Incident at Vichy


This is just a quick post, because I want to get it up before the event it refers to is over...
Last night I had the privilege of attending performance of Arthur Miller's "Incident at Vichy" in the Belfast Synagogue as part of the 2011 Jews Schmooze Arts Festival.

I was invited to go as part of the inter-faith panel invited to discuss the play afterwards. Our briefing was not to discuss the performance as such but the ideas that lie within the play, and I'll keep largely to that brief in this short post too...

However, I would like to particularly commend the performances of Matt Faris as the psychiatrist/army veteran "Leduc" and James McAnespy as the artist "Lebeau". The former may have been a little too intense all the time for my liking, but these were the stand-out performances, in an ensemble of mixed skills and experience. Perhaps because of the varying levels of performance ability, the production itself was not of the highest standard, but it was still very, very powerful... especially given the subject matter of the holocaust, in the context of a synagogue in North Belfast...

The play itself is jam-packed full of ideas, but when performed in such a context they light up like neon signs... Anti-semitism... racism in general... sectarianism... prejudice... victimhood... collusion with oppressors... guilt... responsibility... identity... authority... civilisation... nationalism... liberal democracy... education... aesthetics... faith... God...

One interesting thing for me, as a person of faith, was how little the last two featured in the play itself, or in the discussion afterwards... Indeed God was only mentioned by two people... one being Hassan Sami Mansour from the Belfast Islamic Centre... both essentially saying that if we really followed God then the holocaust and other examples of inhumanity wouldn't happen. I nearly responded in less optismistic terms (and expected the avowed atheist on the panel to pounce on this) but given the shifting sands of the discussion I wasn't convinced that my critique would be heard... However, afterwards I was involved in a three way conversation with Hassan and the Rabbi (a Muslim, a Jew and a Methodist... sounds like the beginning of a particularly bad joke), with both of them saying that the problem with pre-war Germany was a lack of belief in God, leading to a disrespect for those created in the image of God...

I begged (and beg) to differ... all that I have read of pre-war Germany, and the critique of religious belief and action then by divergent voices such as Barth, Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr and Niemoller, suggests a society pervaded by religious belief... More theological reflection went on in German universities in the 50 years prior to WW2 than perhaps at any other time in church/academic history... but that was rarified academic theology that had little impact on the man in the street. There, the prevailing religious belief was one that was entirely compatible and indeed comfortable with anti-semitism and other racist and nationalist ideologies... be it the intensely anti-semitic Catholicism of Bavaria and Austria, or the Lutheranism that hadn't shaken off the anti-semitism of the reformation as exemplified and indeed reinforced by some of Martin Luther's own writings. The issue is not a belief in God... but the kind of God you believe in, and whether that belief makes any difference to how you live your life.

Here in Northern Ireland, and North Belfast is as good an example of that as any, the God worshipped, or at least the way he was worshipped, was one of the factors in the ongoing victimisation of one community by another. Belief in God has been cited as one of the factors that limited the extent of the violence, but religious belief was indubitubly one of the factors that caused the violence in the first place especially when sectarian attitudes and nationalist idolatries etc were not only permitted, but at times promoted by faith leaders.

But as I said, the issue of faith and God is a surprisingly minor one in this play, which is absolutely bursting with ideas and emotions. If however, that's as far as it goes its only so many words on a page or a stage... As well as being the most theologically literate society in history, early 20th century Germany was also, perhaps the best educated and cultured of its day... But it still proved to be the breeding ground of Nazism... Looked down on by the cultural and intellectual elite as vulgar, it grabbed the hearts and minds of the people because instead of sitting around and talking about things, it got things done...

Fine thoughts and feelings are great, but as Leduc makes clear to the (up to that point) sympathetic German officer, feelings mean nothing if they don't move the officer to save those in danger.

So, if you have a free night, why not go along to the Belfast Synagogue tonight to see the second and last performance of this play (actually it deserves a longer run and a wider audience)... Its free...

But don't just watch and listen and chat to your friends about the issues raised afterwards, rather ask yourself "What do I do now?"

Comments

James McAnespy said…
I have just found this review, I am glad you enjoyed the play and my performance. Hopefully I will see you at future performances and be able to have a talk with you afterwards.
James McAnespy said…
PS, my website was rendered incorrectly in the above post

http://jamesmcanespy.co.uk

Thanks again.

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