Incident at Vichy

by Arthur Miller

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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...

(This entire section contains 1682 words.)

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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 destruction in the world around them and therefore avoid responsibility for that evil and destruction.

Blinded to this reality, the characters participate in a victimizer/victim syndrome in which the entrapped victim seeks out another person to entrap and victimize. Thus, two nameless characters—the Gypsy and the Old Jew—are victimized by their fellow detainees, and the Major who is guarding the detainees speaks of his own entrapment. Holding a revolver to the head of Leduc, the Major speaks to the loss of humanity when all people are simultaneously victims and victimizers: “Tell me how . . . how there can be persons any more. I have you at the end of this revolver—indicates the Professor—he has me—and somebody has him—and somebody has somebody else.”

Part of the difficulty in destroying this syndrome of victim becoming victimizer is that the characters rely too heavily on logic and rationality in their efforts to understand the nature of the syndrome and the presence of evil. Two characters whose professions force them to deal with intuition and the unconscious—the painter Lebeau and the psychiatrist Leduc—speak often of the need to recognize the absurd illogic of suffering and the limitations of reason and intellect. Lebeau compares the meaninglessness of suffering to the lack of logical meaning in his painting. Instead of asking what his paintings mean, he says, people should look at them. In other words, instead of seeking neat, reasonable explanations, they should see with the mind’s eye that not all paintings have meanings, not all problems have solutions. Similarly, Leduc comments that logic can be immobilizing and warns his fellow detainees of that paralysis: “You cannot wager your life on a purely rational analysis of this situation. Listen to your feelings: you must certainly feel the danger here.”

Prince Von Berg ultimately feels the danger and acts with nobility and idealism when he sacrifices his life for Leduc’s. He announces his belief in ideals before he goes into the interrogation. He asserts this belief angrily: “There are people who would find it easier to die than stain one finger with this murder. They exist. I swear it to you. People for whom everything is not permitted, foolish people and ineffectual, but they do exist and will not dishonor their tradition.”

Von Berg does not dishonor his tradition. He courageously identifies the need for idealism and the fact that this idealism is, in a tragic sense, both noble and “ineffectual.” The nobility is clear: One man sacrifices his life for another. This sacrifice has no effect, however, on the perpetual victim/victimizer syndrome that is dramatically represented by the final moments of Incident at Vichy. One man is saved through the sacrifice of another, but another line of detainees arrives, none of whom will likely have a Prince Von Berg who will die for them. Thus, this morality play both affirms and questions idealism, leaving its audience with sacrificial gain and sacrificial loss, with hope for a human race that produces a Prince Von Berg but despair over human beings who detain and destroy one another.

Incident at Vichy is a modern morality play. Like a medieval morality play, Arthur Miller’s drama has characters who are allegorical, embodying abstract virtues and vices. Thus, when Dr. Leduc acknowledges that he and his fellow detainees are “symbols,” he is speaking about the qualities they embody and represent. This representation is presented most dramatically when the curtain falls, and good and evil, in the characters of the idealistic prince and the brutal Nazi, are staring at each other, symbolizing the confrontational duality of humankind.

In addition to these two characters—and others—who represent virtues and vices, Incident at Vichy includes the symbolic use of objects, not all of which have single explanations. The Gypsy and the Old Jew, themselves symbols of universal victims, refuse to divest themselves of, respectively, a pot and a bundle when they are called in for interrogation. Each object seems to be representative of a value that these oppressed detainees cherish: The Gypsy has fixed the pot, and so it is his, and the Old Jew has likely plucked the feathers from his own chickens, and so the bundle of feathers is similarly his. In a universe in which characters are displaced from their property and distanced from their family and friends, these objects represent futile efforts to cling to the familiar and the beloved. The pot is broken and the bundle of feathers is torn open by a Nazi, in one more demonstration of the destructive power of human force.

Incident at Vichy follows the pattern Arthur Miller established in his earlier and greatest play, Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949), and developed in subsequent dramas such as The Crucible (pr., pb. 1953) and A View from the Bridge (pr., pb. 1955). In these plays, Miller takes up the theme of individual guilt and commitment within the tradition of Greek tragedy. Concerned with creating tragic drama in an age that appears to have no classical tragic heroes, Miller explored the possibilities of bourgeois tragedy. In an essay titled “Tragedy and the Common Man,” he argued that the modern age called for a new kind of tragic drama, which he aimed to produce.

While Incident at Vichy may not be considered his best example of such modern tragedy, it is an excellent demonstration of Miller’s ongoing attempt to redefine the classical genre in terms of contemporary issues. Thus, his effort to examine Nazi genocide through the actions of his tragic heroes and villains has an important place in his artistic canon.

Miller’s plays and essays continually call attention to the moral dilemmas facing contemporary society. His essay “On Social Plays,” his introduction to the 1955 version of A View from the Bridge, and his introduction to his Collected Plays (1957) all give voice to the clarion call to view drama as a public way to raise questions at the heart of twentieth century civilization.