Separated by three generations, one lived through war to create a magical world of fantasy, and one was blessed to know peace but writes about an unimaginably tragic chapter of history.
Playwright and director Nicholas Tolkien, who makes his Off-Broadway debut this month with “Terezin,” is the great-grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of “The Lord of the Rings” epic and its predecessor, “The Hobbit.”
Nicholas, who keeps kosher and observes Shabbat, and his sister are the only Jewish descendants of J.R.R. Tolkien, as he tells The Jewish Week in an interview. He grew up in London, where his American-born mother and grandparents ran a vintage clothing business. Their shop, Steinberg & Tolkien, was a fashion landmark on King’s Road in Chelsea. Growing up, Nicholas spent a lot of time with his grandparents, Anne and Mark Steinberg, who lived above their store — that probably accounts for his mostly American accent.
Both of his parents are published authors — Simon Tolkien writes historical fiction and Tracy Tolkien writes about vintage fashion; his Steinberg grandmother is also a novelist and his grandfather worked in Hollywood. On the Tolkien side, he says, there are a lot of writers and folks interested in mythology. On both sides, he says, there is “massive creativity.”
“For a long period of time, I felt a great responsibility to be a novelist,” Tolkien, 27, says. “Now, theater provides a different avenue — it’s so much more interesting than sitting in a room. This play is very much like a novel, with 15 characters and 45 scenes.”
It was from Mark Steinberg that he first heard the stories of survivors of the Shoah. In Tolkien’s schooling at Westminster, the Holocaust was not part of the curriculum.
Written from a child’s perspective, “Terezin” is about the strength of children in the face of loss. With elements of theater as well as dance, this is the story of three girls sent to the Terezin concentration camp; one plays the violin beautifully. They survive through their friendship and get caught up in the making of a propaganda film by the Nazis.
“I’m very interested in trying to give the audience a life experience of what people went through. To give a face and a story to the people we only know through statistics.”
Terezin, also known by the German name Theresienstadt, is 38 miles northwest of Prague. Many artists, musicians, composers and intellectuals were imprisoned there, and despite the horrific conditions, the inmates led performances, concerts and a children’s opera.
Tolkien was inspired to write “Terezin” by thinking about the experience of children during war, and by the book, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from the Terezin Concentration Camp.” He spent more than five years researching and reading accounts of people who had been there. The play is based in part on “The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich,” and Redlich, who was deported to Terezin in 1941 and in 1944 sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed, is a character in the play. His diary was found by Czech construction workers in 1967.
“It’s the responsibility of the living to tell the stories of the dead.” – Tolkien
Tolkien visited Terezin, and says that the site is completely preserved. “You hear the sounds of birds, of cars passing. It’s a place full of ghosts.
“I’m very interested in trying to give the audience a life experience of what people went through,” he says, “to give a face and a story to the people we only know through statistics.”
“It’s the responsibility of the living to tell the stories of the dead,” he adds.
Among his generation, he says, “There’s a sense of Holocaust amnesia. People don’t want to think about it. Yet, there is genocide and the gassing of children still happening in the Syrian civil war.”
“One of my fondest memories is my dad reading all of ‘Lord of the Rings’ to me. My great-grandfather had read it to my dad. It felt like family stories being passed down.”
Tolkien, who now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., had a bar mitzvah but no formal Jewish education to speak of. Largely self-taught, he embraces Judaism.
Growing up, kids in school used to call him Hobbit, and he liked it. He began writing poetry, then went on to screenwriting and says that theater is what he most wants to do.
“One of my fondest memories,” he recalls, “is my dad reading all of ‘Lord of the Rings’ to me. My great-grandfather had read it to my dad. It felt like family stories being passed down.”
The ensemble cast of “Terezin” is led by Macedonian actress Natasa Petrovic and Canadian actress Sasha K. Gordon, who recently played in the film “Natasha.” The third friend is played by Morgan Ashley Reichberg, a seventh grader from the Upper West Side, who is making her Off-Broadway debut.
Terezin – a new play pic.twitter.com/CvVpVn8R9r
— Nicholas Tolkien (@terezinplay) September 26, 2016
Previews begin June 13, with performances through July 2, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St.