Arthur Miller’s Forgotten Play about the Holocaust

May 29, 2015 | Maxim Shrayer
About the author:

Incident at Vichy, first staged in 1965, is a one-act play set in a Nazi detention center in France. Most of the action is in the form of conversations among detainees awaiting interrogation. Maxim Shrayer argues for the play’s enduring worth:

Incident at Vichy is . . . often discussed in the context of Miller’s response to the [1961] Eichmann trial and its coverage by Hannah Arendt [in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil]. One third into the play, [the Austrian prince] von Berg says to [the Jewish doctor] Leduc: “Well, don’t you think Nazism . . . whatever else it may be . . . is an outburst of vulgarity? An ocean of vulgarity?”. . .

Yet Miller didn’t merely cast onto his play the shadows of Arendt’s discourse on the “banality of evil.” The dynamics of Incident at Vichy—especially of von Berg’s transition from a guilt-tormented bystander to an incidental rescuer—dramatically complicate Arendt’s thesis. While the play alleges that Nazi evil has its own banal music and its own cardboard-operatic complexity, it shows that personal sacrifice as a response to evil can never be banal. . . . If every person of conscience were to make one act of personal sacrifice, how many victims of genocide might have been saved? To have said this, loud and clear, in 1965 was no small feat for any American playwright, Jewish or not.

After years of teaching and thinking about Shoah literature, I have come to value this play above all of Arthur Miller’s, including Death of a Salesman. . . . But I wouldn’t be writing this tribute today were it not for the profound impression the play made on me when I first saw it in the spring of 1987 in Moscow, my native city. When I saw it then, I was a nineteen-year-old refusenik finally preparing to leave Russia. While I had experienced firsthand both the banality and the complexity of evil, I hadn’t heard of Arendt and was, in some sense, a perfect tabula rasa to take Miller’s play on its own terms.

Read more on Tablet: