Bent by Martin Sherman. Focus Theatre in association with B Sharp. Downstairs at Belvoir St, Sydney, February 18 to March 14, 2010. Reviewed Sunday March 7.
This play is well-known for introducing audiences in many countries, since its original production in London in 1979, to the fact that the Nazi holocaust was not only a tragedy for Jews. There is only brief mention of the black triangles (the symbol for "asocials") or green triangles (the symbol for professional criminals) which were used to identify Romani people, but one step down below those with yellow stars, on the lowest rung of the heirarchy in the concentration camps, were the bearers of pink triangles. Bent is called ‘iconic’ by B Sharp because it has become a symbol of the rights of gay people, and this production is presented in conjunction with Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
The story follows the life of Max from his young adult days in 1933 Berlin, when high level political figures tolerated homosexuality, through a long period on the run after Hitler had these key figures killed, during which Max attempted to do deals via a gay uncle (who outwardly lived a standard married life while paying for ‘boys’ on the side) to escape to Amsterdam with his lover, Rudy. The Gestapo catches them living among unemployed people in a forest camp, and real disaster sets in.
On the train to the concentration camp, the SS guards set up a situation where Max is forced to kill Rudy and then to rape a young girl’s body in order to prove he is not homosexual. It’s a ‘deal’ that saves Max’s life at the time, and he is classed as a Jew instead. But later in the camp a deal to get medicine for Horst, classed as homosexual only because he had signed a petition supporting gay rights, goes awry, and Max is forced to watch while the SS give Horst the choice of electrocution on the perimeter fence or being shot if he refuses. Horst is shot, but Max is then ordered to dump the body in the nearby mass grave.
Max does as he is ordered, but finally cannot face his feeling of guilt for still surviving. He takes Horst’s ‘pyjama’ top, with its pink triangle, changes out of his own with its yellow star, and electrocutes himself on the fence.
The play has it weaknesses, not because these things might not have really happened in Nazi Germany, but because it is an unrelenting slide into absolute disaster, with not any sign of hope. This is, of course, a truth about the holocaust, but the play is less than it could have been because the German soldiers are shown only as cardboard cut-outs, as automatons. Sherman’s message comes through loud and clear, and this was probably the right thing to do in 1979 at a time when the public had still never been made aware of what had happened in the 1930s and ’40s. Now I think we need a greater playwright to round out the picture. Though some men were in tears when I saw this production, it was too easy to see the story as a contrivance rather than a complete representation of truth.
The reason this production had an emotional impact was careful attention to detail in the acting, and the effective set design which visually took us from an innocent down at heel but homely apartment to an open unprotected park bench and forest, on to a cold unfurnished railway van, and finally into the summer heat and winter freeze of a yard made of white stone, hemmed in from above by an oppressive representation of the electric fence. The playscript made it difficult to maintain momentum through the long second half where the characters continually move rocks from one place to another, but the imagery in the set design held the action together.
Yet the real strength of emotion came from the surround soundtrack, especially of marching soldiers, steam trains, the rumble of rolling stock, and uplifting military music which built an all-encompassing tension, made all the more horrifying at the point of each torture or death at first off stage and then in full view.
Overall, for me this was a satisfying performance of the play, while its neatly structured plot led me to want to see the issue of the treatment of gays as just one example with much wider implications. The crux of the story is that authoritarian control encourages the people who work as enforcers to go to extremes, placing their victims in impossible situations which become a choice between personal survival or self-destruction to save their souls. Max starts out believing it is right for him to do anything to survive, but in the end must commit suicide in the name of truth.
So I would like more complexity in this drama, so that the play might not be ‘iconic’ of one particular issue, but become more powerful as a symbol of what is wrong with human behaviour that lets us so often go along with, and too often actively participate in, humiliating and killing other people. This is not just the drama of the holocaust of 70 years ago, but is being played out all around us today as it has been for thousands of years. However, whereas Bent remains implacably without hope, I think, alongside the terror, we have gradually established a place for human rights since the Nazi era. We should not let the past horror stymie positive action for the future.