When I once performed an acting role in Richard Strauss's Salome, in Chicago, one of the singers said to me, "He wrote glorious music, but what a f***ing Nazi!" I was astonished. This was not the Richard Strauss I knew about, so I rang a lady friend in England, who said, "And did this man know that Strauss had a Jewish daughter-in-law, of whom he was extremely fond? And that he protected her and his Jewish grandchildren throughout the war?"
Although prejudice born of blissful ignorance can be a great comfort, it's good to have our preconceived notions challenged occasionally, and what better place to do it than in the theatre? This is what Ronald Harwood has done with his two plays, Collaboration and Taking Sides, now at the Duchess Theatre, London.
The first is about Richard Strauss and his collaboration with the bestselling author Stefan Zweig. Strauss's former librettist, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, had died, and Strauss, who had written no opera since Arabella, felt himself in the desert. His wife Pauline arranged for Zweig to visit, and this meeting provided Strauss with the inspiration to continue his creative work as the 20th century's greatest opera composer. But the Nazis crushed the collaboration. Zweig was Jewish. The story of their work on Ben Jonson's 17th-century comic play The Silent Woman, which they turned into the opera Die Schweigsame Frau, is well known — how the Nazis removed Zweig's name from the playbill and Strauss insisted it be put back. As Harwood tells it, the calm and self-effacing Strauss finally put his foot down.
From the early 1930s, when Strauss was nearly 70, to 1945 when he was over 80, we see his frustrations. Then at the end of the play British troops enter Strauss's villa and the old man defends himself. He certainly knew, as we all do, how a Roman soldier killed Archimedes after the battle of Syracuse, so he tells them in a quavering voice that he is Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier. He says he refused to collaborate with the Nazis, recalling with great distress the suicide of Zweig in Brazil.
Michael Pennington plays Strauss so convincingly, with Isla Blair as his jealously devoted, forceful and difficult wife, that one feels a door to the past has been opened. And through this door we see David Horovitch portraying Zweig, the urbane European who leaves for Brazil. The world he knew has been destroyed and he believes it is better to leave this life in dignity. We are present at his death.