Compulsion or the House Behind is a new play by Rinne Groff (the 2010 Public Theater production starred Mandy Patinkin, whom I adore) based on the life of Jewish American writer Meyer Levin. He traveled to Europe at the end of WWII and witnessed the liberation of the concentration camps, which began his obsession with getting the story of the Holocaust told. But he felt that the best person to tell the story was someone who had lived it; "from among themselves a teller must arise." When his wife gave him a French language translation of Anne Frank's diary, he knew he had found the teller. He worked with Anne's father, Otto Frank, to get the diary published in English in 1952, and wrote the New York Times review of the book. He had a verbal agreement with Frank and the publishers to write the stage adaptation, but his version was ultimately rejected in favor of the version written by Goodrich and Hackett. Their version downplayed Anne's Judaism and stressed the universality of the story, in order to make it more accessible to a wider audience (typical Broadway - compromise to sell more tickets). And it worked; the play won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize and became a huge hit that's still being produced today. Unfortunately Levin's version, which is more a story of the Jewish people and their survival, cannot be bought or produced due to an agreement he signed after a prolonged legal battle. But despite this settlement, Levin could never let Anne go; it became a lifelong obsession.
|Mr. (Mark Benninghofen) and Mrs. (Bethany Ford) Silver|
|Sid (Mark Benninghofen) and his beloved Anne|
One of the great things about this play is that it raises questions but doesn't offer easy answers. No character is all bad or good. As an audience member, I definitely sympathized with Sid and wanted things to go his way, but also found myself frustrated at some of his actions. This is a complex portrait of a man whose good intentions to make an important story heard became an unhealthy obsession, believing he was the only person who could tell that story. But the truth is Anne's story didn't belong to him, it didn't belong to Goodrich and Hacket, it didn't even belong to Otto Frank. It's Anne's alone, which she left behind for each of us to experience in our own way. In the post-show discussion the day I attended, one audience member, who had worked with Holocaust survivors, very eloquently spoke about how the horror of the Holocaust is something that's difficult for those of us who haven't lived through it to comprehend. That level of cruelty is so far beyond what most of us can even imagine that it's difficult to wrap our minds around it. Maybe that's why Anne's story is so popular. She struggled to understand it herself, and she was living it. Anne gives us a tiny window into that horrific world, one simple story that we can grasp and put a face on the faceless and nameless millions.
It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.Compulsion or the House Behind is playing for two more weekends at the Hillcrest Center on Ford Parkway in St. Paul. It's a fascinating, compelling, and thought-provoking look at the story behind a very familiar story.