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Brecht in Plastic

In response to:

Brecht in Asphalt from the February 5, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Robert Brustein’s review-essay on Brecht in America is only further evidence of the solid grounds of Brecht’s revulsion for the real United States—once he had been forced to wait out an exile here.

Brustein concludes with a description of the “cold, mean, merciless art” of Brecht. Does this even begin to characterize the author of Galileo, The Good Woman of Setzuan, or The Caucasian Chalk Circle, all works of soaring faith in the human potential and the power of goodness? Brustein snipes throughout his review at the ill humor of Brecht among Americans. He quotes, as an instance, the fury of Brecht when the Broadway producer T. Edward Hambleton demanded exclusive world control of Galileo in return for the favor of bringing it to the American stage; yet where is the meanness, in Brecht’s fury or in Hambleton’s greedy overreaching?

The institutionalized exploitation of man by man, combined with stupidity, were endemic to American society in Brecht’s time as now. Brustein would have preferred this greatest of twentieth century playwrights to put a plastic smile on his face and to thereby succeed in this market. Fortunately for those of us who share much of Brecht’s values, Brecht was a poor salesman and an insightful, intelligent man.

Lee Baxandall

Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Robert Brustein replies:

There are many Brechts. Everyone should have one. I am content that Albert Maltz has seen fit to revise his, and that Lee Baxandall insists on keeping his own. My review was an attempt to characterize the Brecht described by James K. Lyon in his book, Bertolt Brecht in America, and not the plaster saint currently being canonized in the Holy Books of Marxist Ideology. I had to assume, of course, that Mr. Lyon didn’t invent his Brecht out of whole cloth—a reasonable enough assumption considering that the man was seen in a similar way by virtually everyone he met in America (Mr. Baxandall excepted).

As for Mr. Hambleton’s request for world rights to Galileo, this is standard negotiating procedure in most theater contracts. Knowing T. Edward Hambleton, who has poured a personal fortune into supporting young playwrights, I would guess his effort to secure these rights was not, as Mr. Baxandall would have us think, a blackguard producer’s attempt to enrich himself at the expense of an indigent author, but rather a routine effort to recoup some of the money he was certain to lose on the American production. All Brecht had to do was say No; it was not necessary to compare Hambleton with Hitler. The “greedy overreaching” that Baxandall ascribes to the producer is actually more accurately applied to Brecht on this occasion. It was the reason he lost Orson Welles as director of his play.

So Baxandall is correct in calling Brecht a poor salesman—though it wasn’t for want of trying. Still, why must we consider Brecht’s character to be as meritorious as his plays? Isn’t his artistry sufficient grounds for our admiration? As for the “plastic smile” that Baxandall says I want to fix on Brecht’s features, my correspondent comes very close—in his paean to this toughminded playwright’s “soaring faith in the human potential and the power of goodness”—to manufacturing a little Brechtian plastic himself.

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