Theater & Politics
To the Editor:
It can hardly be a coincidence that the same issue of COMMENTARY (December 1966) features both Mr. Bentley’s interesting if rather lengthy essay on the modern theater [“The Theater of Commitment”] and Mr. Richardson’s brief but devastating comment on the New York production of The Investigation [“Auschwitz On Stage”]. Not having seen Weiss’s play, I have to take his word for it that it is dreadful, and do so willingly. As for the way in which Weiss has handled the material of the Auschwitz trial—deleting references to the word “Jew” and casting all the blame on large impersonal factors not specific to any particular time or place—he is of course being faithful to the spirit, or ghost, of his departed master. Brecht’s own anti-Hitler plays suffered from a similar willful blindness, except that in his case the taboo related to the word “German.” The Third Reich (one was given to understand) was an obscene farce that might have been staged anywhere, and the Germans were simply unlucky in having it performed in their midst. Quite possibly, Brecht believed this. His Stalinism was both genuine and naive. There are fewer excuses for Weiss parodying Brecht thirty years later.
Mr. Bentley makes so many sound and important points about the drama in general, and Hochhuth’s work in particular, that I trust I may be forgiven for raising a cavil or two about The Deputy. First, there is the matter of historical accuracy. Mr. Bentley evidently accepts (what is anyhow obvious from the published records) that the Vatican had decided to stay quiet while Hitler was engaged in his crusade against Bolshevism, and that this decision accounted for the strange behavior (as it must seem to non-Catholics) of Pius XII. But it is not altogether clear from his discussion of the subject whether he thinks the artistic value of the play depends upon its being close to the historical truth. I think it does, and I would argue that The Deputy derives whatever dramatic force it has (it is not, as we all know, a great work, but it does have some rhetorical power) from the manner in which it contrasts the claims made on behalf of the Catholic Church with the actual behavior of the hierarchy. In this context, the facile comparison with the war in Vietnam seems to me quite aberrant. No transcendental claims are made on behalf of the American Presidency, and it matters not a whit (to a dramatist) whether or not Mr. Johnson has exceeded his mandate. He is in any case mandated to drop bombs (though not necessarily on Hanoi), whereas Pius XII was supposed to have other things on his mind besides Realpolitik. I am bound to add that I have never encountered anyone who took seriously the notion of the Vatican as a moral authority, but that is beside the point: the claim is made on behalf of the Church by its official spokesmen, and its confrontation with the truth furnishes a legitimate theme of drama, just because (as Mr. Bentley notes) the theater has a moral role to play.
Then there is the matter of Hochhuth’s spiritual descent from Schiller, and in particular the relationship of The Deputy to Don Carlos. I take it Mr. Bentley is not the alumnus of a German Gymnasium. Let me assure him that to schoolboys of the pre-Hitler age (and their parents too), Schiller’s peculiar style of idealist rhetoric had already begun to sound hollow. Its ineffectiveness was indeed demonstrated in 1933 and the years following, but not (I would suggest to him) because the spectators misunderstood Schiller: they understood him only too well. His Carlos, and Hochhuth’s Fontana, do indeed have something in common: namely the faculty of being totally unbelievable. No Philip ever confronted a Carlos (fancy a Spanish nobleman of the 16th century worrying about freedom of speech!), and Pius did not have to fear rebellious Jesuits lecturing him on the evils of Nazidom: there were none such in Rome, nor could there have been any. The truth about the Vatican is too awful for Hochhuth (who after all is not a realistic Catholic but a sentimental Lutheran) to face, and that is why he has had to invent the noble but incredible Fontana: much as Schiller salvaged his faith in the effectiveness of enlightened rhetoric by incarnating his own adolescent dreams in the figure of Posa. Faced with these tedious embodiments of the inveterate Ger man hankering for an ideal realm in the clouds, one is almost tempted to forgive Brecht his cynicism. At least he did not pretend that the world is better than it is, or that tyrants can be ennobled by having sentimental courtiers wished upon them. As a dramatist, Hochhuth fails in the end just because, like Schiller, he refuses to face the full implications of the truth he has perceived. He might have done better had he taken Buechner for a model, but that is another story.
To the Editor:
Eric Bentley’s article is exciting not only because it raises questions of the interaction of dramatic with human meaning, but also because it confers a quasi-religious status upon the contemporary theater. Especially in his closing paragraphs, the author suggests that the modern sense of outrage in the name of humanity finds its strongest, most authentic voice in the theater. He praises avant-garde playwrights and their audiences (often youthful) for turning their backs upon the mass media, the commercial criteria, the public-relations syndrome, and for seeking their humaneness in the “old-fashioned” but ever-reviving medium of actor-audience participation. He even paraphrases the New Testament by asserting that all genuine theatrical occasions strike telling blows against the evils of modern life, no matter on how small a scale, in fact, even when “two or three are gathered together.”
In reading these opinions, one is not sure whether one smells the incense of the kingdom of heaven or the stale odor of a self-appointed elite. I think both smells are present, as they have always been in more conventional religion. It is the kingdom of heaven, to paraphrase Mr. Bentley’s position, that a play like Waiting for Godot represents, in all its superficial squalor—the profound human dignity of two men honoring their part of an agreement to meet with a third. Their persistence in hope is their humaneness, showing all the more brightly in the murk of Un-response. But what does Mr. Bentley make of Ionesco’s The Chairs? Here also are two old people, an aging husband and wife, who wait for an Honored Guest with a bright and most cheerful hope. When the Guest finally arrives, the old people swoon in a delirium of joy and fall into a kind of grotesque Liebestod. And the final scene shows the magnificent Stranger as a gibbering idiot who mouths deaf-mute inanities to a shocked audience. The theology implied in The Chairs points to an ultimate despair which Mr. Bentley himself observes to be quite inimical to the theater of commitment.
In The Chairs, Ionesco appears to have joined the coterie of that scornful modern intelligentsia which spits upon the common life. Here where two or three gather together they ruminate on the naivete and neurosis of the average man and thank their own intelligence that they are not as other men are. . . . This is essentially the Theater of Condescension in which the stage becomes a last little island . . . reserved for themselves by a self-appointed elite, in an ever-widening sea of chaos. It reflects an attitude which is not only misguided but satanic. Milton described it well when he saw Satan rising up slowly and scornfully from the initial shock of his plunge into hell.
How does one choose? How can we say that Beckett’s tramps are the symbol of an ever-loving though highly embattled humanity, while lonesco’s derelict couple are the last gasp of an idiot race? It would be presumptuous for the audience or the critic to fix so final a judgment upon another human being. (There is some merit to the idea that God alone is our judge.) If such is the case, then the Theater of Commitment (or shall we call it the Theater of Outrage?), insofar as it advances toward ecclesiastical function, must take upon itself all the ambiguity of the Church. It risks being forced by its own self-righteous outrage into isolation from the common life, into all the loneliness of sophisticated scorn. Or, like the church in its better eras and moments, the theater, and especially the playwright and his actors, do not lose their love for the human story in all its heights and depths.
Beyond the mere fact of outrage, there is a far more important question. Are the writer and his producer and actors outraged at some men, or at humanity, or reality, or God? . . . A lot of mere outrage goes a very little way.
John F. Hayward
Meadville Theological School
To the Editor:
Although the Theater of Commitment may be “the principal new presence in the drama of the 1960’s,” as Eric Bentley asserts, it is not a frequent one. . . . For Broadway in the 60’s is the domain of the one-joke comedies of Neil Simon and of hit musicals adapted from hit plays. When a play is presented of content or controversy, it turns out to be an import from London which has run for one or two years and therefore also qualifies as a proven hit. Name The Deputy, Marat-Sade, and The Investigation and that’s about it. Include off-Broadway and one can add In White America and Viet Rock. There may be a few more, since Europe has a way of making plays of commitment hits. . . .
Broadway refuses to face the fact that there is a new generation of university graduates which has tasted serious and meaningful theater. This is a vast audience which Broadway forfeits to the films of Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Joe Losey, et al. It is an audience which makes a Broadway hit out of Marat/Sade, which throngs theaters throughout the country to see touring companies of The Deputy. I saw Marat/Sade play to an audience of 3,600 people in one of those huge auditoriums in the mud in Corrina, California, a twenty-mile trek from Los Angeles.
And in the Northridge Theater Guild in Los Angeles and at San Francisco State College, I saw audiences give standing ovations to And People All Around, a new play about the three civil-rights workers killed in Mississippi in the summer of ’64. This play is the current selection of the American Playwrights Theater, which offers its 180 university and community theater affiliates new plays by established playwrights before, rather than after, they reach New York. I think that it is to such an organization and to serious and dedicated drama departments and resident groups that we must turn if we are to realize Mr. Bentley’s Theater of Commitment.
S. H. Blecher
Los Angeles, California
Mr. Bentley writes:
Given the opportunity, Mr. Lichtheim could doubtless defend at length propositions which appear in his letter as pure assumptions and bare assertions. My excuse must be the same. In a retort for publication in your correspondence columns, there is only space to list points which I would be prepared to elaborate if given the opportunity. (1) Mr. Lichtheim’s “willingness” to condemn a play sight unseen is not matter for the public record. (2) Peter Weiss is not a Brechtian playwright, except in certain rather superficial ways. The play Mr. Lichtheim is discussing, but has not seen, is even less Brechtian than Marat/Sade. (3) Brecht did not avoid the word “German.” It is found many times in his dramatic and non-dramatic works. It is true that his view of Nazism did not take racial or national lines; even so, he was not above making specific criticisms of his fellow Germans, (4) If you say Brecht is not naive, Mr. Lichtheim will no doubt reply that you are naive. This has something to do with the character of the word, naive, or the character of Mr. Lichtheim’s writing, or both. Suffice it here to say that by common standards, Brecht’s endorsement of Stalin was the opposite of naive, as witness his book, Me-ti, or such a thing as his tragic poem about the liquidation of his mentor, Tretyakov. (5) On Don Carlos, I discount the opinion of schoolboys. I admire very much the scene in which Posa confronts Philip, and accept the anachronisms in it as I accept those in the history plays of Shakespeare and Shaw. (6) To Call Rolf Hochhuth “after all . . . a sentimental Lutheran” is nasty without being accurate. (7) Most important, the “facile comparison with the war in Vietnam.” Mr. Lichtheim makes the facile assumption that the comparison made was between Johnson and Pius. What I wrote was: “Americans who give carte blanche to Presidents to wage unjust wars have no grounds for feeling superior to Pius.” The merit of Hochhuth’s character, Pius XII, is that he represents millions of persons now living. (8) Mr. Lichtheim says I haven’t made it clear to him whether I consider the value of The Deputy to depend “upon its being close to the historical truth.” What I think on this matter is expounded at some length in my essay. Let me here attempt only this brief summing-up: Historical plays always depart from the facts, and Hochhuth’s Pius is not to be thought of as a rounded portrait of the actual human being. Obviously, however, the play would hold little interest for any of us if we thought it had nothing to do with what actually went on in those years. Whatever departures from fact the playwright makes, he also asks us to confirm the truth-even the historical truth—of his vision.