14 January 2015

Traumatic Memories on the Stage – A Hungarian Holocaust Survivor in Elizabeth Kuti’s Treehouses


Playwright and actress Elizabeth Kuti (b. 1969) was born in England, as the child of an English mother and a Hungarian father. Her award-winning early drama, Treehouses was written during the time she was living in Ireland, and premiered at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, in 2000. Not long after its successful run, the author and her work were selected for inclusion as representatives of contemporary women’s drama in Ireland, in Volume V of the renowned The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, subtitled as Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions (2002). Not Irish-born yet considered as an Irish author in the theatre world of Ireland, Kuti describes the complexities of her identity as profoundly stimulating in an interview:
 
I feel very English, and also kind of distanced from Englishness. … I think I also tacitly got from my father an outsider’s view of England and Englishness – things he found funny or ridiculous. Nationality is a concept that I find very difficult to grasp – I suppose it seems too fluid and haphazard a thing to me. Now I live in Ireland and I have a son born here who is therefore technically Irish which also feels strange. … but I don’t want to deny any of what I am or what I have inherited. I am very lucky to have English family and Hungarian family, and I feel strong bonds with both and I love feeling connected to people and countries other than my immediate surroundings. A lot of all this stuff obviously went into the mix when I was writing Treehouses. (Kurdi 12)
 
Both the onstage and offstage action of Treehouses is set in different countries reflecting Kuti’s experience of having a mixed identity and multicultural heritage. The stage is divided into three parts, juxtaposing as well as layering visible and invisible, recollected spaces. Eva, a young woman is visiting her father’s garden after his funeral, recalling the time when she was a child and they lived there together in a symbiotic relationship after her mother had left them for good. Her memories are presented in the form of a monologue. The other character appearing in the present time of the drama is Old Magda, a woman in her seventies, who lives in a residential home for elderly people and is vividly haunted by events of the past. The third space is a farm “somewhere in middle Europe”, where Old Magda’s most acute memories of certain particularly important days of her youth (evoked as Young Magda’s experiences) are enacted.
 
A further triple feature can be recognised in the generic and formal side of the drama. Charlotte Headrick, the director of the American première of the play (2005) claims that “Treehouses functions on several levels. On one level it is a Holocaust drama. … On another level, the play is an emigration/immigration play, one of the great themes of Irish drama. … Additionally, Treehouses is a memory play …” (42). The aim of the present paper is to discuss Kuti’s drama in view of these generic characteristics, which make up a unique combination. Treehouses can be classified as a Holocaust drama because the action, relying on the two women’s memories, revolves around a Hungarian Jewish man named Joseph, who died shortly before the opening of the play. His story unfolds through the women characters’ recollections and flashbacks: as a boy of about sixteen he managed to flee from the threat of deportation to a concentration camp during WWII by hiding in various places then taking the highly dangerous journey across borders to the west on his own. Thus he survived the Holocaust, but became uprooted, lost his family, friends, sense of security and the kind of home life he used to be part of. He is absent from the play yet his one-time presence is keenly felt by both female protagonists in their own respective ways: he was Old Magda’s protégé and intimate friend during the short time she sheltered him in the hayloft of the barn on her father’s farm, and it gradually turns out that he was Eva’s just buried father.
 
Like so many pieces of world drama addressing the traumatic impact of the most difficult and painful segments of twentieth-century history, Treehouses draws on (but is not entirely based on) personal experience. In a message to Charlotte Headrick the playwright claims that “[t]he play definitely came out of events in my family history, in that my father (who is Hungarian and Jewish) was hidden during the war by someone in Budapest. I met her in the summer of 1996 when she was a very old lady”. Further, Kuti claims that “there’s quite a lot of all that influencing the play, but the characters, settings and incidents are all made up” (qtd. in Headrick 44–45). In an article she contributed to a volume about the portrayal of local and global issues in Irish drama, Kuti also says that in her childhood she sometimes felt the presence of secrets about some unknown family members whose black-and-white photos she found in the house of her Hungarian grandparents:
 
I don’t blame anyone in the least; there’s never going to be an easy moment to explain to a seven-year-old what Auschwitz was. But there was mystery and subterfuge everywhere, and always a feeling of secrets, and of being protected from some truth that was too awful to be mentioned. I think this pervasive sense of a subtext that I barely understood and from which I had somehow to be “protected”, was perhaps the provocation that made me start writing, and writing drama in particular. Drama ignites where the subtext exerts an intolerable pressure on the surface of things; where the spoken clashes with the unspoken; where words and deeds diverge. (“Strangeness” 143)
 
The state of being protected from understanding the truth about dark secrets appears in the play Treehouses too, shifted back to the old country of the grandparents. In the reminiscences of Old Magda her younger self, like thousands of others, is misinformed by expressions like “resettlement programme” (32) in the public discourse and remains isolated from what is really happening to the stigmatised part of the population. Haunted by the events of the time when she was eighteen, Old Magda says: “thinking of that summer it seems filled with the noises of flight and exodus, our frightened countryside filled with burnt out and empty houses, homes emptied of their families, and trains, trains, trains, always trains passing through – we heard their steel heartbeat but we did not understand – I did not understand – not until much later –” when it was too late (16). Although the author does not provide a date for the action in the past, the summer is most probably that of 1944.
 
Jewishness, the Holocaust, Nazism and concentration camps are not mentioned in the drama explicitly, yet the implied, coded references to them are unmistakable. Joseph, the “Boy” in the cast is a refugee whose figure is shrouded in mystery because he now lives only in the imagination. The first time he appears on stage he is standing “in a pool of light carrying a small bundle” (10), offering a visual image filtered through Old Magda’s memories. Similarly to Old Magda, readers and/or spectators become perplexed by this ghostly figure and the loss, pain, anger and abandonment it evokes. Deliberately, Kuti does not offer specific references to the three countries in the drama, leaving “the settings open and ambiguous” (Kuti, “Strangeness” 145). There are subtle clues, however, to the settings: Old Magda recollects singing a well-known Hungarian folksong to the Boy in the hayloft where he found temporary shelter. The same song, beginning with the line “Repülj madár repülj” (“Fly away, oh sweet bird, fly”) is sung by Eva too, who learnt it from her father, the one-time Boy. Musing about their life together Eva remembers a trip to Wales with her father, suggesting that their old home and garden, where she is sitting after the recent funeral, are in England. From the window of the nursing home where she lives in the present Old Magda has a wonderful view of the sea and the woman taking care of her called by the “androgynous Irish nickname” Ger (Murphy 84), uses expressions characteristic of Dublin speech, therefore the place seems to be in Ireland. The locations of the play, thus, can be identified as Hungary, England and Ireland, the three countries and nations having their respective role in shaping Kuti’s personal and artistic identity.
 
Writing about Holocaust drama Gene A. Plunka notes that some playwrights “transcend the Holocaust by universalising the experience” (94), and the ambiguity of locations and lack of specificities in Treehouses can be regarded as one of the strategies to achieve such an effect. An analysis of influence and cultural/literary allusions provides more insight into the ways in which universalising works with Kuti. When asked about the possible influence of Irish drama on this work, Kuti answered that Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964) was more of a predecessor for her, because “[l]ament and sadness (and guilt) about the past seem to be a big part of memory plays, and perhaps that’s common to Irish and to Jewish culture and literature” (Kurdi 11). Miller tends to use evocative symbols in the plays of his that touch on the Holocaust. After the Fall has “the blasted stone tower of a German concentration camp”(1) dominating the stage throughout the action. Broken Glass (1994) ,Miller’s much later accomplished play related to the Holocaust is set in Brooklyn in 1938, after the news about the horror of Kristallnacht had reached Jewish Americans across the ocean. One of the main characters, Sylvia Gellburg, the wife of a successful businessman suddenly loses the use of her legs, presumably because she feels no longer safe. It is not, Christopher Bigsby writes, a docu drama and Miller does not write thesis plays. Instead he offers an image of that paralysis of the spirit which is a fact of personal lives as much as of national policy. The characters in this play wrestle above all with their own private demons. Faced with painful truths they have chosen denial but there comes a moment when protective strategy becomes the source of disabling pain” (178–79). Sylvia is able to stand on her feet again only when her husband is willing to shed his protective mask of playing the strong man and confess to his wife that in some other way he has always been paralysed by his repressed fears of being a Jew: “Why we’re different I will never understand but to live so afraid, I don’t want that any more” (74).
 
Miller’s choice to utilise non-naturalistic modes of reflection on Jewishness and the Nazi terror as well as include resonances of the both complex and elusive notion of protection/safety in his Holocaust drama have their echo in Treehouses. In Kuti’s play the main symbol is the treehouse, made by Eva’s father as a little place of protection for her in the garden, from which she “saw the moon through the branches” and called it “my refuge” (15), thus it represents the magic and secure world of childhood. The hiding place of the Boy, the hayloft of the barn on the farm of Magda’s father is a parallel to it, both are shelters (perhaps hence the plural form in the title of the play), but prove to be temporary. For Eva the harmonious life with her father and her uncontested rule over the garden from the treehouse ends when she has to share her father’s love with a woman he meets and then marries, called Miriam. Reliving the past in her monologue she recollects a scene of the holiday they took in Wales still before Miriam:
 
And then all of a sudden we’re on this stretch of hillside surrounded by the hugest boulders, all posed, frozen in mid-spin and we’re standing in their midst two poor scraps of flesh in this city of rock and stone … I asked my father in a small voice, What would happen if there was a landslide? Right now? What should we do? He squeezed my hand and looked up at the grey sky with just one bird blowing across it and smiled a huge smile down at me, and I knew then I had been foolish to be scared, of course he would save me, no mere rock could threaten our safety. … then I heard him say we would die Eva. I think we would die. (33–34)
 
In hindsight, Eva is compelled to realise that her father “never promised protection from the dark” because “that was not in [his] gift” (49). In contrast with her individual plight, the Boy’s (her father’s) loss of his temporary shelter and the hope of being protected for long is connected with the larger narrative of the Holocaust. As it becomes more and more dangerous for people to hide Jews in Hungary, the Boy is hard pressed to leave the farm. Magda promises to keep him safe by leaving with him but is weak enough to choose self-protection instead in the last minute and stays back home. Thus the Boy has to begin the long, westward journey across unknown lands alone, in search of safety in another, most certainly faraway country.
 
Each of the eleven scenes in Miller’s Broken Glass begins with a lone cellist who is playing a simple tune which soon fades away, offering a lyrical tone to underscore the interior, deeply psychological aspects of the play. Speaking about an additional source of inspiration for her work Kuti refers to the “dream-like, magical quality of Marc Chagall’s paintings: a violinist, a man and woman flying through the sky over little houses and woods. The intention with the play, therefore, was not to be historically realistic or photographically naturalistic, but to give the play a simple, fable-like quality: to create a mood of lyricism, … the simple universal feeling of a nursery rhyme or of the Bible” (“Strangeness” 145–46). Conspicuously, the names of the main characters carry biblical analogies and overtones. Eva had enjoyed living in her little Edenic world beside her father for years before another person interfered and she lost her paradise. Her father, Joseph’s name recalls the betrayal and suffering, then respected and worthy life of his namesake in the Old Testament. Magda’s name is a version of the biblical Maria Magdalene, whose act of repentance resonates in the words of Kuti’s dramatic character that close the play: “I will bring a bowl of salt and water to bathe your feet. I will save you from the fire. I will make an ark and set it among the rushes for some Pharaoh’s daughter to find” (81). In John L. Murphy’s view allusions in Treehouses follow a complicated pattern but it seems that “Old Magda carries on the heroic role of biblical matriarchs” (83). Miriam’s saving love of Joseph, which makes a new life possible for him in the play echoes Miriam, Moses’s sister’s saving role in the biblical story as she was the one to suggest that the Pharaoh’s daughter employ a Hebrew woman, their own mother, as the carer of the baby found on the water.
 
Through telling their stories in parallel, the play connects the childhood psychological drama of Eva, dispossessed by her father’s remarriage, with the displacement and dispossession that her father himself went through as a Jewish child in the Second World War”, Kuti writes (“Strangeness” 148–49). In the play’s text the treehouse in the garden and the hayloft in the barn as shelters are associated with the Biblical ark made of bulrushes, in which the infant Moses was placed and sent on a journey towards possible safety and protection. In Eva’s reminiscences: “the treehouse was a refuge, an ark nothing to see but leaves and sky nothing to hear but birds” (20) which, on the night of her father’s wedding she decided should be set on fire to be “consumed and exhaled, freed by fire” (77). At several points, Magda’s memories are punctuated by reciting the Biblical story of a mother hiding her child and “when she could no longer hide him”, trusting him to the safety of “an ark of bulrushes … daubed … with slime and with pitch” (77), which functions as a parallel to her hiding the Boy in the barn and then releasing him with food and clothes in his bag. The poetic image of the ark contributes to establishing the timelessness of the broader narrative Magda’s reminiscences are connected with, about suffering, a haunting sense of guilt and remorse but also hope to transcend hardships.
 
The dynamic juxtaposition and vivid evocation of a plurality of cultural spaces in Treehouses shatters the audience’s expectations of being presented with a single and coherent narrative, which identifies the work as a postmodern memory play. Interlaced with each other in spite of an obvious spatial gap, Old Magda’s and Eva’s memories offer an insight into mid-twentieth century personal and larger histories through vividly shifting viewpoints and a mosaic-like structuring of individual experiences. Old Magda’s reminiscences are triggered by her sense of guilt: she made a promise which she failed to fulfil. At points, interrupting even the enacted scenes like scraps of an endlessly flowing interior monologue, she is engaged in self-questioning and self-blaming: “Should I be harder on myself or less hard? I have not been kind. I have been guilty – I have not always been kind” (10). Old Magda is anxiously wondering about what became of the Boy after he left their farm, which pushes her to relive the moments when her younger self cowardly refrained from making a personally risky sacrifice and chose to remain with her father and her fiancé, Stephen. In her troubled psychic state she feels an inner pressure to articulate the kind of traumatic hauntedness that many non-Jewish people who were witnessing the humiliation, persecution and even destruction of Jews experienced during and after the Holocaust era. Young Madga became a close witness of a stigmatised person, the Boy’s plight and expressed her willingness to help by promising him continued protection. However, in the decisive moment she found herself unable to act up to her promise.
 
Tortured by remorse Old Magda’s vivid memories are appropriately rendered by an imaginary re-enactment of how her younger self experienced a paralysing turbulence of feelings at that time, having “such a struggle in [her] heart” (6). On learning about the girl’s actual preparations for departure with the Boy to help him cross the border her fiancé, Stephen reacts according to the strict principles of a patriarchal society in which the would-be wife is already a piece of possession under surveillance, as well as in line with his narrowly self-protective and servile political creed: “What would I do? I could … report the pair of you and get decorated. … If you go, I will forget you. I will cut you out of my heart. Don’t think that I’ll mourn you for ever because I won’t. I’ll love someone else. I will cut you out of my heart and I will never ever let you back in” (75, 76). Her last conversation with the Boy reflects her instinct to refrain from making a sacrifice which would threaten the established ways of her life:
 
YOUNG MAGDA. I am no good Joe. I am no good.
BO
Y. Please don’t do this. Please come with me.
YOUNG MAGDA. I can’t.
BOY. Please. I’m scared to go alone. I can’t go on my own.
YOUNG MAGDA. I’m sorry Joe. I made a mistake. I can’t.
BOY. Am I going to die?
YOUNG MAGDA. I don’t know.
BO
Y. Do you think I am going to die?
YOUNG MAGDA. I don’t know.
He makes a sudden run for the door and is gone. She is left alone in the empty barn. (76–77)
 
In her present state of anxious hauntedness Magda remembers the Boy asking about his possible death twice, so much is she troubled by the thought that he may not have survived his dangerous escape. Also, the question “[h]ow many chances are we given in love?” (48), with love probably understood in the broader, humanitarian sense, still keeps on haunting Magda in a faraway nursing home, many decades later than that fateful summer.
 
Magda’s narrative also contains embedded narratives (or memories within memories) that describe how much the Boy, the Holocaust survivor lost when he was driven away from his family by a strong sense of imminent danger. His stories about their home life are quoted by Magda, in a tone that is fable-like, close to the mysterious, surreal paintings of Chagall:
 
And upstairs was where granny lived – well she’s not really our granny but we called her that anyway … And in the main room there’s the fireplace with my mother’s chair next to it and beside that there are two hooks in the wall where my father hangs up his violin. … He played the violin in the picture house. … He was the accompanist. Up on the little podium, doing all the tearjerkers (36–37).
 
The Boy speaks about a world in which he used to feel safe and his home, which he had lost forever by the time he met Young Magda. On Old Magda’s mental stage he is also re-imagined as evoking one of the romantic films about lovers who find each other after many years, to which his father provided musical accompaniment:
 
my father would crouch over his violin and his hair would fall madly over his face and his mouth would go this strange shape – on the little podium, you know, with just this light on him and all the women in the cinema would yearn with him… (45).
 
The memory in the memory presents Magda’s musings about the vanished sites of the once shared homeland and her hopes for a clue to reconnect with the Boy spiritually and understand the strange attraction she felt towards him in the old days.
 
Eva’s memories are rendered in the monologue form throughout. The form establishes the theatre of the self, tending to foreground subjectivity as protean and blur the borderline between monologue and dialogue. At the centre of Eva’s monologue is her uncommonly close relationship with her father, and the painful, albeit necessary, process of emotional separation from him. The text shows the influence of the stream-of-consciousness technique as used in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, shifting and often flowing unpunctuated, confession-like, with scraps of dialogue between Eva’s two selves and of exchanges with her father incorporated. Through her lens the father abandoned by his first wife is presented as a mysteriously melancholic man: “sometimes when you told me things your sadness brimmed out of you and into me until I was stained the same colour couldn’t tell anymore which was you and which was me” (7-8). The Hungarian folksong she heard from him and now sings in a language unknown to her is making Eva more aware of the depth of her father’s loneliness, which she senses but is not able to penetrate:
 
EVA. (sings softly) Repülj madár, repülj Ménaságra repülj Édes galambomnak
Gyenge vállára ülj (11).
 

Magda’s evocation of the Boy’s memories is paralleled here by Eva’s realisation that her father had left a whole world in the old land, his mother country, and his survival involved a breach with the past to escape destruction. Eva’s free-flowing reminiscences about his possible relation to the culture represented by the song are running on:
 
more a love-song than a lullaby didn’t know much of his language the one he was born with perhaps he cast it away with his past a room too filled with memories to enter very often perhaps now that’s why the words seem as lost as far away as unreachable as you (11).
 
The stream-of-consciousness technique merges present and past; Eva not only retells but also relives certain crucial episodes of her family memories. Between the retrospective, narrating I and the narrated I there is a distance of several years, yet the style underscores the unusual vividness of Eva’s autobiographical recollections. Felt at the sensitive age of twelve, her deprivation and loss due to her father experiencing new love are evoked in the present in a most shocking way. Eva renders her extreme psychic crisis in the past as an emotional turbulence which moved her beloved father too. The intensity of their feelings fragments the text even more, culminating in a style of quick, staccato rhythm, followed by a moment of relief expressed in simple, folklore-like poetic sentences that seem to envisage her understanding and final acceptance:
 
and you came after me then and sat beside me
said you were sorry
sorry you shouted
and then I had to cry
please Eva – like a second chance –
to have a family to marry again say it’s OK
and I said yes daddy
I know all that
And then he cried
Here’s a tree in summer. Here’s a tree in winter
Here’s a bunch of flowers. And here’s an April shower. (56)
 
Eva’s monologue is given after the funeral of the father, at a time of grief and engagement in ritualised acts of mourning, basically inspired by the wish to “lay him [her father] to rest” (2). This she does through confronting and exorcising the wounds inflicted by their separation, which caused her to feel that the night of his new marriage was a “funeral night” (77). As Kuti says, by setting the treehouse on fire during the wedding night “Eva releases her father, … allowing him to remarry and herself to grow up. ... It’s angry and destructive but also has the healing, cauterising power of fire. It was, of course, meant to resonate with the idea of cremating his body” (Kurdi 12). This kind of mourning might carry the potential of transformation for her.
 
The three stories, Joseph’s, Magda’s and Eva’s are necessarily overlapping. Juxtaposed to Eva’s essentially private story about growing up are Old Magda’s recollections which present the Boy’s (Joseph’s) story involving experiences related to the Holocaust, a much larger, tragic, guilt-ridden narrative of humankind with millions of people affected: victims, survivors, and also the witnesses. The stories become intertwined by a subtle network of imagery. A musical box and the key to it, which came down to the Boy from his violinist father have a central role in the imagery, revealing for the audience in a fable-like way that Eva’s father and Magda’s short-term, protected friend, the Boy are the same person. Old Magda has the key as a treasured keepsake, which she got from Joseph before his flight from the farm (and the country itself) towards the west. The locked musical box is found by Eva in a heap of junk after her father’s funeral: “he never showed me this – where’s the key I wonder” (79). Intertwining the stories so intricately suggests the interdependent nature of narratives, private as well as public: it is Eva’s story that answers Magda’s burning questions about what has become of the Boy. At the same time the device underscores the possibility of healing and renewal through confrontation with and hard-earned release from the wounding facts and effects of history.
 
Both women are struggling to comprehend and come to terms with the limits of how much a person can do for and expect from another as lover, friend or daughter. Key images like “ark”, “love”, “room” or the singing of lines from the Hungarian folksong work as cues to join the different segments. The Hungarian song Young Magda once sang to the Boy and which he passed on to his daughter has a man held in captivity as speaker and sums up the themes of the play: trauma, guilt, punishment, love and exile, but also freedom in the bird’s flight. All three characters are exiles in their own way, which joins the drama to an important tradition in Irish playwriting about emigration and its profound impact on personal lives. Motherless Eva became exiled from her protective childhood Eden, Joseph had to escape from his homeland to avoid deportation to a death camp, while Magda and her husband left Hungary presumably for political reasons during the socialist regime. In our globalising world the meaning of emigration/ immigration, leaving the home and exile is assuming new, multiple meanings. Lyrically combining private and communal stories, Treehouses casts the experience of exile as potentially creative in the sense that it urges the characters to confront their demons and relocate themselves once they have managed to accommodate the suffering, grief and feeling of guilt related to the worst period of twentieth- century history.
 
An award-winning play, Treehouses had performances in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States. About its US première at Oregon State University in 2005, the director of the production, Charlotte J. Headrick wrote the following in the programme notes: “In this 60th year of the liberation of Auschwitz, the University Theatre is honoured to present the 17 April matinee and final performance of Treehouses as an early event in support for and in benefit of the 2005 Holocaust Memorial Week. We would like to thank the playwright for all her help and Irma Delson for sharing the stories of her Hungarian family with us” (44). We in Hungary have all the stories around us, therefore it would be just appropriate to translate and produce this play with an always timely subject and timeless poetic beauty here, in the country of Elizabeth Kuti’s paternal ancestors.
 
 
 
WORKS CITED
 

Bigsby, Christopher. “Miller in the nineties.” The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller. Ed. Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 168–83.
 
Headrick, Charlotte J. “Elizabeth Kuti’s Treehouses: Toward a new definition of Irish Theatre.” ABEI Journal 11 (Nov. 2009): 39–45.
 
Kuti, Elizabeth. “‘Strangeness Made Sense’: Reflections on Being a Non-Irish Irish Playwright”. Irish Drama: Local and Global Perspectives. Ed. Nicholas Grene and Patrick Lonergan. Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2012. 141–62.
 
---. Treehouses. London: Methuen, 2000.

Kurdi, Mária.“Interview with Elizabeth Kuti”. Irish Literary Supplement 23.1 (2004): 11–12.
 
Miller, Arthur. After the Fall. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982 [1964].
 
---. Broken Glass. London: Methuen, 1994.
 
Murphy, John L. “Nem arról hajnallik: Searching for Dawn inShyllag and Treehouses. Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 10.1–2 (2004): 75–88.
 

Plunka, Gene A. HolocaustDrama:TheTheatreofAtrocity.Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.
 




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