(Claire Allfree’s article appeared in the Telegraph, 3/23.)
“Music is the holiest activity of mankind,” says the Austrian-Jewish violinist Alma Rosé to a fellow Jew, the singer Fania Fénelon, in Arthur Miller’s wrenching play. But can music remain holy in that most hellish of places, a Nazi concentration camp? This is the unanswerable question at the heart of Miller’s 1980 drama, based on Fénelon’s memoir and which was initially a TV play starring Vanessa Redgrave.
Here the indomitable Siân Phillips plays Fénelon, a cabaret star sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Since she knows how to sing Madame Butterfly she is handed a monstrous lifeline: to join the camp’s rag-taggle female orchestra organised by the music-mad Nazis, partly as a civilising experiment, partly to help “strengthen” the Nazis for “this difficult work of ours”, as Commandant Kramer tells Fénelon in all sincerity. For its mainly Jewish members the orchestra is arguably the most grotesque of the many moral paradoxes thrown up by the struggle to survive. They avoid the gas chambers, but get to serenade their fellow Jews as they walk to their deaths, and perform Beethoven’s Fifth in the camp hospital so that the notorious Dr Mengele can observe its effect on the sick and insane even while they too are being led to the gas chambers.