‘She’s writing in a state of emergency’: Lillian Hellman’s thrilling Watch on the Rhine | Theatre


“We’re shaken out of the magnolias, eh?” muses a matriarch towards the end of Watch on the Rhine. In Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play, a comfortable Washington family is confronted with the reality of Europe’s fight against fascism – and must make a choice about where it stands.

Written and set during a time when the US was reluctant to enter the second world war, it occupies a genteel living room, but the world rattles the walls. It’s undoubtedly an engrossing period thriller – but, according to Ellen McDougall, directing the Donmar’s new production, “there’s something really exciting about doing this play now. It’s a powerful call to arms.”

We meet during a rehearsal lunch break, but neither McDougall or dramaturg Emma Jude Harris touch their food. There’s way too much to discuss. McDougall zeroes in on the time of writing. “It’s very specific – if it was set even a month later, it might have been a different picture.”

American-born Harris expands on that moment, when the neutral US was still trading with both Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. “America was coming out of its isolationist period, with an idea that they can’t get involved [in another European war]. There was also an antisemitic notion that this is a special interest, Jewish problem for a particular marginalised community very far away, and that America needs to focus on America. It wasn’t until after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941 that it got involved. In July 1940, when the play is specifically set, there has not yet been a decision. This is the hinge point.”

Chloe Raphael, Bertie Caplan and Finley Glasgow in rehearsals for Watch on the Rhine.
Chloe Raphael, Bertie Caplan and Finley Glasgow in rehearsals for Watch on the Rhine. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Considering the characters, McDougall says, “what they don’t know but we now do is huge. The specificity of that moment actually opens up why it’s relevant now – the idea of being on the brink, not knowing what’s coming but having conviction. Hellman’s position is that we have a responsibility to step up to the plate. It translates to now: about action, activism, and engaging with the world.”

Sara, the matriarch’s long-estranged daughter, returns from Europe with her husband, Kurt Müller: both are active in the resistance to Hitler. Strangely, perhaps, there are no Jewish characters. “The only time it comes up,” Harris notes, “is to negate [the suggestion] that Kurt is Jewish.” She believes Hellman felt her ethnicity might indicate special pleading: “particularly as she’s of German Jewish heritage. The stakes would have been especially high for her. We see this kind of soft pedalling on Jewishness with playwrights of that time, in order to make a universal point – but it’s very much there.”

Hellman was no armchair pundit. “She has seen a lot of the things she talks about first-hand,” McDougall says. “She’s been in Spain during the civil war. She was in Germany during the rise of fascism, and met people doing similar work to the Müllers. She’s writing about a world that she knows all too well.” For this reason, McDougall bridles when Hellman’s writing is dismissed as melodramatic. “She’s writing in a state of emergency, and renders that in a way that is thrilling, in all senses of the word – but it’s a protest play.”

Elisabeth Moss and Keira Knightley in The Children’s Hour at the Comedy theatre, London, in 2011.
Elisabeth Moss and Keira Knightley in The Children’s Hour at the Comedy theatre, London, in 2011. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

It is easy for us to read Hellman’s call to action as inevitable – but Watch on the Rhine is a sobering reminder that history often hangs in the balance. “It’s interesting to think that Hellman didn’t have post-1945 knowledge,” says Harris, “and couldn’t necessarily have predicted the fate of the characters. She didn’t know the extent of the Shoah, but there’s so much she got right. History backed her up.”

Hellman’s plays (including The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes) have been described as a “theatre of cruelty” – “she’s interested in violence in its smallest forms as well as its largest,” agrees McDougall. Initially, Watch on the Rhine promises a drama of extramarital flirtation and family friction. “You think it’s one thing, then it becomes something else,” McDougall grins. “As it unfolds, it quickly becomes really dangerous. Suddenly everything falls away.”

The play ran for almost a year on Broadway (even longer in London) but the US’s leftwing press slated it. “The Communist party line was not to criticise the Nazis because of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact,” Harris says. Ten years later, Hellman was urged to use these reviews to defend herself from Joseph McCarthy’s investigation into alleged communist activity. She refused, declaring, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” Nonetheless, her reputation has been tainted by her uncredited use of the life of Muriel Buttinger, an American heiress working for the Austrian resistance, to inform both Sara Müller and “Julia”, a key figure in Hellman’s memoirs.

McDougall, who stepped down as artistic director of London’s Gate theatre earlier this year, has gathered a quality ensemble, including Patricia Hodge and German actor Mark Waschke. Is the play actor-friendly? “A lot of the language feels like it could have been written yesterday,” she considers, “extremely muscular, current and witty. It’s a joy to direct because it’s so rich.” Historians of anti-fascism and American history have visited rehearsals. “Once we get into the text we’re unpicking the layers of who knows what in the thriller – so enjoyable but so challenging.”

Unlike Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, Hellman’s reputation flickers around the canon – periodic revivals and periods of neglect. McDougall has no doubt that gender is a key factor: but with Watch on the Rhine in particular, did postwar Americans prefer to forget they might not have been heroes? “Was it OK for America to go back to this play from a time when they weren’t on any side, after the knowledge that has come out? It becomes a difficult play to do.”

The urgency for Hellman’s contemporaries rings loud and clear. But is there also a call to action for us? “Pick a topic!” McDougall cries. “The message from Lillian Hellman is: engage, don’t just think someone else will fix it. I’ve been thinking of it as a message from the past to us now. It’s up to us how we hear it.”