Who is John Halder? At the beginning of “Good,” a revival of the late Scottish-Jewish playwright C.P. Taylor’s drama about a good and decent man’s descent into Nazism, Halder is a liberal, urbane professor who lives in Frankfurt with his wife and three children. He is the author of a well-received autobiographical novel addressing euthanasia and his best and only friend is Maurice, a Jewish psychiatrist. As the play progresses, Maurice is increasingly anxious about the Nazis’ racial policies, as well as his friend’s growing involvement in the Nazi party. Maurice’s instincts turn out to be correct. The tormented Halder rejects, then excuses and then ultimately acquiesces to Nazi policies.
“Good” debuted in London’s West End in 1981. However, the program notes for the production at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown make it clear that staging the play today is an intentional response to the 2016 presidential race.
Jim Petosa, the New Repertory Theatre’s artistic director and the play’s director, recently spoke at a pre-show discussion of the play’s contemporary message. He noted: “John Halder could be any one of us. He’s a man who sees what’s coming down the pike and doesn’t view it as a good thing at all. His friendship with a Jewish psychoanalyst starts to feel the stresses of the political container of the moment. These men begin to realize they’re not quite on the same page because of their identities. Suddenly, they’re both thinking thoughts they never imagined themselves in the position of thinking. I think that is the genesis of the need to do the play—when the unthinkable slowly starts to become thinkable.”
As the unthinkable in the play unfolds, a number of lines eerily resonate in today’s political climate. Halder worries that Germany is having “a national nervous breakdown.” He tries to hold fast to the notion that his country’s “racist program is not practical; they will drop it. They have to drop it.” Although he and Maurice fret about the future, the notion of it culminating in the Holocaust does not enter their minds. But as Maurice becomes more desperate, Halder brushes off his friend’s distress and turns his attention to a pretty student for whom he eventually leaves his wife.
Domestic upheaval is the first sign of Halder’s moral life unraveling. Soon after, he is directing SS book burnings at the university where he teaches, participating in euthanasia experiments and overseeing the logistics of Kristallnacht. Halder comes up with pathetic rationalizations for his involvement. Book burning is “symbolic of a new and healthy” university education. Euthanasia experiments are humane. Kristallnacht is “a humanitarian action” that enables the Jews to flee Germany.
Petosa observed that the times we live in are particularly ripe for the sort of dramatic exploration presented in “Good.” He said: “This is a play in which people who know better accommodate for reasons they think are right. Have we already started the process of accommodation [in our country] not because we’re bad but because we’re human? And how do we figure out a way to survive the unsurvivable and unwittingly become a part of it? That’s the challenge of the moment. I want to avoid any sentiment that says these are bad people—that’s not the point. The point is we accommodate things that subtly serve us.”
To underscore this dilemma, Petosa offers two quotes in the program notes to contextualize the current production. One is from Hannah Arendt’s book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” and the other highlights Donald Trump’s reaction to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Arendt writes, “During the war the lie that was most effective with the whole of the German people was the slogan calling the war ‘the battle of destiny of the German people.’” She goes on to explain the slogan was a form of self-deception—a claim that the war was destined to happen. Petosa then quotes Trump’s blustery reaction to the Democratic National Convention: “I wanted to hit a couple of those speakers so hard. …I was going to hit a number of those speakers so hard their heads would spin; they’d never recover.”
Throughout the play, outside forces have helped to chip away at Halder’s moral center. In a shocking yet foreseeable moment at the end, he changes in front of the audience into a Nazi officer’s uniform. His conversion from a good man to a Nazi functionary is complete. Halder’s inevitable transformation has little to do with overtly embracing Hitler. In Petosa’s view, the play doesn’t portray the character of Hitler as the problem. “It looks at the circumstances that created a Hitler,” he said. “As for the election, whatever the outcome on Nov. 8, it doesn’t matter—there is damage being done and the American character is changing as a result of this process.”
“Good” is playing at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown through Oct. 30.