When I once performed an acting role in Richard Strauss’s Salome, in Chicago, one of the singers said to me, “He wrote glorious music, but what a f***ing Nazi!” I was astonished. This was not the Richard Strauss I knew about, so I rang a lady friend in England, who said, “And did this man know that Strauss had a Jewish daughter-in-law, of whom he was extremely fond? And that he protected her and his Jewish grandchildren throughout the war?”
Although prejudice born of blissful ignorance can be a great comfort, it’s good to have our preconceived notions challenged occasionally, and what better place to do it than in the theatre? This is what Ronald Harwood has done with his two plays, Collaboration and Taking Sides, now at the Duchess Theatre, London.
The first is about Richard Strauss and his collaboration with the bestselling author Stefan Zweig. Strauss’s former librettist, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, had died, and Strauss, who had written no opera since Arabella, felt himself in the desert. His wife Pauline arranged for Zweig to visit, and this meeting provided Strauss with the inspiration to continue his creative work as the 20th century’s greatest opera composer. But the Nazis crushed the collaboration. Zweig was Jewish. The story of their work on Ben Jonson’s 17th-century comic play The Silent Woman, which they turned into the opera Die Schweigsame Frau, is well known — how the Nazis removed Zweig’s name from the playbill and Strauss insisted it be put back. As Harwood tells it, the calm and self-effacing Strauss finally put his foot down.
From the early 1930s, when Strauss was nearly 70, to 1945 when he was over 80, we see his frustrations. Then at the end of the play British troops enter Strauss’s villa and the old man defends himself. He certainly knew, as we all do, how a Roman soldier killed Archimedes after the battle of Syracuse, so he tells them in a quavering voice that he is Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier. He says he refused to collaborate with the Nazis, recalling with great distress the suicide of Zweig in Brazil.
Michael Pennington plays Strauss so convincingly, with Isla Blair as his jealously devoted, forceful and difficult wife, that one feels a door to the past has been opened. And through this door we see David Horovitch portraying Zweig, the urbane European who leaves for Brazil. The world he knew has been destroyed and he believes it is better to leave this life in dignity. We are present at his death.
Yet while Pennington and Horovitch portray their characters to perfection, they are equally capable of portraying those in Harwood’s other play (first performed in 1995) Taking Sides, about the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Pennington plays the conductor and Horovitch his American interrogator. If you have never understood why some people regard Furtwängler as so magical, this play compares his work with that of Toscanini and von Karajan, and these comparisons are absolutely spot on. His conducting was extraordinary and when Harwood was preparing the play he asked his daughter in New York to go to Tower Records and get him all the Furtwängler recordings she could. She called back half an hour later to say, “Dad, I’ve had a terrible time, I went in and the man said, ‘We don’t keep Nazi recordings in this shop’.”
So was Furtwängler a Nazi? From Harwood’s play it seems that a senior member in the US forces was determined to nail him, so they arranged an interrogation by an American insurance expert named Major Arnold, who was experienced at detecting fraud. Arnold has no feeling for classical music, refers to the great conductor as a “band-leader”, brushing aside evidence that he helped Jewish musicians to escape — for Arnold, the ability to help them merely showed his close relations with senior Nazis. Arnold intends to find documentary evidence and trap Furtwängler, but is unable to locate records of his membership in the Nazi Party — he was never a member — and resorts eventually to a Nazi informant who serves his own interests by coming up with unsubstantiated allegations. No records were kept of Arnold’s harsh interrogations, yet when Frau Furtwängler read the play, she said, “How did you know?”
Harwood’s title allows us to make up our own minds, but the music — in both plays — leads us to sympathise with these extraordinary musicians. What can compare to Strauss’s Four Last Songs or Furtwängler’s rendering of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the ends of these plays? This is great theatre and Harwood provides us with a sharp turning point towards the end of Taking Sides that allows the dreadful interrogation to come to an end.
We are left with questions. How would we have acted in the circumstances of the time? Some people seem certain of their own righteousness and condemn the musicians, yet self-righteousness and condemnation are something of which the Nazis were guilty. A contemporary theatre critic in a major newspaper wrote that Strauss was a Quisling. Does he not understand the meaning of the word? Strauss was German, so was Furtwängler. Their country, ruled by a government they disliked and officials who disgusted them, can be easily condemned, but condemning those who lived there as things went from bad to worse is another matter entirely. Was Strauss a “f***ing Nazi”? Was Furtwängler? These plays should inspire us to examine ourselves and our world. Bigotry is alive and well. While the Nazis rejected a group of academics from the universities simply because they were Jewish, there are academics in England today who would reject another group of academics simply because they live in Israel. Fortunately, the bigots today are not in power. They don’t make the laws. The Nazis did.