March 27, 2008
Letter from London: ‘An English Tragedy’ is timely on stage
The curtain parts to reveal a stage in the shape of a huge swastika. There is a perceptible gasp from the mostly older matinee audience in the London suburb of Watford.|
World War II is still the most vivid memory in most of their lives, and the Nazi symbol to them represents, at the very least, nights spent under German bombardment from the skies -- or worse. Watford has a significant number of Jewish residents and there are several synagogues in the area.
In an atmosphere of increasing British anti-Semitism and vitriolic anti-Israel rhetoric in the left-wing press here, the play we're about to see, "An English Tragedy," couldn't be more timely. Written by South African Jewish playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"), it is the story of John Amery, son of a Cabinet minister, who along with the infamous Lord Haw Haw made propaganda radio broadcasts for the Nazis that were beamed to England.
Amery's father, Leo, was educated, along with his friend Winston Churchill, at Harrow, one of the top English public schools, and at Balliol College Oxford. He married Florence "Bryddie" Greenwood, whose brother, Viscount Greenwood, sent the infamous Black and Tans to Ireland. The Amerys were connected to anyone who was anyone in the British establishment.
Following a predictable rise through the ranks of the English Conservative Party, the diminutive Leo, of whom it was said, "If he'd been a foot taller and his speeches a half hour shorter, he could have been prime minister," became secretary of state for India in Churchill's wartime Cabinet.
The Amery's first-born, John, was bright, handsome and charming but a problem from the moment he was born. He followed his father to Harrow but was expelled twice, his housemaster declaring him the most abnormal boy he had ever encountered. He developed a penchant for champagne, grand hotels, fast cars and even faster women, as well as men.
Later, at a school in Switzerland, he told his tutor he financed his lifestyle by prostituting himself to older men. He took his childhood teddy bear with him to nightclubs and cafes, ordering drinks and food for the stuffed toy.
Evelyn Waugh may have used Amery as a model for the character Sebastian Flyte in "Brideshead Revisited," published a decade later. Amery's contemporaries described him as having no sense of right or wrong or the consequences of his actions.
He married three times, each time to prostitutes. To this point, the story of Amery is not much different from that of a number of aristocratic young British wastrels, who inevitably drink and drug themselves to an early death. What makes Amery different is that in the mid-'30s, he developed an interest in extreme right-wing politics and an obsession with communists and Jews. He believed communism was an international plague carried by the Jews with the aim of bringing down the British Empire and taking over the world.
He fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War and eventually came under the influence of the French fascist Jacques Doriot. After he wrote violently pro-Nazi letters to the French press, the Germans realized that if they could parade the pro-Nazi son of the British aristocracy, it would be a considerable feather in the Fuhrer's cap. Soon his parents had the dubious pleasure of listening to their son's voice beamed from Berlin into their stately British home.
And that's where the play opens, as the swastika-shaped stage -- designed by Ralph Koltai, himself a Kindertransport refugee from Berlin to England -- divides to suggest the different locales where the story plays out.
On Nov. 19, 1942, the Amerys listen to their son's rantings. Under the infamous program opening, "Germany calling, Germany calling," Amery proclaims, "Your patriotism is being exploited by people who for the most part hardly have any right to be English. Between you and peace lies only the Jew and his puppets."
His broadcasts were never as popular as those of Lord Haw Haw (the Irish traitor William Joyce) and eventually the Germans dropped them. Amery then visited British prison camps in Germany, where he tried to recruit the prisoners to join his self-styled Legion of St. George to fight with the SS against the Soviets. He managed to recruit a grand total of 57 men.
In the play, which could eventually come to Broadway and the West Coast, the senior Amery is terrified that his son's treason will ruin his career, but both Churchill and King George VI reassure him.
In 1945 on a visit to his hero Benito Mussolini, John Amery was captured by Italian partisans and sent to England for trial. He remained sanguine throughout: "I don't suppose for a moment they'll bring a charge against me," he boasted to his captors, "but if they did, of course, my father would see to it."
And indeed, his family tried everything in their power to save him. His mother even petitioned the king. But after the war ended in September 1945, Churchill's government fell and Leo Amery lost his seat in Parliament.
Nevertheless, the Amery's second son, Julian, then an officer in British Special Operations and later a member of Parliament, went to Spain and returned with documents purporting to prove that his brother had become a Spanish citizen and therefore immune to prosecution for treason against Britain. At the same time, a psychiatrist hired by the family pronounced him mentally incapable of knowing right from wrong.
Either defense might have worked, but when Amery entered the courtroom on Nov. 28, 1945, he stunned his family and the court by pleading guilty and was sentenced to death. The entire proceeding lasted eight minutes.
It was this part of the story that intrigued playwright Harwood. Why would Amery, who considered himself not only not guilty but a patriot, suddenly plead guilty?
Harwood had originally heard the Amery story from his friend, Dame Rebecca West, whose book, "The Meaning of Treason," dealt with both Joyce and Amery. But when he asked West for an explanation of the guilty plea, she said Amery had done it to save his parents from embarrassment. To Harwood this simply did not ring true. Amery had shown absolutely no consideration for his parents throughout his life or desire to save them from the consequences of his behavior in any way. So the writer began to dig. It wasn't until 2001 that he found documents that he believes explain the inexplicable.
That explanation forms the climax of the play. In his prison cell, as his parents pay their last visit to him before his hanging, John Amery reveals that he knows the family's big secret: Leo Amery, proper English gentleman and pillar of the establishment, was born a Jew. His mother's family were Hungarian Jewish intellectuals from Budapest. Leo Amery, fearing that the truth would impede his rise through the Conservative Party ranks, concealed his background even from his own children.
Now his ardently anti-Semitic son, having spent his life believing in his upper-crust, true-blue English credentials, has the perfect weapon for revenge. He will hang, leaving his parents with an everlasting stigma and his father with the knowledge that his denial of his heritage has produced the ultimate betrayal.
The final scene has John Amery climbing the scaffold on Dec. 19, 1945.
"I have always wanted to meet you Mr. Pierrepont," he told the famous hangman, "but not, of course, under these circumstances."
"An English Tragedy" doesn't answer the question of when Amery learned of his Jewish roots. Were his virulent anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi activities an attempt to deny his own identity, or did that knowledge come later, turning his affection for his parents into the kind of loathing that could cause him to choose death if it offered him the chance to destroy the father who was responsible, as he saw it, for giving him "the plague"?
These questions and more may be answered as the play undergoes further retooling before heading to London's West End and perhaps eventually to Broadway and Southern California.
Ivor Davis writes a column for the New York Times Syndicate, and is a former West Coast Correspondent for the Times of London. Sally Ogle Davis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications ranging from the New York Times Magazine to the London Sunday Times.