Swans Commentary » swans.com August 25, 2008  



Fusing Brecht & Bentley


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - August 25, 2008)   Somewhere in the spring of 1995, someone sent me a copy of Eric Bentley's The Brecht Memoir and, having already had my fill of the Brechtian canon, I listlessly began to thumb through the thin volume. Within moments, I found myself submerged in the book -- drawn in the way I imagine a shark draws in a helpless swimmer who invades its watery preserve. I read it in one sitting and immediately wrote Eric that I thought it the most pungent and revealing material I had ever come across about the playwright and, having been weaned on the author's scholarly tracts such as The Playwright as Thinker, What is Theatre, and The Life of the Drama, unquestionably the most personal writing of Eric's I had ever encountered. After expressing my genuine enthusiasm for the book, I wrote that the trajectory of the two men's relationship as depicted was, apart from being enthralling and informative, dramatically gripping as well and that Eric, who had already begun writing for the theatre, should seriously consider turning his memoir into a stage play.

My spontaneous gush of enthusiasm elicited no response whatsoever and I assumed Eric was probably up to his eyeballs in academic and critical pursuits, too busy to acknowledge the effusions of a distant acquaintance.

Four long years later, I received a short note from him, which read in part:

You wrote me a good letter outlining what might be the main drift of a play about Brecht and me. My reaction, you may recall, was that I felt able to write him but not to write me. What would you think of the following idea: You and I collaborate. You write the first draft of this play, basing it on my writings, etc., and on what you can get from me in conversation. Then I write the second draft of this play, trying to fill out your characterizations and perhaps enhance the narrative... etc. Is this idea any good?

Replying, I wrote that I had never "collaborated" on a play with anyone except my willing (often unwilling) Muse and that being hermitic and antisocial, I doubt I could actually sit down and write anything in direct conjunction with another party. But my most immediate impression was that four long years had passed since my first spontaneous suggestion and during that time, I had virtually forgotten almost everything contained in The Brecht Memoir; that I was quite prepared to sit down and re-read it bearing in mind Eric's proposal; this time, examining the material from the standpoint of another writer (myself) actually dramatizing it.

In re-reading the book, I suddenly realized my enthusiasm for it being converted into a play was a truly preposterous suggestion. It became utterly clear that the nature of Bentley's relationship with Brecht was essentially non-communicative; not that they didn't constantly converse with one another, but that as far as things that mattered were concerned -- i.e., Eric's ambition to translate and direct and Brecht's ravenous desire to make a mark in America and rekindle his reputation in Europe -- were almost never discussed -- although both preoccupations rumbled disturbingly beneath carefully-manicured façades.

The problem was that in terms of "action" and "events," there was virtually nothing to "dramatize" as nothing of great note actually transpired between them. But in terms of tacit tensions and suppressed desires, there was an enormous amount burbling beneath the surface. Would it be possible, I asked myself, to take those smoldering undercurrents and give them voice; to write out the kinds of things they would have thought, might have said, could have experienced had those thoughts been expressed? Once I had visualized a drama whose cornerstone was speculation, I had a surmise that enabled me to start work on a play.

The decision to proceed was followed by a week's sojourn with Eric in New York, during which I prodded him with a barrage of personal questions about Brecht and himself, digging for material that was tantalizingly glimpsed in The Memoir but not entirely disclosed. By the end of the week, Eric probably felt like an analysand confronted with a rather aggressive shrink who, trying to get to the bottom of things, forced him to excavate corners of his relationship with Brecht that had been sealed tight for many years. I learned an enormous amount about Eric himself, but as for digging up deeply-buried material about the relationship, not too much was unearthed. Over the weeks and months that followed through letters, e-mails, and telephone calls, I kept prodding him rather mercilessly, looking for secret passages in the relationship between the two men, fishing for hidden or repressed material that might give me new insights into the dynamics that lurked behind the friendship.

I was acutely aware that, in the case of both men, there was a slew of contradictions and these cried out to be dealt with. Bentley, after being a pacifist, became something of a liberal but one who didn't really subscribe to Soviet-styled Communism. Brecht, on the other hand, was endemically Marxist and eventually, when he took over the Berliner Ensemble, was actually in the pay of the Communist East German regime. The political differences between the two men became a sore point, more for Brecht's colleagues than for Brecht himself. He saw Bentley as a medium through which his Western reputation could be established; just as Bentley recognized, and was to an extent awed by, his proximity to one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century. Each needed the other for goals that never coalesced -- and consequently, it was a relationship charged with silent turmoil and subterranean objectives -- and therefore, potentially dramatic.

I was also conscious of the fact that Brecht himself was, to his followers and his detractors, both a God and a Demon. John Fuegi's book Brecht & Company provided persuasive evidence that he ruthlessly exploited a number of female collaborators and was not solely responsible for several of his most successful works and that, in some cases, they were not even initiated by himself. He exploited women as readily as he exploited Bentley or tried to exploit Fritz Lang during the filming of Hangmen Also Die and Charles Laughton in the production of Galileo in Los Angeles. He was furtive and exploitative by nature, but Brecht is not the first major artist to reveal moral flaws. When we revere Brecht, it is not for his stainless character, but for the aura that inspired and enveloped his collaborators and enabled them to feed his creativity. Brecht's approach to art, even from the very first in works such as Baal and In The Jungle Of The Cities, was always "collective." The playwright acted as a kind of controlling Chairman of the Board to whom subordinate members brought ideas, plans, and suggestions. One can argue long and hard that there was as much originality in Elizabeth Hauptmann, Ruth Berlau, and Margarete Steffin as there was in Bertolt Brecht, but ultimately, one has to recognize that all of these collaborators worked within a circumference established by Brecht himself. That doesn't belittle their contributions, but it does mean one must acknowledge there was an overall, guiding intelligence assembling all those parts that ultimately made up the whole. In his last years as the guiding force behind the Berliner Ensemble, collective authorship was openly and unselfconsciously practiced and was, in a sense, the formalization of a method that had been in use throughout Brecht's life.

Behind every elongated relationship, whether it be husband and wife, parent and child, mentor and disciple, there lies a charged subterranean sub-text which almost never gets acknowledged. Frustrations, resentments, suppressed emotions coagulate behind a façade that very rarely gets pierced. When it does, when feelings long hidden are openly revealed, things explode and often relations crumble. To avoid that, to "keep the peace," to insure a degree of continuity in one's life, it is essential that a certain surface civility is steadfastly maintained. That, to a certain extent, is what drama is all about -- except that on the stage it is obligatory that what has been concealed ultimately erupts. What fascinated me about the Brecht-Bentley relationship over a period of some fifteen years, was that despite mounting strains and pressures, mutual admiration and recrimination, an equilibrium was established which both men felt it necessary to maintain. The premise behind that ultimately became Silent Partners, a work which was to reveal what lay behind that equilibrium and, since it was never actually manifest, it can only be a playwright's notion of what might possibly have taken place. So it would be erroneous to call Silent Partners a "documentary" even though it chronicles certain events that historically took place -- just as it would be misleading to call it a "fictional" drama -- even though most of its dialogue has been invented. I guess the closest we can get to a label is "docudrama," recognizing the mealy-mouthed inadequacy of that nomenclature. But it may be sufficient to describe, as I have tried to do here, how it came about and what elements were used in its assembly.


[ed. Silent Partners by Charles Marowitz, based on The Brecht Memoir by Eric Bentley, was premiered at the Scena Theatre in Washington D.C. in April 2006. The printed version was recently published by Dramatists Play Service, 440, Park Avenue South, New York City, NY 10016. Peter Byrne reviewed Marowitz's play in the July 14, 2008, edition of Swans.]


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/cmarow115.html
Published August 25, 2008