10 Things I Learned From My Play About Holocaust Denial
Last month, my one-man show Hoaxocaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey with the generous assistance of the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran ran in the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence Award. The play has now been selected to run in the Fringe Encores Series at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, for four performances which started on Thursday, September 11.
Getting the play to the stage was not easy, however.
Here are 10 things I learned while writing a satire of Holocaust deniers.
1. Putting Deniers’ actual theories on stage, verbatim, without comment can be hysterical. When tenured Northwestern University professor Arthur Butz claims that most of the Jews who vanished after the war secretly moved to Brooklyn to escape their arranged-marriage spouses, you do not editorialize. Letting crazy speak for itself is comic gold.
2. Putting Deniers’ actual theories on stage, verbatim, without comment can be terrifying. On the other hand, when a denier tells you that the Anne Frank diary was written in a type of ink that wasn’t invented until 1953, how do you put that onstage? Such “facts” – while easily disproven – can sound scarily “true” to people who don’t have the knowledge at their fingertips that the diary was authenticated by the Netherlands State Forensic Lab. It is much easier to combat the anti-Semite who says Jews drink the blood of Christian babies than it is to combat the anti-Semite who spews more sober-sounding pseudo-science.
3. Researching your heroes can get you closer to them. To study denial, I leaned heavily on the writings of Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt. To my great honor, when The Jewish Week did a feature on my show last month, they contacted Professor Lipstadt for a comment. Imagine my pride, reading the piece, that she now knew of my project and gave it her support!
4. Holocaust denial increases in the wake of bad press for Israel. Perhaps this comes as no surprise, considering the obvious rise in overall anti-Semitism we see when Israel comes in for international condemnation. But my (admittedly non-scientific, anecdotal) experience suggests that the denial-specific strain of it rises markedly as well. When did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first capture Americans’ attention as the poster-child for historical revisionism, and host of international denial conferences? During the ’08-’09 Gaza War, Operation Cast Lead.
5. Dr. Ruth is a lover. Dr. Ruth once came to a performance. I was terrified how she’d react – she’s a Holocaust survivor, after all, and could object to my irreverent approach to the subject matter. When it was over, all that concerned her was whether I was still with the boyfriend I mention in the show, and she suggested we needed her therapy.
6. Don’t schedule a Jewish-themed play for Erev Rosh Hashana. We misread our calendars and thought Wednesday September 24 would be a great date for our closing show. Oops. If anyone thinks a Holocaust comedy would be a good way to celebrate the New Year, have I got a show for you.
7. Don’t schedule a play with a conspiracy-theory title for the anniversary of September 11. And that’s our opening night. Oops again.
8. Holocaust deniers don’t attend much theater. This is based on non-scientific, anecdotal evidence again, but: I was worried my satiric title and subtitle might attract an unsavory element who missed the joke and hoped for something literal. In fact, I kind of hoped at least one of the deniers I portray in the piece might show up, so they could sue me and I could get a lot of free publicity. Maybe Deborah Lipstadt could even testify on my behalf! Alas, it does not seem the Holocaust denying-circuit spends much time reading theater suggestions from Theatermania or the Advocate.
9. The struggle to define Jewish identity will always be relevant. One of the things the show grapples with is my quest to define Judaism as my religion and/or culture and/or ethnicity – I mean, which of those do the Mitzvah Tank guys mean when they shake their lulav at me and ask “Are you Jewish?” I’ve worried each time I’ve done the show whether it will still seem like a relevant question. Sadly, world events have conspired to make it more and more relevant, every time I’ve performed.
10. Don’t write a play in which you portray your mother, boyfriend, and brother, and invite them all to come to the show together. This one has nothing to do with Holocaust deniers. This is just good advice for everyone, ever.
You can read more about Hoaxocaust at www.hoaxocaust.com, including our features in Jewish Week, Jewcy, and JSpace, and our review from George Mason University’s History News Network. You can also find the schedule and ticket link for our four shows at Baruch College’s Performing Arts Center, running September 11-September 24, 2014.