By writing about the stage production of The Pianist, a Holocaust-themed play set in Warsaw, Poland, I am violating two of my rules of journalism:
- Never review or opine on a topic or a piece of art unless I am an expert by virtue of education and/or experience. I am neither a theater critic, a Holocaust historian, or an immediate relative of anyone whose life was shattered by the Holocaust.
2. Refrain from writing about someone whom I featured within the past six months. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column for a Princeton publication about acclaimed artistic director, playwright, and longtime Princetonian Emily Mann, who directed and wrote the stage version of The Pianist now at the George Street Playhouse through October 22, 2023.
I determined, however, that in this particular instance, defying the above rules would help me fulfill a rule of journalism that supersedes all my other rules – strive to serve the public good. And that is exactly what I am doing in this column by encouraging everyone – of all ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds – to leave their screens and head to the George Street Playhouse to see, absorb, and discuss Emily Mann’s The Pianist.
I came to that conclusion even before I had heard about the horror unfolding in Israel on the same day – maybe at the same time – I was sitting in the theater. For me, the events in Israel on October 7 make the play’s content more relevant and poignant than it was prior to October 7.
The Pianist (a memoir that became a movie and then a play) is the account by concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman of the annihilation of Jewish life in Warsaw during World War II. He is the only one in his family to survive, thanks in part to the power of the music in his mind that never abandons him as everything else is ripped away from him.
In only 95 minutes with a handful of actors and a minimalist stage set, the play manages to convey the human impact of the Nazi persecution of the Jewish population from the mid 1930s until the end of the war. Emily Mann gives life to Szpilman’s written words and by doing so conveys a story about the Holocaust that is stunning and moving and surprisingly original – even to someone who has read and seen numerous accounts about the Holocaust. Just as an aside, I was particularly mesmerized by the lead actor Daniel Donskoy, who, in my non-theater-critic opinion, is destined for international fame.
“I did not want to write just another Holocaust story,” says Emily who has a personal connection to the Holocaust. She identifies as a “Warsaw Jew” whose relatives were slaughtered by the Nazis.
“Six years ago, I was asked by the producers to write a stage version of the memoir. Initially thought I could not do it – too personal for me. And it had to be fresh, different from other Holocaust stories. When I was waffling, I read the memoir and was blown away.
“Then In October of 2017, I went to Warsaw to meet with the son of the pianist….The trip was very emotional for me, because I got to visit the only Jewish cemetery that was not completely destroyed by the Nazis,” says Emily. The cemetery contains over 250,000 marked graves, as well as mass graves of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. Although the cemetery was closed down during World War II, after the war it was reopened and a small portion of it remains active, serving Warsaw’s existing Jewish population.
When I met with Emily in June, she urged me to see The Pianist when it came to New Brunswick. “It will change you,” she says. I only fault her for failing to insist that I bring my grandkids to see the show. It never even occurred to me to bring children to watch an emotionally intense Holocaust drama.
Those grandkids whom I failed to bring to the play are in public schools that are under the mandate of Holocaust education. In the spring of 1993, the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education voted to require the teaching of the Holocaust in the schools. In the spring of 1994, a Holocaust/genocide mandate bill was signed into law by Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
After I saw the play, I asked my older grandkids what they learned about the Holocaust in school; they answered with rote talking points – better than nothing, but without emotion or a real understanding of how the Holocaust history lessons had any relevance to the present and the future. If the lesson plan had been a class trip to see The Pianist, I think their responses would have been dramatically different.
In the write-up about the play on the George Street Playhouse website, there is a CONTENT WARNING:
“The production uses HAZE. There are many sound moments with gunshots, bombs and explosions. There are prop rifles. Contemplation of suicide. Swastikas on costumes. Actors react to murders that are not seen onstage.”
My grandkids and their contemporaries probably see this violent graphic content every day on screens. Maybe the reality of a stage production – a non-video game – would present a real-life lesson etched in their psyche to the ultimate benefit of the world they soon will be navigating all on their own.