The Greater Good by Justin Hopper

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BBC Radio 4, 23 October 2008

Set in Germany in 1916, The Greater Good focused on the life of the scientist Fritz Haber (Anton Lesser), who conducted secret experiments for the German army during the First World War. His wife Clara (Lesley Sharp), also a qualified scientist, had given up her job on her husband’s wishes, and ran a kindergarten instead. As the play unfolded, it transpires that Haber is participating in a project to create poison gas, which can be used to kill off the British and French forces and hence win the war for Germany. Too bad if it breaks the conventions of war established at The Hague; so long as it contributes to ‘the greater good,’ then it is permissible.


Hopper’s play focuses on the familiar theme of the personal versus the political. Haber loves his wife, but his ambition drives him to commit crimes against humanity. Although a Jew – and hence despised by many of his fellow German officers – he is nonetheless useful to the army, and receives numerous rewards, including a commission and rapid promotion. What he fails to understand, however, is that once he has outlived his usefulness he will be cast aside like yesterday’s left-overs. His so-called friends will ostracize him; and he will no longer enjoy an affluent lifestyle. Clara readily understands this, but cannot convince her husband. Her only course of action is to commit an act of social rebellion by cutting her hair short and appearing at a party in grotesque attire, and thereby embarrassing Haber.


Director Celia de Wolff worked wonders with her material to create a gripping production. Partly this was due to the two central performances: Lesser’s tones of lofty indifference were contrasted with Sharp’s plaintive tones, as she tried to convince both her husband and the listeners that she was speaking the truth. Eventually the task proves futile, and she commits suicide with her husband’s revolver. De Wolff also created some harrowing moments through sound-effects; this was especially evident during a scene where Fritz watched the poison-gas being tested on some dogs. First they barked loudly in fear, and subsequently made some unearthly noises as their throats filled with mucus and they choked to death.


The irony of this scene emerged later on – despite the fact that the Germans used poison gas on the Western Front, it made absolutely no difference to the outcome of the First World War. The Allies held their positions, and eventually weakened the Germans through sheer force of numbers. With this in mind, it was clear that the play’s title – The Greater Good – was nothing more than a sham: nothing could justify Haber’s experiments.