Collaboration, and Taking Sides, Chichester, and the Duchess Theatre London, May 2009Posted on 3 May 2009
These two plays by Ronald Harwood, dealing with how Germany’s Nazi regime affected the lives of two of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century, were performed on the same day, with the same actors, and the experience was riveting. The first play centred on the collaboration between Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, who took over the role of Strauss’s librettist when his previous collaborator, von Hofmannsthal died. The second play dealt with the aggressive questioning of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler after the war when an American army Major was determined to find reasons for him to be prosecuted at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. Both plays are sympathetic to the musicians, but pass no moral judgements, and Taking Sides allows the audience to form its own conclusions and take sides. These two productions have now transferred from Chichester to the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End.
Collaboration starts with Strauss’s desperate need to find a new librettist after von Hofmannsthal’s death. He hasn’t the confidence to ask the great writer, Stefan Zweig, but his wife Pauline, irritated by his indecisive insecurity, takes matters into her own hands. Zweig is only too delighted to assist a man he regards as the greatest composer on earth, and the two of them hit it off brilliantly, and form a close relationship. Strauss is enamoured of one of Zweig’s suggestions, namely Ben Johnson’s 17th century play The Silent Woman, which they turn into the opera Die Schweigsame Frau. The story of its luckless premiere in 1934 is well-known, with the Nazi authorities deleting Zweig’s name from the playbill, because he is Jewish, and Strauss insisting they reinstate it. Zweig’s later insistence that he can no longer be Strauss’s librettist, though he will help whomever Strauss chooses, is followed by his subsequent departure from Austria, and later suicide in Brazil. These events are well portrayed, as are the Nazis, represented by ministerial official Hans Hinkel. He puts pressure on Strauss by making threats against his Jewish daughter-in-law, to say nothing of his half-Jewish grandchildren, compelling him to remain silent and simply get on with his work. When faced with Allied soldiers at the end of the war, and questioned about possible collaboration with the Nazis, he repeats his distress at Zweig’s suicide, which could itself be seen as a kind of collaboration. The use of music from Strauss’s Four Last Songs at the end left the audience with a powerful feeling for this remarkable genius who wrote sublime music, even if he was unable to manipulate the Nazis as they manipulated him. Despite these well-known facts, and his despair at losing Stefan Zweig, there are still people — I’ve met them — who condemn Strauss as a Nazi. This play, and the next, should show even the dimmest of bigots that life is not so simple.
Taking Sides is a highly charged encounter between American army major Steve Arnold and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Major Arnold was an insurance assessor good at detecting fraud, and was charged with the job of uncovering Nazi collaboration by Furtwängler. Arnold has no appreciation for classical music, though his two assistants certainly do and resent his insolent treatment of the great conductor, or ‘band leader’ as he refers to him. Clearly Furtwängler helped numerous Jews, but Arnold is sincere in seeking motives as to why he remained in Germany. Arnold has nightmares and mentions the smell of burning flesh, yet Furtwängler comes through it all with dignity and integrity. Eventually Arnold’s secretarial assistant Emmi, whose father was executed after the failed plot to kill Hitler, lets out a piercing scream. She has had enough of this bigoted interrogation, and yells at the Major that her father only tried to kill Hitler after it became clear they would lose the war if they carried on this way. The other assistant puts on a record of Beethoven’s 9th conducted by Furtwängler, and refuses to take it off. The major gets on the phone saying he knows a journalist who will tell them what they need, but this and his earlier use of a Nazi informer in Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic, who makes some unsubstantiated claims about his earlier master, undermine Arnold’s investigative techniques. You cannot use bigotry to condemn bigotry, yet retain the moral high ground.
The direction of both plays by Philip Franks, with designs by Simon Higlett, was excellent, and the use of music was superbly done. The acting was extremely good. Michael Pennington as Strauss in the first play and Furtwängler in the second, was emotionally and visually convincing in both roles. David Horovitz as Zweig in the first and Major Arnold in the second was equally convincing, a calm and controlled European in one and a brash American from Minnesota in the other. They were ably assisted by Martin Hutson as the awful Nazi official Hinkel in the first play, and Arnold’s junior officer in the second; by Sophie Roberts as Zweig’s secretary and later girlfriend in the first, and Arnold’s assistant Emmi in the second; and by Isla Blair as Strauss’s wife Pauline. The performers in both plays, particularly Pennington and Horovitz, showed how a good actor can portray different emotions in different roles, though it must have made for an exhausting day. I applaud them and the rest of the cast for their interpretations, and Harwood for creating such excellent and thought provoking theatre.