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Play Asks, What if Nazis Had Murdered Picasso?


It's common knowledge that the great artist Pablo Picasso died in the south of France in 1973. A new play poses an interesting question: What if Picasso had not lived to the ripe old age of 92, but had been murdered by the Nazis in 1944?

Playwright, poet, and novelist, Ariel Dorfman wonders what Picasso's life was like under Nazi occupation? During his years in Paris, what did he do, if anything, when Jews and dissidents were hauled away by the Nazi's? Those included some of his friends and associates.

Ariel Dorfman has written a play about it called, Picasso's Closet. It had its world premier at Theater J last night at the D.C. Jewish Community Center here in Washington, and Ariel Dorfman joins us in Studio 3A.

Nice to talk to you again.

Mr. ARIEL DORFMAN (Playwright; Poet; Novelist): It's very good to speak to you, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: I know you've been working on this play on and off for four years. You saw it last night for the first time through an audience's eyes. I wonder what that was like to see it come to life.

Mr. DORFMAN: Well, it was, it's extraordinary. You know, when you see something with an audience, with the public, it's done for this audience. So you situate yourself in a position where you divest yourself of your own ego...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DORFMAN: some sense. And, you don't say, oh, I wrote that. Those are my words. No, those words now belong to those people there, and you listen to them. In other words, the first time that we had this first preview, which was last night, what was interesting was it was the first time that I heard people who didn't know about the play, who just came in from the street, you know, and just saw it, and they were reacting to it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DORFMAN: And my - what I loved about what I saw last night was that they were very absorbed in it. They were absorbed in this almost cubic, prismatic presentation of the life of Picasso.

CONAN: Hmm. And we'll get on to the life in just a moment. But are you looking for sort of mechanical moments - did they laugh at the right places, did they gasp at the right places? There's certainly plot devices that you're trying to get across.

Mr. DORFMAN: What your most interested in in a play like this one, which is a play which goes through a labyrinth of time and space, is to make sure that the audience is not lost. You know, you want them to be - let's say you want them to be perplexed and to be intrigued, but you don't want them to be lost. You don't want them to be confused.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DORFMAN: So you listen very carefully, because when somebody's confused and you're with 300, 400 people in a room, they begin to fidget. They cough a bit. They move. They talk to their - they look to the side. Their eyes go vacant. You can tell after so many years as I've been a playwright; you can tell. And what I liked about what I heard last night from the audience is - I go to listen to the play, but listen to them, particularly. Samuel Johnson said you don't go to see a play; you go to listen to a play. Strange, you know, way, way back then, in England he would say that.

And, you listen to it. You listen to the play, you listen to the people listening, and through their eyes you say, oh, this isn't working. Maybe this is a bit long. You know what, this is repeated. And how do you know? It's a seventh sense. I use the word, the name seventh, because seven is Picasso's magical number.

CONAN: Is it?


CONAN: And you have, like we said, have been working on this four years on and off. I guess it opens formally on Sunday.

Mr. DORFMAN: That's correct. It'll run for a month or so here in D.C., and then we'll see where we take it elsewhere.

CONAN: I was going to say, but once it opens on Sunday, is it finished?

Mr. DORFMAN: For, I mean - you know, there's moment at the play where Picasso says, finished, finished! I hate the word finished! Because you never finish a work of art, really. He means it in the sense that really you keep on re-writing and writing, I mean, or you keep on painting. The same painter paints, you know, a picture over and over again. But there's a certain moment when you feel you're satisfied. When - meaning the artists feels that he or she has really done as much as you can do with that at that point.

When you feel satisfied, you have to let go. You have to let loose. And then what that means is that it'll be done. I mean, you know, my plays are done all over the world, hundreds of countries - a hundred countries in the world so far, or a bit more. It'll be done all over the world, and I won't see those productions. I don't know what they're going to be doing with it. They may -who knows what travesties they may do with my text. But that's okay, because I'm doing travesties with Picasso's life, they can do travesties with mine, you know, I guess.

CONAN: Well, let's ask about this period in Pablo Picasso's life. And really, the play sort of spans the period between his painting the famous anti-war painting Guernica, in what, 1937?

Mr. DORFMAN: 1937, that's right.

CONAN: And the end of German occupation of Paris in 1944. And during that time, Pablo Picasso lived in Paris at a time you describe as an under-documented period of his life.

Mr. DORFMAN: Well, we don't know very much what he did, because precisely what he did was he hid. He hid not in the senses that he was clandestine, because he was obviously in Paris. But the question is, so many artists, you know, went to the states, they want to Visseiche, France, they escaped to England. From all over the world people were fleeing the Nazis. And embarrassed (unintelligible)...

CONAN: And it should be said, at this point, Picasso is the most famous painter in the world.

Mr. DORFMAN: He was at that moment the most famous painter in the world. And he would emerge from the war even more famous, which is extraordinary from that point of view.

So these four years, where we do not know what he did, we have some inkling, I mean there certainly is some documentation, but basically he worked. And he stayed there and he was related to (unintelligible) people of the resistance who were taking care of him. Paul Éluard , who was a character there. Michel Leiris , they were making sure that nothing happened to Picasso.

On the other hand, he was in grave danger because he was a refugee from - he had no papers - in other words he had papers - he was from the Spanish republic. He was still a Spanish. So he was a Spaniard. He was exiled from Spain and could be deported any moment. He could be killed at any moment, which, my play says, suggests that he was killed, you know, as a metaphor of another sort of death that happened to him. And it's also the fact that he took grave risks all the time, because, you know, the Nazi officers kept on coming.

You know, it's - there was an attempt on the part of the Nazis to say, well, Picasso's in Paris; everything is fine.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. DORFMAN: So he had to navigate those very, very difficult, turbulent waters. It was very dangerous. And the real question, of course, that comes to any artist, great or not so great, is do you sacrifice your life and therefore something more than your life, which is everything that you want to paint, all your future paintings, all you've...

CONAN: His children, he calls them.

Mr. DORFMAN: His children. If art were your children, you know? Do you sacrifice all that, all the beauty that you can give to the eyes of the world, in order to save one life? What happens if somebody comes to you and says, would you hide such a person? Would you forge such a document? Would you sign a petition to save your best friend, who is being shipped out to Auschwitz? You can save him. Do you put yourself on the line, or do you save yourself for the children?

Is it better to have 30 more years of Picasso's paintings or is it better to have Picasso as a real hero? And those are the questions that are being posed to him all the time by all the forces. In other words, it's about everybody around him trying to pull him in this direction or that direction.

But it's also a love story. It's very much a love story.

CONAN: Hmm. We're talking with playwright Ariel Dorfman. His play, Picasso's Closet had its world premiere here in Washington, D.C. last night.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

A love story, with a person who was, well - how should I put this? -notoriously self-centered about his love life.

Mr. DORFMAN: He was. I mean, what's interesting about Picasso's life is that every time, every period of his, you know about the pink period and the blue period, the cubist period, and then the classical period and then the war years. Every one of those stages in his life, the stages of his life and stages of his paintings, where he lived and what he painted was associated to a different lover. At times a woman he married, at times not.

The most extraordinary of all these women was Dora Marr, the woman who he met in 1936 when the Spanish republic became dangerous, and who he got rid of as the allies were advancing towards Paris. In other words, as the war was about to end. Therefore, she is the weeping woman of Picasso, the tortured woman of Picasso, the woman who is in Guernica, in fact, in the middle of that painting, and who was the most famous woman he ever painted. But who was an extraordinary artist herself, a great photographer. The lover, in fact, of most of Picasso's friends before she ever met him, one of these very free souls who was, in fact, very political.

And the tension - the love tension that is that they love each other very deeply but, of course, it's a tormented relationship, as it should be in times of war. And what he's looking is for a woman who will inspire him and protect him. So the tension in the play is that as long as he feels he needs protection from Dora Marr, he will keep her. And therefore she needs to protect him, but she sees that the Nazis are going to kill him. And therefore, as the play advances, she can do nothing to stop the murder that is about to occur.

And so it's - I mean, I think it's an extraordinary relationship in the sense that - and the more she wants to cling to him, the more there's cruelty on his part to her. So she ends up wanting him to die finally, and leaves him. She doesn't insist on saying, she doesn't insist on getting rid of him, I mean, taking him out of the country, et cetera. So there's that love relationship which permeates the play while a Nazi officer that I created hunts him down. Day by day, plan by plan, he has a plan. It's a thriller really. It's a suspense thriller.

How can the Nazi - because Picasso's protected, how can the Nazi trap Picasso? How can he hunt him down...

CONAN: Make him make a mistake so he could be...

Mr. DORFMAN: Right.

CONAN: ...arrested, or shot.

Mr. DORFMAN: Exactly. I mean, there's a scene where he says, you know, Picasso is protected, because Hitler said - Brecker, who was Hitler's sculptor said, not the hair on the head of Picasso. Don't touch Picasso. So Picasso knew he was protected.

And Lucht(ph), who was his captain, says, but if he kills a German officer, or if he hides somebody from the resistance, ah, then of course you can do it. And I have the deed done. I'll have Picasso killed the day on which Hitler is -there is an attempt of assassination on Hitler in Germany, in Berlin. So even Hitler can't protect Picasso at that point.

CONAN: well, I don't mean to give it away, but Picasso did live to 92, so there is an exciting plot twist toward the end...

Mr. DORFMAN: Absolutely.

CONAN: ...of the play Picasso's Closet.

Mr. DORFMAN: I twist it around so that - you know, what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to give a vision of Picasso, which is, as - in other words, you can't write a play about Picasso as if Picasso's aesthetics hadn't existed. So therefore I have all the angles, all the visions, all the whirlwind of different angles and narratives and strategies in the play itself. So I do to time what Picasso does to space. And I hope that people will, you know, be thrilled by it. It's quite an adventure.

CONAN: Good luck with it. Ariel Dorfman.

Mr. DORFMAN: Thank you so much for having me, Neal.

CONAN: The new play is Picasso's Closet. It's opened here in Washington, D.C., or I guess it does open on Sunday.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.