Wilhelm Furtwangler, the great German composer, believed fervently in a Master Race. But in his mind, this natural elite was made up not of Aryans, but of artists.
This becomes apparent in the Everyman Theatre staging of Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, which is based on Furtwangler's real-life denazification hearings. Despite an uneven production, it is an absorbing and thought-provoking night of theater.
The play is set in 1946 Berlin, in the office of an American major charged with investigating the wartime activities of the man who arguably was the greatest conductor of the 20th century. The maestro has been barred from the stage, and he is desperate to be cleared of Nazi ties so he can return to his performing career.
From the hindsight provided by six decades, it seems clear that Furtwangler was sacrificed to anti-German sentiment. He never became a member of the Nazi party, unlike Herbert von Karajan (who joined not once, but twice), whose post-war career flourished. Furtwangler wrote letters to German papers attacking Hitler's policies, and there is evidence that he may have helped up to 80 Jews escape the Nazis. At most, he was a pawn.
But although the conductor eventually was acquitted of wrongdoing, he was tainted for the rest of his life, and it cost him the leadership of the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The playwright tilts the audience's sympathies toward Furtwangler by making the major, Steve Arnold, obsessed with destroying the man. As Arnold says dismissively of a former colleague: "He was interested in justice, evidence, facts. I'm interested in nailing the bastard."
Arnold is a bully and a boor. His deceptively informal, jokey exterior hides an underlying hostility that's just barely under control. And yet, the man has a point. According to an anecdote in the play, Furtwangler didn't agree to help an up-and-coming Jewish musician escape the Nazis until he'd heard him play the piano. It makes one wonder if Furtwangler's decision would have been different if the pianist had been not up to snuff.
And as Arnold caustically points out, Furtwangler's letters to the editor decried the effect of Hitler's anti-Semitic policies on German music, not the policies themselves.
Taking Sides is at its most compelling when Stan Weiman (Furtwangler) and Kyle Prue (Arnold) are onstage. Weiman rests all his weight on his cane, just as Furtwangler seems to have relied solely on his baton to find meaning in his life. When the major nearly causes Furtwangler to break down, Weiman's cheeks flush bright red, and real emotion shows in his face. And, unlike the rest of the actors playing Germans, his accent is superb.
Prue imbues a shallow character with an undercurrent of complexity by showing us a military man as passionate and misguided as the conductor, albeit in a different way. The script never fully explains what is driving the major, but Prue's performance is tormented enough to suggest that Arnold has his own demons.
The rest of the cast is competent (if unexciting), with the exception of Steven Cupo as Helmuth Rode, a former second violinist in Furtwangler's orchestra. Cupo is a walking collection of mannered ticks, from his bad comb-over to his twitchy movements to his habit of literally talking out of one side of his mouth. His Rode is a kind of human cockroach. Portraying him a bit more agreeably would allow the audience to gradually uncover his true nature.
Four of the play's six characters speak in German accents, and three of them are pretty poor, which is a problem in a play as static and talky as Taking Sides. It's hard to say whether the fault lies with the director, the dialect coach or the actors, but it needs to be fixed.
On the other hand, Jay Herzog has come up with a canny, subtle effect - a grid over his stage lights - that casts shadowy bars over the stage. In one way or another, everyone in Arnold's office is in jail.
This is especially true for Furtwangler, who was imprisoned by his unshakable conviction in the inherent goodness of music, its power to elevate the human spirit. He never realized that the devil can use even Scripture for his own purposes, and that like religion, the arts are just a tool.
That was his great failure. And he paid the price.
Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 13