Every Decade Needs Its Own Gerstein – Continued Notes from the Rehearsal Room

…Or to pick up from yesterday’s posting (and it’s Ari again here, referencing back to last entry): “What’s the enduring, ever-evolving meaning of Kurt Gerstein’s life and death in our 21st Century world?”

Tom Keneally has chosen to resurrect the tale of Gerstein for a few reasons. Nothing if not provocative, EITHER OR is an impeccably researched play that is daring to make the Holocaust relevant as it questions the conscience of a good soldier charged with fighting a terrible war.

Here’s how Tom himself has talked about why he’s telling this tale here and now. “The impulse to re-visit the subject of Gerstein,” writes Keneally, “revived as I saw many bureaucrats and technocrats in the Western world, including Australia and, obviously, the U.S., drawn into policy they privately dissented from, and then saw whistle-blowers disbelieved, discredited and destroyed.”

So Tom Keneally is telling The Colin Powell/Joseph Wilson story by way of the Third Reich? Who are other recent whistle-blowers who’ve been tarred and feathered by an administration? Is that really Kurt Gerstein’s story? The tale of a man who goes along with a powerful regime, only to uncover the cancer at the core of its agenda and then finds it well-nigh impossible to halt the hurtling train?

Well, yes; that is the story. But Kurt isn’t really punished by the Nazi “administration” for his secretive defections; his entreaties to the West and the Vatican as he attempts to alert any and all who will listen about the crimes that are transpiring under his watch. Kurt’s retribution comes only after the Nazis are vanquished.

The bigger question to ask of Gerstein—if one could, that is—is “why did you keep going back to the killing grounds even while being in possession of all that damning intelligence that told you that what you were perpetrating was murderous and immoral?”

Kurt did fulfill his duties as a member of the Waffen SS—albeit reluctantly and inefficiently (remember all those shipments of Zyklon B he sabotaged—a mere drop in the bucket as far as resistance is concerned, but something)—and didn’t feel the brunt of his treasonous protestations until after the war when, under French jurisdiction, he may or may not have been left in his jail cell with other German officiers who, upon figuring out who he was, had their way with Kurt. Of course, that’s only one speculation as to how Kurt died. The other scenario is that he killed himself.

A useful mystery, that begins and ends the play: Who killed Kurt Gerstein?

And do we care?

That’s the next Big Question for us to wrestle with: “Do we care about a perpetrator with misgivings who both abetted and obstructed the killing machine?” An especially challenging one for our Jewish theater audience (comprised, of course, not just of Jews, but of people from many different viewpoints and religions and backgrounds but a theater, collectively, looking at experience through a Jewish lens–whatever that means(!)), as we see Keneally make the case for a certain kind of tragic dimension to be bestowed upon this high-aspiring German Lutheran; the Nazi with The Cracked Conscience.

Maybe the hard-hearted amongst us won’t give a damn about Gerstein, Nazi party member that he repeatedly aspired to be. The question of empathy/sympathy/engagement with our protagonist… The challenge that haunts virtually every playwright, will be at the fascinating root of this play as well.

With this linguistic wrinkle of Australian cultural difference. Did you know, according to Tom Keneally, that the verb “root” is just another word for “copulation” Down Under? Well, it’s true. So when I ask Tom, “do we want the audience to root for Kurt Gerstein?” Tom just ruefully laughs and tells story after story about Rugby teams and their delirious fans “rooting” for victory, and having a bloody good time doing so!

Ah, to have a perspective.

We’re all rooting for Tom, that’s for sure.