By Eric Samuelsen
Twenty-five years ago, while doing research in Norway for my doctoral dissertation, I came upon the story that now has become the basis for my play, The Ice Front. It’s the story of the actors of the Norwegian National Theatre at the time of the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War, and their resistance to demands by Nazi cultural authorities that they perform in a ferociously anti-Semitic play. Their resistance began with feigned illnesses, invented excuses for vacations and acts of sabotage. Eventually, they burned down the theatre. Finally, when forced to perform at gunpoint, they acted badly — inaudible dialogue, confusing blocking, overt defiance in every acting choice. They were very nearly shot for it. But given a choice between an art that expressed their humanity, and art that savagely denied it, they ultimately risked their lives.
Although my play is based on historical events, I did fictionalize the characters. I wanted to increase the sense of menace the characters faced. And so one of them became a Jewish actor, who has managed to hide his ethnicity from the Nazi authorities. But when writing about Nazism, and the atrocities of that unspeakable regime, I thought it necessary to honor the heroism and dangers faced by other Nazi victims. So I gave another character a connection to the rich and vital heritage of the Roma people; the people more widely known by the offensive and demeaning term ‘gypsies.’ And I chose to make a central character, Anders, gay.
As I imagined him, I assumed that his fellow actors would know of his sexual orientation, and that most of them would know and be friends with his partner Jens. No less than today, the acting world of the ’40s included many gay artists. Actors have always kept each other’s secrets. I assumed as well that the arrest of Anders’ partner would be yet another pistol held to his head. I imagined an actor known by the public as a conventional romantic lead, but privately comfortable with his fellow artists and in his own skin. And then, without warning, he’s alone, in danger, negotiating a suddenly deadly terrain.
The events of the 1930s and ’40s have taken on a new meaning today. My father, as a child, grew up in Norway during the Nazi occupation. He is appalled by what is happening today. His childhood was spent under Nazi tyranny. His father and his uncles fought for the Norwegian Resistance. He told me recently that he thought those days were over. He never once imagined that a political philosophy so repugnant and so despicable would again find root in his adopted homeland, and would even find defenders in the highest reaches of American government.
Jewish rabbi and philosopher Emil Fackenheim once wrote of a 614th commandment, in addition to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. “Hitler must never be allowed to win,” he wrote, suggesting that when Jews left their faith, it could be seen as a victory for the Holocaust. By the same token, any compromise in the fight for social justice could also be seen as a violation of the 614th commandment, as a victory for Hitler. Hitler’s viciousness, of course, included the persecution and murder of gays and lesbians. A commitment to LGBTQ rights must always be seen as part of the fight against Hitlerism.
The Ice Front honors the people of the theatre while questioning what it means to be an artist, to be a patriot, to be human.
The Ice Front runs Nov. 9-19 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Tickets and information at planbtheatre.org.