As one of last survivors of a terrible, but distant era, George Tabori imbues all of his dramatic works with the underlying fear that the horrors of the past, however many years distant, simply lie sleeping beneath the surface of “civilized” society and may, once again, rise up to destroy humanity. Tabori implicitly asks: Who and what are determining how Jews should lead their lives? The Cannibals, Mein Kampf: A Farce, and My Mother’s Courage, all provide examples of how individuals can be reduced to mere symbols or stereotypes by the circumstances of their lives while still managing, through adherence to inner principles and agapic love, to retain their dignity. The true evil of the Holocaust seems to be that the choice between life and death can be reduced to a mere matter of expediency should one’s humanity cease to play a role in one’s perceptions of others. On the other hand, it is also the refusal of an individual to allow his or her dignity to be stripped from him or her that, paradoxically, allows that individual to remain human.
In The Cannibals, a play Tabori dedicated to his father, the playwright examines the extent to which individuals can be forced to abandon even the most basic elements of morality. When Puffi, an inmate of a concentration camp, is accidentally killed, his fellow prisoners are ordered by the sadistic Capo to eat his body or be similarly killed. Stripped of their individuality by their shaved heads and identical clothing, the concentration camp inmates are denied any identity beyond that of their individual stereotypes; one is a gypsy, one is a homosexual, one is a Jew, and so forth—a condition that is intended to encourage distance and vicious competition between the inmates. However, even under such horrific conditions as starvation and sadistic coercion, most of the prisoners still refuse to yield their humanity—only two prisoners choose to eat their former companion. Even though this choice allows the two prisoners to survive the death camp and, eventually, become prosperous American citizens, the loss of their dignity haunts them far more intensely than the pain of loss suffered by the children and grandchildren of those inmates who refused to defile themselves.
The central character, “Uncle Tabori” (clearly a reference to Tabori’s father Kornel), is a voice for morality whose vivid recollection of a dream stirs most of the other prisoners to retain the dignity refused them by their German captors. Even when Uncle Tabori is stripped of his clothing (the last, tattered vestiges of “society” clinging to his wasted body) and led, naked, to his execution, the old man refuses to yield. Only the outer trapping of his...
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