C(ecil) P(hillip) Taylor Frank Rich

Start Your Free Trial

Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Download C(ecil) P(hillip) Taylor Study Guide

Subscribe Now

When we first meet Halder …, the protagonist of C. P. Taylor's "Good," he is a model of the urbane university professor. A novelist and literary critic, Halder is devoted to his wife and children, as well as to his one close friend, a Jewish psychiatrist named Maurice. But the place is Frankfurt, the year is 1933, and men can change without warning. It isn't too long before Halder has not only become a member of the Nazi party but has also played a direct role in SS book burnings and euthanasia "experiments" in the Jew-bashing Night of the Long Knives, and, finally, in Eichmann's genocide at Auschwitz.

Mr. Taylor's "play with music" … is an attempt to understand how all this could happen. The question raised is fascinating, because Halder is no cliché Nazi, no fire-breathing thug. He's more of an Albert Speer type, and yet, unlike Speer, he doesn't settle for practicing evil from a bureaucratic distance—Halder gets right into the bloody trenches of the Holocaust. Who wouldn't be eager to see how such a "good" man could turn totally rancid so fast?

The answer, however, never really comes. "Good" is an undeniably provocative work, and Mr. Taylor … has written it with an intelligent, light touch in a most imaginative form. But for all the author's efforts to break through our received ideas about the origins of Nazism and to avoid black and white moral imperatives, his play doesn't add anything to the generalities of the past. Even if you give "Good" the full and sometimes laborious concentration it requires, you're likely to leave the theater feeling stimulated but unsatisfied.

The play's modus operandi is its cleverest aspect. The setting is an empty stage, with its bare-brick wall and gas pipes showing, and with stark police-interrogation lamps transversing the space from every angle. This arena is, one might say, the concentration camp of Halder's mind. "Good" unfolds inside its central character's psyche and, fittingly enough, has a stream-of-consciousness structure. All the supporting players remain on stage throughout, so that [Halder] can wander among them at will as he free-associates back and forth through time.

There are also five musicians afoot, who play yet another role in Halder's consciousness. As the protagonist explains at the start, he has been "bringing music into the traumatic moments" of his life since childhood. This mental music is his "anxiety neurosis"—a defense mechanism that allows him to drown out and escape thoughts he doesn't want to hear. It is also something of an artificial stage gimmick, particularly when the musical selections include such predictable choices as Weill and Wagner, but it is an amusing one that pays off in startling theatrical dividends at the play's very end.

Although some of the splintery scenes between the musical interludes are digressionary or repetitive, others are bristling. Once Mr. Taylor has converted Halder to villainy, he does a sharp job of showing how an intellectual might rationalize his corruption. To Halder, book burning can be "symbolic of a new and healthy" alternative to dusty university education. The Night of the Long Knives, if "looked at in perspective," is "basically a humanitarian action" because it encourages Jews to flee Germany. Ultimately, Halder can maintain that there is "no objective moral truth" and can resolve any qualms by declaring, "We probably are good, whatever that means."

The exchanges between Halder and Maurice, in which the men debate and contrast their respective dilemmas, are also vibrantly drawn—at least until we wonder why Halder doesn't help his beloved Jewish friend escape to Switzerland. Maurice—a man who is witty even in anger and panic, a Jew with unresolved feelings about his Jewishness—is easily the most complex character in "Good." (pp. 184-85)

But who is Halder? The vague reasons given for his conversion from liberal humanist to Nazi are the same old catch-all motivations: he opportunistically wishes to advance his career; he's self-centered; he lacks the strong sense of self-definition that a uniform might provide. Halder also has empty or troubled relationships with the various women in his life—relationships that are explored at excessive but unrewarding length. And, like all Nazis in works of this sort, from the Speer of "Inside the Third Reich" to the hero of the film "Mephisto," Halder has a special fondness for Goethe's "Faust."

This just isn't enough to go on. If that's what it takes to turn a decent, intelligent man into a full-fledged murderer, one might argue that the whole world was, and is, full of Nazis. And apparently that's exactly the real point Mr. Taylor wishes to make. In a note in the Playbill, he cites present-day "'crimes' of the West against the Third World" and says that he wrote his play in part to expiate his own culpability "in the Auschwitzes we are all perpetrating today." It's to make this debatable analogy—to suggest that we're all possibly "good Germans" like Halder—that Mr. Taylor has oversimplified and blurred the highly specific, sui generis genesis and nature of the Third Reich's own Auschwitzes in "Good." (p. 185)

Frank Rich, "'Good", on Becoming a Nazi," in The New York Times (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 14, 1982 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XLIII, No. 13, October 18, 1982, pp. 184-85).