Thursday, December 12, 2013

EARGASM: 'Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities'

“Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities”

OK, not the catchiest title. However, if you learn the context behind this recording, it becomes a riveting piece of theater, one composed on the fly by the master playwright Brecht himself – under the threat of imprisonment and deportation.

Bertolt Brecht is the one of the most influential playwrights and poets of the 20th century. Coming of age in chaotic Weimar Germany of the 1920s, he began his career as a balladeer and cabaret performer of anarchist bent. Beginning in 1926, his study of Marx and socialism led him to develop stunning works that eviscerated the capitalist system and what we now term the military/industrial complex – in plays such as “The Threepenny Opera,” “Mahagonny,” and “Mother Courage.” He also worked with writing collectives to create a didactic “teaching theater” that would hasten a people’s revolution, preferably a Communist one.

Of course, Hitler didn’t like this at all. In February 1933, Brecht began his long hopscotching exile from Germany, settling first in Denmark and then, as German troops moved closer, to America. From 1941 through 1947 Brecht joined the American colony of European writers and artists dispossessed by the Nazis. During his time in New York and Los Angeles, he became familiar with prominent American theater and film people. He wrote “Galileo” for Charles Laughton, and penned the screenplay for “Hangmen Also Die!”, a thriller based on the assassination of fearsome Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.

Unfortunately, Brecht made the American government just as nervous as the Nazi government. The FBI began tracking his movements and monitoring his phone calls and mail almost from the moment he landed. His open Marxist leanings, along with his friendships and collaborations with numerous Communist artists (most notably the composer Hanns Eisler) left him open to scrutiny. On Sept. 19, 1947, he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, along with 18 other writers, directors, and performers who were tarred with the brush of association with “Communist influence.”

Brecht was the only non-American named; as a resident alien his legal status was somewhat more secure than his uniformly uncooperative, combative fellows. They could be jailed up to a year for contempt of Congress (and were – Dalton Trumbo yelled, as he was hauled out of the hearing, “This is the beginning of an American concentration camp!”); Brecht could only be deported – but could be held indefinitely before that happened. Not wanting to lose his freedom, Brecht planned and rehearsed his appearance with his lawyers. Finally, on Oct. 30, he went in front of the Committee, five newsreel cameras, and a host of microphones.

The key to his strategy was to appear as cooperative as possible, while not admitting anything that might get him in trouble. Unlike many idealists of the time, Brecht had a strong pragmatic streak. He didn’t believe in martyrdom – at least, not as far as he himself was concerned. He played the language barrier for all it was worth, engaging a translator when he did not really need one. He even resolved to smoke cigars throughout the hearing – giving him a chance to delay his responses and inflect his timing, much in the style of George Burns, Groucho Marx, and other cheroot-wielding comics.

The recording, produced in the spring of 1963, is narrated by Brecht champion and translator Eric Bentley, whose learned interpolations add much. He sets the scene and explains much of the texts and individuals referred to by Brecht’s questioners.

What follows is what Bentley terms a “Brechtian tragicomedy”; James K. Lyon in his book “Brecht in America” calls it simply “a polite exercise in cunning and duplicity that lasted a full hour.”

Chief Investigator Robert E. Stripling’s harsh, nasal Southern twang dominates. Brecht, in contrast, is halting, seems shy, sometimes plaintive – but level-headed and seemingly cooperative and detailed in response.

To demonstrate the conceptual gap here, Stripling asks Brecht what he does for a living.

“I am a playwright and a poet,” Brecht answers.

Without a pause, Stripling asks, “Where are you presently employed?”

It’s like listening to Bugs Bunny being grilled by a panel of Elmer Fudds, to the amusement of the live studio audience. (The repeated laughter of the crowd in the hearing room gives the whole affair an unreal comic sheen.)

When asked, Brecht says, “I am a guest in this country and do not want to enter into any legal arguments so I will answer your question fully as well I can. I was not a member or am not a member of any Communist party.” Now this, ironically, is certainly true – our ever-clever friend never officially joined the Communist Party.

“Is it true that you have written a number of very revolutionary poems, plays, and other writings?”

Brecht characterizes his works as anti-Fascist, not pro-Communist.

He is asked if he knows composer Hanns Eisler. Brecht’s friend and collaborator of 20 years, like him a refugee from Hitler in America, is at the very time Brecht is speaking, under arrest, awaiting his deportation hearing for Communist leanings (Eisler’s brother Gerhart was head of Germany’s Weimar-era Communists, and supposedly ran the American Communist effort during and after the Second World War.) Brecht knows all this. He minimizes his connection to Eisler.

The hollow drawl of Stripling drives on, as Brecht calmly sidesteps. Stripling addresses Brecht’s 1930 cantata with Eisler “The Measures Taken” -- a rigidly doctrinaire play that endorses political murder in the name of international Communism. Brecht equivocates (in fact he and his heirs denied permission to perform the play until 1997, which indicates some distaste for it).

Stripling begins to read from a translation, a riot in itself to hear:

“My heart is beating for the revolution
The witnessing of wrongdoing drove me into the lines of the fighting
Man must help man
I am for freedom
I believe in mankind
And I am for the rules of the Communist Party
Which fights for the classless society”

Brecht fobs it off as a bad translation.

The questioning runs out of steam, despite a few more sallies by Stripling. Brecht is commended for his forthrightness.

“You’re a good example” to the other witnesses, he is told, and dismissed. He leaves. Less than 24 hours later, he is on a flight to Europe. He would never return to the U.S.

Bentley states that Brecht kept a recording of the proceedings and would play it for laughs. Of the Committee, Brecht said, “They weren’t as bad as the Nazis. The Nazis would never have let me smoke.”

No matter how lightly Brecht played it later, it could not have been less than a harrowing experience for him. Like so many of his bitter, clever heroes and heroines, Brecht had dreams for mankind but saw all too clearly how the world goes. In this most real piece of political theater, he kept his freedom, didn’t rat out his friends, and glibly deceived the U.S. Congress in a language not his own.

Brecht, Eisler and others constantly found themselves on the outs – in Nazi Germany, in supposedly democratic America . . . finally, even in Communist East Germany, where they grew disaffected from the revolution they helped make. Whether the artistic person is fated always to end up in this position is another story entirely. Meanwhile, Brecht’s victory on this recording is little but profound.

[A personal note: I first heard this on vinyl at my friend B's house in Kansas City in '80 or '81. He was a crazy artist, and when we weren't pulling tubes and checking out the Buddhist art at the Nelson, we were bandying socialist concepts. That young-adult glee at the prospect of a trickster outfoxing the Man was intoxicating.]

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