The Banality of Evil: Good
Nazi-era play challenges audiences
In the slideshow above, see images from Good. Photos by Frank Curran
In her coverage of Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s 1963 war crimes trial, Hannah Arendt famously reflected on “the banality of evil.” In C. P. Taylor’s unsettling play Good, a hapless literature professor during Hitler’s 1930s rise to power embodies that banality as he rides a slippery slope from naïveté to acceptance to all-out collaboration.
Good is the current production of BU’s Boston Center for American Performance (BCAP). According to the play’s director, Jim Petosa, director of the College of Fine Arts School of Theatre and founding director of BCAP, Good is a courageous hard sell of a play that makes people wonder what they’re capable of.
“There’s no monster in a box,” says Michael Kaye, a CFA assistant professor of acting, who portrays Professor Halder, describing the role as a “unique journey” for an actor. “It’s real people who become these things, slowly, over time.” The rarely performed play “forces the audience to confront themselves,” Kaye says.
In the plot’s first turning point, Halder has written a book making a case for humane euthanasia. His work attracts the attention of Adolf Hitler, after which Halder grows increasingly valuable to the Führer’s agenda for his ability to sell, in a humanist package, the ideas of experimentation on humans, racial purity, and finally, racial extermination. The Nazi seduction of Halder, who is swept up in his sudden career advancement and elevated social standing, is complete when he rejects his family and his closest friend, a Jew, and ultimately finds ways to justify Nazi atrocities.
Halder can’t simply be dismissed as evil, says Kaye. “When I first saw the play, I had a sense of, ‘I could have done that,’ and that’s what’s so scary,” he says. “I liked him, I was charmed by him, and I could see myself making the same series of changes to take the easiest path.”
Audiences will be on Halder’s side at first, and perhaps identify with him even as the play’s ominous pall sets in, says Petosa, who first became aware of the play decades ago after reading Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Those who grew up in the ’60s were raised on the notion that the Nazi evil was “so alien, it doesn’t even seem human,” says Petosa, who directed BCAP productions of The Glass Menagerie and A Question of Mercy. “I think there’s great peril in that,” he adds. “We err if we don’t see the humanity in those atrocities—it almost inoculates us, as if we’re not capable of such things.”
While the play is set eight decades ago, Petosa believes its message resonates today. “I think this play serves as a cautionary tale for our time,” he says, pointing to the growing attempt at demonizing undocumented immigrants, gays, or Muslims building a mosque. “We need to hear the message of this play,” he says. “I don’t want to sound like a prophet for a growing rise of fascism, but I think we’d do well to look at history to avoid a repeat of the past.”
Playwright Taylor, a native of Glasgow, who died in 1981 at age 52, would have agreed. He wrote in the author’s note to Good of his “role as a ‘Peace Criminal’ in the ‘Peace Crimes’ of the West against the Third World—my part,” he wrote, “in the Auschwitzes we are all perpetrating today.” The play was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company shortly after Taylor’s death.
Good strongly affects actors as well as audiences, Petosa says, who “leave needing to talk about it. You don’t do the play because you love it, but because you believe in it.” But Good has darkly humorous moments, and there is much to laugh at—if squeamishly—especially during the first act, according to Petosa. And the play has surprises—like the music.
Taylor himself billed his play as a musical comedy—even though the music is in Halder’s head, a soundtrack to his life that detaches him from reality and makes his acts seem as if they are happening in a waking dream. “The music becomes a crutch to make the unthinkable become thinkable,” Petosa says. “Your life turns into a movie, and in that detachment you don’t feel that responsible.” Halder’s imaginary music ranges from a military band to a drinking song to a sentimental ballad.
Now in its third season as the professional extension of the School of Theatre, BCAP was formed to enable BU faculty and students to collaborate with the professional performing arts community. The cast of Good features three faculty members, three graduate students, four CFA undergraduates, and a College of Arts & Sciences theater minor, as well as several Boston-based actors.
In addition to Kaye, the cast includes Judith Chaffee, a CFA associate professor and School of Theatre and Opera Institute director of movement, and several student actors, among them Edmund Donovan (CFA’12), Jeff Hathcoat (CFA’11), Alex Schneps (COM’12), Stephen Elrod (CFA’12), and Hayley Holbrook (CFA’12).
“Good challenges both audiences and artists,” says Kaye, who as Halder is in every scene (“Even Hamlet gets a scene or two off,” the actor jokes). “In many ways, it’s plays like this that companies like BCAP can do,” he says. “It’s protected by the University. It’s a laboratory.”
Good runs through November 21, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., at the Boston University Theatre, Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. (By T, Green Line E trolley, Symphony stop, or Orange Line, Mass Ave stop). Tickets are available by calling 617-933-8600 or here.
Susan Seligson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments