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The lights rise on a seated marionette of Anne Frank poring over her notebook as she writes her most famous line: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Her movements, even that of the pen in her fingers, are brought to life by puppeteers Matt Acheson and Eirin Stevenson uncannily manipulating control rods and strings. She then turns to the audience, and, perhaps echoing the thoughts of playwright Rinne B. Groff, explains that she doesn’t control the copyright to those words. At the play’s 2010 premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, Frank’s original Dutch manuscript was not yet in the public domain—that changed in 2016, but the 1952 translation by B.M. Mooyaart-Doubleday (no relation to the American publishing house) is still under copyright in the U.S. The questions of whether Frank’s belief is true, and what it means to own her words, are central to Compulsion or the House Behind, now playing at Theater J.
It’s 1951 in the New York office of publisher Sid Silver (Paul Morella), an acclaimed novelist and war correspondent representing Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the family’s sole survivor, to senior editor Mr. Thomas (Marcus Kyd in what becomes a running gag of interchangeable Doubleday executives in matching suits) and Miss Mermin (Kimberly Gilbert), a junior editor who would be the same age as Anne had she lived. Sid is arranging for the American publication of the diary that he and his wife (also Gilbert) read in France.
Silver, who has been acting as Frank’s agent with little more than a handshake to bind them, learns that Frank has been engaging in his own negotiations. Soon after, he discovers his oral agreement with Frank, which gave him permission to pen a stage adaptation, is similarly non-binding and that Doubleday controls those rights as well. Therefore, his script must be deemed acceptable by one of their approved theater producers.
Today, it’s well-known that, in his role as his daughter’s literary executor, Otto Frank excised Anne’s entries about her sexuality; less well-known is that as an assimilationist who wanted to push a universal message, he expunged Anne’s entries on Jewish identity, religion, and holidays. (These passages were eventually published in 1989.) Doubleday was happy to cooperate in order to appeal to a mainstream American audience. Instead of an introduction by a Jewish writer, they recruited former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to write it, and while Silver’s New York Times review stirs up interest in the book, they don’t credit him when they quote it at length on the dust-jacket.
While Sid Silver is fictitious, the details of his life are based on that of Meyer Levin. Levin’s play was presented on the CBS radio network twice in 1952 to acclaim, but Lillian Hellman, who’d been brought on as a consultant, deemed his script “too faithful” (which Levin interpreted as “too Jewish”). Hellman recommended the producer hire her screenwriters to write the stage adaptation. That version opened on Broadway in 1955 and was adapted again for the 1959 film, which, for commercial appeal, downplayed the Jewish identity of the Frank family, and the antisemitic nature of their persecution. The self-appointed protector of Anne’s memory, Levin sued Otto Frank for breach of contract and the screenwriters for plagiarism. However, by not owning the rights to Anne’s story, he was forced to settle. His attempts to sway public opinion—taking out newspaper ads and seeking endorsements from other writers—had a detrimental effect on both his career and family life.
The invention of Silver becomes obvious. Groff might admire Levin in the way that Levin admired Anne, but she understands that she does not own him.
Director Johanna Gruenhut was an assistant director on the original production and her commitment to the material shows throughout—particularly in the play’s most powerfully staged scene, when Silver’s play receives a public performance in Tel Aviv with the Israeli Defense Forces’ Soldiers Theatre. Silver, like his real-life inspiration, had been the director of a marionette theater early in his career; consequently Groff wrote Compulsion with puppetry in mind—the marionette design is not special effect, but essential to the story. Other veterans of the original production are the puppeteers/actors: Acheson and Stevenson invest Anne with all the energy and idiosyncratic tics of a teenage artist.
Morella strikes the right balance, someone who functions for years at a time until his obsession remerges and sets him tilting at windmills. Levin’s own obsession never left him, despite continued success as an author and documentary filmmaker. Gilbert, a skilled physical comedian, needs only a gesture to distinguish between her portrayal of Mermin and Mrs. Silver. The latter role sometimes hews too closely to the stock character of the alternately supportive, concerned, and neglected yet saucy young wife of the artist when her real-life analogue, Tereska Torrès, was a veteran of the Free French Forces who had already written two novels by the time the play opens. Kyd is so good as the first act’s indistinguishably deadpan Messrs. Thomas, Harris, Ferris, and Williams that when he reappears in act two as the unkempt, coffee gulping director of the Soldiers Theatre, Mr. Matzliach, the transformation is surprising in itself.
In the second act, Anne observes that everyone seems to like her better dead. It is convenient for all who have made an icon of the posthumously bestselling diarist that she never had a say in her publication; that if she wrote anything of her time in Westerbork, Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Bergen-Belsen where she died of typhus, it has been lost; that she didn’t survive to voice an opinion of what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust, or question whether “people are really good at heart.” As Dara Horn says in her recent collection of essays, People Love Dead Jews: “Living Jews, not so much.”
Compulsion or the House Behind, written by Rinne B. Groff and directed by Johanna Gruenhut, runs through Feb. 20 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Streaming services are also available. theaterj.org. $50–$75.