By Liam Crossey
The dim red lights settled down onto the stage before the performance began. There were seven chairs in front of a projector in preparation of the staged reading. The space was set for the compelling and true story of Rafael Lemkin and his push for the Genocide Convention.
On Nov. 15, 2013, Allegheny College played host to the staged reading of “If the Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty against Genocide” by Robert Skloot, professor emeritus of theater, drama and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin.
The show takes place in New York City as Lemkin is trying to get the Genocide Convention ratified by the United Nations. As a staged reading, the cast and crew are sitting down on stage in front of their audience. The cast, which includes Skloot as well as Luke Davis, Philippa Panayiotu, ’14, Austin Scales, Alexis Eldridge, ’15, and Roberta Levine, who sit in their seats as they passionately read from their scripts. Their characters come to life as different dialects and voices are employed to differentiate between the characters and the actors themselves in lieu of costumes.
The reading examines the struggles of Lemkin as he tried to ratify the Genocide Convention. He left his adjunct post at Yale University and New York University. He was not paying his rent or eating. He spent most of his days lobbying for the Genocide Convention. Lemkin’s dark days that are portrayed in this script does not mean that the reading itself is overly dark. The script is filled with wit and humor as well as some moments that powerful and thought provoking.
Skloot provided an informational question and answer session after the staged reading.
Skloot began the writing process in 2005. He scoured three or four different libraries for manuscripts, autobiographies and other accounts of Lemkin and the development of the Genocide Convention. Skloot wanted to know who Lemkin was, how he lived, how he lobbied for the Convention and so forth. Skloot found many of the main documents that he was looking for from a friend at the University of Alabama. His investigation into the eccentric and passionate Robert Lemkin, as Skloot put it, “creates an interesting well-rounded character on stage.”
However, Skloot tried not to make the script too heavy. He asked himself, “Now that I know about Lemkin as a historical character, what would make him laugh?” He believed that humor can be added to the play through language. Skloot did admit that it was hard to play with the language. Many of the accounts of Lemkin were from bill collectors, Skloot stated.
He said that there are two reasons why he used the title “If the Whole Body Dies.” The first was that it carried the essential sense of the play. Some people died and others outlived their friends and family members who died during the genocide.
The second part of the title’s origins is related to a book “If Your Whole Body Dies” by Pringlo Levi.
Levi was an Italian writer who wrote about surviving Auschwitz and relayed many of the same themes that Skloot does in his play.
Panayiotou, a psychology major and theater minor, and Alexis Eldridge, a history major and theater minor, both provided more details about her and the cast’s time working with Skloot.
Panayiotou narrated multiple characters throughout the reading, especially the bill collectors since those were the only people who Lemkin was in contact with when he was attempting to ratify the convention.
“We were sitting down and all we had was our voice,” Panayiotou said.
Eldridge said that the experience was “authentic” because it was “a bunch of people sitting down and talking in a genuine and authentic way.”
Eldridge explained that the move to get Skloot to present his play to the campus was a combined effort between several Allegheny organizations.
“It was actually a joint operation bringing Professor Robert Skloot to Allegheny College. They both worked together simultaneously. I served as a liaison between the two because I used to work with the theater department as well as being part of Hillel,” Elridge said. “We worked with Professor Dan Crozier and Hillel advisor Rachel Dingman to bring him here. He was at our Shabbat service the night of the performance and he actually did the dvar torah, which is basically the equivalent to a sermon.”
Panayiotou said one aspect of the reading that left an impression on her was how unknown Lemkin actually was.
“He just faded into obscurity and only seven people went to his funeral even though he is the man who coined the term genocide,” Panayiotou said.
Eldridge, attended a Hebrew school into high school. “Being a Jewish person and someone who went to Hebrew school for years and learned pretty much everything there is to know about the Holocaust, I didn’t really know about this guy [Lemkin]”, he said.