How A Rewrite Works, or Anatomy of an Opening

We’ve been keeping you abreast of the rehearsal process for EITHER OR – a production that’s finding itself more and more as we continue the open, interactive process with our actors, director, dramaturg, all contributing suggestions for small refinements as our wonderfully receptive author, Tom Keneally, fashions a slimmed-down script. With 42 scenes to work on, there’s been no shortage of opportunities for nips, tucks, even scene eliminations. What’s gratifying is how all the work is paying off. Wednesday’s designer run confirmed that, over the past two and a half weeks, we’ve created a totally different Act I and, to a lesser extent, a tranformed Act II. I’m impressed, relieved, and elated with the transformation!

And, before we go on, this commercial: I’ll be interviewing Thomas Keneally this Sunday morning, April 22, at Washington Hebrew Congregation, as part of their Amram Scholar Series. It’s free. Scenes from the play will be read by cast members, and our director, Daniel DeRaey will be contributing insights into Tom’s work as well. For more info go to www.whctemple.org/pdf_docs/journals/2007_04_16.pdf

And now back to the process: At one point, early in the pre-rehearsal phase, there was concern from director Dan; concern that with all the many scenes there would be something of a “pin-ball effect” for our lead character who would go bounding from event to event like a ball-bearing, all to disorienting effect for our audience. The process of thinning out loquacious stage directions—a common feature in the early drafts of plays by novelists—and beefing up a too-spare section of dialogue, saw this play expand significantly over the fall and winter months. The expansions allowed for major discoveries in the drama. And they also contributed to bloat.

So our process has been one of finding the right proportions for this project, with care given to the dynamics of pace, building up a sustained rising tension line as each act moves to rather their devastating crescendos. We’re not done examining the very last scene of the play. The ending is changing because the beginning changed. As a little casebook, let’s show you a few different openings.

In the first draft of this play, which we read 14 months ago, the opening featured a voice from the dead; our main character, Kurt Gerstein, speaking to the audience.

(A man in prison fatigues stands by a chair in a cell. On the chair beside him lies a folded blanket. His name is Kurt Gerstein.)

KURT
I confused my jailors, but not as much as I had confused myself. Later they would say I had written suicide notes, but if so they disappeared from my file number 8786 at the Second Standing Military Court in Paris. I am said to have torn a strip off this…

(He picks up the blanket and tears a segment off it. Holding the strip, he mounts the chair, begins to tie the strand of blanket around his throat.)

KURT
You see the idea. But I am a Christian. Though suicide was an option under Hitler, Hitler is now dead, and suicide is out. So…second theory: I had confused the Allied interrogators to such a limit that they were negligent enough to let two of my brother officers into my cell.

(Two men in similar prison uniform to that worn by Gerstein, except that one wears cavalry boots, enter. They manhandle Gerstein.)

OFFICER 1
Have you no fucking honour, Gerstein?

OFFICER 2
You weeping Jesus bastard, you have disgraced us and your oath.

(One of them fetches up the length of blanket from the chair, while both hustle Gerstein so that he, and then one of his fellow officers, are both standing on the chair. Adroitly, the latter officer fixes the makeshift rope around a relatively passive Gerstein’s neck.)

KURT
I do not know. In heaven, the pain of death is not remembered for excess of joy. In hell the pain of death is not remembered for excess of punishment. The pain of death is irrelevant to the dead.
(Pause.)
But how we got to the moment … that is remembered forever.
(Pause.)
Oh God of great wrath, take my air and burn me in your furnace.

* * *

As a reader, I reacted electrically to this opening (which is to say more than positively). Its immediate creation of a mystery: Did Kurt Gerstein kill himself or was he murdered?

But this opening device, of having the character speak directly to the audience, was not sustained through the play – in fact, that opening narration was the only instance of direct address – posthumously, no less – in the whole play. And so our playwright was encouraged to search for different openings. Or to explore the idea of direct address/to audience, in other sections of the play, or perhaps uttered by different characters.

And so soon emerged a new opening; one where Bertha, the murdered sister-in-law, speaks to us. She regarded the hanging body of Kurt in the jail cell, and then spoke to us:

BERTHA
He was the finest of all Christians. My beautiful and striving brother-in-law. And the war was done with. Though suicide was an option under Hitler, Hitler was now dead. Suicide was out. So…second theory: some residually Fascist prison officer let two of his brother officers into his cell…

And you get the idea… Tom continued to have the action unfold as before, but with Bertha opening, and then closing the play, with a visitation of two as an angelic figure in Act II after her Act I murder.

But there were limitations to this device. Was the murdered Bertha really the most affecting of narrators to tell us the story of the martyred/murdered/or perhaps merely culpable Gerstein?

We moved to a third exploration. Act II contains an important scene, just as the war is ending, between Allied officers who take Kurt’s deposition after Gerstein turns himself in and tells his story. What if, we thought, officers Evan and Haught, find Gerstein hanging at the top of the show?

That’s what was created for our Kennedy Center workshop in September of 06.
It went like this:

(A cell in a French military prison. A British officer, Major Evans, and an American Captain Haught, enter a cell, accompanied by a French warder holding a file. Major Evans carries a wad of papers. The three men look in shock at what lies before them. The body of a tall man of indiscriminate but not advanced age, hangs from a rafter by a noose made of blanket. As we shall discover, it is the body of an SS officer named Kurt Gerstein.)

EVANS
How in God’s name could this happen?

FRENCH WARDER
I’m not sure.

HAUGHT
He sure didn’t seem suicidal when he surrendered.. And he had a lot of good information too. Major Evans has some of his documentation there..

FRENCH WARDER

Well, he gave a deposition. But then he didn’t hear from you for weeks. He was waiting for you to turn up with his documents. The guards say he became depressed and wrote some disturbed letters..

EVANS
Disturbed letters. Are there copies in your file?

(The warder roots through the file.)

FRENCH WARDER
There don’t seem to be any of them here.

(Evans and Haught exchange glances)

HAUGHT
Did any of your guards have Nazi sympathies?

EVANS
Could someone have been let a few of his fellow officers in here?

WARDER
You mean, to do this?

EVANS
One needs to consider the possibility.

FRENCH WARDER
You have to understand, I’m new here… But my staff…

(He seems to dismiss the suggested possibility.).

(Evans looks at the documents he is Holding. )

EVANS
These can’t help him now…

* * *

We felt we were onto something, even though something about the writing, the interchange between the men, felt a little flat.

By April 07 and the start of rehearsals, we’d moved to this opening; with a stronger differentiation between the French Warder and the American and British officers:

EVANS
How in God’s name could you let this happen?

FRENCH WARDER
What does it matter? He’s under French jurisdiction. A British officer needn’t fuss over a German soldier’s suicide.

HAUGHT
But he had a lot of good information. Major Evans has some of his documentation there.

FRENCH WARDER
You should have brought it earlier. He gave a deposition to us as well. But then he was waiting for you to turn up with his documents.

EVANS
You didn’t believe him?

(The French warder shrugs.)

FRENCH WARDER
The guards say he became depressed and wrote some disturbed letters.

EVANS
Disturbed letters? Are there copies in your file?

(The warder roots through the file.)

FRENCH WARDER
No, there don’t seem to be.

(Evans and Haught exchange glances.)

HAUGHT
Did any of your guards have Nazi sympathies?

EVANS
Could someone have been let a few of his fellow officers in here?

WARDER
To do this?

EVANS
One needs to consider the possibility.

FRENCH WARDER
Does it matter? A member of the Waffen SS? Suicide’s all the fashion with them.
(Evans shakes his head and looks at the papers he is holding. )

HAUGHT
You haven’t read this one’s documents.

FRENCH WARDER
He should be hanging for what he did. Or do you think that documents would exonerate this monster?

EVANS
Well, monster or not, they can’t help him now.

HAUGHT
I think I should file them anyhow. Who knows? We might owe it to him.

And while this rewritten scene was an improvement, we still had the problem of Kurt hanging there at the beginning. Were we going to create an effigy? How would we make this believeable? Somehow, in the early scenes of the play, when we read it on April 2, we were missing a direct access to Kurt. Our Gerstein was in eclipse for far too long in this play.

And so, a discovery; a remembering back to that electric first beginning. What if Kurt begins the play, and then we introduce this other sustained framing device of the officers?

Here’s what we have as of yesterday:

SCENE 1

(Time; May 1945. A cell in a French military prison. A youngish man in prison fatigues stands by a chair in a cell. This is Kurt Gerstein. On a chair beside him lies a folded blanket.)

KURT (to audience)
I confused my jailors, but not as much as I confused myself. Later they would say I had written suicide notes, but if so they disappeared from my file number 8786 at the Second Standing Military Court in Paris. I am said to have torn a strip off this…

(He picks up a blanket and tears a segment off it. He refolds the blanket and places it neatly on the floor. Holding the strip, he mounts the chair, begins to tie the strand of blanket around his throat, and then lets the knot slip. He descends, still carrying the strip of material. Once down, however, he places it on the chair.)

KURT
You see the idea. But… I am a Christian. Though suicide was an option under Hitler, Hitler is now dead and suicide is surely out… A second theory: I confused the authorities to such an extent that they let two of my brother officers into my cell?

OFFICER 1
Have you no fucking honour, Gerstein?

OFFICER 2
You weeping Jesus bastard. You’re a disgrace to the SS oath.

(The officers recede. Only Gerstein speaks.)

KURT
Or not. I do not know. In heaven the pain of death is not remembered for excess of joy. In hell the pain of death is not remembered for excess of punishment. The pain of death is irrelevant to the dead.
(Pause)
But how we got to the moment … that is remembered forever.

(Gerstein is dangling now. The cell door opens. There is a shaft of light from it. A British officer, Major Evans, and an American Captain Haught, enter the cell, accompanied by a French warder holding a file.)

EVANS
How in God’s name could you let this happen?

FRENCH WARDER
What does it matter? He’s under French jurisdiction. A British officer needn’t fuss over a German soldier’s suicide.

HAUGHT
But he had a lot of good information. Major Evans has some of his documentation there.

FRENCH WARDER
You should have brought it earlier. He gave a deposition to us as well. But then he was waiting for you to turn up with his documents.

EVANS
You didn’t believe him?

FRENCH WARDER
The guards say he became depressed and wrote some disturbed letters.

EVANS
Are there copies in your file?

(The warder roots through the file.)

FRENCH WARDER
Does it matter? A member of the Waffen SS? Suicide’s all the fashion with them.
(Evans shakes his head and looks at the papers he is holding.)

HAUGHT
You haven’t read this one’s documents.

FRENCH WARDER
He should be hanging for what he did. Or do you think that documents would exonerate this monster?

EVANS
Well, monster or not, these can’t help him now.

HAUGHT
I think I should file them anyhow. Who knows? This man seems to have seen a lot.

* * *

And so that’s where we end our beginning as of today. But because our end is still being staged, the beginning might be changing as well. Stayed tuned, eh? There’ll be a lot more to report, I’m sure, on the continuing evolution of this fascinating project.