Watch on the Rhine

by Lillian Hellman

Start Free Trial

Themes of Aggression and Resistance

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Monaco, in her article on Lillian Hellman for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that the appearance of Watch on the Rhine on Broadway in 1941, eight months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, responded to ‘‘the political climate of the day,’’ entering into ‘‘the continuing debate on American neutrality.’’ She concludes that Americans were already familiar with the Nazi threat but had never before imagined ‘‘an antifascist message within a domestic situation.’’

In 1941 fascism, a totalitarian system of government that takes absolute control of the lives of its people, emerged as the dominant political force in war-torn Europe as Nazi aggression continued to spread over the continent. During this period an underground movement surfaced in Western Europe, organized by the Allies, to fight against fascist control. In Watch on the Rhine Hellman creates a microcosm of this pattern of aggression and resist ance in the personal lives of her characters. As she documents the dynamics of the power struggles that occur among the members of the Farrelly family and their houseguests during the early days of World War II, Hellman raises important questions about the nature of ethical responsibility.

The first character Hellman introduces who engages in power plays is Fanny, the domineering matriarch of the Farrelly family. When Fanny first appears, she barks an order to her butler Joseph to ring the breakfast bell, insisting ‘‘Breakfast is at nine o’clock in this house and will be until the day after I die.’’ When Joseph informs her that it is only eight-thirty, Fanny instructs him to turn the clocks ahead to nine and ring the bell.

Fanny has tried to dominate the lives of all in the Farrelly household. Besides bullying her servants, she has tried to exert her control over her daughter, Sara, and son, David. Sara escaped her mother’s dominion through her marriage to Kurt, but David has put up with her harassment all of his life. Fanny dominates him through attacks on his self worth, continually reminding him that he has not lived up to the image she has of her beloved late husband. David has allowed her this power over him as she tries to shape him into her vision of his father. At one point, he admits to his sister, ‘‘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.’’

Marthe points out the damaging effects of Fanny’s exercise of power over her son, insisting that he is suffering under her 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.’’

Fanny, however, has not set up a totalitarian regime in her household. Her basic humanity allows those she tries to dominate to resist her authority. For example, both of her servants practice resistance to her aggressive tendencies. Skantze, in his article on Hellman for Modern American Women Writers , criticizes Hellman’s depiction of Anise as well as Joseph, insisting that her characterization of them presents a prejudicial, ‘‘two-dimensional ignorance of the lives of blacks and a lack of courage on the part of the playwright to allow the characters a life and story of their own.’’ Skantze fails to recognize, however, that neither Anise nor Joseph, the Farrelly’s servants, is afraid to stand up to Fanny’s overbearing personality. When the play opens, the viewer sees Anise riffling through the family’s mail, openly defying the traditional hierarchy of the master-servant relationship. Fanny responds to this overt challenge to...

(This entire section contains 1490 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

her privacy by concluding that Anise is a ‘‘snooper,’’ a quality Anise says ‘‘shows an interest in life.’’

Anise continues this defiance throughout the play by constantly upbraiding Fanny when her emotions get out of control, instructing her employer to ‘‘compose’’ or to ‘‘contain’’ herself. Joseph resists Fanny’s authority in more subtle ways. Besides informing Fanny that she is planning breakfast too early, he reminds her after one of her outbursts, ‘‘you told me the next time you screamed to remind you to ask my pardon,’’ and Fanny complies.

Fanny has also accepted Sara’s challenge to her authority. She welcomes her daughter back into her home with open arms, willing to ignore the fact that Sara had refused to allow Fanny the planning of her wedding. As Fanny presses Sara and Kurt about their life together, Sara angrily remonstrates her mother for her critical views. Yet when Kurt explains the cause his family has been fighting for and tells of the hardships they have endured, Fanny admits, ‘‘I am old. And made of dry cork. And badmannered,’’ and asks for their forgiveness. Fanny’s willingness to accept challenges to her power reveals her inherent morality, a quality that will emerge more fully by the end of the play when she becomes involved in Kurt’s antifascist activities.

Eventually Fanny also accepts David’s challenge to her authority. When David enters into a relationship with Marthe, Fanny disapproves and warns him to stay away from her. However, David’s love for Marthe, coupled with his recognition of Teck’s evil nature, gives him the courage to ignore his mother’s wishes.

The most intense power struggle emerges between Teck, Fanny’s Romanian houseguest, and Kurt. When Teck, a Nazi sympathizer, discovers Kurt’s true identity, he tries to blackmail him. Teck determines he will enforce a fascist control over the situation, seemingly giving Kurt no choice but to acquiesce to his demands. Teck insists that he will inform his acquaintances at the German Embassy of Kurt’s whereabouts if Kurt does not give him the money that he has collected for his antifascist cause.

Teck successfully exercises a similar type of rigid control over Marthe, whom he married when she was a teenager. This control is illustrated when Teck confronts Marthe about her relationship with David and warns, ‘‘Do not make plans with David. You will not be able to carry them out. You will go with me, when I am ready to go.’’ Yet when Marthe suspects Teck’s campaign to cause trouble for Kurt, she finds the courage to stand up to him and finally leave him. Her newfound strength also enables her to upbraid Fanny for her treatment of her son.

Marthe’s decision to leave Teck, however, has no influence over his determination to blackmail Kurt. His brutal plan emerges from his desire to restore his reputation and so return to his homeland. Teck feels confident that by turning Kurt over to the Nazis, he will gain important allies. In addition, the power exhibited by the Nazis intrigues Teck, a fact Marthe notes when Teck tells her of his plans to play poker with them. At this point, Marthe chides, ‘‘your favorite dream, isn’t it . . . that they will let you play with them again.’’

Faced with Teck’s absolute control over his life and the lives of his comrades, Kurt makes a decision to resist, which raises complex moral questions. When he murders Teck so that he and his comrades may escape and continue the fight against fascism, he tries to justify his actions to the Farrelly family. He likens his situation to that of a war, explaining to them that if he had spared Teck’s life, he would be ‘‘pampering’’ himself and risking the lives of others. Yet he also declares that he has ‘‘a great hate for the violent,’’ because ‘‘they are the sick of the world,’’ and then adds, ‘‘Maybe I am sick now, too.’’

At the end of the play, Kurt places his life in Fanny’s and David’s hands, when he asks that they give him two days to escape before they talk to the authorities. Neither Fanny nor David abuses the power he has given them. Hellman suggests that in their decision to support Kurt and aid in his escape, David and Fanny exhibit ethical responsibility. Their actions during this crisis have proved their inherent morality and have forced them to recognize each other’s strengths. By the end of the play, mother and son acknowledge their previous ignorance of the reality of the effects of fascism and the fact they have been ‘‘shaken out of the magnolias.’’ They prepare to face together, on equal footing, the ‘‘trouble’’ that lies ahead of them.

In the stirring account of a family’s battle against the menace of fascism during the first half of the twentieth century, Hellman explores the desire for power and its often devastating consequences. In its recreation of a historically significant moment, Watch on the Rhine raises compelling ethical questions in its complex study of the politics of aggression and resistance on a national as well as a personal front.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Watch on the Rhine, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Focus on Family Explores Greater Issues

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Watch on the Rhine, which opened 1 April 1941, was a call to arms to the American public, who, Hellman felt, were too complacent about the menace of Fascism, which she had experienced firsthand in the Spanish civil war. Like Bertolt Brecht, Mark Estrin notes, Hellman ‘‘expects her audience to be enraged enough by the injustice she dramatizes to leave the theatre and take social action.’’ As might be expected, the play did not generate an immediate reversal of American political policy, but it did have an impact on American thinking as an influential work rallying support for the allies. In October 1941 the Free World Association broadcast the play in German via shortwave to Germany in a special performance from backstage, with Mady Christians repeating her role as Sara and Otto Preminger as Kurt.

Eight months after Watch on the Rhine opened, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, precipitating America’s entry into World War II. From its opening night to its closing 378 performances later in February 1942, audiences responded enthusiastically. Critic Stark Young was more reserved: ‘‘some of the first act appears to lose time or wander too amiably—for one instance, perhaps with the scene of the children in which so many lines are given to Bodo, the comical, pedantic little boy’’ (The New Republic, 14 April 1941). Wolcott Gibbs of The New Yorker judged it ‘‘a fine honest and necessary play in which the fundamental issue of our time has been treated with dignity, insight, and sound theatrical intelligence.’’ The play earned the New York Drama Critics’ ‘‘best play’’ award and in January appeared in a command performance at the White House, for ‘‘the first public appearance of President Roosevelt since war had been declared.’’ London and Moscow performances followed, and in 1942 and 1943, after the Broadway production closed, Watch on the Rhine was staged in regional theaters across America.

Feeling that ‘‘her writing had to spring from a completely realized world, the kind a novelist presents,’’ Hellman researched the play carefully, amassing material on every aspect of German life. Margaret Case Harriman was so impressed with Hellman’s careful, voluminous notes that she believed they ‘‘could be expanded . . . into a detailed and accurate history of a period covering 25 years.’’ The actual writing of the play went smoothly, says Hellman: ‘‘The only play I have ever written that came out in one piece, as if I had seen a landscape and never altered the trees or the seasons of their colors.’’

For her approach, Hellman used Henry James’s contrast in The American and The Europeans between worldly wise Europeans and naive, wellmeaning Americans. The play is family oriented, centering upon the Americans, the Farrellys, and set in their spacious, well-appointed home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Matriarch Fanny presides over the household; her son David, an attorney, lives with her. The action begins when her daughter Sara, who has left home to marry German anti- Fascist Kurt Muller, arrives from Europe with him and their three children. Another American is Marthe, forced into a loveless marriage to a Rumanian count by her mother, dazzled by his title. The Farrellys have not inquired into the background of the count, who, with Marthe, has been their houseguest for six weeks. Count Teck de Brancovis and Kurt are immediately suspicious of each other. A friend of the Nazi officials at the German embassy in Washington, Teck is down on his luck and nearly penniless. He suspects there is a price on Kurt’s head as an anti-Fascist leader, whom he could betray to the Nazis, and further learns that Kurt is carrying $23,000, ‘‘gathered from the pennies of the poor,’’ to finance the resistance. Their conflict forms the basis of the action, with a romantic subplot involving David Farrelly and Marthe. As the tension increases, it becomes clear it is a conflict that can be resolved only by the death of one of the men.

Teck de Brancovis is a man of no substance, neither material nor moral. His quest for money and power has long since eroded any scruples he ever had, and he is perfectly willing to play cards with Nazis and Americans who sell illegal armaments. Hellman based his character on Rumanian Prince Antoine Bibesco, a practiced cardsharp who fleeced her of some six hundred dollars at the London home of Lady Margot Asquith in 1936. Teck too is a cardsharp who relies on the game as a major source of income and looks to be useful to his unsavory associates in the hopes of regaining access to power.

The Muller family no sooner arrives in act I than Teck senses there is profit to be made from learning as much as possible about Kurt, Fanny’s unlikely son-in-law, ‘‘a German who has bullet scars on his face and broken bones in his hands’’ and whose luggage is unlocked, while a shabby briefcase is carefully locked. Sure that he is on the scent of someone the Nazis would pay to know about, Teck investigates the Muller baggage at the first opportunity. News of the capture of other important resistance leaders jogs Teck’s memory. He realizes that Kurt is now at the top of the Nazis’ most wanted list and attempts to blackmail him, offering him, in return for ten thousand dollars, a month of silence in which to try to return to Germany to rescue his comrades. Kurt, however, knows, as Fanny and David do not, of Teck’s unsavory background in Europe and that his offer of silence is purest sham. He is a deadly threat to Kurt and Kurt’s colleagues, and before he can betray them to their deaths, he must be killed. Through Teck, the audience sees that the charm, the culture, the polish of some European aristocracy masks a rotten core. Whatever last tatters of decency Teck displays in his farewell to Marthe and his excuses to the Farrellys, he remains a man who will sell anyone and anything for personal advantage, a dangerous enemy who must be eliminated.

Unlike Marthe and Teck, Sara and Kurt are an American/European combination that embodies that which is best in both worlds. They respect each other, their love is as fresh as when they first met twenty years ago, and their children are warm and courteous. The heroic figure of Kurt Muller is based, Hellman says, on her beloved friend Julia, who devoted her wealth, her intelligence, and even her life to fight Fascism. The choice to make Kurt a German indicates Hellman’s acknowledgment that not all Germans slavishly followed Hitler. She further avoids a simplistic view of Germany and even of Fascists through Kurt’s continuing pride in his country ‘‘for that which is good’’ and the hope he expresses of bringing the Farrellys to Europe after the war to ‘‘show them what Germany can be like.’’

In response to Teck’s observation in act III that ‘‘there is a deep sickness in the German character . . . a pain-love, a death-love,’’ Kurt offers an analysis that recognizes gradations among Fascists: ‘‘There are those who give the orders, those who carry out the orders, those who watch the orders being carried out . . . Frequently they come in high places and wish now only to survive. They came late: some because they did not jump in time, some because they were stupid, some because they were shocked at the crudity of the German evil, and preferred their own evils, and some because they were fastidious men.’’ For the last group, he says, ‘‘we may well someday have pity.’’

In speaking of Hellman’s ‘‘mature realism,’’ Timothy Wiles points out that she ‘‘avoids a doctrinaire explanation for the Nazi’s evil ascendancy based simply on economics, and dramatizes social forces like the authoritarian personality and ideas like the banality of evil.’’ She recognizes Fascism as ‘‘a psychological force that could be unleashed in the mass mind by its proponents’ conscious manipulation of racial hatred.’’ At no point does Hellman underestimate the evil the Nazis represent, and Kurt’s speech is not intended to mitigate that evil. In fact, when Teck tells Kurt, ‘‘You have an understanding heart,’’ Kurt rejoins, ‘‘I will watch it." Hellman’s intention is to show that an evil of such magnitude comprises a broad spectrum of human frailties, which makes it even more dangerous.

On a personal level, Kurt Muller is a charming, mature, acutely intelligent man who can hold his own with a forceful personality like Fanny Farrelly. His love for his family is profound, and he is very much aware that his work to guarantee their future has entailed the sacrifice of his children’s childhood. By this revelation in act III, the audience is aware that no such option as a normal childhood exists under the circumstances, and the life they have had is at least one of honor, decency, and hope.

One of Kurt’s most appealing qualities is his love for his wife: he encourages her to enjoy the pleasures of her family home without fear of offending him; he respects and praises all her contributions to their partnership, and his love for her is both tender and yet still charged with sexual ardor. In act II, when he knows he must return to Germany because of the capture of his colleagues, he draws Sara to him, saying, ‘‘How many years have I loved that face?’’ and then ‘‘kisses her, as if it were important,’’ unheeding of the others in the room. It is a powerful display of lasting romantic love.

The major hallmarks of Kurt’s heroism are his honesty and personal integrity. Hellman deliberately avoids affiliating him with any particular party, thereby removing the audience’s option to disassociate from him on the basis of political prejudices, and it seems fair to assume that this was also the reason she includes no reference to anti- Semitism. Instead, Kurt is an Everyman, representing the potential in each person to respond to the call of conscience. He speaks movingly of the Spanish civil war, where he fought as a member of the German brigade. For Kurt, August 1931, when he saw ‘‘twenty-seven men murdered in a Nazi street fight’’ in his hometown, marked the end of passive hope and the beginning of action. He concludes the story, saying, ‘‘I remember Luther, ‘Here I stand. I can do nothing else. God help me. Amen.’’’

Repeatedly, Kurt brings the issue down to personal responsibility, a recurrent theme in Hellman’s plays. When Fanny and David try to dissuade him from returning to almost certain death by citing his family as a reason to stay, Kurt points out that each man has a reason not to fight, yet each must sleep with his conscience. The fact that he is a vulnerable man whose hands, broken by torture, shake when he is afraid, and who admits to the fear he feels, only underscores his heroism. Kurt’s courage and determination send the message, as David says in act II, that ‘‘it’s the way all of us should feel.’’ And Kurt, who hates violence, makes sure there is no glossing over his murder of Teck, that his children know this is not the way their world should be. His leave-taking ends on an optimistic yet uncertain note, for the prospects for survival are dismal for so likable and courageous a man.

Sara Muller is the ideal wife and mother of the forties. In direct contrast to Marthe, Sara is the American girl of independent spirit who defied her mother and chose her husband for love, not status and wealth. Her mother is shocked to learn that Sara worked to support her family, enabling Kurt to pursue his anti-Fascist work, and says the Farrellys would gladly have sent money had it been requested. Yet Sara’s convictions are Kurt’s; her passionate espousal of his ideals is indistinguishable from her profound love for him. There is a satellite quality to both Sara’s opinions and her status in her family. She explains to Fanny and David, ‘‘I wanted it the way Kurt wanted it,’’ a combination of political and moral ideals and deep love for her husband. She may indeed be as Kurt describes her, ‘‘brave and good . . . handsome and gay’’; nonetheless, she is still only a ‘‘good girl,’’ as her brother so approvingly remarks when she says she wants Kurt to go, to save the people so important to him and to their cause.

Although their parts are minor, the children make important contributions to the play. They represent the most powerful motive of all for mounting the fight against Fascism, the future of the world’s children. They serve less lofty purposes as well. In their innocence they remark on the wonders of American life, simultaneously flattering an American audience on their standard of living and revealing the harsh circumstances under which the Mullers have been existing. Babette’s shy request for an egg for breakfast, ‘‘if an egg is not too rare or too expensive,’’ makes their deprivations vividly real. The eldest, Joshua, invites Fanny to practice her languages with them as they ‘‘speak ignorantly, but much, in German, Italian, Spanish—.’’ These pieces of information from the children picture the life the Mullers have been forced to live under Hitler and relieve Kurt of having to do so.

Individually, they are stereotypically fine young people. Joshua intends to carry on his father’s fight against Fascism. Babette, like her mother, puts a brave face on hardships. Bodo, the youngest, is a funny little boy, self-confident, enchanted with grand words, and thoroughly convinced that his father is the greatest hero on earth. His age makes it appropriate for him to inadvertently reveal important information, and also allows him to sing his father’s praises freely. His main function, however, is to transmit Kurt’s philosophical and political beliefs in such a way as to make them accessible without the sententiousness they might have were an older person to deliver them. He makes pompous little speeches that are obvious echoes of his father’s views, but Bodo’s stilted English, filled with big words, often mispronounced, gives them a lighter, slightly comical flavor. Hellman thus gets across important ideological messages without diminishing their significance or boring the audience. If anything, Kurt’s beliefs are enhanced by Bodo’s endearing delivery of them.

Described as ‘‘a handsome woman of about sixty-three,’’ Fanny Farrelly is a woman of strong, vivid personality who has enjoyed wealth and status all her life. Her father had been an ambassador and her husband, the late ‘‘famous Joshua Farrelly,’’ was ambassador to France in addition to founding a distinguished law firm. Her life has been as rich in experience as in material comforts, and the deep love she and her husband had for one another is a source of happy memories and a point of pride with her. He remains the yardstick by which all men, especially her son David, are to be measured.

Since traditional ideals of romantic love, marriage, and family, and women’s place in relation to them underpin the structure of this play, it is appropriate that Fanny Farrelly adored her husband while he was alive and cherishes his memory after his death. She represents a certain idea of the feminine that audiences at that time found particularly sympathetic, that of a woman who, while very much a distinctive personality in her own right, is yet quite happy to defer to her husband and to play a subordinate role. As Vivian Patraka points out, the appeal of romantic love surviving intact would divert most women today from the realities such a relationship implies. Fanny’s frequent references to Joshua Farrelly make him an almost palpable presence in the play. Although Fanny may be a widow, she is not alone; the husband who was the source of her status still validates that status and attenuates her authority as matriarch. Fanny is free to speak as she pleases because she does not violate traditional ideas of womanly behavior and woman’s place within the family.

Much of the humor of the play derives from Fanny’s outspokenness and her capricious behavior. She expresses her opinions freely, even bluntly, as when she surveys her grandchildren for the first time. She compliments Joshua on bearing the name and looks of his grandfather, praises Babette, and then to nine-year-old Bodo remarks, ‘‘You look like nobody.’’ Fanny and her son David embody characteristics generally recognized as American, and most of these are flattering to the national image. Fanny’s candor and individuality, her self-confi- dence, and her generosity are such. However, Hellman’s intention in Watch on the Rhine is not simply to mirror that which is admirable in the American character but to move Americans from a stance she considers dangerously naive.

This naïveté is displayed by both Fanny and David. Fanny has invited the count and Marthe as houseguests because, she explains to David in act I, ‘‘I felt sorry for Marthe, and Teck rather amused me. He plays good cribbage and tells good jokes.’’ Despite her years as an ambassador’s wife, Fanny remains naive in her judgment of Europeans, and her superficial assessment of Teck proves a dangerous mistake. When she rebukes Kurt for carelessness in leaving thousands lying around, he points out that the money was in a locked briefcase, concluding, ‘‘It was careless of you to have in your house a man who opens baggage and blackmails.’’ Her carelessness is of a piece with her role in life. Political convictions were her husband’s province. Her job was to be charming, to garner gossip, ‘‘wit it up,’’ and pass it along entertainingly. Fanny’s antics do double, even triple, service. They are comic relief to the play’s more serious theme, they mitigate Fanny’s status as an authority figure so that she remains sympathetic, and they indicate an area where change and growth are needed. For Fanny will be capable of mature behavior when the need arises. As act III draws to a close, she rallies behind Kurt and his cause, signaling her support of him with that highest of accolades, a quotation from husband Joshua. She also stands prepared to take responsibility for helping Kurt hide the murdered Teck and to escape the country.

Her son David has not been able to assert himself because of his flawed self-esteem. The source of his difficulty may lie in Fanny’s habitually comparing him to his father and his choosing to believe her judgments of him. His love for and defense of Marthe strengthens his resolve, as he does not permit Teck to bully her nor does he allow Fanny to interfere, as she has in the past, with his relationships. By the play’s end he understands the dangers Kurt faces and is prepared to aid him. David has become a strong, mature, independent adult. When Fanny says to David at the end of act III, ‘‘Well, here we are. We are shaken out of the magnolias, eh?’’ it is clear that they are now aware of the dangerous realities that lurk just beneath the surface of life as they have previously known it. When David warns her that trouble lies ahead, she replies that she understands: ‘‘We will manage. I’m not put together with flour paste. And neither are you—I am happy to learn.’’

Structurally, Watch on the Rhine is an interweaving of contrasts; the lighter comedic threads of Fanny’s outbursts and sharp humor and Bodo’s grandiose speeches provide relief from, and at the same time intensify the effect of, the darker strands of menace. The opening act is predominantly light, with the warmth of the reunion, yet darker notes sound with the threat posed by Teck’s curiosity. Act II, set ten days later, when relationships have developed, opens in a light, comic vein but darkens midway with the news of the capture of Kurt’s comrades and Teck’s attempt at blackmail. The final act reverses the first and is a crescendo of darkness relieved briefly by one or two comic touches and by the warmth of Kurt’s love for his family, and finally by the resolve of all to fight Fascism, despite the cost.

In 1942 the movie of Watch on the Rhine was scripted by Dashiell Hammett, with additional scenes by Hellman. Paul Lucas repeated his Broadway role of Kurt, and Bette Davis played Sara. One last hurdle Hellman had to overcome was the Breen Office stipulation that murder be punished, that Kurt be assassinated in retaliation for his killing Teck. Her letter to the censors, whom she complained to the producer were ‘‘not only as unintelligent as they were in the old days, but . . . growing downright immoral,’’ was characteristically caustic: the country was at war with the Nazis. Should American soldiers who killed Nazis also pay with their lives? The film still stands as a classic example of American cinematography. Although its revival in 1979 was considered ‘‘dated’’ by the critics, the play represents one of the best of the pro-war dramas, one which translated the panorama of ‘‘historical events and emotions connected to them’’ into the smaller, more accessible frame of the family, so that the spectator can ‘‘internalize and internationalize what [is] now recreated as a domestic crisis.’’ Much as The Diary of Anne Frank made the fate of millions a palpable reality through a single girl, Watch on the Rhine, through its focus on a family in early 1941, made Americans aware of the threat to their security.

Source: Alice Griffin, ‘‘Watch on the Rhine,’’ in Understanding Lillian Hellman, University of South Carolina Press, 1999, pp. 63–75.

The Plays of the 1940s: Watch on the Rhine

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The time is late in the spring of 1940. The place is a spacious home twenty miles from Washington, D.C., where dowager Fanny Farrelly lives with her bachelor son David. Refugee Roumanian Count Teck De Brancovis and his wife Marthe (daughter of a girlhood friend of Fanny’s) are house guests. The count, a decadent aristocrat who has always lived by his wits, is a hanger-on at the German embassy. Fanny’s daughter Sara arrives from Europe with her children and her husband Kurt Müller, a member of the underground resistance movement. Kurt is carrying $23,000 in a briefcase, money to be used to help rescue political prisoners from the Nazis.

The count discovers the money, figures out Kurt’s identity, and tries to blackmail him by threatening to reveal that identity to the Germans. Kurt is forced to kill him, and Fanny and David, stripped of their American naiveté decide to keep quiet about the murder long enough for Kurt to leave the country and return to Germany, where he will attempt to free the prisoners and will almost certainly be killed.

Kurt makes a moving farewell speech to his children in which he tells them that killing is always wrong and that he is fighting for a world where all men, women, and children can live in peace.

‘‘There are plays that, whatever their worth, come along at the right time,’’ says Hellman of Watch on the Rhine. It was the right time—for Hellman, for the critics, and for the public. The reviews were glowing, and President Roosevelt ordered a command performance at the National Theater in Washington.

Although many critics felt at the time that Watch on the Rhine was Hellman’s best play, it has received little critical attention in subsequent years. In discussions of her work it is usually dismissed in a sentence or two as the best anti-Nazi play of the war years, although in 1941 it received the Drama Critics’ award for the best play of the season. The Critics’ award was presented for a ‘‘vital, eloquent and compassionate play about an American family suddenly awakened to the danger threatening their liberty.’’ Herman Shumlin said he was not surprised that Watch on the Rhine won: ‘‘I have always thought from the day I read it that it was a great play and fine dramatic literature.’’

On opening night Shumlin stood in the lobby, hissing imprecations at people arriving late. Hellman had not been as sure of the play’s success as Shumlin. Several reviewers commented on the bronchial opening night audience. Hellman sat through the first act, then went to Shumlin and told him, ‘‘It’s no use, Herman. Make up your mind to it. This isn’t going to go.’’

‘‘Get out of here,’’ Shumlin answered. ‘‘Get out and stay out. Don’t you remember you said the same thing about The Little Foxes?’’

The command performance requested by Roosevelt was for the benefit of the Infantile Paralysis Fund. At a supper following the performance the President asked Hellman several times when she had written the play. Hellman says, ‘‘When I told him I started it a year and a half before the war, he shook his head and said in that case he didn’t understand why Morris Ernst, the lawyer, had told him that I was so opposed to the war that I had paid for the ‘Communist’ war protesters who kept a continuous picket line around the White House before Germany attacked the Soviet Union. I said I didn’t know Mr. Ernst’s reasons for that nonsense story, but Ernst’s family had been in business with my Alabama family long ago and that wasn’t a good mark on any man.’’

She continues, ‘‘But the story about my connection with the picket line was there to stay, often repeated when the red-baiting days reached hurricane force. But by that time, some of the pleasant memories of Watch on the Rhine had also disappeared: Lukas, once so loud in gratitude for the play, put in his frightened, blunted knife for a newspaper interviewer.’’

But in 1941 there was mostly only praise for a fine, patriotic play. Except for Grenville Vernon’s review, the strongest dissenting note came from the New Masses and the Daily Worker.

Authors of books about ‘‘radical theater’’ occasionally mention Watch on the Rhine as an example of a ‘‘leftist’’ play. The writer of such a work never deals with Hellman extensively, using such reasons as Hellman’s not having written enough plays in the 1930s for adequate analysis, although three plays would seem to be ample. The writers then use Odets, Lawson, et al. A more likely reason for Hellman’s exclusion from such treatments is that her plays do not fit the writers’ theses. She wrote The Little Foxes, not ‘‘Waiting for Horace.’’ As Hellman told Roosevelt, she had been working on Watch on the Rhine since 1939, and the play opened while the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression pact was still in effect.

Aside from the anti-fascist content of the play, the character of Kurt Müller, the resistance fighter, received the most attention. Critics praised Hellman for making the protagonist, as they so regarded him, German. Müller is described by reviewers as the protagonist, the central figure, the principal character, ‘‘her hero.’’ If one feels that there is a single protagonist, then other criticisms follow. George Freedley, for example, complained that Hellman had ‘‘cluttered her play with sub-plots and extraneous action to such an extent to obscure what might have been her best play.’’

Let us assume for the moment that Watch on the Rhine is not solely about Kurt Müller, but is also the story of Fanny Farrelly, a matriarch from another time (her husband knew Henry Adams, and in Adams’s day Washington was a relatively small, sleepy Southern town); of her son David, who has never asserted himself, but who has allowed his mother to attempt to make him into his father’s image (Joshua’s portrait watches over the living room, and Fanny refers to him often); of Marthe, an American who was forced by her mother to marry a title; and of the Roumanian count, European like Kurt Müller, but of the type who let Hitler happen, whose only interest is self-aggrandizement and survival.

In other words, let us assume that Watch on the Rhine is like Days to Come, The Little Foxes, The Searching Wind, Another Part of the Forest, The Autumn Garden, and Toys in the Attic—a multiplecharacter play. What, then, is the play about? ‘‘What it contrasts are two ways of life—ours with its unawakened innocence and Europe’s with its tragic necessities.’’ The contrast is presented in a sunny, spacious living room, a setting completely alien to the horrors occurring in Europe. But the watch on the Rhine comes to the Potomac, causing the Americans to be ‘‘shaken out of the magnolias.’’ They learn what Alexandra learned in The Little Foxes, ‘‘that the fundamental clash in civilization is between those bent on self-aggrandizement and those who are not and that ‘it doesn’t pay in money to fight for that in which we believe’.’’ There are those who eat the earth and those who stand around and watch them eat it.

We meet the Americans and their house guests at breakfast, and their characters are firmly established before the arrival of the Müllers. As Richard Watts said, Hellman provides the ‘‘comfortable feeling that the play you are watching is a living, breathing thing, with people in it who have a life of their own outside the narrow confines of the theater’s walls, and thus are engaging in activities that have significance about them. All good plays obviously give some sense of this, but not all of them have the three-dimensional quality in so complete a fashion as ‘Watch on the Rhine,’ and for this I think the much-criticized first act . . . is in great part responsible.’’

The contrast, not only between Europeans and Americans but between two European-American marriages, may remind one of Henry James. (James Agee, reviewing the movie version, said he wished James had written it.) This resemblance is not coincidental, although Hellman says today that only diaries of the time ‘‘could convince [her] now that Watch on the Rhine came out of Henry James.’’ At the time of the original production Hellman told an interviewer, ‘‘When I was working on ‘The Little Foxes’ I hit on the idea—well, there’s a small, Midwestern American town, average or perhaps a little more isolated than average, and into that town Europe walks in the form of a titled couple—a pair of titled Europeans—pausing on their way to the West Coast . . . .

‘‘Later I had another idea. What would be the reactions of some sensitive people who had spent much of their lives starving in Europe and found themselves as house guests in the home of some very wealthy Americans? What would they make out of all the furious rushing around, the sleeping tablets taken when there is no time to sleep them off, the wonderful dinners ordered and never eaten . . .? . . . That play didn’t work either. I kept worrying at it, and the earlier people, the titled couple, returned continually. It would take all afternoon and probably a lot of tomorrow to trail all the steps that made those two plays into ‘Watch on the Rhine.’ The titled couple are still in, but as minor characters. The Americans are nice people, and so on. It all is changed, but the new play grew out of the other two.’’

In Pentimento Hellman says that she dreamed one night of the poker party in London at which she met the man who suggested the Roumanian count in Watch on the Rhine. Wanting to ‘‘write a play about nice, liberal Americans whose lives would be shaken up by Europeans, by a world the new Fascists had won because the old values had long been dead,’’ she used the setting of an Ohio town. Waking from the dream, she knew that she ‘‘had stubbornly returned to the people and the place of Days to Come.’’ She changed the setting to Washington, introduced the character of Kurt Müller, who ‘‘was, of course, a form of Julia,’’ Hellman’s girlhood friend killed by the Nazis. (Hellman eventually used her notion about European reaction to affluent Americans in The Autumn Garden. The profession of Fanny Farrelly’s husband, diplomacy, is used in The Searching Wind.) Watch on the Rhine is, in a sense, her tribute to Julia, and also to the men ‘‘willing to die for what they believed in’’ whom she had seen in the Spanish Civil War.

Perhaps Kurt Müller seems the lone protagonist not only because Hellman wrote the role with passion and admiration, but because he acts with decision and courage and is Hellman’s most eloquent spokesman for human rights and liberty. But the other characters are faced with ethical choices because of his arrival. At the end of the first act Marthe warns Teck against harming Kurt. She tells him she will leave him if he makes trouble. At the end of the second act, Teck asks her to leave with him. She refuses, saying, ‘‘You won’t believe it, because you can’t believe anything that hasn’t got tricks to it, but David hasn’t much to do with this. I told you I would leave someday, and I remember where I said it—and why I said it.’’

Kurt tells Fanny and David that Teck has discovered the $23,000 Kurt is carrying, ‘‘gathered from the pennies of the poor who do not like Fascism.’’ When Fanny asks whether it wasn’t careless of him to ‘‘leave twenty-three thousand dollars lying around to be seen,’’ Kurt answers, ‘‘No, it was not careless of me. . . . It was careless of you to have in your house a man who opens baggage and blackmails.’’ David and Fanny take the first step toward joining Kurt’s side when they offer to pay Teck themselves. But they still don’t understand completely. David tells Kurt he will be safe: ‘‘You’re in this country. They can’t do anything to you. They wouldn’t be crazy enough to try it. Is your passport all right?’’ When Kurt says it isn’t quite, Fanny asks why it isn’t. Kurt says, ‘‘Because people like me are not given visas with such ease. . . . Madame Fanny, you must come to understand it is no longer the world you once knew.’’

Still failing to understand, David tells Kurt, ‘‘It doesn’t matter. You’re a political refugee. We don’t turn back people like you.’’ Sara says, ‘‘You don’t understand, David,’’ and explains that Kurt has to go back to Germany.

In Act III Teck reads from a German embassy list of wanted men a description of Kurt’s underground activities. When Fanny says she is sickened by Teck, Kurt makes a key speech: ‘‘Fanny and David are Americans and they do not understand our world—as yet. (Turns to David and Fanny) All Fascists are not of one mind, one stripe. There are those who give the orders, those who carry out the orders, those who watch the orders being carried out. Then there are those who are half in, half hoping to come in. . . Frequently they come in high places and wish now only to survive. They came late: some because they did not jump in time, some because they were stupid, some because they were shocked at the crudity of the German evil, and preferred their own evils, and some because they were fastidious men. For those last, we may well someday have pity. They are lost men, their spoils are small, their day is gone. (To Teck) Yes?’’ And Teck replies, ‘‘Yes. You have the understanding heart.’’

When Fanny and David leave the room to get the money, Teck says, ‘‘The new world has left the room. . . We are Europeans, born to trouble and understanding it. . . . They are young. The world has gone well for most of them. For us—we are like peasants watching the big frost. Work, trouble, ruin—But no need to call curses at the frost. There it is, it will be again, always—for us.’’ Teck is almost pitiable. Sara counters his effectiveness, however, by speaking up and saying, ‘‘We know how many there are of you. They don’t, yet. My mother and brother feel shocked that you are in their house. For us—we have seen you in so many houses.’’

After Kurt kills Teck, he says, ‘‘I have a great hate for the violent. They are the sick of the world. Maybe I am sick now, too.’’ A gentle man, a man of peace, driven to murder to protect the cause he is fighting for, he says to his children as he prepares to leave them, ‘‘Do you remember when we read Les Misérables? . . . He stole bread. The world is out of shape we said, when there are hungry men. And until it gets in shape, men will steal and lie and— and—kill. But for whatever reason it is done, and whoever does it—you understand me—it is all bad. I want you to remember that. Whoever does it, it is bad.’’

Fanny and David make their decision when Kurt tells them they can either phone the police or wait two days to give him a head start, making themselves, in effect, accessories to murder. Fanny, agreeing to help him, makes another key speech. A critic once complained that we know what Hellman is against, but we don’t know what she is for. Fanny’s speech tells us. ‘‘I was thinking about Joshua. I was thinking that a few months before he died, we were sitting out there.’’ She points to the terrace. ‘‘He said, ‘Fanny, the complete American is dying.’ I said what do you mean, although I knew what he meant, I always knew. ‘A complete man,’ he said, ‘is a man who wants to know. He wants to know how fast a bird can fly, how thick is the crust of the earth, what made Iago evil, how to plow a field. He knows there is no dignity to a mountain, if there is no dignity to man. You can’t put that in a man, but when it’s there, put your trust in him!’’’

At the end of the play, left alone on stage with David, Fanny says, ‘‘We are shaken out of the magnolias, eh?’’ David asks her if she understands that they are going to be in for trouble. Fanny replies, in a line reminiscent of The Little Foxes but spoken to a much different purpose, ‘‘I understand it very well. We will manage. I’m not put together with flour paste. And neither are you—I am happy to learn.’’

Hellman is not an ironist in this play inasmuch as the tone of the whole play is not ironic. Kurt and Sara are presented as admirable characters; Fanny and David are likable, though naive, and rise to the moral occasion. Marthe is treated sympathetically. Even Teck is not presented with the ironic scorn one feels in The Little Foxes.

The title is ironic, coming from a German patriotic song, as the Americans learn that they must keep watch on the Potomac. There is ironic dialogue as Teck and Kurt talk over the heads of Fanny and the children in the second act. Fanny makes humorously ironic comments about other people, as does David.

We find an example of ‘‘boomerang irony’’ in Teck’s blackmail threat, which causes his death, and again Hellman employs dramatic irony, letting the audience know Teck’s plans, Kurt’s work as a member of the resistance movement, Fanny’s misgivings about David and Marthe. Again we have the tranquil moment before the climax, as Act II opens ten days after the Muellers’ arrival, with Joshua playing baseball with Joseph, the butler; Babette sewing; and Bodo repairing the maid’s heating pad, while Kurt plays the piano. Into this warm setting comes Teck, with his barbed remarks; and, as background to his probing questions, we hear the piano, played by a man with broken hands, broken by the Nazis.

Hellman’s character development has been so thorough, almost novelistic, that we are prepared to accept Fanny’s decision to help Kurt and David’s love for Marthe. We have seen Fanny as the autocrat of the breakfast table, but we have also seen that, though a strong woman, given to raising her voice when she doesn’t get her way, she is generous, loving, an old-fashioned liberal, of a day when the word meant something. And, before the climactic scene, David has been led to assert himself because of his love for Marthe.

We have seen, as so often we see in a Hellman play, the clash of generations. This time, the conflict is resolved. As Sara says, she comes of good stock, and both generations, shaken out of the magnolias, join to face the danger threatening their family and their country.

By the end of the play each character has committed a definitive act. In a strange essay, Elizabeth Hardwick says that ‘‘in most of [Hellman’s] plays there are servants, attractive people, money, expensive settings, agreeable surroundings and situations for stars. It is typical of her practice that when she writes in Watch on the Rhine of a German refugee coming to America in 1940, he goes not to the Bronx or Queens or even to Fort Washington Avenue, but to a charming country house near Washington.’’

In a delightful response, Richard Poirier pointed out that, if Hardwick had used her own definition of melodrama, ‘‘it might have kept her, too, from complaining that the German refugees in Watch on the Rhine did not go to Fort Washington Avenue instead of to a country house near Washington, D.C., where, freed of commuting, they could spend more time in the kind of environment to which Hellman wanted to expose them.’’

Like Henry James, Hellman is a humanist, not a determinist; she believes in free will and personal responsibility for one’s actions or failure to act. Hellman’s concern with ethical choices has caused her to study the behavior of the well-to-do because their money gives them the freedom to make moral choices, to deal with moral responsibilities. To send the refugees to the Bronx would have destroyed the theme of the play.

In Watch on the Rhine we see a theme with which we are already familiar and which we shall see again in The Searching Wind; our world is the sum of our personal acts. Perhaps this concern with ethical responsibility led Bette Davis to accept the relatively minor role of Sara Müller in the screen version. Miss Davis said that she took the part because she believed Watch on the Rhine ‘‘had something important to say at a time when it could do the most good.’’

The film script was included in John Gassner’s Best Film Plays of 1943–1944, and the film itself was voted the best movie of the year by the New York film critics. The play was successful on tour, as were productions in Europe and London. It was done after the war in Moscow, and in Germany, where it was called On the Other Side.

How would the play fare today? How much of the critical fervor was caused by the topicality? How would it strike a ‘‘turned-off’’ generation? In the 1960s Edward Albee announced plans to produce the play, but it was never done. Perhaps Hellman felt that audiences might view Watch on the Rhine as support for the war in Vietnam, which she opposed. She said at the time of the Broadway production, ‘‘In ‘Watch on the Rhine,’ I find the play so variously interpreted on every hand that I have decided it is so fluid a script anybody can bring to it any meaning they want to.’’

Viewed solely as a melodrama, solely as the story of Kurt Müller, the play may be dated. But, if it is the story of some nice, naive, liberal Americans put to the test; if it is a character drama, like The Autumn Garden, then it still should have validity. Until, however, a revival allows us to judge for ourselves, we can view it as probably the best of the World War II anti-Nazi plays, or we can agree with Brooks Atkinson that ‘‘since Miss Hellman has communicated her thoughts dramatically in terms of articulate human beings, ‘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.’’

Source: Katherine Lederer, ‘‘The Plays of the 1940s: Watch on the Rhine,’’ in Lillian Hellman, Twayne Publishers, 1979, pp. 50–58.


Critical Overview