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Tell Me It's Not True by Matthew Murray

  • Irena-BwayStars.jpgCan dramatic license be stretched too far? That's the question my friend and colleague Adam Feldman of Time Out New York asked in his Friday column about Dan Gordon's new Broadway play, Irena's Vow. He raises a number of interesting issues, but I'm not sure he goes far as he could in addressing the issue and its implications for theatre audiences and artists alike.

    He contends that the play, which chronicles how a Polish-Catholic woman named Irena Gut Opdyke (played onstage by Tovah Feldshuh) saved 13 Jews from extermination during World War II by hiding them in the cellar of a prominent Nazi major, sacrifices both historical accuracy and theatrical viability by its treatment of the subject. In particular, he references one scene in which one of the hiding Jewish couples is giving birth to their son during a party the major is holding—a scene that, according to Opdyke's own memoir, never truly happened. He concludes:

    ...the problem with Irena's Vow's continual falsification is that it calls into question the veracity of everything else in the story. What else in the play is made up? What else is true? Most historical plays, of course, fudge their material to some extent, and Irena's Vow makes no explicit claim to complete accuracy. But this is a docudrama-style play about the Holocaust, and its point...is that we must believe what we are being told. Infamous hoaxes such as The Painted Bird, Misha and the Oprah-endorsed Angel at the Fence have done tremendous harm to the credibility of the Holocaust memoir as a genre. Gordon turns Opdyke's genuinely inspirational and dramatic story into a compendium of phony, fictionally "dramatic" scenes. Even those who have not read Opdyke's memoirs may leave feeling doubtful about the veracity of her story as presented here. And doubt is a dangerous reaction to a Holocaust story.

    I liked Irena's Vow rather more than Adam did, but I can't disagree with his basic point. I think, as he does, that film and theatre works that sell themselves as being based on fact owe a certain deference to what really transpired, and that exaggeration for entertainment purposes risks damaging the message that the work was originally created to support. Where Adam and I differ, however, is the amount of damage Gordon's changes cause.

    First, the books Adam cites were originally presented as factual retellings of events the authors themselves had lived through. Someone distorting his or her experiences and passing them off as fact is, in my view, not equivalent to a playwright adapting a memoir for the theatre and introducing events or characters that support the stage work. It is not possible in any real way for anyone to mistake Irena's Vow for In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer. Just about any audience member who purchases a ticket will be well aware that they are not seeing strict documentary theatre akin to The Laramie Project.

    Second, while I do concede to Adam and other critics (such as Charles Isherwood in The New York Times) that there is something of an artificiality to many situations in the play, that did not, for me, detract from the overall message or effect of the piece as a production. To my eye, Irena's Vow employed its changes to celebrate Opdyke and all the unsung heroes who risked their lives to fight the evils of the Holocaust, and that telling that story was important enough to risk critiques such as Adam's. And because—whatever else he may have done—Gordon did not violate Opdyke's work or dignity, his alterations ultimately contribute to a greater truth.

    That doesn't excuse Gordon's changes, but it's the nature of the theatrical beast. Even if the baby wasn't actually born during the time Irena was hiding the Jews, it helps amplify the pressure and the danger she and her 13 charges were in. The most realistic play would likely find Tovah Feldshuh constantly running between the major and the Jews, trying to keep him away from the cellar and shushing them so they won't be discovered. But that's almost certainly not a play anyone would have any interest in seeing, and regardless of how factually accurate it may be, it's not necessarily more true.

    The distinction between fact and truth in the film and theatre is a difficult one, and everyone has their own tolerance level for how one is treated with respect to the other. I found Irena's Vow within the realm of acceptability, Adam did not, and you might have a different viewpoint still. Regardless of where he, I, or you stand, this strikes me as a conversation well worth having.

    Title-BwayStars.jpgIt occurred to me after reading Adam's piece that I had a similar reaction to another show that opened on Broadway this season, albeit one as dissimilar as imaginable to Irena's Vow: [title of show]. With it, I was as unwilling and/or unable as Adam was with Gordon's play to make the leaps the writers required of me. Ultimately, that one bothered me more. I won't pretend that its subject, about the writing and production of a new musical, carries any of the potential weight, meaning, or significance of the story Gordon treats. But it was precisely because it had nothing vital to say that its prevarications struck me as so damaging.

    I saw [title of show] at the inaugural New York Musical Theatre in 2004, I reviewed it at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006, and then I reviewed it again on Broadway earlier this season. At each juncture, writers Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell passed off the story as true (their characters in the show used their own names), even though it became progressively more fictional with each incarnation. While I've never loved the show, I do think the NYMF production benefited from its verisimilitude: Bell and Bowen were so committed to getting the tiniest details about theatrical minutiae (and the Festival) right that they placed the show firmly within the real world, so when a major plot point involved Heidi Blickenstaff's character fretting about being replaced by Emily Skinner for the NYMF run, you believed it.

    But in the production at the Vineyard, Heidi fought with Jeff and Hunter and faced the Skinner replacement after NYMF; on Broadway, Heidi's problems cropped up following the Vineyard run and was this time to be spelled by... Sutton Foster. That references to the theatre that once gave the show gravitas were now peppered with anachronisms proved even more that Bell and Bowen were interested in something else than telling their story. (Bell said in a Playbill interview that events in the show "came out of seeds of stress," which while perhaps technically correct is nonetheless misleading.) That didn't matter to the show's most ardent fans—nor should it, necessarily—but it did to me: I felt Bowen and Bell were sabotaging the show by selling it on their innocence and dedication to the craft, yet peddling sweeping and provable inaccuracies and distortions while claiming in the "inspirational" finale number, "Nine People's Favorite Thing," that they would never stoop so low.

    So, yes, I find this a worse transgression than Gordon's with Irena's Vow, because Bell and Bowen were willfully misrepresenting their own story with no more significant message to get across. As potentially troubling as Gordon's embellishments of Opdyke's story are, they do serve the purpose of introducing us to a remarkable woman who faced incredible sacrifices to save others and for reminding us that supreme beauty can exist even within utter ugliness. Bell and Bowen can claim no goal so lofty—and went at least as far as Gordon did, even about a subject that will never impact the world the way Opdyke's daring did.

    FarnsworthFrostStuff.jpgAs the theatre tries to sate its increasing hunger for ideas by turning to actual events, this is a trend we can only expect to see more and more. In fact, it's already been prevalent in recent years—with outcomes not appreciably different than Irena's Vow and [title of show]. Aaron Sorkin's play The Farnsworth Invention, told the story of the creation and establishment of television, and had its climax in the courtroom where Philo Farnsworth was denied "priority of invention" for the television—when, in truth, he was awarded it. Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon, seen on Broadway in 2007 and recently made into a Hollywood film, invented a crucial scene between David Frost and Richard Nixon and made significant changes to history for the purposes of the drama. In Stuff Happens, which played at The Public Theater in 2006, David Hare placed George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and others in a historical drama that twisted certain facts to make its pungent comment on the American government before and during the Iraq War.

    Many theatregoers were entertained or invigorated by these plays, as others were by Irena's Vow and [title of show]. But if they thought they were being informed—and in all five cases that is obviously what the creators, on some level, wanted them to think—they were wrong. Whether they wrote off what they saw as merely "a night at the theatre," dug in to research these topics and learn the truth about them, or (what I believe Adam fears most) accepted as truth what they saw and now live based on that belief, is impossible to know. But I think it's fair to say that probably a little bit of each happened with all the shows—resulting in some people who know more, some people who know less, and others who took away nothing. I'm not sure which of the latter two is worse.

    Is saying anything, be it about creating a musical or inventing television or criticizing politics or paying tribute to the heroes of the Holocaust, worth that? Is it ever right for a theatre piece to be intentionally wrong—even if it is for the right reasons? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Photos (top to bottom): Tovah Feldshuh in Irena's Vow (photo by Carol Rosegg); Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell in [title of show] (photo by Carol Rosegg); the cast ofThe Farnsworth Invention (photo by Joan Marcus); Michael Sheen and Frank Langella inFrost/Nixon (photo by Joan Marcus); Jay O. Sanders (right) and the cast of Stuff Happens (photo by Michal Daniel).

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