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For his premiere of The Cannibals at the Berliner Schiller Theater in December of 1969, George Tabori had an escape car waiting just in case the German audience reacted poorly to his play. Not only was he bringing the first Holocaust play set at a concentration camp to the German stage, but it was extremely comedic in nature. Tabori’s Holocaust play was funny. This had never been done before, especially not by a Hungarian Jew who had lost most of his family in the Holocaust. No one knew how the German audience, especially the non-Jewish audience, would react. Tabori wanted to be prepared. He needn’t have been. The audience responded with standing ovations. The critics were surprised. The American audience had received The Cannibals mildly. More importantly, a German audience had never reacted with such enthusiasm to a Holocaust play. What had George Tabori done to the Berlin audience? Two of his later comedic Holocaust plays, My Mother's Courage, which premiered in Munich in 1979, and Mein Kampf, which premiered in Vienna in 1987, caused similar reactions. As a third generation German-American born and raised in Berlin, I can’t help but wonder what happened at the Schiller Theater that night in December 1969. Tabori’s “Theater der Peinlichkeit,” as it is called nowadays, roused something in the Berlin audience that hadn’t been heard in a long time. I suspect it was laughter. Laughter about something the Germans hadn’t ever been able to laugh about. They were laughing during a play about the Holocaust. I don’t believe it.
In this paper I will to argue that their laughter was a vehicle for something else. Their laughter was a first breath. The German audience was breathing for the first time in a long time. It was alive again. It was responding viscerally and veraciously to something that it had been failing to address. I want to argue that Tabori’s “Theater der Peinlichkeit” broke pre-conceived Holocaust-theater taboos by utilizing comedy as a theatrical device. He reinforced this upheaval of taboos by upsetting the victim-perpetrator relationships, confusing the audience’s expectations about feelings such as guilt and shame, and breaking down the fourth wall in his work. With his plays Mein Kampf, My Mother's Courage, and The Cannibals, Tabori brought into existence for German theater-goers a new kind of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” or process of dealing with ones past.
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Bell, Leonie F., "Laughter at Auschwitz: George Tabori’s “Theater der Peinlichkeit” and “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” in Post-War Germany" (2012). Senior Projects Spring 2012. 246.
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