“After Auschwitz, it is barbaric to write poetry” wrote German thinker Theodore Adorno. Adorno is addressing the difficulty if not impossibility of creating beauty from the experience of human suffering without insulting or trivializing the horror. Martin Sherman’s “Bent” (on until Nov. 15 at Espace Theater in Montreal, produced by the Altera Vitae theater company) takes up this challenge by focusing on the plight of queer men in Germany under the rise of National Socialism. It is a difficult play that raises questions about memory, suffering, representation and the power of love.
In a nutshell, Bent tells the story of a gay man who endures the rise of Nazism first in flight from the SS with his lover, then, after capture, as an inmate at the Dachau concentration camp. In both contexts, it is the power of love – in this story, queer love – that provides a humanizing force in the face of relentless and murderous brutality and an urgent need for survival.
The first half of the play is lively and moving as we enter into the lives of two hapless party boys who acidently come to the attention of the SS in Berlin and are forced into the margins of an increasingly hostile German society. This part of the play is particularly fascinating for the juxtaposition of the apparent sexual openness of the pre-war Republic and Nazis repression – that such a shift can happen so suddenly is something to pay attention to. The dynamic between the lead and his lover as they struggle with exile and their forbidden affection for each other is deftly handled.[Plot spoiler alert.] After our lead is captured and imprisoned, the Dachau concentration camp becomes a backdrop for more localized horrors, and a love story that culminates in the suicide of our lead. The queer story is clearly a part of the Holocaust memory that has received less attention and that needs attention. But Sherman makes some unsettling choices. Our lead commits a terrible deed in order to have the privilege of wearing a yellow star – of being identified as a Jew rather than queer. And the second half of the play is driven by this identity shell game, with his prison lover sometimes threatening to “out” him as queer rather than Jew. In the context of a concentration camp, to suggest that a Jewish identity offered some kind of protective mantle and privilege over another is, at the very least, strange. Sherman seems to want to establish a hierarchy of suffering in this play, a notion reinforced by the climactic scene near the end when our lead, in a spasm of grief and rage and love and presumably reclamation of his own humanity, strips his shirt with the yellow star and puts on his dead lover’s shirt with the pink triangle. Was the suffering associated with the yellow star so much less than that with the pink triangle?
I understand the gesture, at least I think I do: the donning of the pink triangle is about overcoming shame and fear in order to reclaim a fuller and more human and humane sense of self – of making room in a humanity organized around love (rather than hate) for the queer self. It is a beautiful story. What complicates it, in this case, is the backdrop of the Holocaust and the ways in which this memory seems to use other memories as props. It raises in this reviewer’s mind a question about who owns public memories?
The play was controversial in its first go-round apparently in part because of an aural sex scene between two inmates at Dacheau. Watching this scene is indeed unsettling. Maybe because of the juxtaposition of erotic pleasure within a context of genocide. Maybe because of a sense of melodrama when the surrounding stakes seem so much higher. Maybe because its hard to believe that love could phoenix in this way from the ashes of a concentration camp’s ruined humanity. Maybe because it is disturbing to listen and watch lovers turning each other on in those iconic striped robes before a giant red, black and white swastika.
I wondered, perhaps unfairly, how a survivor might react to the play. Not well, I imagine, and that’s why I know it’s an unfair test. Human suffering, as Susan Sontag pointed out, is almost impossible to represent in any meaningful way. It can only come up short, cartoonish, gestural, abstract. Silent. The play, then, of necessity is poetry after Auschwitz. And despite Adorno’s admonition, there will always be poetry after trauma and atrocity so long as there are human beings trying to understand experience.
These are important memories – the ways in which a murderous regime treated groups of people who still today in our communities face repression, persecution, violence and discrimination. Negotiating these memories creatively without unfairly using some of them can’t be easy, maybe impossible.
The production itself does well enough: the acting is competent all around (special mention for Vance de Waele for a standout performance as Horst). Overall, it is a thought provoking play worth seeing.
Bent is on at Espace, 4001 Berri in Montreal until Nov. 15.