In August, we attended a performance of “Taking Sides”, Ronald Harwood’s contentious and controversial play about Wilhelm Furtwangler, at Chichester Festival Theatre.
“Taking Sides” received its premiere at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1995, and the play was revived this season and presented in tandem with “Collaboration”, a new Harwood play about Richard Strauss, another great musician who elected to remain in Germany during the period of National Socialism.
We did not attend a performance of “Collaboration” while we were in Chichester. Instead, we attended a performance of Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle” on the other night we were in that city.
Ronald Harwood (born Ronald Horwitz—despite his Jewish heritage and faith, he changed his name shortly after arriving in Britain in 1951 from his native South Africa, choosing no longer to be known by a “Jewish” name) is conspicuous, above all, for being prolific. Harwood is the author of innumerable novels and works of non-fiction (the latter, nonetheless, often accused of being fiction), none of which are ever read. Harwood is also the author of innumerable plays (according to his literary agent, the current tally is 25, a figure that does not include adaptations), only two of which are ever produced.
Harwood is a very peculiar playwright, even assuming that “playwright” is an accurate designation to assign to him. Harwood is a commercial playwright whose plays are not commercial. He is a serious playwright whose plays are not serious. He is a literary playwright whose plays are not literary. He is a playwright of entertainment whose plays are not entertaining.
Harwood’s plays demonstrate the erudition of Neil Simon, the restraint of Tennessee Williams, the subtlety of Arthur Miller, the wit of William Inge, the warmth of Edward Albee, the compactness of Eugene O’Neill, and the moral authority of Lillian Hellman. Has there ever been a more loathsome or less talented writer for the stage?
Despite his work’s absence of merit, Harwood has seized upon a formula that works, at least for him, and this formula may be summarized in a few words: Nazis in the theater liven things up no end.
When things become tedious in a Harwood play—and they inevitably do—Harwood has a wealth of devices to recapture the audience’s attention. Whether it be Nazi officials, Nazi rallies, Nazi storm troopers, Nazi extermination camps or Nazi bombs raining down on a civilian populace, the Nazis are invariably introduced to inject a dosage of stimulation and shock into Harwood’s various projects. However did William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov manage to have successful careers as playwrights without being able to invoke the Nazis to give their own plays a boost?
Of course, such things quickly become tiresome, if not offensive, and it is no wonder that Harwood’s work is virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Harwood’s books are never read here and his plays, except for the odd revival of “The Dresser”, are never staged here.
The genuinely remarkable aspect of Harwood’s career is that he is treated as a serious figure in Britain, a situation Americans find to be incomprehensible. Harwood is not a learned man. He is not wise. He is not sophisticated. His mind is not penetrating. He is not even an educated man. His views and opinions are little more than boilerplate, constituting a catalog of the various dogmas of the day. He lacks originality, and style, and gravitas. His level of skill in writing does not rise to the pedestrian.
So why did we even bother to attend a performance of “Taking Sides”? We attended “Taking Sides” because my father and I worship at the shrine of Wilhelm Furtwangler, and “Taking Sides” is a play whose subject is Furtwangler. It was inevitable that my father and I would jump at the chance to attend a performance of “The Furtwangler Play”, as he and I call it, in the very theater in which the play had premiered thirteen years earlier.
One need not be an expert on the subject of Wilhelm Furtwangler to endure the play, happily. My mother and my brother have never been particularly interested in the life and career of Furtwangler, and Josh and Josh’s sister had no interest in Furtwangler at all before seeing the play. Nevertheless, they were all able to follow the argument of the play fully, and they were not particularly bored—but this was so mostly because the play itself is so familiar, constructed like a creaky courtroom drama, a corrupt genre of the stage that I thought had died out, mercifully, in the late 1950’s.
The play itself is not good. “Taking Sides” is vastly inferior to “The Dresser”, Harwood’s only competent play. “The Dresser” is nowise a masterpiece—it suffers from poor construction as well as from its very middlebrow treatment of a very middlebrow subject—but “The Dresser” is immeasurably superior to “Taking Sides”.
During my undergraduate years, I attended a performance of “Taking Sides” in the Philadelphia area. That 2001 production, presented by a small theater company in Ambler, Pennsylvania, was not distinguished, and I was unable to decide at the time whether it was the production or the play itself that was responsible for a very unsatisfactory evening in the theater.
Having now seen a better production of the play in Chichester, I can now declare with some confidence that it is the play itself that is the problem.
“Taking Sides” presents the story of Furtwangler’s 1946 de-Nazification proceedings via a series of improbable and unconvincing confrontations between Furtwangler and his American interrogator. One of many central problems with the play is that it is unduly schematic, written to formula. Further, Harwood has stacked the deck, assigning all the good lines to Furtwangler and turning the American interrogator into a virtual buffoon. Such a scenario does not create a very stimulating or very satisfying or very thoughtful evening in the theater.
The American interrogator is an entirely fictional character, a figment of Harwood’s imagination, a fact that needs to be pointed out since so many persons who have seen the play or who have seen the film or who have read about the play have somehow assumed the entirely inaccurate notion that there really WAS a Major Steve Arnold who interrogated Furtwangler. I cannot count the number of articles I have read about “Taking Sides” in which various writers have assumed, mistakenly, that the character of Major Steve Arnold was a real person. Amazingly, not long ago a writer for London’s Independent continued to advance this nonsense, actually writing an article about “Major Steve Arnold” and accusing Arnold of being an uncultured bully, unfit to shine Furtwangler’s shoes. That particular writer, blithely ignorant of her facts, was not even called to account for her astonishing stupidity in publishing an article criticizing the behavior of a person no more real than Donald Duck.
(Let everyone beware any article written about music in London’s Independent! It is guaranteed to be hogwash.)
Lest there be any mistake, let me reiterate: the figure of Major Steve Arnold was a fictitious creation of the author. There was no such person in real life. Harwood created an exceptionally-detailed background for his fictional character—he made him a native of South Africa, and a Jew, and an insurance adjuster in private life—and it must have been this detailed fictional background that somehow made uninformed and incurious persons believe that “Major Steve Arnold” was a real person.
The truth about “Major Steve Arnold” should have been evident to anyone who bothered to read a little background information about the play’s subject matter. Moreover, the truth about “Major Steve Arnold” should have been evident to anyone sitting through a performance of the play itself.
Harwood has created a character that is little more than a “varmint”: ignorant, unsophisticated, boorish, brutal, a bumpkin. The play loses all credibility within minutes, as the viewer is asked to believe that General Dwight David Eisenhower assigned the interrogation of one of the seminal figures of German culture to an absolute moron. The play never recovers from this very central and very fatal flaw, and it limps along for two hours in a haze halfway between the unintentionally comic and the stridently foolish.
Harwood (and apparently many others) are vastly ignorant of the fact that there was a large and distinguished intellectual wing of the U.S. Army in Europe, during and immediately after the war, hand-picked from America’s finest universities and cultural institutions, specifically assigned the task of protecting Europe’s cultural heritage during the war and cleansing Germany of its most pernicious cultural influences at war’s end. Harwood is either inexcusably unaware of these facts or he has a personal ax to grind in creating the cartoonish “Major Steve Arnold”.
It is unforgivable for anyone, no matter how ignorant, to portray the American Army in Europe as little more than a group of barbarians. For British writers to make such assertions borders on the criminal. Has Harwood read so little about the armies of World War II that he has not come across countless books describing the educational levels of British soldiers, in comparison to their American counterparts, as severely wanting? Is Harwood unaware that, according to the British Army’s own studies, well over fifty per cent of personnel serving in Britain’s Armed Forces in World War II had never been adequately fed, at any time in their lives, before being drafted into the British Army, and that they had not enjoyed the benefits of even a minimally-adequate universal education?
“Taking Sides” has never flourished in America, and the reason for its lack of success in the U.S. surely is its grating anti-Americanism.
Harwood addressed this issue in a 2004 speech at the Institute For Jewish Policy Research in London, a speech in which he attempted to de-certify the play’s alleged anti-Americanism, but a speech in which he merely added fuel to the fire.
Describing his play as the story of “a battle between the culture of Beethoven and the culture of Glenn Miller”, Harwood stated:
The fact that there were no records allowed me to invent the investigative group, especially Furtwängler’s chief protagonist, an American Major who would brutally, some would say too brutally, hound the conductor for what were believed to be his Nazi sympathies.
Now, you may well ask: how could I be true to truth by inventing characters who may or may not have existed? There were, of course, clues here and there. One was a notion that the Americans were determined to make examples of men and women prominent in public life, the law, medicine, the arts. They wanted to establish the concept of collective German guilt and this was very much the policy pursued by General John McClure who was in charge of the Allied Information Control Service. It was said that the policy in fact originated with General Eisenhower.
And so I created Major Steve Arnold who had been an insurance claims investigator before the war. He came to me harsh, foul-mouthed, fierce and disrespectful. American critics took great exception to him when the play reached New York. They thought the American should have been more of an intellectual and less of a philistine. But I wanted to show the great divide that was emerging culturally between the old world and the new. And even when I pointed out in interviews that while all the other characters in the play talk of music, art and culture, the American major was the only one who talks of the dead because he had smelled the burning flesh of the crematoria and witnessed the bulldozing of the corpses into mass graves, the memory of which has haunted him ever since. The point, I said, is that the major is human though not cultured, anti-Nazi without being left wing or, in their terms, liberal. The argument fell on deaf ears. Americans are sensitive souls and sometimes imagine criticism where none is intended. I’m not sure that today they would be quite so sensitive or take a similar view. And anyway now I would be able to refute their criticism more easily.
The reason being not only because of recent events but also because I have since discovered, from letters written to me by former American intelligence officers, [that] the actual interrogators of Furtwängler were much more savage and primitive than my major. They were mostly farm boys from Milwaukee and chosen because they spoke German, or a sort of German, and had little or no interest in European culture—or any other culture, for that matter. So, one could say, again arrogantly, that life imitates art.
What an outrageous pile of rubbish! Only an extremely ignorant person could offer such nonsense (Harwood attended high school in South Africa, at which point his formal education ended), and only in today’s Britain could anyone get away, unchallenged, with offering such fact-free inanities.
None of what Harwood said that day in London is true. One hardly knows where to begin in offering corrections to the record he attempted to create.
Aside from the fact that there are precisely as many farms in Milwaukee as there are in central London, “farm boys from Milwaukee” were not assigned to de-Nazification efforts, even at the lowest levels. Instead, distinguished lawyers and jurists, hand-picked from this nation’s elite, were assigned such tasks. Further, these distinguished lawyers and jurists were part of a multi-national commission with members from America, Britain, France and Russia, a commission that conducted very lengthy, very thorough, and very sophisticated investigations and, when the evidence warranted, conducted lengthy Anglo-style trials, with Anglo-style rights accorded the defendants. Indeed, these proceedings accorded the subjects more rights than were then customary in French, German or Russian courts. Mountains of records were kept of these proceedings, widely available in the U.S., Britain and Germany to this day—including extensive records about Furtwangler, contrary to Harwood’s bizarre and untruthful claim that records addressing Furtwangler’s interrogation do not exist—and these records may be studied by anyone with an interest in the field. There have been so many books written about these matters, by acknowledged experts in the field, that it is literally astounding that Harwood would spout such appalling inaccuracies. Does this damn fool not have access to a research library?
Harwood is either unforgivably uninformed or, more bluntly, he is an outright liar—and the final paragraph of his speech quoted above shows on which side of that particular line Harwood rightfully belongs.
After Harwood’s broadside quoted above—and, for the record, there was no Allied Information Control Service, Harwood surely meaning the Information Control Division, known as ICD; and the American General in question was not John McClure, but General Robert Alexis McClure, himself an intellectual, although one would hardly expect the uneducated and uninformed Harwood to be able to recognize an intellectual if one landed in his lap—Harwood ended his discussion of the play by stating that not only does his play address the battle between Beethoven and Glenn Miller, but it also addresses the battle of the world of spirituality versus the world of physicality.
This last bit of blather was evidenced in one of the most ridiculous lines in Harwood’s play, a line so grating that it sent all six of us into snorts of laughter when we were in Chichester. The line was assigned to Furtwangler, and I have looked it up so as to be able to repeat it accurately:
If you honestly believe the only reality is the physical world, you will have nothing left but feculence more foul-smelling than that which pervades your nights.
Can anyone in his right mind imagine Furtwangler actually making such an absurd utterance? Not anyone who knows anything about Wilhelm Furtwangler.
And this, I believe, raises another central problem with the play: Harwood understands nothing about the character or ethos of Furtwangler, just he understands nothing about the character or ethos of Germany or the character or ethos of the United States (or the character or ethos of the 1940’s, for that matter). Harwood’s play is nothing more than a series of jarring wrong notes, failing to capture Furtwangler the man, failing to capture Furtwangler the artist, and failing to capture the time and place and circumstances in which Furtwangler’s drama is set.
In Harwood’s hands, Furtwangler is little more than a nervous twit and somewhat of an oddball, incapable of normal and healthy social intercourse, cheesy and glib, fatally lacking in substance, at all times and in all circumstances displaying a slight but unmistakable disreputable rub. My mother, tellingly, remarked that Harwood appeared to have modeled his portrait of Furtwangler, not upon an intellectual/philosopher schooled in the rarefied world of pre-World War I Central Europe, but upon Tony Blair.
And my mother, intentionally or not, hit upon one of the most disturbing qualities of the play: “Taking Sides” presents, not a portrait of a great but broken German artist suffering amidst the collapse of 1940’s Central Europe, but a portrait of a fallen media figure in sour, sordid 1990’s Britain, surrounded by all the attitudes and all the ridiculous rituals that characterized that unseemly time and place.
Every word of the text and every attitude of the play positively reek with the odor of Tony Blair’s Britain. “Taking Sides” is nothing so much as an uncanny snapshot of the moment and place in which it was written. This play was irredeemably dated before the play’s final draft was even completed and sent to the printer. Mired in the muck of 1990’s Britain, Harwood would have been much better off actually writing a play about Tony Blair rather than attempting to write one about Furtwangler.
However, as Harwood well knows, this play would never have been produced except for the fact that it attaches itself to Wilhelm Furtwangler’s great celebrity. Outside Germany, Furtwangler is much more of a celebrity today than he ever was during his lifetime, and Harwood trades on the public’s fascination with Furtwangler to gain an audience for a play that otherwise would have been rejected by every amateur dramatics society in Britain.
Had Harwood written the same play about the de-Nazification proceedings of an unknown artist or an unknown author or an unknown composer, this feeble and offensive play would never have seen the light of day—but by making Furtwangler his subject, an audience is guaranteed. Using Furtwangler as the hook is a cheap if not outright slimy endeavor, but at least this maneuver got the play before the public, and therefore—at least in Harwood’s eyes—it must have been justified.
As if it were not enough that “Taking Sides” is an outdated, formulaic courtroom drama with a stacked deck about a profoundly German artist born in 1886 who has inexplicably acquired a 1990’s English sensibility, there are smaller problems with the play, too.
Most serious of these smaller problems is that Harwood knows literally nothing about music, and yet he has chosen, unwisely, to write a play about one of the art’s very greatest interpreters.
Harwood, like all persons working outside their fields of expertise, has trouble keeping his elementary facts straight.
First and foremost, contrary to the play’s text, Furtwangler never conducted the Bruckner Requiem. The Bruckner Requiem is a curiosity from Bruckner’s youth, a piece of juvenilia never performed, and its score was not even available in Germany until long after Furtwangler’s death.
Second, contrary to Harwood’s bizarre claim, the Nazis never ordered the libretto for Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” to be rewritten "because its author, Lorenzo Da Ponte, was Jewish". What incredible balderdash!
If Harwood knew anything about his chosen subject, he would know that the Nazis did not alter the libretto of “The Magic Flute”, whose author in any case was the gentile Emanuel Schikenader, and not the Jewish Lorenzo Da Ponte. Da Ponte created the librettos for “The Marriage Of Figaro”, “Cosi Fan Tutte” and “Don Giovanni”, librettos that were not rewritten during the period of National Socialism, either.
Where does this idiot come up with such nonsense? Does Harwood not have any musician friends who can point out to him such obvious and embarrassing errors? The man is a veritable cornucopia of ignorance and misinformation.
The play also does Furtwangler’s legacy no favors. A playgoer not already familiar with Furtwangler’s life and work leaves any performance of the play completely clueless why Furtwangler was an important figure, let alone one worthy of an evening-length play. The average playgoer, completely flummoxed, departs the play with the vague notion that Furtwangler was arrogant, and somewhat self-obsessed, but the average playgoer has nothing else to grasp—and can certainly gain no understanding from the play itself why Furtwangler was one of the leading musicians of the last century.
The text presents Furtwangler as little more than a vacant and petty man, quick to take offense at any perceived slight, but otherwise uninteresting—and, further, a man uninterested in anyone and anything, including himself. Furtwangler was anything but a vacant and petty man, as those who met the man can attest. If Furtwangler was such a vacant and petty man, why write a play about him in the first place?
“Taking Sides” was a loathsome play, and I hope never to see another Ronald Harwood play as long as I live. My brother and I attended a performance of “The Dresser” in London in 2005, and Joshua and I attended a performance of “The Dresser” in Minneapolis exactly a year ago, so I believe I can stand by my high-minded statement, especially since Harwood has not written any other plays that are ever produced.
The Chichester production of “Taking Sides” was not particularly good, but I doubt that a better production would have revealed the text in a better light. The performances were of a very low standard for British theater. I never for a moment believed that the actor playing Furtwangler was even German, let alone a great artist, and I never for a moment believed that the actor playing his interrogator was American. Both actors were British provincials, through and through, and both were insufferably lower class to the core, no matter how hard they tried to mask it. They were precisely the type of actor parodied in Harwood’s own “The Dresser”, a play that knows a thing or two about provincial acting (“The Dresser” was based upon Harwood’s own experiences, serving for years as the dresser for Donald Wolfit).
To the Chichester audience’s credit, the performance was not well-received. There was a lot of program-shuffling during the performance, and a lot of whispering in the audience whenever an inaccurate or particularly outrageous statement emanated from Furtwangler or from “Major Steve Arnold”. This suggested to me that audience members were discreetly noting (and quietly discussing with their companions) the various inaccuracies and absurdities in the script as the play unfolded onstage. The applause at the conclusion of the performance was polite but perfunctory.
Myself, I was hoping that Harwood would make an appearance at the final curtain so that I could boo him to the rafters. Alas, he did not.
If Harwood had appeared, I would have had difficulty out-booing my father.