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By Jan Lüder Hagens

Limit Conditions

How to portray the Holocaust on stage and film.

The Holocaust, one of the defining catastrophes in human history, demands our continuous efforts at representation and interpretation. As the event itself becomes more distant, artists have to find new ways of bringing it to life for their contemporaries. (The urgency of this need was apparent at last year's Academy Awards, when the Oscar for Best Director went to Roman Polanski for The Pianist, and Caroline Link's Nowhere in Africa was chosen as Best Foreign-Language Film.) Yet it is not only artists who must rethink the Holocaust for a new generation but critics too, if they are to serve the public well.

For the performing arts, and for critics of the performing arts, the Holocaust poses a particular challenge. Mass extermination calls into question many of the philosophical notions drama and theater have relied on throughout their history: character, identity, and will; agency and choice; justice and redemption; human dignity, morality, and meaning itself. The Holocaust also seems to make a mockery of the most basic elements of drama: hamartia and conflict; complication and suspense; reversal, climax, and denouement. And if even human imagination finds the Holocaust difficult to fathom, isn't the stage—with its material means, such as actors, scenery, props, lighting, and sound—still more likely to distort our grasp of such an experience? Indeed, theatrical performance may be especially prone to doing an injustice to the victims of the Holocaust, by wrapping the Shoah in a two-hour entertainment package, by turning it into trivial spectacle, by exploiting it in order to fascinate the audience. Or might the theater—with its irreducible presence of a community of actors and spectators—hold special opportunities? What can drama and theater, as distinct from the other arts, contribute to our ongoing attempts at understanding the Holocaust?

Such questions have lately been discussed in a number of critical works. Perhaps the widest-ranging of these is Staging the Holocaust: ...

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