Award-winning playwright, Catherine Filloux, discusses her latest play, “Lemkin’s House,” with Jerry Fowler. Catherine imparts her connection with Raphael Lemkin and his legacy, and she talks about how she first got involved with the subject of mass violence.
JERRY FOWLER: This is Voices on Genocide Prevention from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I am Jerry Fowler.
JERRY FOWLER: My guest today is Catherine Filloux. She is an award-winning playwright whose most recent work is “Lemkin’s House,” about Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish lawyer from Poland who coined the term “genocide.” Lemkin was also instrumental in pushing for the 1948 adoption of the United Nation’s Genocide Convention which recognized genocide as an international crime and is sometimes referred to as Lemkin’s Law. Lemkin died in 1959. The play imagines what would happen if the atrocities that have occurred since Lemkin’s Law had passed hounded him in the afterlife. A production of the play by Body Politic Theater and Vital Theater Company opens on September 13th at the McGinn Cazale Theater in New York. Catherine, welcome to the program.
CATHERINE FILLOUX: Thanks Jerry, it is great to be here.
JERRY FOWLER: Let me begin by asking what got you interested in Raphael Lemkin?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: That is a great question. It came, actually, from having been writing about the Cambodian genocide for about the last fifteen years. I started by writing a play called “Eyes of the Heart,” which was a true phenomenon in which there was a group of about 150 women in Southern California who suffered from psychosomatic blindness after what they witnessed during the Khmer Rouge genocide, and that play brought me to meet many Cambodian genocide Survivors in the New York area where I lived, but also in Long Beach, California, and all over the country. I was struck through that journey, and it was a long one because it took me a long time to actually be able to talk to these Survivors and get them to trust me and understand the context of what I was dealing with. That time that it took, it kind of committed me to understanding genocide on a deeper level, and many years later, in the early, in 2000, I was writing a play about Pol Pot, who was the dictator, the Khmer Rouge dictator, and I met David Scheffer who was then the United States Ambassador for War Crimes during the Clinton Administration. He was somebody who was dealing with many genocides at that time, and I was struck by the tenacity of his cause, and I, of course, then read Samantha Power’s amazing book, and all of those things led me to be fascinated by Raphael Lemkin because in many ways I could relate so much to his journey.
JERRY FOWLER: Before we pursue the issue of Raphael Lemkin, I am just wondering when you first started pursuing the story behind “Eyes of the Heart,” which was quite some time ago, did you think that you would end up spending so much of your professional career dealing with this problem of mass violence?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: That is also a really good question; no, I certainly do not think I knew that, but one thing I do have to say is that that journey that I have taken, and continue to take, is a personal one as well because the kind of inspirational and emotional passion that I came to have because of the Survivors that I met is something that has been very useful and inspiring again in terms of issues that I have had to deal with in my own family life that have to do with illness. I think that personal aspect of trying to understand the unknown and issues of being an outsider are personal ones as well for me. I come from a family of immigrants; French was my first language. I have always dealt with issues of culture clash. I think in addition to this inquiry being historical in terms of all the people that I was meeting and the sad results of what has happened in terms of genocide in the last fifteen years, that also there are some very personal issues involved.
JERRY FOWLER: You mentioned Lemkin’s personal journey which was one of loss, which actually led to his focus on this problem of genocide and coining the term genocide. How did you go about researching his life?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: It is interesting because originally when I started on this project of “Lemkin’s House,” I did a lot of research on Rwanda to start with it, and I was just utterly struck by the timeline that occurred there, in which the warning signs that Romeo Dallaire found were so clearly conveyed to various people at the United Nations and how roadblocks were hit, and that really made me think a lot about Raphael Lemkin in terms of the belief that if genocide is said to be happening, then there is supposed to be a law that was in place that the United States signed in 1988 that would make this stoppable, so that was actually one of the things that got me really interested in writing this play. I was not interested, actually, in writing a play, a biography of Raphael Lemkin; what I did research certainly was his autobiography and all of the various materials that are out there about him. I was very struck by in some of the papers the way that he had listed all of the genocides, and I actually used that convention in the play in terms of something I made up where he lists them in alphabetical order and how he had been doing that since he was pretty young. I think it is important to say that I do not see this play as a biography, but more as an exploration of the essence of what he dreamed of and, as you said, what he lost, which I think is extremely important to the story.
JERRY FOWLER: If someone who knew Lemkin personally, do you think they would recognize the character? Were you attempting that level of resemblance?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: Absolutely; yes, absolutely, yes, and, actually, I have been very fortunate because many people from Raphael Lemkin’s family have come to see the play and have been very positive in terms of the way that Lemkin is depicted, and then also, some other people who knew him have come, so yes, absolutely, but the thing that is important to remember is the play takes place as he dies so this is a play in which he is in the afterlife.
JERRY FOWLER: When he is in the afterlife, he is visited both by characters who are involved in subsequent genocides such as Rwanda and Bosnia. He is also visited by his mother who perished in the Holocaust in Poland after he had fled to the United States. How important was that relationship to the play, of him to his mother and the loss of his family?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: It is hugely important, and I think it is the underpinning of the play. Lemkin, on many levels, sacrificed—I think—so, so much to leave his family behind and to come to the United States where he really, truly believed that he could convince a country to do something, and the fact that he spent his entire life just lobbying to try to just get the genocide convention signed by the United States, and he did not succeed, since he died in 1959 and it was signed in 1988, is one of the—for me—one of the great tragedies, and I strongly believe that any genocide that occurs—and there is one happening right now in Darfur—I cannot help but think not only of Raphael Lemkin, but also about his family. This is a man who predicted what was going to happen to his family; he went to them, he warned them, he said, “I am going to Sweden,” and they said, “We will be ok,” and they, then—besides his brother—all perished, and he always talked about the law being an epithet on his mother’s grave. He had an extremely close relationship with his mother, Bella. He was home taught and I think she gave him that love of language and the belief in language, that I obviously share because I am a playwright. It is just horrifying to me that somebody could have made such a huge commitment to something and that it has been sadly not upheld.
JERRY FOWLER: Which leads me to ask, how would you assess Lemkin’s legacy, in the sense of creating a concept that immediately took hold, that resulted in the adoption of a United Nation Convention, but has not necessarily achieved his ultimate goal of actually stopping atrocities or motivating countries to stop them when they begin?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: I would assess his legacy, first of all, his life and what he did as amazingly brilliant. He was a brilliant man; he was a man who really was able to—somebody who can actually a coin a word that can then go on to become the basis for a convention—I think that he was a brilliant man. I think that on some level I would—I do not know if blame is the right word—but I would blame the generations after him, their lack of vision, and their lack of actually simple morality to be the culprit and the problem. Again, being a playwright, being someone who deals with words, words are either important or they are not important, and of course, I believe that they are, as Lemkin did. During the period, of course, where the United States called it the “g word,” and did all those, kind of—forgive me for saying this—shenanigans in terms of twisting the word around, it speaks to a kind of inhumanity, a sense of not upholding basic human points.
JERRY FOWLER: One thing that I wanted to ask you about on a little bit more personal level; your husband, John Daggett, plays the lead in this upcoming production and played it when it was previously produced in New York, and I just wonder, first, as you were writing the part, were you thinking that your husband had a lot of characteristics similar to Lemkin?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: No, actually, it is very interesting because for many years I have written plays in which there was not a part for John, one reason being that I often write about women, so that would make it hard for him to do that, and then also, I have written a lot about Asian people. It so happened that as I was going through the process of imagining “Lemkin’s House”—and it was a long process because I was not at all sure how I was going to structure this story—as I wrote “Lemkin’s House,” I started to look more at the photographs of Raphael Lemkin, and then it dawned on me, that maybe John would be very good for that role. We did readings of it in which John played Lemkin, and it seemed like a very nice fit, and it has been, I think on some level, extremely fortuitous for me, because in addition to—I think he is wonderful for the part—he brought something to the play, that frankly, I had not imagined happening as much as it did. John is usually cast in humorous roles; he is a comic actor often; he does a lot of Shakespeare clowns, and his ability to bring humor to the piece, many audiences say after the play that something that made it possible for them to watch something so tough was because there was humor in the play, so that has been really fantastic.
JERRY FOWLER: Has there been any extent to which he brings the part home, or where you feel like you are living with Lemkin?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: That is an interesting idea. I feel like, in many ways, I am more like Lemkin than John is. The thing that I can relate to Lemkin and myself is this quality of being a pest. I am not saying that Lemkin was a pest or was not a pest, but I feel that the kind of material that I write about is sometimes, perhaps, to continue to try to write this material and to try to get these plays done, puts me in the category of someone like Lemkin who was always knocking on doors. I think John has a lighter touch perhaps.
JERRY FOWLER: Speaking of the subject matter, what do you have in process? Are you going to continue dealing with these issues of mass violence?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: I have an opera, actually, that I have written a libretto for which I am lucky to have, the composer is Him Sophy. He is a Cambodian composer who actually survived the Khmer Rouge regime and studied—believe it or not—in Moscow. He has written an amazing musical score, it is called “Where Elephants Weep,” and it will have its first stop in Lowell, Massachusetts, where there is a large population of Cambodian People.
JERRY FOWLER: I am sorry, what is the title?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: It is called, “Where Elephants Weep.”
JERRY FOWLER: “Where Elephants Weep.”
CATHERINE FILLOUX: Yes; I am working on that, and I am also working on a play that is a little closer to home in terms of the United States. It is about Hurricane Katrina, and it is a play that is about a trauma and that involves a man who is handicapped who has to swim out of his house after his house suddenly fills up, and that is play that I am working on with two other playwrights, Joe Sutton and Tarell McCraney, and it will open at Southern Rep, which is in New Orleans, on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
JERRY FOWLER: As you deal with all of this loss and trauma in your work, how do you separate—you mention that you have had loss in your family—how do you maintain an even balance? Or do you? Do you think you do?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: I do not think I always do, but I think, one thing I would say, my problems cannot compare to the kinds of problems, for example, that are depicted in “Lemkin’s House.” The kind of violence that occurs for the character, Kachana, the woman in the rape camp, Raphael Lemkin, and that kind of losing most of his family in the Holocaust, I can only be in awe of people like that and gain strength from them. I think that one problem that has occurred is that I have been to Cambodia a number of times and I have had a very difficult time—I think probably unconsciously on some level—reconciling the kind of poverty and the kind of post-traumatic stress disorders that I have seen there, coming back to the United States. I have found it kind of hard for my brain to rap itself around the poverty that I have seen, and then the sort of opposite in the United States; I think it is just, kind of, incomprehensible, and I have found myself obsessing on that before.
JERRY FOWLER: As you look forward, Lemkin was a man, in some ways, of tremendous hope that things could be different. When people see your play and as you look forward, do you think that hope is justified?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: Yes, I really do. You would be surprised—Jerry, you probably would not be surprised at all—at how much interest there is in this issue. We are doing a lot of panels after many of the plays, and there are so many organizations that are really, really fighting; they are fighting for this issue and trying to make change. I also feel a huge amount of energy in the younger generation. I feel very, very hopeful that change can happen.
JERRY FOWLER: For people that are going to be in New York, how can they get tickets to see “Lemkin’s House?”
CATHERINE FILLOUX: It is really easy to go on to the web site at www.theatermania.com, and that is theater spelled with an “er.” It is theatermania.com, and just look under “Lemkin’s House,” and it is easy to get tickets.
JERRY FOWLER: Do you know of plans for productions outside of New York?
CATHERINE FILLOUX: Not right now; some people have expressed interest, and we are hoping that that is one of the things that a remount of the show will yield.
JERRY FOWLER: Catherine Filloux is an award-winning playwright whose latest work is “Lemkin’s House.” Catherine, thanks for taking the time to be with us.
CATHERINE FILLOUX: It was my pleasure, thanks Jerry.
JERRY FOWLER: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about Raphael Lemkin and our genocide prevention activities, join us online at www.ushmm.org/conscience.