Lies, Love and Hitler runs at the Old Fitz Theatre from April 17 – May 3 2014. By Elizabeth Scott, directed by Rochelle Whyte.
I should begin this piece with a disclaimer: I know and like many of the people involved in this show, including the writer and several members of the cast. This fact makes it harder for me to say what I have to say about this show, which is that I found it deeply problematic.
This is not a problem with the production itself. All three members of the cast execute their roles with aplomb. The play is cleverly directed – the only issue I took with that aspect was to do with an over-reliance on blackouts, which made some scene changes seem jerky where fluidity would have been preferable. And I think the writing is good too: witty, snappy, funny.
But Lies, Love and Hitler and I suffer from a fundamental ideological incompatibility, and I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to fix that. While I think other people might really enjoy this show – and, indeed, the opening night audience seemed to enjoy it a lot – it managed to hit on several areas about which I have very strong opinions. It’s a play about ambiguity, but for me, some of the questions it touched on were not ambiguous at all.
Lies, Love and Hitler follows theology professor Paul Langley (James Scott). Langley teaches ethics, and while teaching the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a German pastor who conspired to kill Hitler – he finds himself visited by Bonhoeffer’s ghost (Doug Chapman). As he negotiates a nascent romantic relationship with his student Hannah (Ylaria Rogers), he finds himself tormented by a series of ethical questions, which he seeks Bonhoeffer’s advice in solving.
The first of these questions is posed right at the beginning of the play as we watch Langley teach his ethics class. Would it be, he asks, morally right to kill Hitler? Bonhoeffer, a devout Christian, was regarded as a hero for attempting to do this – but was it ethical? Does the end justify the means?
Personally, I don’t think this is a particularly interesting question. Most people would say yes, on the basis of simple mathematical calculation – one life versus many lives. We can see a similar question in Game of Thrones: Jaime Lannister broke his oath and killed King Aerys Targaryen, but Aerys was mad and wanted to burn the entire country, so... what was he supposed to do? (It would have been intriguing, actually, if the play had explored someone who faced this question and said no – a far more interesting position to defend.) But it is not in and of itself problematic. No, what I found problematic was the line drawn between Bonhoeffer’s dilemma – is it moral to kill Hitler? – and Langley’s: is it okay for a teacher and a student to have a romantic relationship?
As an academic myself, I have some fairly strong views on this question, which basically boil down to one word: no. “Is there anything objectively wrong with a teacher and a student falling in love?” Bonhoeffer asks Langley at one point. Langley’s answer is “no,” to which I raised an eyebrow, because my answer is definitely – and unambiguously – “yes”. There is a reason that teacher/student relationships are proscribed, and that reason is to do with abuse of power. Conflicts of interest can arise over mere friendly acquaintanceships, let alone romances. This is not a grey area. Hannah and Langley have known each other for many years, which ostensibly complicates the matter, but a) the fact that she is in his class and he is marking her assignments is already a conflict of interest, and b) he has known her since she was a little girl, by which time he was already a young man, which kind of makes it even grosser.
And all this is leaving aside the big problem: the equation of whether or not to kill Hitler and whether or not to engage in a teacher/student relationship, as if these were in any way equivalent.
This is not the only problematic parallel drawn in the play. Hannah, we discover, has filed sexual harassment charges against another professor. Langley is visited by a university sexual harassment officer who essentially asks him for a character reference for Hannah. Coached by Bonhoeffer, he lies to her. This officer is clearly looking out for the interests of the university and not the student, which leads Langley at one point to equate the investigation with the Gestapo. Now, there are certainly horrible instances of things like this happening in universities, especially in the USA, but it’s not common, or anywhere near this clear-cut. Sexual harassment officers like these exist explicitly to look after students’ interests, and I imagine they would be having an ethical dilemma all of their own if they were asked to protect the institution at the cost of the victim. (Again, maybe that would have been a more interesting moral question to explore.) This was a very narratively convenient way to draw a very, very problematic parallel. To compare an investigation of sexual harassment claims to the Gestapo, to make analogous the questions Langley faces with the interrogation Bonhoeffer did? Oh no. Oh hell no.
I had no idea why Bonhoeffer’s shade was hanging around Langley, to be honest. Langley seems kind of terrible. What he’s doing isn’t that morally grey. It’s pretty clearly wrong. Yes, even if the woman involved is actively consenting.
Said woman Hannah identifies as a feminist, but this didn’t ring true for me. This was not necessarily because of her relationship with Langley. Rather, it was because her feminism didn’t feel real at all. There was an “ugh, men” moment at one point, another to do with men opening doors, and another, where she said to herself, “I’m supposed to be a feminist! An intellectual! And yet I can’t tear myself away from these love letters!”
I am… not sure what the conflict here is supposed to be, exactly? I am a feminist historian of love and romance, so I have more than a few thoughts on this matter, but modern feminism (that is, third-wave feminism) is certainly not anti-love. Hannah felt like a caricature of a feminist, and as someone invested in seeing more explicit representations of feminism on stage, I found this very disappointing.
(Also, there was a crack about Mills & Boon readers I didn’t really appreciate, but then, I am very sensitive to that kind of thing and cannot expect to Hannah and Langley to share my opinions on this issue.)
Lies, Love and Hitler is never dull. It certainly keeps you engaged the whole way through. A lot of the dialogue is very good – there’s a real quality of banter and some great comic moments. But the ethical underpinnings of this play left me a bit horrified, to be honest. The moral dilemmas? Not that dilemma-y from where I was sitting. Morality exists in shades of grey, and sometimes all the choices are bad – but I’m pretty comfortable saying that things are pretty clear cut when it comes to things like teacher/student relationships and comparing sexual harassment investigations to the Gestapo. While others might enjoy this show a lot, I found it very difficult to see past the political problems I had with it.