Watch on the Rhine (play)

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For the 1943 film adaptation, see Watch on the Rhine.

Watch on the Rhine is play by Lillian Hellman that premiered in 1941. The play's "peculiar combination of drawing-room comedy in a genteel southern home with sinister corruption of the Nazi regime in Europe," in one estimation, "made for a unique and powerful drama."[1] It won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.


Setting: The living room of the Farrelly country house, about twenty miles from Washington, D.C., in late spring, 1940.[1]

For the past seventeen years, the German-born engineer Kurt Muller and Sara, his American wife of twenty years, have lived modestly in Europe and raised three children. He has been deeply involved in anti-Fascist activities in Spain and Germany. The Mullers and their children (Joshua, Babette, and Bodo) are visiting Sara's wealthy relatives, the Farrellys, her brother David and mother Fanny, in Washington. Sara tells the Farrellys she and her family hope to live peacefully in the U.S.

The Farrellys have another houseguest, Teck de Brancovis, an impoverished Romanian count "with good manners and odious character"[2] who has been conspiring with the Germans while living in Washington. He searches the Mullers' bedroom and in a locked suitcase discovers a gun and $23,000 intended to finance underground operations in Germany.

The Mullers learn that Max Freidech, a member of the resistance, has been arrested in Germany. Because Freidech once rescued Kurt from the Gestapo, Kurt plans to return to Germany to assist Max and those arrested with him.

Teck threatens to expose Kurt's plans to the Nazis unless he is paid $10,000 to keep silent. Kurt kills Teck. David and Fanny agree to help him escape capture by the American police.

Kurt has been gone for months and has not contacted his family. His son Joshua announces he plans to search for his father as soon as he turns eighteen. Sara, distraught at the possibility of losing her son as well as her husband, resolves to be brave when the time comes for Joshua to leave.

Premiere and reception[edit]

Hellman wrote the play in 1940, following the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939. Its call for a united international alliance against Hitler directly contradicted the Communist position at the time.[3] Its title comes from a German patriotic song, "Die Wacht am Rhein".[4]

Watch on the Rhine premiered on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on April 1, 1941, and ran for 378 performances, closing on Feb 21, 1942. Herman Shumlin produced and directed the production. Paul Lukas played the lead role of Kurt Mueller. Paul Bowles composed the incidental music.[2][5]

In the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson wrote:[2]

Lillian Hellman has brought the awful truth close to home. She has translated the death struggle between ideas in familiar terms we are bound to respect and understand. Curious how much better she has done it than anybody else by forgetting the headlines and by avoiding the obvious approaches to the great news subject of today.... It is a play of pith and moment and the theatre may be proud of it.

It is a well-rounded play, full of flavor and good people and the characters control its destinies. For Miss Hellman never preaches. She has given fascism a terrible appearance without introducing a uniform or a party salute. Being primarily interested in people, she has shown how deeply fascism penetrates into the hearts and minds of human beings.

Atkinson thought it not as well structured as her earlier plays, The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes, but termed it "the finest thing she has written."

Five months later Atkinson provided another assessment of the cast, calling it "a performance that breeds vast respect for the theatre as a mature form of expression." He noted some problematic scenes but called his own comments "pedantic reservations" and praised the work again:[6]

Miss Hellman's contrasting of guileless and good-humoured life in America with the bitterness and corruption of life in modern Europe is keenly perceptive. It has a special meaning for us today. But, since Miss Hellman has communicated her thoughts dramatically in terms of articulate human beings, Watch on the Rhine ought to be full of meaning a quarter of a century from now when people are beginning to wonder what life was like in America when the Nazi evil began to creep across the sea.

Life magazine called Watch on the Rhine "the most eloquent" of the many anti-Nazi plays found on Broadway in recent years.[7] The Communist New Masses faulted Hellman's vague depiction of fascism while praising "the sincerity of purpose of a dramatist who possesses potentialities far beyond the grasp of any other writer on the contemporary theater scene."[8] The Nation said the play "avoid[s] the flat didacticism and the thinness of characterization usually so evident in thesis plays."[8]

The play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.[9]

Early in 1942, Hellman accompanied the production to Washington, D.C., for a command performance that celebrated President Roosevelt's birthday.[10]

A London production was mounted in 1942, directed by Emlyn Williams.[11]

The play became available in print in 1942 in Hellman's Four Plays.[12]

Dashiell Hammett wrote the screenplay for a 1943 film version in which Lukas reprised his role opposite Bette Davis.


  1. ^ a b Flora, Joseph M.; MacKethan, Lucinda (2002). The Companion to Southern Literature: Themes, Genres, Places, People, Movements, and Motifs. Louisiana State University Press. p. 999. 
  2. ^ a b c Atkinson, Brooks (2 April 1941). "Lillian Hellman's 'Watch on the Rhine' Acted With Paul Lukas in the Leading Part". New York Times. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  3. ^ Robert P. Newman, The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby (University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 11-12
  4. ^ Elson, Louis Charles; De Vore, Nicholas (1918). Modern Music and Musicians for Vocalists, Vol. I: The Singer's Guide. NY: The University Society. p. 107. 
  5. ^ Watch on the Rhine at the Internet Broadway Database
  6. ^ Atkinson, Brooks (24 August 1941). "After Five Months the Actors Are Giving A Notable Performance". New York Times. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  7. ^ "New Broadway Hit, Watch on the Rhine, Brings Nazi Danger Close to Home". Life. 14 April 1941. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  8. ^ a b Vials, Chris (1009). Realism for the Masses: Aesthetics, Popular Front Pluralism, and U.S Culture, 1935-1947. University Press of Mississippi. pp. 200 n25. 
  9. ^ Atkinson, Brooks (27 April 1941). "Critics' Prize Plays". New York Times. Retrieved 17 October 2012. 
  10. ^ Deborah Martinson, Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels (Counterpoint Press, 2005), 171-2
  11. ^ Wilmeth, ed., Don B. (2007). The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press. p. 672. 
  12. ^ Lillian Hellman, Four Plays: The Children's Hour. Days to Come. The Little Foxes. Watch on the Rhine (The Modern Library, 1942)

Additional sources[edit]

  • Vivian M. Patraka, "Realism, Gender, and Historical Crisis," in Spectacular Suffering: Theatre, Fascism, and the Holocaust (Indiana University Press, 1999)

External links[edit]