History Slam Episode Thirty-Nine: Corpus, a play about the Holocaust, Memory, and History

By Sean Graham

Corpus is currently in the midst of its world premiere run at Arts Court Theatre in Ottawa. Shows run through May 10, 2014. For further information, go to counterpointplayers.com

This past Monday evening marked the end of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). The occasion brought with it tributes to those whole were killed and reminders that such atrocities can never be allowed again. But, as can happen with any day of remembrance, it brought questions about how we remember the Holocaust and whose memories have shaped our understanding of the genocide. As the number of survivors who are still alive continues to decrease with time, will our memory of the Holocaust change? Is there room for new memories that may emerge in still unseen journals or still untold stories? What about those memories that we will never have the opportunity to hear? How do we account for them? These questions remind us that there is never a universal understanding of an event, particularly one that elicits such strong reactions.

In Corpus, a young genocide scholar named Megan (Sascha Cole) is forced to confront these questions when she becomes captivated after uncovering an unexpected relationship between the wife of a Nazi officer and a Polish Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz. With the help of her online lover Heinrich (Daniel Sadavoy), Megan pursues the story with the excited energy of a PhD student eager to take her place in the academy. As she delves further into her research, however, she encounters the contested terrain of memory and how elusive the ‘truth’ can be.

Playwright Darrah Teitel beautifully demonstrates the challenges presented by memory in having the play set simultaneously between 2004 Canada and 1944 Auschwitz. Alternating between these two locales, masterfully done by director Bronwyn Steinberg, takes the audience on the journey through which memories are constructed. Within that environment, Corpus challenges its audience to reconsider their preconceived notions of the past and ask how their individual experiences shape their perceptions.

Those challenges are presented through terrific performances by the cast, in particular Eric Craig’s powerful performance as Eli, a Polish Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz. Cole is suburb in capturing the neurosis that tends to accompany grad school and her chemistry with John Koensgen, who plays her PhD advisor Homer, allows them to perfectly depict a dysfunctional student-advisor relationship. Sadavoy brings a fresh energy and provides a welcome level of levity to the stage while Laurie Fyffe and Colleen Sutton are terrific in supporting roles.

What stood out most for me, however, was how Corpus put humanity back into the inhumane. It is possible to become desensitized when reading about the number of people who were killed – whether it be studying genocide, military battles, or natural disasters. But by reminding the audience that each one of those numbers was a real person with a real story – even if it does so through a fictionalized plot – Corpus reveals the damage that can be done through a cavalier treatment of the past.

Corpus shows how history is not static. Memories and interpretations are not definitive – we don’t remember the Holocaust the same way people did in 1964 or the way people will remember it in 2064. Through the acknowledgment of that evolution and how contested the past can be, the value of history becomes apparent. Corpus may centre on one Holocaust scholar, but the issues and themes it challenges are universal to all history and all historians.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with director Bronwyn Steinberg and actor Daniel Sadavoy about Corpus. We discuss issues of memory, the challenge presented by the play’s subject matter, and connecting with audiences.

Sean Graham is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa where he is currently working on a project that examines the early years of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He has previously studied at Nipissing University, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Regina and like any red-blooded Canadian his ultimate dream is to be a curling champion while living on a diet of beer and poutine.

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