An English Tragedy by Ronald Harwood

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BBC Radio 4, 8 May 2010
Ronald Harwood's play, premiered at the Watford Palace Theatre in February 2008, returns us - albeit indirectly - to the world of spies and spying that has for a long time provided rich material for radio dramatization. This play is the story of the young British fascist John Amery (Geoffrey Streatfield), who was arrested and charged with high treason in 1945 after making broadcasts for the Nazis. The trial was a sensation at the time, as Amery was the son of Leo Amery (Derek Jacobi), a member of Winston Churchill's wartime coalition government.

As portrayed by Streatfield, Amery was a difficult young man bereft of any real discipline or morals. In fact he was diagnosed - in the damning language characteristic of many psychologists in the mid-twentieth century - as "morally imbecilic." Although outwardly charming, he could undergo rapid mood-shifts, while some of language - particularly when describing his anti-semitism or sexual exploits - could be downright offensive.
Amery himself firmly believed that communists and Jews had formed an unholy alliance that threatened Britain's future. The only way he believed that problem could be overcome was for Britain to form an alliance with Nazi Germany. Such beliefs were tantamount to heresy, which is why Amery was arrested and subsequently hanged. In Streatfield's performance, however, we got the sense that Amery was passionately committed to his cause; far from being "morally imbecilic," he knew precisely what he wanted. However no one bothered to listen to him; he only had his teddy-bear to talk to. Like Guy Burgess, whose life was memorably chronicled in Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad, Amery could be simultaneously pitied yet despised.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment of An English Tragedy occurs when John's father Leo admits that he himself is Halachically Jewish, through his mother. This revelation determines John's future course of action; rather than relying on his family to exonerate him on the grounds of diminished responsibility (and subsequently pack him off to Spain), he pleads guilty to the charge of treason, knowing that the death penalty is mandatory. In his view it is better to die for one's beliefs rather than accept the peculiarly English form of hypocrisy. If he went to Spain, he would be "out of sight, out of mind," enabling Leo to carry on his political career as if nothing had happened. In fact Leo cannot do this, as his other son Julian presents him with a son and three grand-daughters, thereby perpetuating the Jewishness within the family.
On the other hand, in Philip Franks' production we could not help but feel sorry for Leo and his very English, very vulnerable wife, Bryddie (Isla Blair), as they tried to come to terms with the anguish of losing their son, as well as having their private lives exposed to the public glare. Even in the mid-1940s, when media coverage was not so all-encompassing as today, the Amory family were unable to escape the piercing glare of the camera.  

In Bert Coules' adaptation of Harwood's play, the action began slowly, allowing plenty of time for John and his father to establish their characters. The plot became more gripping as it moved towards the denouement, culminating in a courtroom scene and a coda in John's condemned cell on the night before his execution. Harwood’s sympathetic perspective was well communicated through two tortured central performances from Jacobi and Streatfield.

Does An English Tragedy have anything to say to us in the post-communist world? While it is certainly a period piece, it nonetheless focuses attention on how an over-zealous belief in one's country can soon become destructive. This perhaps helps to explain why far-right political parties such as the British National Party have made strenuous efforts to moderate their stance. On the other hand, Harwood suggests that it is no use trying to conceal one's ethnicity - partcularly for someone in public life such as Leo Amory. As with other aspects of a politician's life, transparency is fundamental to success.