Questions of Constitution, Morality Explored in Sagal’s Denial


Photo courtesy of John Seyfried

From left to right, College sophomore Brian Weaver and actor George Roth perform during Tuesday’s dress rehearsal of Peter Sagal’s Denial in Hall Auditorium.

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

Denial, by Peter Sagal, offers more questions than clarity in its portrayal of the necessity and limitations of the First Amendment. The play, which opened yesterday at Hall Auditorium, centers on the interactions between Jewish ACLU lawyer Abigail Gersten (College sophomore Marina Schwadron), and her new client, Holocaust-denying Professor Bernard Cooper (College sophomore Brian Weaver).

Abigail is established in the first scene as a brilliant lawyer and an impassioned defender of the First Amendment; she is introduced to the audience through a recording of her defense in an obscenities case where she argues that the law itself is more important than the content of the speech that it is protecting. She delivers a polished, fiery speech, demanding that the jury choose “between what is right and what is easy,” confident in her knowledge that the right choice is the one that preserves free speech no matter the content.

Cooper’s introduction, by contrast, is without fanfare. When he arrives at Abigail’s office, he doesn’t fit the image that might be expected of a Holocaust denier. He’s not a skinhead and he doesn’t immediately give off an aura of menace — perhaps more insidiously, he seems even charming. Only after he has been on stage for a while does he start dropping certain red flag phrases in conversation that begin to give a picture of his beliefs. He waits almost until the end of the first act before plunging into a rant full of anti-Semitic vitriol.

The cast is rounded out by young government lawyer Adam Ryberg (College sophomore David Kaus) Abigail’s secretary Stefanie (College sophomore Imke Hart) and Holocaust survivors Noah Gomrowitz and Nathan (Allen O’Reilly and George Roth of the Actor’s Equity Association).

Director Paul Moser, professor of Theater, was inspired to propose Denial to the department last year because of the heated debate surrounding inflamatory social media posts made by former professor of Rhetoric and Composition Joy Karega at the time.

“I was trying to find a play that spoke to the issues [we were facing],” he said. “I found this, and it seemed very apropos. … The play doesn’t necessarily resolve anything; it sort of represents a predicament, and I kind of feel like the campus was in that predicament. I don’t know too many people that are against the First Amendment, but a lot of people … were really kind of appalled by … fictions being promoted among the students.”

“[In the play] you have this central theme of [protecting] people’s rights to free speech under any legal circumstance, and that’s easy to say, but what happens when that person starts gaining an audience and the things that they’re saying are dangerous?” Schwadron said.

However, the relevance of Denial — written in 1995 — resonates well beyond our own community, especially in these early days of the Trump administration.

“Now that we’re dealing with this avalanche of fake news and ‘alternative facts,’ this [play] falls right into that,” Moser said. “Under Trump, there’s this mainstreaming of hatred, which is kind of scary. And the way this administration is responding to it, it makes you wonder if, sometime in the next few years, we’re going to have an attack on our freedom of speech.”

“It was actually kind of freaky how the messages [of Denial] became more relevant as news unfolded and as time went on,” Schwadron agreed. “There are a fair number of parallels between Cooper and a lot of alt-right figures that you see today.”

The play addresses many themes of identity and loyalty. One thread that is carefully woven through the production is the tension between Abigail’s convictions as a lawyer and her identity as a Jew. Near the beginning of the play, opposing council Adam tells Abigail that she can’t defend Cooper because “you’re a Jew.” “I’m a lawyer,” she says, to which he retorts, “you’re a Jewish lawyer.”

“[Holocaust denial] rubs every fiber of her being the wrong way, and [Abigail is] appalled by [Cooper’s] beliefs and feels that she’s maybe helping to advance them by protecting them,” Moser said. “That’s the central core of the play — the predicament that she’s in.”

The posters for the production are unmistakable — a picture of Holocaust victims in a concentration camp, their faces fractured by white lines. Underneath them, the title of the play — Denial — sits in large font. A student who is heavily involved with theater on campus spoke to the Review about their criticisms of posters on the condition of anonymity.

“I first found out about the posters when they went up during Winter Term,” they said. “At first I didn’t even know how to react. … I was shocked that on my floor [in my dorm], in the year 2017 at Oberlin College, I was standing in my pajamas staring at a large piece of paper on which there was a picture of Holocaust victims. And underneath it in big, red lettering was the word ‘Denial.’ That just shocked me.”

The student described the impact that seeing these posters around campus has had on them and people that they know.

“I mentioned [the posters] to another one of my friends, who’s also Jewish. … That friend went and saw [the poster], and came back and was absolutely disgusted,” they said. “We talked about how … those posters affected us, seeing pictures of Holocaust victims everywhere we go.”

The student argued that it was inappropriate to use the faces of Holocaust victims as promotional material in this context.

“I don’t know how people who didn’t have their family directly affected by the Holocaust react, but as someone whose family was very directly impacted by it, seeing actual pictures of Holocaust victims from concentration camps … on your way to work, on your way to class … seeing it isn’t just ‘oh, there’s a picture.’ It’s ‘that could have been my dad.’ ‘That could have been my grandfather.’ ‘That almost was.’”

Moser, when asked to respond to this reaction to the posters, argued that the design made sense in the context of the play.

“That’s the main theme of the play,” he said. “That [a character believes that Holocaust victims] didn’t exist. That there weren’t extermination camps. So that’s kind of the crux of it.”