(David Jays’ article appeared 12/12 in the Guardian; Photo: ‘Action, activism and engaging with the world’ … Lillian Hellman in 1945. Photograph: AP.)

As Hellman’s 1941 play is revived at the Donmar Warehouse in London, director Ellen McDougall and dramaturg Emma Jude Harris explain how it remains a call to arms

“We’re shaken out of the magnolias, eh?” muses a matriarch towards the end of Watch on the Rhine. In Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play, a comfortable Washington family is confronted with the reality of Europe’s fight against fascism – and must make a choice about where it stands.

Written and set during a time when the US was reluctant to enter the second world war, it occupies a genteel living room, but the world rattles the walls. It’s undoubtedly an engrossing period thriller – but, according to Ellen McDougall, directing the Donmar’s new production, “there’s something really exciting about doing this play now. It’s a powerful call to arms.”

We meet during a rehearsal lunch break, but neither McDougall or dramaturg Emma Jude Harris touch their food. There’s way too much to discuss. McDougall zeroes in on the time of writing. “It’s very specific – if it was set even a month later, it might have been a different picture.”

American-born Harris expands on that moment, when the neutral US was still trading with both Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. “America was coming out of its isolationist period, with an idea that they can’t get involved [in another European war]. There was also an antisemitic notion that this is a special interest, Jewish problem for a particular marginalised community very far away, and that America needs to focus on America. It wasn’t until after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941 that it got involved. In July 1940, when the play is specifically set, there has not yet been a decision. This is the hinge point.”

Considering the characters, McDougall says, “what they don’t know but we now do is huge. The specificity of that moment actually opens up why it’s relevant now – the idea of being on the brink, not knowing what’s coming but having conviction. Hellman’s position is that we have a responsibility to step up to the plate. It translates to now: about action, activism, and engaging with the world.”

Sara, the matriarch’s long-estranged daughter, returns from Europe with her husband, Kurt Müller: both are active in the resistance to Hitler. Strangely, perhaps, there are no Jewish characters. “The only time it comes up,” Harris notes, “is to negate [the suggestion] that Kurt is Jewish.” She believes Hellman felt her ethnicity might indicate special pleading: “particularly as she’s of German Jewish heritage. The stakes would have been especially high for her. We see this kind of soft pedalling on Jewishness with playwrights of that time, in order to make a universal point – but it’s very much there.”

Hellman was no armchair pundit. “She has seen a lot of the things she talks about first-hand,” McDougall says. “She’s been in Spain during the civil war. She was in Germany during the rise of fascism, and met people doing similar work to the Müllers. She’s writing about a world that she knows all too well.” For this reason, McDougall bridles when Hellman’s writing is dismissed as melodramatic. “She’s writing in a state of emergency, and renders that in a way that is thrilling, in all senses of the word – but it’s a protest play.”

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