A popular song lyric informs us that "everything old is new again." But when should old be replaced by new? And when does that new then find itself old? Ten years ago the Broadway theater, which is rarely in the vanguard of change, took the lead in trying to answer these nagging questions when someone decided that The Diary of Anne Frank needed updating.
Perhaps they were right. This revered 1955 play about the young Jewish teenager who spent much of World War II hiding from the Nazis with her family in an Amsterdam attic, only to die in the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen just weeks before the war ended, had helped to dramatize the horrors of the Holocaust for generations of viewers. But it just might be that the play had become a victim of its own success. Through the decades perhaps there had been too many high school and community theater productions, too much oversimplifying and sentimentalizing. (The 1997 Academy Award-winning documentary Anne Frank Remembered is a much more potent and surprising telling of what too many of us wrongly regard as a familiar story.)
Then too, the charge was made that the original Pulitzer Prize-winning script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett is not Jewish enough. And maybe that criticism also was correct. The Diary of Anne Frank was produced a mere ten years after Anne's death. Perhaps it is a reflection of those still-sensitive times. So in the mid-1990s Wendy Kesselman was hired to "emphasize the story's Jewish ethnicity." By her own estimate, she rewrote 30 percent of the play. When her version premiered on Broadway in 1997, the billing explained that the original script had been "newly adapted" by Kesselman.
Now a decade has passed since Kesselman's "new adaptation for a new generation" debuted. But according to the playbill for the current staging at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley, Anne Frank is still "newly adapted." Ten years old and it's still new? I'd like to see a car dealer try to make that claim. Despite the obvious mislabeling, it is interesting to note some of the changes Kesselman imposed. Anne's older sister Margot now informs us that when the war is over she hopes to move to Palestine. Wow. That clarifies everything. And (though it's hardly ethnic), we now learn a lot more about Anne's sexual development. She likes to touch her developing breasts. She also confides to her diary about the arrival of her period: "Even with all the discomfort, I have a sweet secret." You can conclude for yourself how deprived were the first 50 years of audiences who experienced the play without that addition.
As directed by Donna Spaulding Nelson, this mostly student production moves at a snail's pace. The action constantly stops so that actors can change clothes onstage; they're also forced to remain onstage (not really even in character) during intermission. None of this has anything to do with acting, with the result that the only convincing performance comes from Daniel Betzler as family patriarch Otto Frank (whose role has been sadly diminished by Kesselman).
But even if this not-so "newly adapted" rewrite does not enhance the original script, surely the idea of tinkering with a classic play makes great sense. Kesselman might want to consider improving some other Pulitzer Prize winners. Death of a Salesman doesn't make a big deal about the implicit Jewish ethnicity of the Loman family. What if Biff were to fail his pivotal math exam not because he spends too much time on the football field, but rather because the test falls on a Jewish holiday and he has to attend temple instead? Arthur Miller is no longer alive to protect his play, so let's get to it. And why limit ourselves to ethnicity? That creaky Our Town is even older than Anne Frank. Thornton Wilder couldn't reveal the full story in 1938, but thanks to more recent New England tell-alls like Peyton Place we now know what was really going on in Grover's Corners. How about an update in which the Stage Manager impregnates Emily?
A new adaptation for a new generation? Get me rewrite!