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‘Good’ confronts evil in the US theater

“Listen, if you’re terrified, f^&*ing say so!”

It’s a call that comes at the end of the fall play’s first act, when Jewish psychiatrist Maurice is yelling out to the audience in the presence of his best friend, John Halder, who goes on to join the Nazi Party. 

Set in the 1930s, Cecil Philip Taylor’s Good follows German Literature Professor Halder, played over the weekend by Charlotte Gifford ’19, as he is seduced by socialism and the fascists. 

Dressed in a brown suit and round wire-rimmed glasses, Halder spends the first act of the play mulling his commitment to the rising Nazi Party, providing the audience with rationalizations for each of his decisions. There is Halder’s wife, Helen (played by Cordiana Cozier ’19), and their children to consider—without Nazi status, he could lose his job. Halder also justifies that from the inside of the movement, which he reassures himself will be over in a year, he can “push them toward humanity.”

By the beginning of the second act, Halder has changed into a pair of green army pants and a black long-sleeved top, adorned by a red armband emblazoned with a swastika. He has made his decision—a decision that gives him status, wealth, and, ultimately, complicity in the murder of his best friend and millions of other Jews. 

How did Halder transform from a seemingly “good” person to a pivotal player in Hitler’s regime? Moreover, how did school audiences react to seeing that transformation take place?

Betsy and Charlie Gifford P’17’19’22 spoke to the discomfort of seeing Charlotte normalize callousness and cruelty onstage.

“It is challenging to see your child fully dressed as a Nazi, spewing hatred, but I think she owned it,” Mrs. Gifford said. “I think she did a great job, but it is difficult to watch, for sure.”

“There were definitely two characters that she played,” Mr. Gifford added. “The first act, she was much more approachable, balanced, with a smile on her face, and then in the second act, it was almost like a different person. I just thought it was very compelling.”

The play was inherently difficult to watch, other audience members said. 

“It’s weird to see students putting their arms in the air and saying ‘Heil, Hitler,’” Upper School (US) History Teacher Matt Turnbull said. “It’s actually kind of disturbing, especially with the cheery music in the background.”

Pierce Haley ’19 said watching Halder unknowingly “fuel the Nazi fire” was disturbing.

“One of the main things that the play does is show there was a natural progression to the ideology of the Nazis that easily roped people in without them even realizing it,” Pierce said. “Charlotte’s character was a ‘good’ person, but she didn’t even realize how far she was going, and I don’t even think she realized by the end.”

Halley Douglas ’19 said she felt repulsed at the sight of swastikas onstage even as she gained new perspective on the rise of Nazism.

“It was really interesting to see hard subjects portrayed in theater and to put yourself in a different perspective than you’re usually open to and see from,” she said. “As hard as it was to watch, it was also very eye-opening that some Nazis did not support their work and struggled.”

US French and Spanish Teacher Joelinda Johnson ’07 said she recognized the tension Halder feels to compromise and look the other way because he wants to be successful.

“When he is talking about his role in the university, wanting to keep his job,” she said. “I think that is the most salient rationalization, like, ‘I have a family, and I need to provide for people.’ I think those are justifications [for cruelty] you could hear from people not far from BB&N.” “For me the play was an implicit caution about the slippery slope to evil,” English Teacher Allison Kornet said after seeing the opening performance on Thursday afternoon. “I heard everything from passive excuses like ‘Just following orders’ to more active permissions like ‘They’ll drop the program once they have the votes.’ Maybe the most chilling idea was that fascism would bring people—especially people having identity crises or existential crises—into one big ‘soul union.’ The drama was just one wrong turn after another.”

US French and Spanish Teacher Joelinda Johnson ’10 said she felt sympathetic to the tension Halder feels as someone who wants to be successful.

“Especially with him talking about his role in the university, wanting to keep his job,” she said. “I think that is the most salient rationalization, like, ‘I have a family, and I need to provide for people.’ I think those are justifications [for cruelty] you could hear from people not far from BB&N.”

“For me the play was an implicit caution about the slippery slope to evil,” English Teacher Allison Kornet said after seeing the opening performance on Thursday afternoon. “I heard everything from passive excuses like ‘Just following orders’ to more active permissions like ‘They’ll drop the program once they have the votes.’ Maybe the most chilling idea was that fascism would bring people—especially people having identity crises or existential crises—into one big ‘soul union.’ The drama was just one wrong turn after another.” 

But Myles Nadeau-Davis ’20, who commended the acting, said he didn’t understand the choice to do the play, especially because it involved a high-ranking Nazi official who wanted to be a Nazi and, in the end, justified his actions to himself.

“I get that Mr. Lindberg likes to push the boundaries with his plays and challenge social norms,” he said, “[but] I don’t see why this was needed as a high school play.”

Sam Gloss ’19 said that as a Jewish person and someone who’s very interested in the Holocaust, he didn’t see what the play accomplished.

        “The whole premise behind [seeing the play] is: What am I gaining from this? So what?” Sam said. “And the ‘So what?’ for me was, so, someone who led to the systematic extermination of six million Jews was also a good person? That doesn’t matter. It felt like a pointless endeavor, but I still think the kids did a great job.”

Max Ambris ’19, who played Maurice, defended Drama Teacher Mark Lindberg’s decision to stage the production.

        “I think that it was a very cool play for Mr. Lindberg to do, especially with the kind of statement he’s trying to make and the parallel he wanted to draw between the political aspects of things in 1930s Nazi Germany and present-day United States,” Max said.

“I think [the play] shows that it’s easier than people think to be bad. Most people think that they’re good people—most people try to be good people,” he said, “but when someone in power or people in power chant something over and over again enough, whether it makes sense or not, it’s hard not to follow that. It’s hard not to hear that and internalize it.”

Claire Pingitore ’20 agreed, given how Halder’s attempts to ignore the inevitable problems posed by the Nazis eventually led to Maurice’s death.

“I think the play was an important reminder,” Claire said, “especially in a time when we hear about so much tragedy—to care and take action whenever we can.”

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