Judgment at Nuremberg

Shattered Globe Theatre

at Victory Gardens Theater

Opening night of Judgment at Nuremberg was unusual. There wasn’t just the usual ragtag crowd of critics, Jeff committee members, and dutiful actors’ friends wearing scuffed shoes, their eyes red from attending too many openings in too few days. No, there was a group noteworthy for their clear, beautiful eyes, carefully coiffed hair, and expensive tailored clothes. Actually there was only one TV reporter, but he came with such a large retinue–a cameraman, an assistant, and a gaggle of others–that he passed for a crowd.

The occasion was the appearance of George Ryan. An unexpected corollary to his recent commutations of death sentences is that he’s been attending a lot of theater lately. Well, a lot by governor of Illinois standards. OK, two plays that I know of in the past six months, but that’s two more than I remember seeing any other governor, or recently deposed governor, at. (The other was The Exonerated, about people who become enmeshed in the judicial system and manage to fight their way out.)

I see TV reporters at Chicago opening nights only slightly more often than I see governors. The reporter was there, of course, to film the former governor. And Ryan was there because the iconic Judgment at Nuremberg is perceived as wearing its moral heart on its sleeve: the Nazis are bad and they need to be punished. It seems he wants to be associated with a similarly unambiguous message: our judicial system is unfair and arbitrary, especially when it comes to the punishment of capital crimes–a message ideally suited to TV journalism. The irony is that the play–like the governor’s legacy, which includes both his courageous stand on the death penalty and the license-for-bribes scandal–depicts a situation much too complex, too full of backroom politics and moral compromise, to be reduced to an easy interpretation.

I’m not sure why Abby Mann decided to adapt his work for the stage some 40 years after the film version won two Academy Awards, in 1961. But on opening night, he did say that we live in a time of great moral failings. And the complexity of his work alone makes it relevant, especially at a time when great moral questions are often reduced to catchphrases. Using the controversial postwar Nuremberg trials as a jumping-off point, Mann has produced a rich, multilayered exploration of guilt and innocence.

The screenplay was an adaptation of Mann’s teleplay, produced in 1959 on Playhouse 90. Both tackled the sexy question of the complicity of the German people in Nazi crimes. Mann wisely chose not to depict the earliest Nuremberg trials, when the most notorious of Hitler’s surviving henchmen–Hermann Goring, Albert Speer, Wilhelm Keitel–were accused. Rather he focused on the third Nuremberg trial in 1948 (there were 13 in all), in which lesser-known legal functionaries–judges, prosecutors, officials of the Ministry of Justice–were called to account.

These midlevel bureaucrats and court officials were clearly not the architects of the Nazi terror machine. But they were its willing executioners. Were they also culpable? Should they also be punished? If so, how many other Germans deserved punishment? The clerks who filed the papers? The average citizens who did their jobs and claimed they never heard the cries from the cattle cars or noticed the smoke rising from the death camps? The best moments of Judgment at Nuremberg are not the dramatic courtroom scenes, of which there are many. They’re the ones that show Mann’s protagonist–Judge Haywood, a morally centered New Englander right out of Our Town–after hours, blundering into these questions of moral complicity, as when he has an idle conversation with his German housekeeper and her husband: their pained denials of knowledge reveal the depth of fear and guilt they feel.

Tempting as it might have been, Mann doesn’t merely point an accusing finger at the Germans. He also refers to the various moral compromises America made in fighting the cold war. At one point a Pentagon official complains that the Nuremberg trials should be called off because we need the Germans as allies in our undeclared war on Soviet Russia. At another it’s clear that certain right-wing politicians have more sympathy for Nazi doctrine than for FDR’s liberal agenda.

I don’t want to overstate the play’s artistic value. Judgment at Nuremberg at times seems obvious and manipulative, especially today. Mann stacks the deck against the Nazis, painstakingly enumerating their atrocities. Their full scope may not have been public knowledge in 1959, whereas films and television have made them overfamiliar to us. The play also seems a little too aware of its own power and importance, and it’s way too aware that it consistently takes the moral high ground.

We know from the get-go that Judge Haywood (played in the movie by Spencer Tracy) will come down from the mountaintop with the one true take on the issues. For one thing, he’s not just good-hearted, strong willed, and clear thinking, he recently lost a job as a judge back home because he wouldn’t kowtow to the powers that be. We know that many of the golden-calf worshipers surrounding Haywood will be unable to follow his lead. This smugness is especially apparent in the many didactic speeches Mann packed into the last reel of the film. It’s as if he suddenly lost faith in the audience and decided to tell them outright what they should be thinking as they left their seats. Happily, Mann cut many of these speeches from the stage adaptation. He also shortened the length of the production, from three hours to two–another improvement.

The film overcame some of the weaknesses in Mann’s script with a first-rate cast, which reads like a who’s who of movie actors: Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift. Maximilian Schell reprised the role he played in the Playhouse 90 version as German defense attorney Oscar Rolfe.

The Shattered Globe folks don’t have the luxury of packing their production with A-list actors. So the ensemble members, under the direction of Lou Contey, take another tack: they underplay everything. Even Rolfe’s anguished outbursts near the end of the show, when we see how deeply he loathes defending his countrymen, are delivered with only a quarter of the passion that Schell put into his reading of the same lines. It’s a wise decision, actually boosting the intensity of the drama. And in Victory Gardens’ intimate second-story performing space, every gesture and whisper comes across loud and clear.

Contey’s choice levels the field for an ensemble that includes both very strong performers (Brian McCaskill as Rolfe, Linda Reiter, Rebecca Jordan) and actors who are merely pretty good. In a louder, larger production, the soft-spoken, bland Doug McDade, playing Judge Haywood, would be in danger of disappearing entirely. Making the play quieter and more even in tone also has the paradoxical effect of bringing the strongest elements of Mann’s script to the fore–his ear for dialogue, his eye for the small gesture–while underplaying the weakest: its melodramatic side.

This lack of melodrama may dismay audiences who come hoping for a stage re-creation of the film’s over-the-top moments, the courtroom confrontations and passionate denunciations of the Nazi regime. But for my money, Shattered Globe’s quieter version is more convincing–and satisfying. Maybe it wouldn’t make for great television. But then, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Rothenberg.