"We all know how enjoyable it is to see a film about the nineteenth century in which sadistic and greedy slave-owners, dressed in comical costumes, sit on the porch of a mansion and breezily philosophize, justifying their vile way of life with ludicrous and insincere rationalizations. And there's even something somewhat gratifying, one has to admit, about seeing Hitler in a newsreel, with his silly mustache and silly haircut, screaming hysterically and shaking his fist. And one of the reasons we like to see such films or such newsreels is that they give us the reassuring feeling, as we watch them, that we're the sort of people who can recognize evil when it presents itself -- the sort of people who will recognize it and immediately reject it if it ever should approach us. The people in the film about the nineteenth century may be fooling each other, but they don'â fool us. We can easily see that their arguments are false. And even when we watch the newsreel,
although Hitler is trying his best to impress us, he fails completely. We see right through him, and we utterly despise him.
Unfortunately, it does little good to those who were murdered by Hitler in the 1940s that we look at newsreels of Hitler today and see him as a hideous monstrosity. What doomed those people to a horrifying death was the fact that the audience that was listening to Hitler's speeches at the time he was actually making them found him very compelling. Hitler's mustache style, unfashionable today, was seen by the people of the time as quite attractive. The passion in his speeches seemed heart-felt and honest. The accusations he made about the injustices committed against the German nation by the Treaty of Versailles were very persuasive. And the people who listened to Hitler's speeches had often heard that he was fond of his children, and fond of his dog.
Watching too many newsreels from the distant past, too many films about the nineteenth century, can give us a feeling of over-confidence. It would be flattering to believe that we are superior in some way to the audiences who cheered for Hitler -- more insightful and perceptive, let's say or less bloodthirsty -- but I think it would be more prudent to make the assumption that perhaps we are not. At least we should allow ourselves to imagine that possibility for just a moment. After all, if we do turn out to be superior -- if we are, in fact, a uniquely benign and harmless group of people, blessed with unusual clarity of vision -- then our moment of over-cautiousness will have cost us nothing. Whereas if it should happen to turn out that we're not superior, our self-examination might save a lot of people -- possible all people -- from being harmed by us.
It was difficult for the people who listened to Hitler to see him as clearly as we see him today. They didn't know about the crimes he would ultimately commit. And the Treaty of Versailles really was unjust. Much of what he said about it was absolutely true. Hitler's personality had some warm elements that were attractive to people. And from what I've read, I'm prepared to believe that he did love his dog.
Now there are people who will argue, No, he could not have loved his dog. There was nothing good or attractive about him, nothing true in what he said. And in my opinion the reason they make that argument is that if Hitler did not love his dog, if he did not ever say anything true, then we know that we all could have seen him for the monster he was. As soon as we admit that he might have loved his dog, then we begin to worry that perhaps we would not have seen how evil he was, perhaps we're not superior to the people who listened to his speeches all those many years ago, perhaps we too might have been confused, perhaps, in fact, we're confused right now. We lose our certainty that the people we admire now are not evil, that the arguments we believe in now, the things we say and the thoughts we think, are not evil, and we ourselves are not evil.
A play represents a self-enclosed little world for the audience to examine. It's an opportunity to look objectively at a group of people, to assess them, to react to them, and to measure oneself against them, to ask, "Am I like that?" Every playwright tries to present on stage -- in the world he creates -- something like an aspect of his own view of the real world, the world outside the play, and as I find the real world to be disturbingly complicated and hard to figure out, I've written a play in which it's hard to say whether you like some of the people or you don't like them, and in which the things people say are a complex jumble of lies, truth, half-truth, rationality, and irrationality -- in other words, things in the play are just the way things seem to me every day when I read the newspaper or talk to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances on the telephone. In the world of the play, evil triumphs, whereas my own view about the way things stand in the
real world is that we might still be able to prevent the complete triumph of evil, particularly if we recognize that the complete triumph of evil really is a possibility and that the partial triumph of evil has already occurred.
Intellectual clarity seems to be a very important weapon in the fight against evil, although "clarity" is of course a very difficult concept to define. I think staying awake rather than falling asleep when people are talking to you is an important component of the definition of clarity, and I think theatre can give people a certain training or practice in this type of vigilance. It's really quite simple, in a way -- actually listening to what people are saying, actually watching what they're doing, and then judging what you've heard and seen by your own standards. It's simple to describe, but it's actually quite hard to do, and theatre can help us to learn to do it.
Lemon in AUNT DAN AND LEMON, doesn't say the same things Aunt Dan has said, and you, in the real world don't say the same things Lemon has said. Lemon't attitudes are different from Aunt Dan's in certain ways and different from yours in certain ways. But there are also similarities. Is Lemon a bad deciple of Aunt Dan or a good deciple? Is Lemon a million miles away from you, or me, or is she somewhat closer?"
Lemon's thoughts have unlimited destructive power. I didn't invent them -- they're everywhere. If thoughts already existed which in their force and mass could decisively defeat Lemon's thoughts, then Lemon's thoughts would already have been defeated, whereas in fact they're gaining ground. Perhaps I could have defeated Lemon's thoughts in the confines of the play, but this would have given the audience the impression that in my opinion those thoughts have been safely buried at least for the evening and everyone could go home and sleep in peace, whereas actually I don't believe that. I actually believe that we all have to figure out how to defeat these thoughts, whether I defeat them in the play or not, and so in fact to defeat them in the play and give the play a satisfying ending would be, for me, a form of lying to the audience
Besides, to demonstrate the vileness or illogicality or falseness of Lemon's thoughts or reasoning, or anyone's thoughts or reasoning, wouldn't tell you what to do about the questions that have been raised about how we should live in the world. If these questions are easily answered, than each person can easily provide his own "satisfying ending" to the play by answering them for himself. If they're hard to answer --as I find them to be -- then each person can add his strength to the common struggle to answer them.
I have wondered, in case anyone's interested, What gives me the right to ask these questions? What gives me the right even to think about such things, to write about such things? I'm not a victim, a survivor. I haven'y suffered. I'm not even a scholar, a statesman, or a professional atudent of international affairs. How can i -- a superficial American, nurtured in the citadel of priviledge, sheltered from the winds of history, a writer for the theatre whose life consists of brunches and telephone conversations, of hours spent lazily exchanging views on Nicaragua and the latest theatrical openings with actors and mimes -- how can I even mention such subjects, which should rightly be approached with awe and humility by those who are truly worthy of them, who have earned the right to speak about them? My conclusion -- after wondering for a while about this question -- was that anyone has the right to think or speak about them,
because it's in fact impossible to say in advance whose contribution might be of value -- just as it's impossible to predict which of the twelve jurors in a jury trial will, in the course of the jury's deliberations, point out some crucial bit of evidence that no one else had noticed (because it often turns out to be the person who gives outward indication of being the least clever, the least perceptive) -- and ther's a time factor, a need to understand these subjects quickly, now, so it makes sense for everyone to leap in immediately and start to think. We still haven't even come close to understanding what happened in Europe in the 1940's, and how much less do we understand what's happening now, what may happen tomorrow. What's important, of course, from the world's point of view, is not what's in our heads, but that our behavior should change -- our behavior and the attitudes which underlie it --but how can we start to change our attitudes or our behavior if we haven't first thought about why
we must change and in what direction?"
--Wallace Shawn, Author of Aunt Dan & Lemon, April, 1986.
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