Miller’s Drama ‘Incident at Vichy’ Passes Test of Time

<i> T. H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times</i>

It was just an “Incident at Vichy,” but it was described to playwright Arthur Miller by a man who was there during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Miller’s 1964 drama is not often produced, but Buffalo Nights Theatre Company found it pertinent in today’s world, and its current run at the Complex validates their faith in the play’s insights.

A member of the company who portrayed the boy in “Incident at Vichy” when he was 15 brought the play to the attention of the group’s artistic committee. He had not forgotten its power. A collaborative group formed a few years ago by UCLA theater students and grads, Buffalo Nights is primarily interested in original plays. But this suggestion was too good to turn down.

Company member Gibson Frazier, who appears in the production, remembers: “We passed it around, then had a reading of it. There was a silence afterward. Everyone went, ‘Wow, this is really something.’ This came weeks, months, after not finding the right script.”


Says Brian Kite, president of the company: “We find that play selection is the hardest thing we have to do. Always.” Months of decision-making went by, Kite says, until everybody finally said, “This is really something we want to do now.

Why was producing this play so imperative? And what does a play written 30 years ago, concerning something that happened two decades before that, have to say today?

Director Rob Kramer, who was brought in for the project, explains: “People don’t have preconceived notions about the play. Theater people I’ve spoken to about it just vaguely remember it. But they don’t really know what the heart of the play is. When I tell them, this spark happens. It has to do with our responsibility in this world. Every generation ultimately has to have responsibility toward what happens in the world.”

The incident at Vichy described in the story concerns a group of young men brought by the Nazis to a “questioning center.” The French government at Vichy had made a deal with the Germans that they could take over the government but had to leave certain areas alone. The Nazis agreed, then went behind the Vichy government’s back with their secret roundup of Jews.

The play takes place in the waiting room of the questioning center. “The drama is driven by the convictions of these men in this room, and their discovery of themselves during the play,” Kramer says.

Before Kramer came in to direct, the company had already researched the time period and events surrounding the play’s action. Kite says that knowing the result of what happened became an acting problem. “It’s very easy,” Kite says, “to play the end of what happened, and these people at the time didn’t know the end.”

Most of the men, like their families and relatives, couldn’t comprehend their future. Another cast member, Jeff Maynard, comments on what must have been going through the men’s minds: “They can’t believe what’s about to happen. When they hear rumors about what’s going on, they can’t accept it. It was so horrible they can’t imagine that it is true.”


The truth of it was brought home to Maynard during a trip to Germany and a visit to the concentration camp at Dachau. “I’d read about it,” he says, “and been exposed to it, but you become almost desensitized to it until you actually see the physical evidence. It’s unbelievable.”

Maynard was particularly struck by the thought of the prisoners being led into the gas chambers, thinking that they were to take showers. It is the same ruse as that played on the young men in the play, who are told pointedly that their appearance for questioning is required simply to check their papers.

“This was a typical trick of the Nazis,” Kramer says. “They would set traps. The Jews didn’t want to emigrate and leave their homes and possessions, so this was the Nazis’ excuse to collect them and cart them off. They set these traps over and over, to get you believing one thing without believing the other thing. These were the first victims of the Nazi propaganda.”

One of the characters speaks about beginning to believe the propaganda. The things the Nazis said about them almost seemed to be true.

“It’s the conception of ourselves,” Kramer says, “what’s been drummed into our heads as to what we are. And what we begin believing that we are because everyone says we are. Therefore we are that. Then we get used to holding on to that conviction.”

So many of these victims were tricked by the Nazi party line, what Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, in one of his favorite phrases, said was “politically correct.” The men in the play are, fatally, trying to hold on to what they have been told. The play is about what they hold on to, not what they succumb to.


“That’s the real tragedy,” Kramer says, “in a lot of Miller’s plays, not so much the event. ‘The Crucible’ is not so much the event of the witch trials, or in this play the Holocaust. It’s these poor people who are forced to give up their convictions, what they believe in, because society says this is what you must do. They give up their sense of self-consciousness. It’s not enough to just sit in front of the television and shake our heads. Before we can do something to change anything, we have to face it.”

“Incident at Vichy,” Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends May 29. Tickets $12.50. Reservations (213) 466-1767.