Artists shouldn't be passengers when it comes to the Holocaust

The Passenger: obscene?

The Passenger: obscene?

In recent weeks, the JC has published three columns about Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger, which has just finished its run at the English National Opera. Each of the writers was exercised by the fact that Weinberg's opera is set in Auschwitz.

Stephen Pollard found this "obscenely inappropriate", presented, as he saw it, through over-derivative music in a production whose inner purpose was mere "artistic self-aggrandisement".

Then James Inverne, editor of Gramophone magazine, confessed that he had floundered in his attempts to respond to The Passenger.

"Should I even presume to review it?" he wrote. By contrast, Norman Lebrecht described The Passenger as "a near-masterpiece" and expressed his determination to see it again and again.

Don't worry. I am not about to extend this trio into a quartet. I haven't seen The Passenger.

What I want to address is the question of mining the Shoah for artistic or entertainment material, on page or stage, for tragedy or - crucially - comedy.

James Inverne observed that plays or films about the Holocaust are invariably received with a kind of reverence. This parallels the way in which Holocaust survivors themselves tend to be regarded. This is not surprising. While many survivors have indeed shown exceptional bravery, all of them, whether or not heroes in the conventional sense, symbolise the endurance of the Jewish people.

However, the Nazi slaughtering machine made no distinction between heroes and others. The unique, genocidal horror of the Holocaust was that it was directed without discrimination, at every Jew, however ordinary.

And many of those ordinary people who survived are uncomfortable at being treated with such reverence and wish only for the respect due to them as individuals.

Works of art, too, stand or fall on their individual merits. The difficult question is, when they are based on the 20th century's darkest stain, how should artists and audiences gauge the appropriate respect?

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared that, after Auschwitz, it was no longer possible to write lyric poetry. But he came to acknowledge that, although artists and thinkers who engage with such appalling facts risk contamination, the serious-minded are bound to do so. And creative individuals are unlikely to cease striving to overcome cynicism and contribute to the betterment of life - in the case of an artist or performer, by providing pleasure.

This is especially so as the events recede in history. The artist's job - and not just the artist's - is to confront and learn from man's inhumanity to man. To carry out that stirring Jewish injunction when faced with a choice between life and death: choose life!

We may never understand the profound cruelty that characterised the Shoah. It may be - and this is perhaps what lay behind Adorno's reaction - beyond analysis. But that does not mean we should stop pushing at the barriers. This will not always be done intelligently or honestly. There will always be squalid and meretricious representations of the Holocaust, but this should not deter artists from exploring it, any more than it deters historians.

Indeed, it is incumbent upon the knowledgeable to expose malicious and flimsy output for what it is. As the 2000 David Irving case showed, the exposure of Holocaust denial by demonstrable truth is far more effective than attempting to suppress it by legislation.

Nowhere are these complex issues more sensitive than in the field of humour. While, for example, the musician Daniel Barenboim, in wanting to perform Wagner in Israel, may nonetheless respect the sensitivities of survivors who wish to ban such performances, the comedian is uneasy with the very idea of respect. He (or she) is the most subversive of artists.

Humour can expose and release the demons that inhabit the darker, primitive side of human nature. And, provided they have not been so long repressed that they have infected the brighter side, those demons are better out than in. I doubt that Hitler had a sense of humour.

The late, much despised but greatly talented comedian Bernard Manning once told an audience: "I recently discovered I lost my grandfather in Auschwitz…" Pause. "He fell out of his machine-gun tower."

If that makes you laugh, you might want to ask yourself why.

If it doesn't, perhaps you should ask yourself why not.

    Last updated: 3:07pm, November 14 2011