The Diary of Anne Frank opened on Broadway on this day in 1955. The adaptation by the husband-and-wife team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett was an immediate hit and a prizewinner, the reviewers praising a “lovely, tender drama” conveying the heroine’s “dream of impossible perfection” and inspiring “everyone into lifting himself up by his bootstraps” (Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times). The play, the production and the praise also attracted immediate controversy, a reviewer from Holland registering this lament:
The theatre production of The Diary of Anne Frank is without doubt a great success in New York, and nothing is possibly sadder than that. Now, the innermost feelings of an extraordinarily sensitive girl in her puberty have become a piece of entertainment.
In a New Yorker essay following the 1997 Broadway revival of the play, Cynthia Ozick took the complaint that the girl and the original Diary had been robbed of their true meaning a few steps further. By focusing not on Anne’s death and the wider tragedy but on the heartwarming side of her story — twice in the Goodrich-Hackett script we hear Anne’s “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart!” — the Diary had, in Ozick’s words, been “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.”
In his review of the 1997 New York production, Vincent Canby complained similarly, describing the “earnestly artificial” Anne as “having been directed to behave in a fashion that might have embarrassed even Sandra Dee’s Gidget.” Canby’s review ends with an anecdote that seems to verify Ozick’s comments, and more:
This production will be of interest mainly to those who have never before encountered The Diary, like the woman in her 20s who sat in front of me the night I saw the play. As her escort was whispering in her ear just before the performance began, she suddenly drew back and stared at him in surprise. “You mean,” she said, “she dies at the end?”
Time is brutal.
In her Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife (2009), Francine Prose follows the controversy surrounding the Broadway play and other attempts to adapt/exploit either Frank or her diary. Prose also demonstrates, through classroom and reader testimonials, how Anne’s story continues to inspire.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.