Three French Jewish Plays of Jean-Claude Grumberg
A Theatre of Memory and Accommodation
Seth L. Wolitz
Jean-Claude Grumberg (1939– ) succeeds as no one else before him in placing on the French stage authentic contemporary Jews, ordinary French Parisian Jews speaking contemporary French rich in slang and sounding totally normal, expressing their daily thoughts and cares, stresses and obsessions in calm, boisterous, timid, or humorous language. Here they are, the survivors of a recent genocide, giggling, sharing jokes, or mourning over their lost ones, getting on in life, banal people, some muted, some with chips on their shoulders, working away, worrying about their children or pensions and dreaming of utopias. None content. French to the tips of their fingers and yet Jews, too, made more consciously Jewish by the war and yellow stars sewn on their clothes. Their presence on stage is a challenge: We’re here! We’re back! Did you miss us? You, who denounced us to the police? Or did you really miss us, genuinely? Are we at home again? We’re in a new chapter, right? A new Republic, the Fifth Republic, Vive la France! Grumberg’s theatre captures the aftermath of Vichy and the Shoah and their effect upon contemporary France and its citizens, Jewish and Gentile.
The three prize-winning plays presented here form a natural trilogy of Grumberg’s French Jewish works of the last forty years: The Workplace (L’Atelier, 1979), On the Way to the Promised Land: A Dental Tragedy (Vers toi terre promise: Une tragédie dentaire, 2006), and Mama’s Coming Back, Poor Orphan (Maman revient, pauvre orphelin, 1994). They are presented in historical chronology, rather than in the year of their creation, so we may appreciate more strongly these plays as documentary witnesses of the post-war era, a central esthetic position of Grumberg. The plays follow the immediate post-war reality up to the end of the twentieth century steeped in the author’s personal experience and insights into contemporary Parisian life. The playwright appears in all three plays as a character from early childhood until his “retirement,” permitting the audience both autobiographical and generational perspectives on the events presented in each play. These plays and their performance create a lieu de mémoire (a site of memory) for a generation that has few physical vestiges of the past. The plays are like historical plaques placed on the theatre, marking dark events and the refusal to allow them historical oblivion.
The theme of re-integration into French life therefore permeates all three plays and underlines the awkwardness, if not discomfort, of being a French citizen of Jewish origin accommodating back to a world one considered once one’s own and from which one was rejected to the point of annihilation. How does one become “at home” in contemporary France? The Shoah appears strictly as a memory trace but affects sotto voce present-day choices of action and being. Grumberg’s trilogy focuses on the art of accommodation, the skills needed to be “forward looking” and holding the past at bay. These plays therefore register the aftermath of the Shoah leading consistently forward into contemporary life.
Grumberg, a student of Molière, constructs these three French Jewish plays making use of humor—dark humor pitched with steep irony—to bring out the truth of humans trapped both in an uncaring society and their own foibles. Humor teases the audience to recognize the bitter truths of their own human condition and why, then, the characters, no different from themselves, must act as they do. Humor in fact brings three-dimensional life to the characters, insists on their humanity and ordinariness, and makes the pain of even their post-war condition understandable and bearable to both a Gentile and Jewish audience. Grumberg creates empathy through humor and unexpected insights. The very laughter of the audience can boomerang on itself as it realizes suddenly that the comic moment actually veils a life-or-death situation. The use of humor is probably Grumberg’s most astonishing achievement in treating the lugubrious condition of French Jewry in mid-century Europe.
Grumberg’s French Jewish plays are not Holocaust plays but interpretations of post-war French Jewish life, the aftermath of genocide, in the second part of the twentieth century, when the crucial disaster of World War II affected every Frenchmen and European, but especially the Jews. Grumberg’s French Jewish plays are therefore markers of the psychological states and conditions of both Jewish and non-Jewish Frenchmen in the evolving new reality of a France shorn of its prestige, power, and empire and yet not fully ready to come to terms with its Vichy past. Grumberg’s trilogy and his other plays contribute to the exposure of this repressed past of the war and depict the little known or appreciated lives of ordinary French Jewish survivors who, in Samuel Beckett’s terms, “I can’t go on, I must go on.” Grumberg’s plays are therefore very European plays, and his perspective is that of a contemporary European French Jew.
Grumberg belongs to the generation of European Jewish playwrights born either before World War II or just after who reflect both the national experience of their country of birth or of choice and the particular experience of European Jewry that was the Shoah and its aftermath. This generation has produced a new European theatrical experience: hybrid plays in the national tongue that quietly assert a Jewish presence as part of the national inheritance. Whether Harold Pinter (1930– 2008), Sir Arnold Wesker (1930–), and Bernard Kops (1926–) in the United Kingdom, Georg Tabori (1914–2007) in German lands, or Michel Vinaver (né Grinberg, 1927–), Gilles Ségal (1932–), and Jean-Claude Grumberg (1939-) in France, among the most notable dramatists, their plays reflect new perspectives and esthetic expressions interpreting the European and Jewish experiences that are distinct from the Jewish American or Israeli experience of these freighted years. Unlike the Yiddish and Hebrew theatre, which reaches a single audience of Jewish speakers, these playwrights must work with a dual audience of Gentiles and Jews in the majority language of the country and reach both groups attending the play. This condition creates a hybrid theatre, in which allusions and interpretations permit double entendre and insights that can be appreciated by the entire audience or certain allusions that can only be picked up by one side. The plays therefore are European—appealing at once to both the Jewish and the indigenous majority—and national, according to the language used on stage.
Grumberg’s performative art stands in full contrast with his slightly older contemporary, Marcel Marceau (1923–2007), stage name of Marcel Mangel, the Strasbourg Jew who fled his city and survived in the Free Zone owing to his masquerading skills. After World War II, he became the greatest mime of the twentieth century. He chose silence to depict his experiences and vision of the world, universalizing the human condition embodied in what in Yiddish was known as Dos Pintele Yid, the ordinary ne’er-do-well poor exilic Jew, by creating his alter ego, Bip the Clown (akin to Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp), who cannot verbalize what he knows and feels—language has failed him. He depends instead on silence and gesture to plumb the depths of his life’s experience (and of his generation), which he shares through the mediation of pantomime. His mimodrame La Cage [The Cage] is the perfect mimicry of the era he experienced as physical and spiritual entrapment—as in a concentration camp-.with its snuffing out of a life in an ever-reducing space. This powerful and horrific silence reflects the condition of mid-century despair, and it is echoed especially in the character of Lucky in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953). Against the pervasive silence, melancholia, and universalizing of Marcel Marceau’s mime theatre (employed as well by Gilles Ségal—a disciple who performed with the mime master—in his theatre with remarkable salience), Grumberg’s stage ruminates and roars with living sound, people who are alive, normal, ordinary people using speech, the most human form of expression. Grumberg demands words, language, verbal gestures: grunts; whines; murmurs; utterance fully oral with natural delivery passing from ferocious intensity, shouts, and threats to whispered fears; unfinished sentences declaring unendurable concerns; moanings, tears; and sudden eruptions of boisterous laughter, mixing chatter and nonsense confused with harsh truths and double meanings. Grumberg’s theatre captures the hour and the minute of a believable ordinary being admirable in the determination to talk, complain, laugh, and go on. Marcel Marceau’s Bip survives, and Grumberg’s sentient characters plunge into life wanting to enjoy it, fully aware of their vulnerable living presence-.miraculous—against the lurid past. Both artists share the same generational experiences: loss of their fathers to deportation and death, flight from their hometowns and family, and the tensions of being Jews during the Occupation and creating a post-war meaningful existence. But each expresses in his own medium a different interpretation. Marceau uses l’art du silence to express the inexpressible in language, placing all his talent in gesture, producing resonate silence,1 whereas Grumberg, also an actor, exploits language, character, and social event to project the universal in the particular utterance.
From Grumberg’s perspective, the past teaches nothing, the future appears ill defined. The present is all you have, and “You Could Live If They Let You” (to quote the title of the comic novelist Wallace Markfield’s 1974 book). Verbal intensity and particularly the use of slang mixed with much humor signal Grumberg’s profile in his theatre, and he shares this quality with the leading contemporary Jewish playwright in German, Georg Tabori. European Jewish theatre is intensely verbal, and Grumberg’s plays reflect that need of the living to be heard, to express themselves: speaking means being alive. The European Jewish theatre does not believe that silence is golden, it means either death or stupidity. Or perhaps just fear? European Jewish theatre is a subaltern theatre. It is a minority theatre in a dominant language culture of which it partakes; thus it is hybridic theatre, esthetically successful in fusing the two cultures.
The emergence of French Jewish theatre is a comparatively late development in French cultural domains. France was the first nation in Europe to extend full citizenship to the Jews of France in 1791. This event implied from the French perspective the abandonment of any extra-territorial allegiances and consequently full loyalty to the French Republic. The state also recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish religious identity. Frenchmen of Jewish origin throughout the nineteenth century participated fully in French cultural manifestations strictly as Frenchmen in what they believed to be French universal culture. In French theatre the artists and dramatists of Jewish origin were committed to French ideals and full cultural assimilation. Rachel and Sarah Bernhardt, both of Jewish origin, committed to French classics and new plays, performing as French actresses, and dismissed allusions to their origins from negative critics. French opera embraced Jews native and foreign like Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864), Jacques Halévy (1799–1862), and Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880), who helped create nineteenth-century Paris as the center of grand opera and the opéra comique. Halévy’s tragic opera La Juive [The Jewish woman] (1835) was seen, not as a Jewish cultural expression, but rather as a tragedy of religious bigotry—Catholic and Jewish—that French Enlightenment culture scorned with the secular Republican values of liberté, égalité, fraternité in exactly the same fashion that Meyerbeer’s opera Les Hugenots [The Hugenots] (1836) denounced the massacres of Protestants on Saint Bartholomew’s Day.
In the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly in the popular théâtre de boulevard, Parisian conventional theatre (comparable to Broadway plays in America or the West End theatre in London) performed the very successful plays of Georges de Porto-Riche (1849–1930), Gaston de Caillavet (1870–1915), Tristan Bernard (1866–1947), Henri Bernstein (1876–1953), and even today’s Yasmina Reza (1959–), all Frenchmen of Jewish origin. Like David Belasco, S. N. Behrman, Georges Kaufmann, and Moss Hart on Broadway, French playwrights of Jewish origin expressed the ideals and spirit of the national culture and eschewed treating Jewish topics or creating Jewish characters. Their commitment was to French secular cultural values of the Republic, and their identity was, to use the words of the historian Marc Bloch, murdered by the Germans, “Civis Gallicum Sum” (I am a citizen of France).
The Dreyfus Affair of 1892–1899 and the traumatic experience of Occupied France in World War II, 1940–1944, however, questioned the place of French Jewry in the body politic. Up to World War II, French Jewry sought and indeed participated as ordinary Frenchmen in the universal values trumpeted by the French Republic and certainly in its brilliant culture. But Vichy deprived Jews of their civil rights and made all Jews stateless, following the example of Nazi Germany.
The experience of the Shoah and its aftermath left French Jewry reeling. Of the 330,000 Jews in France in 1940, 75,721 were deported. Only 2,654 returned alive. In France during the war they had to wear the yellow star, were restricted in their movements, were not permitted to practice their professions, were deprived often of their homes and possessions, and were continuously harassed and threatened with deportation. Hiding and using false papers were their best hope of survival. The war left serious psychic wounds. While some argued that these experiences should be put away and that French Jews should join again as before in the French commonweal, other Jews felt that their experience was so affecting that they needed to express their experience and new perspective as a minority voice in French cultural life.
Despite the reluctance of the post-war Gaullist government to call into question the history of Vichy’s participation in the extermination of French Jewry, French Jews and others began publishing memoirs, historical studies, and—inevitably in esthetic modes—poems, novels, and finally drama. The cinema played an important role as well, revealing Vichy collaboration and full participation in the deportation of French Jewry, particularly Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1973); the famous documentary Le Chagrin et La Pitié [The Sorrow and the Pity](1969), directed by Marcel Ophüls; and Shoah (1985), directed by Claude Lanzmann.
The treatment of the Shoah on stage emerged comparatively late owing to subtle pressures by the government to bury the subject. The first treatment of the French Jewish experience during the war occurred when Arthur Miller’s play Incident at Vichy was approved for production in 1964. Soon after the events of 1968 brought the end to the Gaullist era, the subjects of World War II, including Vichy and the Jews, became open to serious discourse. The Paul Touvier case (1972–1973), involving a Vichy official who was hidden in a Catholic abbey for years and was implicated in the murder of Jews, electrified France, for he was the first and only Frenchman convicted of perpetrating crimes against humanity at that time. These events finally opened the French stage to treating the Jewish experience—but set elsewhere, not yet France. Jean-Claude Grumberg was the first to show violent anti-Semitism and allude to the Shoah in his play Dreyfus (1974), set in Poland in 1930, in which amateur Jewish actors are preparing a play about Captain Dreyfus when some Polish anti-Semitic ruffians violently invade the rehearsal and beat up the actors. The idealistic director decides to go off to a civilized place: Berlin, 1933! The play, performed at the prestigious Odéon Théâtre in Paris slyly alludes to French anti-Semitism placed back in time to the Dreyfus Affair but foreshadowing the Shoah with Polish anti-Semitic violence and the irony of thirties Berlin as an ideal. This play marks the beginning of French Jewish theatre, in which the author treats French Jewish concerns from the perspective of a French Jew, a citizen of France and with a minority perspective. This play was quickly followed by many new French Jewish playwrights treating the Shoah in their works, including Paul Kraemer (1938–), Liliane Atlan (1932–2011), Victor Haim (1935–), Gilles Ségal (1932–), and René Kalisky (1936–1981). These dramatists were of the same generation who grew up during wartime as young children, and its effect shaped their worldview. They received a full French education, and they hold a full cultural attachment to their homeland that is their own, but they have a definite Jewish consciousness without any religious affiliation. Their dramas reflect this condition, and they have established a French Jewish presence in French theatre that reflects their reality. Its distinction from the other francophone plays is in its appearance and setting in the metropole, France.
Jean-Claude Grumberg has been a successful man of theatre for over forty years, having written more than thirty plays. He is also an actor, a screenwriter (for François Truffaut, Le Dernier Metro [The Last Metro], 1980; and Costa-Gavras, Amen, 2002, and other films), a writer of ten children’s plays, a writer of stories and dialogues, and even a stage director. He has won six Molières, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize (two of which are for the full-length plays in this anthology), and a number of other theatrical awards. Many of his plays have their debuts presented by the most prestigious theatre company of France, La Comédie Française, the French National Theatre. The Workplace and Mama’s Coming Back, Poor Orphan were made part of the curriculum for the French baccalaureate degree. In short, his plays have critical acclaim, and his unique vision and style has been appreciated for the last forty years.
Born in 1939 in Paris into a very poor Jewish family of tailors, Jean-Claude Grumberg was too young to understand the early deportation of his Romanian-born father and grandfather as stateless Jews. His mother, a French citizen, managed to get her sons into the Zone libre (the Free Zone) and placed them with a sympathetic farmer. After the war, he returned to Paris and went to a French public vocational school and concluded his certification at the normal age of fourteen to become a tailor’s assistant and learned the trade. Along the way he fell into acting and discovered he liked it. He also discovered that he enjoyed writing plays. His first plays were well received. One of them dealt symbolically with the rise of Nazism (Amorphe d’Ottenburg, 1970); another showed how one age prepares disaster for another (En r’venant de l’Expo [Coming Back from the World’s Fair], 1973), using the café concert and its songs—a favorite device of Grumberg’s dramaturgy—to reveal the frivolity of the Belle Epoque around the World’s Fair of 1900, a time caught between militant patriotism and idealist pacifism. Grumberg’s humor was early recognized as theatrically effective in revealing the brutal truth beneath the banalities of the age or situation. He was early on considered a serious playwright with a biting wit finding his way to his real voice. He found it creating Dreyfus, depicting the European Jewish reality and using his status as a French citizen of Jewish origin. His first three French Jewish plays capture (1) the pre-war years (Dreyfus, 1974), (2) the war years, 1940–1944 (Zone libre [The Free Zone], 1990), and (3) the aftermath, 1945–1953 (L’Atelier [The Workplace], 1979). This last work, his most popular play, established Grumberg as the most important French Jewish dramatist, with the masterful theatrical skill needed to create humanity in his characters and authenticity in their condition, eschewing any effort to create martyrs or saints. His later two French Jewish plays, Maman revient, pauvre orphelin [Mama’s Coming Back, Poor Orphan] (1994) and Vers toi terre promise: Une tragédie dentaire [On the Way to the Promised Land: A Dental Tragedy] (2009), are memory plays of the French Jewish experience after the war. These French Jewish plays all have strong autobiographical sources and define a French Jewish experience that requires a new appreciation of the expanded concept of French identity that goes beyond Gallic and Frankish roots. Grumberg’s plays give voice to a Jewish presence demanding its legitimacy as part of a modern French inheritance. This was inconceivable before World War II, but the French betrayal of the Jews during the war and Occupation created a new Jewish consciousness that is now part of French society and expresses a French Jewish perspective in newly created French Jewish plays.
Both Mama’s Coming Back, Poor Orphan and On the Way to the Promised Land are memory plays that reveal a late development in the dramaturgy of Jean-Claude Grumberg. Whereas Dreyfus, The Free Zone, and The Workplace present the French Jewish experience in a linear perspective that reflects the mid-century Holocaust and its consequences, the memory plays written at the end of the century and into the new twenty-first century consider the effect of the past, especially the Holocaust experience, on French Jews, including himself, the author, throughout the post-war experience, which extends over more than fifty years. The dramatist seeks to interpret the power of the past experiences upon the present and how memory of the past shapes contemporary thinking and action. The passage of the authorial character from outside the earlier plays, as in the first trilogy, into the later plays alters the aesthetic space where the authorial character becomes an active participant. This permits a greater dramatic intensity for the audience because the authorial character’s role focuses the audience on the events on stage. It brings a stronger identification with the author and permits a greater sense of authenticity of the past events as they affect the French Jewish characters on stage desperately seeking accommodation and resolution to their historical condition.
In the one-act play Mama’s Coming Back, Poor Orphan, the author is a sixty-five-year-old writer coming out of anesthesia in a recovery room in which time and space are vague and bleed into each another. The author appears to regress to childhood, seeking solace from his isolation as he attempts to recover his mother and father in his mind. He reaches out to them, but they are clutches of memory, uncertainties, freighted with emotion. Memory, providing him with scenes of his youth and his French Jewish childhood in Paris, permits him to conceive of his deported father in terms of historical facts and recalls his childhood projections of a protective father who was removed from his family by the French police. His encounters therefore are both real and fictional but present the power of memory to affect the present.
In the full-length play, On the Way to the Promised Land, the playwright’s most dramaturgically sophisticated work presented, ironically, as a dental tragedy, Grumberg’s character appears from the oblique angle of a child of an afflicted French Jewish family facing the unpleasantness of going to the dentist and facing the drill like a guillotine, the symbol of torture and human misery. The dental chair and drill reflect the ruinination of Dr. Spodek’s family, who lost their children in the Holocaust. A successful acculturated French Jewish dentist before the war, a wreck afterward, having lost his two daughters, Charles contemplates his misery while his wife, Clara, imagines some restoration of meaning at the terrible price of abandoning La France, this land of liberty, equality, and freedom that had betrayed them. Against the incessant misery of their condition, Grumberg brilliantly depicts with great humor his younger self discovering in the dental chair and ominous drill his first sexual awakenings as the busty Moroccan nurse assistant leans over him, revealing sights of astonishing interest and producing new physiological pleasures unbeknown to him before. A new generation awakens and life will go on! But for the Spodeks, their decision to abandon France underscores the effect of the Holocaust and its consequences. The lack of concern, however, on the part of the young authorial character underlines the comic and pathetic reality that the Talmudic proverb reiterates: a generation comes and a generation goes. A terrible moment of French history and of French Jewish history is encapsulated in this memory play that sets a French Jewish family off to a new Promised Land. The rejection of their homeland has made them stateless even with the restored passport of the Fifth Republic. The play also mocks Grecian dramaturgy, for its heroes have Achilles’s heels and are by tradition and necessity of aristocratic origin. Grumberg casts off this Greek vision as useless for modern tragedy. The Spodeks are innocents who become unwilling victims and perform heroically just by seeking to survive and proceed onward. This is the nobility Grumberg admires. This family, with perhaps too much hope, proceeds on its way to a new/old Promised Land. But Grumberg, at heart a cruel realist, leaves their fate unknown. His authorial character in the play has chosen to live in the French Republic, of which this play’s performance asserts the renewed French Jewish presence in France, not just as French citizens but as French Jews. Grumberg’s purely French Jewish works are considered his finest work, but they constitute at most 20 percent of his total output. But Jewish interests can be found in plays as diverse as Adam et Ève [Adam and Eve] (1997)—a post-Eden reading—and H.H. [Heinrich Heine and Heinrich Himmler](2011). They are also found in Rêver peut-être [To dream perhaps] (1998), a surreal play about the dreams of a French Jewish actor, Gerard—who has been playing Hamlet—that cause him to be hauled before a court of law for murder. It is an attack on state intervention into the private and even oneiric life of a citizen. Even Grumberg’s children’s plays, which he holds dear, contain clear allusions to Jewish themes, such as the Golom (Golem), the superhuman defender of the underdog in Mon Étoile [My star] (2007); or Le Petit Chaperon Uf [The Little Red Riding Hood of Uf] (2005), a variant of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, with allusions to the lost father and grandfather, both tailors, deported in 1942 to Auschwitz; or Iq et Ox [Iq and Ox] (2003), two friends who flee from warring parents over which God is the real God. Grumberg’s skills as a film writer brought him into contact with François Truffaut, and Grumberg supplied him with the dialogue of The Last Metro (1980), based on a story of a Jewish director who hid under his theatre’s boards during the war. Grumberg also adapted Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter: Ein christliches Trauerspiel [The Deputy, a Christian Tragedy] (1963) into the scenario for the Costa-Gavras film Amen (2002).
Grumberg, unhappy that his character Léon, the boss in The Workplace, was, as he thought, misinterpreted, decided to play that role on stage himself to show Léon’s complexity, a passive/aggressive l’homme moyen sensual juif!, an ordinary man surviving through luck and cunning and desperate to live, inept but not evil. His acting won great appreciation for the depths of his performance. In short, Grumberg represents a consummate man of theatre.
Jean-Claude Grumberg experienced the Golden Age of the French Absurd Theatre with its masters, Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, in the 1950s and 1960s. He observed their art and absorbed their skills. But he rejected their abstractions, language play, and use of circular structure. Grumberg is a theatre man of the 1970s. The post-1968 era sought to deal with quotidian problems and not abstract universals. The new theatre returned to a reworked realism, linear structure with little plotting, if any, and scenes presented as illustrations of the given conditions, influenced by Brechtian epic theatre, and a return to a more individuated characterization, influenced by Eugene O’Neill. The French theatre sought to reach out to a broader mass of people, especially the proletariat throughout France, where national theatres were established to draw in the working-class world. The National Theatre of Strasbourg introduced the Austrian theatre of Franz Xaver Kroetz, whose plays treated the peasant and working classes in Austria trying to accommodate themselves to the modern world and having difficulty articulating their wants and needs. In German, this type of theatre was called Alles Tages Theater and translated into French as Le Théâtre du Quotidien, the Theatre of Daily Life. This new theatre treated mainly the proletariat and not the traditional theatre of the bourgeoisie with its clever plot work and tightly integrated structures from the beginning of the century. The scenes were generally complete in themselves but continued in a chain of references that provide linearity and variants on themes and notes the passing of time. There is also a certain unity of place that projects a physical icon of each play. Dialogues are never the smooth, urbane, and witty balletic performances of traditional French plays; rather, they are interrupted, discontinuous dialogues with gaps and verbal sounds of surprise, pain, or ennui. Grumberg absorbed these new developments and applied them to his treatment of Parisian Jewry, particularly the poor Jews of Eastern Paris in the aftermath of the war.
Grumberg, in his plays, broke with the long tradition of theatrical French elegance performed in a formal vocabulary, diction, and delivery all so witty, orotund, and often empty (best illustrated before the war by the playwrights Jean Giraudoux and Jean Anouilh and in the directing style and performance of the talented Louis Jouvet). Grumberg, himself from the working classes, sought out and captured with precision the shared orality of the contemporary Parisian proletariat and the working-class Jews of the Marais and Ménilmontant of eastern Paris. It is language that gives each character his definition far more than any action or plotting. Grumberg dares to bring the street onto the stage, as Louis-Ferdinand Céline did in his novels before the war. In fact, Grumberg’s punctuation before he cast out punctuation entirely—learned from Vinaver’s texts-.follows Celine’s punctuation with his beloved three dots, or points suspendus, meaning both an unfinished statement or thought, or a determined pause like a fermata sign in music to give the utterance deeper resonance.
As a pupil of Molière, Grumberg learned not only dialogic structures to produce laughter and reveal character but to use music not only for its dramatic presence but to enrich meaning. Grumberg’s use of song, folkloric or street urban melodies, a sudden unexpected musical presence, evokes much of the popular culture of the era and is made integral to the meaning of the work and its evocative power. On a subliminal level the French audience recognizes the melody and is drawn closer to the proceedings on stage: there is fusion of audience and actors. It also reinforces French identity. When music performed is foreign, as is the Yiddish tango in The Workplace, it functions on two levels: (1) it establishes the presence of difference between Jews and Gentiles, but (2) it is used as a testing of acceptance as Gentile and Jew join in dance.
Humor and the comic mode are used by Grumberg for shock value and to touch cautiously on evocations of the Shoah. Grumberg also uses sexual humor openly to display the thinking and living reality of people in confined quarters working and working off frustrations. Humor is never innocent in Grumberg’s plays; it provides authorial insight for the audience to appreciate the implications of the humor and its objective.
Contrary to those who seek to discover “Yiddish humor” in these plays (and what is Yiddish humor?), the wit and crisp moments of humorous exchange reveal far more the inheritance of French classical comedies, French boulevardier theatre, Voltairian wit, and the broad humor of Rabelaisian risqué joking. The putative “laughter to tears” of Yiddish humor is a Sholem Aleykhem skill, not Grumbergian. Nor does Grumberg use lazzi, or physical humor, to obtain laughter; his humor depends on the turn of the phrase and the situational reality in which something important is at stake. For example:
CLARA: We just received a letter.
CHARLES: Another one?
CLARA: A letter from Gisèle.
CHARLES: Gisèle? What Gisèle?
CLARA: Gisèle of Toulouse.
CHARLES: Gisèle of Toulouse?
CLARA: The one who’s in Israel.
CHARLES: Then why are you saying from Toulouse?
CLARA: I’m not talking about Toulouse. I’m talking about my cousin Gisèle.
We call her Gisèle of Toulouse to distinguish her from my two other cousins with the same name who weren’t from Toulouse and who were taken away.
This is Grumbergian humor: humor based on the old Molière tricks of repetition and mistaken identity that stimulate laughter and that Grumberg turns sour. The rug is pulled away and the painful truth emerges.
CHARLES: There’s only one Gisèle left?
CLARA: Yes, the one from Toulouse. She lives in Israel.
—Scene 11, On the Way to the Promised Land
Clara and Charles are French Jews to the tips of their fingers, there is Yiddishkeyt left, the Ashkenazic remains from the pilgrimage to France, their Promised Land as it appeared in Eastern Europe to their parents or grandparents. But they use no Yiddish in any of these French Jewish plays of Grumberg, and only the older generation can understand it. French is their mother tongue. France is home, homeland, and they have to deal with its betrayal. So does Grumberg the artist, and humor serves him well when there is no exit or solution. And as the Gentile audience laughs, suddenly the incongruous occurs, the reality of the Shoah grabs them, too. Humor is important to post-war European Jewish theatre in order to deal with such memories, and Grumberg provides masterly examples of this comic art.
Each play contains, of course, the hidden tragedy that haunts Grumberg’s theatre: the broken family. His plays are never about the clashes of personality or debilitating psychological problems tearing a family apart. Rather, his plays reveal what happens when evil strikes and a father or a child is removed by a nefarious political power affecting the individuals of the family and the structure of the family itself. How does a family continue when a member is literally pulled away before one’s eyes? How does one go on? Grumberg’s plays are about the rescue of the living and urging them to prevail. Remember the lost one but live now fully in one’s present, for the past is another country now, and the future never is sure.
The Workplace reveals the coping of various Jews and their putative restoration into the French community across 1945–1953. It proffers a wonderfully intense experience of ordinary proletariat Parisian Gentile workers with their Jewish counterparts. Most critics consider Simone the central figure, for her entrance in the workplace opens the drama and her absence at the end provides a sort of closure. But Léon the boss deserves more scrutiny, for like most of the men in Grumberg’s plays, he is not lovable but somewhat grinçant, or grating. The same can be said for Charles in On the Way to the Promised Land or the Father in Mama’s coming back, Poor Orphan. Life has been hellish for them, but their adaptation and determination to participate in the new reality deserve our appreciation.
But never underestimate the role of the Jewish women and mother figures. They are perhaps more of the life force in Grumberg’s dramas than the driven men. They play the classic role of the Jewish wives who appear demure but, like the Jewish women in Egypt in the Passover Haggadah, they prop up their men and move them to live and move on. Grumberg’s mother appears in two of the plays as the powerful figure who keeps her emotions in check in front of her men but shows her vulnerabilities to other women. Even in On the Way to the Promised Land, Clara is a mother surrogate pushing her husband forward: “Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan” (The eternal Feminine drives us onward), as Goethe so well understood. The family, the essential Jewish unit, remains intact despite the losses. The hurt never disappears, but the family will prevail. The memory play Mama’s Coming Back, Poor Orphan reveals how the ruined family provides the signpost to the present and future, to a satisfactory existence despite the costs.
Grumberg is harsh in his judgment of life, but he associates fully with the concept that living life to one’s fullest potential delivers the only answer to the ineffable.
Grumberg’s plays are amber capsules of time preserving the drama of a post-Shoah French Jewish generation underlining its will to survive and even participate in Jewish renewal within an indifferent Europe, where their right to be is no less legitimate than any member of the majority culture. Grumberg has created a new dramatic voice for French Jewry to express itself openly in France and in Europe, manifesting its presence through the borrowed esthetic structure of theatre.
Grumberg’s plays and vision are hybrid: the fusion of two cultures. Grumberg’s identity and expectation is that of the French secular citizen with Jewish roots performing in an enlightened open French universalizing culture protected by the values of the Fifth Republic. Grumberg lets his characters, the Spodeks, leave for their Promised Land, but Grumberg is giving France and Europe one more chance to live up to its ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
“The people who came back from the [concentration] camps were never able to talk about it. My name is Mangel. I am Jewish. Perhaps that, unconsciously, contributed towards my choice of silence” (Marceau, quoted at the Internet Movie Database [www.imdb.com], in the biography).