March 27, 2008
Letter from London: ‘An English Tragedy’ is timely on stage
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.
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