Telling the story

In the face of truly horrific events, the process of just telling the story accurately can be a significant challenge. Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate and writer. After witnessing first-hand the horrors of Nazi concentration camps it took him several years to begin writing and publishing books, but once he found his voice the books flowed freely from his pen. He chose the literary form of fiction. Throughout his life he was criticized and pressed by friends and enemies alike. There were some who wanted to restrict him to simply reporting facts, without artistic interpretation. The fact that he used his imagination and story telling skills to write about the Holocaust has been the subject of many articles and books. Perhaps his own autobiography is most revealing. In it he reports of a visit to the Rebbe of Wizhnitz in Israel. In his own words:

“The conversation became more relaxed. He asked me about my work. He wanted to know if the stories I told in my books were true, had they really happened. I answered not too convincingly: “In literature, Rebbe, certain things are true though they didn’t happen, while others are not, even if they did.

“I would have loved to have received his blessing.” (All Rivers Run to the Sea, Memoirs, Elie Wiesel, Knopf, 1995, page 275.)

The report shows the struggle of trying to tell a story that is simply too big to tell. A purely factual account of the events of his childhood would fail to tell the stories of so many who were murdered. Telling only what he had seen with his own eyes would seem inadequate in the face of the immensity of the horror the world had witnessed. The story of one is so small in the face of the tragedy of six million.

Wiesel, of course, wrote both fiction and nonfiction works. He did what he was able in a remarkable and incredible life. But I suppose that there will always be those who criticize his use of his imagination.

I don’t find art to be dishonest. I believe that there are times when the human imagination gives us the capacity to tell larger stories than we might otherwise be able to address. I am an interpreter of the Bible. It contains many stories that report events for which language fails to convey the whole story. There are many such stories in the history of our people. For example, consider Jesus’ baptism and his transfiguration. When you read the biblical accounts of these events it is obvious that first generation witnesses couldn’t find the words to describe what had happened. They employ analogies. “The spirit was like a dove.” “Jesus’ clothes were whiter than any fuller on earth cold whiten them.” It is obvious upon reading the scriptures that the events described defy the capacity of human language to describe.

All literature forces us to recognize the limits of language. Even our best attempts at “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” fall short of being free of perspective. Read court transcripts and you will discover that people see different things from different points of view.

The brutal beating of Matthew Shepard in the fall of 1998 on the outskirts of Laramie Wyoming was one such event. During the five days between the beating and his death in a Fort Collins hospital, the eyes of the world were focused on what happened. During the trials of his attackers there were so many stories written in newspapers and reported on television that is was difficult for those of us watching from a distance to discern the whole truth of what had happened.

In 2000, Moisés Kaufman and eleven other members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with residents of the city. They kept journals and went over the published news reports of the murder of Matthew Shepard. The play that grew out of their careful research is The Laramie Project which has been performed widely as one of the ways of telling the story. HBO commissioned a film of The Laramie Project in 2002 and ten years after the murder, members of the Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to conduct follow-up interviews and produced a companion piece entitled The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. That play was presented as a reading at nearly 150 theaters around the world on October 12, 2009, the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.

The Matthew Shepard foundation supports productions of The Laramie Project as a way to continue the telling of the story of the tragedy in its ongoing efforts to honor his life and aspirations by working to “erase hate by replacing it with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”

The play has previously been performed in Rapid City and last night Black Hills Community Theatre presented an ensemble reading of the Laramie Project, with 67 members of our community taking the stage under the direction of Zach Curtis, who was an actor in the original performance of the play in Chicago.

The piece is a powerful piece of drama. Even without costumes, and with very simple staging and lighting, the power of the writing comes through. The audience in the Performing Arts Center was clearly moved by the experience. It was, for me, one of those, “I’m just glad I was there to see it!” events.

The power of the project is its ability to accurately portray the real people of a real western town. It is remarkable in its ability to withhold judgment and just tell the story.

Of course no play can tell the whole story. There are characters whose appearances are brief and only a small slice of their lives are portrayed. Humans are remarkably complex. A lifetime would be all too short to tell the whole story of what happened that year in Laramie.

There are some stories, however, that simply must be told. We must continue to tell the stories of the Holocaust so that every generation knows what Elie Wiesel’s generation suffered. We must continue to tell the story of Matthew’s life and death so that others will know the evil of which humans are capable.

And sometimes, I am sure, art and literature help us to tell the stories that are too big for us to tell completely. I am grateful for theater and art and literature in our lives.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!