… and then there were none …
In many ways, this is Arthur Miller’s most pessimistic play, and also perhaps his greatest. At least, this outstanding production makes it seem it is.
In Vichy, France during the German occupation of World War II, eight men have been hauled in off the streets one by one, and locked in a detainment room to await examination by a crew of Nazis in the terrifying room next door. The Nazis are looking to “export” Jews – most of those here are Jewish – as well as Gypsies and Communists. The Nazi “anthropologist” will find who’s Jewish by pseudo-scientific methods plus checking for circumcision while the German officer maintains order. Early on, a businessman, who isn’t Jewish, is released after his examination, and a gypsy is taken out of sight to the examination room – he’s headed for the trains to Poland and the concentration camp – or according to some accounts, worse.
Like “ten little Indians,” the men disappear one by one by one into the room and we never see most of them again. Meanwhile, the ones left talk, veering between a terrified understanding of what awaits them from the Nazis and rationalizations about why “their case” might be different. The waiter takes hope in that every morning he serves the German officer at the restaurant. In a fascinating and unexpected character study, the actor, Monceau, finds a kind of confidence in his own élan, while Von Berg, an Austrian aristocrat, thinks he’ll make it out safely because of his high position. The Boy, not yet 15, thinks they don’t take minors – don’t count on it.
Bayard, a Communist, and in the know about things, has the most terrifying view of their imminent fate, while finding hope and sustenance in his Socialist vision of the future. For now they’re trapped but, using his working man’s knowledge of trains, this future-looking man finds a way to prepare his future escape — that is, if it will work.
Leduc, a psychiatrist who fought against the Germans before the occupation took hold, tries to stir them to collective action to save themselves. First he exhorts the able-bodied men among them to overcome the single guard at the gate and make a run for freedom, but they see his plan as futile, even counter-productive since each individually clings to the possibility that he will somehow be spared. Leduc is equally unsuccessful at persuading the German officer to free them.
Miller’s well known plays All My Sons, Death Of A Salesman, and A View From The Bridge are focused on individual tragic figures: the catastrophic events that engulf them are the result of an interplay between societal iniquities and individual weaknesses. Not everyone carries character flaws likes the ones that lead Miller’s tragic figures to disaster – they are special cases, and most people can avoid the pitfalls that George Keller, Willie Loman, or Eddie Carbone fall into, and come out better. This is less true of The Crucible, where human nature is on trial as much as the flawed but ethical John Proctor: in this way, Incident At Vichy is like The Crucible, though Incident At Vichy has greater philosophical breadth.
In Incident At Vichy, humanity is the tragic figure. Self-interest subverts any attempt at positive collective action, words are useless, and humans are murderous. Because of these themes, as often said that in Incident At Vichy, Miller explores how the holocaust could have developed. Human nature makes it so. The play ends with an act of stunning altruism, but the heroism of this selfless act is compromised, because this is a man who, because of personal, private despair, has already demonstrated his wish to die.
The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent and Michael Wilson’s direction has a tense driving force . It’s a “one act” play but in two parts, and has all the feel of a full length play. Incident At Vichy leaves you with the sense that what you have seen surely happened and in just this way, and, since the play is based on actual events during the Nazi occupation of France, it did happen – though not in these words. Out of actual events, the playwright’s shaping purpose created a powerful work of art.
Incident At Vichy plays at Manhattan’s Signature Theatre on West 42nd Streeet through December 13, 2015. For more information and tickets, click here.