By Lisa Peschel
During my nearly 20 years of research on the cultural life of the World War II Jewish Ghetto at Theresienstadt (in Czech, Terezín) many tantalizing fragments have come to light. In addition to the complete theatrical scripts that were preserved (see my anthology Performing Captivity, Performing Escape for details), individual scenes and songs provide clues about the rich theatrical life of the ghetto.
One of the most intriguing finds was a set of songs for a musical called Prince Bettliegend (Prince Bedridden). Several survivors recalled the lyrics to these songs, which were set to popular melodies from the interwar Liberated Theatre in Prague. The Terezín lyrics had been preserved, even published, but the libretto was nowhere to be found. What story had these songs accompanied? In the summer of 2017, the Performing the Jewish Archive project provided me with not just one but two opportunities to reconstruct that story.
PtJA co-investigator Joseph Toltz and I had talked about the songs over the years, due to our shared interest in Terezín and the Liberated Theatre. When he began organising our Out of the Shadows festival in Australia, he invited me to work with him and colleagues at the University of Sydney to create a performance of Prince Bettliegend. We knew that a true reconstruction was impossible – all we had were the songs, a poster, and several fragments of survivor testimony about the play – but we aimed to reimagine the musical in a way that would speak to audiences today. Because our South African festival was scheduled to take place mere weeks after the Sydney festival, I asked our collaborators in Cape Town and Stellenbosch if they would be interested in creating their own version of Prince Bettliegend, based just on the songs and a detailed plot outline that we would provide. Thus two radically different re-imaginings emerged, each speaking to very different audiences while at the same time remaining completely faithful to the history of the ghetto.
Joseph approached Dr Ian Maxwell at the University of Sydney about the project, and he and his head of department, Dr Laura Ginters, devised an ambitious plan. Ian recruited five actors who were part of the Sydney alternative theatre scene and challenged them to help us create the story, and Laura incorporated the project into a performance ethnography module: a group of theatre undergraduates would observe and write on our creative process as part of their coursework. The actors improvised around a plot outline that I had created, based on survivor memories and the song lyrics, and that Ian, Joseph and I had fleshed out immediately upon my arrival in Sydney.
Joseph also brought music director Dr Kevin Hunt into the project to arrange the music for a student jazz ensemble at the Sydney Conservatorium. Joseph and Kevin’s early work with the actors on the songs set the tone of the piece: it was unexpectedly light-hearted. The Liberated Theater’s founders Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich were committed anti-fascists, but they were also comedians. The jazz melodies by their brilliant composer, Jaroslav Ježek, accompanied hilarious lyrics that cut the Nazi regime down to size and emphasized the strength of ordinary but united people. Terezín prisoners Josef Lustig, Jiří Spitz and František Kovanic, who created Prince Bettliegend, borrowed the melodies for their own comic fairy tale. In brief, the King (clearly an allegory for the Jewish leadership of the ghetto) promises the hand of his daughter in marriage to whomever can cure the Prince of a mysterious ailment that prevents him from getting out of bed. Two comic characters, Hocus and Pocus, try to save him, only to find out that the King is actually bribing a ghetto doctor to ensure that the Prince remains ill – and therefore cannot be sent away on an ongoing transport.
What did this mean in Terezín terms? The prisoners feared outgoing transports ‘to the East’ as a voyage into the unknown and were desperate to avoid them, sometimes drawing on personal connections with ghetto leaders or resorting to bribery to be removed from transport lists. Thus Prince Bettliegend was a satire on favouritism and corruption in the ghetto. The reality, however, was much worse than the creators of the musical could have imagined: the Nazis successfully concealed the true destination of the transports – most went to Auschwitz – until the end of the war.
After studying the history of the ghetto and the influence of Voskovec and Werich with our actors, our response to the material was unanimous: we would honour the original piece by keeping its comic tone. But our own themes soon emerged. Through an accident of casting – all of the actors except the one playing Bettliegend himself were in their late 40s or 50s – the plot began to revolve around the efforts of the older prisoners to save the life of the young prince. This theme was also true to the history of Terezín. The Jewish leaders of the ghetto devoted their scarce resources to protecting children and youth as much as possible. The large number of survivors younger than 16 years of age – over 1600 – is a testament of the success of their efforts.
The result of our development process? The three nights of the run sold out to enthusiastic audiences, and the performance can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/246407843. There are many moments of revelation, of laughter, of a sense of connection with the Terezín actors that I will always remember, but perhaps one is the most intense. Edith Sheldon, a Terezín survivor living in Sydney, advised us on the performance. While she and I were watching a rehearsal, she began to sing along: not our English-language lyrics, but the original Czech lyrics from Terezín , which she not only remembered – as she told us, all the young Czech Jews sang those songs in the ghetto – but remembered with great pleasure. The value of bringing this work into the present merged with the value of eliciting her unexpected memories: memories of the pleasure she experienced due to the creativity of her fellow prisoners, even in a World War II Jewish ghetto.
While the Australian team was developing Prince Bettliegend, Amelda Brand at Stellenbosch University, supported by her head of department Professor Petrus Du Preez, took on the plot outline and songs and began to work with a multi-racial student cast to develop their own version. Music director Leonore Bredekamp developed her own klezmer-inflected versions of the songs for a five-piece ensemble.
Because I was not present for the development of the South African production, my first viewing, a dress rehearsal just a few days before the show opened, was a revelation. While studying the history of the ghetto together, Amelda and her students drew many parallels with the history of racial discrimination in South Africa. Through casting and the development of their own script, privilege became equated with race: the Prince was being saved because he was white, and the characters Hocus and Pocus, played by black actors, use their wiles to survive in a ghetto where they had no access to such privilege.
The show was performed twice to enthusiastic audiences, and can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/242929339. The cast was subsequently invited to perform Prince Bettliegend at the annual Word Festival in Stellenbosch, to great acclaim. The most emotional moment for me, however, remains the first time I saw the ending at the dress rehearsal. During the finale song, each performer stepped forward in turn, said the name of the Terezín actor who had played their role, and briefly described the fate of that actor. It was tremendously moving to see these students, many of whom were the same age as the Terezín actors, recite brief bios such as ‘she survived and returned to Prague after the war’ or, much too often, simply ‘he perished’.
After viewing both versions, and hearing from both casts what this project had meant to them, I can only conclude that the story Lustig, Spitz and Kovanic created in Terezín, set to Ježek’s brilliant melodies, is still incredibly, flexibly alive. Two very different casts on two very different continents were able to imbue the performance with meaning, personally and for their present-day audiences, while remaining true to the history of the ghetto. The PtJA project has always aimed to bring the lost works of Jewish artists into the present, and I can think of no more fitting way to honour these artists than to let Prince Bettliegend live and breathe in today’s world, speaking to new artists and new audiences all over the world.