Incident at Vichy
by Arthur Miller is a play set in Vichy France, the French puppet government of the Nazi regime, during the second World War. Written in 1964, this play is about guilt, fear, human nature, and complicity. The play explores these themes through its focus on the Holocaust and how the Nazis were often able to carry out their plans without meeting resistance. The play’s main characters are being held prisoner in Vichy France until the German military officers arrive to conduct a racial examination. It’s worth noting that only two characters are referred to by their names throughout the whole play: Ferrand, who runs a café, and Von Berg, an Austrian prince.
The play is divided into two halves. For the first half, Miller focuses on the prisoners. They’re all trying to deal with the fact that they are being held prisoner. Most of the prisoners are Jewish, save two—Von Berg and a Roma person. By this point in the war, the northern half of France has been claimed by Germany. Most of the imprisoned men have escaped from the German-occupied region to Vichy France. Despite their knowledge about what’s going on and what the Nazis are trying to accomplish, most of the prisoners prefer to live in denial. They pretend to wonder what will become of them, and why they were arrested in the first place.
Some of them decide that they’ve been detained to have their documents checked, something routine and ordinary. Another character who is a Communist tries to warn the other prisoners that the Nazis are loading trains with people and sending them to extermination camps. He tries to get the other prisoners to become more political and to join him and become Socialists. He’s determined that socialism will win the day, not fascism.
In the second half of the play, some of the prisoners acknowledge the gravity of their situation and try to organize an escape. Leading this effort is a psychoanalyst who fought for France against Germany in 1940. His efforts are unsuccessful, however, as other prisoners choose to hope they won’t be transported to a concentration camp, despite the Socialist’s dire warnings. What follows depends on the version of the play one is reading or viewing.
In the 1964 Broadway production, the prisoners don’t make an escape attempt. Von Berg manages to secure a pass to escape from the guards, but instead of using it himself, he offers it to the psychoanalyst. In the 1966 London production, the prisoners do attempt to escape. Despite their effort, they’re unsuccessful due to a sudden appearance of the Major. In this version, Von Berg doesn’t give his pass to the psychoanalyst, but rather to a single Jewish prisoner to offer him a chance to live. As the play draws to a close, the Major reappears, this time drunk. He talks about the moral consequences of the Nazis’ actions. But, because he’s being pressured by his superiors, he cannot exercise his own moral compass without sacrificing his own life. Because of this, he continues to do as he’s told even as he plays a part in systematic genocide.
The Major’s final scene embodies all four of the main themes of the play. His drunkenness belies his guilt. Even though he feels he must follow orders, he knows that what the Nazis are doing is wrong, so he drinks to escape his guilt. It’s the fear of losing his own life that makes him go along with genocide. Human nature and complicity are tied into that fear; he knows if he stands against the Nazis, there’s a good chance they will kill him. The Major doesn’t think humans are human anymore, though—he sees them as individually insignificant, and his drunkenness also serves as an escape from the implications for himself of that determination.
In addition to both of these stage productions, the play was adapted for television in 1973. The adaptation was written by Miller, as well. In 2009, Incident at Vichy
was revived off-Broadway. Arthur Miller was an American playwright and essayist. His most notable works are All My Sons
, Death of a Salesman
, The Crucible
, and A View from the Bridge
. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949 and the Jerusalem Prize in 2003. In 1984, he received Kennedy Center Honors and in 2001, he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale. In total, he wrote 37 stage plays, 13 radio plays, eight screenplays, a novel, a novella, and short fiction.