OUR CLASS Inquiry: Are there always clear heroes and villains?

Following up on our preview post-show conversation write-up, we continue the conversation with patrons via email the next day.

Audience member Stephen Barlas writes:

I attended [OUR CLASS] with non-Jewish friend. He really enjoyed…the show, too. But in the car going home he said one of the things he liked was the point the show made about both sides–Jews and Catholics–acting badly. That wasn’t his exact wording. But you get his point, which bothered me. He was probably referring to Menachem’s post-war work for the Communists, and the beatings he gave Zygmunt. I don’t think you want to leave anyone with an impression that there was some sort of “parity” between the actions of the Jews and the Catholics. And on that score, I thought you could have done a bettter job showing a Catholic “hero.”…Wladek was hardly a hero. Zocha goes part of the way there… All the Catholics were anti-semites from the gitgo. I wish there were one of them who had stood up from the start.

Artistic Director Ari Roth responds:

Hey Stephen,
Thanks for your good comments, both the appreciative ones and the concerns…

Your reaction to your friend’s comments is interesting to me. It’s the whole “moral equivalency” conundrum that saw critics rail against Steven Spielberg’s film, based on Tony Kushner’s screenplay, MUNICH, where some felt that the filmmakers were drawing a comparative line between the original 1972 terrorist attack and the retribution sought by the Israeli Mossad. In the case of Menachem, I don’t see the “equivalency” nor the congruency. 1600 Jews died in a massacre at Jedwabne. Menachem “cuffed” Zymunt in the face and maybe broke some bones. Okay, he beats the shit out of him. Maybe he does behave badly. So you’re friend’s observation is correct. Menachem has a human reaction. As does Avram. There is Jewish rage and a will to justice… And possibly vengeance. But there is no moral equivalency between the Crime and the Punishment. That’s how I see it.

Here’s how the playwright, Tadeusz Słobodzianek, sees it:

“I am trying to raise the question: why do the things that happened in the summer of 1941 not only in Jedwabne or Radziłów but also in dozens of other small Polish towns torment me? I want to share the tension that they cause in me with the spectators. I am trying to find out more about the mechanism that affected people in such tragic way – people who, as Leonard Neuger said, found themselves in a certain place at a certain time in a weave of various social and psychological relations, of history, ideology and religion. I am trying to examine the human condition in that weave, which led to crime, revenge and suffering. All the things Menachem does as an UB [Polish secret police] official can’t be explained as simple vengeance taken for the next of kin. Independent from its roots, the anti-Semitism of other protagonists – religious or racial – does not alone explain the rape, the burning of the people alive and the cutting of the bodies in pieces. And the desire to take the victims’ belongings does not explain it either. It is a sufficient explanation for a prosecutor perhaps or for a judge. They have to narrow the spectrum of motives to be able to pass a sentence. A writer has to ask: why did this happen? What led to that? Who is to blame? But it is not my role to answer those questions. My role is to ask them…My text tells the story of people who lived next to each other peacefully but because of a variety of mechanisms – such as upbringing, the unexpected spin of the history, communism and fascism – they became participants of a tragedy that happened to Jews and to Poles alike. So far, Our Class has been staged in London, Toronto, and Barcelona as well as in Warsaw. In Warsaw the spectators there saw in the story about Jedwabne a story about their own problems. It’s hard for me to say whether the public that saw Our Class in different parts of the world learned something form that drama. I can only hope that people who will see the stagings of that drama will be able to experience a sort of catharsis. It doesn’t mean we have to get rid of everything that we have inside. We just have to make space for new thoughts, look in a fresh way on the past. The actors in the National Theater production wrote me in their letters that the play has changed their life, that they stopped looking at the world in “good” and “bad” categories: they started to look for reasons why people in extreme situations behave in a certain way. I am not trying to lecture. I like to ask questions about human nature and share them with the spectators. Perhaps the question “how would I behave if I would be in the position of the protagonists?” that torments a spectator after the performance will save someone in the future from doing someone some harm?

Stephen, can I post parts of our useful exchange on our blog?

all best,
Ari Roth

And again from Stephen:

Ari: Thanks for your response. First, since I am a (freelance) journalist, and have been for 30-plus years, I am used to having my name in print, and am happy to have my comments posted, and attributed to me. Can’t hide behind “anonymous source.” What attracted me to the play was the chance for intellectual stimulation, and even discussion. So glad to have this exchange.

To wit, I don’t necessarily agree with my friend. I agree with you that there is no “moral equivalency.” And moreover, I can see the point, certainly, the playright was making when he has Menachem joining the Commie bad guys and beating up the goyim in retribution. Who could argue with Menachem’s rage.

That said, in the best of all possible worlds, with playwriting, theater and, g-d forbid human nature not an issue, I would have liked to see Menachem spurn the Commie secret police, perhaps with a reference to Stalin’s murders of Jews, and opt to bring the murderers to justice within the Commie system, and maybe die trying.

Stephen

One thought on “OUR CLASS Inquiry: Are there always clear heroes and villains?

  1. “Our Class” was an incredibly powerful portrayal of anti-Semitism and explored a historical event that I knew very little about. I thought the actors did a terrific job of bringing attention to the very complex and human side of war, something that history books cannot convey with numbers.

    The blend of different languages used in the songs made the integration of history more subtle – songs in Russian and German showed the influence of the soldiers while keeping the audience’s attention on a single group of classmates. Actually showing an invading army of German or Russian soldiers would have taken away from the play’s focus; seeing the changes in the classmates’ personalities as political regimes transitioned was much more powerful.

    I also appreciated that the play followed the characters as far as possible, adding depth to them and showing the long-term effects of war on interpersonal relationships. I found Rachelka’s character arch particularly fascinating. She does not seek punishment for Zygmunt in the courtroom and resists Wladek’s desire to tell the story of what really happened to the town’s Jewish population, despite being the only survivor of the tragedy. She seemed to act as a foil to the play’s vengeful characters, Rysiek and Menachem especially. Rather than seeking revenge, she finds refuge in escaping from reality. The security of the television screen and its ever-consistent channels pulls her into a static and peaceful end, far away from the crimes she experienced. Even Abram’s letters, which often serve to bring a fresh perspective to the play and act as the voice of the characters’ conscience, do not get through to her.

    Overall, the play shocked me but also caused me to question my assumptions about trust established in intimate groups of people and how outside influences can impact this trust.

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