Study Guide

Incident at Vichy

by Arthur Miller

Incident at Vichy Summary

Overview (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Incident at Vichy is a one-act play that takes place in a detention room in Vichy, France, during the German occupation. When the curtain opens, the stage reveals a grim setting with little furniture except for a long bench on which sit six men and a young boy. In the playwright’s words, these characters are “frozen there like members of a small orchestra at the moment before they begin to play.” In the course of the drama, each man anticipates and experiences a dreaded event: his being called into the office of the Nazi captain who is conducting an interrogation and checking identification papers to determine whether the detainee is Jewish. Before each summons, the characters demonstrate their mounting terror, fearful that the interrogation will result in their slaughter.

During the tense moments between interrogations, the detainees discuss their fears, their disbelief that their countrymen are detaining them, their alternating desire to flee and inability to escape for fear of being killed in the process. Each character reveals his own value system, from Marchand and his capitalistic businessman’s attitude to Prince Von Berg, who had fled Austria and rejected Nazism because of its vulgarity. Marchand’s and Von Berg’s summonses produce the same result: a white pass that means freedom. The reasons for the passes and the uses of those passes, however, are radically different.

Marchand’s words and actions suggest that, just as he had lived by a mercenary, heartless value system, so he was able to save his life by resorting to that same system and purchasing his freedom. When he leaves the place of detention, displaying his white pass, he leaves behind detainees who, except for Von Berg, can neither buy their freedom nor talk their way out of their eventual destruction.

Von Berg, a nobleman who had been detained because of his accent, is different from Marchand and also from the other captives. He is neither a heartless individual nor a Jew; he is a person who is struggling with the question of guilt and responsibility. He is troubled by the comments of the psychiatrist Leduc, who challenges him to assume responsibility for the atrocities being perpetrated by the Nazis. Von Berg insists that he has never said a word against the Jewish people, but Leduc asserts that it is not only verbal abuse that leads to culpability; the very human condition, according to Leduc, requires all people to assume responsibility for human brutality.

When Von Berg emerges from his interrogation with a white pass in his hand, he gives the doctor his pass, thus sacrificing himself to free the psychiatrist. As he leaves, Leduc’s gestures reveal that he is aware of his own guilt, indicating that both he and Von Berg recognize that human beings share responsibility and guilt for their actions and the actions of other human beings. In the last moment of the play, a new group of detainees arrives to occupy the bench and observe Von Berg silently staring into the eyes of his Nazi captor and murderer.

Incident at Vichy is a morality play that questions the tendency among human beings to evade complexity and elude confrontations with evil and thus to avoid responsibility for that complexity and evil. The words and actions of each character reveal some aspect of this moral dilemma.

The businessman Marchand views the process of detention and interrogation not as a prelude to human destruction but as a simple procedure for identifying people with false papers. The painter Lebeau announces that the measuring of people’s noses on the streets has to do with a labor shortage: The Occupied Forces need people to carry stones. The actor Monceau explains that trains carrying Jews are simply transporting volunteers to work in Germany. Even Prince Von Berg, who recognizes the vulgarity and brutality of the Nazis, does not see his cousin Baron Kessler as the person whom Leduc knows—a Nazi who helped remove all the Jewish doctors from a medical school. Collectively, the detainees represent those human beings who, for various reasons, refuse to see evil and...

(The entire section is 1682 words.)