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The Last Letter
By Miri Ben Shalom

Miri Ben-Shalom was born in Israel and studied Theater at Tel Aviv University. Since 1973 in New York. Miri has been a documentary filmmaker and editor for more than twenty years. She worked for the major TV networks, as well as many independent productions. She co-produced and edited the documentary preserving the Past to Ensure the Future that was nominated for an Academy Award. For other works she is a Telly Awards recipient, a US International Film and Video Festival winner and received a 1998 National Headliners Award. She also wrote several feature length screenplays. In the last three years Miri returned to her original interest – theater. Currently, the play I Want the Whole World to See that I Can Cry through her non-profit company From Home to Homeland, Inc., she is working on producing this play for the stage, as well as a touring educational version for high school and college students to enhance the teaching of the WWII Holocaust curriculum. www.icancry.org  . Miri is also the Literary Liaison of The Genesius Theatre Guild www.genesiusguild.org  . e-mail : mirib@earthlink.net  

“You will rarely, if ever, be part of such a thoroughgoing quiet in a theatre. In a show whose message is “never forget”, it’s the most unforgettable element. It makes you hold your breath.”
-- Bruce Weber, The New York Times.

Disclosure: I am a second generation Holocaust survivor.

Unlike its content, the title - The Last Letter - is simple and direct – it is the last letter, the final words a mother writes to her son before her demise. “I want you to know what happened, it will make death easier.” The mother, Anna Semyonovana, is a Jewish doctor who never thought of herself as a Jew – but rather as a Russian. Only now, behind the barbed wire of the Jewish Ghetto, she discovers her deep love for her people: “Now I’m full of maternal tenderness to the Jewish people. A love unknown to me before, one that reminds me of my love for you, my beloved son.” She is calm, knowing her end is approaching, because their fate is also her fate.

The one-hour monologue, performed by the astounding Kathleen Chalfant, was adapted for the stage by the renowned documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who was also the director. The play was produced by the Theater for a New Audience, Jeffrey Horowitz, Artistic Director. Prior to this stage production, Mr. Wiseman directed a French stage and film version of The Last Letter, with the esteemed Catherine Samie. However, unlike his previous works, these stage and film adaptations were not documentary pieces, but fictional. The text was taken verbatim of the novel “Life and Fate” by the Russian novelist Vasily Grossman.

 Both versions, the film and the play, are stunning, and although conceptually and visually very similar, they are also considerably different. It is not only due to the nature of the media in which each is presented, but also due to the way Ms. Chalfant and Ms. Samie portray Anna Semyonovna. The two actors speak the same words, use similar gestures and body language, yet they create two different mothers. Kathleen Chalfant’s Anna is composed, almost detached. She is stronger, more resilient, as if she does not want to burden her son with the horrors of her existence. Her emotions are in check, if something arises it’s not anger or condemnation, it is irony. Only once does she allow her emotions to burst out, not for the atrocities all around her, not for her doomed fate – but for allowing herself to feel “betrayed” by her son: “Anyway, be happy with those you love, those around you… those who have become more dear to you than your mother…” Catherine Samie’s Anna, on the other hand, is more fragile, she permits herself to be exposed emotionally, more then once tears roll down her cheeks. Her strength lies within her vulnerability, her devotion to the people around her and her endless love for her son.

Yes, it is a one-woman monologue, but there are other characters in the play – shadows. They represent fellow prisoners or their tormentors, they represent fear and other emotions, they symbolize life that no longer exists. In the film, the use of lighting and close-ups was very effective. Additionally, as is possible only in the film, there was much greater use of the shadows. In spite of that I found the stage presentation more appealing, as both Anna and the shadows were visible together at all times, leaving me with the choice of whom to concentrate on.

The American stage production opened in mid-December, at the Off-Broadway Lucille Lortel theatre. Critics liked the clean, restrained Anna, as portrayed by Kathleen Chalfant.

“Restraint in the face of horrific events is wonderfully effective,” writes Karl Levett for Back Stage. “As Anna grapples with the incomprehensible,” he adds, “there is no trace of melodrama. Instead, in clinical detail, she tells of each development.”

Gordon Cox of Newsday agrees: “If the production’s content has a familiarly depressing ring, its tone is unexpectedly unsentimental… Anna is an intelligent pragmatist who, it’s clear, keeps emotions at bay… it’s all admirably dry-eyed, even if occasionally Anna’s careful detachment can just seem a little dry.”

“Ms. Chalfant gives the text a straightforward, not overly demonstrative reading,” says The New York Times’ Bruce Weber. “There’s a distraught elegance about her.”

Why, I wonder, is the unsentimental, seemingly unemotional delivery so admired? Is it because it is easier? There is no need to splash in the emotional gore? Because one remains on the outside, cerebrally dissecting the unfathomable from a safe distance? Personally, I believe that in order to understand the Holocaust, one first needs to “get it” – to comprehend its enormity. This occurs on the emotional level. Only then can one begin to understand the Holocaust on an intellectual level.

The profound message of the play has been well received.

“Given the grim seriousness of the material, you will rarely, if ever, be part of such a thoroughgoing quite in a theater. In a show whose message is ‘never forget’, it’s the most unforgettable element,” writes Mr. Weber. “It makes you hold your breath.”

And Mr. Cox continues: “Wiseman may have set ‘The Last Letter’ on a stage of near-existential bleakness, but at it’s core he’s placed one small, steady life whose shadows – the traces of her final days – remain haunting.”

“Though it catalogs Nazi atrocities of which the audience is surly aware,… the manner in which The Last Letter personalizes it renders it all the more striking,” wrote Les Gutman for curtainup.com. However he attributes a large part of this to Ms. Chalfant “Fans of Kathleen Chalfant will want to see this production for her performance. Otherwise, an evening at home reading Chapter 18 [of Grossman’s novel] may well be preferable.” It is mostly the other “characters” in the play - the shadows – created by the lighting design, that Mr. Gutman finds objectionable: “Here, one might have hoped that he [lighting designer Donald Holder] would have exercised restrain… He did not. His concept relies heavily on casting enormous shadows (the metaphor too obvious to require expression). They are intrusive, and repeatedly draw focus from Ms. Chalfant.”

Nytheatre.com goes even further: Ms. Chalfant “is undermined enormously by her director, Frederick Wiseman, whose staging is distractingly and foolishly busy… And,” the reviewer, Martin Denton, continues, “he has, with designer Donald Holder, created a distressingly showy parade of lighting effects that threaten continuously to upstage Chalfant (and sometimes succeed)… big looming shadows… on the back wall that break rather than enhance both mood and concentration.”

David Finkle of theatermania.com disagrees. “It may be the season’s most inspired work for it’s based on shadows – an evocative metaphor if there ever was one.”
“Wiseman’s and Holder’s rolling lightscapes do, at times, mesmerize,” Robert Simonson of Time Out New York agrees, “and Chalfant’s monologue is effectively broken up by the frequent decent of shadows.” However, he concludes, “As theater, the piece is honorable and worthy, but unlike Holder’s bulbs, it sheds no new dramatic light on the subject.”

Both director Frederick Wiseman and producer Jeffrey Horowitz did not name the Holocaust, or the importance of dealing with this subject, as the reason for doing this play. “Why not? The material interested me, it’s very dramatic, and it’s brilliantly written. I wanted to see if I could transform it into another form,” explained Mr. Wiseman. Mr. Horowitz was also motivated by the artistic quality of the project. “The book, Life and Fate, is now considered a classic in Russia.” The stated mission of his theatre - Theatre for a New Audience - is to help develop and vitalize the performance and study of Shakespeare and classic drama. “The Last Letter may not be a classical play,” Mr. Horowitz admits, “but its language of is extraordinary which is one of the common denominators we require. It also shares the common theme of our season – bonds that hold people together. Here it’s the bond that holds mother and son together. Our next production is Shakespeare’s Pericles and its theme is the bond between father and daughter.”

I met Kathleen Chalfant in her sunny Greenwich Village apartment. Her accomplishments, both On and Off Broadway, are numerous, among them Angels in America (Tony and Drama Desk nominations) and Wit (Drama Desk, OBEI, and Outer Critics Awards), to mention just a couple. Kathleen decided to do The Last Letter “because Fred Wiseman asked me! I’m a great admirer of his work and I was immensely flattered. So before I read the play I thought that I would probably do it, whatever it was, because he is a great artist.” Upon reading the play Kathleen was struck by how personal the story is. “It was telling the story entirely from a personal point of view rather then from a geopolitical or ethnic or nationalist angle. It was also a love story of this mother’s relationships with her son, something I can relate to very easily. Every time Anna said Vitia, I said David, my son’s name.” Ms. Chalfant believes that this play addresses the idea that those who kill in the name of their beliefs must be certain that those beliefs are as valuable and worthy as the loss of one life. “The play shows how complex one person is, how dear each life is, and it makes you ask the question: is anything worth the death of this person? And then it makes you ask further – is anything worth the life of any person?” Kathleen calls it pacifism, others might call it the sanctity of human life.

Frederick Wiseman, the highly respected documentary filmmaker, has made 32 films about American institutions. Among them are Titicut Follies, High School, Basic Training, Welfare, Hospital, and Public Housing. Like The Last Letter, his titles are simple and direct while the films’ content is complex, profound and critical. We spoke on the phone as he was taking an evening walk while vacationing in Salt Lake City. “Unlike all your previous works, this play is fictional, based on a novel written by someone who wasn’t there, but imagined what his mother would have written to him. Why using fiction when dealing with the Holocaust, when there are so many factual resources?” I asked.
“I don’t think there is much difference,” said Fred. “When one based it on documentary sources, what a great writer can do is to imagine how it was like. There have been people who came up to me saying that they were little children when it happened, and it’s like what they remember. Or this is exactly what happened to their parents or uncle and aunt, or whatever. So I think that what a great writer has is this capacity to imagine. Grossman didn’t just imagine things. He was a Russian war correspondent. He saw a lot of what happened to the Jewish community, and I think that imagining this letter has a great capacity to create the feel of what in fact it was.”

Kathleen finds it ironic that it is a mother’s letter written by her son. “I always thought that if I ever wrote that letter to my son, a letter in which I said - I want you to help me – and he couldn’t help me, he would kill himself. I think that if a mother wrote this letter she would have left some things out.” Nonetheless, she emphasizes, “It doesn’t mean that it’s not true. It’s a reflection of the son’s guilt, the survivors’ guilt and the entirely irrational guilt for the death of someone for whom you’re responsible, whom you couldn’t save”

“Fred, there are people who feel that nothing regarding the Holocaust should be fictionalized. In fact, at the performance I attended, I overheard someone saying that as soon as he realized that it was not a true document, he completely shut off, and couldn’t care for the play anymore” I said. “So what?” was the reply. “It’s his problem.”
“Don’t you feel that this might feed the arguments of those denying the Holocaust?”
“Oh, NO, of course not. That’s ridiculous. Because it’s fictional it supports the view that the Holocaust didn’t exist? No, of course not! Never even occurred to me” He sounded quite agitated. “Does Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead support the idea that the Second World War never took place? Does All is Quite On the Western Front support the idea that World War I didn’t take place? I think it’s crazy, I don’t think that in any way one would have to defend the idea, just because people are crazy and anti-Semitic. I don’t have in any way to take this into considerations at all. Will I take a paranoiac schizophrenic ideas as a reality?”

Jeffrey Horowitz doesn’t believe it either. “You can’t be orthodox about art. It has to do with the artists’ response, whether it’s Vietnam War, or the Civil War, or the Holocaust. It’s about what the artist communicates. And for those who believe that the Holocaust was invented – they believe that history was invented. No”, he says “I had no hesitations of bringing The Last Letter to audience. As long as the art is good and the quality of the writing is good – and it is. Mr. Horowitz believed in the play’s powerful message: life and love over death. “Live, live, live,” were Anna’s last words to her son, not “Avenge my death.” “The Holocaust is a very difficult subject for a play, so if you do it, you have to do it with wonderful artists and you have to do it extremely well. If you can’t – don’t do it at all. I thought I could do it well and Mr. Wiseman was in the same opinion. Kathleen Chalfant was his first choice.”

“People have asked why and whether I have the right to do the play,” says Ms. Chalfant, who is not Jewish. “I think that I have direct relationship to this question, since I’m a child of the people that allowed it to happen. It’s only retrospectively that we congratulate ourselves for being the greatest generation, but we responded defensively to the war. Not one shot was fired in the defense of the life of the victims. The Holocaust could have been avoided had people paid attention in 1932, or 1934 or 1936, and this is one of the lessons the play directly address.”

Fictional or not, The Last Letter creates a lot of interest and healthy debates. This play certainly deserves a long life, and fortunately, a tour of the play is now planned.

Related Links:

  • Interview with Frederick Wiseman

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  • Miri Ben- Shalom

    Kathleen Chalfant in Last letter

    Frederick Wiseman

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