A Dazzling Achievement: “The Battle Not Begun: Munich 1938”

Nélida Nassar 02.08.2020

From left to right: Playwright Jack Beatty,
Actors Malcolm Ingram as Chamberlain and Ken Bolden as Hitler

Jack Beatty, NPR news analyst’s first play, “The Battle Not Begun: Munich 1938,” examines a moment in history when, on the brink of another world war, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler in Munich at the end of September 1938 to secure peace before returning to the United Kingdom waving the piece of paper which he famously claimed would ensure “peace with honor” and “peace for our time”. The price: Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia.

But after the Munich deal with Hitler fell through and the Second World War erupted, appeasement became synonymous with craven behavior and capitulation to amoral dictators. Chamberlain’s disastrous engagement with Hitler spawned what became known as the Munich analogy — the idea that appeasement of dictators will always backfire and end in dishonor.

Beatty’s play is many things: part satire in its portrayal of human frailties and foibles, part debate about determinism, negotiation and the test of wills, and part celebration when Chamberlain is finally able to secure the deal. The reading I attended suggests that the play is ingeniously constructed, with a strong internal dynamic, and Myriam Cyr’s production promises to be in equal measure didactic, emotional, and intent on maintaining a strong narrative thrust.

Chamberlain is an exemplar of goodness despite his limitations. London-born Malcolm Ingram (who lives in Gloucester, MA) adroitly conveys Chamberlain’s combining of gentle tolerance and steely determination as he acts on his firm belief that if you behave with justice, honesty and tolerance, you encourage others, even Nazis, to do the same. Ingram must confront the frenetic Hitler of Pittsburgh-based actor Ken Bolden, who, in an astonishing tour de force, blends manic verbal speed with total sensitivity to the musical rhythm of the piece.

The reading of the nine scenes, performed, with no intermission, struck the right balance between verbal clarity and malign deceit, and came across with stunning power. The overall effect may be more emotional and educative than dramatic as that term is strictly conceived, but even so it effectively delivered lessons that still need learning.

Beatty’s gift for writing scintillating dialogue may, for the moment, outstrip his ability to craft a drama without the benefit of a production. In any case, he understands perfectly how language can be used to camouflage fear or boost ego and maintains throughout the feeling that something momentous is at stake. As in Ibsen or O’Neill, the past is seen constantly to be informing the present.

Above all, the subject is an appropriate one to tackle at the beginning of 2020, given the present “fragility of the world in the hands of the earnest, the vain, the volatile, and the greedy.”Once again, the theatre manages to illuminate our collective lives, making everything just a bit more bearable.

Reading
Copley Society of Art, 158 Newbury Street, Boston, MA
February 6 @ 7.30 p.m.
February 7 @ 3.00 p.m. and 7.30 p.m.
Wenham Museum February 9 @ 3.00 p.m.