‘Watch on the Rhine’ calls for activism: an interview with director Lisa Peterson

Jessica Doojphibulpol/Staff

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“Watch on the Rhine” was first produced in 1941, at the cusp of America’s involvement in the Second World War. Activist playwright Lillian Hellman intended this drama to bring the United States’ attention to the strife of wartime Europe, and with its themes of anti-fascist activism, the play has found its way back into relevance, ultimately leading the Berkeley Repertory Theatre to produce this rarely performed play.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, director Lisa Peterson spoke on “Watch on the Rhine” as a call for Americans to pay attention to fascism’s growing domination of Europe. Moreover, the message of proactivism is central and transcends the specifics of the play’s setting. “We didn’t have to do anything to make the message relevant today,” she said.

The play depicts the mounting tension within the household of an American woman, Fanny Farrelly, with the arrival and subsequent intriguing interactions of various guests. These guests include her daughter, Sara; Sara’s German husband, Kurt; and a Romanian count, Teck — together, Peterson refers to them as a “dangerous combination.”

While conducting historical research, Peterson found that the play’s time period was more complex than it initially seemed. It is not merely a World War II story, but rather a depiction of the peculiar time in which the war was well underway but the United States was still more than a year away from becoming involved. Consequently, most Americans were not yet aware — or willing to be so — of the war in Europe.

“If you wanted to know what was happening in Europe, you had to look on page five or seven of the New York Times. It was not on the front page yet, and that’s really fascinating to me,” Peterson said.

“Watch on the Rhine” has a strong political message, but it is much more than that — the play is a fascinating look at the clash of wildly different characters and ideas. Speaking on what drew her to this production, Peterson recalls becoming immersed in the compelling characters and the tensions between them, which together makes for a riveting, striking production.

“The things that happened were not what I thought would happen, which is what makes a really good thriller,” Peterson said.

Nevertheless, the play is not so easily categorized; Peterson refers to it as an American realist play that “can easily slide into melodrama.” The play’s drastic shifts in tone speak to such a sentiment. Reflecting upon the arc of “Watch on the Rhine,” Peterson comments, “It starts off as a kind of comedy in the first act, and then ends up as a tragedy.” Such tonal complexity gave Peterson and the actors the task of figuring out how to craft the play’s suspense.

The play’s constant undermining of expectations contributes significantly to the strong feeling of suspense. The first act is slower in pace and more light-hearted in tone, which works as a gradual build up for the eventual climax, which becomes startlingly darker in contrast. Such a fluctuating dynamic will “keep you off balance,” as Peterson notes.

The complexities of the plot coalesce to present a compelling story of a group of people, who are trying to figure out their place as individuals within the goings-on of the world. This entire play takes place within one household, a small piece of the bigger world, which reflects the characters’ feelings of not having a role in the world’s affairs. Yet, the household is not as constricting as it may seem — the characters of varying backgrounds create a kind of encompassing representation of the world, conducive for these characters to find their individual power and impact within it.

Peterson says her favorite line in the play is spoken by Kurt — “Thousands of years, and we cannot yet make a world.”

“That’s my favorite line because I feel like it’s such a recognition of how (the world) has done (many) amazing things, and it keeps trying to figure out how to organize itself and it keeps failing.”

“Watch on the Rhine” is full of similarly striking and memorable lines, which will surely leave the audience pondering their impact long after leaving the theater. By the end of the play, the message of becoming politically involved has made its way to the forefront, as the characters become obliged to act on their political leanings.

Peterson notes that the conclusion of the play leaves the audience with a clear “nudge toward activism.” And while the setting of this play is long past, its shadow over the present is still very much pertinent, as audiences will inevitably be compelled to consider their own roles in the current political climate.

“Watch on the Rhine” premieres Dec. 4 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].