wrote Counterfeit Nazi: The Ambiguity of Good. After that, A Spy for God: The Ordeal of Kurt Gerstein, written by Pierre Joffroy and translated by Norman Denny. And then the aforementioned docudrama, Amen by the great Costa-Gavras; a less-than-great but still worthy treatment of Gerstein’s saga that focuses primarily on Gerstein’s (and Gerstein’s fictitious friend, a minister in the Papal Nuncio) repeated efforts to reach the Pope. None of these other considerations focus on what Tom Keneally seems most interested in exploring in Either Or, and that is the torn fidelities of a man to his family, his party, his country, his church, his God, and – when all those fail him – his soul.

It is fascinating, of course, that every decade seems to need its own version of the Gerstein saga.

Why? What’s the enduring, ever-evolving meaning of Gerstein’s life and death in our 21st Century world?

Well, that’s tomorrow’s posting. With more rehearsal gossip to come. Stay tuned.


2 thoughts on “The Passover Question, or “What Makes This Gerstein Different From All Other Gersteins?”

  1. I hope the rehearsal notes continue to be published on this blog on a regular basis. They are fascinating (and well written). Have the two of you ever thought of (in some form) publishing this type of day to day journal of a play in process, or at least making them available to future production of the play?

  2. This is great. I love it. And the Sondheim dictum is one worth writing down and keeping present on the table through any collaborative process.

    Picking the worthy battles. That may be the trick of it all.

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