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A CurtainUp Review

I Will Bear Witness
By Les Gutman

There are two things about Victor Klemperer that distinguish him from most who have chronicled the Holocaust. The first is that he maintained extensive diaries not so much about the "major" atrocities, but about the daily injustices and humiliations of one who lived as a Jew under the thumb of the Nazis. The second (which explains why he survived to do the first) is that his wife Eva, a musician, was not Jewish. (Indeed, Klemperer, a rabbi's son, converted to Protestantism, not that it mattered to the Nazis.)

The diaries (amounting to over 5000 typed pages for the Nazi years), which Klemperer, a professor and a journalist, felt compelled to maintain, were thus their own source of peril for him. Their discovery would have surely led to his extermination. And his wife was his protection. He was able to survive in Dresden (one of the last 300 Jews there), and observe from the vantage point of one surrounded mostly by other Jews in mixed marriages. Ironically, it was the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden that ultimately saved his life.

Klemperer was also unlike most Jews who have written about the Holocaust in that he steadfastly remained, in his mind, a German. "I think German.... The spirit is decisive, not blood." His diaries perhaps go out of their way to detail the Germans he met who disassociated themselves from Nazism. And he was equally ardent in his disinterest in Zionism.

It was not until the latter part of the 1990's that some parts of these diaries were published (first in German and now in English, in two relatively truncated volumes). It is universally recognized that this work is a most significant contribution to the record of the Nazi period.

It's the severely condensed dramatic adaptation of the second volume of Klemperer's work (said to be about 5% of the total diary verbatim) that is being presented at Classic Stage this month. It is directed and performed, respectively, by its two adapters, Karen Malpede and George Bartenieff (himself a Mischlinge, the offspring of a mixed German marriage). The question that thus arises is whether the adaptation enhances our understanding of Klemperer's diaries, or presents them in a way that otherwise adds to our enlightenment. The answer, regrettably, is no.

Translating diaries (or other books) into a dramatic context is difficult; so is making a solo performance dramatically compelling. I Will Bear Witness attempts both, and succeeds at neither.

It would be impossible to discuss the staging of a Holocaust-era diary without making reference to The Diary of Anne Frank, quite different in content, of course, but effectively reéngineered for the theater by bringing its passages to life rather than merely channeling them through a performer who has been cast onto a nicely designed stage and asked to essentially act out the diarist's words. Ms. Malpede and Mr. Bartenieff should be commended for recognizing the significance of the topic, but one could have hoped for a more imaginative approach than the tedious one on display here. (There is a limit, after all, to how many times one can find it interesting to watch a man put on and take off his coat, sit down and stand up, put on his glasses and take them off, and pick up his pen, unscrew the top and put it to paper. Even the play's most animated scene -- describing the fire-bombing of Dresden -- fails to convey much to which one could viscerally react.) Bartenieff appears to give the role his full effort, but at well over two and one-half hours, this is a hard sit that ends up producing little more than a Cliff Notes version of the underlying work.

If you are interested in exploring the topic, get yourself a copy of the books and spend the three hours making some headway in your reading.

Review of

In conjunction with the presentation of the Klemperer diaries, Classic Stage also presented a forgotten play written as a wakeup call about the Nazi horror, also reviewed at CurtainUp: Race

I WILL BEAR WITNESS: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer
by Victor Klemperer, translated by Martin Chalmers, adapted by Karen Malpede and George Bartenieff
Directed by Karen Malpede
starring George Bartenieff
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Angela Wendt
Lighting Design: Tony Giovannetti
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes with one intermission
A production of Classic Stage Company/New Visions
Classic Stage website:
Classic Stage, 136 East 13th Street (3/4 Avs.) Telephone (212) 677-4210 Ext. 2
3/12, 3/21-24,3/27-31@8, 3/10, 3/14/ 4/17-18, 3/21, 3/24-25, 3/28, 3/31, 41@2 $25-40
Opening 3/11/01 Closing 4/1/01 .
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 3/10/01 performance

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