Saturday, June 12, 2010

Anne's Day

As recently noted, I just read a book on Anne Frank, whose birthday is today. Some have complained that the play The Diary Of Anne Frank prettifies and deracinates her story.

It's true the Pulitzer Prize-winning hit by the Hollywood husband and wife team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett softened the original story, but is this a bad thing? The true tale is much more horrible, but it's still there, not only in the diary, but in many books that tell the wider history of how such a thing happened.

Art can help us face tough things, sometimes by providing the buffer of fiction, that spoonful of suger that makes us deal with something otherwise unbearable. But is this the right thing to do when we're talking about real-life tragedy? Or does it cheapen the memory of what happened? I don't know. But I'm guessing, as watered down as the Anne Frank play is, that it's introduced more people to her story than a stronger version that would have been harder to swallow.

PS Considering the somber subject, perhaps I shouldn't bring this up. Still, I can't help but think of the (apocryphal) story of when Pia Zadora starred in a production of The Diary Of Anne Frank. Allegedly she was so awful, when the Nazis were searching the house downstairs, someone in the audience shouted "She's in the attic!"


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I agree that the play, by not showing explicit violence, doesn't betray the impact and importance of the diary. In fact, I think that it makes it more powerful. When confronted with photographs of emaciated bodies piled in a ditch, most people's mind immediately turns the emotion dial to "low", to avoid freaking out too much. That's why excessive gore can't really function as a moral lesson.

But there's another way in which the play (arguably) changed the focus of Anne Frank's diary, in what some consider a crucial way. Anne's diary doesn't really spend a lot of time dealing with politics and religion and race, but when it does, Anne focuses very strongly on the explicitly Jewish angle of it. The play, on the other hand, changed the message to "racism is bad", and downplayed specifically Jewish references. This was done with the full concurrence of her father, who certainly did not see it as a betrayal of Anne's message, but others have suggested that it was.

For example, Anne wrote in her diary, "We're not the only Jews that've had to suffer. Right down through the ages there have been Jews and they've had to suffer." The play's version reads instead, "We're not the only people that've had to suffer. There've always been people that've had to -- sometimes one race -- sometimes another."

I believe that both messages are true and very important. Still, it's a bit disconcerting that the actual intention of the author is being changed in this way. The result is that this play is now often used as a generically anti-racist play that has no specifically Jewish meaning (e.g., [1]).

In other words: Anne Frank herself believed that anti-semitism is horrible, racism is horrible, and the Jewish people have a special God-given role in the world. "Who has set us apart from the rest? .... It's God who has made us the way we are, but it's also God who will lift us up again. In the eyes of the world, we're doomed, but if, after all this suffering, there are still Jews left, the Jewish people will be held up as an example. Who knows, maybe our religion will teach the world and all the people in it about goodness; that's the reason, the only reason, we have to suffer." (A.F., 4/11/1944)

Yet I think it's safe to say that many of the educators who teach their classes about Anne Frank today -- using the play or the actual diary -- are uneasy with the idea that the Jewish people has a special role in the world. And while they fervently hope that Anne's story will lead to the end of racism (may it be so!), they would hardly endorse the idea that Anne's suffering will be vindicated if it leads people to learn about the Jewish religion.

9:57 PM, June 12, 2010  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Perhaps the best thing in the book about Anne and her diary is the chapter on the creation of the play. The whole behind-the-scenes story, which I don't have time to go into here, is filled with surprising intrigue.

There were a lot of ways to adapt Anne's story, of course, and one question is how much to show that's not in the diary. Obviously, she didn't write about her capture or what happened after. The action of the play starts after they've gone into hiding and never leaves their living place. These are legitimate and probably wise decisions, artistically speaking. The characters are also simplified, as you might expect.

But some object to how the story prettifies what actually happened. I don't mean not showing violence, but rather, the attempt to give the story Broadway and Hollywood-style conventional uplift, which some feel betrays the actual events. At the end, Anne is quoted: "In spite of everything,I still believe people are really good at heart." So we can leave not thinking about the bitter truth, but how no matter what the human spirit marches on.

2:56 AM, June 13, 2010  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

True. But of course an insurmountable difficulty is that no one knows what Anne's thoughts were in Bergen-Belsen (technically a concentration camp rather than a death camp, although by 1945 it was really both). That's a gap in our factual knowledge that can't be bridged. So if one were to, say, end the play or movie with a wordless depiction of Anne's last days, the audience would end up mentally supplying an interpretation. Which does not seem to be the point of the entire exercise.

Of course, there are two great unanswered questions. The first is historical: Were Anne's last thoughts were a complete repudiation of her earlier optimism about human nature? The second is philosophical: Should such a repudiation be seen as evidence against the correctness of her earlier views?

Does your final sentence ("the bitter truth") mean that you lean to a "yes" on both of these questions?

4:53 PM, June 13, 2010  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I'm not talking about my views. I'm talking about the artistic choices made in adapting Anne Frank's writings to the stage. There are enough statements in the diary, not to mention to her overall story, to make the message as specific or general, or as uplifting or bitter, as desired. So the question becomes are the authors of the play exploiting Anne's words to come up with as happy an ending as they can manage?

5:12 PM, June 13, 2010  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Ah, I see. My answer to your question would be "yes", but solely because they named the play "The Diary of Anne Frank". I think that obliges them to be faithful to the overall intent of AF rather than cherry-picking their favorite quotes.

On the other hand, if the play were entitled "Even In Desparate Times, Young People Still Can Be Cheerful And Hopeful", then the play's ending would be fully appropriate.

9:46 PM, June 13, 2010  

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