It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 44: David Greig’s Dr Korczak’s Example (1998)
Set in a Jewish ghetto in occupied Warsaw, Greig’s play, based on real events, focuses on Janusz Korczak’s orphanage. Within the walls of the compound, poverty stricken, surrounded by flies and their deaths in concentration camps awaiting them, Dr Korczak has set up a functioning democracy for the children of the orphanage. They can vote for new children to leave if no one likes them and they can be judged by their own peers in their self-run court. His teachings and theories were enough to get him – and him only – a pardon from the Nazis to be spared death. This, typical of his selfless nature, was refused and he went with the children on the train to his death. But he’s now apparently a legendary figure in Eastern Europe and his ideas formed the basis for the United Nations Rights for Children bill.
New to the orphanage is street urchin Adzio. He’s more used to stealing and fighting for his food, under the impression that he has to play rough in order to survive. Finding it difficult to fit in under the (comparable) Utopia of Korczak’s care, the doctor gets Stephanie to take Adzio under her wing. She teaches him to care and look after others in the orphanage, but in return he encourages her to throw stones at the window of a church whose priest refuses to let the children into the gardens. Sorry for the trouble she may have caused for the orphanage, she can’t help but agree with Adzio’s survivalist ways of thinking. Despite us knowing the horrific history behind how the characters’ stories ended, Greig imbues his characters with a sense of vitality despite the oppression they are suffering from the Nazi soldiers. Korczak teaches his children to live life by example to defy the hatred of the Nazis, allowing for a piece of theatre which is optimistic despite its harrowing backstory.
To avoid being voyeuristic and to allow for a more practical staging, Dr Korczak’s Example stipulates that an alienation effect is employed in order to distance the characters and audience from the action of the play. Actors are actors as well as characters and inanimate dolls represent the children in the orphanage. Dolls from previous scenes can stay on stage to haunt the next scene and actors can interact with them. In the text, it’s perhaps most effective when Korczak is talking to a soldier with a gun (a doll) standing high about the walls guarding the ghetto. Ellipses in the text leave gaps where the soldier’s eerie silence goes, emphasising the inhuman nature of the Nazi gunman.
This play gives Korczak’s story a much deserved showing in front of a UK audience (although it has been given numerous European productions) in a contemporary style which allows the theme of indomitable love to flourish. Furthermore, it also makes us evaluate our thinking on modern education systems, made more interesting in that it was first performed in Scottish schools.