Robert Shaw Critical Essays

Shaw, Robert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shaw, Robert 1928–

A British novelist, playwright, and actor, Shaw is best known for The Man in the Glass Booth, a courtroom drama of Nazi persecution of the Jews. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[The Man in the Glass Booth,] Robert Shaw's drama about a Jewish businessman who is exposed as a former SS colonel, a member of Eichmann's Einsatzgruppen, and then exposed again as a real Jewish businessman posing as a Nazi is, at bottom (and the way down isn't very far) at the very least insulting to the reality of Jewish suffering at the hands of Hitler. And this isn't because Shaw, a very good actor and a mediocre novelist whose first play this is, says anything openly calumniatory about the Jews but because he trivializes terrible actuality, plays with it and turns it into "entertainment."

But nobody seems to have noticed or cared, with the exception of Jack Kroll, whose … review touches with fine perceptiveness on all the play's strange perversions and ambitions. Shaw's chief ambition is to construct a hip moral drama, one informed by our contemporary awareness of how the oppressor and the victim may be united, how the sufferer may be a secret, powerless Nazi, dreaming of his torturer's jackboots. But crowding that ambition and muddying up the play is another motif: the Jew poses as a Nazi in order to say in the dock "what no German has said," that is, the world will now hear the voice of Hitlerism, strident, unashamed and brutally clear.

Well, as Kroll remarks, it would take a Dostoevsky to do justice to the first notion (although a … story by Irvin Faust, Jake Bluffstein and Adolf Hitler, isn't a bad try at it; but Faust is controlled, clear-headed and unpretentious, as Shaw is not), while the second strikes me as at best supererogatory and at worst dramaturgically thin. At any rate, those are the play's premises, and Shaw proceeds to build on them a confused melodrama whose air of significance comes more from the raw subject matter than from any internal accomplishment. (pp. 225-26)

Richard Gilman, "Murky Soup and Trivialized Actuality" (1968), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 223-27.

Though The Man in the Glass Booth is clearly more of a major work than either of Shaw's other two plays, it does share with them a dramatic interest in extreme situations. Its style is, so to say, one of abstracted realism, in that the dialogue is realistic even if time and place are telescoped in a series of rapid transitions. As for the subject-matter, it shares with Off the Mainland and The Pets a preoccupation with that borderland between reality and fantasy, sanity and insanity in which the latest generation of British dramatists seem to feel most at home. The Man in the Glass Booth especially is a work of considerable, if enigmatic, power—enough so to make one hope Shaw will turn his attention to the theatre as a writer more frequently in future. (p. 202)

John Russell Taylor, in his The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1971.

Robert Shaw's Cato Street … illustrate[s] the difference between using history as inspiration and using it as a pretext. Like many dramatists before him, Mr. Shaw seems to have been confronted with the fact that historical events are often stubbornly undramatic, being either too simple or dull in themselves or too long to make a play.

The Cato Street Conspiracy falls into the first category: a hare-brained attempt by apparently simple-minded men to blow up the entire British cabinet. Revolutions are not made of such ideas or by such people. The conspiracy was foiled; and no effort by Mr. Shaw could breathe life into its story. (p. 40)

Randall Craig, in Drama, Spring, 1972.

Robert Shaw's play [The Man in the Glass Booth], like his own novel on which it is based, is a compendium of deliberate—at times far too deliberate—attempts at obfuscation. (p. 147)

Goldman [the protagonist, in referring to the Nazi era, comments] …: "We're all Germans, Charlie. All Germans and all J … E … Ws."

The idea is familiar. Weiss insists on it in The Investigation, Hochhuth to a lesser extent in The Deputy. In similar circumstances men will behave in similar ways. The innocent will become the guilty, the victims the victimizers. It is all a question of opportunity, a matter of occasion. All men are at least partially guilty, at least potential aggressors, exploiters, killers.

Shaw wants to say this, of course, but also something more. It is how he combines the two that lends the play its early if distinctly flawed fascination. That and its not too subtly worn aura of intellectual mystery story. The game is called "Who is Arthur Goldman?" (p. 148)

Shaw obviously thinks … that a guilt that may be—very likely is—distributable should be distributed; that the manufacturer of yesterday, often the manufacturer of today, the priest who looked the other way, or the politician who managed to emerge with his hands relatively—apparently—clean, also was culpable. Is it possible that all men are Nazis? (p. 152)

One does not ask for "answers" to why [the Holocaust] happened—answers are perhaps impossible. What one does look for is some shaft of at least momentary illumination, some suggestion of new insight. It is here that Shaw fails. The Man in the Glass Booth is most of all "clever." In a serious kind of way. It takes a theme that has been used time and again in the past three decades and uses it yet once more, but without adding anything; at least without saying anything. Inevitably, one begins to resent its very cleverness, all those symbols and metaphors wandering about in search of an informing intelligence—or perhaps a sensibility—to transform them.

There is, however, a moment, a brilliant moment, late in the play, when Goldman-Dorff delivers a long monologue to the court [during his trial for war crimes]. It is a paean to Hitler, to what he meant to the German people at a moment in history and why he was able to so completely capture their loyalty—why, Shaw suggests, another Hitler might capture ours today…. And perhaps this is where the play has led. It is almost certainly where it should have ended. What follows—the picking up of pieces, the tying together of loose ends—says no more.

An old woman emerges from the audience to announce that "this man is not Dorff" and that she cannot let him continue. He is "enjoying himself too much." He, in fact, is Arthur Goldman and he is German-Jewish, a survivor of the camps. (pp. 152-53)

So it is all a "mistake." Goldman, with his millions, has contrived it all: bribed Israeli agents; planted the X-rays, the photographs, the handwriting samples; arranged for the forged records; made the anonymous phone calls that led to his being tracked down; burned the flesh under his arm so that they would think the scar concealed an SS insignia.

But why did he do it? Did he merely wish a forum from which to proclaim the collective guilt of mankind or of the German nation? Did he simply wish to have on trial—finally to have on trial—someone who would acknowledge responsibility and provide a true picture of the mentality that prevailed in those days, rather than an automaton only "taking orders?" Was he involved in an act of atonement—and for what? Did he view himself as some sort of Christsurrogate?

All these, of course, and that is the play's major weakness. Encompassing everything, it embodies nothing fully, becomes a muddled rehashing of clichés, so diffuse in its effect that it almost might be said not to have one….

But who is [Goldman] …? Does he see himself as God, a god, explaining, expiating? (In the novel, he does in fact cry into the microphone, "I am Christ, the chosen of God; offer me vinegar. I am the King of the Jews.") When, finally, he locks himself in his glass booth, innocent by their standards, is he even more guilty by his own? In the novel, he insists, "This is not a rabbinical school. There is no 'why' here." But today, in this context, why is the only question. To deny and diffuse it, as Shaw has, into an intellectual party game, meets neither historical nor theatrical imperatives. (p. 154)

Catharine Hughes, "'The Man in the Glass Booth'," in her Plays, Politics, and Polemics (copyright © 1973 by Catharine Hughes), Drama Book Specialists, 1973, pp. 145-54.