The New York Times’s had this to say about Watch on the Rhine:
Lillian Hellman has brought the awful truth close to home. She has translated the death struggle between ideas in familiar terms we are bound to respect and understand. Curious how much better she has done it than anybody else by forgetting the headlines and by avoiding the obvious approaches to the great news subject of today…. It is a play of pith and moment and the theatre may be proud of it.
It is a well-rounded play, full of flavor and good people and the characters control its destinies. For Miss Hellman never preaches. She has given fascism a terrible appearance without introducing a uniform or a party salute. Being primarily interested in people, she has shown how deeply fascism penetrates into the hearts and minds of human beings.
That review, dated April 2, 1941, is perhaps the best way to highlight just how necessary it was for the Guthrie to bring this story to the stage now. When Nazis march down American main streets in broad daylight in 2017, we have to ask ourselves, how did we get here?
Film and television producers love stories set during the Second World War because it is easy to depict an enemy that is universally despised. It’s easy to be a hero when the villains are well-known and thoroughly unredeemable embodiments of evil. We throw around comparisons to Nazis and fascists with barely a second thought because they are almost cartoons, one-dimensional bad guys that are evil just for the sake of it. But to divorce these individuals from their humanity allows us to avoid asking ourselves the more difficult questions of how evil can poison the hearts of so many people to the point where they can carry out massive acts of unimaginable horror for years.
Watch on the Rhine resonates so profoundly today because it premiered in April 1941, eight months before the Japanese attack on Pearly Harbor that forced America out of its neutral abstention. Recognizing the threat that the rise of the National Socialists in Germany posed, Lillian Hellman sought to shake Americans out of their complacency. As the Times review pointed out, the play works because it barely mentions Nazis by name, and certainly doesn’t depict them parading around in their fetishized regalia. Modern cinema may have done more to promote the current rise of white supremacists by giving disaffected people a host of symbols and figures to rally around; their atrocities forgotten.
For all its seriousness, Watch on the Rhine is an easy play to watch. The Guthrie’s staging runs to nearly three hours, but the time slips by easily because the characters are so engaging and well-drawn. The jokes woven in are so timeless and universal that it’s difficult to remember that they are more than 70 years old. The Times review claims that the show does not preach, but this isn’t quite true. As the story reaches it’s final, heartbreaking moments, Kurt Muller tells his children that violence done in the name of freedom or justice is just as evil as any other violence, but that he hopes that his actions will create a world in which violence is but a memory. It may be necessary, but that doesn’t make it good. This is the message we need to keep alive if we are to survive as a people.