Near the beginning of Oooo!, a new play set in Nazi Germany toward the end of the war, two clowns sit in the bombed-out rubble of a circus tent discussing the moral responsibilities of comic performers trapped in real-life political tragedy.
Charlie, whose character is based on a famous Catalonian clown, wants to keep current events out of the circus ring. His stage name comes from Charlie Chaplin, and his clown routine is pure slapstick – which is convenient for Nazi authorities eager to distract the people from Germany’s military losses.
Witzi, in contrast, refuses to ignore the fascist nightmare around him. He tries to inject political satire into his comic pantomime, although his funniest jokes are deadpan statements of truth: “What is a Nazi? Someone who follows the ideas of a Führer. What is an anti-Nazi? Someone who understands them.”
Representing the former category is Kraus, a Gestapo plug-ugly with a full set of Aryan features and an empty Nazi head. At the start of the play, which makes its English language debut this week at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, Kraus orders Charlie to perform at Hitler’s birthday. “You know how the Führer admires your art. He wants to make you state clown.”
Charlie seems willing enough to play the part of Reichstag jester, although he becomes more reluctant when Kraus adds a personal request: he wants to be a part of the act. The problem is that Kraus, like all Nazis, is pathologically unfunny. His attempts at clowning end in frustration, and his comedic ambitions quickly degenerate into murderous resentment of the more talented clowns.
Kraus’s yearning to “be funny” is one of the ways the playwright, the Catalan Gerard Vàzquez, makes a potentially gimmicky premise – clowns in Nazi Germany! – into a drama of real political and psychological insight. With Kraus, the play convincingly shows how, in a culture built on hatred and violence, a man’s petty embarrassment over not telling good jokes could drive him to jealous slaughter.
Meanwhile, with Charlie, the play illustrates how the most innocent-sounding motives can give rise to dangerous complacency. Charlie insists his job as a clown is just to “make people laugh, to forget their suffering.” It only occurs to him late in the game that the people who come to his shows tend to be the ones inflicting the suffering.
The only times that these characters ring false are in the instances they actually talk about Nazi atrocities. When someone broaches the subject of the Jewish deportations, Charlie responds, “In a time of war, what do you expect?” But no one in Germany could seriously subscribe to such deluded folderol, since the persecution of Jews began years before the war.
One of the Jews deported is Witzi, and the scenes of him on a train to Auschwitz, in which he has a one-way conversation with a mute child in clown costume, are the most moving in the play. These bleak soliloquies punctuate scenes of Charlie and Kraus practising their act for Hitler, and the contrast poignantly captures the double-sided reality of a brutally exclusionary state.
Even more striking is the juxtaposition of Witzi’s morbid fate and his insouciant last words. He never stops cracking jokes, like the host of a late-night talk show: “I got 20 years and a day for saying Hitler was an idiot: a day for insulting Hitler and 20 years for leaking a state secret.”
Meanwhile, Charlie realizes the folly of his complacent clowning, and teams up with an old friend of Witzi’s to plan a Stauffenberg-style surprise for Hitler’s birthday show. But of course the scheme doesn’t succeed: the war has to go on. Sometimes, the play suggests that the moral choices of individuals matter as little to history as they do to dictators.
But even if tyrants stamp out resistance, they can’t really handle satire.their only comeback is more senseless violence. So when Witzi steps into the gas chamber, he still seems to be mocking the small-minded sadism of his executioners.
“I’ve always had a fantasy about killing people with laughter,” he says. “I’m sure the S.S. will be furious. I’m going to make these people laugh so hard they literally die.”