"I suggest we approach Brecht's plays not through theory, but through
his poems" a Conversation between Eric Bentley and Robert Hupp. New
York, November 8, 1996
RH: You and I are currently working on a production of Mother Courage. Let's start there. You began your association with this play in the '50's. How did you get involved? How did the Mother Courage projects come about?
EB: Well, let's see. Brecht died in '56. In '59, there was the Darius Milhaud/Eric Bentley project. This was actually started by a vicious young director, named David Brooks, who said he could raise the money for a Broadway production of Mother Courage, and he hired me and he hired Darius Milhaud, who was in America at the time. Darius used to teach at Mills College in California. This production team decided to move ahead without the permission of the Brecht estate 'cause their lawyer concluded the Brecht estate didn't own it, that the copyright didn't hold. So we had a legal dispute about the rights. And it wasn't resolved but our side was sufficiently frightened to give up the production after they'd spent many thousands of dollars on it. You know, it was being approached in a lavish Hollywoodian fashion; stretch limousines would turn up to take me to Kennedy to fly me to Colorado, to Denver, and then a charter plane would take me to Aspen where I'd work with Darius Milhaud.
RH: How was it decided that Milhaud should be the one to do the score for this production? There was the existing score by Dessau--is that right?
EB: Yes, there was. But we knew we couldn't get the rights to that. So they had to commission a new score. They were people that moved in musical circles and knew what was a good name. They just picked Milhaud as a good name and knew that he'd probably be interested, which he was. And we went back to work with him. That was '59; then we were stopped legally by about 1960; and Katina (the actress hired to play Mother Courage) had to be sailed back to Greece. Meanwhile the producers had opened a Broadway office and spent thousands and thousands of dollars. I'm sorry I didn't get any of that--I was waiting for my payments. But I was still holding on to thinking that something might happen. So what did happen was that while Stephan (Brecht) banned that production, he went on his own and persuaded Cheryl Crawford to be interested in the play and to raise the money for it, with Jerome Robbins directing and Anne Bancroft starring. Gene Wilder played the Chaplain; you know it was an all-star affair.
I was hired for this production without Milhaud, and Darius was extremely upset and thought I had betrayed him. Though I pointed out--vainly as it turned out--that they would do the play anyhow without me, without my version. If I didn't let them use my version, they still wouldn't use his music. So I wasn't really doing him dirt, but I don't think he was very quite convinced of that. He said I was disloyal. He must have thought I had much more power than I had; that if I said, "You can't have my version unless you use Milhaud," then they would have done it. But that wasn't the situation, you know. So, by '63, just four years after we had that episode, it was on Broadway at the Martin Beck. And it was a polished production, but it lacked excitement. Jerry Robbins didn't let himself go; he said afterwards he should just have done it like one of his shows instead of trying to do a Brecht which is what he did. He had the film, the one that you have (the filmed version of the 1949 Berliner Ensemble production directed by Brecht and starring Helene Weigel in the title role), and he was determined to do everything just like that. Occasionally, in rehearsals, the actors didn't know, but I knew, when he slipped out and they thought he was going to the bathroom, he was actually going to his office to play that little bit on the film to know how to stage a given song; he'd go to take a look and then he'd come back and stage it that way. The result was it was museum-like, strangely dead though elaborately done. It was a very ghostly experience. It wasn't unprofessional. You know, it wasn't half-assed or anything, but you had all these good people who were giving their best, and it just wasn't moving.
RH: Did it run for a long time?
EB: Well, it ran about six weeks.
RH: I've read the reviews of that production...
EB: Oh, you have?
RH: Yes, and, with the exception of one that's negative, they're all pretty positive, particularly towards Anne Bancroft.
EB: Yes, you're right. The producers failed to do one publicity thing which might have turned it into a long run. While we were on, in those six weeks, Bancroft won the Academy Award. As another producer wise-guy said, we should have sent her to California, and she would have gone on camera for the whole country and said she was currently in this marvelous play they must all see in New York. But instead, they told California she couldn't come because she was performing on Broadway.
RH: That was a mistake?
EB: That wasn't smart. I wasn't smart. I lost all my income because I wasn't smart, or I wasn't bold enough. I got a few thousand from it, you know, as the weekly box office stuff. Then I got a telegram from Cheryl Crawford that said "would I give my royalties," all of them, that is to say, "to a half-page ad in the New York Times?" Everybody else in the top brass was giving theirs. At first I said no, because as an old-time watcher of Broadway and a critic, I know that these half-page ads never make a hit. So I'd just lose my money, but she blackmailed me so much about how I was disloyal to my own show and to Brecht, blah, blah, blah, that I eventually, weakly, gave in, and I got NOTHING from my one and only Broadway appearance in which she put my name in lights on the marquee (which I hadn't asked for). I was amazed when I went down there. I thought it would all be Brecht. It said Eric Bentley version in the same size as the title and Brecht -- what I paid for that was all my royalties.
In the rehearsals -- this is a Brecht story so it's relevant -- in the rehearsal, I had a quarrel with Robbins in the beginning. Did I tell you that?
EB: Robbins is a sadist, he tries to humiliate people. He works with -- I've never known a great artist -- he is a great artist in many ways -- I've never known someone really good that was so nasty with people to get results. I've always thought they got their results through being a grand personality. Even Brecht was, in rehearsal, very gracious and persuasive; so people loved working for him. Robbins makes them all unhappy and claims that he makes great work out of their unhappiness. So when I first turn up in his apartment, he's studying all my lyrics with the music of Dessau. First thing he says as I come in the door is, "Why are you giving me this shit?" I asked him what the shit was. Well, the shit was both the Dessau music and my lyrics. And then he proceeded to fume in a paranoid way. "You want me to make you famous? You want me to put your name in lights and you give me this shit?" I walked out; I couldn't deal with it. And I thought walking out was probably a good thing. So when I got home, I wrote a note which I sent over by special delivery, saying I was resigning. I wasn't going to sue them for what the contract gave me, I was just getting out cause I don't work under circumstances like that. He replied by special messenger in a beautifully-typed affair, that he obviously hadn't typed himself, and apologized, and said he didn't know what he said, but whatever it was, he would not repeat anything of the kind to me again if only I would come back. So I came back, and he kept his word to me. But I saw him doing the same stuff to those who hadn't sent him a special delivery letter. Except for the stars--he was deferential to Anne Bancroft, to those he considered a bit more important than himself, but to those he considered less important than himself: terrible!
RH: Why did he act that way? What was the point of his behavior?
EB: I don't know. He seemed to think that (his treatment) spurs people on to transcend themselves. "I gave you shit last week but next week I'll give you a jewelled crown." I suppose. But Stanley, the music director who was with me, Stanley McCloskey, who directed Three Penny in a seven-year run off-Broadway, told me he does that with everybody. Stanley's favorite story was that, in West Side Story, which Stanley conducted on Broadway, Robbins was going into one of these paranoid tempers on stage, denouncing some of the dancers, and, when he's doing that he tends to walk backwards. And he was walking backwards towards the orchestra pit and everybody on stage could see that he was going to fall in and nobody said, "Hey, Jerry, watch." They let him alone, and he fell in.
RH: Let's talk about the translation of Mother Courage--did you write the translation specifically for the Robbins production, or did the translation already exist? There's the Grove Press collection, the Seven-Plays (Seven Plays by Bertolt Brecht) version.
EB: It's different.
RH: It's different from the Robbins production version?
EB: The Milhaud/Bentley text (published in Seven Plays by Bertolt Brecht) only goes with the Milhaud score because it's abridged to the likings of the director that was working with me. It reflects some of the things that were requested of me when he was planning his production. And secondly, I rewrote all the lyrics so that Milhaud could work from a finished English version, and I didn't have to be bound by any other music. And we inserted the Chaplin's song which is not in the German. It's made up from the prose dialogue. But the separately printed Grove Press edition is the complete play with nothing willfully changed. It should be just the same as the German. That's what Robbins worked from; however, oh gosh there are so many versions. We had the full-length version for Robbins to look at. Then he told me what he thought should be shorter, which is not the same as the previous director had said. So I worked afresh and shortened it a bit for Robbins, then the following happened three days before rehearsals. I thought it was awful, and it may account for the frigid appearance the production gave. Three days before the production, Robbins decided it was not a hit; it was a flop. There was something radically wrong, but you know the magic man, he had saved A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum and he would save Mother Courage. He would need my assistance however. It would be done in the following way: it would be an abridgement of the script, but he didn't send me home to make it shorter. Rather he, on stage with the actors who had already memorized the script, as they perform, asks me to shorten practically every speech, every speech that's more than one line. He says, "Can you do that? Can that get out?" and so on. I'm sweating, practically passing out. No writer works this way, but I did for him. So I never had a copy of the script that was performed on opening night. He had a secretary take it down from me. There must be a stage manager's prompt copy somewhere, and there's a version published by French that's different from the ones you've seen. Have you seen it?
EB: That would be the one I gave to Robbins at the beginning of rehearsal that I thought was going to be the Broadway script. It's the complete script a bit fooled around with and a little bit shortened. He concluded later that it had to be much shortened. One of the influences on this was Mel Brooks who is now married to Anne Bancroft and at the time was just living with her, I think. Mel Brooks hated Germany cause he thinks they're all Nazis, you know, and he would come in and make caustic remarks about how this play was written. Didn't blame it on me; thought it was Mr. Brecht, the German. And he'd say, "Hey, Bentley, uh, why does she have to talk for ten minutes every time she opens her mouth? Why couldn't you just do one line, one line, and that would do it. Just make a remark." The idea that Mother Courage just makes remarks rather than is a cracker barrel philosopher, which is more how she sees herself, that was what Mel Brooks tried to get across to Jerry Robbins, and I think in part succeeded.
RH: And that version--the actual Broadway version--isn't published because Samuel French only published the version you started with?
EB: That's right. The final reduction, which nobody has read, I don't think, was just kind of fed by magic from me to a stenographer to the actors. The actors were supposed to take it straight from me; somebody was writing it down. But the actors didn't see what was written down, they only heard him tell me to give a shorter version of the sentence and they would pick it up and they would have to memorize that. I don't know how they managed it, cause it wasn't written down for them. And it was two days before the first audience, before the first preview.
RH: So your version of Mother Courage existed in some form since '59. Was '59 the first time you had translated Mother Courage?
EB: No. It had been in print in the Anchor Anthology, Modern Theatre,
in a version that I hoped somebody would produce but nobody did until Herbert Blau did it in California in '55 with his wife at that time, Beatrice Manley, as Mother Courage. I didn't see it, but he got a lot of credit for it out there on the coast. I mean, people said it was very good. And also my earlier version was used in England a number of times in that period.
RH: Was this production of Mother Courage in '63 the first time Brecht had received a large commercial production?
EB: In '63? Probably so, although of course by the signs of the times, the Three Penny production in 1933 was Broadway, it just happened to only to run for ten days or so. It was a flop. But it was a full-size Broadway production of those days. Of course, it cost nothing, $10,000 probably.
RH: And in a less-commercial venue, Charles Laughton did Galileo.
EB: In '47. And that was a limited two-week run with the ANTA (American National Theatre Association). It was a local (New York City) group that considered itself avant garde, but actually all its leading people were Broadway producers and that sort of thing. They did an experimental season; it was called that. And Brecht was one of five or six plays in an experimental season. The theatre's been demolished since.
RH: Was Galileo done here in New York or out in California?
EB: Both. It was planned in California; it began during the war, and Laughton was reading scenes from it in military hospitals while serving the cause in the war. And then after the war, he decided he would personally put up most of the money for a small but elegant production in Beverly Hills, you know, in a theatre that's still there, but I think it's a porno house now. Produced by John Houseman, whom I met for the first time on that project, and Brecht and Laughton had a literal translation made by someone else who never got any credit. It goes out as "by Charles Laughton." Of course, all he did was, with the help of Brecht, change the literal translation and make it more idiomatic and shorter. It's very abridged. They did a couple of weeks in California, in which it was very badly received in the Hearst press. One of the reviews was called "The Corn is Red" though Galileo is not a notably red play, but they knew Brecht's reputation. So then Laughton arranged to have it brought to the experimental series here at Christmas. The California production was in July and then at Christmas it was in New York for a couple of weeks and that was it. The part that wasn't made public was that had it been rapturously received by Brooks Atkinson and a couple of his colleagues, Laughton was perfectly willing to go into a Broadway production, and he could have raised the money. But it wasn't, and he was in fact personally very upset by Brooks Atkinson's lukewarm review of his performance. Brooks Atkinson didn't admire Laughton's performance very much and said that. And Laughton was hypersensitive; he couldn't bear criticism. So he fled to his native Hollywood. He had some project out there that he could go to immediately, so he quit Brecht and it turned out to be his good-bye to Brecht because later when he found out about all the investigations on Communism and so on, he was terrified of that and decided to drop Brecht from his life.
RH: They had been close prior to that?
EB: Oh, yes, and Laughton had been completely bewitched by Brecht, the way quite a few people were. You've read my Memoir...
RH: I've read the Memoir.
EB: He (Laughton) said there's Brecht and then there's Shakespeare. Various people have said that since, but I think he was the first person that said that. At the time, he believed it, but he soon changed his mind when he thought it was politically dangerous. And he started talking with the FBI and getting himself excused of what he thought his sins had been in joining up with this Communist and so on. And he went with the 50's, with McCarthyism more or less, and he produced The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, that was a conservative or near-conservative play in his mind, to make up for his brief flirtation with Leftism, which was non-existent, but he saw it as that, and with Brecht. And I mentioned in the Memoir, too, I think, that in '52 Laughton was the cover boy on Time magazine, which, of course, Time regards as like getting a peerage in England. In the story that followed, they had the pictures of all the great men of history whom Laughton had enacted in movies and plays, leaving out Galileo because he had struck Brecht from his life. Later, Brecht struck him in a poem that I quote in the Memoir.
RH: Well, Brecht came to the United States in '42, I think; is that right?
EB: No, it has to be before Pearl Harbor, so it was '41.
RH: Why did he come to the United States, do you think?
EB: Well, because he was smart. He had escaped to the Soviet Union. He had a sense that it was very dangerous. The period he was there was certainly very dangerous for a German because Stalin was allied with Hitler at the time, even though people had different theories about what that alliance meant. That was when Brecht was in Moscow and he decided that he had a better chance of survival, which was true, in the United States. And he also had rich friends and possibilities. I think he thought that Hollywood would embrace him, which didn't happen, but at least he wasn't poverty stricken.
RH: That's what I wondered, why did he come to Hollywood?
EB: Well, that's where all his German friends were.
EB: All these people in theatre and movies. There was a whole colony, some of whom were not friends. Some of the writers were his enemies. But some were his friends; I mean people in the movies were. He had actor friends; it was a tremendous German colony. That was why; it was a safe place to be. He considered going to Mexico where some of the German Communists went. I think there were some legal difficulties about getting in. At any rate, he applied for an American visa or whatever you get. He had some difficulty getting it because of his political background, but did get it. From Finland, I think it was. And, you know, he might have stayed in Finland, but the lady on whose estate he was staying in Finland was a Communist and she, two years later, was condemned to death by the Finish government for conspiring with the Soviet Union for the takeover of Finland, which indeed she had done, as had all the Communists then. They welcomed the Soviet armies. She was let off later. She was the author of the play Puntila, the original play Puntila, which Brecht rewrote and claimed all for his own. That woman was his host, and he might have stayed there, but he might have met with the same fate she did, jail.
So he came across the Soviet Union, stopped in Moscow and consulted with the high-up Communist officials on what should be done. Nobody knows the content of their conversations. They may have sent him to America with the idea that he'd be, in effect, one of their agents. In this whole discussion that goes on nowadays about who was spying, the fact is that the Soviet Union, aside from its professional spies and paid agents, had loads of people that worked for them informally, were not necessarily paid or instructed, but were agreeable.
RH: Do you think Brecht was doing that?
EB: Oh, yes, absolutely. You've heard the recording of him before the Committee (the House Un-American Activities Committee)?
RH: I haven't heard the whole recording, no.
EB: They tell that a representative of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco visited him a couple of times and they wanted to know why. Brecht gave totally implausible answers, like "Who doesn't have friends?" This representative was known later to have been, like many people in their consulates and embassies, what was later the secret police, KGB, and was consulting with Brecht, who in turn was meeting with Gerhart Eisler who was an agent for the Soviets. So Brecht was in the inner circle of these people and perfectly willing to do things for them, perhaps only up to a point, we don't know, because nothing very clear has come out. He was twice in Moscow. The time I mentioned in '41 which turned out to be on his way to the States, and the other time was in 1935. Both times he met with top officials and it brought about some relationship between himself and them, whatever you would call it. But, in the second trip, in '41, when they let him go, because they might not have, he promised them in return that, whatever happened, he would never do anything publicly against the Soviet Union. That proved to be true; he never did.
RH: You met him in '42?
RH: And I've read in the Memoir about how you met him, and I assume that he took to you and asked you to be his representative in the States.
EB: Something like that. I was just translating a few things at first. I was a freshman instructor at UCLA for one year, '41 to '42. After that, when I met him, it was in New York and later in Europe. The first meeting was when I was at UCLA and he had a house in Santa Monica.
RH: You mentioned that he thought that Hollywood would embrace him and they didn't.
EB: They didn't, no.
RH: Did he want to achieve anything specific here in the United States? Did he have specific ambitions?
EB: Well, everything was improvised because nobody knew how long the war would last, you know. Before the war, they thought the war might never come. After the war, the war might be over quick. So each country he went to, he thought that could be the end of it and he could go back to Germany. He kept going from one country to another; the last one was the United States. He took out citizenship papers; which meant at least he was giving the U.S. government the impression he was going to stay forever, going to become a citizen. But he was keeping various options open. That was one. '45 came; the war ended. He received invitations from the people in the East; there was no East Germany yet; it was a Russian zone. But he was in touch with those people from the word "go" because of his earlier contact with Moscow. He was part of the apparatus in that sense. He wasn't sure if he wanted to go back into that and he explored various options. One of them was to go back where he came from in the Munich-Augsburg area of south Germany. And he was arranging that from his first stopping point which was Switzerland, when Truman, who was President, received advice that the American Military Government, as it was called, in charge of southern Germany, was coddling Communists and they must watch out for this and go into the political past and present of all these people. That meant that the officer whom I mentioned in one of the books, I met the American officer who had something to do with this, was told not to invite Brecht to Munich. He was previously told to invite him, so Brecht was disinvited back to his home territory, and he proceeded to explore the possibilities in the Russian Zone. From Switzerland he went through Czechoslovakia to the Russian Zone, without going through the American Zone, (Munich and so on) to Berlin, and made his arrangements. Moscow liked him. He was favored in Moscow and they had a Russian Military Officer, Colonel Demschitz, in charge of cultural affairs in the Russian Zone. He told the East German officials they had to take Brecht on even if the money had to come from Russia. So that roughly is how Brecht came to be placed in East Berlin in luxurious circumstances. On the Russian plan, he was of the party elite. Even though he was not a party member, he was to be treated as elite, which meant he would be housed in the best hotels, the best apartments, given the privileges that very few have. Automobiles, more than one, all of the things that come with privilege.
RH: You were over there; was it 1950? You worked with him on the '50 version of Mother Courage in Munich?
EB: Yes. Mother Courage opened in Germany in '49 and I saw the Berlin opening.
RH: That was with Weigel (Helene Weigel, Brecht's wife)?
EB: Yes, that was with Weigel. The circumstances, which could never be repeated, made it incredibly exciting. That is, it was in a devastated city, you know. The play about the German war in the 17th century was in the devastated 20th century Berlin. As I mentioned in the Memoir, when I arrived slightly after the opening, a couple of weeks after it opened, a whole lot of things had happened. Stalin had cut off Berlin from the West, and the West had retaliated with an airlift. And I came during that, on a military plane, sitting on the floor. There were no seats in it, I remember that. All the GI's were used to that; I wasn't so used to it. To get to the theatre, I had to go by subway which was not illuminated. It was pitch dark. How did you know which station you were at? You didn't, unless you were a German and knew the tracks so well you guessed it. So I had to use my German and ask people on the train to tell me when we were at the Friedrichstrasse. I found it and was slightly late, but not much, and that was when I saw Mother Courage. Brecht was waiting for me in the lobby with a seat in the box for me, so I was privileged. I was part of the privileged. And to see this play about the devastation of war, and Brecht had in the lobby--he was awfully good at finding striking things to write up on the wall-- a quotation about the destruction of Carthage in three stages. In the third stage, Carthage did not exist. He meant that we were to look forward to the third world war between America and the Soviet Union, and in that context Brecht put on the play. It was such a good production. There was a tension, you see, that came from social causes. That's a big help to a play, you know--tension in the audience. I've never known anything like it and because it took a world war to produce that, you could never duplicate that. The play now I think survives just on its pure artistic merits and the fact that we do have situations in Africa or in the Balkans which bring it to our attention as a current thing and not something in the past.
RH: Well, that's one of the things I'm interested in, too--particularly the way Brecht Theatre has been interpreted in America. Artists, correct me if I'm wrong, artists and scholars in the U.S. became familiar with Brecht because of the essays you wrote in The Playwright as Thinker. People started paying attention to Brecht as a playwright, as a theatrical thinker. Furthermore, there was the Laughton production and, by all reports, a fairly unsuccessful production of The Private Life of the Master Race, which were both produced while Brecht was in the United States.
EB: Private Life was '45, yes. Actually there, something of the reverse, it had a social situation or background that was unfavorable. Namely, it came far too late. It was a play on the Second World War, that it must be stopped, mustn't happen. It was a play written in the 30's to warn of the dangers of the Nazis. And we didn't get it on till the spring of '45 when the war was virtually over and Hitler was already defeated. It was much too late; there was no way for it to have a Brechtian effect of being so urgent and compelling. It was boring as a subject, irrelevant. That was the root trouble, not the limitations of the performers.
RH: So then you came back from Munich and you directed several of Brecht's plays in the United States, didn't you?
EB: Yes, yes.
RH: And continued to translate a number of them. One of the things I'm wondering is since that time, and even today, do you think Brecht's plays have been treated well in the United States. We don't have Communism, the ideological pull is not the same as it was in Germany in the 50's.
EB: No. In stages, that question has to be answered. The situation on Brecht's plays in his lifetime, particularly outside of Germany, was that nobody knew how to do them. They were plays a little different in various ways from what people were familiar with, Arthur Miller, whatever. And they were done so awkwardly, they came across crude and a little bit simple and over-obvious. Brecht was very upset by this and was convinced, rightly I think, that they were not being produced right. And therefore he would show the world how they should be done. In the case of The Master Race (in 1945), he tried, but he didn't really get the opportunity, so he denounced everybody else in the production. And it didn't work. With Laughton, he came much closer. I thought that production of Galileo came very close to what he wanted, especially as Brecht thought Laughton was by nature his kind of actor. Laughton didn't have to study any theories. Brecht had liked Laughton in films. Laughton said to me at one point, "Professor Bentley, tell me about Brecht's theories because people tell me I do it. What is it I do?" I said, "Well, don't worry."
So Brecht went back to Europe, and in his productions there, particularly in Berlin, laid down the instructions: "This is how my plays have to be done." And he had Ruth Berlau--this was the days before videotape; he would have loved videotape- take a photograph every 20-30 seconds just to create these model books. She wasn't a very good photographer, so it wasn't a very happy experiment in many ways. But when you put on his plays, you were supposed to apply for the model book and then do your blocking from it. In other words, it was your list of instructions on how to do the play. I saw him do it himself for that production I worked on in Munich. He'd done the play in Berlin, recorded in this fashion, and worked from his own model books. The way they rehearsed would probably be considered old-fashioned here because of the way he did the blocking--the way they do it in summer stock- fast and right away before anybody studied anything. And before they memorized their lines. He's just worked from this book--during Mother Courage, if I remember rightly, there was no reading of the play. There was no sitting around the table; there was no theoretical discussion of his theories, nor did he ever use any theoretical language in talking about the play. In other words, it was incredibly like other directors in Europe at that time. The routine was: give them the books and at the first or second rehearsal the author or the director (he was both) will give them the blocking before they do anything else. So he had the whole thing blocked out from the photographs in two rehearsals. And then they began to really rehearse. He would intervene to some extent. I'm not sure that Brecht was a great director in the sense that Ingmar Bergman is a great director. As a director as such, he was a writer who knew how his plays should be and he could pick actors that he knew could do it. And therefore, if he is directing those actors, it's going to come out right because he's articulate and they are, too. I mean, they work his way. He never proved himself a director beyond the limits of his own work with actors that he already knew were in tune with him. He never coached young actors the way all directors do now. He had the attitude that was expressed in Tyrone Guthrie's remark once when somebody asked him why he didn't have Edith Evans do such and such. He said, "One doesn't teach Dame Edith to act." And Brecht didn't teach anybody to act. If they couldn't act, they were fired or they weren't chosen in the first place. And if they could, well, they did it and it was right because they were familiar with the stuff, or it wasn't quite right and they immediately changed it to what he said. As a director, he was always totally rational. There was nothing particularly intuitive. He knew exactly what he wanted or what a given actor could give him and he made them give it and he'd tell them they were not giving it if they were not and then they'd have to do it.
I don't know if I mentioned this in the Memoir, but it stuck in my
mind--Therese Giese played Mother Courage in Munich. She was even better
than Weigel in my opinion, but that's because I think she was simply more
Mother Courage and less Brechtian theory. You know, she didn't play from
the outside. She was the embodiment of the role, she was rather fat, like
She belonged to that class, whereas Weigel was
always noticeably of the high bourgeoisie, I thought. She had a very refined
voice, and when she did dialect, it was too much artistically created; not
rough working-class speech and so on. Anyway, Therese Giese was rehearsing
the end of scene 4, the Song of Capitulation scene, a scene which is difficult
from every point of view for the actors and for the audience because it's
not in the obvious line of the main plot. But it's very much in the line
of the main theme. So Brecht is very attached to the scene and rehearses
it at great length and every detail is paid attention to. The question now
is how should the scene end, because it ends with a silence; it doesn't end
with a speech.
So Brecht develops about 12 alternatives for how the scene ends. She's just sitting on stage listening to this. Then he makes her do all 12 with no consultation as to how she feels the scene should end. And she does all 12, quite well because she's such a great pro. I didn't know what she's going to choose, because all of them are so good, and he decides, "I think we'll take so and so." At lunch, in the German theatre they have a long morning rehearsal from 10 till 2, and they have a late lunch and then they have some time off and most of them are in a show at night and that's their schedule. So at the 2:00 lunch, I was sitting next to her, and I said, "Do all directors have you at their beck and call like that to do 12 different exits? Do you let them all do that to you?" And she said, "Only the geniuses."
That was another key to his being able to succeed as a director. The actors are very deferential; they love being instructed by him. So there were no rehearsal troubles of the usual kind, because his authority was so...they revered him, you could even say. He was awfully rude and intolerant when actors didn't do it right. I mean, he would fire an actor without bothering to find out if he might not have done it some other way. In the Capitulation scene, it comes back to me, he fired an actor because the actor was Stanislavskian and wanted to work up the anger the scene called for. Whereas Mr. Brecht doesn't write that kind of scene; he writes a scene in which they're already angry before the scene starts and they're not given any chance to develop it or work it out. It's got to be on immediately! Like in a film, right into the scene. He wouldn't explain any of this to the actor, you see. So the actor did come on without being angry and tried to gather it and develop it and Brecht just fired him. Didn't bother with him, just got somebody else. Similarly, in the scene of the peasant girl (Mother Courage, scene 10), the kitchen maid sings the Song of Shelter towards the end; you hear her voice from offstage. They supplied him with a very good singer and that was just what he didn't like. But nevertheless he never bothered to find out if she might not have adapted her singing to what he wanted. Just, "Oh no, she's much too beautiful. I don't want that." Fired. "Just give me an actress who can play a kitchen maid." So they give him somebody else. She sings less well. He tells her what he wants. She gives it to him, so he's happy. That's good directing in the Brecht school.
RH: Did directors take the model books and bring them to productions in the United States and recreate the plays the way Brecht had staged them with the Berliner Ensemble?
EB: I don't know if anybody used them here. I think Carl Weber, who's at Stanford, may have. On the whole, it never went too well, but he distributed them in Germany. When the provincial theatres would do a play, he'd send the model books so they'd have a few copies of each one, hundreds of photos. And the plays were supposed to look like the photos. I think that was one of the troubles with making the film of Mother Courage. He lost the original director because the director wouldn't work his way. Brecht wanted him to make it look like the stage production and work from photographs. And of course he was a professional movie director and he wouldn't work that way, so he left. They did what was an imitation of a stage production. That's what Brecht wanted. He didn't work out as an independent film man because he didn't go by what I think is a fundamental law that film has to be a film before it can be a good representation of a novel or a play. And it's perfectly right of the film people to take over if they do it with good taste. Well, Brecht didn't understand that at all, and that's why he didn't turn out... You know, there aren't any great Brecht films except the Mother Courage film.
Charles Laughton allowed them to film, with one camera in a fixed position, his Galileo, which exists in the archives in Berlin. Laughton laid down very strict conditions that this was never to be shown publicly. It was just a record for scholars who might wish to know when he moved to the right and when he moved to the left, that sort of thing.
RH: Did Brecht hope that you would then represent his plays in the United
EB: Well, he hoped that I and other people he approached would get his plays done and since he'd had a lot of unsuccess he would have been interested in getting Hollywood and Broadway into the Brecht camp. As he began to realize that probably wasn't happening, then he would make a statement to me that the college productions were the important ones. I don't think he believed that originally. I think he only believed that when he sensed the others weren't taking him on. Caucasian Chalk Circle was intended for Broadway, but Broadway never bought it.
RH: Did he write it for Broadway?
EB: Oh, yes, he intended that, and tried through Samuel French actually,
who was in the Broadway business at that time, to get a Broadway production.
There were no takers, obviously. And he had lined up people like Peter Lorre
to do the Asdack part. Oh yes, he was very ambitious to get Broadway for
that one, and I think he had been for Galileo. I think even before
he came to this country, Galileo was aimed at Broadway.
RH: So there appears to be a contradiction in Brecht's attitude toward America: he shuns our capitalism but aspires to success on our capitalist stage?
EB: Well, yes, it was the same as in his own country, he wanted it all taken over by Stalin, but at the same time he himself came from the German middle class, upper middle class, and had a career in that class, including buying a country house just before he left in 1933. He was going to be the German equivalent of the successful Broadway author, even though he would have been a left-wing one, but in Germany before Hitler that wouldn't have necessarily stopped him from making money. He would have made a lot of money; indeed he did on Three Penny Opera.
RH: There's a great story in the Memoir, I just read it the other day, about the restaurant conversation you had with...
EB: With Ruth Berlau...
RH: That conversation seemed to be the falling-out, or the line drawn in the sand, between you and Brecht or, at least, the people who surrounded Brecht.
EB: Yes. His women friends were much more 100% Communist than he was. He wanted to feel that the people who helped him, helped him on both fronts, that is personal--his work as an artist--and impersonal--his work as a Communist or left wing or whatever you would call it, anti-Fascist. And I think Ruth thought she could sort of bully me into that or that maybe I wanted the position so much that I would pretend to agree with Communism, whatever. But she was a sincere Communist, had been for a long time, and she couldn't understand how someone would refuse such an obviously attractive possibility. They never understood America and the distance at which nearly all of us stood from Soviet Communism, or German Communism for that matter. She would always say we secretly agreed, all of us who were interested in Bertolt Brecht, must secretly agree. I remember her saying they were going to do an adaptation of Peér Gynt, with Howard DeSilva as Peér Gynt, and we, I suppose she meant Brecht and perhaps other writers in Hollywood, were going to take out all that silly mysticism, by which she probably meant nearly everything in the play. Ibsen was going to be Brechtianized. She was going to do that to the whole world. So she was trying to Brechtianize me: unless you're a Communist fellow traveler, you're not really in the group.
RH: It seems that his politics and his art intermingled at every level.
EB: Yes. He once told me, I think I quote this in the Memoir, that his work wouldn't be important unless Socialism came. And I thought that was a curious remark because already his work was considered important in the non-Socialist countries but not particularly in the Soviet Union. He could have approached that topic by saying ,well, the Russians would slowly come around. He realized they hadn't come around and he realized that the Germans hadn't come around when he was in East Germany. I remember him saying to me that the Communists didn't like the kind of music that he represented, Kurt Weill and Eisler and Dessau; that the regime didn't approve of it because it was too modern, modernist, bourgeois, and somewhat decadent. He said, "They want us all to do folk dancing." That was his opinion of the official Soviet line: folk dancing. Or classical ballet, which Stalin favored, pre-revolutionary Russian ballet. Brecht thought that they could change that; he and his friends would change the regime until they welcomed some of the modern things.
RH: We have none of those attachments to Brecht now. It's interesting what you said about Jerome Robbins creating sort of a museum-piece Mother Courage. That seems to me the biggest challenge about Brecht, when you're going to do Brecht today. We get caught up in the form, whether it's the half-curtain or the bare stage, or the presentational style. And it's really the content that makes Brecht's plays worth doing. I wonder if you think that Brecht's plays have continued appeal for America, or for audiences here, or if we somehow miss the boat by getting caught up in the form instead of the content.
EB: I think his better plays, such as Mother Courage, make sense as traditional plays. This is my doctrine as against the doctrine you hear from what I regard as the "true believing Brechtians" that go in for his theories; that Brecht can only be understood in the light of his theories. I disagree with that totally. I think Brecht is absolutely acceptable without any of the more abstract social/philosophical theory. I think you need a bit of the theatrical-technical theory, but I don't think you need Communism to justify the dramas any more than you need Christianity to justify Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot. Any Jewish person or Islamic person could understand exactly the spirit of that play and get ahold of it without feeling they should be converted to the Church of England. So I think with Brecht and Communism-- Mother Courage doesn't call on you to be converted to Communism anyway--it's the human, moral content--what she's doing with the three children--and her little theory of how you might get by, and how it works up to a point and not beyond that point. There's a whole drama in this which doesn't bring up any general considerations about Communism and so forth.
RH: I've seen Mother Courage a few times, and that's what brings me to it, this idea that the moral issues transcend what may have been an original thematic anchor in the Communist struggle. The original political context seems superfluous to this play; it still stands on its own. What other of his plays do you think still stand up?
EB: Well, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and even The Good Woman of Setzuan, which is abstract to a degree and contains a principle that you could call Marxist. Namely, it shows how capitalism doesn't work. Nevertheless, it is a play about the relations between money and virtue. You don't really have to be a Communist to go with what it's showing and what it's saying, because you can see the situation every day. It dramatizes this particular conflict and how this woman has to compromise and become actually non-idealistic, or she will be destroyed. It's terrible to live in the world like that. Brecht thought you could change the world into a Utopia, but what he shows in the plays still holds true, even if you don't think it could be made into Utopia. And of course ludicrous in The Caucasian Chalk Circle is the prologue, in which he announces that it has been changed into Utopia in the Soviet Union. The college producers come to me over that; they're perplexed, they don't realize they could just refuse to include the prologue, which is what they should do. "How do we put the prologue across?" Not at all, as far as I can see. It's so ludicrous now in the light of history. And it wasn't even in the play when he first conceived it; he stuck it in opportunistically in 1945 when the Russians had won the war. So he put in this bit about them winning. That hadn't been there. It was originally an abstract problem like The Good Woman of Setzuan.
See, this I'd like to add to what I was saying earlier about stages (in the evolution of our approach to Brecht's plays). There was Brecht done wrong, without understanding, and it came out clumsy. Then Brecht says it has to be done right. So he lays down the law about doing it right. And it seems as if he's laying down the law forever. However, he died, and the younger generation in Germany did what all younger generations do, choose to do things differently. Over there, the plays are already much changed; subsequent theatre artists have not stuck to his instructions. It has not been permanent and obviously it couldn't be. Consider the history of Shakespeare production. It's changed all the time according to the new age. You know, the Victorians had a very wonderful Shakespeare. It's gone now totally. John Guilgud could remember it, but he was one of those who changed it. So Brecht has to change.
RH: Isn't the approach to Brecht's work evolving faster in Germany than here in the United States?
EB: Yes, there's more conflict there because his family did try for a long while to keep things in aspic and solidified, but even in East Germany that didn't work, and in West Germany, even less so. Their new attitude: to be true to the critical spirit of Brecht, you have to criticize Brecht...and treat his theories critically and so depart from them to some degree. So I think there is now something approaching total freedom which has already produced total chaos in some cases. In the U.S., there have been idiotic changes made just as a stunt. The Chalk Circle, for instance--once directors realized the setting in the Soviet Union is absurd, they look for other places to set it. One was Haiti, but that didn't really fit.
RH: Did you see the production at the Public Theatre? That's the Haiti one.
EB: It doesn't really fit the real Haiti, either then or now.
RH: It seems that in America we often play around with Brecht by changing the setting, whereas in Germany, they're re-examining Brecht's underlying theories.
EB: Yes, to some extent. I'm an attacker of the "theory-ists" mostly on the grounds that it was just Brecht's way of making a place for his work. When Brecht wasn't doing very well promoting his plays in the 20's, a friend of his said, "You've got to have a theory, and then they'll accept it." So Brecht got himself a theory to establish the importance of his plays. And I think that's what it was. In other words, it was part of public relations on a high intellectual level, but still just that. And not really significant. Brecht, in his theoretical vein, would like to have it that you can only understand his plays by taking a completely new view of the drama, which he will expound to you. I'm always suspicious of any artist who won't let you judge by your own standards. Because it's clear the new standards Brecht wishes you to have were created in order to show his work in the best light. If you're going to defend abstract art by a principal that says art should be abstract, that's easy and it's good the minute it's abstract. And that's how I think Brecht's theories are. So I'm very opposed to people in the graduate schools who take them up as if they're Aristotle and Plato, as if they're important philosophy in the history of Western culture. I don't see that at all, and I don't think his plays need that. I think, you know, the Mother Courage structure is certainly unorthodox according to Ibsen or Arthur Miller, but it's not that far from Elizabethan. You know, Brecht would say you don't need climaxes, that they're a bourgeois illusion. But the terrific climax in Mother Courage-- in the scene of the drumbeat-- It's the orthodox place for dramatic climax, namely about 2/3 of the way through the plot. It reaches a high point, or low point according to your point of view, of tragedy. And such is the case with the other things that he's supposed not to have, like emotion. There's a lot of it. So I think a perfectly orthodox approach, critically speaking, is valid. And the same goes for the actors; Laughton was told to just go on and approach the part as he approaches any part. Right. That's how I think they all should do. And not say, "I'm supposed to do something different because it's Brecht."
RH: I think when we study Brecht here, we read his theories first and then try to impose them on the play.
EB: Yes. That's wrong.
RH: And we get sort of half-assed both ways.
EB: Yes. And that's a very big mistake. I tried to upset the apple cart on that when I was teaching at Hunter College a few years ago, graduate students, who all thought because they were getting Eric Bentley they were getting the theories of Brecht. And I said, you know, "You don't have time in a one-term course to read all the many volumes of Brecht that exist. But since you're not going to read it all, or at least study it all, intensely, I'll suggest you not read any of the theoretical writings, but that we approach the plays not through theory, but through his poems. We'll read a lot of the poetry first." Because that's the stuff, his youthful poetry, that later blossomed as plays. And they loved that because it was more thrilling and more simple, but not in the end simple, because the poems are not simple, the theories are simple.
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