Matthew Ivan Bennett on his play WHAT WE HAD TO

Matthew Ivan Bennett Photo credit: Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune

Matthew Ivan Bennett has premiered several plays at Plan-B, most recently A/VERSION OF EVENTS, DIFFERENT=AMAZING and ERIC(A), which won Best Drama at United Solo in New York. Recently, he was a finalist at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and has twice been a finalist at the Austin Film Festival. He has also acted for Plan-B, SLAC, Utah Shakespeare Festival and Eclipse in Chicago. Matt is a member of the Dramatists’ Guild.

Matt’s play WHAT WE HAD TO opens the 2016/17 Script-In-Hand Series Wednesday, November 16. The event is free and at capacity – click here to wait list.

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

That poem — which began with Pastor Martin Niemöller — has haunted world politics for at least 60 years. It’s been appropriated by left wing and right. Recently, I remember it being re-worded by gun advocates in the reverberations of the Sandy Hook Massacre.

The poem is an exhortation. It says, “Fight back — at the first hint of despotism, fight back.” It demands courage against any and every “They.”

It is also the story of someone who did not fight back.

The logic of Niemöller’s poem would have us believe that tyranny surges in the absence of empathy. Certainly, I think, that’s true. I also think that our lives rarely unfold like a four-stanza poem. If you look closely at dystopian moments you will not find only two groups of people — the evilly victorious “They” and the rotting victims. There are always people in between. People who salute when and what they’re told to, but don’t believe. People who might save one Socialist, or one Jew, but don’t lay down their neck for all of them. Here, in this in-between group, there are cowards, yes, but there are some decent men too. (And, it goes without saying, that in this in-between group are the ones living quietly in guilt.)

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I got the idea for my new play, WHAT WE HAD TO, while reading John O. Koeler’s STASI: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE EAST GERMAN SECRET POLICE. I grew up in the tail of the Cold War, but never clearly understood what was happening in East Germany. In my child’s brain, I think, that whole area of the map was a red blot with a golden hammer and sickle over it. I knew Communism only as a hammer and a sickle; I knew it as the image of a mushroom cloud; I knew it as villains in bad ’80s movies like “Red Dawn.” So reading the details of East Germany’s political police force brought me, in a way, out of childhood. Or in other words, Koeler’s book made me see that we can’t understand a historical period through propaganda.

East Germany before The Wall fell was not made up only of “They”; its history is not a catalog of well-publicized genocides that its citizens “allowed” or could have shown up to stop with their fists. The Communists ousted the Nazis, created the Ministry of State Security (Stasi), and the horrors that came out it were frequently private — happening in local police stations, behind prison walls, and in people’s living rooms, in their bedrooms . . .

See, the Stasi thrived through a network of paid or blackmailed informants. “They” were largely made up of regular men and women. “They” were not always in uniforms. “They” were your brothers, mothers, co-workers, college professors, and favorite uncles. “They” were like you, and “They” were not necessarily after an obvious out-group. And, as I explore in my play, “They” might have been as afraid of their bosses as anyone else.

The spark of WHAT WE HAD TO really came from learning how many lawsuits were started in the wake of the Stasi Files Act. When the newly unified German parliament voted to allow people to see their secret police files in the early ’90s, thousands of relationships were ruined. There was a rash of suicide. A lot of people could not live with the shame of their family finding out that the Stasi had used them. Or that they did not have the courage to be thrown in prison, or be killed, for resisting. Or, perhaps, did not have the heart to forsake their children by making such a heroic and awful move.

As an American, thoroughly steeped in anti-Communist propaganda, I would like to think that if “They came for the Socialists,” I would speak out. A part of me — a deeply principled American part — believes that the people who didn’t resist the Stasi were as bad as the Stasi. At very young age, in school, I was introduced to the saying, “Give me liberty or give me death.” A part of me believes that people who aren’t willing to die for the cause of liberty are enemies of liberty.

Another part of me knows that life is not a poem. Thus, I wrote WHAT WE HAD TO — to put these two parts of me in conflict and see what happens. There is Armin [Kirt Bateman], raised in the hair-raising impoverished paranoia of ’60s/’70s-era East Germany. A man who spied for the East German secret police and sold out his brother. There is Lena, who came of age in the post-Cold War money-soaked ’90s — and who finds out that Armin [McKenzie Steele Foster] was involved in her father’s death.

In writing, I could have tried to hit on, and express, a moral solution to that situation — one that was all-too common in German life after the wall fell. I could have ended the play with “There was no left to speak for me.” Or, I might have marshaled my energy into finding forgiveness for someone who supported the status quo of the Stasi. I do neither in WHAT WE HAD TO. Rather, I try to mine both messages and points of view, as deeply and empathically as I can, and leave the audience to hash it out in the lobby and their cars on the way home. (As we all have to do with real history.)

I guess that means WHAT WE HAD TO is a tragedy. Usually, even in my really serious dramas, I find laughs, but…there are few laughs in this. There are, I think, real people. The play opens with a poem, but no one will leave with the moralistic certainty of Niemöller’s poem. More probably, you will leave convinced that Armin is right, or that Lena is.

With any luck on my part, you’ll leave with a wider heart for the people on all sides of dystopian moments.

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