Swans Commentary » swans.com August 25, 2008  



Eric & Bert
Eric Bentley's Bentley on Brecht


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Bentley, Eric: Bentley on Brecht, Northwestern University Press, Third Edition, 2008, ISBN-13:978-0-8101-2393-9, 513 pages.


(Swans - August 25, 2008)   The life of Eric Bentley has been a life with Bertolt Brecht. Far from Britain and his native Lancashire, an instructor at UCLA, he met the German writer in Santa Monica in 1942. In 1998, Bentley entered The American Theater Hall of Fame, honored for his cabaret performances of Brecht's songs. (Folkway Records recorded them.) Bentley is now 92 and this latest edition of his Bentley on Brecht is dated 2008.

The 500 some pages of Bentley on Brecht couldn't contain everything the professor of Columbia University wrote about Brecht, but only what he considers essential and significant. He was Brecht's principal translator, responsible for the Grove Press edition of the plays and a host of other translations. Bentley was Brecht's man in America. He also directed plays, handled business arrangements, held seminars and was a counselor Brecht listened to.

Bentley on Brecht isn't the best all-around book on the author because Bentley was a Brecht yes-man. For he was rather a yes-but-man. From the beginning of their collaboration, the young scholar of German and theater scrutinized the maestro and his idolaters with a critical eye. (Playwright Charles Marowitz has caught the ambiguity of the relationship in his Silent Partners -- see Swans of July 14, 2008.) If Bentley on Brecht could be put into a single sentence, it would read: "Bertolt Brecht was indeed a great writer and man of the theater, but not always for the reasons his admirers or he himself put forward."

The book looks at Brecht and his work from a dazzling variety of angles. The Brecht Memoir of 1990 effectively crowns it. Here the point of view is personal, as intimate as Bentley has yet been, but takes in the whole sweep of Brecht's life and work since that meeting in California. That the various parts of the book date from over a sixty-year period adds a valuable temporal dimension. Additional dazzle comes in Bentley's short preambles, which are more recent comments on his earlier views.

No writer more than Brecht was the plaything of history. From the Weimar Republic into exile in four countries, from WWII to the rise and crisis of East Germany, Brecht dodged and sparred with historical forces and bent his temperament to shifts in ideology. Bentley's criticism shadows him. As Brecht feints, refines and rationalizes, chronology becomes all important. Typical are Bentley's studies Galileo I and II of 1966 and 1967. He shows that the two versions are in fact very different plays. History made the difference in the form of Hiroshima, as did Brecht's solicitude to come closer to the Communist Party line.

Several articles deal with the more general cultural landscape. Ibsen, Shaw, Brecht of 1969 shows the threesome very much in a historical perspective. In the 1870s middle-class debate appeared able to lead to progress. At the turn of the century it seemed that pressure could effectively be exerted on government. After WWI, it was understood that civilization had collapsed and a new order had to arise. This catastrophic time saw Brecht's birth as a writer and is fundamental to Bentley's understanding of him.

The context of Brecht, from the beginning, was an intelligentsia in extremis that found the most negative features of totalitarianism, of the right or of the left, highly seductive. (Page 10.)

Continuity in the pessimistic, young, apparently asocial Brecht to the mature born-again Leninist is central to Bentley's analysis. So is his refusal to take Brecht's theorizing on the theater as holy writ or even essential reading. From Strindberg to Brecht shows Bentley as early as 1946 keeping Brecht's theoretical writing at arm's length. He explicates Brecht's Epic Theater (Narrative Realism) with its negation of the audience's at-oneness with action on the stage, but points out that what looks like a reversal of age-old theatrical values was only a change in dosage.

The disproof of Brecht's theory is Brecht's practice. His art makes up for his criticism. In his art there is stage-illusion, suspense, sympathy, identification. The audience is enthralled and the highly personal genius of Brecht finds expression. (Page 46-7.)

Bentley treats this practice in its nonverbal and craft aspects in The Stagecraft of Bertolt Brecht of 1950. Here he sees Brecht, in contrast to the then current German theater, as artistically revolutionary. He rejected colored lights and any degree of atmospheric dimness on stage. The naturalistic and purely decorative was replaced, not by pantomime on an empty stage, but by a few carefully chosen, solidly real objects. Clothes were not costumes but attire that appeared adequate to be lived in. Music did not underline or repeat action but expressed its own action.

Seven Plays of 1960 was a preface to the first Grove Press Brecht volume. It shows Bentley at his best as a critic. Without circling the table, he serves up the meat directly in what's closer to a clinical report than a poetaster's pronouncement. Every line is telling. To have actually directed several of the plays has kept his feet on the ground and having translated them his nose in the nuts and bolts. You will look in vain in other critics of the day for paragraph headings like "The menagerie of Bertolt Brecht," "Amerika," "Homosexuality," "Cruelty," "Shavianism," "Galileo as a portrait of the artist," "Rogues and Knaves," and "Gluttony."

Just as original at the time was Bentley's spotlight on Brecht as a poet. He saw him as never having left his youthful lyric vocation, and his poetry remained the best way to enter his work. In the Brecht theater: "The production as a whole, not just the words, was the poem. It was in essence, and often in detail, his poem." When enthusiasts in Europe and America felt they had to master Brecht's theoretical writing before understanding him, Bentley assured them that the poems and true-to-Brecht productions of the plays would tell them all they needed to know. This went with his conviction that Brecht's life and writing -- despite the opinions of a host of critics and that on occasion of the writer himself -- was all of a piece. There was no anarchic Saul wandering in a subjective wasteland waiting to be transformed on the Road to Damascus into an objective St. Paul in Marxist bifocals.

That Brecht changed his label in 1928 but not his being emerges from Bentley's look at the early plays. It's worth scrutinizing one of these studies to take the full measure of Bentley's critical acumen. His article on Edward II can serve as something of a master class for anyone wishing to learn how to read a play closely. He has already taken us aback by his remark that the 18-year-old Brecht's poetry put him in the prodigy class with Buchner and Rimbaud. He notes that America finally showed interest in Brecht's early work when Baal was given off-Broadway in 1963.

It's no small challenge to demonstrate the excellence of Brecht's Edward II. An early Brecht play, it therefore belongs to a category Brecht stalwarts shied away from for fear of undermining their picture of the mature playwright. Moreover, it's a re-working of Christopher Marlowe's play of 1592. Bentley, however, immediately clears up what's implied by a Brecht re-working. Whatever the poet-playwright touched became his own and that included even the lines and incidents he might borrow. "The remarkable thing is how much of the original can be absorbed in what is essentially a brand-new play!" He might recount broadly the same story but there would be significant differences and the characters would have been joined by new ones. A different theme would emerge and a different vision of life.

In Edward II Brecht took a strong dramatic action in which a hero becomes likeable as his life goes downhill, while his adversary becomes detestable as his life reaches its summit. He also availed himself of the original play's subject of homosexuality. (Another reason why adepts of the later "positive" plays would "overlook" his Edward II.) Brecht adopted the form of the 16th century chronicle play as well. This allowed him to contemplate the events recounted by putting them at a distance. It was nothing less than his much discussed alienation effect that he hadn't theorized yet or even named. As for Marlowe's majestic drumbeat of iambic pentameter, Brecht wakes us up to that too: he does it violence with shortened or oversized lines.

Marlowe's Edward is a complex character for whom our affection grows as he changes before our eyes. But his queen is blank and unchanging, while his seducer and favorite, Gaveston, remains circumscribed by those two terms. Brecht adds an all but new Mortimer as antagonist. He also shows the queen losing her personality step by step as misogyny runs her down. Brecht's Gaveston is no longer a seducer but an original character who becomes the prey of the king's infatuation.

Bentley follows the interplay of passive and active impulse that is integral to both playwrights. His ample use of notions like masochism and sadism reminds us he's writing in the New York of the 1960s. For Bentley, the Mortimer character trumpets reason but can't find meaning in life. Edward, yielding to feeling, at least has that to hold to in the void that Bentley correlates to young Brecht's post WWI inner turmoil: "Amid the deafness nothing remains except / Bodily contact between men." Edward, deprived of that and all the rest, nevertheless endures in independence of spirit like a true tragic figure. Bentley points out that Brecht's temper and stance as a playwright turns away from tragedy and that Edward is his only tragic hero. He doesn't say which Edward II is better, but that they are so different as to be "incommensurable."

It's typical of Bentley on Brecht to turn from admiration to annoyance. His closeness to the great man permits him to stand conventional wisdom regularly on its head. So it is with the myth of Brecht the martyr of wartime exile. As usual Brecht himself set the story snowballing. He told the Committee on Un-American Activities that he gave everything else up to make a stand against Hitler. In fact, says Bentley, "Hitler provided perfectly Brechtian material for his writing." Furthermore, his years of exile, spent in great part on the estates of rich supporters, proved the most productive of his writing life. Even more than most artists of the pantheon, his existence had little room for anything but his art. Bentley is still awestruck by the obstacles Brecht circumvented and by his "undiscourageability," "his utter concentration on his own writing."

An inveterate updater, Bentley has given us a Brecht by accretion, view and review. Not surprisingly then that he topped up his late The Brecht Memoir of 1985 with an even more personal Postscript in 1988. For 500 pages he has been squaring his accounts with Brecht, having his say by articulating fully his appreciation and divergence. All the same, even after The Memoir he feels he has held back. The reader can't help but reflect that Bentley, no matter how deeply he digs into himself, will never be convinced he hasn't been reticent. Reticence he feels as a kind of ancestral or physiological curse.

In this splendid, deeply-felt coda he attributes his keeping mum to his tendency to see both sides of a question and quotes Montaigne: "We are double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve and cannot rid ourselves of that which we condemn." This is the crux and explains the electricity between the two men. The youthful Brecht was tormented by an awareness of evil in the universe. He eventually obtained some inner peace by attributing that evil to capitalism. He believed and refused doubleness -- the other side of the argument.

But Bentley would never know anything else but duality. It was religious belief -- yes and no -- as a child. In adolescence it was sex that demanded secrecy. At Oxford in the 1930s he settled into a pacifism that was unreal because he never accepted the possibility of war. Though Communism was in fashion, he tells us, "I wasn't upper class enough for Oxford proletarianism." The need to escape a powerful matriarch of a mother and not wanderlust drove him, with a scholarship, to America. Hidden desperation continued to rule his life there. Pacifism was untenable as Hitler's designs became evident. But the young man's attempt to enlist was met with a rejection and an H for homosexual inscribed on his application form. His sympathy for the Soviet Union lasted only from 1942 to '45. But even then it wasn't straightforward. Though his association with Brecht continued, he took counsel from the fierce anti-Stalinist Lionel Trilling. His consternation over looking both ways is understandable. It seems almost willful and contrived to make reticence inevitable.

The intriguing Postscript continues with Bentley still "double" within himself. Brecht was unaware of the full extent of his anti-communism, and it wasn't until Bentley wrote Brecht's obituary that he was finally able to declare it. Here was an archetypal intellectual, brilliant as few others at explaining, who could not say the final no. Little wonder that in his reading of Edward II Bentley is bemused by the principal change Brecht introduces. Marlowe's was a study of passivity. But Brecht presented Edward as a man who could say no. Who knows if Bentley will not again have something articulate and subtle to tell us about his silence. May his accretions never end.


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Published August 25, 2008