Written by Rinne Groff
Directed by Oskar Eustis
A co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre and The Public Theater
Main Season · Thrust Stage
September 13–October 31, 2010
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor Mandy Patinkin makes his Berkeley Rep debut as Sid Silver, a man obsessed. When he learns about a young girl named Anne Frank and her extraordinary diary, Silver makes it his mission to ensure her tale is heard. But is the manuscript a work of art? A cultural treasure? Once publishers and producers get involved, it becomes “a very valuable product”—and his good intentions prove to be his undoing.
Acclaimed director Oskar Eustis returns to the Bay Area with Rinne Groff’s Compulsion, a kaleidoscopic collision of history and culture inspired by the life of Meyer Levin and commissioned by Berkeley Rep. A moving story that combines stellar acting with marvelous marionettes, this world-premiere production takes us on a journey from passion to Compulsion.
Rinne Groff · Playwright
Oskar Eustis · Director
Eugene Lee · Scenic Design
Susan Hilferty · Costume Design
Michael Chybowski · Lighting Design
Darron L West · Sound Design
Jeff Sugg · Video and Projection Deisgn
Matt Acheson · Puppet Design and Puppetry Supervision
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Karen Szpaller · Assistant Stage Manger
Tara Rubin · Original Yale Rep casting
Laurel Schutzel · Original Yale Rep casting
Jordan Thaler · Berkeley Rep casting
Heidi Griffiths · Berkeley Rep casting
Amy Potozkin · Berkeley Rep casting
Basil Twist · Puppet Consutant
Johanna Gruenhut · Assistant Director
Kara Harmon · Assistant Costume Design
Shawn Duan · Associate Projection Design
Tristan Jeffers · Assistant Set Design
Patrick Lynch · Assistant Set Design
Matt Hubbs · Assistant Sound Design
Tom Watson · Wig Design
Hannah Cabell · Miss Mermin / Mrs. Silver
Matte Osian · Mr. Thomas / Mr. Harris / Mr. Ferris / Mr. Matzliach
Mandy Patinkin · Mr. Silver
Emily DeCola · Puppeteer
Daniel Patrick Fay · Puppeteer
Eric Wright · Puppeteer
“A riveting drama for three actors and an ensemble of marionettes…Virtuoso acting is just one reason to see Rinne Groff’s Compulsion: Patinkin and his two castmates deliver the goods. But there is also Oskar Eustis’ sleek, multifaceted staging and the way Groff revels in wrestling with knotty ideas in conflict. Her semifictional dive into one real Jewish writer’s litigious battle over Anne Frank’s diary is a compelling foray along a thin line between idealism and fanaticism…As his understandably fervent advocacy turns to vicious personal attacks on those he thinks are thwarting him—Lillian Hellman and Otto Frank in particular—Patinkin’s descent into paranoia and the fanaticism of a true believer is as chilling as it is thrilling to witness.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A brilliant and emotional new play…[Sid Silver’s] story, based on the true-life author Meyer Levin, is told with puppetry, fantasy, comedy and drama…Oskar Eustis and his actors move seamlessly from fiction to fantasy and back…[Mandy] Patinkin, who has done no less than make Silver part of his DNA, is simply stunning. In a role that requires him to growl, charm and come apart at the seams.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“Berkeley Rep opened its new season in its usual manner, with another winning production…It is such a pleasure to witness the outstanding performance of Mandy Patinkin—an acting masterpiece.”—Jerry Friedman, KGO-AM
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Some people never die. They live on in our collective consciousness, representing any number of ideas, values or emotions that we need periodically to access. The passing of time does not diminish their impact. They do not gently recede from our failing memory. Rather, they grow in size and stature. In death they become more alive. For these select few, death is merely a prelude to resurrection, a loving companion on their triumphant march toward immortality.
Anne Frank is one of these people. She died from typhus at the age of 16 within the confines of a Nazi concentration camp only one month before it was liberated by the Allies. This precocious young woman left few worldly possessions behind, but one was a diary so full of yearning and fear and intelligence and hope that it became a touchstone for all human suffering. The oppressed and the oppressor, the young and the old, the guilty and the innocent—anyone needing to find meaning in the face of tragedy could find what they were looking for nestled within the pages of this magical diary. The book, and the brief life of its brilliant author, became the stuff of sacred mythology. In a very short time, everyone, it seemed, could claim Anne Frank as his or her own.
But ownership does not come without disputes over territorial rights—and Anne Frank’s legacy includes a monstrous battle over who had the right to serve as creative guardian of her story. Inspired by the real-life story of Meyer Levin (the celebrated author of the novel Compulsion, a book that fictionalizes historical events), Rinne Groff’s new play embodies Mr. Levin in the character of Sid Silver and his 20-year obsession to become Anne’s chief artistic interpreter. Sid champions Anne as the voice of every Jew, and fights to the death to defend what he believes to be her (and his) honor. It is a complicated, bizarre and unique love story, describing a torrid, self-destructive affair between a man and an icon. Everyone surrounding Sid is drawn into the bloody vortex of his fantastical relationship. And at stake is nothing less than a piece of Anne’s immortality.
Our excitement in producing Rinne’s fascinating play is amply increased by her ongoing collaboration with director Oskar Eustis, formerly of the Bay Area and now firmly ensconced at The Public Theater in New York. We happily welcome Rinne and Oskar to Berkeley Rep, along with their superb design team and scintillating cast: Matte Osian, Hannah Cabell and Mandy Patinkin, who himself has achieved near-iconic status as one of our most gifted performers. Together they have applied the full measure of their creative talents to present an intriguing story that dares to re-imagine history. It promises to be a terrific start to this, our 42nd season. We sincerely hope you enjoy it, and we thank you for taking the journey.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Welcome to the 2010–11 season at Berkeley Rep. As always, we’ve endeavored to put together a season in which each play stands on its own but which, when seen as a whole, becomes a rich, complex medley of ideas, styles, emotions, personalities and performances. I am always exhilarated by the unexpected moments of recognition, contradiction and surprise that arise from the experience of seeing such a diverse range of work. I hope you have that same experience and find it as rewarding.
While our tickets are reasonably priced, I simply can’t resist the opportunity to remind you that the absolute best prices—there is no beating them—are reserved for people who purchase three plays or more. See all seven great plays and get the best value for your dollar.
Some of you like to arrive at the theatre with clean slates—no expectations, no prejudices—just your innate good taste and intelligence. Good for you! We are happy to stay out of your way. There are, however, many members of our audience who prefer to come to the theatre armed with research, fully informed and ready to do battle with the writers and directors who have laid each play at your feet. We have been thinking about you and we are ready for you. If you haven’t already discovered our website, berkeleyrep.org, I hope you’ll check it out. We have more information than ever to help you become well informed about each and every production. You can hear directors and actors discussing their approach to the scripts. You can access dramaturgical background prior to your visit. You can follow the links we offer to explore further themes and issues inspired by the production. Or if you prefer real time rather than virtual opportunities, join us any Tuesday or Thursday at 7pm, when our docents provide half-hour introductions to the current play. You can also call the box office to find out which performances will be followed by a moderated conversation.
As if that isn’t enough, in addition to all the online and in-person opportunities we offer to enrich your experience, I challenge you to do something really daring and make this the season you sign up for a class at our School of Theatre. While many of our programs are geared toward school-age children, and our outreach programs reach thousands of students in hundreds of classrooms each year, fully 50% of our classes here on Addison Street, in the Nevo Education Center, are geared toward adults. Maybe this is the year to exercise your creative muscles. Consider a beginning acting class and you’ll never watch a play the same way again. Or sign up for improvisation, stage combat or puppeteering, and you may discover a whole new you. Berkeley Rep’s classes attract adults of all ages and all levels of experience. Don’t be shy! Just try it.
Whether you are looking for background on a play, searching for classes or just checking ticket availability, I urge you to stay in touch. Throughout the year we’ll keep adding programs, special events, exclusive offers and unique opportunities, and we want you to enjoy all of it. For now though, we are glad to have you here for the opening production of our season.
Compelled to tell
The many voices behind the Anne Frank legacy
By Rachel Viola
The widely held understanding about Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is reasonably straightforward: it’s a young girl’s diary, lightly edited by her father for publication in the years following her tragic death in a German concentration camp. The book is read in schools all over the world, though many adults may have clearer recollections of the play or movie, both seemingly faithful adaptations of the diary. But the discrepancy between what is considered common knowledge and the greater truth of the story surrounding Anne’s book and its adaptations has been hotly contested.
The Frank family—Otto, Edith, daughters Margot and little Anne—relocated from their home in Frankfurt, Germany in 1933, around the same time as Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. Sensing trouble brewing, the Franks moved to Amsterdam, where Otto had business associates who helped him establish a spice company called Opetka Works. The Franks made their new home in the River Quarter, a developing community of other well-to-do German-Jewish immigrant families.
Life was comfortable for the Frank family in Amsterdam until the Germans invaded on May 10, 1940. The Dutch government was completely unprepared for the attack and capitulated after only five days of fighting. Hoping to impress Dutch Aryans, the Germans were slow to impose their typically harsh restrictions on Dutch Jews. But by 1941, severe anti-Semitic laws descended. Curfews were imposed, and Jews were removed from their jobs and banned from almost all public places. In January of 1942, Adolf Eichmann and other high-ranking Nazi officials devised “The Final Solution” to exterminate all European Jews, now easily identified in Nazi-occupied lands by the mandatory yellow star affixed to their garments.
That same month, the Frank family applied for “voluntary emigration.” Denied this request, Otto began to plan an alternative escape for his family, one so close and obvious it wouldn’t be expected: a hiding place above the Opetka offices at 263 Prisengracht in the center of Amsterdam. Despite their secret preparations, the Franks tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy. On June 12, 1942, they celebrated Anne’s 13th birthday with a party and a large pile of gifts. Among these presents was a little red-and-white-checkered, cloth-bound diary.
Anne made her first diary entry on June 20, 1942—the same day, Eichmann and the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Berlin initiated a program to send 40,000 Dutch Jews to Auschwitz. The date of the first scheduled deportation was July 5; coincidentally the same day that teenaged Margot Frank received a “call-up” notice to report to Westerbork, a transitory Dutch labor camp. The Frank family sprang into action and moved into the secret annex early the next morning, letting neighbors believe they had escaped to Switzerland.
They were joined a week later by the Van Pels family: Hermann, a partner at Opetka, his wife, Auguste, and their son, Peter. That November, a dentist named Fritz Pfeffer joined life in the annex. Using pseudonyms in her diary, Anne recorded these arrivals, referring to the Van Pelses as the “Van Daans,” and Pfeffer as “Alfred Dussel.” She also changed the names of some of the annex group’s Dutch friends who helped them while in hiding, although Miep Gies, who would famously rescue Anne’s writing, was called by her real name.
Much of what is understood about life in the secret annex is from Anne’s diary. However, a significant factor in the diary’s history is less well known. Among the many items smuggled into the annex was a contraband radio, which allowed the occupants regular access to war reports. One such broadcast from the Dutch government exiled in London was vital to Anne’s record-keeping. Gerrit Bolkestein, minister of education, art and science, issued a statement on March 29, 1944, calling for Dutch citizens to save “ordinary documents”—letters, diaries—in hopes of building a national archive. (This vision would ultimately be realized as the contemporary Netherlands Institute for War Documentation.)
Anne, who by this time had filled not only her diary, but also several other notebooks with chronicles of life in the annex, took Minister Bolkestein’s speech as a personal directive. Having composed several entries in which she expressed her desire to write professionally and “live on after her death,” the idea of preserving her work in a national archive must have been deeply appealing. Titling her work, Het Achterhuis, or “The House Behind,” Anne dedicated herself to a rigorous re-writing process: refining, re-ordering, clarifying, cutting and expanding diary entries from multiple volumes.
On August 1, 1944, Anne wrote her last “current” diary entry. On August 4, Dutch Nazi police acted on an informant’s tip and raided the secret annex. After four days in Amsterdam’s Gestapo prison, the Franks, the Van Pelses and Pfeffer were sent to the dreaded Westerbork camp. September saw the last Dutch shipment of Jews to Auschwitz, and with it, all the former occupants of the annex. They arrived on September 6, and Hermann Van Pels died several weeks later. By October, Anne and Margot had been transferred together to Bergen-Belsen in Germany, where they both would perish in March of 1945. Edith Frank died in Auschwitz just after the new year; Auguste and Peter Pels and Fritz Pfeffer were killed in different camps nearby.
Only Otto Frank would survive and make his way back to Amsterdam to learn the fate of his family and friends. Miep Gies, who had hidden the diary in hope of Anne’s return, took Otto in. The story goes that, hearing of Anne’s death, Miep pressed the diary into Otto’s hands. He locked himself in his former office just floors below the annex and did not emerge for several hours. After several readings, Otto was firmly convinced his daughter had intended to publish Het Achterhuis, so he set about editing and translating.
Much debate has ensued about the various versions of the diary. Accusations run from sentimental to extreme. Relatives of annex occupants have disliked Anne’s depictions of their loved ones; other readers have criticized Otto’s removal of more overtly sexual, religious or intimate family observations. Neo-Nazi critique of the diary gained ground as early as 1957, with a Swedish newspaper article implying that the diary, much like reportage of the war itself, was forged. Similar theories emerged sporadically throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, finally prompting the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation to issue The Revised Critical Edition of the Diary of Anne Frank.
Released in English in 2003, The Revised Critical Edition replaced five controversial pages removed by Otto (discovered after his death in 1981), provided analysis of Anne’s handwriting in defense of her true authorship and encapsulated the three major versions of the book. The original first draft of Anne’s diary is referred to as the “a” version by scholars. “B” version contains the edited work she completed in the months following Bolkestein’s radio broadcast; the “c” version is Otto Frank’s, drawn from both “a” and “b” source materials, as well as some of Anne’s collected short stories. It was the “c” version that was first published in Dutch in 1947, then in French in 1950 and it remains the version taught in schools. It was this book which made its way into the hands of Meyer Levin.
Meyer Levin was born in Chicago in 1905 to Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. As a cub reporter during the Leopold and Loeb murder trial of 1924, Levin made a name for himself as a writer, and would go on to author several respected novels. In 1944 and 1945, he served as a military journalist with the US Army’s Fourth Armored Division and was among the first Americans to encounter the scope of destruction and cruelty wrought by the concentration camps. Levin’s personal struggle to establish an American Jewish identity had previously been the crux of much of his writing; viewing the carnage of Nazi hatred was an overwhelming and pivotal experience.
In the following years, Levin dedicated himself to a massive autobiographical work entitled In Search. A full section of the book discussed the implications of the Holocaust on Jewish identity throughout the diaspora, and Levin, feeling unable to articulate the degree of devastation in Europe, called for a voice with greater insight, able to offer the world better explanation of the horrors than he could. He hoped that “some day, a teller would arise.” It was at this point in 1950, that Levin read The Diary of a Young Girl, and found the voice he’d been looking for.
Levin wasted no time contacting Otto Frank. Sending a copy of In Search as proof of his gravity as a well-known, published Jewish writer, Levin offered his services as the Diary’s book agent for an English-language translation. He made it clear that he sought no financial compensation, but in exchange asked for rights to adapt the book for the stage. Otto Frank accepted his proposal, striking a gentleman’s agreement between them. Levin’s personal efforts to secure a publisher were fruitless, though Otto Frank had better luck. The Valentine Mitchell company accepted the manuscript for British publication, and on April 9, 1951, a contract was signed with Doubleday in New York.
Otto Frank was gracious in reassuring Levin that his services would not be overlooked. Doubleday enlisted Eleanor Roosevelt to write an introduction to the Diary and persuaded Levin to write a crucial review for the New York Times Book Review, published on June 15, 1952. The book was a smash success, in no small part due to Levin’s article, selling out its first edition in only 10 days, with second and third printings of 10,000 copies each ordered. Within weeks, top New York producers were scrambling for theatrical rights.
In the summer of 1952, Doubleday awarded these rights to Cheryl Crawford, well known for her affiliation with the Group Theatre and her success producing Brigadoon, Porgy and Bess and Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy on Broadway. Crawford’s impulse was to commission an adaptation co-authored by Odets and Lillian Hellman, although Maxwell Anderson, Elia Kazan and Thornton Wilder were also suggested. Made aware of Otto Frank’s promise to Meyer Levin, Crawford gave Levin two months to draft his version.
Levin’s adaptation of Anne’s book was incredibly faithful, utilizing her own language, retaining her spirituality and grounding the play in somber tones of war. Although her first response to Levin’s script was positive, Crawford passed on his adaptation. On Yom Kippur 1952, Otto Frank arrived in New York and retained a lawyer, who assured him that Levin had no legal entitlement to theatrical rights but should be granted the opportunity to shop his version to a list of producers approved by Doubleday. No willing party emerged, and Levin issued claims that a community of Stalin-supporting, anti-Semitic theatre professionals were censoring and discriminating against his work because it was “too Jewish.”
A quick word about Levin’s wild claims: by the time the US entered World War II, the country had a flourishing Jewish community, with many actively trying to assimilate. The dozens of publications and theatre performances conducted in Yiddish and Hebrew had dwindled in a first-born generation’s desire to suppress an old-world identity and move toward a more American culture. Scholars of Anne Frank’s diary have suggested that this social milieu was responsible for the initial difficulty of finding a publisher, and that the witch hunts of the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) hearings reinforced old fears of anti-Semitism.
For Levin, whose other work centered on these particular themes, and whose convictions about a faithful (in his mind, meaning Jewish) adaptation of The Diary of a Young Girl were so strong, any blow to his ambition was devastating. Levin was incensed by Otto Frank’s own insistence that the play be accessible to a universal audience, as well as by Doubleday’s addition of HUAC-blacklisted playwright Lillian Hellman to their production team. Levin found Hellman a symbol for his greatest fears: in his mind, she embodied the worst sort of anti-Semitic, Communist values. Levin would ultimately accuse her of leading a left-wing conspiracy to purge the diary of all Holocaust references.
Antagonized by Levin’s continuing public accusations and suffering financial duress, Cheryl Crawford withdrew from the project in 1953, and well-known Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden took the reins. Hellman, as his valued artistic advisor, recommended a succession of writers (among them novelist Carson McCullers) before Bloomgarden commissioned the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. The Hacketts would ultimately write 32 screenplays together and contribute to the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. When they began their adaptation of Anne’s diary, they had already won a Writer’s Guild Award and been nominated for several Academy Awards.
The research conducted by the Hacketts was extensive. They visited Otto Frank and the secret annex in Amsterdam, consulted a rabbi in Los Angeles and read dozens of books about Jewish culture and history. In September 1954, they showed a draft to Hellman, who made some structural suggestions about the play, prompting a complaint of plagiarism from Meyer Levin. By that winter, Levin had found a lawyer willing to represent him in a suit against Otto Frank and Cheryl Crawford, so he sued for breach of contract—an unfounded lawsuit, considering there had never been a signed contract.
It ultimately took eight laborious drafts to arrive at a play that satisfied Doubleday, Frank and Bloomgarden, whose instruction had been to create a lighthearted comedy that could still reference “the war and all its misery and pain and wasted hope.” The Diary of Anne Frank opened on Broadway October 5, 1955, and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award that year. In December 1956, Meyer Levin filed another lawsuit, this time against Frank and Bloomgarden. Financial settlements were reached, but Levin would continue to torment Frank for the rest of his life, accusing him of betraying his daughter and the message she wished the world to understand.
The Diary of a Young Girl has sold more than 20 million copies in more than 50 languages. The play has been performed all over the world, and Twentieth Century Fox’s 1959 film instigated an international casting competition and won multiple accolades. A result often attributed to the popularity of the Broadway play, Anne Frank’s story inspired countless adaptations, documentaries and re-imaginings and catapulted her to celebrity status, making her vulnerable to deep admiration and virulent attack.
Beyond claims of forgery by those who deny the Holocaust, Anne’s diary and its dramatic interpretations have instigated controversy in reaches far beyond Meyer Levin. Her writing has been disparaged by concentration camp survivors and students of literature alike for neglecting to mention the horrors of war. The Hacketts’ play has been derided as safe and sentimental, refusing to acknowledge religion and thereby satisfying a Nazi desire for Jewish invisibility. On the other end of the spectrum, her musings of self-reflection have been compared to the writings of St. Augustine, her character to that of Antigone or Joan of Arc, her style of prose similar to that of a young Jane Austen.
The urgency of Meyer Levin’s desire to preserve Anne’s own voice was equaled by the need of Otto Frank, Kermit Bloomgarden and the Hacketts to maintain the story’s humor in the face of bleak circumstances—to provide a source of hope in the worst of circumstances. They battled over something Anne Frank was fully capable of on her own: inspiring millions of readers and viewers. Nelson Mandela has spoken of reading her book during his own prison sentence, and the diary is among the texts most widely read by incarcerated Americans.
Anne Frank and her diary remain deeply familiar, disproving scholars’ fears that the impact of her voice might fade with the passage of time. In fact, the opposite seems true: as evidenced by award-winning documentaries, puppet shows, musicals and an anime series, as well as dozens of philanthropic organizations and novels that imagine Anne as an adult. Some are wildly controversial and some have been published as recently as June 2010. Despite decades of controversy, Anne’s story continues to affect and provoke, and the diary still speaks articulately and with humor about human cruelty and the power to overcome.
Rinne Groff talks history, marionettes, and Meyer Levin
The Compulsion playwright answers questions posed by Madeleine Oldham, Berkeley Rep’s literary manager and dramaturg
Madeleine Oldham: OK, I’m starting with a doozie. Meyer Levin adapted Compulsion, his own book about the Leopold and Loeb murder, into a film. Leopold objected to the way the story was told, and lawsuits ensued. Levin took issue with the Hackett stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, protesting what he saw as a violation of history, and lawsuits ensued. You have written a play that adapts historical events into a fictionalized account, and given it the same title as Levin’s book. Do you anticipate litigation? Can you talk a little bit about how you navigated your way through all of that?
Rinne Groff: When I first became attracted to this material and decided to find a play in it all (which is a process that began almost 15 years ago!), I thought that I could fictionalize the story to such an extent that I wouldn’t draw specifically on any particular characters, but instead would attempt to get at the story more obliquely. This wasn’t because I feared litigation, but rather because I trembled at the prospect of representing real historical figures on the stage, something I consider to be a daunting task. However, the more time I spent with the material, the more it became clear to me that Anne Frank is a figure in the world unlike any other, and it would have been disingenuous of me to disguise her or rework her character in an attempt to de-literalize her. And once I decided that it was Anne who would be at the center of the drama, I felt the audience was entitled to know the real story of how her diary came to be on the Broadway stage—or as much of the “real story” as one lone playwright can muster in a single play.
So my mission was to tell the truth, but, of course, it would always be my version of the truth because that’s the nature of the beast. I knew that in order to write the play, I would necessarily engage in strategies which would fictionalize the story, but I still wanted to stick to the facts as best I could. Serendipitously, the central figure of my drama, Meyer Levin, whom I reconceived as Sid Silver, had in his own writing provided guidance about how to attempt what I was attempting.
As you note in your question, Meyer Levin told the ripped-from-the-headlines story of Leopold and Loeb in his book Compulsion. This is a quotation from his introduction to that novel:
I have followed an actual case, are these, then, actual persons? Here I would avoid the modern novelist’s conventional disclaimer, which no one fully believes in any case. I follow known events. Some scenes are, however, total interpolations, and some of my personages have no correspondence to persons in the case in question. This will be recognized as the method of the historical novel.
I wasn’t writing a novel. I was writing a play, but the fact that the figure on whom my main character was based had engaged in a similar literary process to mine gave me a sort of blessing to proceed. And, inasmuch as a writer might always fear being sued when she dares to go near “based on a true story” territory, I again calmed myself with words that Meyer Levin himself had written, words which seem to have been designed expressly to address my anxiety:
During the past years, I have been concerned with two issues reflecting the relationship between law and literature. One was the Compulsion case, resulting in a decision by Judge Abraham Brussell of Chicago, bringing the law closer to the literary situation in which the borderline between fiction and non-fiction has been eliminated. Creative writers may now use the material of public life with less fear of harassment. The second involvement is over my dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank. This raises the question whether public cultural interest may not in some instances present a cause itself.
The original title to this play was The House Behind. Why did you change it to Compulsion?
The House Behind is a fairly literal translation into English of the Dutch title which Anne Frank gave to her diary: Het Achterhuis. It’s not a “true” translation because 1) it should be The Behind House if I were going word for word, and 2) an achterhuis is a common phrasing in Dutch to refer to the house in the back of a street-side residence, whereas “the house behind” is not common English usage. The reason the title seemed right to me in the beginning is that I was interested in the edifice behind a famous edifice, the story behind a famous story, i.e. the back story of how The Diary of Anne Frank came to be on the Broadway stage. All that was fine and poetic, but when the play was finally written, I realized it wasn’t a fine and poetic play. It was rougher and more aggressive than that. And the title no longer seemed to fit. I took the title Compulsion around the time that I took the name Sid Silver for my main character. Meyer Levin wrote a book called Compulsion about Leopold and Loeb in which he fictionalized himself as a young reporter named Sid Silver. Since I am using similar strategies in terms of dealing with history in a fictional work, I thought acknowledging that in the title was useful. Truth be told, it was a member of my writers’ group who suggested the title Compulsion, and as soon as he suggested it, I knew it was right.
Your Meyer Levin character, Sid Silver, displays some pretty extreme behavior. How did you approach making his psychology accessible to an audience?
I love Sid Silver, tricky and difficult as he may be. He is motivated by love, and love for Anne Frank no less, a sentiment that seems almost universal, save perhaps for a few evil or misguided jerks. So even though I don’t by any stretch admire all of Sid’s behavior, I don’t worry too much about making him accessible. I worry more about making him complete and true and compelling. (Compulsion, compelling; compulsion is compelling, no?)
How did you arrive at the decision to make Anne Frank a puppet?
I knew that Anne Frank had to be in the play, but I also knew that any attempt at her literal representation had the potential to feel cheesy. I toyed around with various Brechtian devices to “problematize” her portrayal, but nothing felt right. Then, in my research I came across an article about Meyer Levin’s work with marionettes, including a photograph from his marionette production of The Hairy Ape. It was such a striking image: a policeman marionette beating his baton on a hapless Hairy Ape marionette. To see that violence represented by figures as delicate and seemingly fragile as marionettes was incredibly moving to me. And the idea came in an instant: Anne should be a marionette. As the notion of representing Anne in this way progressed, it became more resonant on more levels. A marionette, because its facial “expressions” never change, is animated as much by an audience’s projections onto its being as by the movements of the puppeteers who control it. That felt like an apt metaphor for the way that many people, myself included, project their own visions onto Anne Frank as an ideal. Finally, the notion of “strings being pulled” definitely informs Sid Silver’s vision of the world. (Meyer Levin’s original working title for his autobiographical novel about his struggles with Anne Frank’s diary was The Manipulators.) The marionette image-system works in this way as well.
What are some of the differences between writing characters based on real people versus creating purely fictional ones?
When drawing on any historical figure in my writing, I feel a tremendous burden to do justice to the complexity of character and to be as accurate as I can be even though there are, of course, things about these people that I will never know no matter how much research I do. When writing about writers, I feel the burden even more acutely: How dare I put words in these people’s mouths when they themselves were so skilled at crafting words to be spoken and written? The trickiest part for me isn’t the characters though, it’s the story. When dealing with history, a writer can’t rework an event to suit her desire for drama. It’s rather a process of teasing the narrative out of the drama that already exists. I gave myself some poetic license in telling this story by giving some of the characters new names, or changing basic biographical details about some of the figures in order to reinvent them, or smooshing a bunch of characters into a single figure so that there was no one-to-one correspondence with someone from history, but still I’m a stickler at heart. Finding a way to serve the dramatic needs of the story without deviating knowingly from historical fact is very important to me. When I fudge a detail or switch up the sequence of events in a small way, I take it very seriously.
What drew you to this material?
My mom is Dutch, and my parents met in Amsterdam. It’s where my Oma (my grandmother) died, and where a lot of my parents’ friends and my mom’s family still live (although none of her immediate family was there during the Second World War). I used to visit Amsterdam a lot as a kid, and I went to the Anne Frank House from the time I was quite young. I read Anne’s diary many times, in all the different editions as they were released into the world. The first professional play I ever auditioned for in Tampa, Florida was The Diary of Anne Frank. (I wasn’t cast.) So the knowledge of and attraction to Anne was always there for me. And when I first learned about Meyer Levin’s story and his relationship to Anne and her diary (which happened when I came across a book review of Lawrence Graver’s An Obsession with Anne Frank), I instantly knew I wanted to do something theatrical with this material.
What was the hardest thing about writing this play?
At the moment, I feel like the hardest thing thus far is answering these questions.
You made a choice to overtly acknowledge the doubling in the play. Was this just for fun, or was there something more behind it?
Sid Silver’s personality has many facets, but one aspect is surely the narcissist. For me, one way in which the doubling works is that it plays on the idea that it’s Sid’s world and everyone else just lives in it. From his perspective, he is singular, and everyone else is, for better or worse, at some level interchangeable.
Your writing often illuminates corners of history that run tangentially to common knowledge or that have been overlooked in some way. Have you always had a nose for this kind of research?
I love to do research, and most of the plays which I am attracted to writing require a lot of it. I think part of it is an anxiety-reducing technique. When I am embarking on a new project, I convince myself that even if the play doesn’t work out, I will at least have learned a lot about a very cool subject.
Any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
On the same day that Compulsion begins previews in Berkeley, Saved, a musical I co-wrote with John Dempsey and Michael Friedman, will have its second production (a thoroughly and excitingly revised version!) in Kansas City, Missouri. I’m also working on a jukebox musical for the 2011/12 season with director Leigh Silverman, and I hope sometime this fall to have the first draft of a new play called Spiced Vodka.
Who’s who in the world of Compulsion
Meyer Levin was a prolific writer, generating 16 novels, two autobiographical works and five compilations of Jewish literature such as translated Hassidic folktales and a modern version of a Passover Hagadah. In addition to his early-career newspaper reporting, Levin contributed articles to book reviews, journals and anthologies. He filmed two documentaries and adapted his most famous novel, Compulsion, for stage and screen. Levin’s involvement with performing arts had begun as early as 1926, when he founded the Marionette Studio in the Relic House, one of the only original buildings left standing after Chicago’s devastating fire. Collaborating with artist Louis Bunin and director Elleanor Lee, the trio created roughly six experimental plays designed to push the boundaries of both modern and traditional puppet-theatre styles.
Levin is also often credited as a pioneer of “documentary fiction” with his “nonfiction novels,” a style made popular by later writers such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. In his Compulsion, for example, Levin used the facts of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial but employed a fictional narrator to impart the information. Other characters were amalgamated versions of real people, whose combination seemed to better feed the story’s arc.
Many “real people” contributed to the evolution of The Diary of a Young Girl, and flashes of them can be seen in the characters of Rinne Groff’s Compulsion. Meyer Levin’s wife, Tereska Torres, did indeed give a French copy of the diary to her husband in 1950, and she was a published author in her own right. She is considered the mother of “lesbian-erotic pulp fiction” based on the wild success of her book Women’s Barracks. She is also the author of 12 highly regarded books, including Les maisons hantées de Meyer Levin about her husband’s obsession with Anne Frank.
Judith Jones was a young publishing assistant at Doubleday’s foreign branch in Paris, when she came across Anne’s diary on her boss’s desk. In her memoir The Tenth Muse, Jones recalls her enthusiasm for the book, and her efforts to persuade Frank Price to send the manuscript to the New York office. Jones went on to a successful editorial career at Knopf, working memorably with Julia Child.
In New York, a young woman named Barbara Zimmerman became the diary’s editor. She was roughly the same age as Anne would have been had she lived, and Zimmerman developed a very close relationship with Otto Frank. It was Zimmerman who secured (and ghost wrote, as the rumor goes) Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous introduction for the diary in its American publication. The Diary of a Young Girl was a huge springboard for Zimmerman, who later went on to found the New York Review of Books.
See Mandy Patinkin in his Berkeley Rep debut in Compulsion.