February 2, 2010

My collaborators have written about the issue on their blogs, so I thought I might as well weigh in on singing Nazis.

Len points out that when characters sing they are often in a state of heightened emotion, a state in which, whether accurately or otherwise, they believe they’re being honest with themselves. “Did we want to dignify,” Len asks, “the honest reflections of SS officers?”

Peter notes that it was most definitely not his intention that the audience sympathize with the two Nazi characters in our show.

The question is equally tricky from a musical point of view.

There are three moments in our show when the Nazis sing. Two are performative (they lie, respectively, to the Jews of Prague and to the Red Cross inspector who comes to visit the ghetto), and the music sounds like the attitude they have assumed for the deception (respectively, reassuring and jolly), but the third is an honest moment, in which Heindel, the younger of the two, sings about his true belief in the Nazi aim.


And to the ones who cry compassion,
Preaching, ‘Hate is not the answer,’
I say humans must hate Jews
The way the surgeon hates the cancer.

I agree with Len that, in this moment, the character is being honest with himself, or as honest as he can be. And since the character feels—rightly or wrongly—that he is motivated by the noblest and most humanitarian of aims, the music has to feel noble and humanitarian.

But I also agree with Peter that we don’t want anybody to sympathize with the Nazis in our show. So how can the music feel noble and humanitarian? We all—at least most of us—feel noble and humanitarian emotions at one time or another, and if such a song is not an attempt to make an evil character sympathetic, then what is it?

The answer, I believe, can be found (as can the answers to most things) in ancient Greek, in the sources of the words “sympathy” and “empathy.” “Sympathy” derives from “pathe” (experience, suffering) and “syn” (with); “empathy” from “pathe” and “en” (in).

If you feel sympathy for someone, you’re “with” him—you’re on his side. You feel wounded when he feels wounded; you feel angry when he feels angry; you feel joyful when he feels joyful. If you feel empathy for someone, you’re “in” him—you’re in his shoes. You discern, however distantly, what he feels when he feels wounded, angry, joyful. You understand what it is to be him. Sympathy is a centripetal force, empathy a centrifugal one. Sympathy is about you. Empathy is about somebody else.

So unless our Nazi is a sociopath—which he’s not, though of course many were—then the only honest way to portray him as a character is to try to empathize with him and to try write him so that the audience empathizes with him too.

Which means that the song, if I’ve succeeded (you can listen to it here to decide for yourself), is horrifying, because it allows the audience to glimpse something in themselves that, pushed far enough, might not look too different from this monster.

To order tickets to Signs of Life: A Tale of Terezin, click here.

To find out more about Signs of Life, click here.

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7 Responses to My collaborators have written about the issue on their blogs

  1. pelican says:

    Hmmm … thought the issue of Nazis needing to sing pretty songs to build the tension was pretty much settled after Tomorrow Belongs to Me in Cabaret?

    *Of course* your Nazis have to have human moments and moments of genuine beauty. When your villains are one-dimensional all-consuming personifications of evil, you’re not writing theater, you’re writing propaganda. Sounds like you’ve captured a lovely moment of irony.

    I’m sorry I’m not in New York to see the show. When it takes off and goes touring, I’ll be sure to attend.

  2. Aidan says:

    I’m so sorry to be missing this. It’s been a long time coming. I’m so excited for you. It is going to be great. You are really sumpin sumpin, kid.

  3. Diz says:

    I grabbed this song a while ago and I love it, because it is so eerily beautiful and disturbing at the same time. So happy for you!

  4. pelican: Definitely true about “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” but I’m not sure it falls into the “honest reflection” category. It’s one thing to sing a lovely song that has frightening political overtones and quite another, I think (well, I hope!), to sing a lovely song about how glad one is that the blood of the Jews will be on one’s hands.

    Aidan: I’m not really sure this is the kind of show that’s going to be popular on the bus and truck circuit.

    Diz: Thank you!

  5. Aidan says:

    I don’t know. Just wait til the djs get hold of the sountrack…

  6. initials says:

    It’s interesting to see how much thought went into this situational singing, and thus how much meaning it conveys… Would it be horrible to say that I’d love to hear a bawdy “I’m Sarah Palin” piano bar number by you that exhibited no respect whatsoever?

  7. Roxzana Sudo says:

    Each one of of us has inside the same seed of evil that, given certain circumstances, can grow into a monster we would scarcely have believed possible. To believe otherwise is to be deluded about the very nature of the self. Those who tearfully and with hand on heart believe themselves “incapable” of such profound harm need merely to check the strength of their anger at the checkout stand and the crowded freeway. Take that to a much more critical or profound scenario where one’s very family and existence are threatened (as anyone who opposed the Nazis was) and they will see in stark relief what conformity to both evil and delusion they are capable of.

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