In Pentimento, Lillian Hellman said of Watch on the Rhine, “There are plays that, whatever their worth, come along at the right time, and the right time is the essence of the theatre and the cinema.” Opening on April 1, 1941, Watch on the Rhine could not have been more timely. Americans were seriously concerned about the possibility of their country’s becoming involved in the war in Europe. On December 7 of the same year, Pearl Harbor would be bombed by the Japanese, but until that devastating occurrence, Americans’ attention had focused primarily on events in Europe. The U.S. Lend-Lease Act, passed by Congress in March, 1941, had made it possible for the United States to provide material to the countries of Europe who were fighting the Nazi regime, and observant Americans were keenly aware of the potential threat to their own country.
Hellman’s play was not the only war drama being produced at the time, but, having won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for 1941, it was possibly the one that had the most enthusiastic critical and public reception. Hellman was active on behalf of anti-Fascist causes, had traveled in Europe in recent years, and had done extensive research on the history and background of the European social movements as well as the events which had preceded the war. It was her intent that her play should have an impact, and it is clear that audiences were impressed with the message.