The other show that played recently at the Public was the surprisingly powerful Compulsion, written by Rinne Groff and starring Mandy Patinkin as Sid Silver, a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Meyer Levin. Silver “discovers” the Diary of Anne Frank, hustles it through the process of publication in America, and gets permission from Otto Frank, Anne’s father, to adapt the play for the stage. This, he declares, is the most important work he will ever do. But he doesn’t get to see his play come to life: Mr. Frank, the director, and the producers alike are unhappy with his work, and hand the job on to an experienced team of Hollywood hands, who write the stage adaptation that we are familiar with today. Silver responds by going on an obsessive rampage for the rest of his life, involving threats, lawsuits and an unauthorized Israeli production of his script. His obsession nearly destroys his marriage and certainly destroys what was left of his literary career. And on his death bed, he tells Anne Frank that he could never be as great a writer as she was.
It’s a compelling story even out of context, just a man in the grip of an unshakable obsession. But because the obsession is with the Diary, the story takes on a variety of additional resonances, the most important of which is the guilt - and, indeed, the jealousy - of the survivor. Silver’s wife argues with him that he’s neglecting his better work because of his obsession, but Silver, we realize early on, is obsessed with the Diary in part because it’s a better - more important, but also better - work of art than he will ever create. He will never speak with the authority of a survivor of the Holocaust, to say nothing of the silenced voice of someone - a charming young girl! - who was murdered. By adapting the Diary, he may merge his name with Anne’s, become, in a sense, the author, and the authority, that he can otherwise never be. And so his own quest becomes merged, in his mind, with the plight of the murdered Jews themselves - his opponents are Stalinists or even Nazis; he even compares Otto Frank himself to Hitler.
A great deal of the business of the play revolves around accusations of antisemitism, and we see glimpses of the kind of casual bias that was more common at the time, but that does nothing to justify Silver’s monomania. And yet Silver’s personal obsession, that the stage version of the Diary that did get produced was a de-Judaized one, has some merit as well - because it is, as, indeed, Otto Frank wanted it to be. But this isn’t a play about antisemitism. It’s a play about loss, and the cultural guilt attendant on that loss. Silver cannot let go of Anne Frank because she matters more than he does - obviously does, as he sees it. But she’s dead. He goes to Israel claiming that this will exorcise her ghost, but, as he later admits, he really did it only to deepen his obsession, to immerse himself in an oppositional Jewish world that would be even more psychologically supportive of his obsession than was the world of New York. That’s a pregnant insight about the meaning of Israel for an American Jew, particularly of his generation.
Philip Roth would understand this character; Isaac Singer certainly would. I wonder what Saul Bellow would have made him, if forced to confront what he represents.
The story is realized brilliantly on the stage. There are only three of actors in the production - Patinkin, who plays Silver; Hannah Cabel, who plays Silver’s wife and an employee at the publisher of the diary; and Matte Osian, who plays a variety of other characters, from Silver’s agent to an Israeli theatrical director. As the reviews have all mentioned, Anne Frank is, intermittently, also a character in the drama, played very winningly indeed by a marionette (Silver, we’re told, once ran a puppet theatre). What I don’t recall being mentioned is that Anne is not voiced by someone offstage; she is voiced by one of the actors on stage. Most often, Cabel voices Anne - but in one terrifying scene, when Anne Frank appears between the sleeping Silver and his wife in bed, her voice comes from Patinkin. It’s a brilliant choice, because the play is all about someone trying to put his voice into her mouth, and here he finally does, and the voice is terrifying. (Anne talks - sweetly, as always - about her death in the camps, something that, needless to say, is not described in the Diary). It positively gave me the willies.
And that, ultimately, is why I go to the theatre.