A Play Named Atonement
Prayaschitt directed by Neelachal Bannerjee
In Hindi the word prayashchit means redemption, atonement. This play is a Hindi translation of Margaret Wood’s one-act play Day of Atonement published in 1962. Wood created plays with simple sets and lighting, knew the possibilities of a makeshift stage and wrote more parts for women than for men. She had a flair for dramatic structure and an instinctive ear for dialogue reflecting common human experience. While theatre audiences in India may not be very familiar with Wood’s plays, between 1994 and 1997 over 180 productions of her one-act plays were staged across 12 countries from the United States to Turkey.
The popularity of her plays proves that they cut across time, space, language and culture and are relevant today in any language on any platform. Her inclination towards pacifism is evident in The Guilty Generation (1958), set in the year 2000, after a nuclear war.
Prayaschitt was recently staged by Rangakarmee at the Usha Ganguly Mancha in Kolkata translated by its director Neelachal Banerjee in Hindi to a full audience. Prayaschitt is a straightforward story comprised of four characters – Jacob (Shubham), his wife Marthe (Aditi Vishnu), their son Otto (Abhay Gupta) and Dr Krauss (Sayan Surya Bhattacharya), a benevolent doctor Jacob and Marthe are very grateful to as he has taken great care of their sick daughter Ilse and operated upon her to cure her of her tuberculosis.. The seemingly peaceful ambience of this quiet evening suddenly becomes turbulent and stormy with the entry of their son Otto, who hates Dr Krauss, who has a secret that Otto has learnt about.
The play is set in the backdrop of Germany immediately following the Holocaust. Jacob and Marthe, along with their growing children Otto and Ilse, suffered torture and abuse while imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for being Jews. They cannot return to their homeland and lead a clandestine life in Germany itself, living hand to mouth. They seek and find succour in the soft hand on their heads of Dr Krauss. Otto breaks the illusion of deceptive quietude by revealing that Dr Krauss has been living under a false identity. In fact he was among the Nazi members who tortured Jews and others in the concentration camps and has been living here under a pseudonym.
Otto, who belongs to a young group of Jewish rebels bent on avenging the Holocaust, wants to help his friends kill Dr Krauss. He hates the very idea of his parents having invited him to dine at their home and openly challenges him with the truth of his identity. His parents are shocked and embarrassed by Otto’s behaviour, but Dr Krauss admits that he was indeed a Nazi and among those who tortured the inmates of death camps, but now wants to lead a life of atonement for his sins. He cannot change what they did to Jewish people but can at least compensate for his own wrongs by being good to the people he wronged.
When the surprised family ask him how the change came about he tells them a chance hearing of a speech delivered by a Jewish leader to a group of people who had come to listen to him was responsible. He was amazed that this gentleman spoke not of violence or revenge but of the philosophies of thinkers like Plato and Kant.. The speech inspired him to change his way of thinking by trying his best to atone for his wrongs and seek forgiveness from at least a fraction of Jewish people like Jacob and Marthe. And he adds, “I would have been shot had I refused to obey the Nazi leaders under whom I was employed.” Dr Krauss’ metamorphosis is only recounted in his speech and not shown in the play. But it adds to the drama enriched by the charged performance of Sayan Bhattacharya who plays the good doctor.
The play opens in the very dark interior of a rundown room with a cooking stove in one corner where Marthe is cooking a soup for Otto who is out with his friends. Jacob and Marthe are planning a dinner along with a bottle of priceless liquor held as a gift for Dr Krauss. The set design takes you to a dilapidated room where there is no electricity and the darkness fills the air with a feeling of sadness and doom. Yet Jacob and Marthe are looking forward to Dr Krauss who has saved their sick daughter Ilse who is still in hospital.
The quiet note of hope is like a balloon which bursts soon after Otto arrives with his anger and his fiery intent of revenge pricking his parents’ trust in Dr. Krauss. His parents try to convince Otto that he is wrong about Dr Krauss but the doctor himself confesses the allegations are true, but that he is now a changed man seeking forgiveness from the family, who for him symbolise all the Jewish people whom he wronged.
In his portrayal of Dr Krauss Bhattacharya is dignified, tall and holds himself with a regal air almost begging for forgiveness. Marthe and Jacob try to save him from being killed by Otto whose friends are waiting outside but whether they can rescue him or not makes for the twist in the tale.
Marthe and Jacob are a stark contrast to Dr Krauss’s successful and dignified persona, in a microcosm of a world where German and other Jews who survived are pitted against arrogant and affluent former Nazi officers, and which somehow snips away into the atonement of people like Dr Krauss who is trying to redefine his life away from cruelty, murder and torture into one seeking forgiveness from the people he wronged by force of circumstance.
Otto reminds him of the terrible medical ‘experiments’ he performed on his fellow Jewish prisoners in the camps, mutilating their body parts and worse. The play keeps the question open about whether Otto and his parents will forgive Dr Krauss his sins or permit him to be murdered by the youngsters of Otto’s group in revenge. You see Hitler giving a speech for a minute but why no one knows.
The electrically charged ambience is backed by beautiful light effects and enriched by the sparkling performances of all the actors, except the young actor who plays the role of Otto as he is too loud to make an impact and his loud voice somehow impacts on his dialogue which sometimes cannot be understood. He needs to tone down his performance greatly.
Destiny, or is it God which plays its own role in granting or not granting redemption to Dr Krauss? This keeps the question of forgiveness for evils done in the past being undercut by good deeds done in the present an unanswered and philosophical one. It is a great performance indeed to take home. It mirrors today’s entire lack of atonement for their sins by sinners who surround us everywhere, all the time, be it a corporate bigwig, or a politician in power, or a mother-in-law torturing her daughter-in-law, or, the police killing a man in custody before he can reach the court. The list is endless.