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★★★★★

Hitler Alone

Paul Webster

August 25–26, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I walk up two flights of stairs. The production is in a language learning center on the second floor. The decoration is sparse, the lighting fluorescent, industrial. There’s a small reception room with coffee and some chairs. The receptionist leads me around the corner to a small office room with fifteen chairs, facing inward at a single chair, and a bit table with a picture of Klara Hitler, Adolf’s mother. The windows are covered, one with a dark drape, another with a great red Nazi flag, with a manhole-sized Swastika in the middle. There are twelve of us. We are somewhat cramped. We wait.

We hear shouting outside. An epileptic Adolf storms in, dripping, screaming. The German army is failing. His hands shake--Parkinson’s. He is grandiose yet shrunken. His coat is too big. He rants, and then collapses in the chair.

“Hitler Alone” is, if nothing else, brave. There have been few successful attempts to capture the man behind recent history most audacious social engineering--”die verrückte Zeit,” as some called it. Popular depictions push fact over feelings. Feelings can be distorted over time. Numbers (6 million) are somewhat less malleable.

There is a resilient fear, after all this time, that to humanize is to sympathize, that to sympathize is to justify, that to justify is to forgive, that to forgive is to forget. I have trouble arguing with the fear. Violence between barbarous tribes doesn’t worry us--though we might feel a twinge of pity--but the Germans weren’t barbarians. They were civilized. Some worry that if we humanize him too much, we the civilized, or perhaps our children, will be the engineers of the fourth Reich.

The logic is flawed, of course. To shield ourselves from Hitler’s human side is the ostrich’s refuge. Society has a tendency to corral all the evils of the world under the guise of Hitler (and, consequently fascism)--with politicians and media outlets invariably slinging the “F” word at their opponents without regard to social or political nuance. The situation is so absurd that at one point, a prominent American neo-Nazi objected to the Republican and Democratic mudslinging on the grounds that it was misrepresenting actual Nazi. It seems that this knee-jerk vilification isn’t discouraging any actual Nazis, and that it makes it easier to ignore our own iniquities (as in not-Nazi was the fast-track to being a “good person”).

However, that doesn’t make it any less painful to watch.

This is the second one-man play I’ve seen at the Fringe, and its single engineer — the seasoned Paul Webster — is bold. The image is splitting, and Webster is careful to imitate the precise mannerisms of the old Fuhrer. We don’t have the protection of the stage, and while I know it is an act, I am awed as Webster struts, a few feet from me, sputtering, shouting how he wishes he could take a million more Jews down with him as he dies. Purely as a display of theatrical virtuosity, Webster succeeds wonderfully. I doubt that many other men could share that level of sustain, could explore that extent of degradation for a full 75 minutes every night, and not be overwhelmed themselves.

The script takes many freedoms. In his final hours, Hitler remarks very freely about his entire history, the specifics of his successes and failures on the battlefield. I wonder whether the real Hitler knew how Mussolini’s body was hung up on a meathook after being shot, or how Rommel’s suicide implement of choice was piano wire. And I doubt that the true Hitler was quite so cogent before death — addicted to amphetamines as he was (Albert Speer would attribute his unemotional late life behavior to this fact). But this is theatre, after all, and we suspend disbelief because we have to. After all, we want to see all of a bad mad in the course of 75 minutes. It’s a tall order. We make do. We’re watching, necessarily through 21st century eyes, and I think that Webster’s decision to make his Hitler more cogent, more open, and more transparent was both a necessary and wise decision.

It helps that the script, realism aside, is pure poetry. The audience is rapt. The cadence is well done and we, as listeners, are taught something about the dangerous power of a good orator.

What do we gain from such a play? Depth. Some of the script is quote from letters and speeches, some devised. Webster peers equally into Hitler’s military travails as his relationship with Eva Braun, his views on women, and his childhood. Webster juxtaposes a man capable of worrying about the fate of his secretaries with a man capable of executing millions of both his enemies and his allies. The lesson is not that we are similar to Hitler, and therefore, perhaps, he was right. The lesson is that we are similar to Hitler, and that we’d be foolish to pretend that the Hitlers of the world can be excised into history books and asylums, and that we can sit idly while we dream up our own feel-good fascism.

As a work gauged wholly on the strength of its acting, it is extraordinary. Works with this level of intimacy are rare. “Hitler Alone” is beautiful, although terrifying.