NEW YORK — What kind of courage, or audacity even, is required to stage, in Washington, a play featuring Adolf Hitler — one provocatively titled “My Friend Hitler” and written no less than by Yukio Mishima? After all, not just Hitler, but anything associated with Hitler is condemned here. And Mishima has a certain kind of reputation.
Recently Gunter Grass has created a furor by writing in his autobiography, “Peeling the Onion,” that he was a soldier of the Waffen-SS, the outfit the Nuremburg Tribunal termed criminal. The “outrage and amazement” at the belated “admission” have been such that The New Yorker excerpted the incriminating section, so to speak, even as the book was being published in English translation.
The reaction, I gather, was far stronger in Germany, but it’s been great enough here, too, for the novelist John Irving, in The New York Times Book Review, and the historian Timothy Garten Ash, in The New York Review of Books, to feel compelled to defend Grass.
If having been a teenage soldier simply because he was drafted into the wrong outfit — the kind of problem no American youth faced during World War II — can elicit such a reaction, you can imagine the rest.
Indeed, the Grass case comes on the heels of two biographies of Leni Riefenstahl. The books have predictably provided fodder for a fresh round of condemnation of the German filmmaker and photographer, with one commentator calling her “rather a monster.” The previous occasion was when she died in 2003.
Martin Heidegger is another target of recurrent condemnation because of his embrace of National Socialism. Once there was even a long tract extending the condemnation to Shuzo Kuki (1888-1941), who wrote the delightful treatise on the aesthetic concept of iki, and Kakuzo (Tenshin) Okakura (1862-1913), who wrote the equally delightful treatise on the art of drinking tea, “The Book of Tea.”
Such were some of the things I thought of when a Zehra Fazal got in touch with me about her plan to stage “My Friend Hitler,” the play I translated three decades ago. A recent graduate of Wellesley College, she had turned the three-act play with a cast of four, all male, into one with a cast of one, and was going to perform it herself, she explained.
Now, I don’t know what those who haven’t read “My Friend Hitler” imagine it to be like, but the play focuses on Hitler’s crucial action in his rise to ultimate power: the killing of his long-term ally and friend, Ernst Roehm.
The so-called Storm Troopers, which Hitler established in 1921 as a paramilitary arm of the National Socialist Party, had grown spectacularly under Roehm and become an immense political problem for Hitler by the time he became chancellor in 1933. So, in June 1934, during a single night, later called the Night of Long Knives, Hitler had Roehm, along with hundreds of other men, arrested and summarily executed.
Mishima got the idea for the play from Alan Bullock’s 1952 book, “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.” He was especially drawn to Roehm because the leader of the Storm Troopers, to Bullock’s own disbelief, maintained his naive trust in Hitler, his friend, to the last moment. In noting what he sought to achieve in this play, Mishima even mentioned Georges Bataille’s postulate, “the impossibility of eroticism.”
So, how was Fazal going to perform, solo with four male characters: Hitler, Roehm, the industrialist Gustav Krupp and the theoretician of National Socialism Gregor Strasser? That was something I wondered about as my wife and I took the train down to Washington to see her perform. She had sent me her portion of the Web site for the 2nd Annual Capital Fringe Festival during which she was to present her play, and it had her face with the unmistakable mustache, so I knew she would play Hitler. But how would she deal with the three other men?
As it turned out, her solution was brilliant. Instead of switching roles in the enfolding drama, she remains Hitler, either giving a speech or else responding or talking to Roehm or Krupp, who keep mum. She dropped Strasser altogether.
In the original play, Strasser’s role is to warn Roehm of the impending disaster about to befall them, and this he does when they are together, sans Hitler. As a matter of history, Hitler had Strasser also killed. But presenting Hitler listening in on the two in the dramatic setting Mishima devised would have required Fazal to play an omniscient role, and that would have been out of place.
She focused on Hitler, who tries to persuade Roehm to face the political reality. Hitler fails, kills him and suffers as a result. In the manic moments following what he has done, he tries to justify his action. A monster is born.
What did Fazal want to convey to the audience in presenting Mishima’s interpretation of Hitler?
“My goal is to make Hitler human,” she explained to a reporter on culture news, “because as much as we vilify him in the West, we cannot forget that he was a human being — that we’re all human beings. The potential for greatness or destruction lies in us all.”
Fazal did this in the simple setting and costume of her own devising and choosing. The uniformly black stage in a theater in a place called Warehouse had a red flag with a black swastika on one wall, three chairs and a low table on the floor. Fazal appeared in khaki uniform of trench coat and jacket, which she explained later were from a local thrift shop, and in khaki pants from a local boutique. In the self-production, her acting was solid and convincing. She was eloquent.
We saw Fazal perform on opening night, July 20, and at a matinee two days later, July 22. For both, there were 30 people in the audience in the tiny theater, and they were enchanted by her performance. A reviewer for dcist.com wrote, in a moment of honesty, “Fazal’s physical beauty could have become a distraction.” But there was nothing untoward, of the kind I had worried about.
Fazal’s decision to present Hitler “as a human being” succeeded. Mishima himself had written that his play tried to depict the man — who went on to become “as dark as the 20th century” — when he still had something “human” left in him.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.