Who gets to write history?
Should it be those who lived it or scholars who study and catalog it? What about those whose aim is to cast doubt on its very existence to keep the truth at bay?
Playwright Jeff Cohen and director Arnold Mittelman faced that quandary in their collaboration on The Soap Myth, a Holocaust play turned TV drama that premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on PBS affiliates including WPBT-2 and as a stream on the Internet at DigitalTheatre.com.
“This is the first time a Holocaust-related play will have a simultaneous launch via the Internet worldwide and on many national broadcasts on PBS affiliates,” said Mittelman, producing artistic director of the National Jewish Theater Foundation.
In the spring, Mittelman plans to launch the Holocaust Theater Archive to make archival material and plays about the Holocaust available for research and production. The project received a $100,000 matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The Soap Myth is a significant addition to that archive. The challenge: to tell a story of German atrocities during World War II, and in particular to deal with the long-held notion that the Nazis used fat from the corpses of their Jewish victims to manufacture soap.
“That’s one big question that looms over the entirety of that play — and it’s not about soap,” Cohen said from his New York home.
“Who gets to write history and what is the criteria for writing history? The survivor said it happened. It’s his memory. How can you disrespect him? But the scholars say there is no evidence and they have to worry if they put something out there that they can’t back up with evidence. You’ll have these deniers over here who will say: ‘They say they made soap. Do you have evidence of that? What else are they lying about?’
“History is a very malleable thing that you have to take seriously.”
Cohen’s story, The Soap Myth, centers on the desperate desire of Holocaust survivor Milton Saltzman to have his personal account of the horror heard and validated by historians and reintroduced into Holocaust museums’ exhibits. His hopes hinge on Annie, a young, naive investigative reporter who is assigned to write a piece on Saltzman. She’s caught between her compassion for the man — his passion is palpable — and historians’ need for documentation.
Another character, the disturbingly charismatic Brenda Goosen (Dee Pelletier), stops short of discounting the Holocaust completely but expresses one of Soap Myth’s troubling thoughts: What is it about the Jews throughout history that has led to such persecution? She suggests the victims somehow share the blame.
“It’s very easy sometimes to draw evil as a cartoon character and then you don’t learn anything,” Cohen said of the charm sewn into Goosen’s persona. “Why would anybody be persuaded by that cartoon? Evil is more insidious than that, and that helps people learn about how human beings can be taken in.”
Above all, Cohen says, “ The Soap Myth is about the survival of surviving. How you survive surviving.”
That responsibility, as the last generation of Holocaust survivors passes away, felt overwhelming at times not only for the actors but for the writer, who sat on the idea for years before committing The Soap Myth to a script.
Cohen had been approached outside a small theater in Tribeca he ran by an elderly gentleman, a Holocaust survivor, who was clutching a manila envelope. The man pressed the package into Cohen’s hands. Inside was a magazine containing an article about the Nazi’s crimes and the creation of soap from the victims’ remains.
“I read this article, and it took me a number of years to figure out whether I should write something about it,” Cohen said. “It was a big responsibility because you’re dealing with such extraordinary issues and such enormous pain and you’re dealing with a topic where the No. 1 criteria is to make sure you get it right.”
The Soap Myth supplies no easy answers.
“I seem to be drawn to really interesting stories that have a lot of gray area to them,” Cohen said. “There’s not a lot of right and wrong. It’s about how and when you pose the question. That alone provokes a lot of discussion. A lot of humanity is an enigma. We have a history of doing the most obscene things and a history of being optimistic and doing the most noble things and I think this story, the larger story of the Holocaust, encapsulates the riddle that are human beings.”
Greg Mullavey, 74, has enjoyed playing a wide range of characters over his 50-year acting career. He was Grandpa on Nickelodeon’s iCarly, hapless husband Tom on Norman Lear’s soap opera spoof, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and the Meathead’s intellectual buddy, Stewart, on a memorable 1974 episode of All in the Family.
But Mullavey felt compelled to take on the role of Saltzman.
“That era of human history has always fascinated me,” Mullavey said from his New York home. “It’s appalling that man allowed a madman like Hitler to take power. I felt so much for it [ The Soap Myth] and can identify with it, and when an actor can do that that’s not acting anymore. That’s just being. That identification won the day for me.”
It was instantly apparent that he was right for the role, said Mittelman, former producing artistic director of the Coconut Grove Playhouse. “I could see a certain connection to the material, and he didn’t want to dissipate that. He basically sat down and did the Milton Saltzman sections of the play, and Jeff and I turned to each other with tears in our eyes. We knew we found our Milton.”
Mullavey’s experience working in front of cameras was crucial to help transport the stark setting of the play to film. The TV version was pieced together from two performances of the play at the end of its 2012 run at The Black Box Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center on 46th Street in New York City. An audience was not present for the filming.
One scene resonated with particular power for Mullavey. “When I got to the final speech of this guy’s journey and his time at Auschwitz I got transported every night. I was no longer on stage. Those moments are rare for an actor and only a few times has that happened in my journey as an actor and when it happens it’s magical,” he said.
Andi Potamkin, 24, a New York stage actress, plays the young journalist Annie Blumberg. As the only character to remain onstage through the play — Mittelman’s decision — she is the audience’s eyes and ears in The Soap Myth.
“It was kind of everything you would ever want to get to do as an actor,” Potamkin said. “When I was studying theater what I really wanted to do was tell stories. And I want them to be important stories.
“Arnold came to me with this one and I read the script and it was an important story that needed to be told. Timeless. These are the last decades where there are actual, living survivors where we can interact with them and theater is such an interactive thing to do.
“I felt a connection to my character, the want to be able to give people that caring, that recognition, to reassure them you are seen and you are heard,” she said. “What a powerful thing that is — to look somebody in the eyes and give them recognition.”