Look, up in the sky!
A new play by David Bar Katz looks at the fascinating, poignant story
behind the creation of Superman.
'The History of Invulnerability' Photo: Stan Barouh
WASHINGTON – The History of Invulnerability, the latest play to grace the
Washington JCC’s Theater J stage, traces the fascinating story of the Superman
origin myth – not the superhero’s birth on planet Krypton, but his creation by
the imaginative Jewish dreamer Jerry Siegel, who wanted to transcend the
prejudice in pre-WWII America and Europe.
Set against a well-crafted
backdrop evoking the story blocks of comic books, the play flips between
Siegel’s real biography and the figment of his imagination – Superman in the
dramatic flesh – who has become a more vital and historic force than the
schlubby Siegel himself. Though all of the acting is strong, David Deblinger as
Siegel and Tim Getman as Superman (and occasionally Clark Kent) are
Deblinger is reprising his role from the play’s premier in
Cincinnati; Theater J’s staging is only its second production.
real-life characters join in and fill out the story, including Siegel’s artistic
partner Joe Shuster, publisher Harry Donenfeld and Jolan Kovacs, who first
modeled as Lois Lane before eventually becoming Siegel’s wife.
is gripping as a telling of social history and an exploration of how Jews’
other-than and less-than status in America gave rise to a new type of artistic
expression: superheroes, outsiders who transform into invincible beings who can
set right the wrongs in society. It was not only Siegel who did this, though he
did it the best. The later inventions of Batman, Captain America and Spiderman
were also the products of Jewish creativity.
Playwright David Bar Katz
uses historical events to flesh out his depiction of Siegel’s character, using
the 1915 lynching of the Jewish Leo Frank in Georgia as the basis for an early
Superman exploit to save a man from a similar fate; elsewhere he details how
Superman was an agent for fighting the Nazis during the course of the
Yet Bar Katz makes an unfortunate choice when he decides to leap
wholeheartedly into the world of historical fantasy with a subplot involving
concentration camp prisoners contemplating their fate while a young inmate
awaits Superman and salvation.
The recurrent break-aways to Auschwitz
drag down the development of the story and introduce a maudlin, false cast to
the entire performance. Its role in the ending is ghastly and out of keeping
with the rest of the play, making it a discordant conclusion, to say the
The Holocaust motif also implies that the truth of Siegel’s story
is not sufficiently dramatic or emotionally intense enough to reach viewers, a
point that trivializes the main dramatic arc of the play. In fact, Siegel’s
tragic reckoning with Donenfeld and the rights to the creation he and Shuster
naively signed away – forfeiting fortune and creative freedom for both of them –
is deeply resonant and stands on its own. Additionally, the subtler Jewish
echoes in the pair’s work and experience are evocative and moving.
of all, the use of the Holocaust – especially as the play’s parting shot – also
means that the work ends up emphasizing Jewish victimhood, rather than the
triumph of the Jewish spirit that was the driving force behind Superman’s
Through his creation of a hero who heals the world through
physical strength and devotion to justice, Siegel asserted Jewish vigor rather
than weakness. It is too bad that an otherwise signal tribute to Siegel’s genius
and struggles ultimately fails to celebrate this achievement.