Stage Partners got to sit down with playwright Claudia Haas, author of Antigone in Munich: The Sophie Scholl Story, a beautiful new play that brings an important story to the stage. Sophie Scholl was a member of the White Rose Society in Nazi Germany which encouraged passive resistance against the totalitarian government. Antigone in Munich chronicles her coming of age and development from bystander to witness to activist -- inspired by Sophocles' Greek tragedy Antigone which asks “What do you do when the laws of man contradict the laws of God?”
Q: Why were you drawn to Sophie Scholl's story?
A: It was viewing the memorial to the White Rose Society in Munich. I was unprepared for how moved I would be. There they were - the pamphlets Sophie threw - embedded in the ground - all askew as they would be the day Sophie threw them. Interspersed among them were the photos of the core students. They were smiling, eyes bright, futures assured and close in age to my own children. We spent an hour reading the “sidewalk.” It broke my heart and I knew I was going to write about them. I focused on Sophie because wartime heroines are rare. Her introspection and growth from witness to activist fascinated me.
From research, it was clear that she didn’t want to die. But she truly believed that her death would encourage other students to rise up and fight the regime. That didn’t happen of course. And it took a generation but she is now one of the most respected women in Germany - all these decades later.
Her passion for righting wrongs in her country that she loved so much stays with me. I also knew I would write this for high school/university students. Here is a cast comprised of idealistic, university students - perfect for older teens. Sophie continues to resonate with me. She has been in my mind and my heart for eighteen months and will stay there permanently as will all the White Rose members.
Q: How did you first come across The White Rose Society?
A: I have written about the Holocaust (differently) before. I grew up in a community in New York City where many families were Holocaust survivors. It’s personal. It’s fascinating to research and them come across something you weren't looking for, didn’t know about and then jot down: to investigate later. Being in Munich helped the “later” to become “now.” Of course, there is a notion that you write a play when you’re ready to write the play. So, it took a few years but it happened when I was ready.
Q: What made you connect her with the Greek tragedy Antigone?
A: Serendipity. I simply was reading a review of an Antigone production being done in the Twin Cities and had a bonafide flashbulb “aha” moment that Sophie shared the same sensibilities/moral code as Antigone. I went with it even knowing the title might confuse people and that high school students may not know Antigone. I am still amazed at the similarities.
Q: What connections did you make with today's society?
A: The White Rose Society’s resistance was much more thoughtful than the discourse of today. They read philosophers from the past and present, theology, history and poetry. They devoured books. They attended lectures. They didn’t go with “one type of reading” and eschew the rest. Their pamphlets are highly philosophical and very wordy. In our culture of sound bites and tweets, we have let go of careful, polite discourse. They loved their country so much they wanted to lose the war. They loved their country so much they risked and lost their lives for it.
I believe before enacting change, you need to arm yourself with knowledge as they did. And remember, the majority of the White Rose Society members were medics in Poland and at the Russian front. They had first-hand knowledge of what was going on. That affected them as much as their readings did. Sophie’s fiancé was a soldier at the Russian front. He became disenchanted and in no uncertain terms, he told her about the atrocities being committed against the Jewish people and to Russian soldiers.
Keep true to the dreams of your youth. Knowledge, the object of knowledge and the knower are the three factors which motivate action; the senses, the work and the doer comprise the threefold basis of action. Live with your century; but do not be its creature.Sophie quoting Friedrich Schiller in the play
We live in tumultuous times, no doubt. There’s a lot of yelling going on but not a lot of listening. I hope the young people involved and those viewing this play, delve deeper into today’s issues. Read, debate, think about it. And think again. I hope the young thoroughly explore their world and beyond. Arts, reading, getting out of your cozy niche are all factors in creating empathy. That’s important.
Q: The one-act version will be great for competitions, but we know you had to cut out a lot. What is your favorite moment in the play?
A: I do miss the Kristallnacht scene in the one-act. There were some hard choices. My favorite moments changed from production to production. In Utah at Liahona Prep, the cast had studied the White Rose Society and really connected to the material. The Sophie/Mohr scenes were electric. At Benilde-St.Margaret the sweetness of young Sophie in the early scenes were very moving. At Fargo South, there were two Sophies. They developed mannerisms together and wore a locket that they would fiddle with when nervous and it effectively connected the two. Their Kristallnacht scene and the graffiti scene were done effectively with projections and seeing the young actors move through those scenes made me hold my breath. Their “letter scene” was poignant and a welcome break from the interrogation.
Q: How can we learn more about the Sophie's resistance?
A: There’s a wealth of information and misinformation these days on the internet. Some of it is mentioned in the back of the play. Letters from Sophie Scholl have been compiled into a book and there are many biographies. There’s a German movie, “The Last Days of Sophie Scholl” (YouTube) which many of the students involved in the premiere productions watched.
I queried the White Rose Society and the The Center for Holocaust Studies for clarity on some information. And in full disclosure, I made some choices that are not 100% accurate. For example, I elevated Traute and kept Christoph offstage because I wanted to balance the ratio of female to male actors. I know full well the make-up of plays for high school theaters and they lean female.
Q: Are you working on any other plays that draw from history?
A: Always. I have used history before and will continue to do so. I am putting final touches on a story of Mary Anning (fossil hunter and considered the first female paleontologist) and her amazing discovery at age thirteen of an ichthyosaur (fish-fossil lizard from the Jurassic period). I love that this combines history and science. It is a theatre-for-young-audiences play. I have a large-cast play in the works about the Orphan Train movement (Riders of the Orphan Storm). There’s a brand, spanking new ten-minute for young actors about the aftermath of a school shooting. (But it’s not what you think. Not an issue play. A human play.) There’s an adult full-length that focuses on 9/11 and an ongoing list of people, places and things to research.
Claudia Haas focuses on theatre for young audiences and inter-generational audiences. She was an O’Neill Conference semifinalist for her 9/11 play Making Some Noise. Her plays have been widely produced in all fifty states as well as on five continents. Her youth plays have been developed through the Bonderman Symposium (now called “Write Now”), Purple Crayon Players at Northwestern University, the Playwrights-in-our-Schools grant and the Old Miner’s Children’s Playwriting Contest at Utah Valley University. She is a member of the Dramatist Guild of America, the Playwright’s Center of Minneapolis and the American Alliance for Theatre Education. Claudia lives in White Bear Lake, MN where there are many loons and ducks that bring smiles but sadly no penguins.