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Beate Hein Bennett
“My Mother's Courage” by George Tabori
It is ironic that George Tabori (1914-2007), a prolific, cosmopolitan “theatre maker” (his preferred title) has been rather invisible in the theatrical landscape of New York for the past several decades; except for the 2017 production of “Mein Kampf” directed by Manfred Bormann at Theater for the New City, NY, his work has been absent. However, on May 10 and 11, a very special theatrical event took place in a very special theatrical setting: George Tabori’s intimate two-character play, “My Mother’s Courage” was performed at Torn Page, a true chamber theater in Manhattan. Thomas Bockelmann, a German actor/director who has played the character of George (in German) in many different theatrical venues in Germany came for this special run of eight planned performances to New York to perform the text in English with Laura Esterman, a venerable American actor of stage and screen. Unfortunately, the run was cut short by COVID after only two performances; I was fortunate to have attended the first performance.
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center of the City University of New York, whose initiative and efforts made the collaboration with the Staatstheater Kassel (Germany), Torn Page in New York City, and the Synagogue Center Felsberg (Germany) possible, introduced the play first as a virtual English reading on ZOOM (through Howlround) on Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27, 2022 with the original German actors, Thomas Bockelmann and Sigrun Schneider-Kaethner. It gave a very good impression of the potential for live performances of this incredible narrative based on the real experience of Tabori’s mother Elsa who managed to survive in late 1944 a most bizarre sequence of events during a 12 hour transport from Budapest that was to end in Auschwitz. George Tabori once commented caustically: “Der kürzeste deutsche Witz ist Auschwitz.” [The shortest German joke is Auschwitz.] While George Tabori’s works revolve around such issues as racism, Nazism, the Holocaust, genocide, he uses satire, bold humor, and Brechtian theatrical techniques to sharpen the horrific absurdity of these political excrescences.
“My Mother’s Courage” is different in tone. Tabori wrote the play, based on his mother’s notes about her journey towards Auschwitz, first as a story. It is a gentle playful dialogue between the son in the process of re-casting his mother’s story and the mother who emerges from the shadows like an apparition--promptly interfering with, correcting, and modifying her son’s attempts to make her story into a work of literature. However, she comments several times: “My son never lies, he only exaggerates.” The play is also a re-imagining of their relationship as they gradually reveal the intimate details of her extraordinary journey towards death. She survives by her wit and a series of absurdly lucky incidences, including encounters with a couple of unusually polite German officers, each of whom “closes one eye” to let her go-- at a time of virulent Nazi persecutions in late 1944. George Tabori’s homage to his mother is, by extension, homage to all mothers whose courage, wit, and will to live gave their children the opportunity to come to terms with their own trauma. The ripple effects of the European cataclysms of the 20th century that destroyed generations are felt this very day, and the play is as relevant now with the world reeling in wars of aggression. The play was written in 1971 when he returned to Germany and premiered in 1979 at the Kammerspiele in Munich under Tabori’s own direction.
The emotional power, subtly embedded in the play, was felt intensely by the audience in the intimate space of Torn Page. The delicate balance between the mother’s horror and the son’s gentle surgical probing and re-shaping of that raw material was achieved in the superb performances of Mr. Bockelmann and Ms. Esterman. Their play and counter-play worked as though they had lived with each other for decades—no mean feat since their initial rehearsal process was via skype between Germany and New York followed by five days of in-person rehearsal prior to the first performance. The lived-in quality of the Torn Page performance space (with a wooden table and three chairs around it, a chandelier above, a fire-place on the back wall, tall curtained windows towards 22nd Street, a side-board with glasses and a bottle of wine) contributed to the sense of being invited to witness a writer’s late night struggle with difficult material. Thomas Bockelmann as George Tabori is a quietly imposing man who evokes his mother Elsa’s literal presence of that fateful day in October 1944 when she steps out of her apartment building in Budapest, dressed in her usual black coat with the yellow star holding her purse with an “apple.” An apple?…”No, plums, never apples” Elsa/Laura Esterman objects and steps in identical dress out of the dark and into the play. Laura Esterman is a fine-boned elegant actress with expressive large blue eyes who fills the room. The two actors develop a pas-de-deux, weaving together the mother’s story of the 12 hour journey, beginning with the arrest by a couple of bumbling Hungarian Nazi policemen, her obedient following the orders to go to the train station, being pushed into the cattle-car, the horror in that car, the surreal release and return by regular train back to Budapest. Their pas-de-deux of words and movement is performed with all the emotions carried by painful and humorous tones and undertones, stops and outbursts, closeness and distance—the full range of the complicated relationship between mother and son.
George Tabori, a 20th century European Jew became the proverbial wanderer, an exile and outsider. In a German radio interview in 2002, he said: “ I don’t have a Heimat [a country of belonging]… I am a Fremder [stranger], and I don’t mean this in a pathetic sense but positively… a writer has to be an outsider.” Moreover, as a Hungarian Jew, he was a minority within a minority. As the fascist movements in the 1920s and 30s took hold of countries like Italy, Romania, and Hungary, and as Hitler and the Nazis won power in Germany in 1933, life in Europe turned into a whirlwind of annihilation. Tabori’s father died in Auschwitz in 1944. In 1935 George Tabori made his way first to London, in 1941 he received his British citizenship and worked until 1943 as war correspondent for the Information Services of the British Army in the Near East. He published a couple of novels (in English) which brought him the attention of Hollywood’s film industry. In 1947 he moved to Los Angeles where he became a script writer and part of the exile literary scene that met regularly at Lion Feuchtwanger’s home. Brecht was among them who inspired Tabori towards the theater. America and New York became his station for the next 20+ years. One of his most famous plays, “The Cannibals” had its world premiere in October 1968 at St. Clements Church in Manhattan under the direction of Wynne Handman, an important producer/director in New York, who in the 60s gave many first opportunities to young Black theatre artists and also George Tabori, whose work challenged social comfort zones.
More performances of this particular production of “My Mother’s Courage” would be welcome, given the abrupt COVID caused cancellation. (Maybe once again at Tony Torn’s Torn Page? It was the NYC home of his parents, actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page.) The modest production values (two actors, one stage manager) and the nature of the play would lend itself to many other venues, also in other cities in the US. The timing now is right for this play!
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