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The Parkes Institute

Playing History: Sir Ronald Harwood CBE FRSL

Published: 20 October 2009

In the 19th Parkes Lecture playwright Ronald Harwood, whose screenplay for Polanski’s The Pianist won him an Oscar, talked of the challenge of recreating history on the stage and screen.

He told our reporter Karen Woods that conveying the truth is always the essential element in writing history plays.

His 1995 play Taking Sides for example is, like the recent Collaboration,  a play with themes that have occupied him for much of his prolific career - Nazis, music, moral choices and antisemitism. Taking Sides examines the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. In Collaboration, it is composer Richard Strauss. The question at the core of both works is, to what extent did these artists serve Hitler's regime?

"I come out pretty justly for Strauss," he says. "What people have conveniently forgotten is that he had a Jewish daughter-in-law and Jewish grandchildren - [Jewish] by Nazi law. The Nazis said: ‘Do what we tell you or your grandchildren will be in danger,' what would you do in those circumstances?"

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