Is anything more fascinating — or more dramatic — than pure evil? Three-quarters of a century after the Holocaust, the Shoah continues to inspire playwrights to explore new angles on the Nazi genocide. In two new Holocaust-themed plays, both set to open Off-Broadway this month, less-explored aspects of the Third Reich come to the fore. In the first, “Hitler’s Tasters,” playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks displays the complicated relationships that develop among a group of young women who are forced, at risk of death, to try the Führer’s food to see if it has been poisoned. In the second, “Mother Night,” adapted by Brian Katz from a lesser-known novel by Kurt Vonnegut, a spy poses as a Nazi radio host in order to send coded messages to the Allies.
The springboard for “Hitler’s Tasters,” directed by Sarah Norris, was a stunning 2013 article in the Times of London in which a 95-year-old woman, Margot Woelk, disclosed that she had been one of the 15 “girls of good German stock” whom Hitler ordered to taste his meals; at a time of painful rationing for the German public, the women dined on asparagus with hollandaise sauce, soups with semolina dumplings and roasted red peppers. (Hitler was a strict vegetarian.)
In writing her play, Brooks created the characters of four 20-something women who, even while caught up in putting on makeup, chatting about boys and sex, and (anachronistically) snapping cell phone photos of themselves and each other, live in fear that every meal could be their last. V.S. Alexander’s new novel, “Her Hidden Life,” published in March by HarperCollins, is based on the same subject.
In an interview, Brooks told The Jewish Week that it was by putting the young women in such an extreme situation that enabled her to delve into the psychology of her characters in a way that transcended the usual treatments of this age group in our culture. “Being a young woman is not easy by any stretch,” Brooks noted. “They’re caught up in their burgeoning sexuality, in how men treat them and in how they compete with each other. Add to that that they can die in any moment,” and the tension is palpable throughout the play.
Giving her characters cell phones, the playwright said, was a way to avoid having them be “stuck in amber, like sepia-toned people in history.” Instead, she “wanted them to seem very present, like all the girls who walk down the street every day, taking selfies and videos and scrutinizing themselves.”
While the play was penned before the #MeToo movement and long before the current controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the playwright observed that “every woman has been sacrificed to some degree.” Women, she said, always face the prospect of being catcalled as they walk down the street, of being passed over for a job — or only getting a job if they trade their bodies.
The events in the play may not be so unusual after all, she reflected, given that “we’ve been sacrificing virgins since the beginning of time.”
Brooks refrained from drawing political parallels between Donald Trump, whom some view as autocratic, and the leader of the Third Reich. But she did make one eyebrow-raising comparison. She cited a passage from Michael Wolff’s incendiary book, “Fire and Fury,” in which Trump is quoted as saying that he eats in McDonald’s because he never has to worry about being poisoned — the food is pre-made and the restaurant does not know that he is coming.
Brian Katz’s “Mother Night,” by contrast, takes a more stereotypically male perspective on the Holocaust. As an adolescent, Katz read Kurt Vonnegut’s antiwar 1969 novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” based on the bombing of Dresden during World War II. Katz was excited by the author’s muscular prose and violent and adventure-filled plot, based on Vonnegut’s own experiences as a prisoner of war. Katz ultimately discovered “Mother Night,” published in 1962, in which Howard Campbell, a minor character in the later “Slaughterhouse-Five,” had been the protagonist.
“Mother Night” purports to be the memoirs of Campbell Gabriel Grilli as he awaits sentencing for war crimes in an Israeli jail. The character, an American who grew up in Germany, is a playwright who is recruited by the Americans to be a double agent. As he rises through the ranks of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda organization, Campbell sends out radio broadcasts that appear to try to win support for the Nazis among Americans, but that actually, through his coughs and pauses, transmit secrets to the American government. After turning himself in to the Israelis after the war, he meets Adolf Eichmann in jail and asks him if he will claim that he was merely “taking orders” in committing genocide.
Katz told The Jewish Week that Vonnegut “said that he was writing for teenage boys — he wanted to get to them before they became senators.” He identified one of the main themes of the novel “Mother Night,” the language of which he drew upon faithfully in the play (which he is also directing) as “self-righteous nationalism.” Katz sees this illustrated in the trio of symbols that Campbell traces in the dust on a window in his apartment: the stars and stripes, the swastika and the hammer and sickle; for each symbol Campbell utters a patriotic cheer.
Katz was also powerfully drawn to Vonnegut’s analogy between the totalitarian mind and a “jerky, noisy, gaudy pointlessness” of a cuckoo clock in Hell, which jumps arbitrarily backward and forward in time, just as Fascist logic cares not a whit about people’s lives.
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“Mother Night,” Katz pointed out, “has really crackling dialogue and an exceptionally unreliable narrator.” While the book has “meant different things to me at different stages of my life,” Katz reflected, the book seems particularly relevant nowadays. “We’re questioning a lot of our truths.”
Both “Hitler’s Tasters” and “Mother Night” open on Wednesday, Oct. 10. “Hitler’s Tasters” runs through Oct. 27 at the IRT Theater, 154 Christopher St., newlighttheaterproject.com. “Mother Night” runs through Nov. 3 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., 59e59.org.