By Ted Merwin
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
His Holocaust novel was turned into one of the most acclaimed movies ever. His 30-plus fiction and nonfiction works have made him one of the world's most decorated writers.
So how does Thomas Keneally feel about being a fledgling playwright at age 71?
"I've entered the synagogue of the theater and I'm preparing for my bar mitzvah," Keneally jokes between bites of a Reuben recently at a Dupont Circle restaurant.
Keneally is sitting about a block from Theater J, where his new play about the Holocaust, "Either Or," begins previews tonight. The son of Irish immigrants to Australia, the garrulous Keneally sports a thick Aussie accent, sparkling eyes and thick white hair fringing his ears and chin.
His abiding interest in the Holocaust led him first to write 1982's "Schindler's Ark," the fact-based novel that a decade later Steven Spielberg turned into the Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List." The writer traces this fascination in part to his father, who fought in North Africa in the early 1940s and who brought home various trophies of victory over the Nazis -- flare pistols and Luger holsters -- much as other Allied soldiers carried back samurai swords from Japan. While growing up in Sydney, Keneally enjoyed impressing his friends with these souvenirs of war.
These many decades later, Keneally's fascination with World War II continues. "Either Or," based on the postwar testimony of German evangelical Lutheran engineer Kurt Gerstein (Paul Morella), focuses on a righteous but tormented figure who decides that the only way he can save Jews is from inside the Nazi killing machine.
Literary scholar Peter Quartermaine has written that Keneally's historically based works tend to focus too deeply on a particular character to the exclusion of the wider canvas of his or her time and place. That imbalance, Quartermaine believes, means that the reader "sometimes comes away with little more than tourist curios."
Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth, however, relishes Keneally's way with a historical play. "Keneally is a born storyteller and a researcher who retains absolutely everything that he reads. He makes history come alive in a very vivid and disturbing way."
For Keneally, "Either Or" -- comprising more than three dozen brief scenes -- is about providing an "intimate window" into the workings of one person's psyche as he faces a monumental moral dilemma. (The play, directed by Daniel DeRaey, was presented in a reading last year at the Kennedy Center before coming to Theater J, the resident company of the D.C. Jewish Community Center.)
Gerstein, a former mining inspector and expert on the use of various gases, is first imprisoned by the Nazis for helping a converted Jew escape, then is tapped by his captors for his expertise in eliminating lice and other vermin. He faces one agonizing moral choice after another, such as whether to recommend the gas Zyklon B, which can kill many people quickly, over carbon monoxide, which kills fewer people but in a slower, much more painful way.
Gerstein initially is reluctant to believe that Hitler knows anything about the crimes committed in his name. But when the engineer learns that the Fuehrer authorized the use of carbon monoxide to kill Gerstein's sister-in-law, Bertha (Meghan Grady) -- a mentally ill woman who was living in the infamous Hadamar sanitarium -- he decides he can no longer stand by as innocents are slaughtered.
When Gerstein commits to sign up with the SS, he tells his agonized wife, Friedl (Elizabeth Richards), that it is "God's iron logic" that has determined his fateful choice. But the protagonist ultimately journeys from his evangelical origins to a place where he finds himself, in Keneally's words, "out beyond the borders of the God he knows" -- to the extent that he screams at God during an air raid, and stops people on the street to tell them what the Nazis are perpetrating.
Like Oskar Schindler, who employs Jews in his factory to protect them from the Nazis and to profit from their labor, Gerstein uses various subterfuges as he pretends to play along with the Nazi regime. Nonetheless, Keneally notes, every Jew saved by Schindler "would draw a different line between his altruism and opportunism -- the lines run together like the Orange and Blue lines in the Metro."
By contrast, according to Keneally, Gerstein is a more "conventionally virtuous" character: Once he decides to put his life on the line, his moral compass swings a bit less wildly in every direction. He becomes the only SS officer on record to notify the West and the Vatican about the extermination camps.
Keneally dubs Gerstein a whistle-blower rather than a martyr. Gerstein does not throw in his lot with the victims, although he does sacrifice his safety to expose the Nazi plans. In "Either Or," one of his most heroic acts is deciding to destroy a shipment of Zyklon B that he pretends is contaminated and thus unsuitable for use in the gas chambers.
Gerstein ultimately develops such deep sympathy for the Jewish victims that he makes a fruitless visit to the papal nuncio (John Lescault) to plead for the intervention of the Catholic Church. He is joined by Pastor Martin Niemoeller (John Dow) and other Protestant ministers in resisting the Third Reich.
"Anti-Semitism may be the cultural bread and butter of Christendom," Keneally asserts, "but when these Christian pastors in Germany see the human face, they can't live with its obliteration."
A major motivation in writing the play, Keneally says, was his interest in exploring what it means to be a whistle-blower. As a contemporary example, he cites those who challenged the Bush administration on the intelligence that led to the war in Iraq and were consequently "disbelieved, discredited and destroyed."
Wavering between "moral certitude and moral bewilderment," Keneally says, the whistle-blower often risks his own life and the lives of those dearest to him for those of people he doesn't know. And the mind behind "Schindler's Ark" remains most interested in the moral anguish faced by those who refuse to be silent in the face of evil.
"These moral crises," Keneally says, "always make a great story."