By Amy Sorter
Special to the TJP
While growing up, lawyer-turned-playwright-turned-journalist-turned-college-instructor Mark Donald learned bits and pieces about his father’s early life. Donald knew that his dad, Martin Donald, was a Holocaust survivor who also spent time in Canada and Britain during World War II. Donald also knew his father had spent time with British Intelligence, and was in France within days of D-Day, June 6, 1944. And, of course, Mark Donald knew that Martin Donald, who died in 2007, was an important part of the Dallas Jewish community and one of the Dallas Holocaust Museum’s founders.
But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the son acquired the complete story about his father. Donald eventually consolidated his father’s notes and wrote a fictional play that is very loosely based on and inspired by Martin Donald’s life. That play, Magnum’s Opus, will premiere as a staged reading on Aug. 7-8 at the Dallas Holocaust Museum.
In the play, main character Magnum Guttmann reaches out to his estranged family by revealing complete details of his early life, which includes coming of age in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin, then ending up as a British soldier and Nazi hunter.
Though Guttmann and Martin Donald are not the same person, there are similarities. Both came of age in Hitler’s Berlin. Both were members of the British forces. Both lost family in the concentration camps. And, both rounded up Nazis after the end of World War II. Martin Donald, in fact, was part of the British military group that arrested German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1945.
But the comparisons end there. Martin Donald ultimately gave up his career in the military, came to Dallas, and raised a family with his wife Ann, also a Holocaust survivor. Magnum Guttmann remains a Nazi hunter for much of his life, pushing away his family in the process. As such, “I used my father’s story as inspiration for the play,” Donald explained. “But, the play is highly fictionalized.”
Interestingly enough, Donald himself is no slouch in the “colorful story” department. Raised in Dallas with sister Florence (former Texas Senator Florence Shapiro of Plano who is the current Dallas Holocaust Museum board chair), Donald received his law degree from Southern Methodist University. While working as a criminal defense attorney, Donald took acting lessons at the Dallas Theater Center (DTC). “Even though I was with a small firm, with a lot of work, the most I could get was four or five trials a year,” he said. “It took a while to feel comfortable in the courtroom, so I thought I’d take acting classes to help with presentation.”
In addition to acting classes, the DTC offered playwriting classes with a couple of professors from Trinity University. “I liked them, I loved the place, and before I knew it, I was halfway to a degree,” Donald said. He ended up with a master’s degree in fine arts at the DTC through Trinity University, during which time he wrote several plays. Donald eventually moved from law to freelance journalism, winding up as editor-in-chief with the Dallas Observer, until 2011. These days, Donald teaches mass communications, law and ethics, news reporting and feature writing at the University of North Texas.
Even as Donald obtained another college degree, changed careers and raised his own family with his wife Esther, father Martin remained mostly silent about his own past. “There are two kinds of Holocaust survivors,” Donald explained. “There are those who tell their children all about their Holocaust stories. Then there are those who are more reserved.”
Donald’s father would tell him intriguing bits and pieces about his background. Finally, Donald decided he wanted to expand on those bits and pieces, “because I wanted his grandchildren to know the story.” To that end, Donald used family summers spent in Sarasota, Florida to delve into his father’s background, and to tape-record it. “Five or six years before he died, I interviewed him, as a journalist would,” Donald said. “I didn’t want the surface answers. We went deep.” After three summers of intense interviews, Donald had his father’s entire story.
When Martin Donald died in 2007 at age 86, Donald reviewed the tapes, typed them up, and gave the written transcriptions to Martin’s grandchildren. That was the end of it. Or, so Donald thought. “The story still haunted me,” he said. “It wouldn’t let go.”
Busy with his stints at the Observer, then as a UNT professor, Donald had to put his father’s story aside for a time. Then, over a three-year period, he crafted the play. Donald said he chose to fictionalize the story on a historical framework, rather than focusing on blow-by-blow historical facts. “Fiction enables you to explore various types of issues with a lot of depth and emotion,” he explained. “It explores what it’s like growing up as a Jewish boy in Nazi Berlin, what it’s like to go from refugee, to vanquished, to victor.”
Donald hosted an initial reading of the play in January 2017, then moved on to the idea of a staged reading. He thought that, because Martin was one of the founders of the Dallas Holocaust Museum, “If I was going to have a staged reading, that would be the best place to have it,” he said.
Donald, who remains plugged into the Dallas theater community, asked veteran Dallas actor/director Linda Leonard to direct Magnum’s Opus. A casting call took place over Memorial Day weekend, and rehearsals are now underway. “The work is in the pioneering stages, and it’s exciting to see it come to life,” Donald said, adding that he’s grateful to the Holocaust Museum for hosting the event. “I’m humbled that Linda is directing it, that the actors in it are taking the time to work with it,” he continued.
Donald, veteran journalist, playwright and writer, acknowledged that Magnum’s Opus is as close to basing a fictional piece on real-life events as anything else he’s created. “Magnum has been fighting the good fight; it was his way of righting the wrongs inflicted on his parents,” he said. “My father had the same attitude.” So, while Magnum’s Opus isn’t Martin Donald’s exact story, “his spirit is strong within the play,” his son said.
Magnum’s Opus takes place Monday-Tuesday, Aug. 7-8 at the Dallas Holocaust Museum, 211 N. Record St., Dallas. A 6:30 p.m. reception will precede each night’s reading, with a question-and-answer session following the event. The reading is free, but reservations are required. For more information, contact 214-402-6518 or search Magnum’s Opus Staged Reading on Facebook.