Loring Mandel: "Conspiracy" lesson

by Brenna McDuffie '15

In 2001, the BBC/HBO film Conspiracy premiered on TV. That same year, the film’s writer Loring Mandel won an Emmy for his work. This weekend, a stage adaptation of Mandel’s film, directed by Caleb Thompson '14, will open on the Loeb Mainstage.

Conspiracy tells the story of the 1942 Wansee Conference, a meeting during which senior officials of Nazi Germany fabricated the plans to initiate the Holocaust. Thompson worked directly with Mandel to adapt the film for the Harvard stage, where Thompson believes it is especially fitting to be told. "Conspiracy shows that the greatest crime in human history was perpetrated by idealists and sophisticates, educated bureaucrats who had never fired a gun in their lives. It works on the Harvard stage because this university trains the leaders of tomorrow," says Thompson.

The HRDC production of Conspiracy runs 8 p.m. Fri. Nov. 13 through Sat. Nov. 23. Tickets and more information can be found here. Mandel will lead a discussion immediately following the performance Sat. Nov. 16.Below are excerpts from our conversation about Conspiracy and its endurance as a didactic tool.

Conspiracy presents a different part of the Holocaust than is traditionally portrayed in popular cinema. What compelled you to tell this story?

It’s a little complicated because I knew nothing about the Wansee Conference before writing the film, but I was asked by the director-producer Frank Pierson if I would be interested in doing the film. He sent enough research material and after reading it, I became compelled to write the story. What Frank said when he first called me to tell me about Conspiracy was, "This is the first piece of material about the Holocaust that I have seen that didn’t make me want to cry. It made me angry instead." That’s why he thought it was worth doing, and I agreed with him. And I also felt that the story had wider implications than the question of the Holocaust, because it deals more generally with what people can do to other people once they regard them as less than human. We see that theme in many different venues besides the Holocaust, so it was of great interest to me.

Did you ever imagine that this story would would translate to the stage?

Well, yes. In the film, once we managed to confine the action to one room, it seemed rather natural for it to be done on the stage, not necessarily as commercial proposition because it’s a huge cast, but it seemed almost more natural as a piece of theatrical material on the stage than as a film. I imagined that if I did this as a play, then it could be done in schools and churches and synagogues and so on to tell that story. Last year, a fellow did a staged reading of Conspiracy at his church, and the church decided afterwards that they want to do this every year.

How might this story be relevant to a modern audience?

More than once, when the play has had staged readings, I have heard comments like, "This is like any corporate board meeting." And the conference itself was a board meeting. The play is now being taught at at least two universities in their business schools and also at one or two law schools. In so far as it deals with the question of personal morality, I can’t think of an area of American life that needs it more than corporate life.

Why might Harvard be a particularly good place to stage a production of Conspiracy?

The basic idea of this story is an intellectual one, and to have it presented to such a remarkable intellectual community as Harvard is a great opportunity. I feel the play is a teaching tool, and who better to teach it to than the young people who are involved? It was interesting, when the film was done, on my first day with the cast, some of those men were quite young. Like Colin Firth, he looked like a kid, and he was so interested in the background of the story, and he was so full of questions all the time. It was really exciting because he was totally engaged in the material and in the correctness of doing it. I would hope that some of that would be translated into all these bright young men who are playing the roles in the Harvard production. I had the chance to talk to most of them when I was up at Harvard a few weeks ago, and I found it very stimulating and exciting. I hope that their interest and their excitement as it was evident to me will be evident in their performances. I’m really looking forward to it.

[Caption: Loring Mandel, writer of "Conspiracy"]