OUTSIDE OF Benedict Arnold, Americans tend to be leery of attempts to label even proven spies as traitors, since so often their motivations prove to be financial, not ideological. But to the English, the idea of treason is potent and very real. Disloyalty to Crown and Country hits deep at their sense of self, and a number of British writers, including Graham Greene, John Le Carre, and the playwright Alan Bennett, have dealt almost obsessively with the ideas of treason and traitors in their work.
Hanging Lord Haw-Haw
Empty Space Theater till May 13
Ironically, one of the most infamous British traitors of all was not indisputably British. William Joyce, who broadcast jeering propaganda under the nom de guerre "Lord Haw-Haw" for the Nazis during World War II, was born in America, raised in Ireland, and became a German citizen soon after fleeing England. His life and trial were the subject of Rebecca West's famous book The Meaning of Treason and now are the basis for a new play by Jeffrey Hatcher, Hanging Lord Haw-Haw, making its world premiere at the Empty Space.
Hatcher's own inspiration came from an obituary for Albert Pierpont, the last hangman in England. Among his most famous victims was Joyce, hanged in 1946 after a trial that was greatly complicated by the question of the nationality of the accused and whether or not, because of his heritage and a complicated series of passports, he could legally be tried for treason. It was indicative of the complex life of a man who thought of himself as a solidly patriotic Briton but was more personally hated by the English than any man outside of Hitler himself.
"Joyce was at one point in the '30s sort of the Iago figure to the crowd around the British fascist Oswald Moseley, but Moseley dumped him when he got too close to the throne," explains Hatcher. "Then he spent a couple of years in the wilderness before learning that in the event of war he'd be incarcerated, so he fled to Germany. He started broadcasting just a week after war was declared and ran a large part of their programming right to the end of May 1945."
THE TWO MOST obvious problems with writing about Joyce are dealing with events that are relatively recent history and portraying an unsympathetic person in a light that makes him still interesting for an audience. "I've written historical dramas before, but once you march into the 20th century, there's so much more documentation that you feel a responsibility to get it right," says the playwright. "Sometimes you have to telescope events, but still you have to respect the facts and the truths of the matter. One of the things that drives me crazy about the films JFK and Nixon is that [director Oliver] Stone was manipulating scenes and ideas that we know very well. I think if you've come across moments that are less specifically documented, you've got more leeway, and you can let your imagination fill in the blanks."
As to the character of Joyce, Hatcher is adamant that his play is not an attempt to whitewash the man, just to understand him a little better. "Obviously it's a challenge to deal with such an unsympathetic character. You can't sugarcoat him, say he's nice to kids or had a dog. It's a given he's a fascist, a Nazi, but let's see what it was that he cared about. You have to be honest about him but not let the politics just run the story."
The issues of loyalty and treason, Hatcher believes, are much closer to our own history than we might at first believe. "Are you loyal to an idea or loyal to a country? There were people in the '60s much more loyal to North Vietnam than to this country. In a different context, Jane Fonda would have not just been considered a traitor by some but perhaps even put on trial." And despite how little we might like the character of Joyce, there's no question that his life, and loyalties, remain a teasing historical conundrum.