on this story
The Brecht Files by George Tabori
March 1-17 at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 2 p.m. shows on Sundays. There will be no shows on Mondays.
Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre, produced by the Clarence Brown Theatre
$5-$22. Call 974-5161
This play contains strong language and adult situations. It is not appropriate for children.
In George Tabori's Brecht Files, art and oppression collide
by Gena Lewis
Knoxville isn't exactly Appalachian, but it isn't exactly Southern, either. Cotton doesn't grow well here. The land's too hilly, and, before the arrival of TVA, was prone to flood. If you're not from Knoxville, you probably think the city is Southern, and if you're from Knoxville, you'll probably insist that it isn't.
Knoxville and playwright George Tabori have two things in commoneach is hard to classify and each is only marginally aware of the other. On March 1, the Clarence Brown Theatre will open the American premier of Tabori's The Brecht File with Germany-based Veronika Nowag-Jones directing. She told me I was the only reporter to have asked about the production. In Knoxville, the week's main culture story seems to be the arrival of Les Mis.
Tabori was born in Hungary in 1914. In '36, he fled from the Nazis to England. He left England in 1947, moved to Hollywood, was blacklisted in 1954, then worked on Broadway. In 1971, he left the U.S and has been living in Germany or Austria ever since. In the German version of The Brecht File, Brecht's son writes a play, called Hello, Goodbye or Hello, I'm Leaving. The play ends with a big dog gnawing on a bone. A smaller dog comes up, says "Hello," and wants to have the bone. The big dog growls, and the small dog says, "I'm leaving."
Sander Gilman of the University of Chicago called Tabori "one of the hidden masters of Jewish culture"hardly anyone in the U.S. knows who he is. In the 1950s and '60s, he was the Broadway equivalent of Faulkner sitting in his crumbling mansion; his work was too good to ignore, but too radical to accept. It did not so much challenge as shred the conventions of what you could put on stage, both aesthetically and politically. Directors such as Elia Kazan and Martin Fried produced his plays but critics excoriated them. Had Tabori stayed in the U.S., Americans would know him as one of the major 20th-century dramatists. He left. People forgot him. Being challenged is uncomfortable after all. Hello, Goodbye.
When Tabori lived in the U.S., he wrote in English. His work included the screenplay for Hitchcock's I Confess and one of the great 20th-century American plays, The Cannibals. Even now that he lives and works exclusively in Germany, Tabori still writes in English. His plays are part of the repertoires of theaters across Germany and Austria, and he won Germany's highest literary honor, the Georg Bücher Prize. The German plays are all translations of his English scripts. Tabori directs his plays himself; his directing style relies heavily on improvisation by the actors, and the texts of his plays change during the course of rehearsals.
Better known on this side of the Atlantic is the man for whom the play is named, Bertolt Brecht. His collaboration with Kurt Weill led to perhaps his most familiar work, The Threepenny Opera, and its "hit" song "Mack the Knife." Brecht's work is dark and political, skewering whomever happened to be in power in whichever country he was working. When the pressure became too great in his native Germany, he fled to the U.S. in 1941. But here his freedom was short-lived. J. Edgar Hoover and the House Un-American Activities Committee had their eyes on himand Tabori's play is centered around this investigation. And there really is a Brecht file. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, Joe or Jane Citizen can actually read it at foia.fbi.gov/brecht/brecht1a.pdf.
Actor Andrew Sellon, who plays Tattleman in the CBT production, suggests another reason why Tabori isn't well-known in the U.S.: Tabori rarely releases the rights to his work to theaters hereand when he does, it is to people he trusts. One such person is Nowag-Jones, who is a favorite director of the playwright. Her participation was a prerequisite for producing the play at CBT.
Nowag-Jones' story of freedom is eerily similar to those of Brecht and Tabori. She was born in the former East Germany, where, as a young student, she was forbidden to read Western literature. Eventually, she chafed under the oppressive political regime and was smuggled out of the country in the trunk of a red Mercedes by a group in Switzerland. Afterwards, she worked with Tabori in West Germany, as well as in New York City staging political plays for union workers. Now, she teaches and acts in Berlin.
The Brecht File is about the constriction of freedom, or about the attempt to constrict it, and about the collision of art and politics. At the center of the script are two FBI agents who are spying on Brecht for the HUAC. Their work has both its comic and tragic moments, but one agent struggles to understand what Brecht's work is doing, how it's art, while the other agent tangles with his role as a spy in democratic America. The issues that the play brings up are difficult ones, filled with images of the HUAC debacle that still haunt us. Writer Gore Vidal points out that "the only society ever to use a phrase similar to Un-American was Hitler's Reich, whose enemies were termed un-Deutsch."
Like this period in history, art itself isn't digestible, according to Tabori, but "stays stuck in your throat. Makes you puke, so to speak." There's also a lot about Knoxville to stick in your throat, depending on who you are. The Vol fans who pour into the university on game day stick in the throats of the intellectuals. The intellectuals stick in the throats of the people calling in to the theater department asking if The Brecht Files will negatively portray the FBI. I ask dramaturg and UT professor Klaus van den Berg which audience he hopes for: the intellectuals, or the people whose idea of theater is football; the people who will appreciate everything, or the people calling the theater department. "It needs both, actually," he says, "because they need to understand that both exist.
March 1, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 9
© 2001 Metro Pulse