The Ethical Spectacle – Book Review Submission: ‘The First To Go’ by Nabil Shaban

19 September 2007

Word Count: 1,239

By Jez Strickley


You can’t have perfection in a world that is living.

(Brunhilde; Act II, Scene VIII)


Steeped in the potent themes of eugenics and social discrimination, ‘The First To Go’ is a haunting piece of theatre which spotlights the Disabled Holocaust: one aspect of a much wider and more diverse killing field that, according to the author’s introduction, is largely overshadowed by its Jewish counterpart.  Told through the eyes of disabled and non-disabled characters, Nabil Shaban weaves a tale which moves from contemporary Berlin to the Aryan ideals of Nazi Germany and an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.  Throughout the course of this shrewdly built narrative, Shaban compels the reader to face the uncomfortable reality of a human society in which designer babies could well be the thin end of a wedge which might yet see history repeating itself.


The first scene sets the tone in dramatic fashion by portraying a chilling present day case of hypnotic regression.  In this state of mental playback George, a man confined to a wheelchair and who is seemingly reliving the ambitions of Adolf Hitler, pronounces the looming spectre of a biocractic state, and its accompanying onslaught against the disabled community.  The ironic nature of George’s regressed identity is very much of a piece with Shaban’s writing style, which demands the reader’s complete and undivided attention, and a fair degree of critical thinking to boot.  In short, there is no mental exit for the lazy reader.


Following this highly evocative opening the play builds upon its already considerable momentum by moving directly on to its centrepiece.  Here, a group of institutionalised disabled German citizens, and their medical attendants, gradually confront the machinery of Nazi Germany’s looming euthanasia programme.  In switching from present to past, Shaban makes important associations between Nazi Germany’s Disabled Holocaust and today’s climate of physical perfection – a state of affairs which Shaban terms ‘Body Fascism’.  As events continue apace there is presented another, equally well-drawn backdrop, in the form of the July 20 Plot of 1944.  This real-life episode is delivered in a finely judged manner, focusing as it does on the motives and justifications of the plotters themselves.  In choosing to portray the events surrounding this attempted coup, Shaban examines the moral reasoning of those individuals who resort to violence as their final answer.  Just such a terrible conclusion is evidenced, albeit in a strikingly open-ended fashion, in the last actions of George, a man who has more than just the shadow of the past on his mind.


Within these meticulously assembled scenes there are portrayed, as Shaban himself calls them, disabled heroes: the nurse Brunhilde, the philosopher Siegfried and Hitler’s would-be assassin Claus von Stauffenberg.  In contrast, Shaban keeps his scales finely balanced by inserting a particularly notorious disabled villain: Josef Goebbels, Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.  In selecting one of Nazi Germany’s most infamous figures, Shaban raises a further irony, in that it was Goebbels who applied his not inconsiderable skills in media manipulation to mount a deliberate campaign against Nazi Germany’s disabled population – a population of which he was himself a member.


Shaban is careful, however, not to paint a caricature of Goebbels.  Instead, there is drawn a character who reasons and analyses his way through circumstances around him, thus portraying an even more shocking individual in the process.  Authenticity is a common trait of the other characters that appear in the course of the story.  Heide, one of Siegfried’s disabled friends, is a case in point.  Her final line: “I’m human, too” (Act II, Scene XII), announced as the hypodermic killing machine pitilessly rolls into action, strikes the reader with such a profound sense of understatement that it drives home Shaban’s moral probing with irresistible force.  Heide is not the only example.  Helmut, a man with Downs Syndrome, makes what is perhaps the most damning point of all, when he observes that: “We don’t wear badges.  We don’t need to.  Our bodies are our badges.” (Act I, Scene IV)  Helmut’s remark upon the social discrimination branded on to his body, and the bodies of his friends, is a high point amongst many other well written lines, demonstrating Shaban’s shrewd use of dialogue to do his moral talking for him.


The love which develops between Siegfried and Brunhilde is another point of characterisation worth noting.  Their growing bond becomes arguably the greatest weapon against the ideology which strives to wipe out any traces of disability – or should that be difference? – from the face of the Third Reich.  And, moreover, it is Brunhilde who digs up what residual humanity there is in the characters of Eva, another of the medical attendants, and who joins the story telling circle formed by Siegfried and his friends, thereby recognising their humanity in the process.


A further dimension found in Shaban’s writing is his shrewd choice of moral and social issues, which help to fine tune his narrative and trigger the reader’s interrogation of the text.  One clear example is found in the story telling circle of Siegfried, Heide and Helmut which enables these three – and later Brunhilde – to forge their own community: a community which acts as a buttress against the relentless social corrosives applied to them each day by some of their attendants.  Medical practitioners such as Dr. Spottegeburt and Dr. Brandt echo the hollow rhetoric of the eugenics lobby, cosmetically hiding their appalling notions behind a gleaming façade of clinical precision and sterile words.  In these brilliantly formed characters there is revealed the type of human being who can degrade and socially butcher his or her fellows in much the same way as one might conduct a discourse on the importance of good footwear.  The calculating inhumanity of this pair is no figment of Shaban’s imagination, but it is to the author’s credit that they do not become exaggerated grotesques, but rather, like Goebbels, remain authentic and, as a result, stamp an even colder and more frightening shape upon the reader’s consciousness.


Assembling this multilayered tale, which seamlessly moves between the past and the present is no little challenge.  Shaban’s effort is an outstanding example which deftly traces the terrible contours of the Disabled Holocaust through events both contemporary to it as well as those somewhat closer to the here and now, and which undoubtedly rest within its considerable shadow.


Incredibly, ‘The First To Go’ is no gargantuan epic and its two acts may be digested at a single sitting.  However, its weighty subject matter and rich dialogue deserve a far more protracted – and considered – consumption.  In addressing the Disabled Holocaust and its victims – labelled by the Nazis as ‘Useless Eaters’ – Shaban helps to publicise a tragedy which is in serious need of contemporary scrutiny.  And, bearing in mind the understandable anxieties of the disabled citizen who lives in a world in which genetic screening and the legally – as well as socially – acceptable abortion of disabled foetuses is a growing trend, it is little wonder that the fear that the dark matter of 1930s and 1940s Europe should rise to the surface once more is more than a little justified.


‘The First To Go’ (ISBN: 978-0-9548294-1-4) is published by Sirius Book Works Publishing and includes a detailed introduction from the author.  It also contains an appendix which presents the paper ‘Disability and the Performing Arts – There is No Fair Play’, written by Nabil Shaban in May 2000 and submitted to the UK Government’s Department for Education and Employment.