My Own Private Nuremberg | Theater | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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My Own Private Nuremberg 

C.P. Taylor looks at the evil of banality

Wednesday, Jun 24 1998
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Guilt, even more than misery, loves company, which may explain why we often lose sight of the separate sources of collective evil. (The old problem of not being able to see the trees for the forest.) Modern Europe's greatest crime had many partners, but rather than try to focus on the crowded dock of the Holocaust's accused, British playwright C.P. Taylor's 1981 drama, Good, indicts a single man who somehow, somewhere, took a wrong turn, then another and another. Taylor's play, which receives a sincere but ultimately spotty production at Theater West, traces the wayward journey of an individual who succumbs to the cooing temptations of comfort and success during times of turmoil.

Professor John Halder (Steve O'Connor) is a novelist and Goethe authority of some repute living in Frankfurt. His wife, Helen (Ursula Martin), is a dithering agoraphobic, while his mother (Margaret Muse) suffers from senile dementia. Hitler has just risen to power, but Halder, a good and decent man in all aspects, doesn't believe the Fuhrer will or can carry out the medievalist program for Germany that he has promoted for the last decade. As time passes, this opinion less and less assuages Maurice (Ivan Cury), a Jewish psychiatrist and Halder's best friend.

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Halder's wife, mother and friend represent the most important - and the most problematic - relationships in Halder's life, and they are the ones he will betray during the next five years, each desertion drawing him deeper into the embrace of National Socialism. First, he accepts his father-in-law's suggestion to join "the Party" for the sake of simple professional expediency; the act stuns Maurice, but assimilationist and optimist that he is, he never renounces his "Johnnie," who then begins an affair with an amoral young student named Anne (Elizabeth Du Vall). Meanwhile, the Nazis, ever alert to the possibilities presented by educated recruits, flatter and cajole the nice professor who's burdened with a sick old mother to take a more active interest in national issues - euthanasia, for example.

Bit by bit, the Party annexes a little more of Halder's soul by offering him positions of prestige, and before long he's working alongside that other Adolf, the one who years later would testify so unforgettably in Jerusalem. But the Nazis give Johnnie more than job protection - they present him with power and a sense of belonging. As Halder says, "If they love you, you can't help but love them back." This may sound trite, but there's a terrible truth in these fuzzy words, and it is one always grasped by fanatics.

By the end of the play, Halder has moved into the doomed Maurice's country home with Anne. Nattily attired in a new S.S. uniform, he reluctantly takes his leave of her to assume new duties in the east: a job posting at Auschwitz. "I was looking forward to a peaceful day in the garden," he complains - but only for a moment.

The main drawback to Norman Cohen's staging at Theater West is a few casting miscues, the most serious of which is Steve O'Connor as Halder; O'Connor doubly suffers from having neither the ability to convey the intellectual gravity of someone who teaches and writes about literature for a living, nor the emptiness of a man who turns his back on needy family members and friends. In this production's favor are Roslyn Moore's period costumes and the musical trio (Graham Jackson, piano; Christina Dalton, accordion; Adrian Paskowitz, violin), which captures the soul of a Germany and Europe drunk on the liqueur of resentment.

It is true that as late as one generation before Hitler's election as Reich Chancellor, Germany, despite its venerable crank tradition of racial mysticism, did not top most people's lists as the nation most likely to commit the kind of outrages for which it would become renowned. There were Czarist Russia and France of the Third Republic, after all, both of which were home to far more malarial outbursts of anti-Semitism than Hohenzollern or Weimar Germany. But alas, those Teutonic traits of obedience, discipline and efficiency, combined with, well, a venerable crank tradition of racial mysticism, eventually kicked in to produce Hitler - and a not entirely painful national acquiescence to his arrival.

There is another typically German characteristic at work in some stories about the Third Reich: the fascination with Faustian bargains. Taylor craftily exploits this theme in his allegorical study of Halder and the German middle class, and in a way, writing near century's end, he has no choice. The options available in how to fictionalize life under the Third Reich have become alarmingly limited. One can denounce the Nazis as evil incarnate - and risk enrolling every sulky teenager to their cause. Or one can go the "banality of evil" route and try, as have movies from Holocaust to Mephisto, to demonstrate how the Reich was more the creature of civil servants than would-be supermen.

Taylor takes the latter approach but breaks away from standard political dramaturgy by employing a presentational style: Characters are always lingering onstage, even if simply to lurk in the shadows as observers of Halder's moral implosion.

Taylor also makes the nature of evil accessible to us by Anglicizing his characters' names and giving them very commonplace personalities. Halder's Gestapo friend Freddie (an affable Jim Beaver) is an especially "ordinary fascist" who has tired of the Party's pomp and discipline and who maintains a secret library of forbidden jazz records. Taylor's point is that fanaticism doesn't always have to be sustained by fanatics - or Wagner.

Halder's "true" nature is foreshadowed by his discovery that his hero Goethe refused to help Beethoven by loaning the dying composer a few marks. We soon realize uncomfortably that, if we were Halder, we might be tempted to gas his troublesome mother even without a Third Reich - just as we are tempted by far less lethal actions and compromises every day of our lives. The weakness in Taylor's play, however, is that we're never clearly convinced that Halder is Gestapo material; it's one thing to be a Nazi in a nation ruled by Nazis, but quite another to join, as Halder's uniform implies, the Death's Head Division - not exactly like belonging to the Auto Club. Halder, the Goethe expert, may be a weak individual, but he never displays the telltale resentments and ambitions that drove many of his countrymen to embrace Hitler after he came to power, let alone to punch a time clock at a concentration camp. It's simply too big a leap of faith for us to make - Halder is no Himmler. Nor does he reveal the slightest apprehension or doubt about going along with the Nazi tide, making his transformation seem less a conversion than a change of wardrobe.

Nor, for that matter, does he seem particularly eager to explore the latent homosexuality that he has expressly set up in the relationship between Halder and Maurice (who in some ways is the more interesting character), a development that would add dimension to Halder's actions. And while Good's Anglicized names help translate a German situation for modern British audiences, its language - saturated with the curse-adjective "bloody" - doesn't necessarily translate well into American.

Still, Taylor inventively complements the action with interludes of song and music - not interrupting the play with these moments, but making them integral to the narrative; the good professor, you see, hears imaginary bands perform in his head during stressful moments - cabaret tunes, drinking songs, tangos, snatches of symphonies. These are the melodies that lulled not only Germans of Halder's time, but Europeans as well. And so this music, from Alpine yodels to "Falling in Love Again," assumes not only a sinister aspect, but an international one as well. Good old Halder, and good old Europe - falling in love again with a song about blood and soil, a tune as old as murder.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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