(written by C. P. Taylor (1981); Directed by Dominic Cooke, Harold Pinter Theatre, London, 25 June 2023)
Regarding the grand achievements of the Third Reich, “As with Stalin’s Great Terror, only a madman could guess what was on the way. Even the perpetrators had to go one step at a time, completing each step before they realised that the next one was possible.”* In “Good,” A liberal German Professor of literature (NOT Victor Klemperer), named John Halder, becomes involved with the Third Reich’s war machine and the Final Solution. Halder, a ‘good man,’ shows all the moral courage of Albert Speer and all the sense of duty and honour of Reinhard Heydrich. Mere cool intellect does not confer simple warm human decency or tough adherence to tradition and principle, something the old religions used to try to drum into us.
In this production, each incremental step to the Holocaust is shown: Hitler’s election; the Berlin University book burning; exploitation of the assassination of Ernst vom Rath and subsequent Kristallnacht; War and Shoah. Throughout, Halder’s development (or descent) is accomplished because, pace Hannah Arendt, the emptier the vessel, the easier to fill with poison. The play takes no baby-steps: we hurtle towards the denouement at a frenetic pace, as Halder engages with multiple characters – his best (only) friend (a Jew), his demented mother, his wife, his lover, various Nazi apparatchiks. These exchanges chop and change every few seconds, or so it seems, but we did not find this overly confusing, albeit the whole piece is overly talky. Halder was played by David Tennant in an excess of intensity: whilst impressive, a bland and unemotional reading would have been more apt. The sundry supporting roles were played by Elliot Levey and Sharon Small, very well indeed, although an ominous and silent figure joins the stage at the finale. The set is claustrophobic and stark, a cornered wall with apertures for ovens to accommodate books and other things for burning.
The dramatic theme is sledgehammered in up front by Halder, at dinner in Frankfurt, telling friend Maurice how Goethe ignored a begging letter from Beethoven. This becomes the trope for Halder’s moral decline, particularly his failure to secure Maurice’s exit visa from an increasingly anti-Semitic nation. It is a poor start in a play about morality: how about explaining that Goethe was ill to almost the level of mortal danger when the letter arrived? But let that pass. At first, Halder meets his friend’s fear of the Nazis with skepticism (“just a balloon they throw up in the air to distract the masses.”) Then Halder joins the Party (it’s just easier). The characters emblematize the febrile atmosphere of Nazi Germany, to a point where they seem one-dimensional when in such a world of State-sponsored insanity they actually are forced to be. Music, that great mnemonic, accompanies the inside of Halder’s head as he heads down the well-intentioned stairs to Hell, leaving dying Weimar (jazz), passing by unfashionable Catholicism (Schubert, Chopin) and arriving with a thud at Wagner (an obvious but silly conceit).
For advancement, vanity, and an easy life, Literature Professor Halder starts by shoveling books into the furnace, and finally channels his inner Mengele and Eichmann at Auschwitz, where an old friend turns up. Clive James, reviewing the TV drama “Holocaust” in ‘The Observer’, 10/9/1978, whose comment is quoted above, said further: “There is no hope that the boundless horror of Nazi Germany can be transmitted entire to the generation that will succeed us. There is a limit to what we can absorb of other people’s experience. There is also a limit to how guilty we should feel about being unable to remember.” This sums up the difficulty of dramatic renderings of insane epochs such as the Third Reich or the Great Terror (or for that matter, the Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation, the Apartheid, the Katyn massacre, Srebrenica, The Troubles, etc…) – they stretch the limits of our credulity; they stretch the limits of our ability to process the truth. For these and other reasons discussed above, Good is not Great (and in fairness, could probably never hope to be).