To Simone Veil

and Jorge Semprún,

death camps’ survivors.


To the sixth million Jews

who did not come back.



                                                              Cover art:

                                      Stan Duchêne

                                 ISBN: 978-9-403638-13-3








          The Wagon, a three-act drama of the polygraph Alain Saint-Saëns, is an original theatrical contribution to the well-known theme of the “Shoah,” the Jewish genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. Its novelty lies not so much in the drama’s style that we will see briefly below, but in the temporary location of the dramatic action, just before a group of Jews arrive by train at Auschwitz concentration camp, which allows the anticipation of the outcome. Thus, the tragic end that awaits the descendants of Abraham, known by every reader, is presented surprisingly before, being the executor one of their own, which puts the reader in the presence of an anticipated catharsis of the Hobbesian horror of which is capable human nature: man is a predator to man.

          The work seems to be initially what could be understood as “ideological theater” (this expression is used on purpose to disassociate it from the one advocated by Piscator, “political theater,” of Marxist inspiration), keeping in mind the starting conversation on ideologies between the young Jorge (gesture of the author to the confinement in a Nazi concentration camp of the Spanish politician Jorge Semprún, to whom the work is dedicated) and a Jewish rabbi. In this dialogue, Rabbi Sholem argues against Jorge’s pro-marxist allegation, warning him – just like a teacher to his disciple – about the dangers of both radical ideologies: Soviets Marxism and National Socialism, telling him to “set aside your indoctrination speech and open up your eyes” (act I, scene 1). The development of the action, however, shows that raising awareness about political ideologies or, better, about the sterility of ideological dogmatism is not the main intention of the author, but rather is to show the two faces of human nature: the brutality and kindness that man is capable of. In addition, the drama is a clear allegation of religious tolerance as it is expressed by the Jewish rabbi when, addressing his fellow passengers, he summons them [second scene of the first act] to pray together “whichever Lord we call ours in our heart.” That’s why I would speak about this work as a good example of “theater of values.”

          Values ​​such as solidarity, to helping each other, in contrast to the survival of the strong, the Spencerian echoes presented by the opinion of one of the passengers about the urgent need not to continue distributing the water in equal parts, “in order to allow the strongest of yours to survive” (act II, scene 2). Or values such as human brotherhood, praying “Jews and Christians all together” (act III, scene I). Or justice imparted by the rabbinical court (understood from the perspective of the Jewish law, since to strangers the precept “an eye for an eye” can evoke revenge) at the end of the drama (act III, scene 2).

          Values ​​that perfectly embody archetypal characters and others that are not so, which is one of the virtues of this work. On the one hand, the character of Roger, a pimp, renegade of his faith – or rather, of any faith –, hedonistic and lascivious, who seems an incarnation of the Devil himself. Pleas of his fellow prisoners or the rabbi’s preaching with his profuse references to the Hebrew law, the Torah (repeated intertextuality throughout the work) does not make a dent in the trigger-happy assassin (with a knife in this case). Like the fallen angel, he submits his involuntary companions to a hell, anticipation of which they will suffer in the concentration camp. There are also his henchmen, one of whom, David, changes sides and pays for his betrayal (thus understood by the violent neighbor of Pigalle – the Parisian quarter where the famous Moulin Rouge is located, alongside with different kinds of night spots – a spatial symbol that anticipates the nature of a man whom the honest Jorge openly classifies as a pimp) with his death and the rape of his daughter. Or the Polish teenagers that insult and laugh at the Jews pleading for help (act II, scene 1).

          On the other hand, the kind figure of Rabbi Sholem, who symbolizes a sort of Moses who guides his people in their journey through the desert, not only because of the constant references to the Exodus, but because of the continuous textual references, such as when it is erected in president of the rabbinical court (‘‘as a specialist of Jewish law’’). Or his selfless wife, Esther, always ready to fulfill the requests of her husband, faithful to his husband against the sexual insinuations of the Parisian and ready to face death with her husband despite her greater chances of survival in the extermination camp. Or the good seminarian Karol, who gives food and drink to the hungry and thirsty (one of the profuse Biblical references of the work) Jews and apologizes for the evil attitude of the aforementioned boys, his pupils.

          There are also characters who go beyond the stereotypes, gray characters that, in their degradation from black to white, reach redemption, as the widow Germaine, who begins being the sexual partner of the French scoundrel and ends seeming to be an hybrid between Mary Magdalene (because of her past of sexual libertinism) and the Virgin, when the rabbi tells her to take care of Simone (gesture of the author to Simone Weil, as shown in the dedication) and Brigitte as his sister and daughter, respectively, just like what Jesus asked the Virgin Mary to do with the apostle John (and vice versa) at the base of the cross. Characters like the unfortunate Daniel, on the side of the thugs of the wagon at the beginning of the story, who ends up stabbed by the pimp, as we said above. A good-natured, but impulsive character is Jorge, who seems to embody the apostle Peter, rebellious to the attitude of turning the other cheek, as the rabbi did: “How could God let this crime unpunished?”

We said “theater of values” because the verisimilitude of the dramatic action does not seem fundamental in this work, but to awaken the awareness of the viewer-reader facing the rough situations that are revealed. Thus diegesis over mimesis prevails, but I believe that the story the dramatist draws up serves his purpose better to shake the emotions of the receiver. We could state then that this story of The Wagon is “epic,” not in the classic sense of a hero, protagonist of the action (because heroes here are almost all the passengers of the wagon heading to Auschwitz and, beyond, humanity), but in Bertolt Brecht’s notion of narrative theater. It is, indeed – or, at least, that sensation generates –a theater that displays the scenic action to the viewer-reader, which leads him to reflect on it, rather than introducing him into the action, so that he empathizes with the characters he is seeing-reading.

          The style is rough, direct, with a language sometimes vulgar and virulent (from Roger’s mouth, specially), a colloquial prose that runs away from the lyric and that endows some of his characters with an impertinence which reminds the rogues of the Spanish Golden Age and, in certain passages, the strongly-worded parliaments of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. Harsh remarks that sometimes can cause the reader’s bewilderment, because, as we say, they are the result of the aim of stirring consciences facing the values ​​presented in the play: human evil and human kindness. If we look at what the author himself pointed out in an interview, the explicit violence present in the play has the trace of Edward Bond’s Saved, a work whose representation impacted our still adolescent author. One could speak in a certain way of “tremendismo”[1], like Camilo José Cela’s Pascual Duarte’s Family, but I rather think that in this play there is a language without filters and situations taken from the most sordid reality that surrounds us.

          I do not think that the character of Roger, with his lasciviousness and abuse of force, can be compared, for example, to the violent peasant of Cela’s work, since his reactions, even excessive, carry a background that explains his outburst as an outlet for a long-lasting frustration (endemic poverty, death of his father, miserable life of his brother, premature deaths of his children ...). On the contrary, the Frenchman overreactions do not seem to find much justification if it weren’t for his last little respectable profession. Roger reminds me more of the “comendador” who is finally executed by the people[2].

          However, I do think it appropriate to speak to a certain extent of this work as “dirty realism”, because it presents the most negative side of human beings (along with the more positive) as something perfectly normal, despite of being shocking situations, for example, the orgy in the middle of the train that goes to an extermination camp (act II, scene 3) or the Polish children that we mentioned before, one of which even pees in the hands of the desperate Jewish woman who implored water through a hole in the crossbeams of the train (act II, scene 1). Let’s think if it would seem unreal to Bukowski that the man accused of rape returned to the place of the alleged crime to copulate with the overweight neighbor who French kissed him[3] ... the answer is no. It is all a matter of point of view, of “perspective,” in terms of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, because for the wife of the rabbi, Esther, it can be unreasonable the lustful attitude of Roger just before a certain death, whereas for the Frenchman the concern of the lady for her daughter living in Palestine, in her own words, greater than the concern for her disabled son who is heading to the extermination camp with them, may seem incomprehensible... the truth is only the sum of different points of view[4] and this play exemplifies this.

          Also as a feature of the exhibition of the starkest part of reality (of this “dirty realism”), the play has a few black humor moments, as when Roger, having sex with Germaine evokes his promise made hours before that he would “take care” of her: “Do you feel better now? – Poom! – Is Roger’s tenderness big enough for you – Poom!”(Act I, scene 3). Or also by offering the rabbi to adopt the daughter of the man he murdered “afterwards now that she is an orphan” (act III, scene 1).

          It is a theater piece more narrative than dramatic, as we say, but it is not totally free of lyricism. On the one hand, the heaven-hell allegory (or Jesus-Devil, as preferred) is symbolized by Rabbi Sholem and the shameless Roger, respectively. For instance, when the last one invites the people of the wagon to choose between playing with him and drink or pray with the rabbi and die (act II, scene 2), or when he tempt the religious, like Satan to Jesus in the desert, inviting him to enjoy the daughter of the stabbed (act III, scene 1). The same allegorical sense is given with the Biblical Exodus, an inverse exodus, I would say (abandon their previous lives, lives of promise, to enter a land of suffering and death). Along these lines the religious embodies, as we mentioned before, the figure of Moses of various passages in the Torah[5] account, such as, for example, when it compares the sexual debauchery promoted by Roger with the golden calf (act I, scene 3) or when a storm breaks out between the rabbi’s imprecations about the wrath of God as if it were the Seventh Plague of Egypt (act III, scene 1). On the other hand, there are exceptionally some lyrical passages like the words of the rabbi’s wife, Esther, to her son David, when the train is already arriving at its destination, in which the woman, with the tenderness of a mother explaining something to her little son so that he understands tells him that his parents “go to a special place for older people”.

          The story unfolds entirely in the wagon (unity of place) until the end, when they reach the Nazi camp, where, literally, death awaits them (some of them) barely they get off the train. Other works of our author follow this pattern of unity of the spatial location, which would make easier a future staging of this piece. The Wagon is a historical drama, since Saint-Saëns is based (as in other of his works focused on recent history events of the United States, such as the attacks of September 11 or the catastrophe caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans) in an essential truth, which is the suffering endured by millions of human beings in the Holocaust for the mere fact of being Jews and the dichotomy between latent anti-Semitism and the help provided to the Semites (both sides perfectly symbolized by Polish children and the Catholic seminarian referred above), regardless of whether the characters are not historical or the main intention of the plot is not the historical verisimilitude. Our author uses all the elements of the story to weave his work of fiction, not history, because, as the Spanish playwright Buero Vallejo recalled, “A historical drama is a work of invention, and the interpretative accuracy which it tries to achieve concerns its main meanings, not its details.[6]

          Speaking about the historical setting I would like to return, to conclude, at the beginning of this essay, because here lies the singularity of this theatrical work within the constellation of stories about the Holocaust[7]: to anticipate the fatal outcome of the extermination camp, as a holocaust before the Holocaust (or advanced catharsis). Other works, such as Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass, use what would be a prelude to the Shoah, the event of the same name that occurred in Germany in 1938, as an excuse to deal with other issues. Bertolt Brecht’s Jüdische Frau (The Jewish woman) is also set before the genocide, in 1935, but despite being part of the work of this German playwright entitled Terror and misery of the Third Reich and describing well that incipient discriminating cloak that was woven in Germany in the 30s due to the ethnic origin of its citizens, is not enough to reflect that cathartic horror that shows the work of Saint-Saëns. We can also remember the story of the movie Life is beautiful, located in a concentration camp, with a very different purpose: to describing the atrocity from the innocent eyes of a child. And, also located in a concentration camp, the work of the Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, Camino del cielo, which exposes an interesting concept: a comparison between the standpoint of what the camp was and what the protagonist remembers, years later, that it was, raising doubt of what actually happened[8].

          Finally, I would like to recall a play that runs as an epilogue to the tragedy, Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square), in which a Viennese Jew returns to his homeland after the war, years after exiled, when the annexation of Austria to Germany. The protagonist, stating that anti-Semitism is still alive among his countrymen, commits suicide[9]. All these works, along with this provided by the dramatist Alain Saint-Saëns, are nothing but pieces of truth that help us to know better world’s history and ourselves as human beings.

Borja Javier Ormazábal Hernández

Universidad Complutense de Madrid,


[1] Name given by the critics that the author himself dislike. I agree that many times words are only useful to pigeonhole.

[2]Vega, Lope de, Fuente Ovejuna.

[3]Bukowski, Charles, Rape!, Rape!

[4]Ortega y Gasset, José, El tema de nuestro tiempo, Ed. Calpe, Madrid, 1923, pp. 148 y ss.

[5]Hebrews call Torah, in one of its senses, to what Christians call Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.

[6] Buero Vallejo, Antonio, “Acerca del drama histórico”. Available on

[7]On this matter there is a list of works focused somehow or other on the Holocaust issue within Juan Mayorga’s essay “La representación teatral del Holocausto” (Raíces: Revista Judía de Cultura, nº. 73, 2008, pp. 26-30)

[8]Ferreyra, Sandra, “La historia sospechada, en dos obras de Juan Mayorga”, Universidad Nacional de La Plata, 2008 (avalaible at University’s digital archive).

[9]Terstch, Hermann, “Una obra de teatro escandaliza a los austríacos”, article published in El País (Spain), 27/10/1988.







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