A memoirist is like one of those blind men in the fable, famously describing an elephant, or like one of the witnesses to murder in Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon. Each person experiencing an event sees things from their own perspective, drags his or her own baggage to the place of recounting. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, in his study of Kurosawa, says “Memory of a single person cannot be trusted completely because of a human propensity for using memory as a means of self-justification.” Of course. I was there in the summer of ’66. I kept my eyes open (I was wide-eyed as only a young theater person can be),listened, took notes, and, like everybody else, carried my own baggage. I still do, stowing it overhead, seldom checking it at the gate, for fear it will get lost. I have the soul of an archivist, the heart of a librarian and the instincts of a packrat. Now and then I unpack and, as best I can, try to remember what happened.
As soon as the Wilder play opened, rehearsals for The Merchant of Venice began. Viveca Lindfors had already been rehearsing The Cretan Woman for two weeks and directors Tabori and Martin Fried would share the actors who were in both plays. Tabori’s task was an immense one, almost impossible. He and his actors dealt in rehearsal with three levels of reality at once. His production was based on legend, on the rumor that Shakespeare’s play had been performed by actors in an internment camp during the second World War. In this “model” camp, created by the Nazis to show the world that they treated their prisoners with kindness and compassion, imprisoned theater artists had approached their warders and proposed a theatrical production. The commanders of the camp had said “All right, but you must perform that anti-semitic play The Merchant of Venice.” George said to us “I don’t to this day know the production was done in the death camp, where, or by whom, or how, or ever. But the legend persists, unconfirmed and haunting as legends are. This spring, a Hungarian magazine carried an item, suggesting that the play had been presented, at the command of the Nazis, in Terezin, already famous for a performance there of Verdi’s Requiem.”
Arthur Penn saw his chance in a proposal that the Hungarian writer/director George Tabori and his wife Viveca Lindfors made to the board of directors of the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, where Penn and his friend and colleague William Gibson happened to live. The Playhouse had operated for decades as a typical summer stock theater, often featuring stars in leading roles, but what was known as “The Straw Hat Circuit” was fading in popularity and the theater’s board of directors, hearing Tabori and Lindfors’ proposal, decided to try a different approach to summer theater.