Watch on the Rhine

by Lillian Hellman

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1429

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...

(This entire section contains 1429 words.)

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about his background. When all but Teck and Marthe are gone, Teck examines the newcomers’ luggage and brief case and remarks to his wife on the scars on Kurt’s face and on the bones of his hands, which have obviously been broken and have not mended well. The count tells the butler that Fanny wishes the bags to be carried upstairs. His wife confronts Teck, and he admits his intention to examine the bags’ contents once they are out of sight.

Act 2 takes place ten days after the Mullers’ arrival. In the living room, Sara crochets while her mother and the count play cribbage. The children are at various tasks. The conversation turns from the casual to the serious when Kurt enters and the count attempts to needle him about his ideals and his work. Kurt exits.

David, when confronted by Teck, admits having made Marthe a gift of a sapphire bracelet, and Teck tells Marthe that the two of them will be leaving immediately. Marthe admits her love for David and tells Teck that not only does she not love him, she does not like him. Before she exits in order to pack and move to the city on her own, she accuses Fanny of trying to manage her children’s lives. She insists that Fanny’s disappointment in her daughter is that Sara has lived her own life, in spite of her mother, and that Fanny has tried to make David into his father. David agrees with Marthe.

Kurt reenters and tells Sara that he must go to California for a few weeks. Teck knowingly reads to the group a news item from the afternoon paper. The article states that three important members of the anti-Fascist movement in Germany have been captured. Teck adds that he has learned from his German embassy connections in Washington that a fourth man, called Gotter, has not been found. When Teck demands that ten thousand dollars be paid him before he leaves, it is first assumed that the blackmail is to be paid by David in order to protect Marthe. Kurt knows, and eventually admits, that it is he who is expected to pay. Kurt is aware that Teck has examined his case and has found the money that Kurt has been given to take back to Germany as a means to assist his comrades. Kurt reveals that he must return to Germany and try to bribe his friends’ freedom from the prison where they are detained and are probably suffering torture.

When the third act begins, a half hour has passed. Fanny, David, Sara, and Kurt chat for a time in the living room before Teck appears, carrying his hat and Kurt’s briefcase. He has brought the case, he says, so that Kurt can remove from it the money which Teck has demanded. Teck reveals what he has discerned from information he has obtained from the German embassy—that Karl Francis Gotter, the man who had not been captured in Germany along with his three anti-Fascist colleagues, is Kurt Muller. Teck promises that in exchange for the money, he will not reveal to his embassy friends that Kurt is in the area and will be returning to Germany in order to continue his work. Kurt does not believe him and makes it clear that none of the money will be Teck’s.

David and Fanny insist on paying Teck his hush money, part in cash and part in the form of a check dated one month hence. The two Farrellys leave the stage in order to prepare the money and the check, and while they are gone, Teck, Sara, and Kurt discuss the situation in Europe. Kurt, patience exhausted, does what he has known he must do in order to protect his family, his friends, and his cause. He throws Teck to the floor and subjects him to a series of fierce blows to the head, then carries Teck to the terrace and shoots him.

Kurt will take the body with him in the Farrelly vehicle and will dispose of the body and the car as he makes his way to the airport. Sara makes arrangements for him to take a flight, using an assumed name, to a town on the Mexican border of Texas. Kurt will cross into Mexico and from there will make his way back to Germany. Fanny and David agree to give Kurt two days after which they will report to authorities the disappearance of the count and of their automobile. Kurt says good-bye to his children, telling them of his hopes for a happy future, free from fear. Kurt expresses genuine admiration for Sara’s mother and her brother, as do they for him. He and Sara express their love for each other. Kurt leaves, and Sara and the children go to their rooms, leaving Fanny and David to discuss the difficult days ahead.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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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

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Fascism Fascism is a totalitarian system of government that directs the state to take absolute control of the lives of its people. The term was first used by supporters of Benito Mussolini, Italy’s dictator from 1922 until his capture and execution during World War II. Other countries that have established fascist regimes include Spain under the rule of Francisco Franco and Germany under the rule of Adolph Hitler.

Fascism emerged as a counter force to the egalitarianism of socialism and democracy, which frightened many conservative Europeans at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. They feared that the lower classes would take power away from the bourgeoisie (middle) class. These conservatives also feared the chaos and general anarchy that inevitably ensued after political revolutions. Fascists played on these concerns, appealing to the people’s nationalistic sentiments and promising a return to law and order and Christian morality.

The doctrine of fascism includes the glorification of the state and the complete subordination of the people to it. The state creates its own absolute law. A second principle, that of survival of the fittest, is borrowed from social Darwinism and applied to the state. Fascists use this as a justification for aggressive imperialism, claiming that weaker countries will inevitably fall to more powerful ones. This elitist dogma extends to the fascist concept of an authoritarian leader, a superman with superior moral and intellectual powers, borrowed from the theories of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who would unite his people and carry on the vision of the totalitarian state.

World War II The world experienced a decade of aggression in the 1930s that would culminate in World War II. This war resulted from the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan, which gained control as a result of the depression experienced by most of the world in the early 1930s, and from the conditions created by the peace settlements following World War I. The dictatorships established in each of these countries encouraged expansion into neighboring countries. In Germany, Hitler strengthened the army during the 1930s. In 1936 Benito Mussolini’s Italian troops took Ethiopia. From 1936 to 1939 Spain was engaged in civil war involving Francisco Franco’s fascist army, aided by Germany and Italy. In March 1938 Germany annexed Austria and in March 1939 occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took Albania in April 1939. One week after Nazi Germany and (the former) U.S.S.R. signed the Treaty of Nonaggression, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany after a German submarine sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19, 1939. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war.

The Underground Movement During World War II an underground movement emerged in Western Europe organized by the Allies. In France, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Italy, and Greece, fighting forces trained in guerrilla warfare were created and supported through airdrops and radio communications from London. These resistance forces, led for the most part by American- and British-trained officers, conducted sneak attacks against the enemy, industrial sabotage, espionage, propaganda campaigns, and organized escape routes for Allied prisoners of war. Their activities were one of the major factors that led to the defeat of Germany and the end of World War II.

Literary Style

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StructureWatch on the Rhine contains melodramatic elements. The melodrama is a type of narrative that incorporates threatening situations into the plot as well as a happy ending. Characters in melodramas tend to be stock figures, for example the longsuffering wife or the virtuous hero.

Hellman structures Watch on the Rhine around the threatening situation Kurt experiences when Teck discovers Kurt’s identity and tries to blackmail him. Also, some of Hellman’s characters appear stereotypical in the play. Sara provides a good example of the long-suffering wife and Joshua serves as the devoted son. Yet Hellman departs from the melodramatic structure through her revelation of the complexity of the play’s theme and her depiction of other characters.

Hellman’s departure from the traditions of the melodrama provides the play with its originality, which helps maintain the audience’s interest. The solution to the threatening situation is Kurt’s murder of Teck, which presents thorny moral questions. Even Kurt expresses doubt about his own character after committing the act. Hellman also creates a complex character in Fanny, as she struggles with her need to dominate her family and critique their actions. In addition, the play’s ending does not follow the traditional melodramatic format. Kurt does escape Teck’s threats, but his future is far from certain. Sara has noted the danger that will await him when he tries to help his comrades escape. She and her children understand that they may never see him again.

Compare and Contrast

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1939: Germany invades Poland and World War II begins.

Today: The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians heightens tensions in the Middle East.

1941: On December 7, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and the United States enters World War II.

Today: Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, are the first large scale attacks on U.S. soil since the attack on Pearl Harbor.

1939: During the war years a strong underground movement emerges that helps stop Nazi aggression through sneak attacks, sabotage, and espionage.

Today: Espionage activities continue between the former Soviet Union and the United States, even after the Soviet Union abolishes its communist government. In recent years, spies have been caught and prosecuted in the United States, in Russia, and in China.

Media Adaptations

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Watch on the Rhine, a Warner Brothers film, was produced in 1943 by Hal Wallis and directed by Herman Shumlin. It starred Bette Davis as Sara and Paul Lukas as Kurt. Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman wrote the screenplay.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Dick, Bernard F., Review in the Morning Telegraph, April 3, 1941.

Freedley, George, ‘‘Lillian Hellman,’’ in American Writers: Supplement 1, Part 1, edited by Leonard Unger, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979, pp. 276–98.

King, Kimball, ‘‘Hellman, Lillian (Florence),’’ in Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by K. A. Berney, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 255–58.

Lederer, Katherine, ‘‘Lillian Hellman: Chapter 3,’’ in Twayne’s United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

Monaco, Pamela, ‘‘Lillian Hellman,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 228: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Second Series, edited by Christopher J. Wheatley, The Gale Group, 2000, pp. 96–115.

Skantze, Pat, ‘‘Lillian Hellman,’’ in Modern American Women Writers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991, pp. 207–20.

Further Reading Bryer, Jackson, Conversations with Lillian Hellman, Literary Conversations Series, University Press of Mississippi, 1986. Hellman sheds light on her writing process and the themes of her plays.

Griffin, Alice, and Geraldine Thorsten, Understanding Lillian Hellman, Understanding Contemporary American Literature Series, University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Griffin and Thorsten place Hellman’s work into historical context.

Podhoretz, Norman, Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer, Free Press, 1999. Podhoretz presents entertaining and insightful snapshots of Hellman’s life and those of her contemporaries in the literary scene.

Rollyson, Carl, Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy, (1999; last accessed September, 2001). In an examination of newly discovered diaries, letters, and interviews, Rollyson offers insight into Hellman’s life and work.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide