In the era of Germany’s Third Reich, there was no symphonic conductor more admired than Wilhelm Furtwängler. A virulent anti-Nazi, Furtwängler denounced the repressive government of Adolf Hitler at every opportunity, refusing to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic for political functions or in support of the Nazi government, but mysteriously, refused to leave the country, while many of his colleagues fled in protest or persecution. In 1946, Furtwängler was subjected to a de-Nazification tribunal by the occupying Allied forces and interrogated about his reasons for remaining in Germany. This interrogation is the subject of Sir Ronald Harwood’s gripping 1995 play, Taking Sides, which plays through November 12 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura.
Furtwängler was Adolf Hitler’s favorite conductor, granted eminent status despite his refusal to express loyalty to the Reich and who was openly contemptuous of anything related to the Nazi government, even going so far as to write a public letter to Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels denouncing the state’s virulent anti-Semitism. “Ultimately there is only one dividing line I recognize,”Furtwängler said, “that between good and bad art. However, while the dividing line between Jews and non-Jews is being drawn with a downright merciless theoretical precision, that other dividing line, the one which in the long run is so important for our music life, yes, the decisive dividing line between good and bad, seems to have far too little significance attributed to it.” During his time as leader of the Berlin Philharmonic, Furtwängler invited prominent Jewish musicians to play in the symphony and assisted many of them in their efforts to leave the country.
The interrogator in the story is Major Steven Arnold, who was chosen because of his unsympathetic views toward German culture. Not only does Arnold hate classical music, but he is unable to recognize art at all (“I am totally uncultured,” he admits proudly.) As a result, his relentless questioning of Furtwängler drips with sarcasm and contempt and he tells his adjutant, young Lt. David Wills (Cylan Brown) “I’m interested in nailing the bastard!” in forecasting his grilling of Furtwängler, who he sneeringly calls “the bandleader.”
Although the play should be about getting inside Furtwängler’s head to find out what his true intentions were in remaining in Germany, Rubicon’s production is monopolized by Patrick Vest as Major Arnold. Uncouth, vulgar, insulting, and nasty, Vest is utterly despicable in a role that audiences should be siding with, in Arnold’s attempt to unmask any hidden pro-Nazi feelings Furtwängler may have had. He derisively calls all Germans by their first names, referring to the impressive and proud Furtwängler as “Wilhelm.” He is even dismissive of his mousy Austrian secretary Emmi Straubel (an affecting Tara Donovan), who he refers to as “one of the good ones.”
At the outset of the play, Arnold brags to Wills about his effective interrogating technique, insisting that “there is always one question the guilty can’t answer.” When he questions Helmuth Rode (Adrian Sparks), an obscure second violinist in Furtwängler’s orchestra, he asks him one question (“So, you never joined the Nazi Party?”) and then sits silent while Rode prattles on and on, defensively protecting Furtwängler’s legacy. When he tries this on Furtwängler, the maestro cagily says, “Yes, that is correct” and nothing more, throwing the room into an uneasy silence.
The lengthy interrogation that follows is a game of cat-and-mouse, with Arnold’s drippingly sarcastic and caustic accusations about Furtwängler’s “pals, Adolf, Joseph, and Hermann” alternating with Furtwängler’s emotional defense: that Furtwängler was representing and protecting high German culture. “I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could.” Furtwängler’s nobility may have been naïve, but it was heartfelt, and when Arnold produces blow-ups of Nazi atrocities at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp from the Nuremberg Trials, Furtwängler’s anguish is palpable. He insists that he was used as a pawn by the Nazis, but struggled to straddle the line between exile and execution. “I couldn’t leave my country in her height of misery,” he wails. The confrontation between Arnold and Furtwängler is sobering, as we side with the esteemed German artist over the insolent American officer.
Peter Van Norden is masterful as Furtwängler. His portrayal is both honest and heroic and it is easy to sympathize with him against the loathsome Arnold as portrayed by Vest. Both Cylan Brown (as Lt. Wills) and Tara Donovan (as Emmi Straubel) do wonderful jobs as Furtwängler’s sympathetic supporters. Vivien Latham plays a small but key role as Tamara Sachs, the widow of a German-Jewish pianist who Furtwängler auditioned but was unable to protect.
Taking Sides is a thought-provoking, highly emotional play about priorities, and how one man struggled to separate art from politics at a time when a culture was being decimated by vicious ideology. The production is directed by Ovation Award-winner Stephanie A. Coltrin.
Taking Sides plays through November 12 the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.