“All Our Children” by Stephen Unwin

All Our Children, at Jermyn Street Theatre, written and directed by Stephen Unwin.

This is not intended as a review. It’s a bit pointless anyway to review a play just a few days before its final performance. This is really no more than a record of my personal impressions, for what they’re worth. It is an attempt to make some sort of sense of the various thoughts and ideas that this play brought to the forefront of my mind. And, since the play did make a big impact on me, these personal thoughts and impressions seemed to me worth recording.

The play addresses the organised mass-murder of disabled children in Nazi Germany. It’s a problematic theme. Mass-murder of the innocent and the vulnerable is so morally nauseating that our moral indignation, though entirely justified, is likely to drown out those subtleties and nuances that generally give drama its depth. And once one has asserted how monstrous an atrocity these murders were, what more remains to be said?

In the event, this play delivered some ninety or so minutes, uninterrupted by an interval, of gripping, passionate, and sometimes explosive, drama. At the centre of the drama is Victor, a paediatrician, himself, quite obviously, severely ill. From Victor’s clinic children deemed “incurable” are transported away to special camps, in buses with windows painted out. He does not care very much to know what precisely happens in those camps, but he is assured that the extermination is painless. He himself marks out those children who are “incurable”, and, hence, to be exterminated. And, somehow, he has convinced himself that it is all for the best – best for everyone. The arguments for this are, after all, entirely rational: these children are so severely damaged that life can have no meaning for them; they are unable to contribute to society in any way, and are a constant source of pain and distress both to their families, and to themselves; they require vast expenditure just to be kept alive, and, when money is short, they are taking away resources from more deserving areas; and so on. Leaving aside sentimentality, disposing of them quietly and painlessly is really the best all round.

There is no real rational argument against any of this. The only argument is presented in the final act by Bishop von Galen (a historical figure), and his argument, far from being rational, is, as is to be expected from a bishop, overtly religious: human life, he asserts, all human life, is sacred. “Sentimental squeals of the ignorant,” as Eric, the enthusiastic young SS officer assigned as Victor’s deputy, puts it.

Victor himself is atheist, and a rationalist. And yet, he cannot quite share Eric’s enthusiasm for this brave new world. He cannot quite believe the arguments he is himself making in his own defence. He has compelled himself to accept all the rational arguments for what he is doing: leaving sentimentality aside, this is, indeed, the best for everyone – best even for those unfortunate, incurable children – the lebensunwertes Leben, lives unworthy of life, as they were known. And yet, he is not at peace with himself. And over the course of the play, a series of confrontations – with his deputy Eric, with his housekeeper Martha, with Elizabetta, the mother of one of the incurable children, and, finally, with Bishop von Galen – compels his inner self, which he had kept suppressed, to assert itself. Not that it makes much difference in the end: he has already been a major cog in the monstrous machine, and the horror will continue, with or without him. And in any case, he does not expect to live long. He is severely ill, and, if the illness doesn’t get him first, the Nazis will. “They’ll probably send me to a concentration camp,” he says at the end. “Or worse.” But it is not Victor’s conversion that is the real crux of the play: at the centre of the drama is a conflict between different value systems – one that sees human life without “sentimentality” is strictly rational terms, and the other which, in defiance of all rationality, insists on seeing human life as “sacred”.

It is all too easy for us to look at this conflict, and declare that the bishop’s view – that human life is sacred – is obviously the correct view, but there is more to this play than so obvious a conclusion. The question, it seems to me, is not so much “which side is right?”, but, rather, “why is it right?” Bishop von Galen can assert the sacred because he firmly believes in God, but can the concept of the sacred still be asserted in when, like Victor himself, we don’t believe in a God? And if we cannot assert the sacred, what answer do we give to Eric? This issue has not, I fear, disappeared with the fall of the Third Reich.

At this point, I trust the reader will forgive me if this piece takes on a more personal hue. For this is a question that I have struggled with now for some time, without being able to reach an answer that satisfies me. If we believe in God, and define the “sacred” as that which relates to God, there is no problem: we are, internally at least, consistent. But if we no longer believe in God, how do we define “sacred”? And if we cannot even define the sacred, how can we assert it? How can we declare it to be anything more than the “sentimental squeals of the ignorant” that the Nazi officer Eric takes it to be? If we cannot wholeheartedly assert our belief in God, how can we insist on the sacred?

This question plagued me insistently throughout the play. The murder of children is without doubt obscene, but how do I argue against it without appealing, as Bishop von Galen does, to religion?

The play is so passionate, so emotionally powerful, that at times it is almost unbearable. The scene where the mother of a murdered child confronts the doctor had me squirming in my seat with almost physical pain. The bishop’s assertions of morality in the last act came almost as a sort of relief – relief that such thoughts are finally expressed. But it is Martha, the housekeeper, whose words near the very end have the greatest effect:

Oh Doctor, I worry so much. About the children. Not just mine, but all of them. I know we’re meant to look down on the ones here and say they’re useless. But I don’t. I love them. I love every single one of them. I love my own children, of course, and I’m glad that they’re not – But I love the ones here too. Even the stupid ones. Even the ones who can’t do anything. Even the ones who just sit in their chairs dribbling. [Pause] I used to be so scared of them. They seemed so different to me. As if they’d infect me with their illnesses. As if I’d become like one of them. And they are different. But they don’t scare me any more. They’re just children, aren’t they? They’re just children. All our children.

No mention of religion here, or of the sacred. It is, indeed, an utterly irrational speech. Sentimental squeals of the ignorant. But sometimes, it is worth leaving our rationality behind, and worth risking sentimentality.

***

Jermyn Street Theatre is a small, subterranean venue, seating, I’m told, only 70, and with everyone very close to the actors. The acting space itself is very small. Being so very close to the action gave the whole thing more than a sense of intimacy: it was, quite often, as it was no doubt meant to be, oppressive and claustrophobic.

At the very opening and again at the end, we heard strains from the first song of Schubert’s Winterreise, possibly the bleakest work of art ever conceived. The evening lived up to its promise of bleak intensity, unrelieved by anything even remotely resembling “comic relief”. The performances were stunning: Colin Tierney, on stage throughout, was very believable as the tortured doctor, who shows heroism only when it is too late; the intensity of Lucy Speed’s performance, as the mother of a murdered epileptic child, was almost too intense to be bearable; Rebecca Johnson gave a touching performance as the housekeeper Martha, who had unthinkingly swallowed all the propaganda about the Fatherland, but whose underlying compassion is, ultimately, the only possible answer to the evil around her; Edward Franklin’s portrayal of the committed young Nazi is genuinely disturbing; and David Yelland, as Bishop von Galen, conveyed all the authority, moral indignation, and also, it must be said, an aristocratic disdain bordering on pomposity (Bishop von Galen was of an aristocratic background) that the part called for.

The entire production was, in short, a triumph. Quite apart from anything else, when cinema, and, in its wake, television, are moving increasingly towards visual rather than verbal means of expression, it is good to be reminded just how powerful and moving drama can be when generated primarily by the spoken word.

Stephen Unwin is best known as a theatre director, and, especially, for his productions of the plays of Ibsen and of Shakespeare. This is his first play as writer. I, for one, hope it won’t be his last.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Janet on May 30, 2017 at 11:44 pm

    The sacred is by definition God’s. If God perhaps exists, I suppose one can reserve the sacred as a concept to be honored in principle if nothing else. If God doesn’t exist, then nothing is sacred, and that’s just the way it is. You can’t have God and not have him too. However, one can appropriate the word and use it to refer to concepts about humanity that are by consensus beyond argument. The lives of the innocent, and children in particular, are held as either sacred or “sacred” by most people. If you want to argue the value of the concept with an nazi, it boils down to a couple of things. 1) We have a biological and evolutionary instinct to protect vulnerable members of our species–nazis who do not have this basic human quality are aberrant degenerates and should perhaps self-destruct just to be consistent; 2) If we once begin to decide who among us is deserving of life, then we forfeit the constraints that allow any one to survive. In other words, if you can decide to exterminate the mentally ill today, there is no argument against me deciding tomorrow to exterminate blond people. The “sacredness” of human life is a very durable, useful, and satisfying social contract. If a nazi breaks the contract, everybody else gets to vote the creature off the island, quite unsentimentally.

    The lives of children were not always considered sacred, and are still not universally considered so. While the killing of children was always terrible, the idea that they were somehow off-limits is rather modern, I think. And the mentally ill and disadvantaged have always had a dicey existence. Our idea of a common humanity, in which the monstrosity of a crime is in proportion to the helplessness of the victim, has only recently been extended to encompass Everybody. There are still plenty of people who reserve all this sacredness to their own tribe and Klan. They will argue that they control who deserves to live or die according to their own logic. Can you argue that they are fundamentally wrong? Yes, because you get to choose the kind of world you want to live in, the kind of moral universe, the kind God would have if you could believe in God. Some people will embrace a nasty, brutish moral universe, which is their right, but if no other argument will do, it is enough that such a worldview is repellent, impractical, and offers only a woefully limited existence to the poor souls who define themselves by it.

    Reply

    • Hello Janet, and thank you for that.
      These are areas I generally try not to get into, as I am not well versed in ethics. But since this blog is really no nore than a sort of personal diary (albeit on a public platform) of my thoughts and ideas, such as they are, on various matters, then, inevitably, I do end up addressing such themes from time to time.

      If we define “sacred” as that whicjh is related to God, then, as you rightly say, the concept becomes meaningless when we don’t believe in God. But if we are to “appropriate” the term, and us it “to refer to concepts about humanity that are by consensus beyond argument”, the problem arises that, quite often, there is no consensus. And worse, sometimes there is a consensus, but the consensus is not what you and I may like it to be.

      I find myself in a difficult position in ths respect, as I am agnostic when it comes to belief in God, and yet cling desparately to the concept of the “sacred”. And i don’t think my position is at all consistent. I don’t know how to argue it. Or, indeed, if it can be argued at all.

      Of course, belief in God does not ensure moral righteousness: one does not need to go too far to find instances of people who believe and yet commit horrors – not despite their belief, but because of it. And neither am I argung that lack of belief necessarily leads to lack of morality: that is clearly not the case. However, I do believe that the concept of the sacred is important, but do not know how to justfy it. Or even how to define it.

      Anyway, I am so ignorant in matters of ethical philosophy, it’s probably best for me to leave it there!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

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