Silent Partners

Charles Marowitz
Instant Classics
White Bear Theatre

Jonathan Gibson as Eric Bentley and Alex Harland as Bertolt Brecht Credit: Chris Jepson
Zoe Simon as Ruth Berlau and Alex Harland as Bertolt Brecht Credit: Chris Jepson
Jonathan Gibson as Eric Bentley and Robert Bradley as an HUAC Investigator Credit: Chris Jepson
Zoe Simon as Ruth Berlau and Robert Bradley as a asylum doctor Credit: Chris Jepson

Based on The Brecht Memoir by Eric Bentley, Marowitz’s play explores the relationship between the German dramatist, poet and director and his English translator from their first acquaintance in California in 1942 until their last meeting just before Brecht’s death. First produced in Washington DC in 2006, this production by David Cottis is its British première.

It presents a fascinating picture not only of the relationship between Bertolt Brecht and Bolton-born Eric Bentley but of that between Brecht and his ménage, the men and women who serviced his needs sexual and domestic and as artistic collaborators.

What was it that made these people so willingly submit themselves to exploitation? Was it Brecht the man, his ideals or his work?

Marowitz has Bentley himself telling their story, introducing its episodes, explaining its background and describing his own confusions and feelings. He deals not only in their real-life encounters but in a subtext of what remained unsaid.

“We have never spoken an honest word to each other—ever,” says Bentley at their last encounter and Brecht replies “Does anyone?”. But here we hear what they might have said but didn’t in exchanges when, as the light intensifies, Brecht loses his German accent, Bentley removes his glasses and they confront each other with an openness they never had in real life.

Elizabeth Hauptmann, a collaborator and lover who claimed to have written parts of his work, was out of the picture by the time the play begins, although still suing him for a share of his royalties, but Danish lover Ruth Berlau is living with his family, considering herself his muse, while they treat his wife, actress Helene Weigel, like a domestic servant. It is Ruth who suggests Bentley translate some of Brecht’s poems and arranges an introduction, but clearly she is following Brecht’s wishes.

Brecht presents this from the start as a mutual advantage. He gets his work better known in America, the translator gains intellectual cachet. Is this the case with all those Brecht exploits? Are they equally getting something out of him and their association with him?

Weigel got to play roles that marked her as a great actress and Brecht’s theatre to run. Berlau, who says he drained her, ends up having electric shock treatment in an asylum after Weigel throws her out.

Zoë Simon makes dogmatic Marxist Berlau, convinced that Bentley will see the light and come to share her politics, excitable and driven but we don’t really see this coming and it is a shock when, in a neat piece of theatre, Marowitz has Brecht turn a rear sexual clinch into an overpowering that puts her into her asylum gown. The sexual imagery indeed is a constant reminder that Brecht fucks these people in more ways than sexually.

Alex Harland’s Brecht, driven by his own need, suggests a dangerous excitement and a pragmatism that determines his actions. There is no easy conventional charisma or romantic charm, and his sexuality is verging on violence. Could that have been part of his attraction? Perhaps it is that people look for what they need.

This certainly seems to be the case with Bentley, beautifully played by Jonathan Gibson; Brecht almost flirts with him (though a near kiss is in Bentley’s imagination). Frequently watching even when not involved in a scene and often rearranging the setting for the next one, the production and the actor skilfully use the practicality of moving furniture to match the shaping of his thought and punctuate his speech. This is a remarkable performance that maintains a reticence about the personality while making direct contact with the audience.

From her first entrance, a silent, hurried crossing of the stage, the set of Nada sharp’s face and the glint in her eye tells you that this is Helene Weigel. There is a sterling performance from Matt Butcher as composer Hanns Eisler, a gentle realist, and other roles while Robert Bradley plays an army doctor who examines Bentley for the draft and then an Un-American Activities Interrogator with whom Bentley ends up having a date rather than being dragged in front of Senator McCarthy’s Committee.

The appearance of Brecht himself in front of that committee is another example of how Brecht drew on others. He outwitted them by a performance which, it is here suggested, used tactics devised by Eisler. It is also an instance of the way that history is combined with Marowitz’s speculative enquiry into just what Brecht and Bentley would have said had they really spoken what they felt.

Andy Robinson’s simple setting against the black walls of this studio theatre does little to suggest the Californian sunshine, but it does match the bleakness of what was happening in the world. But if this production is to have the life beyond the White Bear that it deserves, it will need a little more development.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton