When the curtain rose on the Walnut Street Theatre stage half a century ago, World War II was as close to that audience as the Clinton presidency is to us today, but the war against the Jews was far less understood.
There was no museum commemorating the Holocaust in the nation's capital, no cinematic "Schindler's List," no class-action lawsuits on behalf of survivors. "Night," Elie Wiesel's harrowing account of the concentration camps, would not be published in the United States for five years.
So when "The Diary of Anne Frank" opened in Philadelphia on Sept. 15, 1955, its message was unique and revelatory. Some had read the recently published diary of the irrepressible Jewish girl who hid with her family in a garret in Amsterdam for two years until she was caught by the Nazis and died in the closing days of the war.
But the theater brought her story to life as only theater can. As the New York Times critic Walter Kerr wrote after the all-star production moved to Broadway, it was "a radiant play shot through with the exuberant humor, the confident virility, and even the day-to-day cantankerousness of people who are going to live forever."
And it does seem that this Pulitzer Prize-winning play has achieved a kind of immortality. Half a century old now, it still is frequently studied and performed, especially in high schools.
"We discuss what plays to do each year, and 'The Diary of Anne Frank' surfaces every time," said John Grace, a history teacher who produces plays at Lower Merion (Pa.) High School.
Anne's character has much to do with the play's continuing appeal, especially to students who are the same age as she was when forced into hiding, and share many of the same experiences. Yes, she lived in fearful, oppressive secrecy, but she also bickered with her mother, had a wild crush on a boy, and gave voice to the sweeping, heartbreaking dreams of adolescence.
"I felt such a connection with her energy, her desire to be famous," remembered Betsy Wolf, an Abington, Pa., teacher who played Anne in high school a decade ago. "You have the opportunity to portray someone who really existed. That easily could have been my family had we lived in a different time and place."
Even in this time and place, the play's themes resonate. The students at Bishop Ireton High School, a Catholic school in Alexandria, Va., were rehearsing the play three years ago when a sniper was terrorizing the Washington area. Forced to stay indoors, the students complained about losing their freedom - until they realized how their minor inconvenience compared to the precarious existence of the Franks.
"It was a good lesson for them, and it carried over to the school in general," drama teacher Joanna Henry said. "It forced them to look at things through different eyes."
Consider, too, that Anne's character flourishes on stage at a time when "girl culture" is surging. Girls outperform boys on many standardized tests, dominate high school awards ceremonies, and constitute 56 percent of the nation's college students. Is it any wonder that Anne's defiant assertiveness finds a sympathetic home today?
The play's continuing popularity renders Anne a perpetual teenager, her character frozen in a certain time, but she was also a member of what demographer Bill Strauss calls the "air raid generation," people alive during the war but too young to participate fully in it. Many in that generation grew up to hate war and prejudice, wishing to diminish nationalist boundaries and promote peace.
Born in 1929, the same year as Anne Frank, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. belonged to that generation. Had they lived, they would have been peers of the grandparents of many of today's high school students. When those students perform this play, when they absorb its poignant inspiration, they can also imagine their aging grandparents as teenagers yearning for freedom and love and fresh air.
Ensuring that the Anne Frank story survives when World War II is no longer a subject embellished with firsthand accounts and memories is now our responsibility. Researching the history of this play has left me impressed by the dedication of those who brought the diary to life and convinced others of its enduring power to speak to and for young people.
"Every notice good! Walking on air!" Frances Goodrich wrote in her own diary when the show opened on Broadway on Oct. 6, 1955. She had spent two years working on the dramatization with her coauthor and husband, Albert Hackett.
"It was worth the tears, the months we worked, the miles we traveled," Goodrich wrote. "We only wish that Anne could have known."