Eric Samuelsen’s latest play, THE ICE FRONT, opens our 2017/18 Season (our 27th! – click here for tickets and subscription info – performances November 9-19). Eric has been writing for Plan-B since 2004. Most recently, he was one of 12 playwrights creating short pieces for the Script-In-Hand Series event (in)divisible. He has previously premiered MIASMA, AMERIGO, BORDERLANDS and THE KREUTZER SONATA (a co-production with NOVA Chamber Music Series) at Plan-B. The company’s entire 2013/14 season, the #SeasonOfEric, was fully dedicated to his work and featured the world premieres of NOTHING PERSONAL, RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA, 3 and CLEARING BOMBS, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Fluent in Norwegian, Mr. Samuelsen is an Ibsen translator – his translations of A DOLL HOUSE and GHOSTS have been produced as part of Plan-B’s Script-In-Hand Series. His plays have been produced from California to New York.
The actors of the Norwegian National Theatre find themselves in an uneasy truce with Nazi cultural authorities during the German occupation of Norway. When they are forced to perform a Nazi propaganda piece, conscience comes face-to-face with The Final Solution.
THE ICE FRONT honors the heroism and dangers faced by the trilogy of Nazi victims – Jews, Gypsies and Homosexuals – by questioning what it means to be an artist, to be a patriot, to be human.
It has taken me 30 years to write THE ICE FRONT.
While living in Norway for three years, I found the story I could use as the vehicle for this celebration in my research files from my doctoral dissertation. In 1990, in the Norwegian National Theatre archives, I discovered the story of SISTE SKRIK (aka THE LAST SCREAM), a Nazi propaganda play that became a battleground between the actors of the National, and the Quisling Cultural Ministry.
I loved the material I found, but I was also somewhat intimidated by it. Draft after draft fell short of my expectations, so I set it aside. It did, however, revive a lot of family stories for me.
My grandparents, Ragnar and Ellik Samuelsen, lived in Moss, right at the mouth of Oslo fjord. Their house was right on the beach; my Dad swam in the ocean every morning growing up. He was seven when the occupation began, twelve when it ended, in 1945. His sister, Turid, was four years younger. My father had a boat as a kid (having a boat was, for Norwegian kids, like having a bike for American kids). I grew up with stories about the occupation. My grandmother’s brother, my Great-Uncle Henry Evensen was a PT boat captain, tasked with making the dangerous run from England to the Norwegian west coast, carrying munitions and explosives. Uncle Henry was a war hero—one of the most highly decorated military officers in Norwegian history. I knew him a little. When we went back to Norway with my Dad (he’d emigrated to the United States in 1950), we’d always see Uncle Henry; he’d take us on his boat (which is now preserved as a museum), and then tell us stories about Viking chiefs of the past. I put it all together in my head: Vikings=Norwegian Resistance fighters=Uncle Henry=my family.
It wasn’t quite that simple. Uncle Henry, I later learned, though a kind and gentle and talented man, was essentially incapacitated by untreated PTSD; he fought alcoholism his whole life, tormented by his war memories. His brother, Uncle Fridtjoff, was a local Resistance coordinator during the war; he became a bitter and abusive and angry man.
For most Norwegians, though, the war years were filled with deprivation, but not quite hunger. My grandfather (who I always called Bestefar, just as I called my grandmother Bestemor) worked at the Moss glass factory at a decent wage, but buying food was difficult. It was rationed, and in addition to money, you needed the right ration coupon to buy anything. My Dad said that his job, when he got home from school, was to go fishing. He’d take his little sailboat out into the fjord, and fish for cod or halibut. He thought it was fun; a lark, and a way out of homework. Years later he realized that the fish he caught were dinner, most nights. Bestefar, meanwhile, after work, would ride his bicycle thirty kilometers or more from town, looking for small farms where he could buy some milk for his kids. All very black market, of course, but that was how things worked.
Still, compared with other countries conquered by the Germans, Norway was treated with comparative benevolence, at least at first. The Nazis’ insane racial theories suggested that Norwegians were ethnic cousins to Germans. Surely, in time, Norwegians would come to realize that Resistance to Naziism wasn’t just counter-productive, it was racially blinkered. And so, a major cultural institution like the Norwegian National Theatre in Oslo was not just kept open, but heavily subsidized. In time, the theory went, Norwegians would come to their senses.
Mostly, this didn’t happen. Norwegian saboteurs destroyed troop ships and bridges and factories. Most Norwegians were expert skiiers, and could swoop down, strike a German target, then ski home. Plans would be hatched in England, and Resistance fighters would execute them, fully aware of how broad popular support would be, and how easy to hide in plain sight.
My grandmother tells a story about a day when she was hanging out her wash on the back line. She could see a German troop ship steaming down Oslo fjord, heading to Germany. Suddenly, an explosion rocked the ship, and she could see it sink, and she could hear the cries of drowning German soldiers. She had a boat; she was an accomplished sailor and rower; she was perfectly capable of rescuing some of the men. She looked up and down the beach, and could see all her neighbors, all making the same calculations. Men were drowning; they could help, perhaps rescue at least a few. Calm seas, the wind fair for an attempt. And one by one, she watched her neighbors take their laundry and go inside. Yes, men were drowning. But they were Germans; the enemy. There was a war on. No. She would do nothing. A few hours later, a German patrol knocked on her door. They were furious, and shouted ‘what had she seen, what had she done?’ She told them that she had seen nothing. What sinking troop ship? I never saw anything of the kind. That was the only answer the Germans got from any of the women on the beach. She was a little afraid, she told me once, that the Germans would shoot her as an example. But if that happened, she was prepared for it.
The other big story I grew up with involved the destruction, by the Norwegian Resistance, of a heavy water plant in Northern Norway. In Vemork, Norsk Hydro built a commercial heavy water plant, for use as fertilizer. Heavy water—deuterium oxide—was also an essential component in the creation of nuclear weapons. The Allies were worried about that heavy water being used in the German nuclear program, and so, in October, 1942, a joint British-Norwegian task force, Operation Grouse, attempted to destroy the plant and water. It failed, and the Resistance members in the attack were captured and executed. But then, in March 1943, in Operation Gunnarside, the Norwegians tried again, this time without British assistance. They managed to destroy the plant and the heavy water, and then ski 400 kilometers to safety in neutral Sweden. Military experts call it the most successful and important sabotage mission of the entire Second World War. And it’s possible that, without that plant’s destruction, that Hitler may have had working nuclear weapons before the Allies did. Not likely, but possible.
On the other hand, we mustn’t pretend that there weren’t collaborators, or that Norwegian policeman weren’t crucially important when the Germans tried to round up Norwegian Jews. Among the most prominent Norwegian collaborators were two artist-celebrities. Novelist and playwright Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920. In 1940, he was 80 years old, and estranged from his children. A pro-Nazi caregiver worked on his failing mind, and in 1942, he was able to travel to Germany and meet both Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, a meeting that so impressed him that he gave Goebbels the medal he’d been given with his Nobel Prize. After the war, Hamsun was briefly arrested for treason, but after medical evaluation, the court let him off with a small fine.
Also, the Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. She was living in the U.S., performing at the Met, when Norway fell, in 1941. Her husband Henry Johansen remained in Norway, and asked her to join him, which, with much trepidation, she did. Johansen made a fortune during the war, profiteering on lumber and shipping, while Flagstad was allowed by the Nazi cultural officials to tour, though only to neutral Sweden and Switzerland. She was probably not actually a Nazi sympathizer, but her activities damaged her reputation badly after the war.
But, then, there was also Quisling, of course, and his Nasjonal Samling party members. Their numbers weren’t consistent, but at their peak, there may have been as many as 100,000 NS members nationwide. When the Germans looked like they were winning, NS numbers went up; when it looked like the Germans were losing, NS members drifted away.
When the war ended, Quisling government officials were all arrested, and tried, but most escaped with small fines or short imprisonments. The exception was Quisling himself. The Norwegian criminal code did not have a provision for the death penalty. So Parliament passed a law mandating death as the penalty for acts of treason in 1940. They tried Quisling under that statute, and shot him, then rescinded the law. Norwegians really didn’t like Vidkun Quisling.
So, in 1990, I was in Norway to do research for my doctoral dissertation. I mostly spent my days in the archives of the Oslo University Library, which has a wonderful collection of theatre materials from all the theatre companies in the country. The one exception was the National Theatre; they kept their own archive, under their estimable company dramaturg, Arthur Holmoien. So those were my two main haunts; the National Theatre archive, and the Oslo University Library archive. (I also took quick research trips to Stockholm and Copenhagen). I became fascinated with the subject of Norwegian Resistance theatre during the war years. In Trondheim and in Bergen, theatres did provocative and daring productions of classic plays which they gave an anti-Nazi twist. They had to be careful, but they took remarkable chances, in a hostile environment. The director of the Trondelagtheatret in Trondheim, Henry Gleditsch, was the most daring of these directors, with celebrated and wickedly subversive productions of such plays as LYSISTRATA, ANTIGONE, HENRY V and Ibsen’s BRAND. My dissertation dealt specifically with BRAND in production, which meant I needed most of one chapter just on Gleditsch. Sadly, Gleditsch, in addition to being a wonderfully transgressive theatre artist, was also a Resistance fighter. He was caught by the Gestapo after blowing up a bridge, and unceremoniously shot on the front steps of his theater building. But the National Theatre also did a BRAND production in 1942 (it’s the only play done in every major theatre in Norway during the war).
And then, one night, as I was working away at the National Theatre archive, my new friend Arthur said ‘I couldn’t help but notice that you’re very interested in the war years. Have you ever heard of SISTE SKRIK (aka THE LAST SCREAM)?’ And Arthur told me the tale, of a playwriting contest, and this dreadful anti-Jewish play that had won and the actors’ Resistance. How they set the theatre on fire to prevent the play from opening. How they even got the theatre management to let them go up to the mountains and pick lingonberries. And how, on the much delayed opening night, as the actors performed deliberately badly and inaudibly, a German soldier fired his sidearm at one of them. And how the audience began applauding, likely saving the actor’s life.
A couple of years ago, a chance comment reminded me of SISTE SKRIK (aka THE LAST SCREAM), and I began once again thinking about the controversy surrounding it as the subject for a play. But unlike earlier attempts, the play came to me.
First, I wanted, as a Norwegian-American, to celebrate the courageous resolve of the Norwegian Resistance to the Nazi occupation during World War II. I grew up hearing stories from my father, my aunt, and my grandparents, about the ways ordinary Norwegians fought oppression and hardship, the day-to-day challenges and difficulties.
Second, I wanted to celebrate my family and my homeland.
Third, I wanted to celebrate the theatre. I have given my life to this magnificent art form. I love the people of the theatre, the individual grace and courage and dedication they daily exhibit.
Fourth, I wanted to honor the heroism and dangers faced by the trilogy of Nazi victims: Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals.
The result is THE ICE FRONT, a celebration of the courage it takes to pretend to be someone you’re not in order to be who you are.