by Shelley A. Sackett
Those of us who eschew the national news in favor of mental equilibrium and spiritual health should be forewarned: it is nearly impossible to watch this historically grounded play and not draw some scary parallels to global current events. The points between 1938 and 2020 beg to be connected.
That said, ‘The Battle Not Begun,’ written by playwright and NPR news analyst Jack Beatty, is as artistically absorbing as it is factually repellant. Under Myriam Cyr’s tight editing and sharp-eyed direction, the audience becomes a fly on the wall at the fateful meeting between Adolph Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that gave Hitler a green light to launch what became World War II.
A little historical background may be helpful. (I offer this lengthy intro because, as one whose knowledge of WWII is admittedly gauzy, I wish I had this primer before sitting down to watch the play.)
After the First World War ended in 1918, the map of Europe was redrawn and several new countries were formed, including Czechoslovakia. As a result, three million Germans found themselves living under Czech rule in the Sudetenland. In 1938, when Hitler came to power, he vowed to reunite Germans into one nation, starting with the cessation to Germany of the “Sudeten German territory.”
Incited by Hitler’s rhetoric, Sudeten Germans rioted and deliberately provoked violence by the Czech police. Hitler falsely claimed that the police killed 300 Germans during these protests. With this weaponized “fake news” as justification, Hitler immediately placed German troops along the Czech border and announced his intention to annex it. Chamberlain flew to Hitler’s private mountaintop retreat to try to forge an agreement to bring “peace for our time” and avoid further Nazi aggression. (This meeting is the setting for ‘The Battle Not Begun.’)
Instead, Chamberlain caved to Hitler’s every demand about the Sudetenland in the naïve belief that, in exchange, Hitler would honor his end of the bargain and not seek additional territory in Europe. Hitler lied, astutely outplaying Chamberlain. Chamberlain loudly touted the pact as a personal triumph and Britain’s legacy for peace by negotiation. History has since dubbed the Munich Agreement shorthand for “a failed act of appeasement” and a symbol for the futility of placating expansionist totalitarian states.
An inventive film/theater/re-enactment hybrid, ‘The Battle Not Begun’ sets its period mood from the outset. TV/movie-like credits roll over a 1938 tinted photo, slowly panned in a Ken Burns-esque manner. Adolf Hitler (played with technicolor panache by the supremely talented Ken Bolden) appears full frame in all his stereotypic glory. He paces, prances, preens and snarls, almost simultaneously. This is not someone who plays hide the ball. As Chamberlain waits offstage, he wastes no time telling the audience exactly what he thinks of this “Calvin Coolidge less the exuberance” who is all “grey competence.”
Enter Chamberlain (Malcolm Ingram, who maintains an implacably stiff upper lip and air of entitled aristocracy throughout the performance), as if on cue. He is as polite, deferential and serious as Hitler is insulting and crass. The worst that can be said of Chamberlain’s behavior is that he is a snob and a stick-in-the-mud.
For the rest of the 97-minute production, we have a ring-side seat as these two slug out a resolution to the situation in Czechoslovakia. Along the way, we learn much about these men and what makes each tick. Chamberlain, the white glove diplomat who grew up with a platinum spoon in his mouth, is dispassionate and clinical. He never had actual boots on any war-torn ground, and, while he is no humanist (he disdains the Czechs-and Slavs in general- as much as Hitler does), he is also no savage. He is petty and obsessed with his public image and avenging the humiliation he suffered at the hands of Prime Minister Lloyd George. But he also believes in the sanctity of human life. “When lives are at stake, every chance of peace must be explored,” he implores. “War is a nightmare.”
Hitler, on the other hand, grew up friendless, homeless and impoverished in Vienna. He found peace, meaning and acceptance as a soldier during WWI. “War is not a nightmare to me. It is life unmasked,” he explains. “War is the great equalizer of class. All are equal in the trenches.” Avenging Germany’s defeat has been his life’s sole mission since 1918.
By the play’s end, we sense that anything negotiated by these two men is doomed to failure; they are simply too different, unable to speak the same language or play by the same rules. No matter what they draft and sign, it cannot be binding because it cannot be translated.
“I became me in war. You became you in a peace that ground every German face to the ground,” Hitler says, as if providing a proof text.
‘The Battle Not Begun-Munich 1938:The Brink of War’ – Written by Jack Beatty; Directed by Miriam Myriam Cyr; Produced by Gloucester Stage Company at Oneline/Virtual Space in collaboration with Punctuate4, an all-female led production company based on the North Shore, as part of its 2020 Never Dark Series. Streaming online September 3-6 at https://gloucesterstage.com/battle-not-begun/