Lillian Hellman is one of the fiercest playwrights in history. While she is certainly known for her work writing iconic plays such as “The Little Foxes” and “The Children’s Hour,” it was her unapologetic commitment to fighting fascism at the height of World War II that rankled plenty of folks and fueled her tireless movement both here and abroad.
Her anger at the inability of the United States to become more deeply involved in going after Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini is apparent in the anti-fascist 1941 thriller “Watch on the Rhine.” Yet over the years, while other Hellman work has found its comfortable place in the American theatre canon, this play has not.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is giving Hellman and this play a bit of a renaissance. In a co-production with the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the Rep’s associate director Lisa Peterson is directing “Watch on the Rhine,” a play that she is thrilled to see making a comeback. It originally ran on Broadway in April of 1941 for 378 performances and featured Hellman’s ferociously distinct voice, a woman who was going to do what she wanted, say what she felt, and when pushed into a corner, scrape and claw her way out.
“She was fierce and didn’t care what people thought about her, and she was nasty. You couldn’t be that way and be a woman,” said Peterson.
The play has taken on a new kind of urgency in 2017. With a very unstable political situation here at home, as well as evil in oppressive regimes throughout the world, the play has a lot more to do with the will of every day citizens to engage with the world’s great injustices while speaking truth to power.
“The play is definitely about the progressive will of Americans who are not spending a lot of time thinking about Hitler,” said Peterson. “It was written as a call to action to combat the rise of Nazism and works as a kind of cautionary tale in many ways. When do you know it’s the right time to get involved? Awareness of what fascism is and what it does are important questions for this country regardless of what the rest of the world is doing.”
The story follows the Mueller family, who has lived in Germany for 17 years and has engaged heavily in underground anti-fascist activities. When they visit relatives in Washington D.C., the Romanian count by the name of Teck is a houseguest of the relatives, and is conspiring with the Germans. This ultimately leads to some intense and dangerous conflicts under the same roof.
The play is not a commentary on modern times, and really has little or nothing to do at all with the current United States presidential administration. It is, after all, a sly and wry comedy thriller set more than 75 years ago, and doesn’t spend its time proselytizing. Peterson found that invigorating.
“We were so happy to be in the world of the play because it is very involving and articulate,” said Peterson. “We actually found it inspiring, the idea that we’ve been here before. There was something inspiring about knowing the world has dealt with similar issues; we’ve dealt with dictators before, and we’ve survived the worst kinds of dictatorships.
It is less depressing to work on a play about anti-fascism than to do nothing. That would be more depressing to me.”
Peterson and her assembled cast have enjoyed digging into Hellman’s piece. And even though it is clearly a play that is loaded with Hellman’s searing view of politics, it’s also about a family unit and their structure.
“Honestly, when we started working on the play, we started working on falling in love with Hellman’s writing,” said Peterson. “I got working on a play that sort of focused on how amazingly she created these rooms with intelligent, fierce and fun characters in these interesting situations. It’s a lot about family dynamics, examples of really amazing marriages and really screwed up marriages. There are such interesting dynamics, which are super fun to work on.
“We kind of dug in and found the joy of the writing which is so fun for the audience. It’s political but not overtly and not a diatribe; it’s very much a play about the world and a play that is meant to tell people to pay attention. It’s a really fun thriller and a strange family play.”
Peterson is hopeful that when people see the play, there might be more of a desire to explore more of Hellman’s work, which would be wonderful.
“I compare her to Arthur Miller. While they both wrote about human beings, he experimented with form and she did not. She never broke ground the way ‘Death of a Salesman’ did, but I think her plays are just as good.
“Maybe she’ll enjoy a renaissance and there will be a new appreciation for Lillian Hellman and other female American playwrights. If people started to pay more attention to her writing, that would be nice.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, presents, “Watch on the Rhine”
Written by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Previews through Dec. 3rd
Runs Dec. 4th – Jan. 14th
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, plus one 15-minute intermission and a 5-minute pause
The Roda Theatre
Tickets range from $30 – $97
The Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $30 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org