Incident At Vichy, by Arthur Miller: When Complacency Becomes Complicity

 

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller’s Incident At Vichy is similar in spirit to many of the players written in the decades following WWII.  In the decades following the Holocaust, many were left trying to understand the nature of what had happened.  Stanley Milgram, for instance, performed an experiment exploring how it was possible for people to disassociate themselves with atrocities which they were willing to commit.  Such explorations dominated the stage in the decades following the war, and playwrights like Max Frisch, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Gunter Grass explored themes related to the war in their plays The Fire Raisers, Rhinoceros, The Caretaker, and The Flood respectively.  Each of these plays uses metaphor, sometimes subtle, as is the case with Grass and Pinter, and sometimes absurd, such as is the case with Ionesco.  Such approaches can be useful in developing an understanding of human nature because they allow us to see how the attitudes we have in seemingly insignificant situations can speak to how we might behave in scenarios as dramatic as those that occurred in France, Poland and Germany during WWII.  At the same time, however, masking these conversations through metaphor can be problematic as many readers might not make the link.  In the case of Miller’s Incident At Vichy, though, there is no confusing the issues.  Miller places his narrative squarely in the heart of Nazi-occupied France and explores the maxims and mentalities that turned complacency into complicity.  Miller’s work could, however, be read as a metaphor.  Just as he employed the setting of the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthy’s with hunt in his play The Crucible, the conversations about the treatment of the Jews in Incident At Vichy could be read as a metaphor for the treatment of African Americans in America during the Jim Crow era leading up to the Civil Rights movement.  Miller is like the Norman Rockwell of the stage, which is meant at a compliment.  At a time when the stage was perhaps a bit too esoteric for some, Miller created a narrative whose themes and ideas employed a democratic language that allowed the themes to be easily understood by those watching or reading it.  The work, then, serves as a dialogue that vocalizes the thought process of the typical self-interested human, and does it sufficiently enough to make the narrative terrifyingly relatable.

 

 

Auschwitz

Auschwitz

One of the reasons that the atrocities of the Holocaust were allowed to go on was because the tendency to rationalize.  Monceau, a character in Miller’s play who is an actor among a group of people who have been rounded up by the Nazis, hears about the crematoriums at the concentration camps.  Rather than believe this, he chooses to believe the stories where the prisoners learned brick laying, despite the fact that he has no evidence of either.  He remains willfully blind the possibility that the Jews being shipped to Auschwitz might be killed, asking “what good are dead Jews to them?”  He goes onto state that the Germans “want free labor” and that killing Jews is senseless before concluding that “the Germans are not illogical” and that the rumours of the concentrations camps can’t be true because “there’s no conceivable advantage for [the Germans] in such a thing” (37).  A doctor by the name of Leduc challenges this with a warning to Monceau: “You cannot wager your life on a purely rational analysis of this situation” (46).  Monceau, though, hangs onto a cyclical argument that works under a flawed premise.  He mistakenly assumes that Nazis are rational, and then dismisses irrational behaviour attributed to them on that basis.  The willful blindness demonstrated by Monceau is similar to that displayed in Frisch’s The Fire Raisers by Beidermann, who after being told by his guests what horrible crimes they are going to commit, assumes that they are joking and remains willfully blind to their plot.  This wilful blindness is employed still today, as marketers who try to sanitize the brutality of meat industry rely on the complacent masses to turn the other way and in turn facilitate the brutal treatment of animals, while the fact that components for many major electronics come from conflict zones and many of the clothes we buy are manufactured in sweat shops that often employ underage children.

 

thewhitetigerThe willful blindness leads to complicity, whether it be in the exploitation of others, or of oneself.  Leduc, recognizing the impending threat of the Nazis, tries to organize those around him: “Listen to me for one moment.  I beg you.  There is only one man guarding that door; we may never get another chance like this again” (46).  Those around Leduc refuse to help him overcome the guard, and it is at this point that Leduc makes it clear that each of them are being complicit in their own oppression and the oppression of those around them.  Leduc notes that the Germans “are relying on us” (46) and that “They rely on our own logic to immobilize ourselves” (46).  This is reminiscent of how Aravind Adiga describes the caste system in his novel The White Tiger, where he provides a metaphor comparing the masses to chickens and argues that rather than keeping a watch on the chicken coop to make sure that none of them escape, oppressors merely allow the chickens to watch each other.  “No one dares to leave the roster coop!”  Millers’ characters do much that same as they act as their own guards and immobilize themselves.  Leduc puts it succinctly for Monceau: “you are making a gift of yourself” (48).  Such is the results of people enduring oppression in a kyriarchical system that employs intersectional oppression.  In the hopes of maintaining whatever perceived advantage they have, they are often willing to concede a number of personal rights and freedoms.

 

TheRoosterCoopSystems of oppression manage to secure the support of the people by encouraging them to be invested in the system through a number of forms of intersectional oppression.  Because various groups feel that they are oppressed for different reasons, they may be reluctant to support other groups and compartmentalize the motivations of the oppressing force.  Bayard, who is a working-class electrician, notes that the oppression is one based on economics, and therefore the system of eugenics doesn’t factor into his perceptions of the situation.  He claims that the “monopolies got control of Germany” and that “Big business is out to make slaves of everyone” (6).  Monceau is likeminded, and so cannot see the profit in killing Jews when they can provide free labour, and so dismisses the thought of genocide.  Bayard sees capitalists as his enemy.  Marchand, who is a business man, and who is also Jewish, is therefore seen as being in concert with the oppressive forces and so the working-class, represented by Bayard, won’t offer its help to the Jewish business class.  The Jewish business class, who is being oppressed based on their perceived race, becomes invested in the manner through which they can achieve autonomy: finances.  One might assume that the Jews and the Gypsies would be motivated to help each other, since both are oppressed based on their perceived race, but because many Gypsies are economically depressed and in turn rely on stealing or ‘hustling’ to earn a crust, businessmen like Marchand refuse to help such people if they are perceive as thieves.  With each group classified in a different manner, each group has a reason to be invested in the system, and so continue to be complicit in their own oppression.

 

Ferdinand de Saussure: the father of linguistics.

Ferdinand de Saussure: the father of linguistics.

In order to ensure that each classification of people embraces perceived divisions, it is important to usurp the authentic identity of each person by transforming them into signifiers.  Luduc, the doctor, makes this signification overt when he states “That we are… symbols” (31), but it is Monceau, the actor, who perhaps best summarizes the issue at hand.  The collection of men who have been rounded up by the Nazis assume that they Germans are simply verifying that their papers confirming their identification are legitimate.  Monceau tells Leduc that is he “to create an illusion; to make [Germans] believe [he is] who [his] papers” says he is (30).  The papers, then, are seen as the authentic identity and each person must perform in a manner that demonstrates that they are consist with the signifier.  When speaking of signifiers, it is important to place them within a nomenclature, that is to say a community of words.  The meaning of each words depends on its context with in a language and a set of grammatical rules.  Identities, then, can be seen as existing in a nomenclature.  First there is a personal nomenclature based on our perceptions.  Leduc speaks to Van Berg about his cousin Kessler.  For Leduc, all he knows of Kessler is that he help to rid the hospital where he worked of Jews, and so Kessler’s identity is defined strictly by that for Luduc, but Leduc notes that Van Berg knows other aspects of Kessler, and so each has a different nomenclature in which Kessler, as a signifier, is place.  As Leduc states, Kessler’s eliminating of the Jews “is only a small part of Baron Kessler to [Van Berg]… But it is all of Baron Kessler to” Leduc (67).  We see then how the events and context surrounding a person defines them.  On a social scale, the nomenclature created by the Nazis, made room only for the signifier associated with the individual and not for the individuals themselves.  Bayard articulates this best when he notes that people cannot be their true selves in society by posing a question to Luduc: “You think a man can ever be himself in this society?  When millions go hungry and a few live like kings, and whole races are slaves to the stock market—how can you be yourself in such a world?  I put in ten hours a day for a few francs, I see people who never bend their backs and they own the planet… How can my spirit be where my body is? I’d have to be an ape” (32).  The social context of the nomenclature of humanity does not allow for the individual have their own meaning, but rather forces a meaning onto them through social and cultural contexts.  This, then, is how the signifiers serve to dehumanize.

 

Arthur Miller and his pipe.

Arthur Miller and his pipe.

Miller’s play also has some interesting dialogue that situates capitalism as an institution that helps to facilitate oppression.  When Marchand accuses the Gypsy in the room of being a thief, Lebeau, a painter by trade, plays the socialist hero and asks “Why shouldn’t he steal?”  He then questions Marchand: “How’d you get your money?” (9)  Marchland defends himself, stating “I happen to be in business”, to which Lebeau replies: “So what have you got against stealing?” (9)  This exchange suggests that the practices of business men are simply instances of sanctioned thievery, a sentiment that is reinforced later when Lebeau states “all property is theft anyway” (17).  This capitalist system that creates a disparity between the classes is part of the intersectional system of oppression that encourages many to invest themselves in the system. If the system allows them to profit, then they don’t want to challenge the system in case they might lose the comforts of the middle-class for the hunger of the destitute.

 

A self-portrait by German artist Max Beckmann, who was pretty much run out of Germany because Hitler didn't get accepted to art school.

A self-portrait by German artist Max Beckmann, who was pretty much run out of Germany because Hitler didn’t get accepted to art school.

Miller also makes an interesting link between how people perceive art and how their morality in other instances.  Von Berg, a member of the Austrian aristocracy, asks his cohorts a question: “Can people with respect for art go about hounding Jews?” (24)  This question essentially asks can a person who loves art hate his/her fellow human being, or at the very least willingly watch them suffer and turn a blind eye?  Monceau suggests that people can love art and still be heartless bastards as he notes that “nobody listens to music like a German” (24).  Leduc, in response, is careful not to conflate individual Germans with the Nazis, suggesting that “Perhaps it isn’t those people who are” participating in the Nazi eugenics program (24).  This difference is made clear in another part of the play where a major, who is a German army regular, makes sure to note that he is not a Nazi, merely a man who was drafted into the army.  The Nazis were a political party with their own military that worked in concert with the regular army.  Ultimately, though, he proves willing to facilitate the Nazi agenda to protect his own interests.  The issue at hand, though, is the link between empathy and art.  After reading a book about Max Beckmann, it is clear that the Nazi view on art was limited as German artists who didn’t even have strong political commentary in their work were often targeted by the Nazi’s.  There does seem to be a pattern where people who lack empathy lack an appreciation for art, and though this may not be universally applicable it does suggest the importance of art in developing empathy.  This was perhaps best expressed by the quote often attributed with Churchill.  According to a rumour, when it was suggested that the government cut funding to the arts during the war, Churchill responded: “Then what are we fighting for?”  There has been no documentation that I could find to verify that Churchill said this, but it is documented that Hitler most certainly did suggest that Expressionist art was something that should be treated criminally, and the contrasting views seem to sum up how art can inform empathy.

 

Arthur Miller with his wife Marylin Monroe, who was an actress of some celebrity.

Arthur Miller with his wife Marylin Monroe, who was an actress of some celebrity.

The work is an entertaining and engaging examination the human nature in the face of oppression.  The reader gets the sense that these people are kindred spirits of Winston and Julia in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, well intended by ultimately weak.  We see how people categorize and compartmentalize and become complicit in their own oppression.  But this is not a work that criticizes the Germans and the French.  This is a self-examination.  Just as Millers employed the metaphor of the Salem witch trials to critique McCarthyism, in America, Miller is employing drawing on concepts of race presented by the Nazi and using it to draw attention to America’s treatment of African Americans.  This becomes clear when Monceau notes that “every nation has condemned somebody because of his race, including the Americans and what they do to Negroes” (51).  This sentence clearly situations American policy regarding African Americans as being on a par with the treatment of the Jews by the Nazi regime.  The play reads like a dramatization of the Martin Niemöller poem ‘First They Came…’.  It shows the complacency, complicity and the inhumanity of humanity.  Though it is not one of Miller’s most widely read or recognized plays, and it is less experimental than works like Death Of A Salesman, Incident At Vichy is easily among Miller’s finest works.

 

 

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out my thoughts on other playwrights from the mid-20th century who dealt with issues stemming from the war, such as Gunter Grass, Eugene Ionesco, Max Frisch, and Harold Pinter. And if you are a fan of post-modern drama, be sure to check out my play The King’s Attrition, which is available for free on this website.  If you prefer prose, my novella thieves is also available for free.  Be sure to check them out, ‘like’, share and leave a comment.  And to get updates on my latest posts, follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.  And now I leave you with some of my favorite quotes from the play:

 

Bayard: “It helps to know the meaning of one’s suffering.”  (6)

Von Berg: “if you love your country, why is it necessary to hate other countries?”  (38)

Von Berg: “They do these things not because they are German but because they are nothing.  It is the hallmark of the age—the less you exist the more important it is to make a clear impression.”  (38)

Major: “That means so much to you—that someone love you?”

Leduc: “That I be worthy of someone’s love, yes.  And respect.”  (54)

Leduc: “It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility”  (67)

Lebeau: “Whenever a people starts to work hard, watch out, they’re going to kill somebody.”  (10)

Lebeau: “Work is a curse”  (10)

Lebeau: “To work without making work a god.”  (10)

Bayard: “My friend, you’re in a bad way if you have to put on an act to feel your rightness.”  (30)

 

Works Cited:

 

Miller, Arthur.  Incident At Vichy.  Penguin.  New York. 1965. Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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