by Michael Bowen
Some plays indict us. And then they convict us. Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine (at Interplayers through May 10) takes its time to lock and load -- but once it has, we discover that we're its target.
Hellman's drama concerns an anti-Nazi secret agent who gets pinned down in America. Robin Stanton's production revives a neglected classic and brings home the sacrifices made by those who fought tyranny -- back when the world agreed about which terrorists could be legitimately fought. But Rhine also indicts those of us who merely watch the war on CNN instead of actively working for peace.
"We are all anti-Fascists," says the matriarch, complacently. Her daughter agrees, to a point: "Yes. But Kurt works at it."
The most famous line from the play also hammers at those of us who lack conviction: "For every man who lives without freedom, the rest of us must face the guilt." So far, so much to favor Mr. Bush's War: We are obligated to fight tyranny and liberate the oppressed.
But hold on a moment. Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, her companion with the Spokane connection, both famously liberal, wouldn't have supported the current conflict, would they? Even their freedom-fighter hero pleads for peace: "And I will keep my hope," he says, "that we may make a world in which all men can die in bed. I have a great hate for the violent. They are the sick of the world."
More than 60 years later, we can't help but reflect on the impact Hellman's call to action must have had. In the spring of 1941, the voices of American isolationists, warning against involvement in Europe's war, were still loud. Americans -- and people the world over -- were in massive denial about the inhumanities against European Jews.
But if Hellman would not cut her conscience to fit the year's fashions (as she famously declared in her letter to HUAC in 1952), she would hardly do so today. The times were different then, after all, back in the days when most of the world agreed who the tyrants were, and how to oppose them. Calls to action require justification; if they're merely jingoistic, they're better off being ignored.
A strong cast features stirring performances from Keith Burkland as Kurt Muller, the anti-Fascist, and from Michael Weaver as a manipulative Romanian count, Teck de Brancovis. The play avoids sentiment by introducing flaws into the hero and virtues into the villain. Kurt's hands shake: he is "a man of fears," not an Uber-mensch. And he insists on his own moral degradation: As a Resistance fighter, he has had to resort to immoral methods to achieve laudable aims. And he not only knows it, but he insists that his children know it about him, too. Burkland catches the man's existential impulse to fight injustice everywhere, along with his stoicism in the face of danger; he even plays the piano and sings one of Kurt's retorts to Franco's troops back in the Spanish Civil War.
Teck, for his part, is more than just a black hat. Without doubt, he is intelligent, fearless, plain-spoken; and he excels at solving mysteries and then using his findings to manipulate others. Weaver sometimes grimaces and glares too much, indicating his villainy; but for the most part, he overcomes his local stereotype as a comic actor and provides Teck with some insecurities to go with the slit-eyed malice.
A display in Interplayers' lobby provides context for just what World War II Resistance fighters endured. The play provides two intermissions during which you can study the human costs of war and the superhuman sacrifices made by Resistance fighters, and not just by fictional ones like the play's heroic Kurt Muller. The photographs of somebody's kids, the ones who died at Buchenwald, are real. They echo the recent photo in Time of the Iraqi boy who had lost his entire family and both of his arms.
Hellman's play debuted in April 1941. The war was already a year and a half old, though Pearl Harbor was still eight months away. She derived her title from "Die Wacht am Rhein," which had been Germany's most popular patriotic song since at least the 1850s. The chorus of "Die Wacht" -- "Dear Fatherland, no danger thine; / Firm stand thy sons to watch the Rhine" -- couldn't have anticipated, of course, how the German homeland would be threatened most by the Nazis, a cancer from within.
Now, however, many years later, the German anthem is probably most famous for being what the Nazis sing in Rick's Cafe during a movie from 1942 that you may have heard of: Casablanca.
For awhile there in Bogie's bar, it looks as if the despised occupiers of North Africa will carry the day. But the heroism of men like Hellman's Kurt Muller lives on, at least in the movies. For when the French sing "La Marseillaise," they sing it louder and they sing it longer.
Publication date: 04/24/03