Monday, November 30, 2020

Anne Frank on Stage: Analyzing the Effectiveness of the Play

As decades separate humanity today from World War II, relevant retellings of Holocaust narratives became crucial in keeping the atrocities of the Holocaust fresh in collective memory. Anne Frank’s diary is one of the most prevalent Holocaust narratives in circulation and has been adapted many times in an effort to achieve more widespread awareness of Anne’s experiences and the Holocaust as a whole. The Diary of Anne Frank, the stage play based on the diary, is one such adaptation. Despite providing a historically inaccurate version of the diary’s events, the play is still a useful adaptation which effectively conveys the same motifs found in the original diary. The performance element of the play creates an immersive atmosphere that allows audiences to engage with Anne Frank’s story in a more personal and emotional way than if they had simply picked up the diary and started to read.  

The play was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and was first produced in 1955, winning the Tony award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Barnouw 32). However, almost half of the scenes in the two-act play were only loosely based on events described in Anne’s diary or entirely fabricated for the adaptation. The first scene in the play depicts Anne’s father, Otto Frank, returning to the family’s hiding place after the war and receiving the diary from Miep Gies, the Franks’ helper (Goodrich 7), an event which could not have possibly been recorded in Anne’s diary because it would have occurred after her death. The lengthy introductions to Anne’s school friends found in her diary are then passed over for a scene depicting the day the Frank and van Daan families moved into the hidden apartment above Otto Frank’s place of business. This scene effectively reveals the limitations of living in the small space and hints at growing tension between the residents, aspects of the story that are more pertinent to Anne’s experience in the Annex, which serves as the main focus of the play.  

One might argue that omitting diary entries which Anne had deemed important enough to share is disrespectful or sacrilegious to the original work. However, this practice, called mediation, is common and necessary when adapting a work to a new form (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 8). A mediation often keeps the effectiveness of the original piece intact by transferring key ideas or emotions from the original to the new version while changing or removing some aspects of the original to better fit the new format. In a way, Anne created a mediation of her own life by recording events she deemed significant and omitting others which were less so. Different creators use source material with the intention of conveying their own message through a well-known narrative, as was the case when Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett wrote the play, a mediation of Anne’s mediation of her own life experiences, this time aimed at an American audience.  

The goal of adaptation through mediation is primarily to convey a new message or commentary based on the ideas found in the source material (Sanders 18). The playwrights’ intention in writing the play was not to create a new and exciting narrative for Anne, but rather to convey her story to an American audience. The play forefronts aspects of her story which audiences can relate, such as her relationship with Peter, in order to make the deeper subjects of confinement and victimization easier to understand by an audience who has likely never experienced anything similar. The play portrays Anne as a young girl rather than an historical icon so that audiences can relate to her experiences and attempt to understand her tragic circumstances through the lens of a peer and not a celebrity. These small shifts in technique do not change the overall message of the diary; the diary’s themes of victimization and hope in spite of extreme suffering are still evident in the play. This type of small change is made to accommodate an audience of Americans, who may not share the same feelings of reverence and responsibility toward the people portrayed in the play in the way that a German or Dutch audience might.  

Other reasons for mediation include length restrictions and limitations of the chosen format. The diary’s audiobook is nearly ten hours long, so a direct and comprehensive translation from diary to stage would be absurd and impractical. Additionally, plays place more of an emphasis on drama and action as compared to books, particularly diaries, which are intended to reflect on small events and often do not need to thrill and excite like a play should. The play format requires edits be made to the source material in order to keep the audience from leaving in the middle of the show. Reader engagement is equally important as, but less instantaneous than, audience engagement; audience members only get one chance to see a play and, therefore, must feel interested enough to stay until the show is over. Some of the fabricated scenes, like Mr. van Daan stealing the Franks’ bread in the third scene of Act 2, appear in the play for the purpose of infusing some drama into the second act (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, et al. 68). This scene never happened in real life and was therefore not part of Anne’s original diary, but it provides an immediate conflict for the characters to resolve, thereby creating a little drama to keep the audience’s attention. Disagreements and interpersonal tension were major conflicts in the diary, so this scene takes the existing tension and elevates it to create a moment worthy of the stage.  

The most important factor to keep in mind when adapting and mediating a piece of work into something new is whether the new product is conveying the appropriate message to its audience. The goal of the 1955 play was to bring Americans’ attention to the Holocaust without creating an exclusionary narrative. Otto Frank rejected the original concept for the play, written by Meyer Levin, because it was “too Jewish,” and Otto wanted the play to be more accommodating to non-Jewish audiences (Barnouw 42). Goodrich’s play portrays the Annex residents’ Jewish faith, but it does not feature as a major factor in the narrative despite being the historical reason for going into hiding. The diary features a lot more discussion of Jewishness as Anne tries to understand the persecution her family is experiencing. Meanwhile, in the play, she acknowledges the existence of prejudice as a concept independent from the context of the Holocaust, saying, “We’re not the only people that’ve had to suffer” (Goodrich, et al. 97). While the diary relies on Anne’s internal thoughts and emotions to tell the story of her experience, the play focuses more on creating a platform for broader understanding of the human suffering experienced by Jewish people during the Holocaust. By focusing on the human suffering aspect rather than the more specific issue of the Jewish genocide, Anne becomes a non-specific symbol for suffering instead of an example of the horrors endured by Jews during the Holocaust (Barnouw 43).  

The Americanization of Anne’s story sparked controversy among those who wished to keep Anne’s story factually intact, including the original playwright Meyer Levin, and forty years later in 1995, a new version of the play came to Broadway. This new version, by playwright Wendy Kesselman, returns some of the Jewish aspects that were omitted from the original while keeping nearly two-thirds of the original script as it was written (Barnouw 43). Both versions of the play fulfill the goal of telling Anne’s story to an American audience, but the 1995 version was not subject to the same cultural constraints of the 1955 version. Therefore, the 1995 version was able to more accurately portray Anne’s Jewishness, which had been overshadowed by desire for universal understanding in the earlier version. The play embraces dramatic structure with the intention that American audiences will sympathize with Anne and her family and be prompted to seek more detailed information about the events that forced them into hiding. While the shift to the stage necessitates dramatic scenes and more emphasis on the romance and other subplots which most audience members will relate to, it is also important that the fates of Jews in the Holocaust are not overlooked in order to make the story palatable to an American audience.    

The progression from diary to stage is uncommon considering the vast differences in the style and content of the two media. Books and movies are easier to adapt to the stage because scenes and actions are already clearly described or portrayed, and every story line is already resolved. Conversely, the episodic and introspective nature of diaries does not easily lend itself to staging (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, et al. 63). However, a stage adaptation makes a lot of sense to tell a story intended to elicit a strong emotional response. Audiences of live theater engage with the material much differently than someone reading the diary alone at home. Individual engagement with print material is often more introspective; someone reading Anne’s diary may picture their own life at the same age, compare their writing to Anne’s, or try to imagine living in Anne’s situation. Meanwhile, an audience watching a live performance has no choice but enter the scene alongside the actors. The people onstage become the characters, in this case, the inhabitants of the Annex, and these characters’ struggles become immediate to the audience. The atmosphere of the play can also cause the story to come to life.  

The play, The Diary of Anne Frank creates a landscape and soundscape to effectively convey the scenes to an outside viewer. The intended stage design of the play, designed by Boris Aronson, puts the entire Annex onstage to “evoke the lack of privacy” that the inhabitants would have experienced (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, et al. 71). This design choice greatly advances the effectiveness of the scene on the audience, who will look at the cramped stage and feel sympathy for the actors who have to live in the space for the next two hours. Then, from this sympathy comes a greater understanding of the Franks’ living conditions and the measures they had to take so that they were not discovered. The urgency is elevated in the play by the sound design, which creates an entire world outside of the small space depicted onstage. The playwrights provide very extensive and specific stage directions in order to make the scenes as immersive as possible. To this end, the included list of sound cues ranges from harmless neighborhood ambience to more imposing noises like planes roaring overhead and “blows from a rifle butt crashing into a door” (Goodrich, et al. 120). The barking dogs, ringing bells, chattering children, and stomping boots listed as sound cues all exist outside of the Annex, so none must be visible to the audience, who must become Annex dwellers for the duration of the play. The more the audience is pulled into the scene and the action of the play, the more successful the play becomes at conveying its messages and maintaining audience engagement.  

Beyond an American lens, while not quite as widespread as the diary, the play has been translated into twenty-five languages and published in thirty-four countries. In this way, the play succeeds in reaching international audiences despite being written and initially performed in the United States. A wide reach is crucial when discussing the impact of a piece of work like the play. This narrative’s effectiveness would be greatly diminished if it was only produced by and for Americans, who generally have a shallower understanding of the events of the Holocaust and an even shallower feeling of attachment to the events or the people affected. This American apathy is another reason why retelling and spreading Holocaust narratives is so necessary if similar events are to be avoided in the future.  

Because other countries have had much different relationships with Anne Frank and the Holocaust in general, those countries’ reactions to the play were much different from the American reactions. Some international critics faulted the play for appearing too optimistic and for lacking any artistic or interesting directorial choices. Others celebrated the play’s effectiveness at reawakening the ingrained memories of audience members, particularly those in Germany and the Netherlands, who were also closely affected by the events of the second world war (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, et al. 80, 82). Audiences in these places were so affected by the emotions the play evoked in them that when it was over, there was no applause, for to break the silence following the final blackout would be disrespectful to the story and its subjects (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, et al. 83). The emotional response from those more directly affected by the actual events speaks to how effective the play truly is at conveying the right message despite using fabricated drama throughout. The play was regarded as an immersive experience which caused extreme emotional responses from the audience, an experience very different from that of reading the diary alone at home, where emotions may not run as high without tangible people to project the events of the story upon.  

Returning to the scope of the American impact, the play can also be useful for educating middle-grade children about Anne Frank and the Holocaust, mainly because of this unique reading experience. Some middle and high schools will teach the play rather than the diary and will encourage the students to choose parts and read the play aloud together. This experience helps kids better understand the content of the play by forcing them to take an active role in the storytelling. In this way, students can learn the basic information of Anne Frank’s life and the Holocaust while increasing their empathy for persecuted individuals by way of the inhabitants of the Annex. However, the play is by no means a comprehensive resource in learning about the Holocaust. Students who are exposed to Anne Frank’s story without prompts for critical analysis of the text are unfortunately likely to oversimplify the historical context (Spector, et al. 44). In this case, the immersive experience of reading the play could actually be a detriment to young students’ understanding of Anne’s story because they feel as though they know her without having the supplementary historical knowledge to fully understand what she went through. Still, the play serves as a good foundation on which to build a more complete understanding of the Holocaust when taught in conjunction with other Holocaust narratives or critical thinking exercises. By engaging American children in Anne’s narrative, the play continues to fulfill its goals of bringing Anne’s story to an American audience and keeping the history fresh in young students’ minds.  

The play, The Diary of Anne Frank, like any adaptation of the famous diary, has both redeeming and controversial qualities. Several scenes in the play were created by the playwrights simply to evoke drama or emotion, and suppression of the characters’ Jewishness does bring up concerns of antisemitism in American audiences. However, play’s effect on its audiences is consistent with that of the diary. The story is told in a way that helps the viewer better understand the hardship Jews experienced during the Holocaust and sympathize with that hardship. Anne is portrayed as a young girl rather than an historical icon, which makes her abrupt arrest and subsequent torture and death all the more disturbing and effective to audiences. While the play is not exactly an accurate representation of Anne Frank’s life, it is a good gateway for learning more about an historical atrocity, a clear portrayal of the themes present in the diary, and a tool for fostering sympathy for those affected by the Holocaust.  

Works Cited 

Barnouw, David. The Phenomenon of Anne Frank. Translated by Jeannette K. Ringold, Indiana University Press, 2018.

Frank, Anne. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler. Translated by Susan Massotty, Doubleday, 1995.

Goodrich, Frances, et al. The Diary of Anne Frank. Dramatists Play Service, 1986. 

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara and Jeffrey Shandler. Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory. Indiana University Press, 2012. 

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. Routledge, 2006.  

Spector, Karen, and Stephanie Jones. “Constructing Anne Frank: Critical Literacy and the Holocaust in Eighth-Grade English.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 51, no. 1, 2007, pp. 36–48. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Nov. 2020. 

The Actors Studio of Newburyport. “Diary of Anne Frank – January 2015.” YouTube, 26 March 2016,