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Kaleidoscope :The Journals of Mihail Sebastian
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  

"The Journals of Mihail Sebastian"

by :David Auburn

based on the diaries by Mihail Sebastian 1935-1944

directed by :Carl Foresman

performed by :Stephen Kunken

sets by :Nathan Heverin

lighting by: Josh Bradford

costumes by : Theresa Squire

sound by : Stefan Jacobs

presented by the Keen Company, at the Theater at 45th Street.

Adopted from a book that generated an explosive debate about Romania’s role in the Holocaust – which the country’s leading intellectuals continue to downplay, the play is a compelling chronicle of the dark years of fascism in Romania.

It seems that the question ‘How could it have happened?’ never ceases to generate interest, both from playwrights and audiences alike. The Journals of Mihail Sebastian, adapted for the stage by David Auburn, is another one-man play concerning the Holocaust, this time illuminating the plight of Romania’s Jews and the role of the Romanian people. “This is the biggest success we’ve had since founding Keen Company in March, 2000,” says Carl Forsman, the company’s artistic director, who also directed the play.

Mihail Sebastian, born under the name Joseph Hechter in 1907, was a well-regarded, ambitious young journalist and writer in Romania. He experienced the excitement of success with the opening of his first play, the joy of love and the pain of rejection; all common human experiences. But Mihail Sebastian was a Jew. For 10 years, starting two years after Hitler came to power, he meticulously recorded the events around him, his thoughts and emotions, describing the gradual rise in anti-Semitism and the erosion of his personal relationships, human rights and dignity. Mihail Sebastian survived the war, but tragically was killed in a car accident in 1945. His diary “Journal, 1935-1944: The Fascist Years” was published only in 1998, after it was smuggled to Israel by his brother, and in 2000, its 672-page English translation was printed.

The talented trio who created the play- Tony and Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright David Auburn (Proof, 2001), the skillful director Carl Forsman and the gifted actor Stephen Kunken- have without doubt created a fascinating and important play. However, as interesting as it is, the play feels more like a series of auditory slide projections than a play. It is more informative than dramatic. Though compelling, the play is not emotionally engaging; there is no drama on stage, only a skilful unfolding of historical and personal events intertwined with each other. There are plenty of hints of drama and moving upheavals, leaving many unanswered questions: what happened to his mother and younger brother who came to live with him, or to his older brother in Paris? Throughout the play we hear about his once lover, Leni, but there is no mention of her fate.

The Journals of Mihail Sebastian is not a Holocaust play per se. No deportations or starvation. No concentration camps or death camps. The first half of the play focuses on the busy social and love life of a thriving novelist turned playwright, his career success, his romantic desires and disappointments, portraying a normal, ambitious young man who is completely assimilated in the social tapestry of the intellectual elite in Bucharest. There is almost no time stamp. It could have been any contemporary man in any contemporary city. Almost. The opening of the play tells us where we are and when. Mihail relates a train ride with his old professor and mentor, Nae:
“As we traveled back there were two colonels in the compartment. Nae started chatting. What a poser that man can be! The talk was of a possible war between France and Germany. ‘Do you know Hitler Personally?’ – one of the colonels threw in this question when Nae was in full flow. I well knew that he had never met Hitler… but he was at risk of disappointing the colonel who was so full of admiration. ‘Yes, I’ve seen him. There’s a great politician for you.’”

Gradually, anti-Semitism creeps in until the Holocaust monster bares its fangs. Though we are fully aware that we are in the forties, the message is loud and clear: It could happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone. The slow deterioration of Mihail’s relationship with his friends, his economic decline, his personal and professional degradation and deprivation are beautifully constructed by Auburn. The lighting and the sets are wonderfully incorporated. Mihail is first seen on a stage full of tables representing the numerous cafés and restaurants where he constantly meets his friends and lovers, but ultimately he is confined to his small apartment, represented by an almost empty stage with only one table and a dresser. Even the ceiling gradually caves in, minimizing his space and existence.

“This is a play that requires its audience to settle in and listen; this is, after all, a non-dramatic source” writes Stan Richardson in his nytheatre.com review. “But the drama described and its effect on Kunken’s Sebastian is worth your patience. What’s communicated is foreboding, but we are left with an empathy that, albeit ineffable, is more useful any day than the panicked opaqueness of an Orange Alert.”

David Finkle of TheaterMania.com also notes the play’s relevance: “For reasons that may be quite obvious, Auburn has written The Journals of Mihail Sebastian at a time that is, unfortunately, not terribly unlike Europe during the ‘30s, when anti-Semitism was on the rise. The concerned playwright certainly didn’t begin his project as a response to potentially inflammatory cultural artifacts like The Passion of the Christ, but it can be interpreted as such.” However, Mr. Finkle feels that David Auburn constructed “one of those theater pieces that a reviewer wants to like much more than he actually does. Sebastian’s tale demands serious contemplation,” he writes, “but Auburn’s treatment isn’t a play in anything more than the loosest sense. Rather, the play is a Reader’s Digest version of a 700-page-book.”

Irene Backalenick of Back Stage somewhat concurs. “This is not so much a play as a reading, but it’s a profile that comes to life thanks to the lively immediacy of Sebastian’s journal, the narrative format shaped by Auburn, and the appealing performance of Kunken… Sebastian’s genius lies in his very ordinary, very human style,” she writes. “It is indeed a harrowing account of anti-Semitism delirium seen from the inside.”

“What powerful material,” exclaims Margo Jefferson in The New York Times. “What a worthwhile production. But why wasn’t it more than worthwhile?” she asks. She feels the problems lies in the character Stephen Kunken created. “He is all liveliness, but he lacks intensity. He feels too youthful emotionally… I wanted a manner that was more Central European and less American.”

The Village Voice agrees: “Playwright David Auburn’s compression provides a stop-motion series of snapshots following Sebastian’s growth,” writes Michael Feingold. “Though sometimes sketchy in its trip over this familiar ground, it’s a story that can’t be told too often. Stephen Kunken’s performance, directed by Carl Forsman, likewise has its sketchy side, lacking suavity and Europeanness”

Stan Richardson, on the other hand, applauses the performance: “By the way Stephen Kunken speaks, it is hard to remember he is using words that are not his own. So conversational, dynamic and impassioned is his delivery, he never loses track of the unremitting emotional current,” he writes at nytheatre.com “The Romanian playwright/novelist’s diaries… have been fashioned by David Auburn into an evening that’s impact is augmented by director Carl Forsman’s elegant staging and Kunken’s mesmerizing performance.”

Gordon Cox from Newsday writes that the Keen Company production “offers a swift, surprisingly watchable version of a grim tale… Adopter David Auburn endows the show with the same carefully modulated accessibility that he gave ‘Proof’. He divides the scripts into short entries that fly by, and limns the story with fleet economy… Kunken energizes the proceedings with a clear-eyed intellect and an impressive ability to summon a swatch of compelling emotion for each entry.”

Less impressed is David Cote: “Well-intentioned but leaden,” he writes in Time Out magazine. “Kunken is quite likable, but both he and his material – in which an earnest narrator bears witness to terrible times – never justify their existence outside the History Channel.”

The Internet Theater Magazine Curtainup.com feels differently still: “Auburn has created a script that is as much a portrait of a whole society as the man who finds himself increasingly alone and horrified be evidence of that society’s ‘bestiality’.” However, the reviewer adds, “For all Kunken’s bravura performance and Auburn’s well-balanced condensation, the production at times strains too hard to be lively.” Nonetheless he concludes, “The Journals of Mihail Sebastian is a well executed and worthwhile addition to the solo play canon.”

I met playwright, David Auburn, producer/director, Carl Forsman, and actor, Stephen Kunken, who performs Sebastian, at the 45 Street Theatre. They were relaxed, friendly and full of admiration for each other.

Meeting these three young, energetic creators of the play, I couldn’t help thinking – at least one of them must be directly connected to the Holocaust. Not really. “My grand parents were Eastern European Jews and the Holocaust is something that I’m interested in generally,” says Auburn “but I have no personal connection to it and no particular knowledge of Romania.” Kunken has no personal connection either. “My family is also Eastern European Jews, originally from Russia, but most of them were here.” Forsman, who is not Jewish, was born in 1970 and grew up in suburban New Jersey. “I think every intellectual my age I know has similar feeling that over the course of our lives there’s been a relationship to that event, because our generation grew up in the 70th and by then all the facts were known. I remember studying about the Holocaust in junior high. For me this is an on going process of understanding that event. The play is its continuation.”

It was the impact of the book that drew Auburn to the subject. “I wanted to expose Sebastian’s voice to a wide audience. Here is this fascinating document, a perspective that not many have been aware of. It seemed very dramatic and compelling to me and I thought that making it into a piece of theatre, would be a good way to give it to the wider audiences that it deserves.”

Auburn feels the play brings a fresh, unique perspective on the Holocaust, illuminating questions like: how this could’ve happened? Why didn’t the Jews just leave? Or, how could intelligent people have succumbed to this ideology? “These are hard questions to answer, but when you watch someone dealing with these personal encounters with friends and lovers day by day, watching them fundamentally move into a particular political direction, it becomes a lot easier to understand both, how people can change over time and also why someone would be reluctant to take off and leave”. There is another aspect that Auburn feels is important – Sebastian’s place in society and the literary world. “I think he arrived there against pretty steep odds. Here is this Jews kid from the provinces who clawed his way his way by forcing his own talent into this really high level of the literary and artistic elite, so part of the drama for him is the answer to the question why didn’t he show his anger more? Why didn’t he lash out more at this people who were insulting him? Which has to do with how precious this position is for him. I think we are watching him fighting to hold on as long as he can to something he’s worked very hard to get and he doesn’t want it to be thrown away. He doesn’t want to loose it”.

“Holocaust? One-man show? One long monologue? Why?” I ask Stephen Kunken, who starred among others, in Proof on Broadway opposite Anne Heche, and in The Story at the public theater.
“Because we offered him a job…” David interjects. We laugh.

“Why Holocaust?” Stephen asks, “It’s a story that needs to be told over and over again! This play is a story that isn’t usually told as a part of a Holocaust narrative – there are no powerful images like getting on trains and going to concentration camps that ultimately become the story itself. What was interesting and challenging for me working on this play, was giving Sebastian all the humanity that gets taken over that time and building a character, not just building a set of awful circumstances that befall him over time. I felt drawn to Sebastian ideologies” Stephen continues, “I felt it’s very akin to my own. It didn’t seem antiquated, it felt like if this had happened now, his observations and intellectualizations of the things that were happening around him, could easily be something that I, and people I know, could fall into”. One of the most interesting things Stephen felt was not the retrospective experience: “it was the present – what would happen now if this world collapsed around me. This could just as easily be 2004 as 1930.”

“Carl, from the perspective of a producer,” I ask, “why doing a Holocaust play? It’s heavy, not funny, no songs - isn’t it risky? How did you have the courage?”

“What I did,” comes the answer “I talked Dave into writing a play that I thought would win the Pulitzer (we all laugh), and then after he won that, then we have this name guy that we could do this play… Because of Dave’s well deserves status in the theater right now, if I would’ve announced we are doing a play about anything – it would’ve drawn some interest, certainly curiosity.”
“Carl and I talked for a long time about doing something together,” David adds “and I knew Carl is the only person in the world who I could come and say, ‘hey, lets do this 2 hour monologue about the Romanian Holocaust’, and Carl will say ‘great’, without hesitation (To Carl) ‘I knew you’d do it – and you did’”
“I knew Dave for a long time and I always thought he had incredible instinct, a gift that nobody else I know has, so when he said he wanted to do something, I new it would be interesting” Says Carl “I didn’t approach it as a Holocaust play. I approached it as a chance of working with Dave, but once I read the journals I was sold. And it proved itself. It’s the biggest hit in our history. We’ve never extended a play before.”

In order to condense the nearly 700 pages into a play, David was looking for a narrative line with a beginning, middle and end. “I simply pulled a bunch of material straight out of the journal,” he says. “At first the play was about 130 pages. I remember thinking I can’t bare losing any of it. We need it all. Now the play is 49 pages. I could’ve written 5 or 6 different plays – this is just one of them.”

“How was it working together?” I ask? – “It was awesome”, “great”, “it was more fun than you’re really ought to be allowed to have on a play like this” they answer simultaneously. “How about the usual conflicts frequently arise in such situations? I press. “There was always the sense that what we’re doing was a story worth telling,” says Carl, “and it was all of us, the stage manager, the designers, the entire staff. Everything seemed secondary to the importance of telling this story” “It was something of relative selflessness” Says Stephen. “None of us was driven by ego, we trusted each other. You know, the fear of doing one-man show is – you’re there, completely alone… and I remember one of the most important things Dave said to me after the first dress rehearsal– you are not alone, you have all of us, you have all these collaborator with you. You have to trust the play, you have to trust the designers, you have to trust Carl, and that made such a huge shift in my mind – that not only that it was true – that it had to be true. And…” “And you believed that?” interrupts David … they all burst laughing.

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  • And now the Romanian Holocaust -"The Journals of Mihail Sebastian"

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    There is currently 1 comment about this article:

    1.It seems to me like you are "using" M.S. Pitty.
      Dragos Rosca, Romania    (7/27/2004)

  • Miri Ben- Shalom

    From left :Carl Forsman, Director and producer, David Auburn playwright and Stephen Kunken actor

    Stephen Kunken as Mihail Sebastian Photo by Josh Bradford.

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