The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The setting for Watch on the Rhine is the Farrelly estate. Located about twenty miles from Washington, D.C., the estate is home to Fanny Farrelly, a wealthy widow, and her thirty-nine-year-old bachelor son, David, who commutes to his law practice in the city. The time of the play is the late spring of 1940, and on this day Fanny’s daughter, Sara, will return to the estate for the first time in the twenty years since her marriage. She is to be accompanied by her husband, Kurt Muller, and their children, ages nine, twelve, and fourteen. Muller is a citizen of Germany and is active in the anti-Fascist movement. Because of his politics, he and Sara have found it necessary to move their family from place to place in Europe, and they have enjoyed none of the luxuries that surrounded Sara as a young girl. This deprivation, among other things, concerns Sara’s mother as it did Sara’s late father, a judge and diplomat.

The play begins in the living room of the estate, where Fanny Farrelly, her French housekeeper, Anise, and her butler, Joseph, discuss Sara’s pending arrival. Fanny is quite anxious and shows it by her brusque and demanding behavior. Her servants, who have been with the Farrelly family for many years and who know Fanny very well, are tolerant and remain composed. Anise sorts the morning mail, while Joseph prepares to serve breakfast. It is eight-thirty in the morning, and Fanny is concerned that David, whom she accuses of being late for their nine o’clock breakfast, will not be on time to meet Sara and her family when they arrive on the noon train.

Fanny goes over her own mail while discussing with Anise the imagined contents of items addressed to others in the household. Fanny’s houseguests for the previous six weeks have been the Count and Countess de Brancovis, Teck and Marthe. Anise notes that some of the mail addressed to the guests appears to be bills. Fanny’s guests are members of the Romanian aristocracy, but they are without means and live at the expense of those in the world who will accommodate them. Count de Brancovis is a Nazi sympathizer. He visits the capital frequently in order to maintain contact with friends in the German embassy. His wife, Marthe, and David Farrelly are in love. The count is aware of the feelings between the two, and he threatens Marthe early in the play, warning her not to make any plans with David.

Once Anise has exited the stage, and Fanny, David, Marthe, and Teck are offstage as well, presumably being served breakfast by Joseph, Sara and her family enter. The Mullers have arrived on an earlier train, chosen because it costs less to ride than does the noon one. They are discovered by Anise, who happens upon them as Sara, reminded by her surroundings, reminisces about her childhood and the wealth which had been part of her life.

Fanny and David are summoned by Anise, and, after a few moments of enthusiastic greetings and introductions, there is some serious talk concerning the fact that Kurt’s anti-Fascist activities have forced the family to live in hiding much of the time and that the family has obviously had inadequate funds to meet their barest needs. Sara defends Kurt to her family, and he explains with eloquence that, having seen members of his own village murdered in a Nazi street fight, he has no option but to work, when and where he can, to defeat the Fascists and Nazis.

The Romanians are introduced to Kurt, who evades the count’s questions about his background....

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Lillian Hellman received some criticism for having written what are termed “well-made” plays—in other words, plays written to fit a formula or pattern in which the action is carefully spaced in order to hold the interest of the audience and keep them in a mode of anticipation. There is the implication in such criticism that a play’s action has been contrived and therefore does not persuade, leaving the audience unconvinced.

The structure of Watch on the Rhine offers no surprises. As is typical, in the first act the events to come begin unfolding as Fanny, her servants and her son reveal details about those who are anxiously awaited. The audience becomes curious about the daughter Sara, her marriage to a foreigner, and her long absence from her family home, and they are drawn into the anxious anticipation. That there is likely to be a conflict between good and evil is suspected once the arrival of Sara and her family, who are obviously good, has been accomplished and there is evidence of recognition between Sara’s husband and the houseguest, who has connections with European authority figures. By the end of act 1, the audience has been allowed to feel sure which of the characters represents evil and is fully involved in the suspense that is already building.

Suspense continues in the second act. There is confrontation between various characters, resolution among a few of them, and the unresolved conflict between Kurt and Teck leaves it to the audience, for the duration of the intermission, to imagine the outcome. It is no shock that the climax and the denouement occur in the third act—the surprise being which of the options open to Kurt will be taken.

Hellman’s response to the criticism was to insist that the dramatist is left no choice but to contrive. By the very form of the art—three walls assumed to be a room for which the audience is the fourth wall—artifice is already imposed upon the author. She believed that the audience could be convinced in spite of the trickery, and she is credited with using the form intelligently if not innovatively. If audience and critic were too aware of structure in Hellman’s play, they are pleasantly consoled by the interesting and colorful characterizations and the wit and humor contained in the dialogue.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Farrelly country house

Farrelly country house. Suburban home of the distinguished Farrelly family, located outside Washington, D.C. The house’s living room is the setting for most of the action in the play, literally and figuratively. The play’s stage directions reveal that the room holds furniture from several different generations, “all people of taste.” It is a busy room, with “too many things in it.” Here people gather, argue, and get on with the business of life. The room represents prosperity and political connectedness, as well as Fanny’s well-decorated life, including her concern with appearances. It offers a closed view of the world she once shared with her late husband. For Sara it represents her former life, a life she sought to escape but now returns to as a kind of safety net with her family. The terrace off the living room is a place the family members and their guests go to breathe freely in the open air; it represents the winds of change that are to come.

*Rhine River

*Rhine River. European river that flows north, from Switzerland, through Germany and the Netherlands, to the North Sea. The play’s title is symbolic of the river’s course, as it passes through countries that were “on watch” as fascism was spreading across Europe in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. The Rhine stands as a tangible symbol of the danger facing Europe. Kurt Muller returns to Germany, continuing his own “watch on the Rhine,” as his American relatives rest in their naïveté in the Farrelly home.


*Germany. Kurt Muller’s homeland, which he hopes to defend against the spread of fascism, and the place to which he returns for refuge in the end.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Fascism is a totalitarian system of government that directs the state to take absolute control of the lives of its...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Watch on the Rhine contains melodramatic elements. The melodrama is a type of narrative that incorporates...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1939: Germany invades Poland and World War II begins.

Today: The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians...

(The entire section is 134 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Look up the history of the underground movement in Germany. Were there any members who appear to be similar to the characters in the play?...

(The entire section is 100 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Watch on the Rhine, a Warner Brothers film, was produced in 1943 by Hal Wallis and directed by Herman Shumlin. It starred Bette Davis...

(The entire section is 38 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Atkinson, Brooks, Review in the New York Times, August 24, 1941.

Dick, Bernard F., Review in the...

(The entire section is 242 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Estrin, Mark W. Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. Contains twenty-three essays discussing three main topics—Hellman’s plays, her memoirs, and “the Hellman persona.” Of special interest are Jacob H. Adler’s essay, in which he discusses blackmail in Watch on the Rhine and other Hellman plays, and Timothy J. Wills’s article, which examines Hellman’s political plays and her attitudes toward war.

Gurko, Leo. The Angry Decade: American Literature and Thought from 1929 to Pearl Harbor. New York: Harper-Calophon Books, 1967. Gurko discusses the political influence of Watch on the Rhine. He considers Hellman the best dramatic poet of the period.

Holman, Lorena Ross. The Dramatic Works of Lillian Hellman. Stockholm, Sweden: Uppsala, 1973. An accessible source for beginners, this book contains a chapter on Watch on the Rhine that analyzes characters and structure in detail. Also includes an extensive bibliography with journal and newspaper articles and reviews.

Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A detailed overview of Hellman’s life, plays, and nonfiction. Includes a selected bibliography of both primary sources (plays, collections of plays, memoirs) and secondary sources. In the discussion of Watch on the Rhine, Lederer takes issue with those who see its importance primarily in the character of Kurt Muller, arguing instead that the play concerns multiple characters and as such will remain relevant.

Riordan, Mary Marguerite. Lillian Hellman: A Bibliography, 1926-1978. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1980. An extensive annotated bibliography that focuses on the wide variety of Hellman’s writing, including her contributions to newspapers and periodicals, and provides an index of letters, manuscripts, and recordings. The detailed index gives numbered references for each play.