Theater work presents ‘ Emil’s Enemies’
Two days after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, 26-year-old Dietrich Bonhoeffer delivered the first public condemnation of Hitler in the form of a radio address warning the nation against turning the Führer into a god. Bonhoeffer’s opposition to National Socialism began in the early 1930s and escalated until he joined the German resistance and collaborated with others on several plots to bring down the Nazis by assassinating Hitler. Theaterwork’s production of Emil’s Enemies, which explores this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s extraordinary but short life, has its New Mexico premiere on Friday, Feb. 19, at the James A. Little Theater.
Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp at the age of 39, was the sixth of eight children born to Karl Bonhoeffer, a leading psychiatrist and neurologist in Germany. Bonhoeffer came from a highly intellectual and scientific-minded family; he shared a passion for Christianity only with his mother and recognized his calling at an early age. After earning his doctorate in theology at 21, he traveled widely, working as a curate in Barcelona and pursuing his postgraduate studies in America. He hoped one day to study nonviolent resistance with Gandhi in India.
Emil’s Enemies (the “Emil” of the title was the nickname used by the resistance for Hitler) alternates between Bonhoeffer’s final day in prison and a series of scenes, set mainly in the study of the family’s home in Berlin, that chart the trajectory of Bonhoeffer’s resistance career and his eventual arrest by the Gestapo.
The playwright, Douglas Huff, professor of philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, grew up hearing about Bonhoeffer. But it was a director who was mounting one of Huff’s earlier plays who made him think of Bonhoeffer as a possible theatrical subject. “He suggested that, since I was in philosophy and had no doubt read Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, maybe I should write a play about him,” Huff said. “But I didn’t want to get involved in historical drama, because there are so many land mines there.”
So Huff embarked on a five-year project of reading Bonhoeffer’s works and biographies. “You have somebody who was a pacifist in 1930,” Huff said. “Yet Bonhoeffer told his best friend that if it came down to it, if he were the only one left that could kill Hitler, then he would do it. I thought there was something interesting about this figure.” Huff decided to focus on what he said was a “unique moment in intellectual history”: a pacifist involved in political assassination and coup d’état conspiracies who was writing a book on ethics at the same time.
Bonhoeffer (played by Jonathan Dixon in the Theaterwork production), encouraged by his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, joined the German military intelligence as a courier and diplomat, which exempted him from active military duty. It also allowed him to travel abroad to church conferences, where he met his British contact, Bishop George Bell. Through Bell, Bonhoeffer relayed information about the resistance’s operations that would eventually reach Churchill. “That was his role,” Huff said. “When he wasn’t traveling, he lived in a monastery outside Munich and wrote his ethics book. ... That’s the period I wanted to look at.”
Because there are so many facets to Bonhoeffer’s life during the resistance, Huff said he decided to borrow Goethe’s rules about drama. “In order to give the piece some poetic unity, you’re going to have to reduce the actions of many characters to a few and may even have to rearrange the sequence of events in order to make it a play,” he said. To this end, he made many of his characters composites of several historical figures.
The play’s only female character, Christine, is based primarily on Bonhoeffer’s sister, whose central role was to keep the family together while at the same time projecting a sense of calm and innocence as members of the Gestapo dropped by. Actress Angela Janda Goldstein— who studied with Huff at Gustavus Adolphus College— plays Christine.
“One of the things I love about this character is that there is always so much going on, so much in her mind that she can’t show,” Goldstein said. “She has to put on a facade for whoever comes through the house.” Huff elaborated on Christine’s importance to the resistance. “There were maybe nine or 10 core figures in the
resistance [out of the] thousands of people involved,” he said. “But she probably had the best overall view of the whole thing. She assisted her husband in hiding the evidence [he was gathering] of Nazi crimes against the German people. ... She knew all of the details of the resistance and was probably the only woman who had that central role.”
A secondary, purely fictional character is Little Hans (played by Ian Sproul), an SS lieutenant who is a product of the Hitler Youth. As the play progresses and Little Hans changes allegiance to embrace the resistance, he hungers to be part of a new, post-Nazi government, and yet he espouses prejudices and hatreds that are not much different from those held by the Nazi party. Huff said he was interested in the seductive power of fascism and how people get involved in such movements. “The way Little Hans talks about [fascism] has little to do with executing the Jews. It’s kind of an elitism gone mad. That’s what I was trying to have him articulate— how ordinary people got involved with the Nazis.”
Huff started writing Emil’s Enemies— a process he describes as a “moral laboratory” — as a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey in the late 1980s. Even though the play is about events that took place in the 1930s, Huff said the core message is as relevant today as it was in Bonhoeffer’s time or at the time he wrote the play. “All of us are going to find ourselves in situations— maybe not quite as extreme as Bonhoeffer’s— but we’re always going to be in a situation where we’re going to have to make a difficult decision, and the guidelines are not going to be clear,” he said. “We’re going to want to do the right thing. In fact, life demands that we do the right thing.”
Closely watched brains: Jonathan Dixon as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Youth is wasted on the Hitler Youth: Drago Sumonja, left, and Ian Sproul
Angela Janda Goldstein as Bonhoeffer’s sister Christine