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Lanna Joffrey’s ‘Valiant,’ by InterActBY: Robert Zaller 03.31.2012
Lanna Joffrey’s Valiant relates the suffering of 13 women in conditions of war and exile, as if war is an exclusively male activity. The cumulative effect of their recitations is more stultifying than enlightening.
Valiant. Adapted by Lanna Joffrey; directed by Tamilla Woodward. InterAct Theatre production March 27-29 at Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom St. (215) 568-8079 or www.InterActTheatre.org.
War is hell,
InterAct Theatre has had the interesting idea of hosting a mid-season festival of works that, in artistic director Seth Rozin’s words, have fallen below the radar of commercial theater companies but that he believes deserve exposure. Seven of them are being presented in three- to four-day runs. Most are one-person shows, but the opening work, Lanna Joffrey’s Valiant, features three performers, including Joffrey herself.
Valiant is a series of 13 monologues for women, culled from a compilation of testimonies by Sally Hayton-Keeva whose title— Valiant Women in War and Exile— presents its protagonists as, variously, victims, warriors and witnesses, but above all as survivors of the nastier episodes of the 20th Century. Pride of place goes to the account of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, but her story is intercut with an account of the Armenian genocide.
This layering sets up an issue to begin with. Not all atrocities descend to the same level, and, for some, the Holocaust is a noncomparable event. Claude Lanzmann, who himself narrowly escaped it and fought in the French Resistance, made that point recently on his visit to Philadelphia. (Read about it here.) Joffrey tries to get around the question by citing Hitler’s famous comment that Jews could be dealt with summarily because “Who remembers the Armenians?”
That’s not enough for me. It doesn’t deprecate the Armenian genocide to see the Holocaust as a unique event. Forced marches, even death marches, have been a not uncommon occurrence in history, but the methodical extermination of 6 million people under circumstances designed to deprive them of their souls as well as their bodies has no precedent: As Lanzmann argues, it cannot even have a proper name. On a fundamental level, the Holocaust exceeds description or analysis.
One can disagree with this view, and it would certainly be a disservice to the Holocaust itself to ignore the context of 20th-Century genocides in which it occurred. But two issues emerge, one moral and the other dramatic. If one is going to situate the Holocaust among “other” genocides, how can one do it without being reductive in both directions? And how can one present such testimony onstage?
Valiant deals adequately with neither issue. If one can make a case for juxtaposing the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, on what scale can one weigh them together with the Japanese internment camps set up by Roosevelt during World War II? Certainly this was a shameful and indefensible episode in our country’s history, but it involved no killing or forced marches; nor did it separate families.
Internment vs. Hiroshima?
The problem becomes more acute when Valiant comes to its final testimony: that of a disfigured Hiroshima “maiden.” There is, to be sure, some kind of relation between the internment camps and the atomic bomb, some continuum on which the initial isolation of the Japanese “other” is part of a process of dehumanization to which the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the final term. But that relation is not one of equivalence.
Valiant isn’t interested in such distinctions, however. What it offers is a catalogue of suffering, in some cases experienced passively (the Hiroshima maiden), in some actively resisted (a Soviet partisan opposing the Nazis; an Afghan partisan opposing the Soviets). The sufferers are exclusively female, which suggests that women are uniquely qualified as victims.
War and violence are thus perceived as exclusively male activities, and if the victims seek vengeance it is justified by this belief. But now we have women warriors aplenty, and I think of those photographs of women enthusiastically seeing their men off to the killing fields of World War I. Blood lust isn’t an exclusively male trait, nor is suffering a distinctively female experience.
The only more nuanced portrait in this gallery is one of a young American woman who worked on a shuttle service for American troops in the Vietnam War, and came slowly to oppose the war after seeing its effects on them. Even this portrayal, though, raises uncomfortable questions.
Yes, American soldiers were traumatized by the war, as they are now in Afghanistan. But surely the larger issue is that of the wars themselves, and the enormously greater suffering we have inflicted (rather than endured) by waging them?
Political innocence is another name for political irresponsibility, and if women are not more responsible for human suffering than men, in modern democratic societies such as ours they are no less so.
Collectively, the 13 recitations essentially comprised a single incantation of woe, and although director Tamilla Woodward made some effort to vary them by staging an occasional interaction among the performers, the effect was inevitably stultifying. This approach might work in a Sunday sermon, but it’s not successful on stage.
Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah, also a series of testimonies, is effective because it relates to a single subject, uses actual survivors and participants, and is framed by an unseen interlocutor (Lanzmann himself). Had he used actors, the result would have been a debacle.
It can’t be said often enough, perhaps, that war is hell and that the slaughter of innocents is never justified. But it can certainly be said too much in a single evening.♦
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