The renowned theater scholar Eric Bentley won early fame with his 1946 book, The Playwright as Thinker, published when he was only thirty years old. Bentley developed a friendship with Bertolt Brecht during the German playwright’s wartime exile in California and, as a translator, helped introduce Brecht’s works to American audiences. Bentley taught at the legendary Black Mountain College in the early 1940s and later at Harvard and Columbia; he also earned a reputation as a demanding and meticulous reviewer for the New Republic. Bentley has written nine plays of his own, including Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: The Investigations of Show-Business by the Un-American Activities Committee 1947–1958.
Per-Oskar Leu: In light of Brecht’s many plays with trial themes, there were obvious resonances between his work and his testimony before the HUAC in 1947. Do you think he drew on that experience in his later works, notably his 1952 adaptation of Anna Seghers’s The Trial of Joan of Arc?
Eric Bentley: Well, he didn’t write much after the Washington experience. He went back to Berlin and just put on his plays; he didn’t write any new ones. It’s true of many artists that they spend the first twenty or thirty years accumulating experiences they can react to, and then it is as if they never had any more experiences. Everything is based on your childhood and youth.
POL: You’ve made it clear on several occasions that you were not entirely sympathetic to Brecht’s politics. But did your close connection to him and other high-profile “subversives” like the Eisler brothers cause you any personal difficulties during the Red Scare?
EB: I made myself clear in public on my own point of view, and the only people that resented it were Eisler and Brecht and the Communists from whom I disassociated myself. They regarded that as a form of treachery, as if I had once been a Communist and then given it up. But my interest in Brecht was never through Communism, it was just an interest in him as an artist. And I thought he suffered as an artist from having sold his soul to Stalin.
POL: What were your own experiences with the East German regime?
EB: I was on the Stasi list. People were told when they came to New York not to look me up. I was associated with Wolf Biermann, who was a writer they threw out of East Germany. When I went to see him in Berlin, there was a Stasi man on the corner taking a note of everyone who went into his apartment.
POL: So was the Stasi file on you bigger than the FBI file?
EB: Yes. Well, the FBI file that I have seen was just a selection. They must have much more. The FBI had a big file on Brecht, and they assumed that someone like me must be involved in all his stuff.
POL: Did you know Peter Lorre?
EB: Yes, I met him when Galileo was being done in Hollywood, and then later I met him here in New York when he was doing publicity for a radio show. We renewed the friendship; he upset the host of the show very much by having a private conversation with me when he was supposed to be on the air. They were only interested in his latest movie, which didn’t interest him much. He loved to be what he wasn’t in Hollywood: the intellectual, the literary type. He turned that on big with me, you see. But he declined all invitations to go to East Germany, because he was not in the least attracted by them, and he was no sort of Communist.
POL: Was Lorre considered for theater roles in Brecht stagings while he was living in the US?
EB: He would have been, but he earned such a good living very easily [in Hollywood] that he lost the need for theater and wasted his life taking drugs and whatnot. Hollywood ruined him. He didn’t know what to do with the money except buy drugs. And horses.
POL: Did you ever meet Ernst Busch? He had a very comfortable existence in East Germany.
EB: Oh yes, not compared with Lorre in California, but he got leading roles all the time. I didn’t know him well. He had to stop his stage performances when he lost his memory and couldn’t remember his lines. But he continued to record songs in the studio; if he forgot, they could begin again. So those recordings he made were his last performances. He was an interesting, tragic type, one of the old Communists. He sensed that everything was going wrong, but he was so committed to it by his earlier life that he stayed with it.
POL: How did you yourself interpret the HUAC hearings in your play Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, which takes its text directly from the hearing?
EB: Although [the HUAC transcripts] are very long-winded, I was struck with the fact that much of the dialogue was quite exciting, except it dragged on. So if cut, it would be good dialogue. I have made cuts, as an editor does, but I didn’t introduce words of my own. Even abbreviation changes content, and even character. There were certain distortions, which I was aware of. For example, the congressmen were very long-winded, but I reduced their speeches so that they came across witty and terse. As I was explaining to a young playwright who was doing a documentary: You’re still distorting reality. The fact that I didn’t use words of my own didn’t stop me from changing it, sometimes in a way I wouldn’t have wanted to, just to be briefer and more interesting. On the political side, the play was taken to be much more favorable to the Communists than I was, because I hadn’t given the other side a chance to speak. My opposition to Communism was just as strong as my opposition to the committee, but that didn’t show in the play, and I got much support from Communists and fellow travelers at the time.
As I explain in the preface: People didn’t go to the committee to tell the truth, they went before the committee to defend themselves, or advertise themselves. My aim was not to dramatize the blacklist but to ask people who dared to assert their real identity, not just to have an artificial one for the committee, “Are you now or have you ever been a person? With an identity?” I hoped that would come across. I think it will with the younger generation, because they’re objective. But the older generation was so much involved in the Communist thing, one way or another, that they took it to be just a matter of, “Was it an anti-Communist play?” And “Yes, it was,” or, “No, it wasn’t.” They were not interested in the question of being invited by the government to change your identity.
POL: How should artists today react to the formative political events of our time?
EB: We of the artistic professions tend to overestimate our own influence, but I don’t think that tells us to shut up. In the 1930s and ’60s, a whole generation believed very much that theatrical entertainment could alter the world. They proved to be wrong, but they may have contributed, you might say in a small way, to a movement that was very important. I think the twenty-first century is very overwhelming, and very disastrous, so everybody feels like not doing anything about it. But I’m sure they will. The human problems may turn out to be deeply similar to how they were in the past—but the politics are so different, so it’s hard to see that. There’s no equivalent now to what the Soviet Union was. 9/11 was an unprecedented thing. But playwrights will write plays from the same basic principles. I think things are no more hopeless than they were in the past. Like in the twentieth century, I think of Beckett. Everybody remembers that phrase of his, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” But most of his work shows, “I can't go on.” It’s only occasionally that he says, “I’ll go on.” I think pessimism was the main movement in modern literature, and has been for quite a long time. But people will need to feel that they can transcend it, so they become Communists or Catholics or ultrapatriotic or something. You commit suicide if you’re pessimistic all through, so you need some illusions. I think that will be written about.
New York City, April 2012