How would you respond to a comedy written during the Holocaust? Audiences attending performances of Harlequin in the Ghetto in York last week were asked to consider this very question. During the second World War, a young prisoner in the Jewish ghetto at Theresienstadt named Zdeněk Jelínek wrote a play called Comedy about a Trap. Written in the commedia dell’arte tradition, it asked a question of urgent interest to them all: would Harlequin, the lovable clown, escape the clutches of the Capitano? Jelínek died in the Holocaust and his script was thought lost until recently, when a copy saved by a survivor was found in the archives of a Czech theatre company. Two groups of students (one from the University of York and the other from York St John University) have developed new performance pieces inspired by the preserved script. These explore both Jelinek's politically-committed response to conditions in the ghetto and contemporary reactions to the Holocaust.
The performance is just one of many being performed this month in Leeds and York as part of Out of the Shadows: Rediscovering Jewish Music and Theatre. This festival is one of five worldwide that are the most visible outputs of a three-year research project headed by the University of Leeds. Performing the Jewish Archive aims to seek out and explore archives about the lives and works of Jewish artists and musicians that have until recently languished in relative obscurity. The aim is not only to widen knowledge of their works, but also to respond to them in innovative and creative ways.