Respectful Insolence

Whoever thought this would be a good idea?

Sometimes people come up with ideas that are just so mind-bogglingly inappropriate that I have a hard time grasping them. Case in point, recently Polish authorities granted permission by a local theater group to perform Jesus Christ Superstar at an old Nazi death camp:

POLISH authorities have withdrawn permission for the musical Jesus Christ Superstar to be performed at Majdanek, the former Nazi concentration camp, after protests by Jewish groups.
The Culture Ministry and the camp’s management today said the performance by a local Polish theatre group could not go ahead.

“The play was to break down barriers between people, but it turns out that it only creates them,” the state press agency PAP quoted camp museum director Edward Balawejder as saying.

“With regret I have to refuse to give permission to use Majdanek for presentation of this spectacle.”

The plan to stage the play at the former camp in eastern Poland had gained the approval of a group representing former Majdanek prisoners.

But the Anti-Defamation League, a US-based Jewish group, said earlier this week it was appalled by the plan to stage the musical at Majdanek and appealed to the organisers to move it.


Majdanek was the second largest combined concentration/death camp after Auschwitz and located approximately 2.5 miles outside of the Polish city of Lublin. Raul Hilberg estimated the death toll to have been approximately 300,000, with over 50% dying of disease and intentional overwork, although more recent figures place the death toll at under 100,000. Majdanek was the only other death camp that used Zyklon-B in its gas chambers (Auschwitz being the other). The brutality in this camp directed at those kept alive for slave labor was on par with the worst of other Nazi camps.

Balawejder was also quoted as saying:

“It was not a good idea. It did not take into consideration the relations between Christianity and Judaism,” Balawejder told the Associated Press. “I decided that there will be no performance because we must stick to the message of the museum, which is truth, memory, reconciliation.”

“It was not a good idea”?

Now there’s an understatement!

Jesus Christ Superstar is essentially a modern, jazzed-up Passion Play with a rock soundtrack. It’s not surprising that Jews would be offended by putting on this play in one of the instruments of Hitler’s Final Solution. There are only two differences between putting on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar and showing Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ: (1) Jesus Christ Superstar is a lot less violent and (2) Jesus Christ Superstar, offends not only Jews (who are portrayed for the most part as the villains, particularly Caiphus, as in most Passion Plays) but fundamentalist Christians as well, with its implying a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, its portrayal of Judas as a sympathetic doomed figure, and its failure to show the resurrection of Jesus. (Personally, I’ve always rather liked the play, particularly the soundtrack.)

If you wanted to piss off both Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and conservative Catholics (remember, Poland is an overwhelmingly Catholic nation), it’s hard to imagine a much better way to do it than staging a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the site of Majdanek, unless the producers had chosen Auschwitz itself.

Comments

  1. #1 Roger Victoria
    April 24, 2006

    Ican think of few things more idiotic. I loved the movie and have acted in the play, but to stage it at a NAZI death camp. I cringe to even think of what it would take to approve that sort of insensitivity.

  2. #2 Shygetz
    April 24, 2006

    Jesus Christ Superstar, offends not only Jews (who are portrayed for the most part as the villains, particularly Caiphus, as in most Passion Plays)

    I always thought that Jesus Christ, Superstar indicted all humans as basically vile. The Roman governor is weak, Judas is a traitor, Peter is a coward, the Jewish leaders were power-hungry, and the people were easily-manipulated sheep.

    My wife and I love this show. We used to listen to the soundtrack when we had to drive across the country; it really made the miles fly by.

  3. #3 Qalmlea
    April 24, 2006

    It’s been a long time, but I vageuely remember thinking that the resurrection had been implied, without being directly shown. However, I was still Methodist the last time I saw it and may have read more into it than was actually there.

  4. #4 Tesseract
    April 24, 2006

    I think it’s more likely that the venue of a death camp was the only place this particular theater troupe could get themselves booked into…

  5. #5 Sergey Romanov
    April 25, 2006

    Orac, I don’t know if Hilberg has ever estimated the total Majdanek death toll (I doubt it), but I know that he estimated the Jewish death toll there as 50,000, even lower than Kranz’s figure.

  6. #6 MTraven
    April 25, 2006

    Speaking of inappropriate, somebody gave me a copy of the Jesus Christ Superstar album as a Bar Mitzvah present, back in the 70s. Granted, we were pretty reform.

  7. #7 Roman Werpachowski
    April 26, 2006

    Orac, I don’t know if Hilberg has ever estimated the total Majdanek death toll (I doubt it), but I know that he estimated the Jewish death toll there as 50,000, even lower than Kranz’s figure.

    I feel an urge to comment on this. The fact that someone is interested only in how many Jews died in Majdanek but not in the total death looks strange to me.

  8. #8 Orac
    April 26, 2006

    Well, the reference that Raul Hilberg estimated the Majdanek death toll to be 300,000 came from Wikipedia. If that’s wrong, you might want to edit the article.

    How’s that for a possible example of what I was talking about here regarding the potential errors in Wikipedias? I guess I should no better. Laziness, I guess. Mea culpa.

  9. #9 Roman Werpachowski
    April 26, 2006

    Orac, I can believe that some scholars do take such a partial interest in the Nazi crimes comitted in Eastern Europe. I only find it strange and inappropriate. But not impossible and, in some circles, even quite common. In 2004 was the 60-th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. It turned out that many people in the West confused it with the better known Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.

  10. #10 Sergey Romanov
    May 1, 2006

    Roman, Hilberg was writing specifically about the destruction of the Jews. Moreover, considering such a low Jewish death toll (compare with Dawidowicz’s 1,380,000 Jewish Majdanek victims) I don’t think you can suspect Hilberg of bias, or something ;-)

  11. #11 Jack
    May 3, 2006

    Part of my PhD thesis on the relationship between revolutionary politics and changing cultural practice in England between 1965-75 addresses the creative origins and first productions of four ‘rock operas’, including Jesus Christ Superstar. I will be attempting to interview Tim Rice in due course. I would be very interested to know if he has any knowledge of this attempted production.

    One thing which strikes anyone who re-examines the earliest productions is – in the midst of the extraordinary religious controversies which the show provoked – the great legal control which the young Rice and Lloyd-Webber exercised over the rights to their work. For example, in 1971 a clergyman in Rochester, New York, was refused the rights to stage an amateur production in his church during Holy Week. This strict copyright control continues to this day. Therefore, while the local Polish authorities may have initially granted permission, I would be even more astonished if the writers had. However, I’m sure they’ll be aware of it now, given that the story broke in the Daily Telegraph…

    [At a complete tangent, Orac, in the pursuit of my other career-path I have twice had the great pleasure of working with one of your TV heroes: Gareth Thomas. A very nice man. I'd be happy to regale you with anecdotes.]

  12. #12 Orac
    May 3, 2006

    Now that’s an interesting take on the matter. I had no idea that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Weber exercised such control. It’s possible that they might have given permission but were unaware that Majdanek is the site of a former Nazi death camp. Certainly it’s one of the lesser-known camps, and relatively few people know of it.

    As for your having met Gareth Thomas, that’s cool. Regale away! However, I do have to tell you that Kerr Avon (played by Paul Darrow) was my favorite character on Blakes 7. I sometimes think that I should have taken that as my nom de blog. On the other hand, I rather like having my image be a box of blinking lights.

  13. #13 Roman Werpachowski
    May 4, 2006

    Roman, Hilberg was writing specifically about the destruction of the Jews. Moreover, considering such a low Jewish death toll (compare with Dawidowicz’s 1,380,000 Jewish Majdanek victims) I don’t think you can suspect Hilberg of bias, or something ;-)

    Sergey, I suspect him a following attitude: “Jewish deaths are interesting for a historian, but the Polish ones – bwah, who cares about them?”.

  14. #14 Jack
    May 4, 2006

    One of the aspects I’ll be examining is how and why the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of the Rock Opera genre (and it was highly controversial and, arguably, revolutionary) could have come to the peak of its fruition in the hands of two men who have always been openly right-of-centre in political terms. Combine this with the fact that, although they were young, Rice and Lloyd-Webber had already had their fingers burned financially and were determined that this would not happen again, and you can already see the roots of Lloyd-Webber’s current financial empire. If and when I meet Sir Tim, I will ask him about this particular production.

    And you’re right: I’m not a sci-fi buff, but Orac is a great name and Avon was a great character. As for Gareth, I’ve been lucky enough to both tour and do a Shakespeare with him, and he is one of the nicest examples of a highly professional ‘old school’ actor I’ve ever met. I learned a lot from him, and he is great fun too. Of course, I’m sure he wouldn’t remember my name, ‘dear boy’.