The content of Soldier by Jonathan Draxton ’12, which played last weekend and will continue the next, subjects the audience to an intense, thought-provoking encounter with a young Nazi.
Leading the audience into the soul of Second Lieutenant Heinrich Weiss, it forces us to face up to the troubling complexities contained within. Draxton portrays Weiss in all of his villainy and humanity, as an individual with beautiful human qualities who is also an unflinching, committed executor of Nazi cruelty. He forces us to decide – in a very real way – whether to forgive Weiss on the basis of his humanity or to condemn the soldier for his sins.
The audience entered the theater and was confronted by a disorienting circular formation of seats in a stark, gray room. Once each person settled into an uncomfortably isolated cocoon of space, Weiss marched in and commenced a 40-minute monologue, telling various stories from his childhood and from the war years. Throughout, Draxton portrayed a normal, extremely relatable young man. He nicely captures Weiss’ tender affection for a childhood pet, his intense concern for the well-being of his men and his endearing anxiety about having to tell his story to a large audience. However, the more we pitied, laughed with and related to the character, the more anxious we became: The uncomfortable fact remained that we became increasingly attached to a Nazi responsible for some of humanity’s worst atrocities. We could no longer simply dismiss Nazism as an inhuman and purely evil “other” and had to face instead the reality that those seen as the “ultimate villains” are human and similar to us in many respects. As a result, we admitted the possibility that anyone – even those in the audience – has the potential to commit unimaginable cruelty.
Draxton raised these types of inner tensions to a fever pitch by directly involving the audience in the performance. He stalked around the room, affectionately tapping shoulders, nervously asking questions and beseeching each viewer for coins to help his men. In each instance, the viewer had to decide whether to engage Weiss or to ignore him, to help his struggling soldiers or to leave them to their suffering. At no point did Draxton make this choice easy; he offered no loophole, as Weiss feels no remorse for us to use as a grounds for forgiveness. Instead, Draxton brilliantly sprinkled his monologue with incredibly chilling reminders of Weiss’ burning, unapologetic commitment to Nazism. The lieutenant frequently related his dream of “creating a new world” through the murder of communists and Jews, revealing with absolutely no regret that he had killed in the hope of creating this world. He gazed into the distance, quivering in ecstasy as he imagined his utopia being built. For Weiss, murder is a simple necessity, a matter of course that will build a new world. As such, Draxton forced us to gaze at a suffering human, both endearing and monstrous. We must either offer forgiveness, with full knowledge of Weiss’ remorselessness, or punish him. He coerced us into making decisions that are fraught with meaning no matter what we choose.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of Soldier was its fluid, interactive conceptual framework. It is not a traditional play, but a multilayered experience that occurs in each viewer’s decision-making process, engagement with Weiss and observance of the group dynamic. Meanwhile, the entire experience is charged with uncertainty, as nobody knows how to react to Draxton or how the other viewers will react to him. In fact, each show is unique, as Draxton reacts to both chance occurrences – the dropping of a coin, for instance – as well the audience’s actions and vocalizations. Thus, the play is much more than the simple recital of a monologue. It is a unique presentation of a multilayered character, a man whom Draxton knows so deeply that he is able to react to any occurrence as Weiss would. It is an exciting and disturbing opportunity to speak face-to-face with Second Lieutenant Heinrich Weiss, Nazi soldier.