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Melinda Given Guttmann

a life affirming play
by Emily Mann
starring Eileen De Felitta
directed by Pamela Hall
set design Josh Iacovelli
St. Luke's Theatre (closed)

"If women with their hearts would start thinking we could change everything within a year," Annulla, the heroine of Emily Mann's play confides to the audience. ANNULLA is a one-woman docudrama about a breath taking, complex, fascinating, frantic, brilliant, imaginative, literate, elegant, ebullient, tormented and energetic, elderly, Jewish woman who survived the holocaust by passing as an Aryan. Ingeniously, Annulla, became a skillful actor, using life-or-death artistry in order to survive the quotidian life of Nazi occupied Vienna which was her stage. She ‘passed' so perfectly as a non-Jew: she not only survived but cleverly saved her husband from the Dachau death camp as well. This explosive masterpiece was written by Emily Mann in the l970's as her first production based on an interview with a friend's Aunt in London. I am writing this article after the play closed in June because the major critics, especially The New York Times totally misinterpreted the play and its ominous prophecy. Emily Mann, a pioneer, visionary woman director and theatre writer and director of the prestigious Mc Carter Theatre in Princeton, remains the "conscience' of the theatre artists who arose from the second wave of feminism. The canon of Mann's work, her interpretation of art and document are so originally conceived as to be called small and precious works of genius drama. Some recent docudrama reinforces male violence by reifying it in documents of the torture of prisoners by American and English soldiers; or the horrible and mutilating deaths of American soldiers in Iraq. The frame of the play, and its new postmodern, surrealist production, is Mann's own quest in her twenties to go to Poland to find her Jewish Polish grandparents village under the Nazis, and to understand Polish people's collaboration and continuing anti-Semitism after the war.

Mann's personal voyage is presented in narrative and begins with Mann's voice describing how a friend with whom Mann was traveling to Poland suggests that they stop in London first to visit the friend's Aunt Annulla. Mann decided to use Annulla's material instead of that of her own grandparents, who were also survivors, because of the limitation of her grandparents' language. Due to the narrowness of their immigrant life, Mann's grandparents spoke broken kitchen Yiddish, while Annulla's English, the last of seven languages which she mastered, is speakon with a fluent, educated, passionate stream-of-consciousness. Annulla's language, intricately and artfully edited by Mann, contains the enormous intellectual and emotional vocabulary to expand the audience consciousness of the scope of living through the holocaust and its lifelong consequences. The explosive language and gestures which allow the actress who plays Annulla an extraordinary depth and electric communication with the audience is accomplished through the rhetorical technique of Apostrophe, which allows the speaker to speak to people either invisible or not present. Annulla begins the play, frantically rushing about, speaking rapidly on a variety of topics, as she welcomes the girls to tea by directly addressing the audience in lieu of the friends. "I'm so sorry I am late...my sister Ada says she will stay crippled for life because I have no time for her...I am a woman who has no time...my play The Matriarchs,... boiled it down to six hours...this tea is terrible...I think I will someday commit suicide...." The members of the audience, each of whom become the object of her confidences about her childhood, the holocaust and her present life are mesmerized into identifying with Annulla emotionally, become witnesses of her inner and outer life and are drawn into an empathic intimacy and love for her. The materiel which Mann had gathered from her meeting with Annulla seared Mann's heart, and she worked with extremely nuanced poetic rhythms and interpenetrating images in transforming and theatricalising the impersonal flatness of an interview format into a mesmerizing theatrical event.

Mann's originality is markedly in high contrast to the cold, distanced, linear neutral language and structure of acclaimed docudrama based primarily on Bertold Brecht's alienation technique, Verfremdung. This technique, which forces the audiences to observe the characters intellectually and analyze them, has become a Marxist, sociological technique whose usefulness is outworn and outdated. In creating ANNULLA, Mann voyages into the unknown, breath taking, ethical dilemmas and imagery of the multiple identities of the contemporary theory of the "self" as impermanent, multiple, and essentially a fictional creation. Annulla's constantly shifting, explosive free associations, gestures, dead ends, partial and confused non-chronological memories are unique. Mann explores through Annulla the mystery of the the knots, broken strands within the stream of consciousness and interweaving of human consciousness as felt experience, intertwining inner and outer worlds distinct from the stream-of-consciousness experiments of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. As Annulla states, Americans prefer the calm naturalistic surface of Ibsen to the outburst of tormented souls in Strindberg. In one section, Annulla juxtaposes her aristocrat voice by commenting that she actually "spent the night in a hotel in Dachau!" with a commanding voice to a guard with the unexpected screams of terror which are unleashed when she returns home and again with her tender recounting of her passionate sex life with her husband in a light, airy tone. This is artistry, not accident. Annulla's crying out of "What if women governed the world?" repeated in several intervals of the play, makes Mann's artistic creation the most important masterpiece of political theatre in resistance to the chaotic hatred of atavistic patriarchy which has bloodied the planet with neo-gothic atrocities since 9/11. "Annulla" asks as its primary question,"what if women ruled the world with the biological force of motherly love?" This question was considered irrelevant by the New York Times critic who praised the riveting performance of the actress, and dismissed the play as fuzzy and unfocused. The reverse is true! The actress and director made choices which totally misinterpreted the work and the play is not only written as a unique work of documentary, but contains the richness and multi-valences of the finest fiction. This work is a brilliantly conceived exquisite, tightly edited text. Mann confronts us with a powerful woman's voice 2006, wondering why the women, the feminists, and especially the Jewish feminists who are double targets of the present political situation remaining quiet.. Why, with the exception of an occasional book, are the women of the world not united in resistance to the present evil, or articulating it?

ANNULLA was Mann's first play in the seventies, and its production thirty years later has accrued meaning like French critic Roland Barthes statement that the meanings of literature accrue with time like the ever widening concentric circles marking the growth of a tree. This production in 2006, makes Annulla's empowered woman's voice a terrifying warning of a second coming of a Jewish holocaust created by male barbarism during this unprecedented era of global terrorism. This post 9/11 is marked by the most rabid international anti-Semitism since WWII. Both Emily Mann and I are stunned at the silence of women, feminist artists, and particularly Jewish women artists who are double targets of this global horror. Both Emily Mann and I believe that one of the most powerful weapons for the transformation of consciousness are works of the imagination. We both believe in the primacy of the imagination over the Real. The philosopher Kirkegaard conceived the historical concept of "living forward"; that no series of events leads to one, necessary scenario; but that a plurality of possible scenarios can be envisioned from interlocking events. The present consensual validated reality, can be transformed, by women leading men into opening their hearts with love. The theme of the play is urgent. The new anti-Semitism is not only Islamic, but ironically, the left wing intelligentsia in America and Europe now call the Palestinians the innocent, oppressed victims of Israeli atrocities. The Jews have become, with increasing ferocity, the historical scapegoat of inhumane persecution and cultural oppression once again. It is also a barbaric era of unspeakable misogyny and violence against women and children by male rapists and warriors who have in the last gasps of social Darwinian in which the patriarchy, after a small period of liberation, has re-enslaved women as inferior beings and in the case of Jewish women, doubly inferior–for being both women and Jews. Annulla's own fragility reminds us of the fragility of our nation's democracy and the fragility of the planet, including the continual destruction of mother earth.

I am writing this article because the neither the actress nor the Times understood that this actress could never ‘pass' as an Aryan. Her posture, her wild gestures with her hands, her singsong Yiddishkeit voice, her dowdy clothing, coarseness, and clumsy gestures ironically maker her the stereotype of the despised crazed Ghetto Jew, as demeaned by the Nazis. Annulla recounts that her father was a millionaire, that she was raised in Catholic private schools for girls, and that she was born on the Austrian, German-speaking side of a shifting boarder, giving her essentially the acculturation of the German-speaking Jew, which made her ability to ‘pass,"' possible. In contrast, the Polish and Russian Jews, contemptuously called "the Ostjuden" by German speaking Jews, could never ‘pass" and survive because of both their chosen and forced Ghetto isolation from the main cultures. The German-speaking Jews, inspired by the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, called the "archetypal German Jew" and the "German Socrates," urged all Jews not just to respect their own culture but to embrace all of Western Civilization.I am writing this critique with expertise, since I also ‘passed' as a Christian in America. My family were Viennese Jews who converted to Catholicism in order to obtain titles and political power in Court. My father thought that since anti-Semitism lies just below the surface even in American that I should not even be told that I had "sang juif." Later, I wrote a biography about the first Jewish feminist, Bertha Pappenheim, who lived during a time when the upper classes of Jews in Vienna has the highest conversion rate in Europe, and highest acculturation of Jews historically at the turn of the last century. I am writing this article because we are living in an unprecedented patriarchy threatening our freedoms under the constitution of the United States, as well as being victims of brainwashing, lies, torture, beheadings, and insane wars. Annulla's feminism presents a solution. The play stands a warning to the audience that perhaps we are hurtling downward towards what Umberto Ecco calls, the eternally recurrent neo-Gothic age and what Jane Jacobs calls the mass amnesia of high civilizations which hurtle them into a Dark Age, some of which are lost and forgotten forever. I am writing this article because in June the President of Iran not only reconfirmed his desire to exterminate Israel and world Jewry, but claimed insanely that the Holocaust never took place. I am writing this article in honor of men like Senator Franz Leichter, who escaped Nazi occupied Vienna as a child and has not only fought for the expansion of freedom for women, but for the expansion of freedom of all peoples on all levels during his 30 tenure in the New York Senate. Finally, I am writing this article with the great hope that this great play Mann's ANNULLA will receive a plethora of productions around the world and that women's' voices for liberation will transform the consciousness of all peoples which will open all beings in superpersonal love which in Annulla's words "change everything in a year!"

NYTW readers may email Melinda Guttmann at: starnyc@aol.com


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