Fanny Farrelly, the head of a distinguished Washington family. She eagerly awaits the return of her daughter, Sara, who has spent many years abroad with her German husband, rearing a family and helping him in his anti-Fascist efforts. Fanny disapproved of the marriage but is now eager to make amends. She is out of touch with what has been happening in Europe, but she responds well to Kurt’s explanation of his activities on behalf of the men and women who have opposed Adolf Hitler. Fanny is so moved by Kurt’s humane efforts on behalf of his fellow human beings that she conspires with him in the murder of Teck de Brancovis, who plans to inform on Kurt to the German embassy.
David Farrelly, Fanny’s good-looking son, who has struggled under the shadow of a famous father. David falls in love with Marthe de Brancovis and helps Kurt survive Teck’s scheme against him.
Marthe de Brancovis
Marthe de Brancovis, Teck’s attractive wife, an American who has tired of her husband’s gambling and his generally dissolute life. She is a guest in Fanny’s home and falls in love with her son David.
Teck de Brancovis
Teck de Brancovis, a Romanian nobleman who gambles away his funds and decides to turn in Kurt Muller to the German embassy, which is sure to pay Teck for his efforts. Teck is suave but contemptuous of Americans, including his hostess, Fanny.
Kurt Muller, Sara’s husband and the play’s hero, a vulnerable man. His hands have been broken in torture, and he dreads returning to Europe, even though he knows that he must leave to rescue his compatriots who are in jail or are facing imminent extermination by the Nazis. Kurt is eloquent yet modest about his role in history. He impresses Fanny with his sincerity and determination and is instrumental in arousing her awareness of the threat to civilization that Fascism poses.
Sara Muller, Kurt’s dedicated wife, who has had to brook her mother’s displeasure over her marriage. She wins Fanny over, however, with her dedication to Kurt and her family. Sara, in fact, articulates many of the emotions and opinions that Kurt keeps to himself. In this sense, she is his interpreter, saying in her own words what it has meant to follow him and to dedicate herself to his cause.
Bodo Muller, Kurt and Sara’s precocious child. Like Sara, he often expresses in blunt fashion opinions about freedom and democracy that Kurt only implies in his manner and halting speech. Bodo injects some humor into the play with his youthful sense of importance.
Babette Muller, the middle child in the Muller family. She is much like her mother, supporting the family’s political commitment and feeling a solidarity with her father.
Joshua Muller, Kurt’s son. As the oldest child in the family, he feels a special responsibility for carrying on his father’s mission.
Anise Anise, a sixty-year-old French woman, is the Farrelly’s maid, who, as the play opens, is seen sorting the family’s mail. She is a very proud woman who stands up to Fanny Farrelly’s overbearing nature. Often, when Fanny gets nervous or excited, Anise tells her to ‘‘compose’’ or to ‘‘contain’’ herself. Anise also often concerns herself with the family business. Fanny notes that she’s a ‘‘snooper,’’ which Fanny claims ‘‘shows an interest in life.’’
Countess Marthe de Brancovis Marthe de Brancovis, in her early thirties, is the daughter of a friend of Fanny’s....
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She and her husband, Count Teck de Brancovis, have been staying with the Farrelly family. Marthe has a strained relationship with her domineering husband and admits during the course of the play that she is in love with David Farrelly. In an attempt to justify her marriage to a man she claims she never loved, she explains to the family that when she was seventeen, her mother forced her into marrying him. She admits that she obeyed her mother’s wishes because her mother frightened her. Noting her own timid character, Marthe concludes, ‘‘maybe I’ve always been frightened. All my life.’’
Marthe gains courage, however, through her relationship with David, which prompts her to stand up to her husband, Teck. When Teck asks her questions about her feelings for David, initially she tells him that that information is none of his business. After Teck presses her, she admits that she is in love with David. Her growing defiance of her husband emerges after Teck tells her he plans on playing poker at the German Embassy. When he tells her that he wants to reestablish connections with the Nazis there, Marthe chides, ‘‘Your favorite dream, isn’t it . . . that they will let you play with them again.’’ She begins to find her own voice when Teck asks whether she has developed political convictions, responding that she is not sure, but she is certain that she does not like the Nazis. Her newly found courage also prompts her to stand up to Fanny, who, she concludes, has dominated David’s life and has tried to force him to be a replacement for his father.
Count Teck de Brancovis Count Teck de Brancovis is a handsome forty- five-year-old Romanian, married to Marthe. Fanny notes that Teck was ‘‘fancy’’ when Marthe married him but is no longer, ‘‘although still chic and tired . . . the way they are in Europe.’’ Hellman provides only sketchy details of his past. Apparently he has had past associations with the Nazis, as Marthe points out when she berates him for wanting to establish connections with the Germans at the Embassy. Marthe concludes that he should not waste his time with them, warning ‘‘they seem to have had enough of you. . . . It would be just as well to admit they are smarter than you are and let them alone.’’
Teck, like Kurt, is an expatriate, but for different reasons. Kurt hints at the reasons Teck has left his homeland when he notes that Teck wants to return, ‘‘but they do not much want’’ him. Teck uses this connection between them to help him convince Kurt to give him money when he claims, ‘‘we are both men in trouble. The world, ungratefully, seems to like your kind even less than it does mine.’’
Teck, however, is Kurt’s moral opposite. He bullies his wife and tries to sell another’s life to gain money and a passage back to his home. He appears to have some conscience, but it does not deter his blackmailing scheme. When Fanny confronts him, declaring that she is sickened by his demands, Teck admits the situation ‘‘is very ugly. . . . I do not do it without some shame, and therefore I must sink my shame in money.’’
He reveals his clever nature as he plans to blackmail Kurt by prying open the lock on the suitcase full of money and discovering Kurt’s real identity. He also tries to enlist the aid of Kurt’s unsuspecting children. When Teck asks Bodo if his father is an expert electrician and ‘‘as good with radio,’’ Kurt understands that he is trying to ferret out damaging information and so tells Teck sharply to direct his questions to him.
David Farrelly David Farrelly is a thirty-nine-year-old lawyer working at his deceased father’s firm. For most of the play, he appears affable but weak. He admits, ‘‘Mama thinks of me only as a monument to Papa and a not very well made monument at that. I am not the man Papa was.’’ He allows his mother to dominate his life. However, his love for Marthe and his confrontation with the realities of Kurt’s dire situation force him to find his own voice.
He begins to stand his own ground with his mother, who criticizes him over his attentions to Marthe. He refuses to break off his relationship with her. His feelings for Marthe also prompt him to face Teck. After Teck asks David about his relationship with Marthe, David tells him that the subject is none of his business. The tension between the two men escalates when Teck reveals his plan to blackmail Kurt. When Teck offers an analysis of the German character, David angrily replies, ‘‘Oh, for God’s sake, spare us your moral judgments.’’ As Teck lays out his blackmailing scheme, David approaches him threateningly, insisting ‘‘I’m sick of your talk. We’ll get this over with now, without any more fancy talk from you. I can’t take much more of you at any cost.’’
David’s greatest challenge, however, comes when he must respond to Kurt’s murder of Teck. Initially, he is shocked, as is his mother. Yet when Kurt offers David and his mother two choices—to turn him in immediately or to give him two days to escape—David quickly reassures him, ‘‘Don’t worry about things here. I’ll take care of it. You’ll have your two days.’’ By the end of the play, David has developed into a self-confident man who has come out from under the shadow of his father.
Fanny Farrelly Fanny is the sixty-three-year-old matriarch of the Farrelly family. The high-strung Fanny, although essentially good-natured, tries to control all in her sphere. Her need for control has alienated her from her daughter. When Sara first married Kurt, Fanny broke off ties with her daughter because, as David says, ‘‘they didn’t let her arrange it.’’ Fanny has been more successful exercising her control over her son. She continually reminds him that he has not lived up to the image she has of her beloved late husband, and, throughout most of his life, David has allowed her this power over him. Marthe confronts Fanny about her overbearing attitude toward David when she declares, ‘‘I am sick of watching you try to make him into his father.’’ She forces Fanny to recognize the detrimental effects of her treatment of her son when she compares Fanny to her own mother, who forced her into a marriage with a man she did not love. Marthe concludes that while Sara ‘‘got away,’’ David has suffered under his mother’s control. She tells Fanny, ‘‘I don’t think you even know you do it and I don’t think he knows it, either. And that’s what’s most dangerous about it.’’
Joshua, Sara’s son, points out Fanny’s naivete about the hardships that her daughter and her family have suffered, when he notes that his grandmother ‘‘has not seen much of the world.’’ She admits to this ignorance at the end of the play and attests to her awakening to the harsh realities of the family’s situation when she tells David, ‘‘We are shaken out of the magnolias, eh?’’
Fanny’s strength of character, like David’s, emerges most clearly at the end of the play when Teck tries to blackmail Kurt. First, she offers to give Teck money so that he will leave Kurt alone. Later, like her son, she must face the fact that Kurt has just committed murder. Initially shocked, she soon composes herself and tells Kurt that he has her blessing. She also gives him the money she had planned to give Teck and tells him to use it for the cause. Her show of courage, along with the recognition of the same quality in her son, helps strengthen the bond she has with David. After the two have made a commitment to help Kurt, David warns her, ‘‘We are going to be in for trouble.’’ Fanny, however, insists, ‘‘We will manage. I’m not put together with flour paste. And neither are you—I am happy to learn.’’
Joseph The Farrelly family’s middle-aged black butler, who, like Anise, is not afraid to stand up to Fanny’s overbearing personality.
Babette Müller Babette is Sara and Kurt’s twelve-year-old daughter. Despite the family’s nomadic existence, the children appear to be well educated and can speak several languages. Babette and her brother Bodo become extremely upset at the news that their father will have to go to Germany without them.
Bodo Müller Bodo is Sara and Kurt’s nine-year-old son. He is devoted to his father’s cause, as revealed when he explains to his grandmother, ‘‘if we are to fight for the good of all men, it is to be accepted that we must be among the most advanced.’’ Bodo exhibits his philosophical nature when his mother and grandmother begin to argue. He tells them not to get angry with each other; instead they must channel their anger into something important, ‘‘for the good of other men.’’ He forms a special bond with Fanny, who recognizes their similarities. They both have strong opinions and are good at heart.
Joshua Müller Joshua, fourteen, is the Müller’s oldest and most practical child. After his father knocks out Teck, Joshua keeps a cool head as he helps his father drag the body out onto the terrace where Kurt kills him.
Kurt Müller Kurt, a ‘‘large, powerful,’’ forty-seven-yearold German, is Sara’s husband. For the past seven years, he has been working for the anti-fascist underground, risking his life. The bullet scars on his face and the broken bones in his hands attest to the suffering that he has endured fighting for the cause. He explains that he became politically active in Germany when he saw his people suffer and watched twenty-seven men murdered in a Nazi street fight. At that point he determined not to ‘‘stay by now and watch.’’
He shows great love and concern for his family; yet makes his devotion to the cause his highest commitment. He has put his family’s welfare as well as his own in jeopardy as illustrated when he refuses to be blackmailed by Teck. Kurt explains that the money was given to him not to save his life or for the comfort of his family, even when it could have helped him feed them. He reveals his stoic nature when Fanny asks him why he must take the responsibility to fight the Nazis since he has a family, and he claims that everyone could find a reason not to commit himself to the cause.
What is most important to him is ‘‘to save the lives and further the work’’ of the others who fight against the Nazis. To this end, he will commit murder, even though it causes him and his family great pain. In an effort to explain his actions, he asks Fanny and David, ‘‘does one understand a killing?’’ He then compares what he did to the necessity of killing in a war. Yet, he also admits, ‘‘I have a great hate for the violent. They are the sick of the world. Maybe I am sick now too.’’ Bernard F. Dick, in his article for American Writers Supplement, notes that when Kurt apologizes to his children for committing the murder, he refers to Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and so invites a comparison ‘‘between the theft of bread and the murder of a fascist.’’ In this way, Dick claims, Kurt ‘‘indicts himself and pardons himself at the same time.’’
Sara Müller Sara Müller, Fanny’s daughter and Kurt’s wife, proves her independent nature when she ignores her mother’s wish for her not to marry Kurt. Even though when she returns to the Farrelly home she becomes wistful for the comforts she enjoyed while growing up, she declares to her family that she has led a happy and fulfilled life despite its hardships. She fully supports Kurt’s dangerous activities and keeps a cool head after he kills Teck, fixing up the room as if she has had this responsibility in the past.