In the author’s note to his final play, Good, C.P. Taylor describes it as the story of “how a ‘good’ man gets caught up in the nightmare of the Third Reich,” a “work of the imagination” written as his own small “gesture” to revive the memory of the slaughtered Jews. The play was first performed months before his premature death from pneumonia in December 1981 at the age of fifty-two, by which time he had more than seventy plays to his name. Critics tend to agree that this play was, or would have been, a turning point, heralding a new level of intensity in what had been a pretty consistent engagement with war and other forms of human misery, filtered for the most part through the deceptive banality of the everyday.
Taylor was a community playwright who was a crucial part of the 1960s and 1970s cultural renaissance of the northeast of England. He worked with schools, youth theaters, and children with learning disabilities. A Glaswegian Jewish Marxist, he wrote plays that included a study of life in the Gorbals, Glasgow’s Jewish district, and a historical drama about a miners’ strike. He liked to think, he said, that “the audience that saw a play of mine on Tuesday night would rise up en masse on Wednesday morning and set up the workers’ state.” In most of his plays an acute awareness of disadvantage provides the backdrop to a running commentary on their woes by characters who talk across one another as they jostle, often hilariously, for stage space. Good is something else. It freezes history at the moment when one man’s mistaken judgment can play its part in sending the whole world to hell.
Good completed its sold-out run at the Harold Pinter Theatre, right in the middle of London’s famous Theatreland, in early January. The run was extended by several weeks, partly due to the popularity of its central actor, David Tennant, most famous for his starring role in the UK television series Doctor Who, although he has a reputation as one of Scotland’s most distinguished actors. Most likely theatergoers were also drawn by the overriding question that, night after night, the drama unforgivingly posed to its audience: In times of historical crisis, can man be relied upon—it is mostly one man’s dilemma in this play—to resist the blandishments of an evil regime, to be “good,” and thereby save the world and/or himself?
The relevance of this question in the face of today’s resurgent dictatorships and fascism across the globe was palpable in the auditorium and in the chatter I overheard at the theater bar. In the TV series, Dr. Who is a time traveler who moves across the universe in TARDIS, his time-and-space machine. It is central to the show’s format that, whatever perils he encounters on Earth, he always, often with barely minutes to spare, manages to take off and survive. The audience of Good might therefore be forgiven for thinking that the central character, Halder, however drawn to Nazism, will surely manage to make a last-minute escape. (Good will always triumph, as in the well-worn and discredited cliché.) Instead the play ends with Halder proudly sporting his SS uniform outside the gates of Auschwitz. “You look lovely in that uniform,” his new lover, Anne, croons while he prepares to leave.
As strains of a Schubert march waft over the stage, the concentration camp inmates playing the tune slowly come into view. “The band was real,” Halder exclaims, and then repeats the line—the last line of Good. Since the 1930s he had been suffering uncontrollable melodies repeating in his head, from Mendelssohn and Wagner to Weill, whose mood echoed the clamor of his inner world. A tragedy “written as a comedy, or musical comedy” is how Taylor described the play, which is filled with popular songs. “The bands came in 1933,” Halder announces to the audience in the opening scene. “So you can’t say they came with the rise of the Nazis, exactly.”
“So you can’t say…exactly.” Halder is already in denial; Hitler was elected to the chancellery in 1933. This is a play, the careful dating tells us from the outset, that will explore the power of fascism to pluck the strings of the unconscious. By his own account, Halder had trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Nazism appears to have cured him, forcing him to recognize at last the ugly truth that has been staring him in the face, when he arrives at Auschwitz and hears real music seemingly for the first time. (Whether the ending is cynical or redemptive is unclear.)
Although Good is often read as a play about one man being slowly recruited by the Nazis, Halder could be described as ready fodder. In 1916 he joined the Hessian Life Guards, an infantry regiment. For the first week he walked around Stuttgart looking for officers to salute. It was “one of the most exciting experiences in my youth.” The Nazis take him in “like a brother.” “If they love you like that,” he explains in an aside to the audience, “you can’t help loving them back.” (Characters speaking directly to the audience or to themselves is a hallmark, unusual for the time, of Taylor’s plays.) Selling the message of brotherly love, the Nazis turned their recruits into killers.
Halder’s journey to Nazism is far from a one-way street. In fact, it is not so much the lure of the Third Reich for Halder that the play explores but, in many ways more interestingly, what it is that leads the Nazis to come after him. (More than once he expresses deep skepticism about Nazism, including in dialogue with Adolf Eichmann, who, alongside Hitler, has a cameo role in the play.) Halder is a wanted man. As the play progresses from the ills and thrills of his domestic life—consisting of a mother afflicted with dementia, a mentally disturbed wife possibly suffering from “vestigial” brain damage, and a new lover who for the most part has her head politically in the sand—it becomes clear that there are very precise reasons why the Nazi Party has him in its sights.
At the center of Good is an important historical dimension of Nazism, one that is rarely foregrounded, including in most commentaries I have read on the play. In the opening scene Halder’s mother, who has just emerged from a coma provoked by a thyroid deficiency, is brought onstage in a wheelchair. With mounting exasperation Halder tries unsuccessfully to explain to her that his wife, Helen, is not present in the room, that her son is not about to be imprisoned as a Communist by Hitler, and that he was not drunkenly banging on her door all night. She knows she is losing her mind: “The best thing is to take twenty or thirty of my pills and finish myself off once and for all.” “You could do that,” Halder replies. “It’s against the law”—pause—“but…” “What have I got to live for, for God’s sake?” she asks twice, and instead of the expected reassurance, he answers, “A difficult question, that.”
Both of Halder’s comments, delivered deadpan by Tennant, were met with laughter in the auditorium on the two occasions I saw the play. At this point no one in the audience knows that Halder is the author of a novel on euthanasia, inspired by his mother’s predicament and written to assuage his guilt, or that it’s this novel that brings the Nazis to his door. Joseph Goebbels is a fan. (Awkwardly for the euthanasia program that also targeted those suffering physical malformations, Goebbels had a deformed right foot, now attributed to a childhood metabolic disorder, though in the 1930s a clubfoot was widely seen as genetic.) By playing the conversation with his mother for laughs, Tennant prods the audience into a form of self-awareness. Whether the onlooker reacts with laughter, complicity, blindness, or indifference to the predicament of unlivable lives—or, to use the Nazi expression, “lives unworthy of being lived” (Lebensunwertes Leben)—will decide the fate of millions.
Audience titters are of course always a sign of discomfort. The audience is being drawn into a disconcerting intimacy with what is unfolding onstage, which renders them guilty almost before the action begins. Without a break, the scene then cuts from the dialogue with his mother to a clerk giving Halder directions to Tiergartenstrasse 4, situated, he is told, in what “used to be one of the best residential areas in Berlin.” Tiergartenstrasse 4 was the site of Aktion T4, the Nazi campaign of “involuntary euthanasia” or “mercy deaths,” which involved the mass murder of the physically disabled and mentally ill, the precursor of or dress rehearsal for the genocide of the Jews.
After lethal injection, gas slowly became the standard mode of killing. “The needle belongs in the hands of the doctor,” commented Viktor Brack, who headed operations at Tiergartenstrasse 4. (Many of the SS officer supervisors of the program ended up working in the concentration camps.) The first victim was a five-month-old baby, Gerhard Kretschmar, whose father had written directly to Hitler when his local doctor refused to “put to sleep” his severely disabled son, whom he called “this monster.” In response Hitler dispatched his personal doctor on July 25, 1939, to carry out the killing.
In fact, the program had effectively begun in 1933 with the passing of the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, which made sterilization compulsory for anyone afflicted with conditions considered to be hereditary, in order to purge them from the nation’s gene pool. Hitler was in favor of this program from the outset but believed it had a greater chance of being socially accepted if it was carried out under the cover of war. Around 250,000 people, including at least 10,000 babies and children, are estimated to have been murdered under its auspices by 1941. There was protest; doctors rediagnosed patients in order to save them. According to the historian Richard J. Evans, when Clemens von Galen, the bishop of Münster, publicly condemned the program in a series of sermons in 1941, it led to “the strongest, most explicit and most widespread protest movement against any policy since the beginning of the Third Reich.”1
But Hitler was not wrong about the license granted by war. War provided a rationale and cover on the grounds that able-bodied German youth were sacrificing themselves at the front on behalf of cripples and imbeciles. “It is unbearable to me,” wrote the head of the state hospital outside Munich after the invasion of Poland, “that the flower of our youth must lose their lives at the front, so that that feeble-minded and asocial element can have a secure existence in the asylum.” God, it was also suggested, presented no obstacle to Aktion T4. “The fifth commandment Thou shalt not kill,” the Nazi councillor Eugen Stähle replied to one objection, “is no commandment of God but a Jewish invention.”
Despite the 1933 heredity law, no law was ever passed to explicitly justify Aktion T4. When a district judge wrote to the justice minister, Franz Gürtner, protesting that the action was illegal as it had not been authorized by formal decree or by law, he was promptly dismissed: “If you cannot recognise the will of the Führer as a source of law…you cannot remain a judge.” This adds another layer of contemporary resonance to Good, at a time when we see governments outbidding themselves and one another in inhumanity as they strain against the leash of the law: UK home secretary Suella Braverman’s latest proposal for stopping the flow of asylum seekers in small boats across the Channel is in violation of international human rights law; although the UK High Court ruled in December in favor of her policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, it is still being challenged in court; Boris Johnson’s 2019 proroguing of Parliament for five weeks in the run-up to Brexit was declared illegal when it was about to expire and the damage was done; in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is attempting to shred the independence of the judiciary and thwart its ability to rule on government actions by truncating the powers of the country’s Supreme Court. Needless to say, these policies cannot be equated with Hitler’s, but they do suggest that, even at the core of liberal democracies, notably on the right, there is a continuum, a slow burn toward authoritarian rule that demands constant vigilance.
From those opening scenes the play tracks the reality of Aktion T4. (Taylor’s community theater work with children with learning disabilities is surely part of the picture.) It is Over-leader Philipp Bouhler—a senior SS officer and head of the chancellery who was made responsible for the program—with whom Halder has the appointment at Tiergartenstrasse 4 at the start of the play. Bouhler was explicity named in Hitler’s first authorization of “mercy deaths,” which, according to the historian Ian Kershaw, was “the one and only occasion” he transmitted a lethal order in writing. Apart from Hitler and Eichmann, Bouhler—although he enjoys nothing like the same notoriety—is the only named Nazi in the play. Good is a history play, telling its audience a story of which it is unlikely to have been fully aware.
Aktion T4 does not have the same place in public consciousness as the murder of the Jews. Nor is the story always welcome. When Henry Friedlander argued in The Origins of the Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (1995) that only Nazi policies toward Jews, Roma, and the disabled can strictly be classified as genocide, aligning all three, and that the “radical” killing solution originated with the handicapped before being extended to the Jews, one reviewer accused him of “subordinat[ing] the Final Solution” and obscuring “the Nazi ‘fixation’ with the ‘Jewish menace’”—as if the horrors had to compete, and the Jewish genocide were somehow degraded by any comparison or affiliation whatever.2 (It must come first not just in magnitude but in time.)
Good refuses any such hierarchy. Nazi hatred of the Jews is at the core of the story. The destination is Auschwitz. Much of the drama turns on Halder’s close friendship with the Jewish doctor Maurice, who pleads with Halder to help him escape a certain death, and whom Halder finally betrays. (They share the delusion that Nazi anti-Semitism is “a temporary racialist aberration,” mere hysteria, or “balloons” thrown up in the air “to distract the masses,” that will soon blow away.) For many reviewers, the personal dilemma between the two men is what counts, but Aktion T4 is its backdrop and steady accompaniment. It is not one or the other. The ultimate inhumanity, I read Taylor as stating, would be to rank or choose between the two. Perhaps, however, it should come as no surprise that personal relations receive most attention, as they are so much easier to dramatize—history swallowed up by affairs of the heart. (This formed the basis of Brecht’s political critique of modern theater.)
Nor, as Covid has so brutally demonstrated, is the sentiment that the weak should perish as rare as one might think it ought to be. There are anti-vaxxers who think that the danger of dying faced by the old and vulnerable as a result of their choice not to take the Covid vaccine is of no consequence, or is a price worth paying for their personal freedom. At the other end of the moral spectrum, many of us have watched as people across the world, from doctors and nurses to care workers and teachers, have devoted themselves, at the risk of their own lives, to undreamed-of acts of care toward strangers, however old, mentally or physically decrepit, or racially “other” they might be. Watching Good, it is impossible not to register the uncanny echoes between now and then, between death in life at a time of pandemic and Taylor’s deeply disturbing play.
For anyone taught, as I was, that the best of literary culture in the West will make you a better person, Good must be one of the most effective antidotes on record. Halder is a cultured, literary man. His head full of music, he teaches literature and writes novels. Goebbels has read and admired his study Faust and Goethe in Weimar. His affair with Anne begins when she appears on his doorstep in the rain, soaked through, after a class he taught on Goethe. “You see, I don’t believe in evil. Not like Goethe seems to…. Do you?” is her opening gambit, which proves irresistible. He gives her a pillow and his dressing gown.
What Bouhler wants from Halder is a humanist cover for the killings of victims fatally consigned by the Nazis to what Giorgio Agamben later called “bare life.” In such a setting, appeals to human values can be self-justification for inhumane actions and a trap. “You have to ask yourself,” states a doctor who wheels a mentally disabled woman onto the stage, “as you do in your novel…. Which moved me deeply, Herr Professor…. Is this human life?” Immediately before, Halder’s mother could be heard crying out from upstairs. Bouhler’s request to Halder is that he write a paper “arguing along the same lines as you do in your novel, the necessity for such an approach to mercy killings of the incurable and hopelessly insane, on the grounds of humanity and compassion.”
Bouhler knows such things “can get out of hand”; stories of the disabled being shot by the SS started leaking out of Poland almost immediately after the invasion of September 1939. If Bouhler has Halder on his side, it will act as a guarantee that the “whole question of humanity” will never be lost and he will sleep more easily. Bouhler committed suicide in captivity in May 1945. This was by no means always how the lives of such figures came to an end. Heinrich Gross, accused of experimenting on children’s brains and murdering several at Spiegelgrund clinic, one of the Nazi euthanasia institutes, escaped prosecution until 1950, when he was sentenced to two years in prison on a single charge of accessory to manslaughter, a ruling subsequently overturned. He joined the Social Democratic Party and went on to become one of Austria’s leading neurologists and the second-highest-earning doctor in the country. “Democracy in Austria is as a layer of tissue paper,” observed one of Gross’s former victims, who entered Spiegelgrund for two years at the age of ten, “behind which Nazi hordes still lurk.” He was speaking at Gross’s second trial in 2000, which was suspended on the grounds of his dementia.
“We’re not monsters,” Eichmann pleads with Halder near the end of the play, to justify the first transportations of Jews to the east. “I want the same human, without sentimentality approach that seems to be your particular strength.” The Nazis never give up on him. They want him body and spirit, leeching his every move and breath. The intimacy is underscored in this production by the decision of the director, Dominic Cooke, to replace the play’s normally large cast of actors and musicians with just three actors who constantly swap roles, which makes the characters indistinguishable. Tennant, for example, also performs Hitler, voicing two hollow pledges in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire: never to give a command against the lawful government of Germany (which leaves wide open the question of what is permissible for a government that places itself beyond the reach of the law), and never to give an order “which goes against your conscience” (how easily subjects can be brought to act against their conscience being the main point of the play).
For all his reservations, Halder falls for this hook, line, and sinker. Rather than stand on the sidelines as a purist, he is joining the Nazis—or so he convinces himself—in order to push them “a bit towards humanity,” although he does have the good grace to ask, “Is that kidding yourself?” “What,” Anne asks in one of her more politically astute moments, “if they push us the other way?” He would pull himself free and leave the country, he says, “no question about it.” The play will tell us otherwise. The idea of participating in inhuman acts out of compassion, in order to render them a little bit less inhuman, is of course the classic self-justification of those who consort with the enemy. None of this has gone away. As I write, Gary Lineker, the soccer celebrity and host of the BBC program Match of the Day, has compared Braverman’s brutal asylum policy with 1930s Germany—a comparison that provoked outrage, and led to his suspension by the BBC. (It was forced to back down and reinstate him within a matter of days.)
In addition to receiving a flood of support, Lineker was wrongly accused of comparing the policy with the Holocaust, which he was careful not to do. In fact he was making a point about language, comparing Nazi descriptions of Jews with the vocabulary used by Conservative politicians to describe migrants and refugees. In response, Braverman insisted that the new measures were “lawful, necessary, and fundamentally compassionate.” At least she didn’t describe them as “humane.” Other government ministers dispatch the ethical issue with even greater ease. Only by being as ruthless as the smugglers, the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, recently argued, will the UK stop Channel crossings: “They are some of the most evil, most pernicious people in society. You have to match them.”
By the end of Good, a title whose irony increases by the minute, Halder is policing Kristallnacht—“a basically humane action,” he observes, “to shock the Jews into the reality of their situation”—and participating in a book burning he has been tasked with organizing at the university where he is a professor. At both moments, the stage turns vermilion. These are the only two scenes that break up the unremittingly gray stage space that consists of identical strips of cardboard—you could be anywhere. Meanwhile, the offstage sounds of Kristallnacht were so loud they pounded in my chest. The only strangely similar recent theatrical experience I have had is Lucy Kirkwood’s Maryland, which tells the story of the police rape of two women, punctuated by scenes of furies protesting. Every time they are on the verge of crying “rape” or “killed,” the word is drowned out by such a loud blast that it feels as if you’ve been punched in the stomach. In both plays, sound is a player, casting its judgment on something that either should not be happening or that passes the limits of understanding (or both).
For anyone teaching in a UK university as I do today, a time when the humanities are once again under assault, these last scenes add one more shocking resonance to the play. At its dramatic conclusion Halder starts to sound like any number of British education secretaries, past and present, promoting vocational learning—which, among other things, means education untainted by a consideration of human and social value, by anything that might throw into question the forms of injustice and inequality that, bad enough when Taylor was writing in the 1980s, have only intensified since. “You’ve got to make a supreme effort and look positively,” Halder comments at the book burning. “One of the defects of university life is learning from books.” Burning books becomes “symbolic” of “a new healthy approach to university learning…. Man does not live by books alone.” According to Eichmann, in addition to his euthanasia novel, Halder is the author of a paper on the “corrupting…reactionary, individual centred emphasis of the Jewish influence on Western literature…. Very good, true, deep comment…first class.”
This ignoble strand too has its history. Compare the famous literary critic Paul de Man in the essay “The Jews in Present-day Literature,” which he wrote for the Belgian collaborationist newspaper Le Soir in 1941:
That [Western intellectuals] have been able to safeguard themselves from Jewish influence in a domain as representative of culture as literature proves their vitality…. If our civilization had let itself be invaded by a foreign force, then we would have to give up much hope for its future.
In his commentary on what came to be known as the Paul de Man affair, Jacques Derrida—for all his deep admiration of de Man as a critic—characterized these sentences as “disastrous,” “the very worst,” an “indelible wound.”
Turning to address his students, Halder explains that Jewish humanism—Proust, Kafka, Freud—is completely at odds with the most basic Third Reich philosophy: “The common interest before self.” The famous Talmudic saying “If I am not for myself, then who is for me?”—much used by Jewish writers and thinkers—is to blame. For one reviewer in The Guardian, the Talmudic quotation is indeed guilty of promoting self-interest, which makes selfishness as the source of all evil the message of the play: “A man…turns bad because he serves his own good above all else.” As I read it, the opposite meaning is intended. The saying from the Talmud refers not to selfishness but to survival in the face of persecution. Halder’s dismissal of the Talmud ethos in the service of the Nazi collective is being condemned. It is blind acquiescence to collective madness, the twisted appeal to the common good, that propels citizens into fascism.
This is a far cry from the very different appeal to collective responsibility that we have also heard in recent years, when the idea of the common good—or “the commons,” as it is termed—has often been the lifesaver. In fact, the line from the Talmud continues, “When I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” In his argumentative, tetchy play, Taylor makes Jewish humanism the last redoubt and final straw in Halder’s brute rejection of Maurice. Maybe, he suggests in their final conversation, Nazism is after all “the Jews’ fault,” for pushing Germany into this “Jewish, moralistic, humanistic, Marxist total fuckup”—“Jewish, moralistic, humanistic, Marxist total fuckup” being as good a formula as any of how C.P. Taylor saw himself.
In his author’s note to Good, Taylor explains that the “infinite complexity” of the modern world made it impossible for him to judge the atrocities of the Third Reich as “a simple conspiracy of criminals and psychopaths.” He too is guilty, a “Peace Criminal” responsible for the “Peace ‘Crimes’ of the West against the Third World,” playing his part in “the Auschwitzes we are all perpetrating today.” (Any such link between Auschwitz and postcolonial global injustice made now tends to be greeted with outrage.) The world is hurtling toward a “final Final Solution to end all Final Solutions—the solution to the Human Problem, a nuclear holocaust.” Once again, it is strange to read this at a time when the fear of nuclear wipeout, all too real in the 1980s when Good was first performed, has been reawakened by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—not to speak of the slide from one “final solution” to another, from the Holocaust of the Jewish people to nuclear Armaggedon.
In their final exchange, Maurice and Halder agree that, given the world’s problems, they cannot see the human species lasting much longer, and that the best thing would be an end to people “torturing the earth”: “Who needs us?” As they walk away together, Halder bends to a flower pushing its way through the pavement cracks: “Don’t worry, ragwort or whatever you are…. Won’t be long, now…. You’ll soon have it all to yourself.” This too could be lifted from our times, when the man-made damage wrought on the planet is propelling the belief, shared by many of the young generation, that propagating the species is a mistake. “It’s not as deadly as people think, dying,” grandfather Andie announces in the very first scene of Taylor’s And a Nightingale Sang (1977), alongside Good perhaps his best-known play, also set in the midst of World War II.
I’m telling you…. We’d be doing everybody a good turn…. Getting the earth clean of a disease…. People…. Digging into it…burning it…. Killing all the animals…. You should’ve seen Flanders when we left it…1917…
As if, the play almost concludes, the best outcome for such a self-destructive world would be to commit euthanasia on itself—a mercy killing of the whole of humanity so that the earth can thrive.
And yet, out of his often bleak vision, Taylor also hints that something else might emerge, somewhere between arriving at a shared understanding (the common “good”) and floundering in half-crazed hope. In To Be a Farmer’s Boy (1980), Peter, a tortured man struggling with the accursed inheritance of his farm, has his moments of revelation and uplift as he walks across the fields: “In the end I’m caught up with the damned earth same as any other creature…or living thing.” Perhaps there could just be a way of living that allows humans to occupy a less destructive place on the planet. In a strange, short play of 1973, You Are My Heart’s Delight, Taylor had already suggested what might be involved. Janet and David live on the moors somewhere on the remote Scottish Borders, where they manage an estate for a landowner who is planting the woods, draining fields, and building new roads. The play begins with David cocking his gun at a lorry driver who mows down a partridge hen crossing the road with her brood of chicks. He was fully intending to blast him to pieces: “Was’ne thinking of anything…but putting a cartridge in that bloody monster…. Stinking exhaust…. Spitting filth and noise.”
Slowly he and Janet decide to turn their backs on life as they have known it. They will kill no more animals, live with the electricity mains turned off, without television, transport, petrol, or engine noises, brother and sister sharing a bed as they once did long ago. As they walk toward the bedroom touching lightly (there is not the faintest hint of incest), they discuss the sheer pleasure they take in treading the moors and feeling the ground beneath their feet. All you have to do is shut the door on the whole world and its evils, past, present, and to come. What could be more simple?