Good - C. P. Taylor

Warning: Plenty of spoilers. Don't read if you don't want big chunks of plot revealed.

Towards the end of last year, having recovered from my last lot of treatment, my wife and I went to see a few plays. Among them: Good, or as I like to think of it, "Doctor Who as a Nazi Apologist". Ahem. Well, David Tennant playing a "good" man who eventually ends up ensuring that Auschwitz is nice and humane. Mr. Tennant is excellent, but so are the rest of the cast - for most of the play there's only three of them, on a single, institutional set.

But hang on, why am I reviewing this in my book reviews? Well, a good friend gave me the script for Christmas, and... I do love a good play script, letting me dig through my memories of the play and study little bits of it, and generally have more of a think at leisure.

It's a great idea to put the play on now. With all that's going on in the world, it feels timely, and forty years after the last run means it doesn't have to suffer critical comparison with the previous showing from people who watched it then! The previous run had a much larger cast, with live music. This production strips it down to three core actors, and recorded music, in a non-descript set. There are minimal props - pretty much just books and documents, heightening the sense of how people hid behind words despite what was happening.

The minimal set and props helps with the fact the script jumps back and forth between scenes, effectively a collection of "How did I get here?" snippets on the way to The Final Solution.

It was far less subtle than I expected. I thought the play might gradually twist and subvert a genuinely good man, but he's pretty horrible. Sure, he's a liberal, but he's a pretty ugly specimen of a human being. He leaves his wife and children for a dumb student half his age, he is flattered into the Nazi party, he completely fails to help his Jewish best friend (instead, coveting his Summer house - which he gets!). He'll burn books as long as he can keep his own copies, and generally drop any principles he thought he once had.

The particularly grim thing is not that he's a good man turned bad, he's an ordinary man who wants to think of himself as good, who is clearly bad. It makes us wonder what we'd do in those circumstances.

Of course, there's more to it than that. There's a bit of a rumination on the meaning of "good" - Halder keeps using it to mean "nice" or "convenient". He hopes to be a good man, doing right by friends and family in a difficult situation, while ignoring the fact that he's betrayed both. He also faces genuinely tough times not of his own making - indeed, his guilt coping with his mother's senile dementia leads to him writing a novel favouring euthanasia... and hence to his popularity with the Nazis for providing a "humane" cover for their actions. He doesn't recognise that a literature professor is perhaps not the best medical ethicist, but just listens to the flattery.

He doesn't become a cartoon villain (despite donning an SS uniform and performing actions beyond anything suitable for a cartoon). A shred of liberality remains. He's never a true-believer in the Nazi cause, and keeps thinking they can just ride out the insanity. He is amply rewarded for his support, but is always quietly aware of the stick that awaits if he steps out of line.

Halder tries to find various excuses for the cowardice he shows, and the horrors he perpetrates. He tells himself he's making sure everything is done more humanely - and there's even revealed to be a shred of truth in this as, in passing, Eichmann agrees not to carry on with one of the "procedures" after "accidents". The Goethe scholar tries to reject reject "good" and "evil" to justify his behaviour. And, in a pattern that runs through the whole play, he uses words, concepts and abstractions to disconnect from the plain brutality of mass violence and murder.

The ending is inevitable but astonishing; mostly, though, my thoughts return to the earlier parts of the play: Halder's clearly a crappy man, but am I good?

I mean, this is probably the kind of question that you think a bit more about when you're going through serious illness, but I hope the play would have got me thinking about it anyway.

I think there was a time when I'd be unwilling to judge others too heavily - nature and nurture putting a heavy weight on some people, and social pressure being almost unavoidable. Did Nazi Germany mean we had a country of Evil People fighting a country of Good People? Surely that's too simplistic? My view was: Maybe everyone's capable of evil? If that's the case, can we really judge those who fell under its sway?

As time's gone on, and I've watched popular support build for politicians who trade in hate and degradation, it's clear that there's a mix - those who fall under the spell, those who resist, and those who don't rock the boat. Nazi Germany didn't need to be 100% evil people, the evil people just needed to be in charge. Just like the Allies didn't need to be all good, but just have enough good to hold sway.

Put another way, Evil sounds like a simplistic concept best left to childhood moral tales, but in the face of events like the Holocaust there's no shades of grey, this is the right term. Authoritarian regimes, mass murder, unilateral invasions, anything that crushes people as if they were meaningless numbers - these are evil.

So, to my surprise, I believe in evil. Do I believe in good? Good's tough. Evil is relatively easy - if you have the will, destruction is straightforward. How do you save millions of lives? Maybe you invent vaccines or set up a humanitarian programme. This seems a bit of a high bar. I don't just believe in immense evil, but smaller evil, so maybe I should be thinking about smaller good. What does it take to be good in a way that adds up across millions to make a better world?

Good shouldn't be purely the absence of evil. I hear "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is that good men do nothing", and I think... if they do nothing in the face of evil, are they good men? On the other hand, the action required is not clear to me.

Working out what "good" is in the face of human beings is complicated. I have a relative who helps out in many local charities, but is caught up in the fear of migrants hundreds of miles away and actively supports the Conservatives who are hurting so many people. How do we quantify that?

I can't even look to "selflessness" as a key component to good - if everyone acts selflessly, you end up with O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, and in Good the the elimination of the Jews is justified by their selfishness (in not wanting to be eliminated). "If I am not for myself, then who is for me?" is not unreasonable. I'd be hard pressed to call "enlightened self-interest", in and of itself, "good" though.

Perhaps it's good to have no single definition of good. Much evil has come from certainty, and a pluralistic approach to good seems far better than puritanism. We can be sure some things are evil while letting people find their own good.

Anyway, apologies to philosophy students pointing to vast amounts of pre-existing work in this area. I've fared badly with historical philosphers (see my review of Russell's A History of Western Philosophy), who seem to prefer to be exactly wrong than approximately right.

This is not the outcome I expected, going into this play. I expected to be encouraged to see the shades of grey, the slide from "good" to "evil", but in the end it has encouraged me to keep the contrast clear.

Posted 2023-01-07.