How do ordinary, seemingly normal people end up complicit in evil?
Is it through some personal character flaw, or is it pressure from external forces that distorts their judgment? Could it be part of our human nature just to follow events, just to go along, because it is easier at the moment than resistance?
Those are the questions at the center of C.P. Taylor’s disturbing drama “Good,” now being revived at the Atlantic Stage 2 on West 16th Street as part of the Potomac Theatre Project’s 30th anniversary season. The play is in repertory with Howard Baker’s “No End of Blame.”
“Good” originally was produced in 1981 as a commission for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it has been mounted all over the world since then. Taylor was a Scottish Jew with socialist leanings, and many of his plays have Jewish themes. In “Good,” he follows the liberal German literature professor John Halder (Michael Kaye) from the early 1930s, as he slowly but inexorably accommodates himself to the rise of the Nazis, through their increasingly violent anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism, and eventually to the Final Solution. At each step, Halder must rationalize his decisions to betray his wife, to join the party, to abandon his best friend, a Jewish psychoanalyst, to condemn his demented mother, and to condone burning the books he loves.
Somehow, he manages it all.
Halder is a sympathetic character at the opening of the play, a mild-mannered, somewhat dithering man dealing as best he can with an emotionally crippled wife (Valerie Leonard) and a mother in the grips of dementia (Judith Chaffee). He grouses to Maurice (Tim Spears), his psychoanalyst friend, about his impotence, and about the soundtrack that’s running in his head. Popular music of the day seems to mirror what is going on in his life. When Maurice complains about the growing power of the Nazis, Halder assures him that their anti-Semitic pronouncements are just sops to the masses, and that in the end they will be sensible and realize that Germany cannot exist without its Jews.
Maurice does his own rationalizing. He sees the dangers ahead, but he cannot separate from the Germany he loves. His family has been there for generations, he says, his father fought in the war, and he gives all the other reasons German Jews gave for staying put. As Maurice becomes more desperate, and begs his friend for help, Halder digs in more deeply. In the end, expediency puts the professor into an SS uniform.
At every turn, Halder chooses his own advancement and safety. His decisions are the opposite of irrational; on the contrary, they are carefully considered. They make perfect sense, from the perspective of a man who is taking care of himself. When he falls in love with a young student, he convinces his wife that she’ll manage just fine without him. When his new wife urges him to join the party, he tells Maurice that it will make his life easier.
It’s not news to anyone who has been paying attention that the majority of Germans went along with the decrees of the Nazis, with next to no complaint. We know that they supported the regime, and that after they lost the war many Nazis slipped right back into their old jobs and roles. Director Jim Petosa tries to make the play relevant to today’s political scene, but he might have emphasized that point more firmly, which would have made the production feel timelier and more pertinent.
Haldar excuses the excesses of the Nazis in the same way we hear commentators explaining Donald Trump’s wilder statements: he’s inexperienced, he’s feeling his way, once he establishes his rule he’ll settle down. “He can get us back our own country,” a character says.
Despite its clear setting in prewar Germany, the questions “Good” asks should make us as uncomfortable today. At what point does a person say that enough is enough?
A strong overall cast and crisp direction keeps things moving in the PTP production, and “Good” can still stand as a warning to us all.