In the classic 1942 Ernst Lubitsch comedy “To Be or Not to Be,” the great comedian and radio star Jack Benny and the beautiful actress Carole Lombard (she would die in a plane crash days before the film’s opening) play actors in a Polish theater troupe, who, with their fellow actors, outwit the Nazis.
It’s a wonderful fantasy; I watched it and watched it on TV as a kid, mostly because I was obsessed with all things theater long before I became an actor/playwright. Old time movies on black and white TV influenced me as much as books. The film was received poorly at first, a groundbreaking work making satire of evil Nazis, including a one night “Hamlet” in the Polish theater at which Hitler is the honored guest.
I thought of “To Be or Not to Be” as I read about Oksana Syomina, who, with her husband fled to the sanctuary of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol, Ukraine. Ms. Syomina and her spouse were in a group of hundreds of other refugees who fled their bombed-out homes to shelter in the theater. She was in the basement of the theater complex in her bathrobe when a massive explosion caused by a Russian bomb leveled the building.
Six hundred people were killed in an instant. Ms. Syomina had to step on dead bodies of children and parents in her bare feet just to escape and run to the sea. She told a reporter, “All the people are still under the rubble because the rubble is still there. This is one big, massive grave.”
The city designated the theater as a shelter weeks before. The scenic designer, using set paint, created two giant signs on the front and back sidewalks: “CHILDREN.” He or she was hoping the sign would alert Russian pilots. . . and it did—perversely.
Art is an umbrella under which are writing and painting and music and dance and theater and sculpture, all venues for expression which stimulate thought and kill no one. Beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, but emotive. You get to walk out of the art space and meet friends for drinks.
The reality of human endeavor is everywhere: slaughter. Between bouts of slaughter are fucking and singing and drinking and eating and cradling pets and babies and religious fervor and watching sunsets and hiking in wilderness and praising and denouncing God and then. . . More slaughter. With slaughter there is only when, no if.
The greatest explanation of humanity was written long ago: Voltaire’s “Candide.” I read it as a kid and then I saw the Broadway production of Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, original libretto by Lillian Hellman then the 1974 version (which I saw) with book by Hugh Wheeler. I could not stand after the show. My legs wobbled, my tears flowed, my laughter resonated through the theater. The greatest hymn ever written about hope: “Let Our Garden Grow.” The most grotesque song parody of humanity: “Auto Da Fe (What a Day).”
I have often told friends, five fiction books only of the Western canon are necessary: “Candide,” Richard Wright’s scathing “Black Boy,” Doris Lessing’s “The Four-Gated City, Cormac McCarthy’s horrifying “Blood Meridian,” and James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” All of humanity lies in those confines.
By March 15, 1,200 people were sheltering in Mariupol’s theater. Women with children were put in the dressing rooms. All the floors, the balconies, the theater seats, and all the rooms were crammed with refugees. Then the bomb hit. A woman told of yelling for her mother, but tens of people were also crying, “Mom!” Six hundred people, not a soldier among them, lay dead.
Many of the survivors walked or ran to the sea. Some took shelter in the nearby philharmonic hall and then it got bombed. Over many days, Russian bulldozers razed the theater, now a mass grave.
Meanwhile, I have an idea. A group of actors lure Vladimir Putin to a theater for a performance of “Macbeth.” Putin thinks it’s a comedy, takes a bite of popcorn and a long swig of Coke—which has been laced with arsenic. He stops laughing.
Someone please tell me the date of the next slaughter so I can put it on my calendar.
Hate Russians? Might as well as hate Germans and Americans, et al as well. We are but one species, many cultures. James Baldwin wrote of culture that Blacks from all nations cannot truly have cultures until Europeans (who designated people of color as savages beginning in the sixteen hundreds) withdraw from every country and territory they looted.
Which will happen on the Twelfth of Never.