Born in 1917 to a cultured Jewish family, Charlotte Salomon grew up in the artistic milieu of Berlin in the Twenties, attended the State Arts Academy, and died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 26. In 1939, under increasing anti-Semitic pressure, she left the Academy, seeking refuge in the South of France with her grandparents. There, during the war, she discovers the truth about a lineage of suicides in her family history including her mother and grandmother. To make sense of her existence she begins to paint Life? or Theater? a series of over 800 gouache paintings with text and musical references, that tell the story of her life growing up in Berlin.
In two acts, the musical follows Charlotte’s journey towards life, beginning and ending in the South of France in the room where she is struggling to give birth to Life? or Theater? Through her paintings she relives her life in Berlin, her mother’s death, her father’s medical studies, her grandparents’ escape into their travels. Then her world changes with the wonderful appearance of her step-mother, a famous opera singer, and her unorthodox vocal coach, who encourages Charlotte to paint. The vocal coach practices his theory of passionate engagement with his students; in addition to the step-mother, he becomes Charlotte’s lover as well.
Alone in a room as war rages, Charlotte conceives of her life as an exuberant musical play, with humor, irony, and song. Her “theater” is interrupted by visits from the owner of the pension, on whom Charlotte is increasingly dependent for survival. Charlotte comes to an awareness of herself as a woman and an artist in a time of tremendous repression. By the end of the play, she embraces life and casts off the shadow of the suicides that have haunted her. She leaves her paintings with the audience. We see the full glory of the images she has created then learn the fact of her untimely death.
Art by Charlotte Salomon®, Collection Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam©.