Considered solely on its own merits, the late C.P. Taylor's "Good," which came to the Booth last evening in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, is a very clever, if unduly attentuated, piece of stagecraft. But with Alan Howard's brilliantly versatile, endlessly resourceful performance as its linchpin, it becomes a fascinating, and eventually moving, piece of theater.
The play is like the fragmented memory of its protagonist, a bespectacled Frankfurt novelist, critic, and professor of literature who is ineluctably, almost unknowingly drawn into the hideous sphere of Nazidom. He is a "good" man, at first amused (in the early '30s) by Hitler's antics and inclined to discount the new chancellor's anti-Semitism, but subtly drawn to the cause and, in the end, emerging as a major newly arrived at Auschwitz.
We are really inside the mind of Professor John Halder. On an almost bare stage, members of his family, his best friend (a Jew), and his mistress mill about, along with the figures of Hitler, Eichmann and other members of the Nazi hierarchy. And while he is vaguely aware that something uncommon, and perhaps even undesirable, is happening in Germany, snatches of song and instrumental music spin soothingly off the top of his mind, allaying any doubts he might have. But when, in full uniform, he arrives at the death camp, the music becomes real as he hears the notorious prisoners' orchestra playing Schubert's "March Militaire."
When Halder's friend, Maurice, tries unsuccessfully to persuade Halder to get him railway tickets to Switzerland, Maurice leans on the upright piano stage center and sings a chorus of two of "My Blue Heaven." For his part, Halder hears strains of Wagner's "Tannhauser" Overture at one point. The music, conducted from the piano, is played by a quintet that sets up at the very start of the evening.
The play, tricky as it is, and even bloodless, comes very close to outsmarting itself. And forgetting the artifice, it is almost as simplistic as Halder convinces himself the Nazi ideology is. This is the author's very point, of course: The good professor has a slatternly wife who can't even cook a meal (he does the cooking), three children, a blind, senile and complaining mother and, in due course, a mistress in the form of an adoring student with whom he runs off to a woodland retreat, though one not too far from his university post. Taking great pains to show us how the most decent and agreeable of men can embrace evil, Taylor has surrounded him with cardboard characters. Even Maurice, though he has a salty tongue, is a stock figure.
As one might expect in an RSC production, the performance and the mounting of the work are flawless. Ultz, the costumer as well as the stage designer, has slanted twin rows of long-armed, metal-shaded white bulbs from above the players and deep into the sides of the orchestra, so that the theater itself is illuminated as if for a lecture or concert of some sort.
In addition to Howard's searching, restless performance, there is fine work by Gary Waldhorn as Maurice, Meg Wynn-Owen as wife Helen, Felicity Dean as mistress Anne, Nicholas Woodeson as Eichmann, and Pip Miller as the ideal Aryan officer who just happens to possess a collection of banned jazz recordings on which he has pasted misleading labels. Marjorie Yates as the complaining mother, and David Howey as a Chaplinesque Hitler, are other assets.
The playing of Kurt Weill's 1938 "September Song" during the 1933 putsch was the only musical anachronism I was aware of. And at this point, a compliment is in order for the accomplished quintet.
Whatever reservations I may have expressed about the play itself stop dead at Howard. This is one of the great actors of our time in a magisterial performance.
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 these 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, sense, 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 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 slated, and his expression caught in some eternal freeze of surprise, Howard creates a living, breathing portrait. A man almost likable, but wholly despicable.
The rest of the cast encirlce 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 rather 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.
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."
When we first meet Halder (Alan Howard), the protagonist of C.P. Taylor's ''Good,'' he is a model of the urbane university professor. A novelist and literary critic, Halder is devoted to his wife and children, as well as to his one close friend, a Jewish psychiatrist named Maurice. But the place is Frankfurt, the year is 1933, and men can change without warning. It isn't too long before Halder has not only become a member of the Nazi party but has also played a direct role in SS book burnings and euthanasia ''experiments'' in the Jew-bashing Night of the Long Knives, and, finally, in Eichmann's genocide at Auschwitz.
Mr. Taylor's ''play with music,'' which arrived at the Booth from London last night in a highly polished Royal Shakespeare Company production, is an attempt to understand how all this could happen. The question raised is fascinating, because Halder is no cliche Nazi, no fire-breathing thug. He's more of an Albert Speer type, and yet, unlike Speer, he doesn't settle for practicing evil from a bureaucratic distance - Halder gets right into the bloody trenches of the Holocaust. Who wouldn't be eager to see how such a ''good'' man could turn totally rancid so fast?
The answer, however, never really comes. ''Good'' is an undeniably provocative work, and Mr. Taylor, who died last year at the age of 53, has written it with an intelligent, light touch in a most imaginative form. But for all the author's efforts to break through our received ideas about the origins of Nazism and to avoid black and white moral imperatives, his play doesn't add anything to the generalities of the past. Even if you give ''Good'' the full and sometimes laborious concentration it requires, you're likely to leave the theater feeling stimulated but unsatisfied.
The play's modus operandi is its cleverest aspect. The setting is an empty stage, with its bare-brick wall and gas pipes showing, and with stark police-interrogation lamps transversing the space from every angle. This arena is, one might say, the concentration camp of Halder's mind. ''Good'' unfolds inside its central character's psyche and, fittingly enough, has a stream-of-consciousness structure. All the supporting players remain on stage throughout, so that Mr. Howard can wander among them at will as he free-associates back and forth through time.
There are also five musicians afoot, who play yet another role in Halder's consciousness. As the protagonist explains at the start, he has been ''bringing music into the traumatic moments'' of his life since childhood. This mental music is his ''anxiety neurosis'' - a defense mechanism that allows him to drown out and escape thoughts he doesn't want to hear. It is also something of an artificial stage gimmick, particularly when the musical selections include such predictable choices as Weill and Wagner, but it is an amusing one that pays off in startling theatrical dividends at the play's very end.
Although some of the splintery scenes between the musical interludes are digressionary or repetitive, others are bristling. Once Mr. Taylor has converted Halder to villainy, he does a sharp job of showing how an intellectual might rationalize his corruption. To Halder, book burning can be ''symbolic of a new and healthy'' alternative to dusty university education. The Night of the Long Knives, if ''looked at in perspective,'' is ''basically a humanitarian action'' because it encourages Jews to flee Germany. Ultimately, Halder can maintain that there is ''no objective moral truth'' and can resolve any qualms by declaring, ''We probably are good, whatever that means.''
The exchanges between Halder and Maurice, in which the men debate and contrast their respective dilemmas, are also vibrantly drawn - at least until we wonder why Halder doesn't help his beloved Jewish friend escape to Switzerland. Maurice - a man who is witty even in anger and panic, a Jew with unresolved feelings about his Jewishness - is easily the most complex character in ''Good.'' He is played with unshowy passion and appealingly earthy humor by the superb Gary Waldhorn, whose sensitively modulated performance scrupulously avoids self-righteousness.
But who is Halder? The vague reasons given for his conversion from liberal humanist to Nazi are the same old catch-all motivations: he opportunistically wishes to advance his career; he's self-centered; he lacks the strong sense of self-definition that a uniform might provide. Halder also has empty or troubled relationships with the various women in his life - relationships that are explored at excessive but unrewarding length. And, like all Nazis in works of this sort, from the Speer of ''Inside the Third Reich'' to the hero of the film ''Mephisto,'' Halder has a special fondness for Goethe's ''Faust.''
This just isn't enough to go on. If that's what it takes to turn a decent, intelligent man into a full-fledged murderer, one might argue that the whole world was, and is, full of Nazis. And apparently that's exactly the real point Mr. Taylor wishes to make. In a note in the Playbill, he cites present-day '''crimes' of the West against the Third World'' and says that he wrote his play in part to expiate his own culpability ''in the Auschwitzes we are all perpetrating today.'' It's to make this debatable analogy - to suggest that we're all possibly ''good Germans'' like Halder - that Mr. Taylor has oversimplified and blurred the highly specific, sui generis genesis and nature of the Third Reich's own Auschwitzes in ''Good.''
Left with a character who jumps from good to evil without a credibly written transition, Mr. Howard has his difficulties in Act I. Impishly peering over his round spectacles, or taking odd pauses in simple lines (''I -don't - smoke''), or creasing his mouth into razor-thin smiles, he has so many tics we wonder if Halder isn't meant to be a stereotypical Nazi psychopath from the very outset. But in Act II, as Halder's emotional and physical constitutions disintegrate along with his conscience, Mr. Howard rises to his full and considerable strength, leaves the mannerisms behind, and shows us a once-respectable-looking man slithering harrowingly into chaos.
The rest of the company can hardly be faulted; there is especially strong work from Felicity Dean, as Halder's mindlessly sweet mistress, and from Meg Wynn-Owen, as his somewhat spaced-out wife. Although there have been cast changes since the London production of ''Good,'' the director, Howard Davies, has knit the current company into a tight ensemble. His orchestration of the actors, the band and Beverly Emmons's subtle lighting on the sceneryless stage is a flawless display of theater craft.
The high point of Mr. Davies's staging, as well as of the script and of Mr. Howard's performance, comes in the final moments, when Halder finally arrives in Auschwitz and confronts a band that, for once, he cannot tune out. It's the play's only truly devastating passage because, at last, we and Halder are face-to-face with the horror of the Holocaust. But, even then, we're still left feeling impotent before history, for we're still wondering just how Halder ended up there. Like too many Nazi criminals before him, the protagonist of ''Good'' has eluded his erstwhile prosecutors and stolen into the night, the dark secrets of his soul intact.