Ronald Harwood‘s 1995 play, Taking Sides, is a troublesome thing: The story revolves around a historical figure, yet isn’t a biography; it‘s filled with postwar politics and the music of a vanishing Europe, although, strictly speaking, both politics and music exist here merely as undershadowing to a greater theme. Ultimately, Taking Sides, now running at the Odyssey Theater Ensemble, is a debate — an argument about personal responsibility that speaks to us in the language of polemics rather than poetry.
Harwood’s narrative is as straightforward as the conundrums it poses are unsolvable. In the rubble of the Third Reich, an obscure U.S. Army investigator, Major Steve Arnold (Sam Anderson), is obsessed with bringing to book the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler (Leland Crooke), whom he rather crassly delights in referring to as ”the bandleader.“ Arnold believes he can build a sufficiently strong case to land Toscanini‘s famous rival in hot water, based on Furtwangler’s decision to sit the war out in the relative comfort of Berlin.
Furtwangler‘s alibi of noncooperation with the Nazis seems solid enough to convince the major’s young adjutant, Lieutenant David Wills (Roy Abramsohn), a Jew who fled Germany when he was a youth, of the conductor‘s innocence. Furtwangler, after all, promoted deserving Jews within the Berlin Opera and, later, proved just as capable of winning their exodus to the West. But in civilian life before the war, Arnold was an insurance man and, like the adjuster Keyes in Double Indemnity, says he just knows when there’s something wrong about a claim.
Arnold spends most of the play searching for a smoking Luger, some documented evidence of Furtwangler‘s indiscreet allegiance to the party or a sworn accusation made by a disgruntled former colleague. Toward that end, the major makes some progress in wearing down Furtwangler’s cool reserve, but, by doing so, Arnold becomes the story‘s main casualty, disintegrating before our eyes and alienating his small staff.
Taking Sides betrays an almost obligatory dose of British chauvinism in that the intimidating and belittling American Major Arnold sometimes comes perilously close to sounding like a precursor to Joseph McCarthy, while a never-seen English officer is reputed to be a paradigm of grace and efficiency. Worse, Harwood, who is best remembered for his The Dresser, is not always clear in establishing his characters’ motivations — Major Arnold‘s obsession with convicting Furtwangler, for example. Arnold tells us he saw some pictures of death camps that made him crazed, but he must have seen a lot of horrific things (or, at least, pictures of them) throughout WWII. Why would this cause him to snap?
The play made its Broadway debut in 1996, with Ed Harris and the late Daniel Massey in the respective Arnold and Furtwangler roles. Although the voracious Harris devoured entire sets of scenery, Massey still emerged as a figure of tragic grandeur. At the Odyssey, under Ron Sossi’s direction, the acting by the two leads is as good as it gets, with Anderson pouring himself into a strenuous — and not all that sympathetic — role, bellowing some deeply buried rage, alternately drinking slugs of whiskey and splashing on after-shave to keep his sanity as much as to stay awake. Likewise Crooke, whose long, rather doleful face suggests a middle-aged Shimon Peres, may be too young to really invoke Furtwangler as Massey did in New York, but he brings a nervous charm to the job site that works in several key scenes.
The show always engages the viewer‘s intellect, even though Sossi employs an unscripted coda that needlessly nudges us toward taking a ”position“ on Furtwangler’s guilt, as though the thought of a little ambiguity was too much to bear.
This is quite unnecessary, for Taking Sides is a play of questions rather than declarations, and its importance is in no way diminished by having these questions remain unanswered at curtain. Does one flee one‘s country when it is about to be engulfed in tyranny? If not, should one leave soon after? If not soon, then when? Should one, if caught in the tyranny, have any doings with the new state? If so, at what point are those dealings considered collaboration? These are hardly the kind of questions we grappled with in a civics class, nor, certainly, are they the kind most people in the early 20th century thought they’d ever have to consider. Yet they would one day haunt Europeans from Jean Cocteau to Maurice Chevalier, from Leopold III to Pius XII, and poison the air of postwar conversation for years to come.
The immediate question we ask ourselves is, Why pick on Furtwangler when you‘ve got the chance to play history onstage with genuine fellow travelers like Veit Harlan or Leni Riefenstahl? The answer comes long after we’ve left the theater, in those unguarded moments of self-interrogation when we wonder just what would we have done.
Harwood, we realize, chose Furtwangler because he was both famous and so clearly innocent of any overt crimes. When, toward the end, the conductor finally concedes that he would have done some things differently had he known what course Germany was to take, it‘s a vindication of sorts for Major Arnold, yet not for us. Furtwangler ends as a figure reduced, but only as much as any person is reduced for admitting being human; he is guilty only so far as a friend, neighbor or relative who has admitted lying to us is guilty. Would we be anything more? Could we be anything less?