However, one can see the obvious problems with attaching the idea of “farce” to Elie Wiesel’s play. Honestly, much of The Trial of God deals with a serious set of issues, and little jokes are interspersed within the narrative. Unlike in Aristophanes, scatological humor and sexual antics are not the mainstays. No total buffoon appears to tell funny jokes, nor do Wiesel’s three minstrels contain great hilarity; in fact, they hide their sadness, melancholy, and questioning natures through jokes, only to remove that mask when the trial comes to the limelight. In this sense, Wiesel’s relation to the farce remains in aspects, not in form, and to call The Trial of God a farce seems to be reaching at best; it is not clear why Wiesel would call the play a farce at all.
Wiesel does not restrict discussion of the farce solely to this play, however. Wiesel embodies many of his ideas relating to actors, trials, and the stage in a later work, The Sonderberg Case.1 In this novel, the main character, Yedidyah, has a love of the stage and wants to act. However, his professor cautions against this impulse, instead making him a drama critic for a newspaper. His wife, Alika, becomes a stage actor herself, but Yedidyah remains only a critic with a passion for the art. However, the trial of Werner Sonderberg becomes a turning point for Yedidyah. He is not qualified to write about a trial, since his expertise in those matters would amount to almost nothing, yet his boss, Paul, forces him to take up the case. In his complaining, Yedidyah says “I haven’t studied law, Paul, as you know. I’ve never attended a trial, and never set foot in a courtroom. Do you want me to make a fool of myself? My area of expertise is theater!” Paul’s response, however, is extremely interesting: “That’s just it. Trials are like theater. All those who participate in them are playing a part…When the lawyer says, in his client’s name, ‘we plead guilty or not guilty,’ it’s as if he himself were guilty or not guilty, too…In a criminal trial, especially with a jury, there’s always suspense and drama.”2
Why deal so lightly with the idea of trial as if the people within it are actors in a stage play? Werner Sonderberg is accused of murder, in this case; certainly, when a man’s life is in the balance, how can one simply call it a “play”? Mr. Sonderberg displays a unique situation – he calls himself both “guilty” and “not guilty”, for no person can tell the whole truth about a situation even if they wish.3 But, in this case, the trial becomes a kind of farce. Instead of choosing a jury that will be fair and just to Werner, who is the descendant of Nazis, he is instead given a colored, biased jury. An elderly Jewish tailor, for example, when asked about whether the descendants of the Nazis would color his opinion, states: “…I happen to be against the principle of collective guilt. Whether German or Muslim, only criminals are guilty; the children of murderers are children, not murderers.”4 Wrongfully, he is dismissed because he does not provide the verdict the judge requires – guilty. The verdict has already been cast, much like in The Trial of God; the trial itself is merely a show, a demonstration.
Yedidyah sees the trial much like a play. He says “Every hearing reminds me of a theatrical performance. I try to bring to light the dramatic tension that will make the performance progress but at an unhurried pace. As in theater, I feel the tension must come from within and be devoid of obvious artifice.”5 Yedidyah gives elaborate descriptions that like this real-life trial to a play “The players and actors in the trial are improvising, making it up as they go along. As for the jury members, their part seems to be that of a mute choir: ill at ease, as if wondering why they’re here instead of at work in their offices or spending the day with their family.”6 These characteristics are reminiscent of a farce – although the intention of this particular farce is not for humor or levity. In fact, this trial is absurd because Sonderberg has been accused of murder simply for being the last person to see his grandfather, Hans Dunkelman, a former Nazi leader. Circumstantial evidence is all that the prosecutors can provide in the attempt to convict him. As to why Werner feels guilty and not guilty, he did not kill him but he certainly condemned his grandfather’s actions in the death camps and literally disowned him. Hans either commits suicide or dies by accident, yet the court would rather convict Sonderberg than find the truth.
This farcical dimension of The Sonderberg Case show that Wiesel’s use of farce differs from the common form. Elements do attempt to make a certain point about the irrationality and destructiveness of hatred, but these scathing criticisms are not hilarious or funny – they are intensely serious issues. Wiesel deals in a similar vein with The Oath, where a young child disappears in Kolvillag, a Polish town. The Jews are blamed for the disappearance of the young boy, and events culminate in a pogrom that kills all the Jews in the town except one. Wiesel’s farce does not include improbable situations either – these events can and have happened at some point in the past; human sin remains ever present in Wiesel’s characters. One might say that Wiesel’s farce shows the absurdity of things in themselves as they happen in real human situations; something absurd and bizarre does not have to be impossible.
1My digital edition has entirely different page numbers than the print copy, so I am going to use those page numbers. This will cause some confusion, I imagine, but I do not have the physical copy. Google Books, for that matter, does not display the corresponding page numbers. For the sake of consistency, I will cite the digital copy’s page numbers.
2Elie Wiesel, The Sonderberg Case, trans. Catherine Temerson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf and Borzoi Books, 2010), 50.
3Elie Wiesel, The Sonderberg Case, 109.
4Elie Wiesel, The Sonderberg Case, 57.
5Elie Wiesel, The Sonderberg Case, 58.
6Elie Wiesel, The Sonderberg Case, 62.