The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In the first scene of the play, Mr. Frank returns alone to Amsterdam; he has been liberated from the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Revisiting the rooms where he last lived with his family, he discovers the diary kept by his daughter Anne. In memory, he returns to their last days together.

All the action of the play unfolds in a secret annex, located on the top floor of a warehouse and office building in Amsterdam, during and immediately after World War II. The Franks are a Jewish family forced to hide from the Nazis, who have occupied Holland. Though originally German, the family fled their native land with the advent of Adolf Hitler and established a profitable business and comfortable domestic life in Amsterdam. Now the Nazis have again disrupted their existence, first by the passage of anti-Semitic laws in Holland and now by the rounding up of Jews for deportation to work and death camps. In their secret annex, located above the offices where Mr. Frank conducted his business, the family has been joined by the three Van Daans. Mr. Van Daan was Mr. Frank’s partner in the spice trade. Later the two families agree to accept Mr. Dussel, a bachelor dentist whom they did not know earlier but whose life is now also threatened.

In the cramped quarters and with the constant fear of betrayal, it is not surprising that tempers flare. Originally, the Franks expected only a few weeks of captivity before liberation by the Allies. However, these weeks stretch into more than eighteen months. The Van Daans constantly fight, and Mr. Van Daan is caught stealing more than his share of their limited food supply. The spirited Anne is obliged to share her small room with the stuffy Mr. Dussel. She experiences the perplexities of puberty, while conflicts with her mother and rivalry with her sister seem intensified in these dire circumstances. There are, however, two consolations. The first is Peter Van Daan, a sensitive youth who has smuggled his beloved cat into the annex and who is attuned to Anne’s emotions. The second comfort is Anne’s ever-present diary, to which she faithfully confides her daily experiences, her fears, and her hopes for the future.

The inhabitants of the annex attempt to establish some routines of daily life. During daylight hours they must move in stocking feet, speak only in whispers, and refrain from using the lavatory, for fear of revealing their hiding place to the employees below in the warehouse. At night they are able to play games, listen to the radio—especially to reports of Allied offensives—and argue among themselves. Books are brought to them, along with basic provisions, by Miep and Mr. Kraler, faithful employees who are risking their own lives by aiding these fugitives. The young people pursue their studies, under the tutelage of Mr. Frank. Anne shows special aptitude for literature and languages.

Although all the inhabitants of the annex are assimilated Jews, who have always regarded themselves as citizens of the countries in which they have lived, the Nazis have made their Jewish identity central. Anne shows affection for the conspicuous emblem the Nazis have forced them to wear on their coats, which is, as she says, “after all, the Star of David.” The little group celebrates Hanukkah, with gifts Anne is able to improvise from the meager objects at hand. Mrs. Frank, who is the most religiously observant, reads Psalm 121. Yet precisely on the night of this holiday, a burglar invades the warehouse and hears their celebration. Not long after, just as they had feared, alerted German officers break into the annex. As they are all carted away to the concentration camps, Mr. Frank attempts to console them: “For the past two years we have lived in fear. Now we can live in hope.”

In the play’s final scene, Mr. Frank, the little group’s sole survivor of the Nazi camps, is glimpsed again in the annex. He turns the pages of his daughter’s diary and hears again Anne’s voice saying, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The claustrophobic atmosphere of Europe under Nazi threat and the stresses and tensions of hunted Jews hidden in the midst of a thriving city are well conveyed by the single set employed for this full-length drama in two acts and ten scenes. Three small rooms and a tiny attic space alone are visible. Furniture also is sparse: a few chairs, cots, a table. Sounds from the outside—the carillon from the nearby Westertoren church, fragments of the popular song “Lili Marlene” wafting up to the annex, the pounding of marching feet, and snippets of the German language—add to the tension and mood of mounting fear, which culminates when the door to the hiding place, obscured only by a fake bookcase, is broken down and the Nazis thunderously intrude.

The mode of the drama is realistic; the young actress who created the role of Anne (Susan Strasberg) was the daughter of the great American teacher of method acting, Lee Strasberg, and the actor who first portrayed Mr. Frank (Joseph Schildkraut) came from a famous German-Jewish theatrical family. While action in the annex is necessarily limited, the interactions among personalities, Anne’s budding romance, and the minor villainies of Van Daan and Dussel sustain interest. All the while, suspense builds as the hiding place becomes ever more precarious. Even though these people live in the shadow of death, the play retains a measure of humor and joy in family affection. Playwrights Goodrich and Hackett were a husband-wife team previously known for Broadway comedies and Hollywood musicals such as Easter Parade (1948) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). The skill with which they constructed The Diary of Anne Frank, injecting it with domestic warmth and pacing its action, has been much admired.

Because the play is about actual people who lived in traumatic historical times, the last scene, which forms an epilogue, was essential. Mr. Frank tells the audience how his wife and daughter, and all the others, perished in the camps, even as the end was in sight, with the liberating British and American troops sweeping through France and beyond. Millions of other lives were lost during the Holocaust; the people who managed to survive the camps were displaced, their lives irrevocably changed. Some never overcame their bitterness, remaining Hitler’s victims all their lives. Yet Goodrich and Hackett do not choose to leave their audience with this bitter message. Their play is not a tragedy; it celebrates the triumph of Anne’s spirit. Her father’s last words are “She puts me to shame.”

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Post-World War I Germany
Germany in the post-World War I years experienced veritable social and economic disaster. The...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Goodrich and Hackett’s play is based on Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 1930s and 1940s: In 1939, the European Jewish population stands at about 10 million. However, an estimated 6 million...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

  • The Diary of Anne Frank, a film adaptation of the play, was released in 1959. It stars Millie Perkins and Shelley Winters and...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • Anne Frank began to keep a diary only a short time before her family went into hiding, and she chronicled her experiences until August 4,...

(The entire section is 340 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Atkinson, Brooks. ‘‘Theatre: The Diary of Anne Frank,’’ in New York Times, October 6,...

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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bloom, Harold, ed. A Scholarly Look at “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.

Kopf, Hedda Rosner. Understanding Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Lindever, Willy. The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank. New York: Anchor, 1992.

Melnick, Ralph. The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank: Meyer Levin, Lillian Hellman, and the Shaping of the Diary. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Miller, Melissa. Anne Frank: The Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.