By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
When France signed the humiliating armistice that split it into Occupied and Unoccupied zones, a historical morality play was instantly born - one, we were told, that pitted a bloodied but unconquerable nation against not only a foreign invader, but the worst instincts of its own people. It was a modern political fable, made especially attractive to Americans because it was, from the safe distance of another country, about how people responded to transcendent evil and how they lived in a house divided.
Throughout World War II and for years afterward, cinema and the theater taught us that the French under Petain hadn't just resisted Germany, they had repelled the temptations of Lucifer himself. A play like Jean Anouilh's Antigone or a film like Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau may have allegorically whispered darker suggestions about the Gallic character, but for us the French were always the Free French - emotional people, maybe, but dignified and committed to Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. There were French, of course, who were on speaking terms with the devil - venal politicians, professional reactionaries, and businessmen seduced by temporary political power and wealth, but that was Watch on the Rhine stuff and to be expected in a true-life morality play.
This perception went out the window with Marcel Ophuls' 1971 documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, which seemed to portray collaborators as the rule rather than the exception, replacing the heroic image of the beret'd Resistance fighter with the boater'd, disgraced Maurice Chevalier - or, later, by a compromised Francois Mitterrand who, we've recently learned, was on more than speaking terms with Vichy.
Stein's play, however, was written earlier, at the end of her life, shortly after the war; she had endured the Occupation in a rural village and saw her adopted country in the heroic light projected by Allied propaganda. How strange, then, that her story, when it approaches politics, is bereft of villains; even the one German soldier who wanders through the village is a strangely benign, almost fatherly figure. Such details certainly make the play a curiosity. Yet in Johnson's hands, it is tantalizingly unsatisfying, performing a service as a museum piece but failing to keep pace with Yes' poetic heartbeat.