Watch on the Rhine

by Lillian Hellman

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Critical Overview

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Watch on the Rhine won the Drama Critics Circle Award in 1941. The citation for the award praised Lillian Hellman for creating ‘‘a vital, eloquent and passionate play about an American family, suddenly awakened to the danger threatening its liberty.’’ The critical reception for Watch on the Rhine during its run on Broadway was quite positive. Although that initial acclaim has been tempered over the years, many critics still admire the play’s compelling themes and finely-crafted structure.

Scholars have noted the timely and historically significant material in Watch on the Rhine. Pat Skantze, in an article on Hellman for Modern American Women Writers, notes in a discussion of Kurt’s decision to kill Teck that ‘‘the question of culpability is exactly what Hellman would be faced with when she appeared before HUAC [the House Un- American Activities Committee].’’ Brooks Atkinson in a review in the New York Times argues that, due to Hellman’s adept characterizations, Watch on the Rhine ‘‘ought to be full of meaning a quarter of a century from now when people are beginning to wonder what life was like in America when the Nazi evil began to creep across the sea.’’

Some critics, however, find the play dated. Kimball King, in his overview of Hellman for Contemporary American Dramatists, claims that Watch on the Rhine ‘‘contains some witty repartee and suspenseful moments’’; however ‘‘its solutions to the international crisis are simplistic, and it is better described as an adventure story than a thesis play.’’

Others have noted the play’s effective dialogue. Skantze insists that a synopsis of the plot ‘‘does not do justice to the subtlety and liveliness of the dialogue.’’ Singling out a few key characters, Skantze writes, ‘‘Fanny’s caustic repartee is funny and loving and irritating. The children are the stiff grown-ups they should be in light of their past, while Teck is smarmy but charming.’’

Skantze finds that the characters’ actions follow a logical thread, noting ‘‘the decision to kill Teck is all Kurt’s, but the desire to support him comes thoughtfully and naturally from David and Fanny.’’ Lederer, in her article on Hellman for Twayne’s United States Authors Series Online, claims that Hellman wrote the character of Kurt ‘‘with passion and admiration,’’ and ‘‘because he acts with decision and courage,’’ he is Hellman’s ‘‘most eloquent spokesman for human rights and liberty.’’

Some critics find fault with the play’s structure. George Freedley in his review for the Morning Telegraph writes that Hellman ‘‘cluttered her play with sub-plots and extraneous action to such an extent to obscure what might have been her best play.’’ Bernard F. Dick, in his article for American Writers Supplement, deems the play a ‘‘melodrama of the monochromatic school where the villain is unspeakably black and the hero angelically white. Written in 1940 and produced eight months before Pearl Harbor, the play was understandably more patriotic than eloquent.’’ He finds little difference between the play and ‘‘all the espionage films of the 1940’s that portrayed an America infected with Nazi spies and fifth columnists, secrets being exchanged at embassy balls, and revolvers being whipped out of trenchcoat pockets’’ but acknowledges that it was based in part on autobiographical experiences. He concludes, ‘‘One can respect Hellman’s sincerity without liking her play.’’

Even though many modern scholars criticize its melodramatic elements, most admit that Watch on the Rhine, as noted by Skantze, ‘‘combines the best of Hellman’s strengths.’’

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