You may say that one can take away everything from a human being except the faculty of thinking and imagining. You have no idea. 
It is comforting to believe that your mind is your own; that the act of imagining is so innately personal, so intrinsically connected to your memories and emotions, that it cannot be stripped away. Charlotte Delbo’s Holocaust memoir, Auschwitz and After, crushes this belief. When every aspect of humanity is taken away from a person, imagination becomes a “luxury”. Simply put: “People did not dream in Auschwitz.”
Yet, Delbo does not lose all faith in the ability to create. Her memoir, whilst exemplifying the difficulty of retaining one’s imagination when ravaged by hunger, cold and disease, also offers a ray of hope. This hope lies in the miraculous, revitalising power of theatre.
Hanging on to the last remnants of life, the inmates of Auschwitz are brought together to stage their own production of Le Malade Imaginaire. They have no concrete means to do this, but dedicate the little free time they have to reconstructing the script from memory, fashioning costumes and sets out of whatever they can salvage, and staging a production in all its wonderful intricacies – down to the creation of posters that advertise an event that everybody already knows is happening. By becoming immersed in theatre – even in the tiny, seemingly dispensable details of it – they are able to momentarily escape their inconceivable situation and regain the ability to imagine. Delbo writes:
The curtain rises […] It’s magnificent because some of Molière’s lines, having surfaced intact in our memory, came to life again, unchanged, full of their inexplicable, magical power.
Theatre has the capacity to jolt memories and imagination back to life. It has the power to preserve the humanity of those crushed by an environment that repels the living. But what exactly is it about theatre that holds this “inexplicable” ability to make somebody believe in their existence?
Essentially, it lies in the creative power of theatre. It pushes the boundaries of the imagination, allowing you to construct a world of your own; to project your thoughts, opinions and desires onto a version of life that may be incredibly different from yours, yet is also strangely relatable. Theatre is immersive – you sit down, you are enveloped in darkness and a whole new world is illuminated in front of you. Whether you are an anonymous spectator, or centre stage as an actor, you part of an experience that reminds you that your heart is still beating.
Theatre is a way to introduce happiness, or in the very least hope, in times of crisis. Delbo was not the only one to find comfort in the arts during the war; Allied Prisoners of War during World War II went to extraordinary lengths to display their creativity, as documented in a recent BBC programme, with Dad’s Army actor Clive Dunn and Indiana Jones actor Denholm Elliott being amongst the thousands of PoWs taking part in theatrical activity whilst being imprisoned.
Turning to theatre in times of crisis is a trend that has carried on to the present day. A Younger Theatre’s blogger Sarah Green recently wrote about theatre as a form of escapism, citing Mamma Mia as an example of a show that provided a welcome distraction in the wake of disaster, writing: “The ticket sales for the Broadway show rocketed in the way of the 11 September attacks, as everyone wanted to escape the reality outside.” It’s not just the USA that enjoys the uplifting pastime of theatre – The Stage reported earlier this year that out of all leisure activities, the performing arts sector has proved the most resilient during the recession, with shows such as The Lion King and Wicked recording record-busting box office figures in 2010 despite the economic downturn. Whilst the state of the UK’s economy is, quite clearly, in no way comparable to the suffering inflicted by the Nazi regime, the sentiment remains: in times of hardship, theatre is something that people are unwilling to cut out from their lives.
Theatre is an outlet for the oppressed and a subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) subversive way to challenge society and politics. For Delbo, theatre is a way of affirming her life when all other elements of her identity have been removed. It is a stable, promised spark of happiness amongst the unimaginable horror of Auschwitz – a reminder that some things remain “unchanged” in their goodness. Whether it’s in concentration camps or in the wake of terrorist activity, theatre has the power to preserve humanity because it survives in the bleakest of environments, giving hope to those on the edge of life.
It was magnificent because, for the space of two hours, while the smokestacks never stopped belching their smoke of human flesh, for two whole hours we believed in what we were doing.
Image by Darren Tunnicliff.