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The Measure of a Man begins with Max Schmeling explaining his boxing technique to the audience while fighting a young Joe Louis. The German boxer, at 31, uses his experience and guile to pull off the upset and prevail over the previously unbeaten boxer. The scene turns to Joseph Goebbels’ office at the Berlin Chancellery, where the Nazi Propaganda Minister seeks to enlist Schmeling in the Nazi movement and elicit favors for the regime from the popular athlete. Schmeling, while refusing to join the party, nevertheless tells reporters that he has seen no anti-Semitism in Berlin that would prevent American athletes from participating in the upcoming Berlin Olympics.
George Grosz, the foremost German artist, paints a portrait of a posing Schmeling as Schmeling’s wife, Czech actress Anny Ondra watches. In the scene, the three discuss the changes in Berlin since the Nazi takeover and the philosophies of art and boxing. Joe Jacobs, Schmeling’s Jewish-American manager accompanies the boxer to Germany for a match, where a hotel clerk attempts to deny him a room. He then enters the ring after Schmeling’s victory and gives a mock Nazi salute to the impassioned crowd that is singing the German national anthem.
A picture of Jacobs, cigar in hand and seemingly mocking the Nazis appears in the next day’s newspapers, drawing the ire of Goebbels. He insists that Schmeling fire his manager, which Schmeling refuses to do. Goebbels settles for banning Jacobs from handling Schmeling’s affairs in Germany, and hints that the boxer’s popularity will not shield him from the will of the state for much longer.
The tension sets the stage for the storied rematch between Louis and Schmeling. A reporter bounces back and forth between the training boxers, misquoting each to stoke the rivalry between them. The fight becomes a matter of Nazi vs. American, black against white and good against evil. The audience hears the fight over the radio, as Anny Ondra, at her home, and Goebbels in Berlin listen to the play by play. In between, Schmeling addresses the audience, explaining the experience of the fight in hindsight, which ends in a humiliating defeat.
With Schmeling at his professional nadir, the scene moves to a Berlin hotel room during Kristallnact. Two young boys, fleeing the Nazi pogrom, appeal to Schmeling and Ondra to take them in. In defiance of the Nazi’s and out of loyalty to the boys’ father, they do so, saving the boys’ lives as the first act ends.
The second act begins at Goebbel’s office as Schmeling uses whatever influence he has left to help a Jewish neighbor who is being watched by the SS. Goebbels, clearly now in the position of power in their relationship, half-heartedly consents to Schmeling’s last request before Schmeling is to be drafted into the German Army at the advanced age of 35. Goebbels leaves no room for doubt that Schmeling is being drafted because of his past defiance. The scene shifts to the front lines in Crete, as an injured Schmeling accompanies an equally injured English prisoner to a field hospital. Dodging incoming mortar fire, the former boxer and the Englishman discuss boxing, the war, and Schmeling’s fate at the hand of the Nazis.
In the twilight of World War II and reunited with his wife, Schmeling and Ondra face the prospect of losing their farm to the Russian front and being separated yet again while Schmeling tries to find work. Together they take one last glance back at the life they led in Berlin’s Roaring Twenties as Germany’s most compelling couple, as well as the friends lost and left behind.
The play skips in time to the 1970s, where Schmeling finds an older, humbled-by-life Joe Louis working as a greeter in a Las Vegas casino. Schmeling apologizes for the misunderstanding created by the press all those years ago, and the two discuss their respective fortunes since that time, and the race issues that led Louis to where he is now. Schmeling ends the scene by lending Louis money, which Louis initially rejects out of pride. Schmeling insists, saying that he believes in Louis, still considering him a champion.
The final scene of the play takes place in 2005, as a now elderly Henri Lewin, one of the boys Schmeling saved during Kristallnact, defends the man whose image, even after his death, is still plagued by his association with the Nazi regime. As the reporter considers how to write Schmeling’s obituary, Ondra appears to defend the fact that Schmeling never joined the Nazi party. Goebbels appears to point out Schmeling’s cooperation with him and lack of character. The last word goes to Joe Jacobs, who maintains that Schmeling was no Nazi, as the two, German and Jew, walk off together into history.
Max Schmeling, M, mid-30, plays early 60s as well: handsome, cosmopolitan, reserved German boxer, careful in his boxing approach and his approach to situations, but immensely capable
Joseph Goebbels, M, mid-30s: manipulative, dangerous Nazi Propaganda Minister, slight of build but willing to exercise the power of his position
George Grosz, M, late 40s: foremost German artist of the 1920s and 30s, tries to find artistic truth in the midst of the increasingly dangerous Nazi regime
Anny Ondra, F, late 20s to early 30s: glamorous Czech actress and embodiment of the artistically and intellectually daring Roaring Twenties in Berlin, Schmeling’s wife
Joe Jacobs, M, early 40s: connected New York boxing manager of Hungarian-Jewish descent, funny, gesticulating, cigar-chomping first generation American
Joe Louis, M, early 20s, also plays late 50s: strong, imposing African American athlete who falls upon hard times in his post-boxing life
Englishman, mid 20s: English soldier Schmeling bonds with while escorting to field hospital
Henri Lewin, M, 60+: elderly Jewish hotelier who champions Schmeling’s heroism during Kristallnact
Reporter, M, various age: recurring character who stokes rivalry between Schmeling and Louis, challenges Jacobs and questions Lewin’s estimation of Schmeling’s legacy
Other roles include: the Lewin brothers as children (age 9 and 13), Clerk (various age), Announcer (offstage), photographers—note that Englishman can double as Clerk, any offstage actor can double as Announcer, and offstage actors can double as photographers
THE MEASURE OF A MAN is available for production through JAC Publishing & Promotions. Click on the cover for further information.
Press to listen to "Lili Marlene" as sung by Marlene Dietrich, used in the Rhinebeck Theatre Society production.
"Petti's drama. . .draws us into the wake of the man's humanity, honed and exercised throughout his life journey. We are ennobled in the witnessing...a play whose hour has come."
Kitty Montgomery, Kingston Freeman
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