The USM Department of Theatre is debuting the English language world premiere of In the Underworld, a darkly comedic musical written by the French ethnologist Germaine Tillion who secretly wrote the three-act script while imprisoned at the Nazi all women’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück in northern Germany.
The operetta was originally titled Le Verfügbar aux Enfers (The Campworker goes to Hell) and chronicles the struggles and horrors of life in a Nazi concentration camp as a “verfügbar.” In German that word means “available” and “disposable”, and was used as a term to describe a detainee whose sole purpose was to work the most undesirable jobs in the camp. It was in this position that Tillion purposely put herself as an act of defiance to the Nazi system. In the literary work by Tillion, a “verfügbar” is depicted as an inferior species that’s only expected to live no longer than two years.
The musical conveys Tillion’s attempts to blend dark elements with humor in a personal story that mirrors her own experiences in a reality-based fiction. In the Underworld focuses on the prisoners as they undergo the brutality of camp life.The play features musical content that would have been popular in the ‘30s, like the period-accurate song “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice”, but with some lyrical editing to add some amusement.
“Tillion chose great music that brings the show to life,” said Helena Villers, a sophomore vocal performance major who plays the role of French prisoner Lulu.
The dialogue is also wrought with black humour. At one point during the play a character exclaims that the camp of Ravensbrück is filled with “all creature comforts – water, gas, electricity – especially gas.” According to Villers the comedy arises naturally from brutal honesty. For the author Tillion, comedy was used intentionally as a method of coping with the appalling conditions of the work camp.
Tillion’s writing was a form of resistance. She could have been killed if a Nazi guard found her diary, but she disregarded the threat, and through comedic recounts that mocked the dismal conditions of life in the camp, Tillion was able keep up her morale and lift the spirits of the others in her cell, overcoming the horrors her life with art.
“I hope audiences come to see that laughter was a tool for survival and resistance,” said Meghan Brodie, the director of the production and assistant professor of theatre at USM.
In the Underworld had its first theater debut in France at the Théatrè du Châtelet in Paris over seven years ago. Now the first English adaptation is set for its debut thanks to the efforts of Brodie, who commissioned the first English translation of the operetta.
“I worked through reading the play in French and was incredibly excited about the possibility of directing it if a commission of an English translation was possible,” said Brodie. “I asked Annie and Karl Bortnick [ literature translators] if they were interested in the project and they immediately joined the creative team, providing an amazing translation of the script.”
Brodie invited Jonathan Marro, a former USM student, to act as music director and worked to ensure that the student actors understood the historical connections of the people they play. In December the cast of 11 USM students began holding “table work” meetings with Brodie. During these sessions, they studied the script, did research and watched historical documentaries to ensure that the foundations for their characters were accurate.
“The script, even as we move into rehearsals, is a work in progress as we continue our research, identify challenges and work with our actors,” said Brodie.
According to Brodie the team encountered many challenges bringing this play to USM. To produce the play, Brodie had to procure permissions from several French entities which took several months. However she stresses that she was fortunate to have Christophe Maudot, arranger and composer for the original French production, willing to work with her. Other challenges included working with the content of the script itself.
“The script itself is a challenge in terms of the structure, themes and variety of music,” she said. “It certainly has been tough to balance the dark humor of the script with the harsh realities of life in the camp.”
Five of the cast members are planning on shaving their heads for the play, while the remaining six will cut their hair short to look like prisoners whose shaved hair had grown back during a long imprisonment. According to Brodie, the motivation for the students to alter their appearance for the sake of performance stems from their dedication to the production and out of respect to the real life subjects of In the Underworld.
“It’s a way of authentically portraying and paying tribute to the women and the lives they lived in the camps,” said Brodie. “It’s not easy for any actor, but every actor consented.”
For Madelyn James, a senior theatre major who plays the role of the naturalist, the experience so far has been very educational.
“I have learned so much working on this production,” said James. “The education that I have received from this show will be the most valuable thing I will walk away with.”
Brodie shares the same sentiment saying, “This production has provided everyone involved with great opportunities for community outreach and education.” She added that the show will certainly be a learning experience for the audience as well. According to Brodie, there is no way pages in a text book could adequately portray the tragedies of that dark period of history.
“If we can help people see the result of racism, prejudice, stereotyping or remaining indifferent to a bad situation I think we’ve done our job,” said Villers.
Germaine Tillion, the acclaimed historian and ethnographer this play is based on, made it out of the camps alive after a Swedish Red Cross rescue operation. The rest of her life was dedicated to speaking and writing against social injustice and genocide. She lived to be 100 and died knowing of the success and public attention her literary work created.
Some 50,000 inmates died from fatigue, gassing or disease at the Ravensbrück camp, including Tillion’s mother who had been arrested after hiding a British soldier in her home. The memory of their hardships lives on through In the Underworld, which premieres April 18 at the Russell Hall in Gorham.
“I sincerely believe that we need to remember and discuss the events of the Holocaust to avoid repeating the horrors of the past,” said Brodie. The play, she said, is an artifact of resistance and hope, helping audiences and actors alike bear witness and remember the events of the past.