Organic Touchstone Company
By Albert Williams
In his best-known play, The Dresser, Ronald Harwood paints an indelible portrait of an aging artist at his best and worst. Sir, as this ravaged giant of the British theater is called, is a vain, eccentric actor who refuses to acknowledge the needs of the people around him; he's also a brave idealist who tours the English provinces during World War II, enduring the barrage of German bombs to bring Shakespeare to blitz-weary Britons. At once loved and despised by his colleagues, Sir believes it's his special gift to nourish the English soul in time of crisis with his interpretations of the Bard's lyrical and heroic verse; for Sir and his audience--all of whom run the risk of death in a Nazi air raid at every show--a performance of King Lear is a courageous act of defiance as well as a celebration of human artistry at its noblest.
Harwood's recent drama Taking Sides, now receiving its Chicago premiere by the Organic Touchstone Company, explores The Dresser's theme from another angle. Once again Harwood's hero is an elderly artist convinced that his art is ammunition against Hitler's horrors. But where Sir was a fictional character loosely modeled on a real-life figure (the actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit, for whom the young Harwood worked as backstage assistant), Taking Sides focuses on a historical personage of considerable significance: Wilhelm FurtwŠngler, the great symphonic conductor who, as maestro of the Berlin Philharmonic, stayed in Germany after the Nazis came to power while other artists--among them his fellow musicians Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, and Kurt Weill--went into exile. FurtwŠngler's decision to remain in Germany brought him much criticism both during and after the war; even though postwar inquiries cleared him of any complicity in Nazi crimes, he remained under a cloud of suspicion until his death in 1954, at the age of 68. His defenders pointed to his role in saving lives, using his influence with Hitler and his henchmen to arrange for Jewish musicians to emigrate to safety. Yet his postwar concerts were frequently picketed by concentration camp survivors, and an offer to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1948 was rescinded under pressure from the musicians' union. Even if he was never a Nazi, the detractors declared, he flourished under Hitler's regime and lent it credibility with his renditions of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner.
Taking Sides dramatizes this debate as a clash of wills between the aristocratic, autocratic FurtwŠngler and Major Steve Arnold, a coarse, cocky American military investigator who interrogates FurtwŠngler in 1946 in Berlin (set designer Kevin Snow places their face-off in a makeshift office with a surreal background of bombed-out rubble). But Harwood's title is ironic: he gives equal weight to pro- and anti-FurtwŠngler arguments, and his FurtwŠngler is a man who tried to take both sides by resisting the Nazis while working for them--"fighting from within," as the conductor puts it. Not that FurtwŠngler is a political progressive--or a political anything, for that matter. His concerns are cultural, not humanitarian--he speaks, for example, of the "decline in musical standards due to racial policies." Yet he was willing to risk his protected status by coming to the defense of Jewish artists, though the effort was sometimes in vain; one of his admirers in Taking Sides is the widow of a Jewish pianist who emigrated to Paris with FurtwŠngler's help, then was arrested when Germany occupied France.
But individual acts of charity and courage mean little to Arnold, a driven Nazi hunter haunted by his memories of piled bodies and the stench of burning flesh at liberated concentration camps. A philistine who declares that "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony bores me shitless," Arnold insists that FurtwŠngler merits no special treatment: "Musicians, morticians...they're all the same." Yet it is precisely FurtwŠngler's eminence that makes him a target. Obsessed with "nailing the bastard" despite the lack of evidence there's anything to nail him for, Arnold digs into FurtwŠngler's past with a bullying zealotry that independent counsel Kenneth Starr might envy, intimidating witnesses into distorting or even fabricating accounts of FurtwŠngler's friendly relationship with the fŸhrer. "I'm not after the small fish," he says, explaining his decision to give immunity to a minor Nazi in exchange for smearing the maestro. "I'm after Moby Dick."
Taking Sides--premiered in London in 1995 under Harold Pinter's direction, and seen on Broadway the following year with Ed Harris and Daniel Massey as Arnold and FurtwŠngler--seems especially timely now that recent allegations about Swiss banks hoarding Nazi gold and major art museums in Chicago and New York showcasing stolen artwork have focused attention on the opportunists who profited from Hitler's policies even if they didn't actively participate in them. Yet Harwood--a South African Jew of English extraction whose writing credits also include a TV-movie biography of Nelson Mandela--is concerned with more than just a specific historical controversy. In this actors' showpiece, the confrontation between FurtwŠngler and Arnold raises fundamental questions about art, politics, and the human spirit. Arnold sneeringly refers to FurtwŠngler as a "bandleader" whose opportunism outweighed his efforts to aid individual Jews. (Something of an anti-Semite himself, Arnold is a former insurance-claims assessor who jokingly calls insurance arson "Jewish lightning.") What he can't comprehend--what goads his anger as much as his memories of Nazi atrocities--is the reverence in which FurtwŠngler is held, not just by the presumed intelligentsia but by ordinary people who found in his music the spiritual sustenance to survive the Nazis' moral depravity.
Art has "mystical powers that nurture man's spiritual needs," FurtwŠngler declares, defending his decision to help Germany by continuing to make music there despite the political compromises his choice entailed. And the truth of his words is evidenced by the awe with which he's regarded by Arnold's two aides--Lieutenant David Wills, a Jewish German-American intelligence officer who emerges as FurtwŠngler's de facto advocate in this unofficial trial, and Arnold's high-strung secretary Emmi Straube, a "good German" whose father took part in an assassination attempt against Hitler. They infuriate Arnold with their defense of FurtwŠngler against accusations that he was a womanizer and influence peddler who arranged government persecution of his enemies, including his young rival Herbert von Karajan. Wills's and Emmi's almost religious respect for FurtwŠngler summons up a long-gone world in which "high art" is the valued property of all the people, not just a luxury for upper-class elitists.
Arnold's raucous, sometimes obscene attacks on FurtwŠngler as a disingenuous opportunist, meanwhile, evoke an all-too-recognizable culture of crudity determined to tear down the best along with the worst: if Hitler liked the way FurtwŠngler conducted Beethoven, the argument goes, then FurtwŠngler and Beethoven belong with Hitler, in the trash heap of history. The play's climax finds the conductor literally nauseated by the recognition of his own political naivete while Arnold crows in self-justification, having dismissed mere facts in pursuit of what he thinks is a higher truth. ("Whose truth?" asks one character. "The victors'? The vanquished's? The victims'?") FurtwŠngler's horrified realization that he may indeed have been a propaganda tool for a murderous tyrant is more than just a failed idealist's tragic defeat: it's a harbinger of the new order, obsessed with decay and ugliness in the name of reality--a culture of tough pragmatism that demonizes an artist like FurtwŠngler while recruiting Nazi scientists for its rocket programs.
Neatly alternating FurtwŠngler's and Arnold's arguments as if this were a high-stakes tennis match, Taking Sides is ultimately too calculated and schematic to be fully satisfying as drama. But the play's always interesting, sometimes electric exchange of ideas makes it a vehicle for state-of-the-art acting, and the lead performances in Ina Marlowe's staging don't disappoint. In the 30 years I've been watching Mike Nussbaum (since The Typists and the Tiger at Hull House Theater), I've never seen him more subtly expressive than he is as FurtwŠngler: what he does with a barely noticeable tilt of the head or twitch of his mustache to convey complex thought or emotional turmoil is alone worth the price of admission. B.J. Jones plays Arnold--written somewhat too broadly as a bluff, brutal bulldog--with the cocky charm of Robert Preston or Jimmy Cagney in a 40s movie. Unfortunately the supporting actors--boyish Thomas Gebbia as the earnest lieutenant, Rohanna Doylida as the distraught Emmi, Peter Toran as a sniveling informer, and Farrel Wilson as the Jewish pianist's half-crazed widow--have been coached into emotionally exaggerated caricature, which underscores the script's tendency toward heavy-handed manipulation. Nonetheless, shrewd and riveting lead performances and probing, sometimes passionate dialectics make Taking Sides well worth seeing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Dan Rest.