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Stage View; Ugly Americans, British Style


The New York Times, 26th November 1995, Matt Wolf


“Young man, there is America which at this day serves for little more than to amuse you with stories of savage men and uncouth manners.” Edmund Burke, 1777.  The lot of Americans in British drama is not a happy one, if three recent London plays are any gauge. While two centuries may have passed since the statesman Edmund Burke made the above remark, it is more applicable than ever to those American characters who have been brought to the London stage this year.


Can this be the nation’s revenge for Hollywood’s habit of using Britons to embody evil (The Silence of the Lambs, The Net, the Die Hard series)? Perhaps. The fact remains, that Americans seeking a modicum of gallantry or wit from portraits of their countrymen on London stage will encounter boorishness, buffoonery, or worse.


From Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides to Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink to David Edgar’s Pentecost, three highly respected dramatists have been offering up the Americans as fall guy, stooge or philistine. Is it possible for an American to emerge well from a modern English play? Only if he or she is famous (the Marilyn Monroe figure known as The Actress in Terry Johnson’s Insignificance). Icons, it seems, are immune, no matter where they come from.


That two of these dramatists are foreign-born (Mr Stoppard in Czechoslovakia and Mr Harwood in South Africa) makes no difference: little unites people in England more closely than the use of America as whipping post. And if Americans choose to embrace the English anyway, that is the fate of a society deemed to be so lacking in irony and self-awareness that it doesn’t know when it is being tweaked.


Richard Nelson, the American writer who has found an artistic home in England, wrote a play much on this topic (Some Americans Abroad) for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1989. but one wonders what even his theater-crazed American academics – who visited England to drink from the fount of culture – would have made of Mr Harwood’s Taking Sides and its bellicose American Maj. Steve Arnold. The play, acclaimed by London critics in its West End debut in July, is on through Dec 9 at the Criterion. A New York run has been mentioned for next season, possibly at the Roundabout.


The play, set in the American zone of occupied Berlin in 1946, pits Major Arnold against the German composer Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose possible Nazi allegiances are the author’s supposed subject. Mr Harwood no doubt wants to focus his debate on the link between politics and art: can the two be separated, or was Furtwängler’s continued presence in Germany during the Third Reich proof of a collaboration that renders artistry irrelevant?


The truer tension, though, exists not between grand abstractions but between facile national stereotypes. In Daniel Massey’s mesmerising performance, Furtwängler is the well-mannered European esthete whose halting eloquence seems part of a vanished, vanquished order. Major Arnold, by contrast, is the real Ugly American, a bull in the china shop of culture. And he is played by the English actor Michael Pennington like a Rottweiler frothing at the mouth.


“You see, when you talk about cultural life, I’m lost,” the Major explains. “Because I am, to put it at its best, totally uncultured; I look for ordinary reasons, reasons I can understand, reasons my buddy can understand.” He is the rampaging prole, the hard-nosed representative of the common herd. “How many times have I for to tell you I was in insurance?” he barks, in case anyone misses the fact that he is just an ordinary guy. (The answer, by the way, is a lot.)


One senses during the evening an English audience straining to control its contempt for a man whose coarseness is almost laughable, even his vulgarity feeds the prejudices – no, the sides – that a European public has already taken. It’s not Furtwängler or art on trial in Taking Sides; it’s America. And you can guess the verdict.



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