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A cautionary tale on autocracy and peer pressure
NIDHI GUPTA  17th Aug 2013

A scene from the play | Photo: Vipul Rajpoot

n April 1967, a school teacher in California made history by repeating it. Unable to explain to his class how a majority of the Germans claimed ignorance about the extermination of Jews, Ron Jones decided to 'show' them. He announced to his class the foundation of The Third Wave, a movement aimed at eliminating democracy. Over the following weeks, his students were transformed into a force of terror, with a single-minded determination to trample any semblance of individualism on campus. By the time it was concluded, it was hard to ascertain whether the experiment was a rollicking success or a debilitating failure – not only were the members of the Third Wave crushed, one student, unable to bear this news, actually shot himself in the head.

Although the event was not widely reported at the time of occurrence, it came to prominence a few years later and today is counted among important studies in mass human behaviour, alongside the Stanford Prison experiment and the Asch conformity experiment. Reinhold Tritt, a German playwright scripted it into a play a few years later, which has been performed across the globe. Last week in Delhi, Wings Cultural Society, a young theatre group put up a play based on Tritt's script, translated into Hindi by Rakesh Kaushik. Director Tarique Hameed, who also plays Jones' stage character, Ross, says that it was simply the story's resonance at a human level that inspired him to stage it.

"Human beings can be the cruellest creatures on the planet – but they are also the only ones with the ability to think. We must not let this ability die so easily," says Hameed. On stage, he plays the well-intentioned school teacher who cannot bring his classroom to order. His students, more interested in football or the school newspaper or in having a fling, are also terribly cynical about the Holocaust's aftermath. When he devises the experiment, the indoctrination begins with a few military exercises and some basic rules about conduct and behaviour in class, that eventually give way to the formation of an exclusive club, the membership of which became very dear to his 'followers'.

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The play’s strongest moment is when the class chants ‘Strength through discipline, strength through unity, strength through action’ in unison, flying off the stage, running among the audience as pamphlets rain down – it is hard not to feel a little terrified by their single-mindedness.

The majority of actors in the presentation were young first-timers, who had been selected and trained in a 15 day workshop conducted a couple of months ago. The play's strongest moment is when the class chants 'Strength through discipline, strength through unity, strength through action' in unison, flying off the stage, running among the audience as pamphlets rain down – it is hard not to feel a little terrified by their single-mindedness, much like Laurie, the school newspaper editor and the only one who isn't taken in by all this drama.

The play, as well as the experiment, is a study in the power of authority and how it can work upon impressionable minds. Hameed feels there are several parallels to be found in today's world. "Look at Narendra Modi, Bal Thackeray, even Maulana Bukhari – they are all drunk on their power, and consider the public beneath them. As for the masses, we do what we are told to do too. Now I have nothing against Anna Hazare's movement, but it was telling that people just marched to Jantar Mantar without analysing the Lokpal Bill and thinking for themselves how successful it can be," he observes.

The theatre group is now talking to schools and colleges to stage it in front of younger audiences. "Technology overwhelms us today, and part of the message of this play is also to caution ourselves from turning into robots," says Hameed.

 
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