THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH
(1968 Broadway Drama)
ACT OF ATONEMENT
An article / review by TIME MAGAZINE
Some playwrights bring their lives into the theatre. Others bring only their reading lists. The Man in the Glass Booth proves that playwright Robert Shaw, the English actor and novelist, has read accounts of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, as well as Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Israel and the comments on Hannah Arendt's book. Unfortunately, his play recapitulates the past without transforming it. It raises the stale questions of German guilt, Jewish passivity and the paranoic personality of the archkiller, along with a recital of atrocities. But it offers no fresh illumination.
An actor and a director are the play's most impressive assets. In the central role, Donald Pleasence gives a performance of atomic power and blinding virtuosity; Harold Pinter directorially chills the stage to doom temperature. The very first scene bursts on the playgoer with somber eclat. In an elegant private chapel, dim as a catacomb, a finger of light rests on Pleasence as he kneels rapt in prayer. The Verdi Requiem saturates the air like incense. Suddenly, the stage is ablaze with light, louvers are turning, and the backdrop becomes a penthouse view of Manhattan's skyscrapers.
The lord of this glass-and-concrete palace is a Jewish real estate mogul named Arthur Goldman (Pleasence). Goldman has a jigsaw-puzzle personality. He wants only a "kosher" staff around him, yet he indulges in acridly anti-Semitic remarks. With bewildering rapidity, his accented spray of words veers from the clever to the vulgar to the mad. In a sense, Goldman is the kind of Angst-ridden creature a very bright student might have constructed after making a close study of how Harold Pinter fashions his characters. Since Shaw acted the mentally disturbed older brother in Pinter's The Caretaker, the influence is scarcely surprising.
But is Goldman really Jewish? Convinced that Goldman is actually Adolf Dorff, a former SS colonel expressly charged with the extermination of Jews, three armed Israeli agents abduct him for trial. The court scene that dominates Act II is a desultory affair. It would be a sleepy bore except for Pleasence's arrogant depiction of Dorff. At one point, he rises in his glass booth to deliver a kind of prose love poem to his Fuhrer. The speech rises toward erotic ecstasy so that the climaxing "Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!" is an orgasm of fanaticism. It terrifyingly evokes Hitler's own idea that the masses are feminine and wish to be seduced.
Ultimately, a spectator at the trial announces that Goldman is really a Jew (the telltale SS tattoo in his armpit turns out to be a self-inflicted cigar burn). The denouement makes the playwright seem like a bumbling amateur and the Israeli secret agents as incredibly inept. Goldman, it appears, was a kind of Christ-surrogate who wanted to be martyred so that his people might feel that some fitting atonement had been made for the monstrous wrongs done them. But Shaw's conception of martyrdom makes it seem less a matter of conscience than an attention-getting device on a grandiose scale. Some crimes---and the murder of the Jews is certainly one---dwarf atonement and defy retributive justice. A token of evil can be caged in a glass booth, but evil itself can never be exorcised there.
In the end, Donald Pleasence is this play's best excuse for being. Smirking, storming, giggling, cringing, screaming, he is wild, weird, and wonderful. Pleasence knows how to invade a playgoer's mind like a neurotic blood relative whom one cannot abide and yet cannot disown. He has the hallucinatory reality of a dream from which one cannot awaken. He provides one of those rare performances that theatergoers will never stop talking about.
. . .
"This has been a particularly difficult part for me," said Donald Pleasence one afternoon last week, ranging around his hotel room---all eyes and nose and ovoid skull---turning down the air conditioner, radiating nervous energy. "For one thing, I'm not Jewish. I'm not German. I'm not rich. I had the script for a year. I read Hannah Arendt's book on Eichmann, his testimony at the trial, histories of the war---anything relevant. But Goldman isn't a symbol of Eichmann, Christ, or anyone else. I agree with Pinter. 'This is a play," he said at the first reading, 'about a Jew who pretends to be a Nazi and finally turns out to be a Jew. Right? Now, let's get on with it.'"
"It was always understood that I'd play the lead and that Harold Pinter would direct." Pleasence partially modeled his performance on a well-known dictatorial movie producer, whom he prefers not to name. I used him as a model for a quality I don't have---authority. I can't even get a water in a restaurant." Pleasence considers Goldman one of his three best performances---the other two being Davies in Pinter's The Caretaker ("I had the image of an alley cat in mind") and the title role in the Broadway production of Jean Anoulih's Poor Bitos.
The Caretaker was the making of him. Born 49 years ago as the son and grandson of railroad workers in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. Pleasence developed his first yen for acting after his mother had enrolled him in speaking classes. He was an R.A.F. wireless operator in World War II, was shot down, and spent a year in a German prison camp. After some postwar repertory and lots of television, he was about to sign a film contract when he read the script of The Caretaker. The play paid him £10 a week at London's Arts Theater Club, it proved such a hit that it moved to a larger commercial house and ran for more than a year.
Pleasence admits to being typecast as a sinister psychopath in what he calls "glossy movies," such as You Only Live Twice and The Night of the Generals. He doesn't mind, partly because "evil people seem more interesting," partly because of the money he can make. This means a house on the Thames, with a boat at the bottom of the garden and plenty of elbowroom for his wife and two young daughters.
The films are beginning to provide Pleasence with a measure of artistic largesse. Next month, he, Pinter and Shaw, who have incorporated themselves as Glasshouse Productions, will sponsor a play by a young British writer named John Hopkins at London's Royal Court Theater. The plot is a parable of human gulit: a policeman kicks a child-murderer to death in his cell, thus becoming as bad as the killer himself. Pleasence's own acting ambitions are more conventional. "I'd really like to do a season of repertory with Shaw," he muses. "We'd do a Shakespeare, a new play, a revival of The Caretaker." And, he adds, with that alley-cat smile: "If we couldn't find somebody to put up the money, we'd do it ourselves, with the money from the glossy movies."
From the October 4, 1968 edition of TIME
Review © 1968 TIME. All Rights Reserved.
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Photos by Bert Andrews
Photos © 1968 Bert Andrews / GLASSHOUSE PRODUCTIONS.
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