27 January 2014

Dueling Brechts, Part 2

[“Dueling Brechts, Part 2” begins where Part 1, published at the end of last week,  stopped, after detailing the history of Bertolt Brecht’s Mann ist Mann and the rivalry between the two New York City producing companies, the renowned Living Theatre and the more conventional New Repertory Theatre Company, in 1962.  (If you haven’t read Part 1, I urge you to go back and pick up the beginning of the tale first.)  In Part 2, I’ll cover the play’s structure and themes and the press coverage of the Off-Broadway productions, including some of the reviews.  ~Rick]

As the CSC promo I cited in the introduction to the first part of this discussion suggests, Mann ist Mann is about the total manipulability of the human character.  As Begbick puts it (in Nellhaus’s rendition of the line in CSC’s publicity): “A man will be rebuilt here like an automobile, / Be renamed and lose nothing at all in the deal.”  According to the Living Theatre’s 1962 press release, “The play is described by Brecht as a ‘comic play’ and deals with the transformation of the day laborer, Galy Gay, into a human fighting machine.  The action . . . illustrates how the forces of society compel men everywhere to change their personalities to suit the ‘needs’ of the day.”  In the New York Times, Sam Zolotow reported in 1962 that Julian Beck, director of the Living’s Man Is Man, “described the play as ‘the hilarious tragedy of an individual’s absorption into the system.’”  Also in the Times, reviewer Howard Taubman observed, “Brecht knew only too well . . . how men could be reconstructed in personality and how they could be diverted from decency into brutality.”

Dramaturgically, what’s at play here is a relatively early manifestation of Brecht’s belief in the mutability or relativity of identity (a manifestation of the Neue Sachlichkeit, a philosophical concept popular in some circles in Weimar Germany, loosely translated as the “New Objectivity,” but for which “New Pragmatism” seems more apt, at least in this case) whereby a person sloughs off one personality or set of principles and takes on another or others as convenience or practicality dictates.  Gay comes to see that “a man is what people want him to be.”  In Brecht’s view, he can even discard his most strongly held standards because the society the writer perceived—and is ours any better today than his was in 1925?—is so warped that he might not only surrender himself and his friends to expediency, but also his principles.  As Begbick explains:  “Herr Bertolt Brecht claims: Man is man / And as he claims this, so any man can / But Herr Bertolt Brecht tonight proves with ease, / You can make a man whatever you please.” 

Galy Gay, of course, is exhibit one here—but Widow Begbick isn’t averse to shifting loyalties to better her fortunes (like Mother Courage, whom Begbick greatly resembles) and Bloody Five is virtually stripped of his identity through Begbick’s machinations, though, unlike Gay, the sergeant’s persona isn’t replaced with another one.  Even Jeriah Jip (the original) accepts the necessity of switching identities with Galy Gay.  The shift may be motivated by good intentions or bad, the consequences may be bad or good, and the individual may be willing or reluctant, coerced or bamboozled.  Gay, for instance, has help in deciding to morph into Jeriah Jip, human fighting machine, but he’s easily persuaded and doesn’t take available opportunities to make other choices.  “Before the sun has dipped down seven times,” says Uriah Shelly, one of the machine gunners, as Gay’s new companions plan his transformation, “this man must be made into another man. . . .  One man’s like another.  Man is man.”  

Though many New York reviewers in 1962 reported that Mann ist Mann is about “brainwashing,” the script makes very clear that Brecht didn’t have in mind a psychological indoctrination or Skinnerian behavior modification, but something more akin to the insidiousness of propaganda and advertising and the power of the capitalist marketplace.  Both Julian Beck and Joseph Chaikin pointed out that Galy Gay has several opportunities simply to “go away,” escape his conversion into a soldier—but he doesn’t take them up.  As Uriah says of his new comrade, “There’s a man who can’t say no” (unless otherwise indicated, my quotations from the play are drawn from the Living Theatre’s script).  He’s manipulated and hoodwinked, the way advertising does, and eventually convinced to be what his comrades want him to be.  Even Eric Bentley stated that the issue of “brainwashing” isn’t handled in the play “in the crude sense of Korea, but the subtler sense of Madison Avenue and popular indoctrination.”  As Uriah remarks, “A man like that really will change all on his own.  Throw him into a puddle, in two days he’ll grow webs on his feet.”  Gay isn’t so much brainwashed in the Manchurian Candidate sense as sold on the life of a soldier.  (That film, about the political repercussions of Chinese brainwashing during the Korean War, was released in October 1962, just after the plays started to run.  Richard Condon’s novel was published in 1959.)  When Polly Baker, another of his new companions, tells Gay, “In war time a soldier’s life is especially pleasant.  Only in battle does a man attain his full measure,” and lays out the advantages of being a soldier, the erstwhile handyman responds, “I see, a soldier’s life is very pleasant.”  Even the “elephant” Gay is made to “sell” illegally is the product of false advertising: it’s a hodgepodge of bits and pieces found around Begbick’s canteen, draped over one of the soldiers, but Gay is persuaded that it’s a magnificent beast worth a great deal of money.  

In addition to the themes of “a man is what people want him to be” and “a man had best eat what is everyone’s dish,” Mann ist Mann has an anti-military and anti-war sentiment that, even in the years before our full engagement in Vietnam, might have caught the attention of pacifist and non-interventionist Americans, as well as anti-nuclear activists.  It’s certainly possible that some of the excess attention was the result of, in addition to the theatrical coincidence, some international affairs arising at the same time. As John Tytell points out in The Living Theatre: Art, Exile, and Outrage (1995), there was a particularly momentous convergence of art and politics while the aggressively anti-military Mann ist Mann was playing.  In January, the Becks had organized the General Strike for Peace during another of the frequent East-West political crises focused on West Berlin, less than six months after the construction of the Wall, and then “the loony fanaticism of the military mind,” as Tytell put it, was frighteningly manifested under front-page banner headlines in the New York Times. 

On 23 October 1962, a little more than a month after the plays opened, the paper reported that President John F. Kennedy had revealed conclusive evidence of Soviet missile bases on Cuba that were capable of launching nuclear weapons at the United States.  “[T]he propagandistic bellicosities of the cold war,” wrote the Living’s chronicler, “had suddenly heated to a boiling point.”  Accompanied by aggressive language on all sides of the looming crisis, the Times continued to report ultimatums, rejections, name-calling, and threats of retaliation, reaching a peak when a U-2 reconnaissance plane filming the bases was shot down over Cuba on 27 October.  For weeks, until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev finally retreated from the brink of confrontation, the world suffered, in Tytell’s words, “unprecedented tensions and fears of Armageddon.”  It’s easy to understand why, in the midst of the so-called Cuban missile crisis, the press and the populace might respond to Mann ist Mann as an expression of their own fearful sentiments. 

Lines like “soldiers . . . are the worst people on earth” and “Since he’s a soldier, he can’t have any sense” probably had resonance for the burgeoning anti-military community who were demonstrating in Times Square as recently as March 1962 (when Julian Beck was seriously injured by a mounted police officer) or at the Pentagon in June.  (Keep in mind that, though I don’t know if the New Rep company had a political agenda or not, Beck and the Living Theatre were actively leftist.  The Becks, in fact, were rehearsing Man Is Man while preparing for a second General Strike for Peace scheduled for 5 November.  The Living’s production and the lines I’ve quoted from its script will have had a clear political emphasis.)  The war in Mann ist Mann has been “long expected,” yet no one knows who the enemy is to be or what the cause is.  The heroism that is celebrated by the play’s soldiers is against innocents—prisoners in the case of Bloody Five, the battle-hardened sergeant, and a fort full of civilian refugees, “most of them hard-working and friendly human beings,” in Galy Gay’s instance.  

Along with its anti-militarism, Mann ist Mann has other appeals for certain disaffected elements of American society.  Widow Begbick is the merchant, the buyer and seller, the capitalist, who manipulates and finally helps sell out the innocent Galy Gay, a scenario that can be seen as anti-capitalist.  (Remember that Brecht was a Marxist.)  There is also the mocking argument that an individual is weak until he joins a group: “Keep this in mind, men: What’s one man?  One is none,” a position which many counterculture activists (as well as libertarians) would have found specious.  Finally, in a passage that evokes a kind of Luddite, anti-automation stance, Brecht can be seen to disparage the notion that technology is a universal benefit:  

The human personality is being placed under a magnifying glass, the man of character minutely examined.  Nothing’s left untouched.  Bottom’s up; it’s time for a change.  Technology takes over.  At the lathe and at the conveyor belt, size doesn’t matter; the big man’s the same as the little man. . . . .  Man is nothing!  Modern science proves that everything is relative.  

The presence on the stage of Greenwich Village’s Theatre de Lys—now the Lucille Lortel—of George Tabori’s collage, Brecht on Brecht, which opened in January 1962 with a cast of luminaries that included Kurt Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, may have also attuned New York’s press and theater audiences to things Brecht.  Furthermore, the Living had successfully presented another Brecht translation by Nellhaus, In the Jungle of Cities, in 1960 and then took it on tour to Europe just before embarking on the production of Man Is Man.  In the air, according to the newspapers, were potential productions of Nellhaus’s translation of Brecht’s Mr. Puntila and his Man Matti (never produced here), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (produced by George Tabori on Broadway as Arturo Ui in 1963), and Mother Courage and Her Children (produced on Broadway by Cheryl Crawford, also in 1963).  As Jerry Tallmer of the New York Post quipped, Bertolt Brecht was “a pretty hot property right now”!  

The critical response to the two productions was quite divergent.  Several of the most important reviewers admitted that they found Brecht difficult to take, his politics unconvincing, his dramaturgy disconcerting, and his popularity among certain segments of the audience incomprehensible and suspect.  (Among these notices were “‘Man Is Man’ a Bore, Bore, Bore,” 19 September, by Robert Coleman of the New York Mirror; “Off-Broadway: Brecht Play Is Over-Long,” 19 September, by John McClain of the New York Journal-American; “Two on the Aisle: Brecht Looks at Brainwashing,” 19 September, by Richard Watts, Jr., of the New York Post; and “The Living Theatre Offers ‘Man Is Man,’“ 20 September, by Whitney Bolton of the Morning Telegraph.  Many of these reviewers repeated their positions after the opening of A Man’s a Man as well.)  By some assessments, the New Rep production and Bentley’s translation was deemed the critical victor of the match-up, but others frankly disagreed.  (An unidentified teletype, possibly part of an Associated Press filing, tallied that “[t]he Living Theater’s ‘Man Is Man’ won qualified approval from 3 of 6 reviewers.  A Man’s a Man,’ presented by the New Repertory Company at the Masque, won 4 endorsements as the better effort.”  I have no clue which notices the reporter considered, as I have copies of about two dozen reviews for both productions, not counting a couple I just ignored as surfeit.)  Some split their vote or dismissed both productions and the play (and the playwright) as well.  And a few disparaged the play but still chose a favorite.  As Norman Nadel of the New York World Telegram & Sun declared: “And may the best man win.”  (Get it?)

A case in point is Michael Smith’s Village Voice review, by far the longest press piece generated by the dueling Brechts (about 2400 words as compared to under 700 for the next longest review), which favored the Living Theatre’s Man Is Man because the Masque’s A Man’s a Man “doesn’t stick in the brain and itch like the Living Theatre’s,” in which “the high points in Julian Beck’s staging are very, very high.”  Nonetheless, Smith denied that Mann ist Mann is a major Brecht play (and “seems to harm Brecht that [it] should now be done twice . . . before his more important works have been done here at all”).  Smith pointed out that Brecht wrote Mann ist Mann when he was just 26 and called it “a loose-limbed, gawky, whimsical parable.”  He thought that “both productions of ‘Mann Ist Mann’ are . . . misled”  because they presented the play as anti-military (as I myself believe), but Smith denied this interpretation (even though he acknowledged that may have Brecht’s intention when he revised the play in 1953).  Smith also listed a number of what he saw as dramaturgical weaknesses, concluding that Mann ist Mann “is a failure, finally, because it comes nowhere near convincing me that its message is either new, important, or particularly true.”  

(In criticizing the play, Smith averred, “‘Mann Ist Mann’ is not a major work of Bertolt Brecht and not a major work at all.”  In the brouhaha that swirled around the openings and performances of the dueling Brechts, both Eric Bentley and Julian Beck actually responded to Smith’s provocation.  In an interview about the work on the play, Joe Chaikin had declared, “We discovered that here was a really major play.”  But that was on 6 September, before Smith’s 27 September review.  On 4 October, however, the Village Voice, Smith’s own paper, ran a column called “Says Eric Bentley: ‘A Man’s a Man’ Is A Magnificent Play” in which Brecht’s adaptor demurred, “One is following expectation, not fact, when one classifies the early poetry and drama [of Brecht] as in any way inferior.  Brecht was at the height of his powers when he was . . . twenty (1918). . . .  I submit that his early period is one of greatness.”  Point by point, including oversights and misunderstandings by detractors, Bentley offered proof that “‘A Man’s a Man’ belongs integrally to this period.”  On 11 October, the weekly published “‘Man Is Man’ Is A Major Work” by Beck.  In it, the director wrote bluntly, “‘Man Is Man’ is a major work.  The Living Theatre has always tried to concern itself with major works.”  He spent the rest of the column, a little under 1200 words, making his argument.)

Of the two concurrent productions, Smith wrote that they were “radically different in aims and means.”  New Rep’s A Man’s a Man is “outer-directed,” he said, “oriented toward its audience, toward engaging the audience’s interest and attentions toward startling and hopefully amazing the audience.”  He acknowledged, however, “Much of it is superb.”  The Living’s Man Is Man, on the other hand, was “inner-directed,” with “none of the tricks, none of the dazzling surface.”  Smith saw that Beck’s staging was “ragged and rough, without even gestures toward polish,” and “aims at the play, not at the audience.”  In contrast to the uptown performance, the Living’s “achieves an extraordinary inner intensity and a grinding momentum.”  

Earlier in the Village Voice, Jane Kramer interviewed the two Galy Gays, comparing the actors’ appearances and their acting styles and letting Chaikin and Heffernan speak about how they saw the role.  “The two young actors who have been chosen to play the porter,” Kramer wrote, “are, physically and artistically, startlingly different theatre types.”  The New Rep’s Heffernan she described as “a tall, lean, rubber-faced actor” (he’s also blond and blue-eyed, according to another writer) whose earlier roles for the renowned Phoenix Theatre on and Off-Broadway were often classical (Hamlet, The Tempest, Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars).  Chaikin, who started with the Living Theatre (until he launched his own company, the Open Theater, in 1963) in productions of such contemporary, often experimental, works as Jack Gelber’s The Connection, Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities, and William Carlos Williams’s Many Loves, was depicted as “small, intent” (plus “compact, wiry, dark-haired”—and also blue-eyed)  When it came to discussing the character, Kramer reported that “Chaikin raced through the script, pointing out line after line,” explaining that he was “terribly involved in this part,” while Heffernan “was far calmer about the part.”  Surprisingly, though Heffernan sounded more the intellectual and academically schooled text analyst and Chaikin more visceral and instinctual, they seemed to have like senses of the role they were rehearsing—expressing similar ideas in different words.  

The Post’s Tallmer, taking a humorous perspective, wrote that column with the unreadable headline, “Let’s Get It Straight: (A) Man(’s) Is (a) Man,” in which he imagines a confused conversation between two theatergoers about which performance was which or, as Tallmer put it, “Which Brecht has the Tony?”  (Okay, those of you who are under a certain age won’t get that little gag.  That was a take-off on tag line from a Toni Home Permanent commercial, “Which twin has the Toni.”)  The journalist added a pun that “The Tony is only given out for Broadway.  This is Off-Broadway.”  The discussion between the couple, which owed something to Abbott and Costello, gave some pointers about how to keep the rival productions apart.  (I may reprint the whole article as a comment following this post after it’s pubished.)  The Voice article whose headline made actual reference to the famous Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s On First?: Brecht Fathers Twins As Off-B’way Season Nears,” wasn’t itself humorous, but reviewed some of the changing plans for which production would hit the boards first, observing, “Both groups want the advantage of ‘springing’ the play on the public, as both feel it is an important work, and it is this that accounts for the confusion on opening dates.  If both productions were to open on the same night”—a briefly considered possibility, apparently—“it would force the daily critics to prejudge in their choice of which opening to attend.”

In Women’s Wear Daily, Thomas R. Dash pronounced the New Rep’s A Man’s a Man “enthralling theatre” and Bentley’s adaptation “pungently powerful drama.”  Hancock’s staging, Dash wrote, “gives the play a theatrical celerity and the raffishness required without sacrificing one scintilla of the playwright’s ironic commentaries.”  He concluded, “If you want the Kiplingesque flavor of an imperial army in India on the way to conquest, combined with Brecht’s depth, penetration and prescience . . . you can get it all in one package  at the Masque Theatre.”  Of the Living’s Man Is Man, Dash’s colleague, Martin Gottfried, however, found that the “hallmarks of Brecht”—“social irony, idealistic bitterness and theatrical vitality”—“are less overwhelming than usual, and are combined with a muddled intellectual scheme.”  With Beck’s direction and Walter Caldon’s score “reminiscent of Kurt Weill,” the production “all sounds like a second-rate ‘Threepenny Opera.’”  Of the play, Gottfried said, “While the bitterness in its view of man as ignorant of himself is provocative, Mr. Brecht has forsaken human dignity without adequate explanation.”  He added that since “Mr. Brecht does not challenge the mind in ‘Man is Man,’ . . . it also becomes intellectually inconsequential.”  Gottfried continued, however, “But never theatrically inconsequential. . . .  It is always interesting and it is always very good theatre.”  His conclusion, though, was that “[a]s an intellectual [Brecht’s] credits—in this play—are lesser.”

The Christian Science Monitor covered both performances in a single notice and Melvin Maddocks summed up, “It may as well be said bluntly that the New Repertory is the better one.  Visually it has a large edge with its bold use of painted masks and music hall stylization.”  Hancock, A Man’s a Man’s director, “made his production cleanly audible and ordered, points on which the Living Theater with cluttered, bitty, and vaguely noisy scenes falls far behind.”  Declaring, “It was a case of one’s company and two’s a crowd,” the Newark Evening News’s Milch asserted that “the two productions differ substantially.  But not enough . . . to justify both at the same time.”  Comparing the two scripts, Milch felt, “The original version [New Rep’s A Man’s a Man] was far ahead of its time in showing . . . modern totalitarians and their methods.  But the later version [the Living’s Man Is Man], refined and sharpened by Brecht . . ., is even more effective.”  Milch called A Man’s a Man “jazzed up with gimmicks,” but “it didn’t equal its predecessor,” he concluded.  “One vote for Downtown,” Milch announced.

Among those who questioned the very need to present a Brecht play (let alone this Brecht play), George Oppenheimer of Newsday dismissed the Living’s production as having acting that “varies from acceptable to deplorable,” a stage design that’s “skimpy,” and direction that’s “even skimpier” and went on to state, “Nor did the play appeal to me,” complaining that the plot was “accompanied by turgid symbols, songs that are ‘langweilig’ [boring, tedious] rather than Kurt Weillish and an almost complete absence of Brecht’s dramatic flair and originality.”  (A German pun?  Really?)  Having only read the reviews of New Repertory’s A Man’s a Man, Oppenheimer nonetheless decided the Living’s Man Is Man “was the better of the two” and feeling “too staggered by the impact of the first” staging to go to the second one, declared, “Any ensuing report will have to wait until time has salved my trauma.”  In the Morning Telegraph, Whitney Bolton stated unambiguously, “Nothing that takes place on the stage of the Living Theatre, off-Broadway, convinces me that the present, panting cult for the works of Bertolt Brecht is anything but a pseudo-intellectual banding together of somewhat addled Gee-Whizzers.”  A day later, Bolton wrote that Bentley’s translation was “more artfully and even intellectually correct,” but he said nothing about the New Rep’s production, aside from praising some of the acting, except that he preferred Joe Raposo’s score to Walter Caldon’s.  Bolton continued that “the play is almost a burlesque, a shambles of disorderly speech and blurred intentions.”  More significantly, he insisted, “I cannot, although I try, understand the sudden fantastic cult for Brecht” and further asserted, “Now you have but to wave his name and people are interested, some are breathless.”  At the end, Bolton stated what must be the obvious:              

I am not a devotee of Brecht.  I am not expecting to become one.  I have shut no doors.  I still could be convinced, but this wholesale onslaught of Brecht as though he were the greatest theatrical and humanitarian spokesman in human history bores me stiff. 

In his second report, Bolton concluded, “If I do not fire salvos of cheer it is because I cannot find it in me to be a Brechtian.”  (In an unusual move, the Morning Telegraph ran another opinion: in an omnibus column a week after the openings, George Freedley said of Man Is Man, “This is Brecht without compromise or concession.”  The columnist, who was at the time also the first Curator of the New York Public Library’s Theatre Collection, wrote that A Man’s a Man “was brilliantly performed with a gaiety which is likely to win audiences” and that the production “is one not to be missed.”  Freedley didn’t cite a preference between the interpretations.)

Nadel, the Telegram & Sun writer who filed three separate notices, ultimately came down on the side of Man Is Man at the Living.  He concluded, Man Is Man’s “transformation is bound to be more shocking, more dramatic and more vividly explicit in depicting society’s crime against mankind in destroying the individual by changing him into a destructive machine.”  While acknowledging the “piquant little charms” of the New Rep’s A Man’s a Man, “which make the parable more palatable and the evening more fun,” Nadel complained that “it dilutes rather than concentrates the play’s purpose.”  

In his more detailed descriptions, the Telegram & Sun reviewer explained that at the Masque, “Comic values of the play are rather well exploited, and the alternating of the harsh and mild scenes makes Brecht’s brutal message somewhat easier to digest.”  He added, however, “The Brechtian force is something director John Hancock and his cast achieve only intermittently.”  The Bentley-New Rep A Man’s a Man, Nadel felt, “relies largely on devices, some of which are neither successful nor necessary.”  Never having seen a play directed by Brecht, Nadel nonetheless concluded, “I strongly suspect that the prevailing style of  ‘A Man’s a Man,’ at the Masque, isn’t his.”

Of the first New York production, Nadel declared, “Not everyone knows how to put Brecht on stage.  The Living Theater knows.”  The Beck-Nellhaus Man Is Man was “a production as far removed from conventional American theater as anything could be.  Nothing was done to charm the audience; in fact no mercy was shown.”  The comedy, “which seems anything but comic in the Living Theater production,” was “percussive, insistent and vivid; lusty, lurid and Germanic.”  Nadel’s only complaint was “that it never lets up.  There is no change of pace, no momentary quiet to prepare for a climax to come.”

In the New York Times, the most important source of critical opinion in New York City theater, Howard Taubman, warning in both cases that Brecht’s style can be off-putting and irksome to some theatergoers (“But stay with him,” the review-writer advised), chose the Bentley translation and the New Rep’s A Man’s a Man.  The script, he wrote, was “tougher in texture, tighter in construction and more focused in dramatic drive than” Nellhaus’s.  “The earlier version is more effective because it is leaner and sharper,” said Taubman, especially praising Bentley’s use of “a vivid American idiom that suits American actors.”  The performance, which Taubman pronounced “a Brecht production of character,” had “a greater consistency of style” which “approaches the manner and mood of the Brecht theater in East Berlin.”  The Living’s Man Is Man, by contrast, “is not yet the tightly knit affair it should become,” though “under Julian Beck’s staging . . . the performance grows in power and impact as it goes along.”  

Walter Kerr, arguably one of the most recognizable names in theater criticism in the middle of the 20th century, also preferred A Man’s a Man, but he had strong reservations about the play itself.  “Surely Mr. Brecht possessed some sort of magical command over the excitements of sheer theater if he once managed to make the exhibit at hand seem anything but obvious, untidy, and wantonly overlong,” Kerr insisted in the Herald Tribune.  He described the play as a “bizarre and grisly comedy” and “Bertolt Brecht’s tin-pan hymn to the world that hate makes.”  It was “overblown, repetitious, a single-track machine moving horizontally in space” whose “bitter humor, at least as we hear it now, is not always funny enough to sustain the improvisation (and, indeed, the padding) needed to keep the conceit on the move,” wrote the Trib’s reviewer.  In the end, Kerr begrudged that “Brecht is a figure we must get to know in performance if we are to understand his considerable contemporary influence.”  

Opening his review of A Man’s a Man with the words “This one,” Kerr made clear his preference for “which of the two current productions . . . to see.”  Bentley’s text was “tight and workable” and Hancock’s direction “has got the tinsel look and the saxophone sound of Brecht’s cabaret-style sermon, right off.”  The New Rep’s production, Kerr asserted, “is sound enough in wind and limb and ear and eye . . ., serving not only Brecht but off-Broadway well.”  On the other hand, Beck’s staging of Man Is Man “tends to disprove the play’s point,” said Kerr dismissively.  “It would seem to be extraordinarily difficult to turn another director into Bertolt Brecht.”  Nellhaus’s translation was “odd, deliberately disjointed,” the reviewer felt, and the Living’s Man Is Man lacked both the stability of acting and directing to demonstrate the character instability Brecht intended.  “The staging itself goes for . . . eccentricity for its own sake, and awkward at that,” reported Kerr.  His brutal conclusion was, “This is failing work, possessed neither of a design of its own nor, it is to be hoped, of Brecht’s.” 

Observing, “The cult of Bertolt Brecht is having a big week,” Richard Watts, Jr., confessed in the New York Post, “But I remain something of a heretic about Brecht.”  The Living’s Man Is Man, Watts reported, “tends to repeat its points until it becomes wearisome. . . .  [H]aving made his case clear enough, the didactic quality in Brecht took over, and . . . he resembles a lecturer with blackboard and pointer repeating his arguments and re-emphasizing them lest they be missed by his slower pupils.”  New Rep’s A Man’s a Man, he reported, “has a vitality, clarity, forcefulness and sardonic humor that made it far more effective than” the Living’s version.  The second performance “comes off much better,” Watts said, “because the story . . . was so frankly done in music hall terms.”  The Post reviewer explained that “the accent was on the wild farcical quality of the Brecht narrative and the savage bitterness of its implications was allowed to come through chiefly by suggestion.”

In the New York Mirror, Robert Coleman observed, “Brecht has enjoyed a popularity here that is difficult to understand.  He has maintained a cult that finds humor in his dialogue that we do not.”  After damning Man Is Man with faint praise, Coleman explained that he wouldn’t be attending New Rep’s A Man’s a Man because, “Frankly, we have had enough of old-hat Brecht for one week.”  The man from the Mirror departed with, “As Sam Goldwyn is reported to have said: ‘Include us out.’”

Like the Morning Telegraph’s Bolton, John McClain made a blunt acknowledgement in the New York Journal-American that “I do not worship at the shrine of Bertolt Brecht, and so the devout had better take their business elsewhere.”  Brecht, McClain asserted, “refuses to tell a plausible tale, or to project a feasible message, in terms that are readily understandable.”  Though he praised the Living’s Man Is Man as “a fine production,” McClain declared in his next notice that the New Rep’s A Man’s a Man “was infinitely superior to” Man Is Man.  “It almost made sense,” he quipped.  Calling Mann ist Mann “drenched in fuzzy symbols and oblique language,” McClain felt that the New Rep “had gone a long way to sharpen it up” and that their version “was produced with more imagination and fresher mountings.”   Reiterating bluntly, “I still don’t like the play,” the Journal-American  reviewer concluded sardonically, “I guess I am just a non-Brecht (which, in a free translation can probably mean non-bright).”  

[I’ve written many pieces for ROT about Leonardo Shapiro, his Shaliko Company, and the work he’s done as a director.  One of those pieces, “Brother, You’re Next,” posted on 26 January 2010, is about a 25-minute musical adaptation of Mann ist Mann reset to the Vietnam war which Shapiro, Stephen Wangh, Chris Rohmann, and Robert Reiser wrote for guerrilla performances on the streets and in the parks of New York City in 1967.  (Shapiro had seen the Living Theatre’s 1962 production of Man Is Man and the play came to mean a great deal to him.  He would later direct Joe Chaikin in Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck.)  Curious readers are invited to turn to this post as a kind of sidebar to the current article.

[Shapiro left New York for points west in the summer of 1969, spending two years leading the Appleseed Circus, a guerrilla-performance troupe in the area near Taos, New Mexico.  (I’ve written some about this endeavor, too, in Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos)” and “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 5 August and 31 October 2009, respectively) and one of Shapiro’s unrealized plans for the troupe was a presentation of A Man’s a Man for which he was in rehearsal when he pulled up stakes and returned to New York City.

[Out of necessity, I’ve cherry-picked the critical remarks I’ve used here, and I didn’t cite any evaluations of the acting.  With so many papers publishing at the time, it was just too much, but generally they all agreed, with a few exceptions, that the performances were good or excellent. The curious ROTter, especially anyone who was born after, say, 1960 or came to New York City after that year, might wonder about some of the newspapers I’ve cited above.  Not only did New York have many more daily papers than it does today, among them the papers whose titles I listed at the beginning of the post, but the theater beat was covered by papers from the suburbs (Bergen Record, Long Island Press, neither of which are quoted here) and neighboring cities (Newark Evening News, Newark Star Ledger) which were considered important voices in theater reportage and reviewing.  Today national newspapers like USA Today or the Wall Street Journal might run a review of a big show in New York, but in years gone by, such outlets as the Christian Science Monitor and Women’s Wear Daily played an important role in covering New York City’s theater scene.  Among magazines, Time and Newsweek both used to write regularly about New York theater and arts, and there was Cue, eventually folded into New York magazine.  Further coverage was afforded by the Associated Press and United Press International, the wire services, as well as the local television stations, both independents and network affiliates, which all had theater reviewers on their news staffs.  The New York Times was still considered the most important and influential critical voice, but it had a lot of competition.]


1 comment:

  1. I said I'd post as a cpmment this item by the reviewer from the New York Post in which he wrote a peculiar response to the concurrent productions of 'Mann ist Mann,' so here it is:

    Let’s Get It Straight: (A) Man(’s) Is (a) Man
    By Jerry Tallmer (New York Post 23 Sept. 1962)

    “Which Brecht has the Tony?” asked the lady of the second row, during intermission.

    “Neither Brecht,” replied her escort. “The Tony is only given out for Broadway. This is Off-Broadway.”

    “Oh yes,” said the lady, “but which Brecht is this Brecht?”

    “This Brecht’s ‘A Man’s a Man,’ at the Masque Theater, where we are now. You can remember that because the actors painted masks on their faces.”

    “Ah,” said the lady. “I saw that. And the other Brecht?”

    No Difference

    “The other Brecht,” said her companion,” is ‘Man Is Man,’ at the Living Theater on 14th St. You can remember that because the Living Theater was once Hecht’s department store, and Hecht’s sounds like Brecht.”

    “Why, so it does,” said the lady. “And what’s the difference between the two plays?”

    “There’s no difference. They’re the same play. Except in adaptation. And acting, of course.”


    “Well, this one here, ‘A Man’s a Man,’ is adapted by Eric Bentley, an Englishman, from the original Brecht version of 1924. Or 1926. Or 1927. There seems to be unsureness about the date. You can remember it was adapted by Eric Bentley, an Englishman, because the critics have praised the way he put it into American slang.”

    "And the other?”

    That Galy Gay Fellow

    “It was adapted by Gerhard Nellhaus, a German, from Brecht’s final version of 1953. Mr. Brecht kept rewriting his things, you see. The Nellhaus version, ‘Man Is Man,’ is supposed to be more worldwide in application. Only the soldiers in it, at the Living Theater, wear British uniforms out of Hollywood’s idea of Rudyard Kipling—‘Gunga Din’ and all that. Both Bentley and Nellhaus are now Americans, if that makes it any clearer. Lotte Lenya is in England right at this minute. Maybe she should be here.”

    “Oh,” said the lady. “And that Galy Gay—that fellow in the play who everybody’s trying to turn into a soldier or something, when he’s actually a porter. Is he Rudyard Kipling? I mean, is he an Englishman, or what?”

    “He’s an Irishman.”

    “An Irish porter on the waterfront of some town in India? Right in along with those coolies and all?”

    The Alienation Effect

    “Well, you have to take Brecht with a grain of salt. That’s his method—no, no, I mean his technique. He puts things and people down in all the wrong places, just to make you think harder. It’s called the alienation effect. You can remember that because Brecht got out of America just before they could deport him for as an undesirable alien. It’s all explained in ‘Brecht on Brecht.’”

    “Oh,” said the lady. “What’s ‘Brecht on Brecht’? Something by Eric Bentl[e]y?”

    “No,” said her companion as the lights dimmed and the three-girl orchestra started playing Kurt Weill music not by Kurt Weill, “it’s by George Tabori. That’s a different thing being adapted. It’s at the Theater de Lys.”

    “Oh,” said the lady, settling down. “Now I understand. It’s Mack the Knife.”