What responsibility do Jews have to the Holocaust?
It’s an odd question to contemplate, but one that led Barry Levey to Google Holocaust denial. In lockstep with increasing criticism and controversy surrounding Israel, denial is making a disturbingly mainstream appearance in politics: The Golden Dawn party is making strides in Greece and a film called “The Anti-Semite”—featuring notorious Holocaust deniers—nearly screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
What do deniers say to win the public over to their cause? With most people believing “what they want to be true,” rather than what actually is true, Levey wonders, “What is truth?” and “What will you say?” when confronted with Holocaust deniers. The resulting monologue, “Hoaxocaust,” casually opens with jokes about religion, Jon Stewart and “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” but soon gives way to an absurd journey into the heart of academic Holocaust denial. Slowly, and frighteningly quickly, Levey’s monologue turns dark, with him beginning to doubt the history books.
Luckily for the audience, this uncomfortable middle serves only as a reminder of how seductive facts, figures and a good dose of doubt can be. The play ends with the realization that magical intervention is at the root of all deniers’ arguments.
But Levey doesn’t stop here. He takes things one satirical step further by revealing that “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are, in fact, true and Jews did make a pact with Satan. Isn’t it such a wonderful relief not to be a victim of the Holocaust—which never happened? Yes, you have to resign yourself to being the spawn of Satan, but Jews are now freed from the yoke of history!
Levey’s haunting work of fiction addresses many of the issues facing the contemporary diaspora. Jewishness is not so easily defined as God or synagogue or family meals anymore, and the Holocaust is often at the root of this identity crisis. Jspace caught up with the playwright to learn more about his provocative piece of theater, which is playing at the Theater for the New City through June 17.
Jspace: What brought you to examine the subject of Holocaust denial?
Barry Levey: I first started writing it around 2008, when two things happened simultaneously: the conflict in Gaza began and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in the news denying the Holocaust. I became really fascinated, surprised, shocked, and horrified that he was denying the Holocaust and getting so much press for it.
I wondered, “When people present him the facts of the Holocaust, how does he respond? How does he possibly justify his ridiculous assertions?” I couldn’t find any information about that. Everything just said, “Oh well, he denied the Holocaust,” but there was never any follow up questions asking him to explain his nonsense. That made a lot of sense the more I thought about it, because why give someone a pulpit to express or spread such idiocy?
I understood why press might be reluctant, but I felt like diving a little further. At first I thought it would be hysterical to put on stage everything deniers would say, and obviously it would be ridiculous and it would just be a laugh riot nonstop lunacy.
But the more research I did, the more I realized it was actually terrifying. I thought their comments would be so absurd they’d be obviously fake, but I found them saying things like, “Did you know that the Anne Frank diary was written in a ball point pen that wasn’t invented until the 50’s?” That’s just a made up fact, but if someone doesn’t know better, it sounds like a true fact.
I realized that anything I was going to write was probably going to be a little scary, in addition to hopefully still being funny. I wanted to do something that would both convey how ridiculous and how terrifying denial is.
How did your Jewishness factor into this process?
There’s stuff in the show about questioning what Jewish identity is. I struggle with that question personally. I know I feel Jewish and identify as Jewish, but I don’t know if I believe in religion. So is Judaism my religion? And if it’s not, what is it? I don’t like to believe in race, but is it my race? If it’s something about honoring tradition or heritage, why do I pick certain things? If I fast on Yom Kippur or go home for Passover to visit my parents, why am I choosing these things? I find those all really challenging and complicated questions to answer.
Why frame this as a theatrical monologue?
I think people respond to stories more then they respond to lectures, so I definitely wanted it to be something theatrical. As far as it being a monologue, I became intrigued by the idea of doing it the way Spalding Gray or Mike Daisey would tell you a story in a monologue; you take it on faith that it’s a true story.
To get people to take this uncomfortable journey, I felt it would be important for people to believe that this really happened. Even if they might not want to go down this road, they’re going to trust, “Well this person went down so at least I’ll listen to what that journey was like for him.” I wanted to play with how easy it is for people to fall for things like denial. How much we take on faith as a true story, and how easy it is to be fooled by that.
Speaking of truth, your monologue is built on a series of lies, that you, yourself went on the trip described. Do you worry about your audience misunderstanding your argument and accusing you of being a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite?
I tried to structure it so that the “true story” gets more and more ridiculous as it goes along. By the time he’s interviewing Ahmadinejad, who seems so implausible—he’s talking about Ryan Seacrest—hopefully by there people start to say, “Wait, I don’t think this is a true story anymore.” Certainly I think that when he says he’s interviewing Satan, anyone who hasn’t caught on yet will realize that this whole thing may have been made up. So I hope that the piece does a clear enough job of being fiction by the time it’s over, but I’ll always be a little worried about people who missed the point.
The first time we ever did this show, there was this one lady who was convinced that it actually happened. As soon as he bowed, she started yelling at the actor that everything he said was lies, and how could he believe it? I talked to her and there was also a Holocaust scholar in the audience who tried to talk to her, saying, “Miss, I think you may have misunderstood. I took this piece as satire and I think it was made up. For example when he interviewed Satan, did you still think it was a true story?” And the woman who was upset pointed at the actor and said, “I think he thinks it’s a true story. I think he really thinks he interviewed Satan.”
With friends it’s actually been really funny because they see the play and tell me afterwards they were thinking, “I didn’t know he interviewed all these people. When did he do this? When did he do that?” And then they realize that the whole thing is fake at the end.
For my family, it’s ironic. I think this is the play of mine that my family is the most comfortable with because even though the character talks so much about his family, it’s all made up. They feel the least exposed because it’s so fictional.
Dr. Ruth saw the show the other night. She escaped just before the Holocaust, but lost a lot of family, so I was very nervous about her being in the audience.
Afterwards, she was the first person to speak up in the talkback and she said, “I have one question.” And we said, “Yes?” and she said, “Did you get back together with your boyfriend Anthony, or do you guys need to come meet me in my office?”
So everyone seems to be taking it in the spirit of dark comedy. People are recognizing this is fiction and the story is made up.
You mentioned that performances began three years ago. Is it still considered a work in progress, and where do you want to end up with this?
We’re considering this a preview period. We’re debating what the next step is. Do we do something official and final and welcome reviews? This is the kind of piece that could play outside a traditional run. It could be on an empty stage, there could be no lighting. It’s just over an hour. It could be something that is done once a week at a theater after another show is done for the night. It could be something that plays every Monday night while an existing show is dark. It could play in other cities that have large Jewish audiences. I would love to see it in DC or Chicago or LA.
You mentioned wanting to show it in cities with large Jewish audiences. Why do you think there has to be a strong existing Jewish community where it plays?
My first hope is that it appeals to non-Jewish audiences in addition to Jewish audiences. But personally, I feel like a lot of themes in the play that are most important to me are struggling with questions of Jewish identity and what role does the Holocaust play in how we shape our identity and how we respond to things that seemingly would be unrelated to the Holocaust. I do feel like, in a way, I’m instigating a conversation among Jews from a Jew to a Jew and back.
But the question of how we incorporate past tragedies and victimization narratives into our current identity certainly speaks to more than just Jewish identities. Plenty of minority groups struggle with what role something that happened a generation or two ago should play in their ethnic or religious identity today.
You also asked if I was worried about people taking this as pro-Holocaust denial. To that end, I wouldn’t want this to play in small town grammar school where nobody’s met a Jew before and hasn’t heard of the Holocaust yet. I think that could be dangerous. If it’s ever going to be used as an educational tool, it’s important that there’s a curriculum around it. I don’t think this is a piece to introduce someone to “What is a Jew” or “What was the Holocaust.”
With a title like “Hoaxocaust,” you’re potentially facing a marketing issue. What would you say to convince people to see a play about Holocaust denial?
This is a great question; one that I think the producer wants to ask me every day. We’re constantly talking about the best way to market this so that it sounds a little dangerous and a little fun, but not so alienating that nobody wants to come.
Personally, I wouldn’t buy a ticket to hear an actual Holocaust denier speak. So part of the reason it’s “written and performed by Barry Levey with the assistance of the Iranian Institute for Political & International Studies” is so that would be jokey enough to show that there’s some satire here. This is like a Borat, or an Ali G, or a Steven Colbert kind of thing.
But I’m not sure that’s true. A lot of people seem to think that it actually is produced by the Iranian Institute, so I’m not sure whether the title is getting enough of the joke across. It’s a great question and I think we’re still trying to figure that out.