The Guilt Lies With Miller in Incident at Vichy

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We’d always suspected that Marilyn was the smart one, a suspicion reinforced by the experience of reading and then seeing Arthur Miller’s play Incident at Vichy (in revival in a competent and well-staged production by The Actor’s Company through April 11). In 1964, Harold Clurman (a co-founder of the Group Theater) approached Miller about staging two new works for the opening season of the Repertory Theatre at Lincoln Center. (Miller hadn’t produced anything since A View from the Bridge in 1955.) The first was Incident at Vichy, an extremely shallow look at the “profound guilt” every living person must bear just for surviving in an unjust world. The second was After the Fall, Miller’s autobiographical psycho-drama about his marriage to Monroe, and further evidence that the curvaceous starlet was her husband’s intellectual ― and not merely his aesthetic ― superior.

It was a rough start for the Lincoln Center Rep. Both plays closed within a few weeks, and the best thing critics could bring themselves to say about Incident at Vichy was that it represented a recovery, “even if only to a limited extent, from the disaster of After the Fall.”

Miller had the Holocaust on the brain in 1964 ― After the Fall takes place inside the protagonist’s head and includes a concentration camp watchtower onstage. Incident at Vichy is Miller’s Holocaust play proper. The action unfolds in a suitably claustrophobic setting: a French detention center in 1942 where a group of men are waiting to have their “papers” checked.” It doesn’t take them long to realize that they’re nearly all Jewish, and that, despite assurances to the contrary, Nazi “racial laws” are in effect in Pétain’s Vichy. One by one, they are brought into a room for questioning; few of them come back out. As they wait, they discover that, deep down inside, they (we!) are just as guilty as the Nazis.

It really is that stupid. The list of characters is comical: a socialist electrician, an anarchist painter, a therapist, an actor, a prince. Predictably, nearly every line of dialogue is completely on-the-nose: Monceau, the actor (who all-too-appropriately “played Cyrano in Paris”) divulges his plan for fooling the interrogators: “I have papers; I will present them with the single idea that they must be honored.” “In other words,” the shrink asks, “you will create yourself.” Get ready for it: “Every actor creates himself.”

When we read the play, we were so overwhelmed by the phony philosophizing that we missed an important point: Miller could construct an effective melodrama. The night we saw it, the audience was obliging. They gasped on queue; they sighed on queue. A fourteen-year-old Jewish boy goes out to pawn his mother’s wedding ring at her request. He is picked up, thrown into the detention center, and quietly listens as the men talk of cattle cars and furnaces. Eventually, he tries to escape, but is pulled shrieking into the interrogation room. The audience cried on queue.

It’s surprising to learn that Miller wrote Incident at Vichy after a long and serious immersion in the history of the Holocaust ― he and his new wife Inge Morath visited the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria in 1962, and he attended the trial of 22 former SS soldiers in Frankfurt in 1963. So why did he write this pretentious melodrama? Miller’s essay “Guilt and Incident at Vichy” provides the necessary clues. The essay is as clotted with pseudo-profound nonsense as the play: “Is it too much to say that those who do not suffer injustice have a vested interest in injustice?” (Yes.) “Guilt, then, is not a featureless mist but the soul’s remorse for its own hostility.” Then, we came upon the following passage, a diamond (or a bit of CZ) in a dunghill: “the debt, in short, which we owe for living, the debt to the wronged.” This silly notion wasn’t prompted by the Nazis. It was prompted by another German: a young historian and playwright named Rolf Hochhuth.

In early 1964, Hochhuth’s play The Deputy premiered on Broadway. The play is an indictment Pope Pius XII’s failure to issue the slightest protest regarding Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and, from Berlin to Paris to London to New York, it was a sensation. With that bit of context, Incident at Vichy, which premiered the following season, is much easier to understand. Miller’s play wasn’t the culmination of his engagement with the Holocaust in the early ’60s. Nothing so high-minded. It was just his attempt to better the German upstart who achieved more with a single work than Miller ever managed in decades of groping and grasping at “social” drama. His notion of “the debt we owe for living” ― the “guilt of surviving” ― was not a conclusion honestly arrived at; it was a device to one-up Hochhuth and his play about the “guilt of silence,” and it fell short.

That said, TACT’s productions is as good as this play will get. The short-comings are Miller’s, not theirs.

Photo credit: Stephen Kunken