nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 9, 2006
"The truth is people could care less."
Catherine Filloux, author of Lemkin's House, nails what's behind millennia of inertia in the face of devastation in those seven words. Lemkin's House is about one man who did care—the Polish American lawyer Raphael Lemkin, the man who invented the word "genocide" as a way of capturing and codifying the systematic slaughter of a people (as of the Armenians by the Turks in the 1910s and the Jews by the Nazis in the 1930s)—and the sadly meager (but still hugely important) legacy that he left behind. It wants to jolt an audience that is increasingly deadened to the details of human tragedy, and I'm not sure how well it succeeds: this is mostly preaching to the converted, and if all we converted do is write and/or watch plays about how awful genocide is, is anything really being accomplished?
Lemkin would, I think, share my despairing attitude. When Lemkin's House begins, he is trying to obtain legislation in the U.S. Congress that would outlaw genocide. It's August 28, 1959, and the next thing that happens is that Lemkin dies. Practically his last words, referring to his relatives killed in the Holocaust, are "Did fifty of my family members die in vain?"
Filloux doesn't want Lemkin to have died in vain (as he must have thought he did), and so her play gives him an active afterlife—indeed, that's where the whole thing takes place—in which Lemkin is visited by Senator William Proxmire, who bears the news that some 30 years later, Lemkin's law finally passed in Congress (though as a concession to Jews angered by then-President Reagan's controversial appearance at the German military cemetery at Bitburg). Subsequently, the dead Lemkin is visited by others: Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis, mercilessly executing each other; a Bosnian Muslim in a refugee camp; and various representatives of international agencies, none of whom seems able to actually do anything about what's going on, Lemkin's law and their supposed authority notwithstanding.
It's important to be reminded of the stories of suffering and deprivation that together constitute each genocide. We're so used to thinking of these mass murders as something abstract and unfathomable that Filloux's detailed and urgent accounts of these more recent crimes against humanity carry real weight. And, as far as it goes, Filloux's craft serves those she would memorialize well.
But I wondered why poor Lemkin was being made to suffer alongside these victims: is Filloux somehow saying that Lemkin's (metaphorical) house is the source of the apathy that allows genocide to happen, over and over again, in a pitiless world? That seems unfair, yet more than once that's what the play seemed to be suggesting. Surely it's everybody's house that needs to be put into order here.
In the play, Lemkin interacts with the various victims in Rwanda and Bosnia (as well as with a spectral vision of his own mother, before she was murdered by the Nazis). Yet Filloux and her director Jean Randich offer an inconsistent set of ground rules to explain the surreal universe they try to create: sometimes the other characters "recognize" Lemkin as some other "real" person in their own stories and other times they don't; in the most affecting scene, Lemkin takes charge of a Rwandan infant whose mother is about to be killed, which we think only he can see and hear—except later another character suddenly starts to see and hear the baby as well. All of this makes Lemkin's House more confusing than it ought to be.
But Filloux's heart is obviously in the right place. The production of her play at 78th Street Theatre Lab is earnest and mostly straightforward, featuring a potent performance in the title role by John Daggett, with four other actors playing multiple roles in support (Christopher McHale, as Senator Proxmire, a Bosnian Muslim, and others, and Christopher Edwards, as a burned-out American diplomat, are the standouts). Sue Rees has provided a very effective unit set that serves the play well. All in all, this is a work that's worth seeing; but will it actually spur anyone on to some more concrete action that will prove Lemkin's legacy was, after all, not in vain?