Commentary Magazine


The Stage Anne Frank

To the Editor:

Algene Ballif’s complaint that the adaptation of the Diary of Anne Frank (in “Anne Frank on Broadway,” November 1955), presents Anne Frank as “the image of the American idea of adolescence” and neglects her serious side suggests a major misconception of the original diary and the Broadway play. Miss Ballif, calls the stage version of Anne a “Jewish Corliss Archer,” a canned adolescent, and objects that she puts her hair up and punctuates her speech with artificial pauses.

Anne Frank revealed herself in her diary as a girl with many of the preoccupations of adolescence. She liked clothes and collected photographs of film stars. She was vain about her appearance and her conquests, and later had a characteristically hesitant love affair. She also had special gifts. She was an unusually precocious reader and . . . an extraordinary writer. She had courage and humor, and was uncommonly aware of herself and others. . . .

But these qualities which resulted in such an achievement as her diary should not make us forget that she was a normal, in many ways still conventional, girl. That the adapters of the diary have managed to present her on the stage as at once typical and extraordinary is much to their credit and to the credit of Anne Frank’s remarkable spirit, whose main quality, as she herself so often and so sensibly remarked, was its wholeness. . . . It would have been as much an error for the adapters to overlook this wholeness as for one to assume that Jane Austen never powdered her nose. . . .

But Miss Ballif clearly came prepared to find a quite different young girl from the one who wrote in the diary, and saw on the stage a version of Anne Frank quite unlike the one who appears there. Her claim that the stage Anne reflects a vulgarized (i.e. American) image of adolescence may reflect in turn her own . . . incorrect view of the play.

An example of this is her failure to recognize the adapters’ obvious intention in the scene in which Anne dresses herself elegantly, visits Peter, and is kissed. Far from playing the coquette at the end of this scene, as Miss Ballif claims, Anne leaves Peter’s room elated, and so obviously full of love and excitement at having reached this long-awaited stage in her development that her reactions are not only dramatically inevitable, but precise reflections of the character we find in the diary. She tosses her scarf over her shoulder, as a great lady should, and eager to share her love, kisses the assembled families as she crosses the stage to her own room.

Miss Ballif went to the theater expecting to find in Anne Frank a woman of “high moral seriousness”—F. R. Leavis in a pinafore. She saw instead a bobby sox Mae West. The complexity of Miss Ballif’s visual problem is appalling.

Barbara Epstein
New York City

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Miss Ballif writes:

Barbara Epstein’s experience both of Anne Frank’s diary and the play about her seems too alien to my own to argue about. I hope, however, that my remarks can clarify something.

I do not at all object to Anne’s putting up her hair, which she often did, experimentally, in the real Secret Annex. I object, rather, to the particular use made of this in the play—i.e., to her putting up her hair to go see Peter—a piece of business not in the diary in that connection, and not, I think, relevant to Anne’s relation with Peter, which was a notably undecorated one.

The dramatization on Broadway certainly makes Anne “typical,” but it does not make her in the least “extraordinary,” as Mrs. Epstein seems to feel it does. And to “forget that she was a normal conventional girl” is not a danger—certainly not in these United States where we are never permitted to forget such things, where the normal and conventional are crammed down our throats, and where we constantly seek the normal and conventional to cling to. What is a danger is our not comprehending those “qualities which resulted in such an achievement as her diary.” Anne Frank’s diary is important not for its caressing little gusts of normality and typicality, but for what is unique and extraordinary about her. A better playwright might have seen this and written a better play.

As it is, it leans heavily upon the crutch of typicality and seems to take for granted that we will supply, from our racial memories, as it were, the uniqueness. The success of the play is in large part due, I think, to this accurate calculation that its audiences would bring to it something that was not actually there. The adapters seemed to feel that they were therefore at liberty to sentimentalize and indulge the “familiar” to the hilt—which is exactly what they did. It is significant that Anne’s film collection, and not her elaborate charts of family trees (over which she spent far more time), got into the script. It makes so many of us feel good that she kept a film collection just as we did when we were young girls, and that we shared other fond foolishness with her. In identifying with Anne in these surface similarities we can unconsciously identify with Anne’s differences and superiorities—without ever having taken the trouble to learn just what they were. It is one of our usual errors in the search for identity. A fool and a wise man may easily find they have something in common, but it is only the fool who can make the mistake of believing he is a wise man for it.

As for the “love scene,” I can only quote from Anne’s own entry of Friday, April 28, 1944 (p. 193):

. . . Every evening, after the last kiss, I would like to dash away, not to look into his eyes any more—away, away, alone in the darkness.

And what do I have to face, when I reach the bottom of the staircase? Bright lights, questions, and laughter; I have to swallow it all and not show a thing. My heart still feels too much; I can’t get over a shock such as I received yesterday [Anne’s first kiss on the lips from Peter] all at once. . . . Peter has taken possession of me and turned me inside out; surely it goes without saying that anyone would require a rest and a little while to recover from such an upheaval?

A re-reading of the entire section, if not the entire diary, would be helpful.

Algene Ballif
New York City

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