“I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart,” teenager Anne Frank famously wrote in the diary she kept while she and her family hid out in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. But her diary—recovered after the war by her father, Otto—endured as a testament to an indomitable hope for humanity even in the face of unspeakable atrocity. First published in Dutch in 1947, the volume was translated into English and released by Doubleday & Company in 1952. A stage adaptation by the husband-and-wife writing team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (best known for their screenplays for The Thin Man, Father of the Bride, and other lighthearted fare) won the Pulitzer Prize, and the 1959 film version of the play garnered three Oscars.
The diary had been brought to Doubleday’s attention by Meyer Levin, a Chicago-born writer who’d served as a foreign correspondent during the war. One of the first American journalists to witness the horrors of the Nazi death camps, Levin had come across the Dutch edition and struck up a correspondence with Otto Frank. Having set The Diary of a Young Girl on its path to publication in the U.S., Levin turned around and wrote about it in glowing terms in the New York Times Book Review; he also authored a radio dramatization that was broadcast in 1952 but soon fell into obscurity.
Levin had hoped to adapt his radio script for Broadway, but the producer who had optioned the book’s stage rights rejected his proposal—despite Levin’s claim that he had a verbal agreement with Otto Frank guaranteeing his participation. Levin’s outrage over the incident escalated as he watched the sentimentalized stage and screen incarnations of Anne Frank’s diary win acclaim and popularity. A string of legal battles ensued, leaving Levin bitterly fixated on his perceived betrayal.
The episode was chronicled by Levin himself in a 1974 memoir called The Obsession. That book inspired Rinne Groff‘s 2011 drama Compulsion, now receiving its local premiere at Next Theatre. Groff appropriated her play’s title from Levin’s best-known work—a 1956 novel and 1957 play based on the case of murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who had been classmates of his at the University of Chicago. Levin’s Compulsion included an alter ego named Sid Silver.
In Groff’s Compulsion, the protagonist is also named Sid Silver. As played by the tall, commanding Mick Weber, Sid is a blustery charmer who becomes fixated not only with the injustice he believes he’s suffered, but with Anne Frank herself. To Sid, she’s an icon of Jewish courage in the face of persecution—a timely symbol in the early 1950s, as Israel struggled to solidify itself as a Jewish state. Ironically, the grace under pressure that Frank embodied is something Sid cannot emulate. He lashes out at “assimilationist communists” and “self-loathing Jews” who, he feels, have tried to “de-Judaize” Frank in order to make her acceptable to “regular audiences.” He even wages a legal campaign against Otto Frank. His success with Leopold and Loeb does nothing to assuage his obsession: “Enough with the murderers! What about the murdered?” he demands.
As a portrait of a man gripped by self-destructive monomania, Compulsion is both engrossing and disturbing. But its focus on Sid, at the expense of the other people in his life, keeps the audience from feeling the ruinous cost of his obsession, especially as it affects his marriage. Tellingly, the production designates Sid’s wife only as “Mrs. Silver,” though she was in fact a remarkable figure on her own: Tereska Torres, a French Jew who fled her homeland when the Nazis invaded it and served in the free French resistance against Hitler. She was also a writer, whose postwar account of her experiences roused considerable controversy with their candid depiction of lesbian relationships in the military.
In Devon de Mayo‘s staging, Mrs. Silver’s two-dimensionality is offset by Jenny Avery’s nuanced portrayal of her. Indeed, the most moving scene in the play is a dream sequence in which the wife finds her marriage bed invaded by none other than Anne Frank, portrayed by a marionette that speaks with Sid’s voice. Having Frank represented by a puppet (designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock) is a shrewd device, reminding us how “Anne Frank” has come to function as an emblem onto which each person can project his or her own agenda. For Sid, she is an icon of Jewish suffering. For Mrs. Silver, she is the “other woman” who has taken control of her husband’s passions.
Avery also plays a Doubleday editor named Miss Mermin—a character seemingly modeled on the late Barbara Epstein, who cofounded the New York Review of Books in 1962. John Byrnes plays multiple roles, ranging from a Waspy editor who calls Anne “a young Jewess who wrote one heckuva diary” to a military officer in Israel. The script is peppered with references to real-life figures like Lillian Hellman, Elia Kazan, and Carson McCullers (whom Sid derides as a “southern belle shiksa”).
Compulsion is an interesting look at the politics of New York’s theatrical and literary world in the 1950s. But as a work of drama, it’s a bit too concerned with getting the facts right—regarding lawsuits and countersuits, options and settlements—to be very emotionally involving. What gets lost is the process by which Sid’s ideals obscure for him the innate goodness that his heroine, Anne Frank, insisted resides in every human heart.