Overwhelmed by Memory

The Diaries, a mess of a play now being presented at the New Theatre in Coral Gables, begins with the suggestion of something much better. A young American scholar is about to give a talk on campus on the subject of his Nazi grandfather's diaries, a controversial document that may be either a monster's apology or the candid testimony of a moralist caught up in unspeakably immoral times. This is promising stuff. And in just the first scene it looks as if the audience might be in for a profound and even witty exploration of the mysteries of memory and guilt, of the arrogance and ignorance of the press, of the banalities of academia, and even of the sometimes hoary realities of today's Holocaust industry.

So far, so profound. Ernst Altsanger III meets his nemesis onstage, in the person of another scholar, the feisty Judith Gopnik. He is jeered, called everything from a Nazi apologist to a Holocaust denier, and all but beaten up by his student audience. Back at his hotel room and depressed to the point of suicide, Ernst has an unexpected visitor: Gopnik, intent on really talking to him, perhaps sparking a touch of sexual interest in a decidedly unsexy script. She brings with her a copy of the diaries, annotated obsessively, for them to dissect and discuss. It is here that, faster than you can say "Springtime for Hitler," things get silly.

The two agree to stage a mock trial of the sort that only happens in drama classes; they trivialize issues large and small; they present so-called evidence to each other that opens up the possibility they might actually be cousins. Don't ask. At this point it hardly matters that Gopnik's late great-aunt might have been the lover of Ernst III's late Nazi grandfather. The script is off and away, trying to take in all of wartime Paris, the resistance, the war's aftermath, and the need to never forget. By the time Act Two offers up quick and dirty caricatures of Picasso, Cocteau, Sacha Guitry, and the rest of 1942 Parisian society, including Ernst the elder and his mistress, we have left the grandson far behind, along with any hope of taking this play seriously.

Bruce Linser, an attractive actor with a captivating voice, makes a strong impression as Ernst Altsanger III and does what he can with Ernst Altsanger the grandfather. Annemaria Rajala is sitcom-cute as the contemporary Gopnik, less successful as her great-aunt the Nazi mistress. The multiple smaller roles are not cast from strength, with Robert Strain especially awful as a professor in Act One and Barbara Sloan laughable in all the wrong ways as the Doctoress in Act Two. French words are mangled -- something called the Pont Noof and Sacre Coors seem to be famous Parisian landmarks. An important prop, the published diary that Altsanger and Gopnik carry in Act One, is clearly something else. These are quibbles, though. The acting may be at best all right, the production sometimes careless, but the real trouble is the script.

There is something endearingly small but true nevertheless about the last lines of John Strand's play, even when misdirected as a moment of triumph rather than regret in Rafael de Acha's production. The diarist confesses that all he did was perhaps make the darkness a little less dark. Strand is on to something when he says in his program notes that "the diarist, to a large degree, is his own and only witness. If he has reason to lie, or even to persuade the reader subtly toward a conclusion -- well, that's where the battle between truth and fiction begins. It is part of the larger war, never-ending, between the past and the present." He is on to something but he's not up to it.

Anyone's diary is by definition as much invention as reportage, but it is far from unfair to ask how closely it resembles actual history. Certainly historical drama, from Sophocles to Schiller to Peter Weiss and beyond, is hardly alone in using fiction to point to the historical truth of the matter. Strand based his play on the real war diaries of Ernst Jüenger, and in the original version commissioned by the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, it is the man himself, not his grandson, whose lecture is interrupted by accusations of complicity with Nazi atrocities. The student making the accusations is a man, not a woman. And Jüenger has been living his life under an assumed name, Steve Alton. The revisions don't seem to have improved the script.

The Jüenger diaries challenge today's readers with provocative questions, not least of them the crucial one of why we should believe him at all. Were they written to exonerate the author in the eyes of later generations? Are they in any way an accurate portrayal of Paris during the Nazi occupation? Are they missing more than they include, and should this make what is told in them suspect? Or are they simply one angle of vision among many, a minuscule aspect of the moral tenor of times too kaleidoscopic to be contained by one narrative point of view alone?

These are real questions. These are real ethical as well as dramatic problems. Is the fact of Jüenger's being German enough to condemn him? Of his having been a Nazi officer? Of his simply having been there, present at the horrors, incapable of or unwilling to do anything of consequence to stop them? Is witnessing a crime as reprehensible as committing it? A great play could be written on these themes. The Diaries is not it.

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