“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” — Theodor Adorno
The Fallen by Yasmine Beverly Rana playing at the T. Schreiber Studio, directed by Terry Schreiber, starts as a bedroom-cum-courtroom drama. The lights come up on Sabine (Amanda Bena-Weber) and Andrej (Joshua Mark Sienkiewicz) in a hotel room in Trieste. The two are glowing post-coitally and ruminating on the wonderful strangeness of their random sexual encounter. Andrej admits there is something about Sabine that compelled him to talk to her when he saw her sitting at a table in his local cafe. “I remind you of home?” she says. Yes, that’s it — home. And where is home? The former Yugoslavia. Incipit the courtroom. Sabine (her name evokes the famous rape of early Roman lore) is also from there, though they were clearly on opposite sides of the conflict. Andrej is a Serb and Sabine saw what the Serb men did in Sarajevo. (Though it is implied that Sabine is a Bosnian Muslim, she doesn’t reveal her ethnic identity.) He protests his innocence; she denies his protests. He asks what she really wants; she says, “an apology.”
The play is structured around a series of linked vignettes. Each one has its own internal dramatic logic, and after the first three episodes, The Fallen can seem like a very depressing ten minute play festival. In the second piece, a young woman, Anais (Kelly Swartz), on the roof of a building in Sarajevo delivers a monologue about the suicidal thoughts that come from realizing she is the product of a wartime rape. In the third piece, we flash back sixteen years to a Serb rape camp in Kalinovik, where a young Bosnian Muslim woman Mirela (Molly Gyllenhaal) is chained to a bed. An officer is her interlocutor, who tells her very calmly that he is going to rape her, and she is going to give birth to the child. She begs him to just kill her, but he says no. He wants her to have the child so that she — and their child — will belong to him.
In the next scene we see Andrej again, but this time, we assume, fifteen years younger. He is supposed to rape Mirela too, but he cannot bring himself to commit the crime. Then we come back to the present to Turin, where Anais is talking to another Bosnian refugee who grew up in Italy, and the pieces start to fall into place. What began as a courtroom drama takes shape as a piece on memory and intergenerational trauma, as Anais, who toward the end of the play becomes its center of gravity, travels the world searching for clues about who she is and how she can live with hurt that she — quite literally — embodies. In the final scene, Anais confronts her mother — Mirela — on the true identity of her father, and the lights go down after the two of them reach a difficult detent with the promise of future talks.
The courtroom atmosphere of the first segment resurfaces several times, and the final scene is also, in fact, a courtroom scene that mirrors the first scene. In both, the prosecution wants an apology, and the defense wants to plead the fifth (so to speak). According to the lights of the play, the last scene is an improvement on the first, because an apology, and here an apology means a promise to reveal everything that has happened through discourse, is rendered, both in the “real” world outside the play and between the characters. The logic is very Freudian: when everything is brought into the light, the wounds of the past will finally heal. But the judicial rhetoric in these scenes detracts from the much more interesting theater that happens when Anais tells us in direct address about her bone-deep existential ambivalence in the second episode.
The Trial is a venerable convention of drama, and so, easily parodied. The Trial is also a process of reification whereby the state reduces two sides to a legal question into a set of legal fictions composed of thing-like concepts called “rights.” The things are weighed in a balance, and a verdict is rendered. In order to pretend that justice is an object (a thing) we must harden ourselves to the contradictory, multidimentionality of human existence and accept the fiction that people are objects defined as “identities.” This hardening is what Theodor Adorno calls “the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity” in the book Negative Dialectics. Adorno seeks to describe what a trial, reparations and mere survival mean to the survivor:
His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all.
The purpose of a trial is to find the objective truth behind social relationships in order to punish the guilty. But the reifying process of the trial itself, reducing people to identities worthy of punishment, perpetuates the conditions of genocide and prepares the way for the next one as soon as the historical worm has turned. It is the “coldness . . . of bourgeois subjectivity” that give Mirela and Anais “dead eyes.” If there can be a poetry for survivors, it can’t be spoken at a trial, where both the prosecution and the defense are forced back into reified identities. At times, particularly in the first episode, the play feels like a trial of Patriarchy — genocidal, imbued, if not created, from violence, monomaniacal and hateful — writ large. Andrej protests as much to Sabine. That impulse for Hamurabic law may be emotionally satisfying at times, but it doesn’t rise to the level of art.
It much is more interesting to watch a character navigate something in the human experience that is both unique (not many people can say they are the product of a rape that was intended as a program of systematic ethnic cleansing) and universal (many people can empathize with feeling alienated, perhaps radically so, from their parents). The inclusiveness of Anais’s internal struggle, not merely for ethnic identity but for human identity, demonstrates the way drama transcends the courtroom and lifts this compelling and extraordinary play above other plays that try to wrestle with genocide and ethnic cleansing. There is real truth in what Anais says on the rooftop of her building in Sarajevo, and you can tell it is truth because it embodies contradictions, impossibilities and, maybe, miracles.