During the mid-sixties, the Holocaust was very much on American minds. This wasn’t always the case. At the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, Germany (or West Germany) flipped from foe to friend faster than you could say Zyklon B. American Jews, hesitant to criticize this now-ally and be labeled communists, tended to avoid publicly speaking about the death camps. But the Red Scare had subsided by 1960, when the Mossad captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and Elie Wiesel’s Night was translated from Yiddish into English. In 1962, Martha Gellhorn reported on Eichmann’s trial for The Atlantic while Hannah Arendt wrote a series of articles for The New Yorker that would coin the now-trite phrase “the banality of evil.” The era of Holocaust reflection was in full swing.
Enter Arthur Miller, labeled the “moral voice of [the] American stage” by the New York Times and sort of a no-brainer for this material. Incident at Vichy, originally staged in 1964, follows a handful of suspected Jews as they wait to be examined by an unsettling German racial anthropologist (Brian Cross), an ambivalent Major on loan from the regular army (James Carpinello), and two rather eager French detectives (Alec Shaw and Curtis Billings). These suspects include the nervous painter Lebeau (Jonny Orsini), the Communist electrician Bayard (Alex Morf), the actor Monceau (Derek Smith), who has faith in the civility of the German people, and the businessman Marchand (John Procaccino), whose confidence and arrogance actually end up saving him.
But Miller’s key players are Leduc (Darren Pettie) and Von Berg (an impeccable Richard Thomas), the former a psychoanalyst and the latter an Austrian prince. While Von Berg is virulently anti-Nazi—he nearly committed suicide after the Jewish musicians he tried to save were taken from his castle—Leduc is unmoved by his sympathy: “I have never analyzed a gentile who did not have, somewhere hidden in his mind, a dislike for not a hatred for the Jews,” he tells him. “Until you know it is true of you, you will destroy whatever truth can come of this atrocity … Until you face your own complicity with this, there is nothing and will be nothing.” His point, however, soon becomes muddied. “Part of knowing who we are is knowing we are not someone else. And Jew is only the name we give to that stranger. Each man has his Jew; it is the other. And the Jews have their Jews.”
Since these two points are essentially in opposition to each other—either the Holocaust stems from intractable gentile hatred of Jews or from vague fears of difference—they are difficult to swallow in such rapid succession. Either way, both are nonsense, reducing a swirl of religious, socio-economic, and technological conditions first to Jewish paranoia and then to a grammar school lesson about coexistence. Miller may have been the moral voice of the American stage, but he wrote, like Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, with a leaden pen, the kind better suited to melodramas about individual failures rather than those of a country or a generation. Incident at Vichy, of course, can be forgiven its clunkiness, considering the context in which it was written. But how anyone could think a revival—complete with a cheesy, concluding Auschwitz train silhouette projected behind the actors—would be necessary, or even interesting, is beyond me.
Incident at Vichy runs through December 20th at the Irene Diamond Stage. 480 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 1 hour 30 minutes. No intermission.