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Pack of lies.

During the summer of 1950, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested, a number of people mysteriously disappeared from their homes. It was recently reported that two of those people, Al Sarant and Joel Barr, made their way to the Soviet Union and prospered there in the defense industry. Another two, Morris and Lona Cohen, turned up in England some years later under the names Peter and Helen Kroger. The Krogers, who ran a mail-order book business specializing in volumes on, among other subjects, torture and sadomasochism, did not prosper. In 1961 they were arrested as Soviet espionage agents and sentenced to twenty years. Later they were released to the Soviet Union in a prisoner exchange and today are said to live in Krakow, Poland.

Hugh Whitemore's West End drama about the Cohen-Krogers, Pack of Lies, opened on Broadway last month. The play tells the story of their arrest from the point of view of their close friends and neighbors the Jacksons. The Jacksons, who knew nothing about espionage, were approached by Scotland Yard. An agent wanted to post a police surveillance team in their upstairs window for two days. The Jacksons had no idea their friends were to be surveilled, and assented. But the days stretched into weeks and the Jacksons eventually realized what was afoot, which is to say, they found themselves collaborating deeply in the ruin of their friends. It was a nasty situation, and the nastiness raises a question which anyone who attends the play will spend the evening mulling: Is it ever right to betray one's friends, as these people did, in the name of duty to the state or to some high cause?

The line that naturally comes to mind in this connection is E.M. Forster's "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." That line has a nice ring. It cuts through a lot of pious cant about service to country. But as a general proposition on betrayal, it is, to anyone not an aristocrat or a Mafioso, unacceptable. Aristocrats and Mafiosi regard personal ties as the loftiest and most exclusionary of principles, which is why betrayal of country or any other object of higher loyalty comes easy to them. The rest of us think there's more to life than the well-being of one's little social group. Our loyalties are broader, and since loyalties sometimes conflict, we know that in certain extreme circumstances personal betrayals are unavoidable.

The point has often been made on stage. The doctrine of moral relativity--the idea that moral commitments are never absolute (except thetorically) but always depend in the last analysis on circumstances-was for many years a favorite theatrical theme, especially among left-wing playwrights. Bertolt Brecht used it in The Measures Taken, where he showed that the earnest young comrade must be cruelly betrayed in the higher interest of the Chinese Revolution. Clifford Odets did something similar in Till the Day I Die, where the fine young husband must be falsely denounced and driven to his death in the interest of the anti-Nazi resistance. Likewise Lillian Hellman in Watch on the Rhine. These plays are, it's true, faintly malodorous in retrospect. They were written during the age of Stalin, and they show it. A reverence for people who sacrifice personal morality to the higher cause was a peculiarly strong feature of Stalinist ethics, and it was no coincidence that so many playwrights reached for this theme. One might even describe the plays I've cited as morality tales for a movement devoted to amorality. But that's a historical note. Brushing history aside, considering merely what the plays show on stage, the argument they make is unimpeachable.

What, then, are the circumstances that can justify personal betrayal? Brecht, Odets and Hellman supply an adequate answer. Betrayal requires two conditions to be justified. The first touches the outside world. There must be an extreme social crisis. All of society must totter on the edge of calamity, in such a way that a personal betrayal will provide some crucial measure of salvation. The second condition touches the betrayer's inner thoughts. His eyes must be open: blind stabs can never be justified morally, even if for some reason they accomplish a useful task. A justified betrayer must recognize the enormity of the social crisis; his political understanding must be large. And he must recognize the enormity of his betrayal; his moral understanding must be equally lare. He must recognize that he himself, having violated simple laws of decency, will never be the same. Some element of his integrity or innocence will be forever lost, and a stink from the crime will forever cling to him. He must accept this consciously. He must, in short, be a great person, equal to the tragedies that history imposes. If he is anything less than great, if in any way his understanding and motives prove less than exemplary, then his act will be repulsive, and nothing but repulsive.

Now to the stage at the Royale Theatre. It's easy to see what would be required if the Jacksons' betrayal of the Krogers were in any respect to be justified. We would want to see the Jacksons thinking the situation through, not merely stumbling into collaboration with Scotland Yard. We could hardly respect them if their motive was merely obedience to the state or patriotic habit. We would want to be impressed by their analysis of the Soviet danger. We would want them to assure themselves and us that they could halt an extraordinarily dangerous turn in Soviet-British relations. We would want to be convinced, in brief, that circumstances in the outside world were so extreme as to mandate a violation of normal decency, and that the Jacksons understood these circumstances. And we would want to see that the Jacksons grasped the awfulness of their action. They would have to show personal greatness in sacrificing both their friends and their own integrity. If we couldn't see this, we could hardly sympathize.

The Jacksons in Pack of Lies are hardly great, and Whitemore didn't mean to make them so. He meant to show that they were victims of police manipulation or perhaps that fate is unkind. The smooth-talking police official manages to get them to avoid questioning what they are doing for weeks on end. The political issues--whether danger comes more from Scotland Yard or from Soviet spies, the duty of standing by the state versus the duty of not standing by the state--are never discussed, or only perfunctorily so. The question of whether the Jacksons are uniquely required to betray their friends--couldn't someone else's upstairs window be used, or can't the police just go and arrest the Krogers without forcing the Jacksons into a vile dilemma?--is hardly dealt with, then only by Scotland Yard's giving its word. Gradually Mrs. Jackson does grasp the repugnant aspect of betraying her friends and begins to feel sick about it. Chitchat between her and Mrs. Kroger becomes uncomfortable, then unbearable. But the die is cast. What you are meant to feel by the end of the play, I think, is empathy for Mrs. Jackson, who has been so cruelly used by Scotland Yard, and indignation that the police would do such things--even if such things were unavoidable.

But what kind of person could respond this way? My indignation was at the Jacksons. They don't have to submit. They could throw the police out and inform their friends; or they could think the cold war through and embrace patriotic duty with a full sense of the accompanying tragedy. They could act; but they don't act, they temporize; and since temporizing means mindless betrayal of friends through obedience to the state, they emerge as repulsive from the start, far more repulsive than Whitemore seems to know. He seems to think the situation is ambiguous--when it's merely complicated. As for shifting blame to the police, this strikes me as a kind of cowardice. Police are always heartless. That doesn't excuse anyone.

Whitemore does no better with the Krogers. These people live a life of betrayal. They betray Britain to the Soviet Union, and in a fashion they betray the Jacksons, as Mrs. Jackson observes, since the Jackson would never have struck up a neighborly intimacy if they'd known about the radio transmitter in the basement and what was happening to British submarine secrets there. What, then, are the moral parameters from the Krogers' point of view? Surely these people claim a justification. Their motive might be deep sympathy with the victims of economic exploitation, which might impel them to serve the Soviet Union, thinking that Soviet communism represents justice. The motive might be fear of the K.G.B. Having worked for the K.G.B. before, in America, they might now find a K.G.B. gun to their heads and have to dance as they are told. The play in fact cites both motives. But it never evokes the appropriate feelings. You don't tremble with fear for the Krogers, nor do you tremble with solidarity for the Soviet Union. You merely watch these motives get pushed around like pieces on a chessboard. The whole point about complicated questions of loyalty and betrayal is that one must understand through the heart. But the heart in Pack of Lies isn't big enough to take in the Krogers. So the Krogers, too, emerge as cheap people, engaged in large betrayals without adequate justification and without sufficient understanding from the playwright.

What is it about these espionage cases of a generation ago that brings out the smallness in people, the shying away from truth? The early cold war period was a small, cursed era. Pack of Lies was written with decent intentions but manages only to be faithful to that small, cursed quality. The Kroger case was a footnote to the Rosenberg case, and the Kroger play turns out to be almost a footnote to the Rosenberg debate--almost as mean, almost as nasty.

As for the production of Pack of Lies: Rosemary Harris and George N. Martin make a very fine Mrs. and Mr. Jackson, especially Harris in her frumpy, slightly addled way. Patrick McGoohan makes a superslick police official. But Dana Ivey and Colin fox are disasters as the Krogers. The real Mrs. Kroger was a Polish immigrant who grew up in upstate New York. The real Mr. Kroger grew up as Morris Cohen in the Bronx, went to James Monroe High School, was an idealist, fought in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, taught in the New York City public schools. He came, that is, from the sort of 1930s left-wing New York Jewish background that produced a famous cluster of soviet agents. This background Ivey and Fox evoke not a bit, which makes the Krogers unintelligible. The fault isn't only theirs and the director's (Clifford Williams); it is Whitemore's, too. And what an unfortunate flaw it is. For a play that could explain why people like the Krogers might have wanted to support the Soviets, and how they might have got involved in espionage, and been caught, and ruined their lives serving a Soviet tryanny that was nothing like the vision of social justice they started out to serve, how the betrayers were betrayed, and how not only they but the people around them were destroyed in the aftermath of those benighted decisions and events--that would be a play. Audiences would flock to a work like that. The balconies would fill with people weeping their eyes out and thinking hard thoughts--not softheaded easy ones--about morality and treachery.
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Title Annotation:Royale Theater, New York
Author:Berman, Paul
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Mar 23, 1985
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