“We’re shaken by the magnolias, huh?” muses a matriarch towards the end of Watch on the Rhine. In Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play, a comfortable Washington family is faced with the reality of Europe’s struggle against fascism – and must make a choice about where they stand.
Written and set at a time when the United States was reluctant to enter World War II, it occupies a distinguished living room, but the world shakes the walls. It’s undoubtedly an engrossing period thriller – but, according to Ellen McDougall, who is helming Donmar’s new production, “there’s something really exciting about doing this play now. This is a powerful call to arms.
We meet during a rehearsal lunch break, but neither McDougall nor playwright Emma Jude Harris touches their food. There are too many things to discuss. McDougall focuses on the moment of writing. “It’s very specific – if it had been fixed even a month later, it might have been a different picture.”
American-born Harris expands on this moment, when the neutral United States was still trading with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. “America was emerging from its isolationist period, with the idea that it could not get involved [in another European war]. There was also an anti-Semitic notion that this is a Jewish issue of special concern to a particular marginalized community far and wide, and that America needs to be America-focused. It was only after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that she became involved. In July 1940, when the play was precisely staged, there was no decision yet. This is the pivot point. »
Considering the characters, says McDougall, “what they don’t know but what we know now is huge. The specificity of this moment actually explains why it is relevant now – the idea of being on the brink, of not knowing what is coming but having the conviction. Hellman’s position is that we have a responsibility to deliver. This translates to now: about action, activism and engagement with the world. »
Sara, the matriarch’s longtime daughter, returns from Europe with her husband, Kurt Müller: both are active in the resistance to Hitler. Curiously, perhaps, there are no Jewish characters. “The only time it comes up,” Harris notes, “is to deny [the suggestion] that Kurt is Jewish. She believes Hellman felt her ethnicity might point to a special pleading: “especially since she is of German Jewish descent. The stakes would have been particularly high for her. We see this kind of soft pedaling about Jewishness with playwrights of this era, in order to make a universal point – but there it is.
Hellman was no wheelchair expert. “She’s seen a lot of things that she talks about firsthand,” McDougall says. “She was in Spain during the civil war. She was in Germany during the rise of fascism and met people doing work similar to the Müllers. She writes about a world she knows only too well. Because of this, McDougall bridles when Hellman’s writing is dismissed as melodramatic. “She writes in a state of urgency and delivers it in a thrilling way, in every sense of the word – but it’s a protest piece.”
It’s easy for us to read Hellman’s call to action as inevitable, but Watch on the Rhine is a sobering reminder that history is often in play. no post-1945 knowledge,” Harris says, “and couldn’t necessarily have predicted the characters’ fates. She didn’t know the extent of the Holocaust, but there’s so much she’s right about. History backed it up.
Hellman’s plays (including The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes) have been described as a “theatre of cruelty” – “she is concerned with violence in its smallest forms as well as its greatest”, agrees McDougall. Initially, Watch on the Rhine promises a drama of extramarital flirtation and family friction. “You think it’s one thing, then it becomes something else,” McDougall smiles. “As it unfolds, it quickly becomes really dangerous. Suddenly, everything collapses.
The play ran for almost a year on Broadway (even longer in London), but the American left-wing press heralded it. “The Communist Party line was not to criticize the Nazis because of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact,” Harris says. Ten years later, Hellman was asked to use these criticisms to defend herself from Joseph McCarthy’s investigation into alleged communist activities. She declined, stating, “I can’t and don’t want to cut my conscience to fit into this year’s fashion.” Nevertheless, his reputation was tainted by his uncredited use of the life of Muriel Buttinger, an American heiress working for the Austrian resistance, to inform both Sara Müller and “Julia”, a key figure in Hellman’s memoirs.
McDougall, who stepped down as artistic director of London’s Gate Theater earlier this year, has assembled a fine ensemble including Patricia Hodge and German actor Mark Waschke. Is the play suitable for the actors? “Much of the language feels like it could have been written yesterday,” she considers, “extremely muscular, current and witty. It’s a joy to achieve because it’s so rich. Historians of anti-fascism and American history have visited the rehearsals. “Once we get into the text, we peel back the layers of who knows what in the thriller – so enjoyable yet so challenging.”
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Unlike Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, Hellman’s reputation wavers around canon – periodic revivals and periods of neglect. McDougall has no doubt that gender is a key factor: but with Watch on the Rhine in particular, did post-war Americans choose to forget that they might not be heroes? “Was it OK for America to come back to this game at a time when they weren’t on either side, after the knowledge that came out of it? It becomes a difficult game to make.
The urgency for Hellman’s contemporaries rings loud and clear. But is there also a call to action for us? “Choose a topic!” McDougall cries. “Lillian Hellman’s message is: get involved, don’t just think someone else is going to fix it. I thought of it as a message from the past for us now. It’s up to us to decide how we hear it.