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Taking Sides; In Defence of the Playwright


The New York Times, 17th December 1995


To the Editor:


Matt Wolf’s essay on Ronald Harwood’s play “Taking Sides” (“Ugly Americans, British Style,” Nov 26) shows a misunderstanding of the play and of the character of the investigating officer, Major Arnold, the role I have been playing on the West End. Mr Wold assumes that through this “ugly American,” Mr Harwood’s play puts America on trial, treating the nation as a whipping post. I feel that Mr Harwood’s fine and complex work needs defending by someone who knows it inside out.


Major Arnold, who was in charge of the investigation of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hitler’s favourite conductor, during the Allies’ de-Nazification programme of 1946, was not a boor. He was a frustrated idealist who, beyond the age of conscription, puts his investigative talents to work in the cause of defeating Fascism. Arnold found himself in Berlin, taking evidence from European aesthetes who believed that a talent for music somehow put one above moral law and justified collaboration with the Third Reich. It was an attitude Arnold had little patience with.


It in easy for the 1990s liberals to forget the conditioning of those times. Arnold’s hostility is blunt and understandable. He is a man without culture, one who cares for ordinary people, as opposed to Furtwängler, the artist who is contemptuous of them. Arnold’s truculence is the means he has found to deal with the trauma of his experiences and the loss of sensibility that he feels in himself. He is far more of a victim of circumstances than Furtwängler.


To expect every portrait of an American on the London stage to be two-dimensionally glamorous is as absurd as to expect English characters to be always treated sentimentally on Broadway.




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