By Bill Hirschman
Playwright James Grippando has said that a central facet of his world premiere Watson at GableStage is depicting what may be the world’s first personal information disaster, a horrifying tragedy as American-licensed technology is sold to the Nazis who later use it to identify Jews for extermination.
But what resonates with a deafening din in these times are larger questions: capitalism’s responsibility to humanity, and the intentional blindness styling itself as innocent ignorance that many Americans hide behind to avoid accepting responsibility for what is happening in the world.
As depicted, the real-life Thomas J. Watson Sr. was a classic 20th Century Babbitt who saw cutthroat business as an unassailable American value on a completely different plane than even the adjective “amoral.”
Citing an early mentor, he offers, “It was often said I swore off alcohol for religious reasons. True, I suppose, if you consider capitalism a religion. If you understood that the Gospel according to John—John Patterson— meant absolute destruction of the competition. Destruction of Biblical proportions.”
As chairman and CEO, he led the fledgling IBM to become a world-wide entity with a rare understanding of the potential of a global market. Crucially, the firm had merged with another American company that developed a punch-card process for tabulating census data, then bought a German-based company, which had leased the technology a decade earlier. That subsidiary sold the machinery and the cards to the rising Third Reich.
The government used the punch cards in a massive census in the late 1930s that included not just address and job skills, but religion going back to the respondent’s grandparents. Later, this data – which continued to be collected well into the 1940s – was used to identify Jews to be shipped to concentration camps or to be forced into slave labor fitting their skills.
In 1937, when Watson was president of the International Chamber of Commerce, pushing his mantra of “World Peace Through World Trade” at a Berlin conference,” Hitler awarded him the German Merit Cross, one of highest honors that he could bestow on a non-German.
Already, Hitler’s deadly message was forming, and over the ensuing years, evidence mounted of the character of the Reich using IBM’s technology. Yet, the company, though its German subsidiary, continued to provide punch cards and later the most updated version of the machinery. Assailed at home by protests he did not understand, he reluctantly wrote Hitler, asking him to observe The Golden rule. Watson eventually returned the medal in 1940.
A key facet of the script written by Grippando and developed in close collaboration with GableStage’s Producing Artistic Director Joseph Adler is watching Watson’s conscience – perhaps his actual awareness – bob and weave as he tells his story to the audience.
In one of the escalating scenes in which his antagonistic son angrily cross-examines his father, Watson Sr. shoots back with absolute conviction, “It’s not about fault; it’s business.” In Stephen G. Anthony’ terrific performance molded by Adler, this is not said with the coldness of a one-dimensional villain, but the frustrated defensiveness of someone whose previously unquestioned values are under attack.
The irony is that Watson made the word “think” the company’s ubiquitous mantra, posted on walls at headquarters in New York and factories, into the steps outside a training center. It appears in the center of the GableStage set in letters several feet tall.
Answers to the natural questions that consume much of the play – what exactly did Watson know and when did he know it – do get lost for the audience in a dense thicket of dates and events raised in Watson Jr.’s repeated and blistering questioning of his father. While they lay out all the available facts and conflicts, the extensive details may not be necessary to make the point; certainly, it’s difficult to follow the precise but Byzantine maze of arguments. But the underlying message is clear: If Watson didn’t know, it’s because he chose not to. For instance, he did not balk even after Hitler invaded Poland.
In this script, this production and Anthony’s performance, Watson may not consciously accept his responsibility. But his disintegration from the confident executive seeming to hold forth to buddies at the country club, morphing into unnerved angst indicates that somewhere, deep down he acknowledges some guilt, although guilt is it likely not the word he would use. Late in the play, his son presses the father to say when he realized the horror that his company’s product was being used to promote. “When it was too late!” Watson exclaims in a long pent-up pain and revulsion from deep in his gut.
Perhaps the actual answers to “what did he know and when” are not quite clear, certainly not by relying on Watson Sr. whose self-perception is the prism through which the story is told. A partisan could even argue that Watson and IBM were not directly responsible for what happened, far less culpable than say J. Robert Oppenheimer with the atomic bomb or Werner von Braun with the V-2 rocket. But perhaps the actual answers are not the point so much as asking all of us to examine our own lives and conduct.
Certainly, Watson’s statements and sincerely held beliefs sound disturbingly familiar including his dodging of the rise of McCarthyism. The production’s multi-media inserts, such as film of the 1939 German American bund rally where 20,000 Nazi supporters crowded Madison Square Garden, are deeply upsetting in their echoes of recent rallies you’ve seen on television.
The style of the piece is unabashedly theatrical with Watson in a spotlight narrating to us, standing in the dark watching scenes play out elsewhere on the stage and actresses singing ludicrous ditties meant by Watson to build morale for employees on the job.
To the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” employees heard:
“T-H-I-N-K is THINK
‘Tis good for brain and body.
Dark blue visions change to pink.
And you’ll please everybody.
T-H-I-N-K that’s THINK-
Thoughts both pure and golden;
Bigger thoughts and good ones too,
Then I.B.M. will broaden.”
As always, Adler manages to make the storytelling compelling when mostly he just has people sitting around together talking. He keeps the timeline clear with projections announcing the time and place on Lyle Baskin’s spare set of elegant leather chairs and business executive desks. Emil White has dressed everyone impeccably in black, white and gray business attire.
Anthony ably carries the bulk of the play. With broad shoulders, strong jaw and shining eyes, his Watson in a three-piece suit with gold watch chain connecting the vest pockets exudes the pride of accomplishment and certainty of his pragmatic vision. His son will later accuse Watson of “treating Nazi Germany as a business problem;” Anthony makes credible that someone could genuinely see life that way.
Adler has assembled an A-list supporting cast playing multiple roles: Peter Haig, Margot Moreland, Diana Garle, Barry Tarallo, Peter W. Galman and Iain Batchelor, an experienced British actor new to these shores as the son.
The play is the first produced theater by Grippando, an award-winning author of 28 mystery novels, a Coral Gables attorney, and an investor in Broadway shows. He worked closely with Adler who was so impressed by a later draft that he scrapped plans to open his season with the previously announced political play, Hillary and Clinton.
As with virtually every world premiere these days, the script could use a little streamlining and tweaking. Besides the overwhelming supply of dates and events, Grippando succumbs to the same problem most playwrights have when writing biographical and historical plays — the difficulty of smoothly feathering in truckloads of contextual background and exposition. But with its compelling core, Watson augurs promise for future editions.
Boomers and subsequent generations have, until recently, wondered how ordinary Germans could have allowed Nazi fascism to happen and then how Americans could have ignored Hitler’s upfront murderous intent. A good portion of our fellow Americans are no longer asking that question with such amazement in their voices. To some degree, Watson is a cautionary tale.
Watson runs Nov. 23-Dec. 22 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, inside the Biltmore Hotel. Performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. No performance Thursday the 28th. Running time 90 minutes. For tickets and more information, call 305-445-1119 or visit GableStage.org
To read a feature story about the play, click here.