Oscar-winner Harwood proud to be in Israel

Thrilled at being invited to lecture at Tel Aviv University, Sir Ronald Harwood discusses how his Jewish identity informs his work.

By
March 30, 2011 21:43
RONALD HARWOOD

RONALD HARWOOD 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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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.

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“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 Screenplay).

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 approach him.

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“They wouldn’t touch me – they don’t come after Jews,” said Harwood.

“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.

Both plays, 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 London.

“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.”

Jewish 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 relatively simple.

“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 with.

“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.”

A third 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 pathetic substitute.”

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.

With droll understatement, Harwood summed up his life and career – “I’m very busy.”

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