(Philipp Jedicke’s article appeared on DW, 5/5; Photo: DW.)
“Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror” is about a fictional circus troupe during the Third Reich. This tale of humanity in inhumane times is told by disabled and non-disabled people.
British playwright Hattie Naylor had originally wanted to tell a very different story from the one currently touring successfully through Britain. Her initial plan was for a play based on the cult 1932 horror film “Freaks” by US director Tod Browning, a movie that had made a big impact on her.
“What’s really special about it is that disabled people are the heroes in the film,” said Naylor. But the copyright situation was problematic, and the deeper Naylor delved into the history of circuses of the early 20th century, the more a very different story formed in her imagination — one that would become the musical “Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror.”
During her research, Naylor encountered numerous stories of circuses that employed disabled people, both before and during the Nazi regime. She read about people of short stature working as acrobats and clowns, about Jewish circus directors, and about Adolf Althoff, a non-Jewish German circus director who took in the Bento family of Jewish acrobats, hiding them and giving them work. And Naylor learned how several people were able to save themselves from certain death in extermination camps with touring and connections with international circuses.
Extermination of disabled people
During the Second World War, the Nazis murdered more than 250,000 disabled people. Disabled people were mercilessly persecuted or even turned in by their own relatives. They often met their deaths only after inhumane experiments were performed on them — as in the case of Lya Graf, a world-renowned short-statured circus star who perished in Auschwitz in 1941.
Naylor was especially horrified to read that the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring” was one of the first enacted by Adolf Hitler just six months after he seized power in January 1933. In his racist fantasy of omnipotence, German children were to be “nimble as greyhounds, tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel.” That law was only the beginning.
Under the Nazi dictatorship, thousands of disabled or short-statured people and those with psychiatric illnesses were forcibly sterilized, with the aim of “keeping the German national body pure.” Those people were as undesirable to the Nazis as Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, non-conformist artists or political opponents.
The speed with which the measures were implemented in the 1930s convinced Naylor of the importance of telling these stories today. “I am really aware of the rise of fascism in Europe again, and in my own country, and very dubious national and international movements,” she said.