Swans Commentary » swans.com July 14, 2008  



Raging Silence
Charles Marowitz's Silent Partners


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Marowitz, Charles: Silent Partners, a play in two acts, Dramatists Play Service, Inc., NYC, 2006, ISBN-13: 978-0-8222-2262-0, 95 pages.


(Swans - July 14, 2008)   Charles Marowitz has written a play about Bertolt Brecht. It was produced in Washington, D.C. at the Warehouse Theater in April and May 2006. Fifty years ago there would have been no need to explain to the general reader who Brecht was. The Berliner Ensemble, Brecht's troupe, awed European theatre-goers whenever it ventured out of East Berlin. The Brecht-in-English era began in 1956 when the Ensemble visited London. The Brits pooh-poohed a playwright who actually gave them a set of theoretical principles before the curtain went up. But they found no way to fend off the impact of the performances. In 1961 Stuart Hall wrote in Encore magazine that Brecht was "omnipresent" in Britain. In the 1970s critic Kenneth Tynan could write that Brecht "had enormous and still reverberating repercussions on almost every aspect of theatrical style: on playwrights, obviously, but also on directors (of classics not less than contemporary plays) on designers, on composers, and on such other departments of stagecraft as lighting, wardrobe and make-up." Eric Bentley, for whom Brecht is the significant other in this play, says "British Shakespeare production changed sharply after the visit to London of the Berlin Ensemble in 1956." It was "earthier, gutsier." In fact, narrative line became clearer, decorative flourishes fewer, actors more physically precise, production details more carefully done. Social or even philosophical questions could now be carried home after an evening in the theater. In these years the Brecht tide rose behind the Iron Curtain and flowed through the entire Western World.

Broadway's incuriosity and the Cold War kept the Berliner Ensemble from coming to the US until 1999. But Brecht had spent time there during WWII. In California he began working with Eric Bentley, a British teacher and critic. Bentley, born in 1916 and still around today, wrote landmark theater studies and translated Brecht. He also became his lifelong promoter and agent of sorts in America. Silent Partners dramatizes Bentley's attempt to puzzle out the professional, ideological and affective relationship of the two men. Brecht, charismatic and dominant, could generally capture the loyalty of anyone he deemed useful to his artistic ambitions. Bentley tries to understand his own thralldom and looks hard at the nature of Brecht's hold on others. These include Brecht's wife, the actress Helene Weigel; his lover and soul-mate, Ruth Berlau; a collaborator and paramour, Elizabeth Hauptmann; and his ever faithful composer, Hanns Eisler.

The interest of Silent Partners isn't principally in the bald facts of the story but in what Marowitz does with them. All the same they are his point of departure. Ruth Berlau meets Bentley, an obscure young university instructor. She doesn't think much of the young man who is gay and happy with his fate. He's progressive but doesn't share her fiery Communism. Brecht wins over Bentley who is hungry for a cause to get behind and ripe for exploitation. It was to be quid pro quo: Bentley's translations would introduce Brecht to the English-language public while providing the young academic with a chance to boost his career through publication. Bentley will learn, as all Brecht's devotees did, that fifty-fifty wasn't the great man's way. Brecht felt he was a servant of art and his collaborators servants to him.

Bentley soon observes Brecht's domestic dialectic in operation. Exile has made his wife, Weigel, into a domestic servant, condemned to serve not only her husband but his erratic mistress, Berlau. Neither Berlau's or Hauptmann's considerable contributions to his writings are acknowledged. Brecht's idea of collaboration covers a multitude of slights. But only Hauptmann manages to distance herself from the great man and keep her balance. Eisler remains bewitched. Bentley himself, though forever airing his resistance, can't forgo the connection. That Brecht doesn't convert him politically may not even disappoint the master as much as he lets on. Brecht's canny indirect approach can put even opposition to use. When Weigel forces Hauptmann and then Berlau out of the house, Brecht gives ground and simply installs Berlau down the road. Neither alcoholism or bouts of madness will ever undo her fidelity.

When East Germany offers him a permanent company and theater, Brecht, who never found full recognition in America, prepares to leave. The Washington redbaiters have started to investigate him. He offers to take Bentley with him as part of his new company. Bentley, always in two minds, is torn but refuses the offer. Soon Brecht in Berlin assumes his role as the key figure of international theater. Of course he has to compromise. In the end he must side with the government against the people. After Brecht's death, Bentley can do no more than feel two positions sharply. There was Brecht's chosen path in life and beside it the alternative route that he might have followed. Would that detour have also led to a revolution in theater? No one knows, least of all Bentley who is certain of only one thing: the pain of his love for Brecht that was never returned in kind.

It's a compelling story, shot through with the history of an epoch, both artistic and political. However, the play Silent Partners is much more. It's the telling of the story in the language of the theater. Marowitz taps into Eric Bentley's The Brecht Memoir, but Bentley in the play is never simply a voice over or the mouthpiece of a running commentary.

Marowitz' boldness is in the way he varies the density and intensity of what we have to call "real" for want of a better term. The operation itself is hardly novel in playwriting. A Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller character will often at critical moments tighten his language, reach for poetry and, isolated in a spotlight with appropriate music, grow a couple of feet before our eyes. The difference is that Marowitz for the most part announces his shifts up and down the reality scale and then makes them trenchant. His notes say, "The lights suddenly become surreally bright" and his characters change radically and show us their inner life. At such times the people of the play reveal a repressed or never-spoken self. But rather than explain it in Freudian jargon, it seems right to use that of the theater. The sub-text has suddenly taken possession of a character, and he pours it forth without a filter. In the final of these heightened scenes, the Brecht character actually says, "Sub-text is our native language. The only language in which we are all fluent."

This is how it works. We do get Bentley straight talking to the audience, with asides proliferating, as a kind of compensation in view of his adversary's strength. Situations arise from what he says that are played out before us on the level of familiar "realism." At times these scenes can tip over into something more richly concentrated, poetic or tinged with ritual. Such is the case, for instance, when Bentley and Brecht translate poetry with our looking over their shoulders. But we are still in the "realism" of say -- to simplify -- a sitcom conversation or a comedy sketch. Minimal sets come and go around the characters with no great ado. Then the lights become what Marowitz calls "surreal," i.e., unnaturally bright. Brecht who has been speaking in a heavy accent and garbled syntax suddenly becomes highly articulate. He now shows only a trace of foreignness. The compliant Bentley becomes prickly and self-assertive, forcing the usually stolid, sphinx-like Brecht to spring volubly into action on the defensive.

What the author does at such times is routine for a novelist. A character might interrupt his thinking to indulge in a daydream or to rehearse a position he's resolved to take up. He might proffer in solitude some tart esprit d'escalier or say to himself what he can't bring himself to say to an interlocutor. He might size that interlocutor up to himself in terms he's not in a strong enough position to use to the person's face. Marowitz' aim, just like a novelist's, is to get to the deeper truth of a relationship by inspecting it from all sides. But his method has to be that of the theater. Thus the abrupt and marked change in lighting transforms a person's speech and demeanor, making him outspoken. The lights blaze and characters who have been lazily shadow boxing on their own suddenly meet like a couple of champs in the middle of the ring.

Along with these passages of deeper truth the action will at times be summed up in striking stage pictures. These can be of the same pulsing sincerity that we have witnessed under the bright light. At the end of the first act, there's what has to be called a seduction scene in which Brecht wins back Bentley's devotion. Bentley, stunned, left alone on stage, is joined by two veteran victims of Brecht's high-minded cajoling, Weigel and Berlau. Stage directions read:

Like two daughters of Dracula they slowly place their arms around Bentley forming a kind of unholy trio, and smile knowingly, conspiratorially. Bentley, clearly content, returns the smile. (Page 48)

There are other striking theatrical pictures on the "normal" level of reality. At the dining room table Brecht and his muse Berlau will be absorbed in an illuminating discussion of Grusha and Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Weigel in her role of housemaid creates havoc by dumping a tureen of boiled potatoes between them, and announcing that this is an "alienation-effect." Other situations are wordless. Brecht, undressing Berlau apparently for love-making, proceeds to put her in hospital garb ready for electric shock treatment. The rivalry between Weigel and Berlau for the favor of their task-master needs no dialogue. In her role of hausfrau, Weigel will snap off her rival's reading lamp as Berlau ponders a Brecht text.

Though this is a tale of a great seducer, and his several willing victims, the main concern remains Bentley's enquiry into his own attachment to Brecht. The others have been caught up by ideology, sexual passion, awe for literary accomplishment or simple surrender to ruthless will power. Bentley doesn't really know why he's in thrall and that uncertainly is what puts life into Silent Partners. The play shows Bentley squirming before us with his Hamlet-like doubts. His alert, disquiet intelligence and refusal to overlook contradictions doesn't make things easier for him. He's a silent partner in that he can't come out and give voice to this inner debate. Which makes for a kind of sadness, but also for subtle comedy. Bentley is an intellectual, an individual out of step with practicalities, but he also brings to mind Walter Mitty. Marowitz will allow him to sit in as a kibitzer on Brecht's hilarious appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Bentley's own interrogation by government snoopers on his politics and sexual tastes proves just as rollicking.

In the most unforgettable scene of heightened "reality" (to call it "fantasy" would rob it of its weight and importance) Brecht and Bentley find themselves reciting the roles of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (no need to say who plays Mephisto and who the hapless Doctor). Here in a kind of climax Bentley comes closest to defining his relationship to Brecht. He makes the very difficult decision not to accept a post beside the master in East Germany, a kind of "embedding" in the lavishly subsidized state theater. He's a Faustus who refuses the diabolical compact, but who nevertheless feels bereft after his refusal. Marowitz treats us to the East German national anthem in the background.

On a visit to the now shaky Stalinist stronghold in 1956, Bentley finds Brecht a sick man but still cautiously opportunist. They hem and haw in the old "realist" manner. Bentley is unsparing as ever in his critical opinions of the plays, but still can't honestly face up to Brecht, man to man, as it were: "He was ill and evasive, and I fell into my old role as the dutiful disciple."

But the downbeat coda is interrupted by "lights up surreally bright" as Marowitz grants Bentley his yearning desire: "..I desperately wanted to throw discretion to the wind.." He asks Brecht point-blank how he could put up with "the bureaucracies, the lies, the rewrites of history." He accuses him of being a "handmaiden to a Soviet puppet government in a divided country where you were once a true, working-class hero."

Brecht brushes it all aside with the central truth of his character, the driving force of his life. In his American exile he was unrecognized, with no backing forthcoming. The East Germans gave him not only a theater but huge resources. He was able to conquer Paris, Vienna and London on tour, spreading his vision of the theatre far and wide.

In this heightened moment, the ailing man is as able a dialectician as ever. Seeing into the future, he tells Bentley that as a professor at Columbia in the 1960s he too will chose to preserve his job and position rather than follow his principles and back the students in their revolt.

Before those surreal lights go down, Bentley says, "We've never spoken an honest word to each other. Ever." And Brecht replies, hardly the upbeat socialist, "Does anyone?" In the final dimness, the impossibility of confrontation, brings not merely silence but triviality. The last words of the two men together are about twenty-five cent American cigars.

Marowitz on the page is full of brilliant moments. He varies continually the angles from which the characters are viewed. They come up with some telling counterpunches to the observer Bentley. There are pauses and changes of pace heavy with meaning. We can't settle down in the complacency of knowing what's coming next and how it will be delivered. The variety and rapidity of scenes never let us question whether a play about a playwright and his critic would interest a mainstream audience. My only fear for Silent Partners is what irresolute directors will do to it. Mightn't they neglect to enforce the differences between the levels of "realism" and smooth the play out into one unifying style? That operation would liquefy Silent Partners into puddles of biographical detail. Then Marowitz would be in a position like Brecht himself today. For to see a perfunctory Mother Courage or The Good Woman of Setzuan in a provincial European theater makes you wonder if Brecht's revolution had any more staying power than Walter Ulbricht's East Germany. While no country needs a dictator, there are plays that can't do without one.


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Published July 14, 2008