Closing the Memory Hole: Remembering the Dance Marathons

“Marathon ’33”

“Man lives by a lingering ember,

“And while there are beautiful things to remember,

The ugly things, one should forget.”

—-“Things to Remember” from the musical “The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd”  by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse

Jews sometimes are criticized for evoking the Holocaust at every opportunity. Their explanation is that we “must never forget,” an argument I once thought was bizarre. “Who could forget the Holocaust?,” I wondered. Something so unique and horrible would be impossible to forget; it would be like pretending the Grand Canyon didn’t exist.

That was ignorant of me. Nations, religions, cultures and groups of all kinds are stunningly effective at forgetting historical episodes which challenge their self-image and most cherished illusions. Jews are rightfully and wisely vigilant at reminding the world of what was done to them as the rest of humanity passively looked on in the 30’s and 40’s, because their extermination at the hands of the Nazis is a prime candidate for history’s memory hole, where good and sensitive people, along with their nations, communities and cultures, dispose of memories too ugly to remember. Once the memories are gone, they no longer haunt us, it is true. They no longer teach or warn us, either. The ethical course of action is to remember our worst moments, and evoke them as often as possible. We can only be our best by admitting our worst. Continue reading

My Theatrical Ethics Dilemma: Integrity or Fairness?

It doesn’t come up here often, but I am the artistic director for a professional regional theater company. It is dedicated to producing 20th Century stage works of artistic and historical value that other, more commercial (sensible?) companies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Every now and again I find a play that is especially risky, challenging, and rich in theatrical possibilities, and those are the ones I direct myself.

This summer, I will be directing such a production, a harrowing recreation of Depression era dance marathons called “Marathon 33.” It was written by the fascinating June Havoc, Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister who became a Hollywood star and who is perhaps best known as the irritating “Baby June,” the  blonde and perpetually juvenile vaudeville headliner in the musical “Gypsy.” Havoc survived the Depression by competing in dance marathons during the Thirties, and wrote two autobiographies about these terrible spectacles, in which desperate couples would stay on their feet for thousands of hours for food and the promise of a cash prize, as more fortunate Americans paid to see who would drop first.

The show, at least as I and my artistic collaborators envision it, involves recreating dance marathons as accurately as possible, down to the smallest detail. The audience for the show will be immersed in the action as if it were the heartless mob that cheered the real dancers on, and we will avoid anachronisms of any kind. And yet, as I prepare to cast the show after a wonderfully productive round of auditions, I face an ethical conflict. Several of the strongest candidates for dance contestants are African-American, and there were no black competitors in the real contests. Even if there had been, mixed-race couples would not have been tolerated, especially in Virginia, where we are setting the show. Yet if I cast the best actors available without reference to race, I will have both. Continue reading