For The Investigation by Peter Weiss
Prepared for the Royal Shakespeare Company, 1965
The following are the dramaturgical notes I presented to the Peter Brook, David Jones, and Jeremy Brooks at the Royal Shakespeare in October of 1965 after I had completed my translation of The Investigation by Peter Weiss. Most of the recommendations I made in these Notes were accepted, and I myself ended up making the cuts I had recommended. I then went into all-weekend rehearsals with Brook and Jones as Director and Assistant Director for a staged reading, which took place, if I remember correctly, on the following Tuesday at 11 PM. Although late at night and highly unusual for the Shakespeare, this occasion received special publicity as being a major event in world and theatre history and was well attended. The date for this reading was important, because it was coordinated with other productions of the play that same evening in some forty theatres across Europe. It was also the first new play by Weiss to be directed by Brook after his collossally successful production of the same author's highly influential work Marat-Sade. The point of this massive co-production was to influence the West German Bundestag not to permit the Statute of Limitations on war crimes to expire that year, as could have been the case under existing laws. The production, along with the campaign that accompanied it, was successful in achieving that goal.
It is of course important to point out that a very real war crimes trial had taken place in Frankfurt, and the entire text of The Investigation was based on carefully edited excerpts from the trial transcript. My translation went on to provide the basis for a BBC Radio version and a Granada TV production as well as several further performances at the RSC and elsewhere in the UK and commonwealth.
I should also note that I performed both my original translation and my dramaturgical tasks under the most rigorous of time constraints. I was given a total of three weeks to provide a first draft and was pleased to submit one, complete with the following notes, after a mere ten days. A few days later I presented the completed version, and we conferred on the cuts and went into production only a few days after that.
Since it is in New York and the United States that I am writing these comments about a play that was first produced in London and the UK, I also feel the need to say something that might not otherwise be so readily understandable about how Jews are regarded in the two countries. I feel qualified to do so, since I have both British and American, Jewish and Christian members in my own family. Just as it was a foregone conclusion that this play would receive a full-blown and relatively extended production in New York (in its American translation by Jon Swan & Ulu Grosbard), so it also went without saying that it would only receive half a dozen performances as a reading by the Royal Shakespeare. This contrast merely reflects the potential audience and overall interest in such a theme in the two nations.
Now that this play has entered the annals of theatre history, it may be of interest to see how I andto a great extentothers viewed the play at that time. The dramaturgical notes that accompanied my final version of the translation follow:
When an author alternates between calling his newest work a play and an oratorio, when the work itself has no fewer than 30,000 words with a potential five-hour playing time, and when the theme of the play is nothing less than the agonizing torments of Auschwitz as seen from a comparatively static courtroom situation, it is very hard to know where to begin. I do believe nonetheless that a considerable play is contained within the pages of The Investigation and one which is well worth the time and expense of bringing to the stage. To the skeptic who might reply "Oh no, not the concentration camps again," I can only say in turn that I believe Mr. Weiss has something sufficiently new and interesting to say about them and about society to merit reopening the subject. Oddly enough, the play is not so much agonizing as surprisingly serene with an even more surprising dimension of forgiveness.
Nor does the length represent any desperately unsolvable problem. Apart from the normal shrinkage which often occurs in translating German into English (and which can amount to as much as 20%, sometimes even more), I believe there are a number of ways of cutting the play without sacrificing either its theme or its integrity as a work of art. I would of course prepare a complete version also showing how the shortened version is contained within it, unless I were given definite instructions to prepare an "Acting Version" only. I would construct (and to an extent have already begun to do so) such a version on the following principles, all of them tentative and subject to revision:
1) It seems to me that the playing time ought not to exceed three hours.
2) It also seems to me that a play with this subject ought to make do with only one interval. This means a further shrinkage in playing time if the two acts are to be held within fairly reasonable playing times of, say, 80 minutes for Act One and 70 minutes for Act Two. This would mean paring the play to about 18,000 words, an extreme measure but not an unworkable one.
3) I would like to cut out some of what seems to me repetitious details and a few unabsorbable statistics, although enough of the right ones must be left to evoke the seeming aimlessness of courtroom routine.
4) I would like to reduce the number of character from 30 to 21, which I also believe to be feasible and have already begun to do this in this version. Some of these characters have only one or two lines in the entire play.
5) Obviously a number of sentences which run something like:
Why did you leave the Bunker to go to the Injection Department in Block Eleven at eight o'clock in the morning?
could be changed to something more like:
Why did you go there?
which in many cases would not involve any loss as the details have already been made clear.
6) There is also throughout the play a great deal of topographical detail explaining the precise location of one place or object in the camp in relation to other places or objects. Some of this would make sense if a map of Auschwitz were flashed on or lowered from the flies on each occasion, but I wonder, even so, if these descriptions, apart from the necessary ones at the beginning, would add anything to one's theatre experience.
7) There are also a great number of long speeches by witnesses, which I tend to think of as "arias." Set to a Brechtian sort of speechsong they could be very effective, and some of them are already very effective just as speeches. But there are a few too many of them, and I wonder if some of them may not need shortening or leaving out.
8) I would like to end Act One on page 86 shortly after the speech comparing the prisoners and the guards in the camp and concluding that they were not all that different.
I should also like to observe that the final effect this play can produce may depend to a large extent on first-rate character acting, on humanizing the impersonal numbers in the script. Unless there is characterization of the highest order, this play might sound like little more than sonorous lament, which it definitely is not. It should not be supposed, as I supposed while translating the first 100 pages, that the combination of a courtroom and Auschwitz is so sombre and solemn as to totally exclude ways of livening it up in a discreet way.
If the play is slow in developing, it should be remembered that it is indeed a courtroom drama with genuine courtroom climaxes, which are in fact often anti-climaxes. Indeed, just as the free verse without punctuation reads much like a court reporter's shorthand book, so the play itself reads like a court record and is clearly meant to. And since it is about one of the more important trials of our time, precisely through its subject matter it has absorbed the strength of that trial and may be one of the most important of courtroom plays. It may also be that The Investigation has something of "the tempo of life itself," and in the quantity and degree of punishment it holds in store for an audience, it perhaps approaches most closely to plays like The Brig and The Connection. Yet there is more than punishment. It is possible that a hypothetical audience might undergo four successive reactions to this play:
1) (first ten minutes) Repugnance
2) (next half-hour to hour) Stupor
3) (the next hour) Fascination
and finally, perhaps...
To summarize, I believe that the strength of this play is the strength of its subject matter. But I also believe that the author, in forcing on the audience a comparison between human society at large and the world of the camps, is making a provocative and probably a valuable contribution to our understanding. He also raises in no uncertain terms the question of guilt and shows that it is by no means so neat and simple as the villain-mongers would have it. Once Hitler was finally in power and the war was under way, a virtually irreversible process had been put into motion, and the World of War and the World of the Camp had become the only reality. In this "normal" world the heroes were not those doctors, those guards, or even those prisoners who made ostentatious protests which led to their immediate execution but the ones who tried to hold on and save the odd life here and there, to do the small amount of good that could be done. In this too there is perhaps a lesson for today.
This article is Copyright © 1965
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.
to dramaturgical notes menu
to "Investigation" page
to theatre menu