What is it about?

Set in 1961 LA, Rachel Neuburger’s Nepenthe (2016) depicts a woman confronted with repressed recollections of forced prostitution at a Nazi concentration camp. In 2016, a London theater audience witnesses the return of her traumatic experience, which had been forgotten not only by her but, even more urgently, the historiography of World War II itself. The analysis of the play reveals that due to the fragmented nature of trauma, understanding survivor testimony requires criteria beyond historical analysis. Thus, the essay argues, a dramatization of testimony could, through its unique bond between performer and audience, be the appropriate medium for saying the unsayable of traumatic history.

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Why is it important?

Through an analysis of a theater production, the essay asks these two intertwined questions simultaneously: How does one continue living after undergoing an experience so traumatizing that it haunts the mind beyond control? In what ways can artistic exploration of this phenomenon do justice to the terror that survivors carry with them throughout their lives? In addressing how retraumatizing pornographic depictions of human suffering can be for victims, the play Nepenthe invites to a critical self-examination of one’s aesthetic preferences. At the same time, it does not pretend to have found a final aesthetic form for such atrocities. This story, as the protagonist puts it, is yet to be written. Overall, the experiential takeaway for the audience is not a direct call to action but rather the need to listen consciously, actively, and reflectively to the impossible testimony of trauma, and if they feel up to the task, to “write the story that’s worth telling.”


We live in a time when humanistic inquiry and artistic expression are becoming increasingly irrelevant in public discourse. I hope that my analysis of Nepenthe, a play depicting the lingering effects of trauma on a person's life, demonstrates the importance of research at the intersection of psychoanalysis, history, and theater. It is the kind of study that may not yield quantifiable results but invites critical thinking in uncomfortable areas that we should not avoid if we want to better our society.

Leonie Ettinger
New York University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Witnessing Impossibility: The Traumatic Theater of Rachel Neuburger's Nepenthe, Journal of Literature and Trauma Studies, September 2019, Project Muse,
DOI: 10.1353/jlt.2019.0006.
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