The ethics of terrorism are on a lot of minds these days. With the constant media barrage of tragic news from the Middle East, questions of "what's it all for" come easily. Can the murders committed by Palestinian or Iraqi bombers be justified if their actions lead to greater peace and freedom for their children? And if we somehow found ourselves in their places, would we do the same, or do nothing? Bombings and assassinations are not unique to the post-Cold War world, of course, and the last few years have seen a rash of plays, both new and revivals, that approach terrorism from a historical perspective. Many of them draw on those most famous of 20th-century terrorists: the French Resistance fighters of 1940-44. Armand Salacrou's Nights of Wrath (1946), making its English-language premiere with the Horizon Theatre Rep., is such a play, putting the ethics of terrorism up for debate in harsh detail through the lens of Nazi-occupied France.
The story of Nights of Wrath revolves around a reluctant Resistance fighter named Jean (Rafael De Mussa) who is captured by the Gestapo after blowing up a gasoline train. His old friend Bernard (John Gilligan), who betrayed him to a collaborator, is murdered by Jean's Resistance group, who in the process are killed themselves. But the dead come back to life to tell their stories to each other, looking back at the events to reveal the truth behind Bernard's betrayal and each of their roles as collaborators or terrorists.
Salacrou wrote Nights of Wrath in 1946, only two years after the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. While that immediacy would have struck a chord with French audiences at the time, the writing and plot now feel uncomfortably dated, which mars the enjoyment of the philosophical questions at the center of the play. These debates are its strongest quality, examining with at times very personal detail the ethical paradoxes of terrorist action and the impossibility of staying truly neutral in a polarized "us versus them" world.
The play, however, takes far too long to develop these ideas (it's a two-hour-long one-act) and along the way smothers them under a story line that to modern audiences appears hopelessly, almost laughably, melodramatic, sexist, and didactic. Not even moments of intense violence and emotional anguish can wrench the play out of these ruts, and the cast and director offer little in the way of original acting moments to help out.
David Looseley's English translation does little to help either, suffering from the constraints of trying to be slavishly loyal to the original text while also trying to update the dialogue wherever possible. The play sounds stilted in the actors' mouths, and they often find themselves in the awkward position of having to use French idioms and speech patterns with colloquial English words like "sure," "OK," and "guy"