Good couldn't be better showing man at his worst

How did it happen? How did a nation go mad? How were normal people transformed into brutes, devoid of ordinary humanity? How were the Nazis made?


Hitler's own anti-semitism is clinically explicable. But after he had ordered the mass extermination of Jews, how did he get apparently normal Germans to carry those orders out?

The questions are asked and some answers given by C.P. Taylor's wonderful play, Good, which the Royal Shakespeare Company brought triumphantly to the Booth Theater last night. This is a play for the mind and heart, an incandescent evening in the theater that lights up the conscience.

It is a play in which you are horrifyingly asked to identify with the villain. And the villain of this trenchantly anti-Nazi, anti-expediency play is not Adolf Hitler, nor is it Adolf Eichmann, although both briefly appear.

No, the villain is a mild-mannered professor of German Literature - and we follow his fateful progress from university classroom and muddled marriage to that chill morning in 1941 when he is met at the railway station of Auschwitz by a frosty-eyed camp commandant and a brass band. A real brass band.

Not that the author, who died soon after the play's first London success last year, expects you actually to sympathize with his double-dealing, alienated academic, John Halder. But he does insist that - Jew or Gentile alike - you do see him not as some aberrant monster, a freak of history, but as a man not entirely unlike yourself.

He has hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions - he even needs the services of a psychiatrist. For Halder has "a bad case of the bands."

His life is punctuated by the imaginary sounds of music - maybe a military band, a drinking song, or perhaps Richard Tauber singing a sentimental ballad. "Everything," he tells us, "is acted out against a musical background."

This gives Taylor's play its formal structure. We are on a bare stage - the anteroom, it might be, to a nightmare. The setting such as it is - conceived with spartan imagination by the designer, Ultz - is nothing but an old upright piano, a scattering of chairs and a battery of 84 lamps fixed on scaffolding as if in some lunatic lighting display.

There are 10 actors and six musicians. They amble on to the rehearsal-like stage. And there they remain for the play's duration. It is like a run-through for a play - but then so is Halder's life. Halder is beguiled into first the Nazi party, and later made one with its horrors. He is a weak man, who likes to feel he does good. As his second, madly Aryan wife (Felicity Dean) says at the end, "If we do good to each other....." But he is magnetically attracted to the line of least resistance.

He writes a novel making a case of euthanasia. He delivers lectures on the adverse effects of Jewish humanism on European literature. He is a sitting duck for party propagandists.

His first motives are to join the Nazis and "push them to humanity." After all his psychiatrist, Maurice is a Jew, and he regards him as his "closest friend, my only friend."

But this ex-soldier from World War I, is as alienated as perhaps the whole post-Versailles German nation is alienated. He says, "I do everything other people do - but I don't feel it's real."

Yet he can still say - with a joy for conformity and a pleasure in pomp: "It is a terrible thing, but a wonderful thing, to get into a uniform." Halder gets into a uniform, finding that the primrose path to the holocaust is paved with good intentions.

This is not a rationale for the whole German race - merely an objective case history of one man. An unusual man. A man as unusual as we all are - to ourselves.

Howard Davies' direction of the play - he has been with it since it started in the RSC's small London theater, the Warehouse - is unerringly unobtrusive. He subtly and sensibly permits Halder, as played by the brilliantly, carelessly virtuoso Alan Howard, to be unerringly obtrusive.

With every superbly calculated mannerism Howard is insisting that the play, like its music, is taking place in his mind. It is a concept remarkably conveyed.

Howard himself has a lovely air of myopic gentleness. With his rimless glasses, his head perpetually held on one side, his mouth slanted, and his expression caught in some eternal freeze of surprise, Howard creates in living, breathing portrait a man almost likeable but wholly despicable.

The rest of the cast encircle him with their own anxieties as characters and skills as actors. Even the musicians are part of the play's unbroken, dream fabric.

The RSC company is different from the London cast, although Howard himself goes from strength to strength. The rest, including notably, Gary Waldhorn, Pip Miller, Nicholas Woodeson and Kate Spiro, recreate the awful images of a dirty fantasy.

Alan Howard

One is reminded of Goya's inscription on his etchings Los Caprichos. "The dream of reason produces monsters." Here is one man's dream of reason.

Clive Barnes.

New York Post, 14.10.1982.