Ronald Harwood's award-winning drama Taking Sides opened Oct. 17 on Broadway, starring Daniel Massey and Ed Harris.
The critics weighed in with their reviews; Playbill On-Line offered audiences everywhere a chance to add your opinion to theirs.
Here is a selection of the results:
Taking Sides features two solid performances in a pedestrianly written play that is nonetheless interesting because of its subject matter. Not knowing Furtwangler, I do not know how the mannered performance of Massey measures up to the man; it does make for a bizarrely riveting tour-de-force, however. Ed Harris seemed to blow his lines more than was acceptable for the night before opening, but was otherwise fine as the army man with a somewhat overblown grudge against the conductor.
From Stephen Ludwig, San Juan Capistrano, CA (TalkSteve@aol.com):
Recently a friend and I visited New York City from California. We sawTaking Sides. On the way out of the theater, we met one of my companion's friends who had come into town late to meet us for coffee and dessert. We told her the basic plot of the play, and Furtwaengler's dilemma.
"He should have left," she said after the briefest moment. "It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble."
Given that, in the play, Furtwaengler said the same thing, I was amused at how quickly she had taken sides, and reached the same conclusion, on an issue that had taken the entire evening in the theater and most probably months and years in real life.
Of course, she hadn't seen the play. She hadn't felt the impact of the interrogation room set, with its hot seat reminiscent of an electric chair. She hadn't seen Ann Dowd, playing a vanished pianistis tortured widow, deliver what were for me the key lines in the play: "Find the truth? The truth? Whose truth? The victor's? The vanquished? The victims? The dead? There is no truth. All you can do is try to decide who was good and who was evil." (That's a paraphrase from memory.)
With that formulation, Harwood focuses all of the play's moral agonizing and analysis on arriving at that decision. Is it always and only hindsight to judge by the consequences of oneis action, good or bad? Is benevolent intent, naivete or stupidity sufficient justification for holding someone morally responsible for something that went wrong -- or right? Does the context of National Socialist society in Germany, with its own huge unanswered questions, change the way we would answer that question? Can the survivors, looking for some shred of justice, condemn or forgive?
That the German people, German public society, followed Hitler and company into madness and murder, death and destruction, is a scarifying fact. In the social (and moral?) chaos that was life in Germany under the Nazis, what was a poor Everyman to do? Harwood gives one answer in Helmuth Rode, the Second Violinist in the Berliner Philharmoniker: join the party, take what you can get regardless. And another answer in a poor soldier, Emmi Straube's hero father: join the plot against Hitler -- but not until it's clear you're losing the war. In both cases it's carpe diem for an animal with no moral compass.
But Furtwaengler? An Artist and Musician in capitals? Can a man with such credentials, Harwood asks us, really distinguish between a technical public position which he renounced, and a public image which he used to help save others? Daniel Massey's archetypal and idiosyncratic Furtwaengler says yes. Ed Harris' unyielding Major Arnold , unimpressed with Art and traumatized by genocide, says no. Harwood gives Furtwaengler lots of talk about Art and Politics being separate. He even gives us the young and idealistic Lt. Willis, a Jewish survivor who lost his parents, and who chooses (for reasons that remain curiously unexplained, and the play's weakest link) to defend the Artist and to deny the very possibility of collaboration
But the issue was not so simply defined. In the whirlwind of barbarism, everything is torn loose: duty and responsibility -- to whom? for what? Art helps Humanity survive, but when to keep it alive you have to support the destruction of artists and human beings, what do you do? Do you defend the idea or stop the bloodshed? Are there other choices? Sorting out the issue requires one more piece: Germany was NOT the entire world. There was somewhere else to go. My friendis friend was right: Furtwaengler should have left.
Or, should he? If he saved even one life, did that justify his staying on? Or is it his intent that matters?
And what relevance does all this history have today? A simple lesson, perhaps: abstract ideas and ideals, when divorced from visceral reality, become booby traps that explode in the faces of those who hold them. But it is a lesson we keep relearning: Germany learned and it destroyed the country and the culture and the civilization.. In similar cases the ideals of France, America, Russia, and Britain blew up in their faces because they ignored, and continue to ignore, the realities of Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Northern Ireland.
Perhaps the lesson is neither so simple nor so far removed. Harwood believes in, and with Taking Sides, demonstrates, the central relevance of drama. Without taking sides, the real point is that we must continually re-establish and re-examine the connection of our ideas and ideals to reality, for if that connection is lost, the result is a nightmare.
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