The Arty Semite

Compelled by Drama: Q & A With 'Compulsion' Playwright Rinne Groff

By Gwen Orel

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“The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank has inspired numerous dramatic works since its publication in English 1952. There was a Broadway play in 1955 by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett which won the Pulitzer Prize; an adaptation of the play for film in 1959; a 1980 television movie also written by Goodrich and Hackett; and an ABC miniseries in 2001, not to mention reams of nonfiction that examine the girl and the book.

Joan Marcus
Rinne Groff with The Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis.

But this is nothing compared to the drama backstage: The feud between Meyer Levin (1905–1981), the journalist who first reviewed Frank’s book for the New York Times, and Frank’s father, Otto.

Levin had obtained permission to adapt the book for the stage, but was later replaced by Goodrich and Hackett. Levin, a respected writer and Zionist, won an Edgar award for his 1957 book “Compulsion,” a “non-fiction novel” (a style later used by Truman Capote in “In Cold Blood”) about the Leopold and Loeb case. Other works include the novel “The Settlers” (1972) and “The Obsession,” his autobiographical volume on his battle for the diary.

Rinne Groff’s play “Compulsion,” opening at The Public Theater February 17 following productions by Yale Repertory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre (read the Forward’s review of the Yale production here) follows Sid Silver, a Levin-like character played by Mandy Patinkin, through his quest to adapt Frank’s diary. The Arty Semite caught up with Groff the morning after the first New York preview.

Gwen Orel: Why did you write this play?

Rinne Groff: On September 17, 1995, I was reading the paper, and Frank Rich had a review of a book by Laurence Graver, “An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and the Diary.” I went ahead and bought the book. I have a whole shelf of books related to the play. Some are novels by Levin, some are histories. Different versions of the diary. A book about dybbuks which I bought because Levin’s widow, Tereska Torres, once fantasized in writing that her husband’s obsession with Anne might have been caused by a dybbuk. A graphic novel about Anne Frank. And these are just the ones I own! I thought about it for years and years.

Did you change Levin’s name for legal or creative reasons?

Creative — I knew I was writing about one aspect of his life. I felt uncomfortable sticking words in Meyer Levin’s mouth; it was more comfortable sticking them in Sid Silver’s. Levin’s family has been in touch. As I was researching the play and speaking to various people about Levin, his family became aware that there was a playwright out there — and there’s more than one, other writers have been drawn to this compelling story — who was delving into this material. I am deeply gratified that they have been positive about what it is that I created out of their true story. Levin’s widow read an early draft of the play and expressed support. Two of his sons have now seen the play, and I believe another son may come to the New York production.

How has the play changed since the Yale production?

It’s changing a lot! The set is markedly different; we have a new costume and lighting designer since Yale. We’ve added video. And the script has also changed — the last scene is very different. I think in my first iteration of this play I was so titillated by all the theater history details that I didn’t see they were actually red herrings. Last night Liza Minelli led the standing ovation!

Do you think the play will be received differently by Jews and non-Jews?

I think there will be a wide range within the Jewish community of how people respond to Silver. Certainly there are jokes that are for Jews, like when a theater director says “I have to convince a minyan of generals that having their boys do a Moshe Dayan ‘Henry V’ isn’t the only way to go.” That’s also a theatre joke, of course. The age of the audience also affects how it’s received — the older audience knows who Walter Winchell is. In Berkeley, when Sid Silver talks about the St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees turned back by FDR, and Miss Merman says “FDR didn’t know about that,” a man in front of me said “Bullshit.” But you know, as Lenny Bruce said, if you live in New York you’re automatically Jewish.

Do you have to be Jewish to write a play like this?

It’s funny because the play takes on that question. Part of Silver’s outrage is that two non-Jewish writers wrote “The Diary of Anne Frank” for the Broadway stage. I’m not a believer that you have to have a certain background, but would I be as attracted to this material if I wasn’t Jewish? Probably the answer is no. And it’s very specific — my mom is Dutch.

Why do you think Anne Frank’s legacy endures?

I’m looking at my shelf and there’s her picture on her diary — that picture of her that captivated people’s hearts is part of the answer. She is an incredible writer and we see her emerge — we know so much about how she revised. There are so many aspects that are deeply heartbreaking. She was a genius, a special person. She deserves to endure.

Watch a scene from ‘Compulsion’ at Yale Repertory Theatre:


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