Sir Ronald Harwood was out to lunch last Wednesday along the Tel Aviv promenade
when 60 kilometers away at the entrance to Jerusalem, a bomb went off next to
bus 74 in front of Binyanei Hauma.
The prolific, screenwriter, novelist,
and Academy Award-winning playwright of The Pianist (2003) and dozens of other
notable films and plays was not only surprised to hear about the attack but also
that he hadn’t known about a full two hours later.
“When did it happen?
Was it a suicide bomber” asked the concerned 76-year-old recipient of the Knight
Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire, awarded him in the 2010 Queen’s
Birthday Honors List for his services to drama.
“I guess you have to be
close to the radio all the time in this country.”
Harwood has generally
been close to the heartbeat of current events during his long, illustrious
career that has included a Tony Award nomination for the Broadway show The
Dresser, and acclaimed plays and screenplay adaptations like After the Lions,
Quartet, Operation Daybreak, The Statement, Love in the Times of Cholera and The
Diving Bell and the Butterfly (for which he was nominated for Best Adapted
Harwood, who moved from his native Cape Town to London in
1951 to pursue an acting career, was spending the week in Israel as the 2011
Yael Levin Writer-in-residence lecturer at Tel Aviv University's Department of
English and American Studies and was preparing to give a lecture the next day
about his craft.
“I was delighted to be invited, I don’t do much
lecturing and I quite enjoy it, so I accepted at once.” said Harwood, who added
that organizations who call for artists to boycott Israel knew better than to
“They wouldn’t touch me – they don’t come after Jews,” said
“Well, perhaps they do go after Jews, but they wouldn’t come
after me – they know I’m very pro- Israel.”
"I think that since the scandal with the LSE [referring to the recent resignation of the London School of Economics director Sir Howard Davies, after the financial link between the school and the son of Muamar Gaddafi was revealed], the whole boycott subject has gone very quiet."
“They’ll still go after someone like
Ian McKewan [the author who visited Israel last month to accept the 2011
prestigious Jerusalem Prize for Literature at the Jerusalem International Book
Fair], a self avowed liberal in the old-fashioned and splendid sense of the
word. I say ‘they’ but I don’t know who ‘they’ really are. It’s like any
politically correct movement – one never knows who the people are who are
expressing the political correctness.”
Harwood’s lecture at TAU was going
to touch on political correctness of a sort – or rather the moral struggle
detailed in his most recent play Collaboration, which focuses on the artistic
and political relationship between author Stephan Zweig and musician Richard
Strauss during the time of the Third Reich.
The play was performed in
London in 2009 alongside another of his similarly-themed works Taking Sides,
which was made into a film in 2001 directed by István Szabó and starring Harvey
Keitel, and is based on the life of Wilhelm Furtwangler, the controversial
conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Nazi era, who was prosecuted
after the war on charges of being a Nazi sympathizer as part of the Allies’
de-Nazification program even though orchestra members testify that he did what
he could to protect Jewish players in his orchestra.
according to Harwood, “deal with the conflict between art and politics and the
agonizing personal and moral choices that had to be faced by the protagonists.
But those choices have still to be made by us, now, and the question how would
we have behaved lies at the heart of both plays.
“They both belong to the
same world I’m so interested in – moral ambiguity. In the case of Richard
Strauss, it wasn’t so ambiguous as it was in the case of Furtwangler. Strauss
had a Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and the Nazis blackmailed him –
saying if you cooperate with us, we’ll protect your family.
It’s quite a
difficult choice, isn’t it?” HARWOOD WAS born Ronald Horwitz in Cape Town, South
Africa and raised as a Reform Jew.
“In South Africa, I was a practicing
Jew but I never got the hang of it,” he said, adding that his father, a
Lithuanian immigrant left the Orthodox fold in 1946 when the Reform synagogue
opened in Cape Town.
Harwood bristled when asked if he regretted changing
the family name when he entered show business upon moving to
“Jews change their name all the time. Jews have no surnames –
only their first names and the names of their father by which they’re called up
to the Torah.
Otherwise the names are given by governments for papers and
for records,” he said.
“I have no regrets at all – why should I? David
Ben- Gurion didn’t have regrets, Golda Meir didn’t have regrets.”
identity is certainly at the center of in perhaps Hargrove’s most touted work,
the Roman Polanski- directed The Pianist, the trials of Poland's most promising
young pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody), the only member of
his family to survive the Holocaust.
“I first realized it was going to be
a powerful film when my wife, Roman Polanski and the producer sat in a small
viewing theater in Paris and watch the final cut for the first time. When we
walked outside, I said to Roman, ‘we’ve done something quite powerful here.’ But
I had no idea how it would be received by the public or the type of impact it
would have – which was wonderful, of course.”
Harwood’s tried and true
method during his decades of adapting screenplays from books and plays is
“I try to be as faithful as I can to the original
creation that I’m adapting. But I try to express it in visual terms,” he said,
adding that another method is choosing the right directors to work
“I’m quite careful about that, because once I deliver the
screenplay, I let go. As a writer, I’m cut off from the actual film making. And
going to a film set is terribly boring, I’d rather be writing.”
reason for Harwood’s success in putting words in actors’ mouths is that at his
heart, he’s a thespian. After training for the stage at the Royal Academy of
Dramatic Art, he joined the Shakespeare Company of Sir Donald Wolfit. But early
in his career, a diversion unexpectedly surfaced.
“It happened so
suddenly that it took me surprise. I was given a typewriter for my birthday in
November 1959, I sat down, and three weeks later, a novel emerged. That was 52
years ago,” he said.
That novel, All the Same Shadows, was published in
1961, followed by his first screenplay Private Potter in 1962, and a stage play,
March Hares in 1964. Since then Harwood has written more than 21 stage plays, 10
books, and more than 16 screenplays.
“I don’t miss being on the stage,”
insisted Harwood, “but I supposed lecturing and doing public things is a
Not that he has much time even if he wanted to be
on stage. Showing no signs of slowing down, Harwood is working on a screenplay
about South Africa, another new play and Dustin Hoffman is readying to direct a
film of his play Quartet, about an ageing opera singer.
understatement, Harwood summed up his life and career – “I’m very busy.”