[On 10 January, the Classic Stage Company began previews for its new staging of Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s a Man (Mann ist Mann, sometimes translated as Man Is Man, as we’ll see, or even Man Equals Man). The CSC production, which opens to the press on 30 January for a run scheduled to end on 16 February, is staged by CSC artistic director Brian Kulick (Venus in Fur, 2010), with songs and a score by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, 2006). Between 1924 and 1926, before Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage, Brecht wrote this anti-war satire about a naive handyman-turned-soldier. He revised the script many times, the final version dating from 1953, three years before the playwright’s death. Man Is Man tells the tale of innocent handyman Galy Gay in British Colonial India, where he’s “rather unorthodoxly enlisted into Her Majesty’s Armed Forces,” according to CSC’s publicity. “Watch him be ‘dismantled like a car’ and reassembled into the ultimate fighting machine in this early knock-about, anti-just-about-everything farce.” (I’ll be seeing the CSC production on 7 February and reporting on it on ROT shortly after that.)
[In September 1962, however, two virtually simultaneous productions of this somewhat obscure Brecht play, which originally premièred in 1926 and in a 1931 version featured German star (and later Hollywood character actor) Peter Lorre in an iconic performance, opened in New York City. Based on different versions of Brecht’s script and the work of different translators, one presentation played at the Living Theatre’s home theater on West 14th Street and a competing production, by the New Repertory Theatre Company, opened one day later on what is now Theatre Row (but was just a stretch of far West 42nd Street then). The only time I can remember anything similar happening in New York’s stage history was in 2000 when Andrew Lippa’s version of The Wild Party ran Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club from 24 February to 9 April (54 performances) and Michael John LaChiusa’s adaptation played on Broadway at the Virginia Theatre from 13 April to 11 June (68 performances). That situation didn’t generate the kind of stir in the press or the public that the dueling Brechts did 52 years ago. (In 1962, the New York Times reported that on 18 August 1908, twin productions of Ferenc Molnar’s The Devil opened at the Belasco and Garden Theatres on Broadway.)
[On Thursday, 20 September 1962, Women’s Wear Daily’s Thomas R. Dash declared, “This week can truly be designated as Bertolt Brecht Festival Week.” The press had a grand time comparing the productions and the leads and running commentaries on both from journalists and production insiders from the two companies. Back then, New York City had many newspapers (New York Mirror, New York Journal-American, New York World Telegram & Sun, Morning Telegraph—not to forget the Christian Science Monitor and Women’s Wear Daily, both considered important critical voices) that covered theater, especially events like this that caught the attention of the public (or, at least, the press), so there were also lots of reviews of both mountings, many of which covered the two shows together and compared them. In one paper, the World Telegram & Sun, the reviewer not only covered each opening in a separate notice, but wrote a third column two days later for the contrast.
[So, here’s my own reconstruction of the battle of the Brechts, circa 1962. ~Rick]
In the fall of 1962, there were two simultaneous productions of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-military play Mann ist Mann on the New York stage. (Because there are so many variant translations of the title, I’ll use the German name to refer to the play in general and the appropriate English rendition for specific productions.) The Living Theatre’s Man Is Man was a translation by Gerhard Nellhaus, authorized by Helene Weigel and Stefan Brecht, the playwright’s widow and son, and based on Brecht’s 1953 final revision. Billed as A Man’s A Man, the other staging, by the New Repertory Theatre Company, was Eric Bentley’s translation of the original 1925 text. The Living Theatre production opened in the troupe’s home theater at 530 6th Avenue (Avenue of the Americas), at the corner of West 14th Street, under Julian Beck’s direction (and on his set design) on Tuesday, 18 September, with Joseph Chaikin as Galy Gay and Judith Malina as the Widow Begbick and closed on 31 March 1963, running 165 performances. (Performances of the Living’s Man Is Man were suspended from 4 to 13 November to free the company’s members to participate in the “general strike for peace week” which Beck and Malina ran out of their theater building.) Directed for the New Repertory Theatre by John Hancock, the competing production opened on Wednesday, 19 September, for 175 performances at the Masque Theater, 442 W. 42nd Street (two-and-a-half blocks west of Times Square), closing on 17 February 1963 and featuring John Heffernan as Gay and Olympia Dukakis as the widow. Chaikin was awarded a 1963 Obie for “Distinguished Performance” for his portrayal of the reluctant soldier in the Living’s production and Dukakis won one for her performance as the entrepreneurial widow in the New Repertory version.
(Nellhaus’s translation of the 1953 version is available in Man Equals Man; and, The Elephant Calf [Arcade Publishing, 1979]. The typescript of the Living Theatre’s text is in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The Bentley translation is commonly available [Baal, A Man’s a Man, and The Elephant Calf: Early Plays by Bertolt Brecht (Grove Press, 1964)] and is still in print. A typescript of the New Repertory’s text was also on reposit at the Billy Rose but no longer seems to be available. A recording on LP of the New Rep’s performance, Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s a Man, with a slightly different cast, was released by Spoken Arts [SA-870, New Rochelle, N.Y.] in 1964.)
To be sure, there was considerable debate in the New York press over these dueling Brechts, from mainstream dailies like the New York Herald Tribune, which published on the same page articles by Bentley, and Beck and Malina (“Are Two Brechts Better Than One?” and “And on the Other Hand,” respectively, 9 September) and then letters from Bentley and Nellhaus (“From the Reader” and “More on Brecht,” 16 September), to alternative weeklies such as the Village Voice, which ran a comparison of the two Galy Gays before the openings (Jane Kramer’s “Two Actors, One Role: Who Is Brecht’s Man?” 6 September), and exegeses by Bentley and Beck following the reviews (“Says Eric Bentley: ‘A Man’s a Man’ Is A Magnificent Play,” 4 October, and “‘Man Is Man’ Is A Major Work,” 11 October). Other articles with provocative—if not always amusing—headlines included “Who’s On First?: Brecht Fathers Twins As Off-B’way Season Nears” (Village Voice 23 August), “Curtain Up on Broadway: Brecht Beside Himself” (Melvin Maddocks, Christian Science Monitor 22 September), and “On Stage: The Battle of the Brechts” (George Oppenheimer, Newsday 26 September). At opposite ends of the complexity continuum were the New York Post’s Jerry Tallmer with “Let’s Get It Straight: (A) Man(’s) Is (a) Man” (I don’t even know how to read that one) and Edith Oliver in the New Yorker with the simple “Brecht2.”
The full title of Brecht’s anti-military, anti-war, anti-authoritarian play is Man Is Man: The Transformation of the Porter Galy Gay in the Military Barracks of Kilkoa in the Year 1925 (or some variation on that translation). Billed as a comedy, Mann ist Mann tells the story of the naïve and pliant Galy Gay, self-described as “a man who does odd jobs, who doesn’t drink, smokes very little and has almost no vices to speak of,” an Irish handyman out to buy his wife a fish for their supper who’s enlisted by three British soldiers who need a replacement for one of their machinegun unit. (Joe Chaikin recounted that Barbara Brecht, the playwright’s daughter, told him, “You have your comedies in America. Here we do only plays about life and death,” and the actor observed, “The play itself is funny, but you’ll make the judgment that it’s tragic.”) The soldiers had just tried to loot a Buddhist pagoda and had to leave a fourth man behind when they fled. They’re terrified of their sergeant, known as Bloody Five for his bloodthirstiness both in battle and in the barracks, so they cajole, persuade, threaten, and hoodwink Gay into taking their comrade’s place. Along the way, Gay’s introduced to the Widow Begbick, the proprietor of a traveling canteen where the soldiers relax and carouse. As Gay becomes more and more the kind of killing machine he’s led to believe he’s supposed to be, he witnesses his own “execution” and funeral, even delivering a eulogy for himself. In the end, he takes part in a war against Tibet, single-handedly conquers a fortress, and is declared a hero for his ferocity. He’s become the perfect soldier. When the soldier whose place Gay had taken, Jeriah Jip, returns to reclaim his position, his former comrades turn him away with Gay’s old identity papers.
Brecht (1898-1956) had many influences for the play, including the tragic farces of proto-Absurdist Luigi Pirandello; Munich music-hall, or Kabarett, political satire; and the expressionistic and surrealistic works of Franco-German poet-playwright-librettist Yvan Goll, but perhaps the most salient was the depictions of the British Raj by Rudyard Kipling, some of whose poetry Brecht translated. Kipling, in the words of Brecht translator John Willett, “provided the poetic setting for Brecht’s Anglo-Saxon mythology of the ’twenties,” visible in the troop songs of Mann ist Mann.
According Brecht’s own estimation, he rewrote Mann ist Mann ten times based on “what I learnt from the audiences.” The first version, written between 1924 and 1926, premièred simultaneously at the Landestheater (state theater) in Darmstadt and the Städtischen Theater (city theater) in Düsseldorf on 25 September 1926. The Darmstadt presentation was directed by Brecht’s friend Jacob Geis and designed by Caspar Neher, a frequent collaborator; the Düsseldorf producion was directed by Josef Münch. While Münch’s version got the worst of the reviews, the response in both cities was mixed, with the press feeling that Geis had missed Brecht’s “irresistible pace” and that Brecht’s “new concept” irritated the audience.
A radio performance of the play was broadcast by Funk-Stunde Berlin (Radio Berlin) in 1927 with Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife, as Begbick and in 1928, Weigel débuted Mann ist Mann on the Berlin stage, directed by Erich Engel at the Volksbühne (people’s stage). In 1931, the playwright himself staged Mann ist Mann at the Staatstheater (state theater) in Berlin featuring Weigel as Begbick and Peter Lorre as Gay in a revised version. The playwright shortened the script by two scenes and eliminated Begbick’s daughters, resulting, Nellhaus said, in “a much more mature, lyrical and disciplined play” which saw the first application of some of Brecht’s Epic Theater staging techniques (including Lorre’s performance). (Nellhaus made a translation, approved by Brecht, of this revision in 1946-47 and it was presented in 1952 by the Arts Theatre at the University of Michigan.) The 1953 version, which “restored, in revised form to be sure, the last two episodes” excised in 1931, was directed by Werner Kraut with music by Paul Dessau at the Württembergisches Staatstheater in Stuttgart in 1956, three months before the author’s death of a heart attack at 58. Nellhaus stated that the playwright wrote in 1954 that “he wanted to show how the little man grew within ‘the gang’ into which he had been accepted,” considered a direct reference to the Nazi cooption of the German people in the 1930s. A posthumous production was presented by Brecht’s own Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin under the direction of Uta Birnbaum in 1967.
According to Bentley, “on the whole American producers were unresponsive to Brecht” in the early post-World War II years. (Brecht, who lived in California from 1941 to 1947, was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on 30 October 1947. He returned to Europe on 31 October, settling in East Berlin in 1949 after being offered his own theater company, the Berliner Ensemble, by the communist government of the German Democratic Republic. A committed Marxist, he was awarded the Soviet Union’s Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.) Brecht didn’t press for U.S. productions of his work, except, apparently, Mann ist Mann. Whenever Bentley suggested staging a Brecht play in the United States, the dramatist would reply, “[N]o, do ‘A Man’s a Man.’”
Aside from the two 1962 stagings and the current CSC presentation, however, Mann ist Mann has a skimpy New York City history. In 1957, the New York Times reported that George Tabori, a Hungarian-born writer and director, planned a possible adaptation of the play which he proposed to offer to Marlon Brando “because of the ‘wonderful role’ in it for him” (presumably Galy Gay, though I guess he might have been considered for Bloody Five). To have been produced by Leo Kerz, an associate of Brentley’s and a founder of the New Repertory Theatre, Mann ist Mann was reportedly also considered for another actor: Zero Mostel (whom Kerz would later present in Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros to great acclaim). The Tabori-Kerz production never materialized.
In 1971, while the war in Vietnam was still raging, R. Mack Miller staged an Off-Off-Broadway production of A Man’s a Man at the Workshop of the Players Art in a Bowery storefront and in 1977, the Juilliard Theater Center presented the play under Gene Lesser’s direction. Down the street from the Players Art, the Jean Cocteau Repertory staged another revival at its Bouwerie Lane Theater in the East Village in 1990, directed by Robert Hupp. In 1991, experimental theater director Anne Bogart mounted A Man’s a Man at the Ohio Theater on SoHo’s Wooster Street for the Off-Off-Broadway troupe Tiny Mythic Theater Company. The most recent New York City production of the play seems to have been the 1999 revival by the Curan Repertory Company directed and adapted by Ken Tyrell at Theatre 22 on 22nd Street in Chelsea. Tyrell reset the play in contemporary Brooklyn.
In addition to the Ann Arbor performance of the 1931 text, a production of Nellhaus’s translation of the 1953 version was planned at Harvard’s Loeb Drama Center in 1960, but the Brecht estate, desiring a New York City début, canceled the Cambridge presentation. There have been, however, many productions of Mann ist Mann in colleges and rep companies across the country. Two of note were a 1986 revival at the Hyde Park Festival Theatre in association with the Hudson Valley Theatre in upstate Dutchess County, New York. The leads, in a different translation by Tim Mayer who also directed, were Bill Murray (yes, that Bill Murray, who did quite well as Galy Gay it seems) and Stockard Channing as Widow Begbick. In Los Angeles as recently as 2008, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble put on a version of the A Man’s a Man directed by Ron Sossi with a Galy Gay portrayed by a small woman, Beth Hogan, in male drag. (She also did well in the role, but I don’t know how much the casting gimmick helped the play. It’s also worth noting that in the current CSC revival of A Man’s a Man, the role of Leokadja Begbick is being played by Justin Vivian Bond, a transgender actor and performance artist who was formerly Kiki of Kiki and Herb.)
According to Bentley, no acceptable English translation of the play existed prior to 1960, though several versions were in print. After Leo Kerz had given the project a try and sent his attempt to Bentley to complete, the translator put it aside for other work. In spring 1960, Grove Press approached Bentley to edit a volume of Brecht plays and he finished the translation of A Man’s a Man for that publication, released in 1961. Thus the seeds of a theatrical conflict, “a brushfire war,” the Christian Science Monitor’s Maddocks called it, were sewn, and, Maddocks reported, “The issue is ‘Mann Ist Mann’ . . . which two Off-Broadway producers have been fighting over as if it were the last dress of its size at a bargain counter.” As recorded in the pages of the Herald Tribune by Bentley, the Becks, and Nellhaus, the juxtaposition between the New Repertory and the Living Theatres—“to the accompaniment of discordant claims,” noted Oppenheimer in Long Island’s Newsday, and “so much hullabaloo,” in the estimation of the Village Voice’s Michael Smith—came about this way:
In January 1962, the Living announced its intention to present one of the earlier translations, Gerhard Nellhaus’s, presented to the company, the Becks reported, by Stefan Brecht in December 1959. The company decided immediately to do the script and Bentley saw that he had to get his own version staged “at once or not at all.” Bentley had offered his friend Julian Beck his own version of the play, based on the 1924-’26 text, but Beck found the 1953 revision “more profound and mature.” Nellhaus’s rendition had been authorized by Helene Weigel and Stefan Brecht while the earlier edition, the Becks felt, “was clearly not authorized by the Brecht estate.” Having entered the public domain in the U.S., the first version of the play could be produced without paying royalties to the estate and the Becks wanted to do the version they admired and pay the heirs for the rights.
During August 1961, Harvard’s Loeb Center had tried out Bentley’s adaptation (with a performance by Faye Dunaway as one of Begbick’s daughters) under the direction of John Hancock (Harvard ’61) and Bentley reported, “I felt that I had stumbled on one of the coming American directors.” It was Mann ist Mann’s U.S. première. In the spring of 1962, Hancock wanted to do A Man’s a Man again, so Bentley put him together with Konrad and Gay Matthaei, the husband-and-wife managers of the New Repertory Theatre Company, who were looking for a director. In May 1962, the Living returned from their second tour of Europe and learned of the competing production plans. That August, the Contemporary Theatre Workshop at Stanford University premièred Nellhaus’s translation of Man Is Man, directed by Alan Schneider, but the Becks couldn’t believe that Brecht’s agent would sanction two professional productions of the same play in New York. She hadn’t, of course, but the Bentley version was based on material that was out of copyright here and didn’t need authorization.
Later, an “upset”—and somewhat testy—Bentley disputed that his producers engaged in “theft or skulduggery [sic]” and that they did, indeed pay “full royalties.” (He accused the Tribune of having edited his column and took the action of sending the Village Voice a copy of his original text.) If the Brechts refused the payments, Bentley promised to donate the amount to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s cause. Nellhaus, however, argued that the payment of royalties wasn’t really the issue, but that ever since the Living had obtained the rights to Man Is Man, this fact had been mentioned from 1960 on in program notes. This public commitment, said Nellhaus, meant that the rights weren’t available to anyone else. He took exception to Bentley and the New Rep company turning to an out-of-copyright text in order to mount an unauthorized production.
Meanwhile, Bentley thought that the Living would change its plans and produce another play because Beck had told him “that he would gladly drop ‘A Man’s a Man’ if he found an American play he liked.” Bentley reckoned, “The Living Theater (I told myself) prides itself on presenting plays no one else would do: I couldn’t imagine them presenting a play some one [sic] else is doing at the same time.” He was wrong.
The Becks resolved not to change plans on which they’d been working for several years, including obtaining consent from Brecht’s heirs. “We had spent two years preparing the production, planning it, talking about it, becoming passionate about it,” they asserted. (In a subsequent letter, Bentley asserted that his plans to present A Man’s a Man had begun with Brecht himself and dated back to 1950.) In summer 1961, they’d even discussed the project with Weigel and Stefan Brecht. In the end, the Living Theatre determined that an “unauthorized production” wouldn’t deter them “from doing a work into which we had already poured so much effort.” Since the beginnings of the Living Theatre, after all, “we were eager to do as much Brecht as possible,” asserted the Becks—including the company’s very first production in 1951: Gerhard Nellhaus’s rendition of two linked one-acts, He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No (staged in the Beck’s living room on West End Avenue).
Bentley decided, “Such competition may be good for us all, and cannot but enliven the off-Broadway season.” Earlier, he’d mused, “If their . . . interpretation is much different from ours, it could be interesting to see the play done in the two different ways.” The adapter concluded that “comparing recorded performances of a great symphony is a very popular sport” and hoped that “comparing Brecht productions may hold a similar fascination.” It did.
But not without some now-and-then glitches and stumbles, played out in the press. (Edith Oliver, the esteemed long-time review-writer for the New Yorker, dubbed the enhanced coverage “one of the steamiest who-cares controversies ever to appear in the press.”) Vivian Nathan, originally cast as Begbick at the Masque, dropped out suddenly in early September for unexplained reasons, replaced by Dukakis. This necessitated a change in the opening date—one in a string for both theaters. Originally scheduled to open on 18 September, A Man’s a Man’s opening was moved up to 10 September by the New Rep producers. As if in response, Beck, whose production was supposed to go first on 6 September, postponed the Living’s opening until 13 September. (Opening second seemed to be a goal, though I don’t see why.) When Dukakis joined the cast, the New Rep company delayed its new opening until 14 September. It was like a chess game, as Beck rescheduled Man Is Man’s opening date to 18 September. “It would be dishonest to say there is no feeling of competition,” said Mr. Beck. “Of course there is.” Beck’s gambit prompted the Matthaeis to respond by moving the opening at the Masque to 19 September, explaining that Dukakis needed more rehearsal and time to recover from a throat ailment.
“We’re getting into a real capitalist competition . . . over a Brecht play,” chuckled Beck. “It will be both interesting and confusing to the public.” Commented Konrad Matthaei, “If I had any preference there would be only one production. . . . I hope interest in Brecht will sustain two good productions.”
Despite the rivalry in the press and the fight for bragging rights, one writer made the point that the comparisons were really between apples and oranges. In a 1965 essay, New School for Social Research literature professor Eleanor Hakim averred that
there was no valid basis for comparison, since one [script] was a straight dramatization of Brecht’s definitive and authorized text translation by Gerhard Nellhaus, while the other was an unauthorized adaptation based on an earlier version which had fallen into the public domain and which was therefore the only one which Bentley could have used without having to face a lawsuitHakim pointed out that Bentley had his own prologue, “carnival-atmosphere,” and four songs he and Joe Raposo added based on (or parodying, she said, “depending on one’s point of view”) Brechtian styles. (One original Brecht song was also used.) What Hakim saw as elements “befit[ting] a musical comedy approach” in the New Rep’s production may have been what Alexander Milch of the Newark Evening News described as “jazzed up with gimmicks” at the Masque or what the Voice’s Smith called “all the Brechtian—recognizably Brechtian—fireworks” which were set off in the “outer-directed” A Man’s a Man, whose “timing is intricate and swift and jazzy.” Both reviewers preferred the Living Theatre’s Man Is Man, as if in answer to Hakim’s question about the New Rep interpretation: “[I]s this what one wants from a Brecht play . . .?” Other reviewers, as we’ll see, would have told Hakim “Yes.”
[In order to cover this remarkable incident in theater history, I’ve had to split the post into two parts. In Part 2, to be published on ROT in a few days, I’ll pick up where Part 1 leaves off and begin to examine Mann ist Mann’s dramaturgy, its themes, and the press coverage and critical reception. Please come back to ROT early next week to read the conclusion of this curious story.
[Just to make this report more complete, I’ll append here a list of the casts and production teams for the two shows.
Living Theatre (Opening night: 18 Sept. 1962 at 530 6th Avenue, Manhattan): Julian Beck – Director; Gerhard Nellhaus – Translation; Julian Beck – Set & Costume Design; Nikola Cernovich – Lighting Designer; Walter Caldon – Music.
Cast: Joseph Chaikin – Galy Gay; Marilyn Chris – Galy Gay’s Wife; Jerome Raphel – Jesse Mahoney; Henry Howard – Polly Baker; William Shari – Uriah Shelly; Henry Proach – Jeriah Jip; Warren Finnerty – Sgt. Charles Fairchild, “Bloody Five”; Judith Malina – Leokadja Begbick; Benjamin Hayeem – Wang; Sean Warburton – Mah Sing; Tom Lillard, Joel Vance, Sean Warburton – Soldiers
New Repertory Theatre Company (Opening night 19 Sept. 1962 at the Masque Theatre, 442 W. 42nd St., Manhattan): Jo Hancock – Director; Eric Bentley – Adaptation; Joseph Raposo – Music; David Reppa - Set Designer; Patricia Zipprodt – Costume Designer; Jane Reisman – Lighting Designer; Edith Valentine – Musical Director.
Cast: Clifton James – Polly Baker; Susan Cogan – Jenny Begbick; Edith Valentine – Agatha Begbick; Maggie Ziskind – Jobia Begbick; Konrad Matthaei – Jeraiah Jip; Olympia Dukakis – Widow Leocadia Begbick; John Heffernan – Galy Gay; Buzzi [sic] – Mrs. Gay; Harvey Solin – Uriah; Ken Kercheval – Jesse; Maurice Edwards – Mr. Wang; Michael Conrad –Bloody Five; David Tress, David Spielberg, Eric Berger, Michael Quinn, Louis Quinones– Soldiers; Earle Edgerton – Sexton; Maurice Edwards – Solly Schmitt
[Above are the companies as they were on opening night for each production; some cast members changed during the run (or, in the case of A Man’s a Man, for the recorded performance.)
[One additional note: my friend Kirk Woodward, a frequent contributor to ROT, wrote “Eric Bentley – An Appreciation,” a profile on this blog about the critic, essayist, and public intellectual, for the blog; it was published on 4 December 2012.]