by: Sophia Romma,
Perfect storms imbued with gratifying collaborations often profess profound impact, however, in the case of the falsetto unions between the German composer Hanns Eisler, the German Playwright, Bertolt Brecht, and the languid Soprano Karyn Levitt, accompanied by the heralded Birthday Boy, E.B., fell short of delivering a canonical Centennial Tribute Concert.
“Happy Birthday, Eric Bentley” A Centennial Tribute was held on December 7th, 2015 at the luxurious Town Hall. The opening festivities featured an interview with the honoree, Mr. Bentley to the tune of emcee, Michael Riedel, theatre columnist for the New York Post. Mr. Riedel sat in Mr. Bentley’s living-room, engaged in a conversation with Eric Bentley, a theatre critic and the foremost English translator of Bertolt Brecht. Bentley, who turned ninety-nine this year, discussed his childhood in England, working closely with Brecht and his approach to mortality. Mr. Bentley stated: “I don’t believe in the afterlife. Death itself is just something that happens, after which you are nothing. I expect to be nothing.” These morbid thoughts ignited a spark of futility at the onset of an evening which had flashed delectable promises of an action packed program featuring candid reminiscences and readings from Mr. Bentley’s classic works by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Tony Kushner, celebrated actor, Austin Pendleton, among other seasoned presenters. In such distinguished company, how could a star-studded night of homage, honoring an accomplished respectable theatre critic whirl so oddly astray?
At the height of World War II, critic Eric Bentley met German playwright, Bertolt Brecht while living in exile in the United States. Mr. Bentley aided the author of Mother Courage to mount the New York debut of the Private Life of the Mater Race, Brecht’s musical collaboration with fellow refugee Hanns Eisler, unveiling the theme of fear and misery in the Third Reich. “It was a disaster,” Bentley wrote in the preface to his book The Brecht Commentaries. While Brecht and Eisler’s openly Marxist play failed to grip the American audience suffering from Cold War paranoia, Bentley never gave up championing their work. Bentley’s translations of Brecht and Eisler (many of them never before recorded in English) should have been left to the annals of history. This amateurish concert was an exercise on praising literary prophets and Bentley sycophants.
Karyn Levitt, a cross-over singer, claims that “My job is to convey the message of the song. That’s a privilege but a lot of responsibility and an awful amount of experimentation.” Misguided experimentation is the essence of this centennial tribute to Bentley. Ms. Levitt hits the notes with an awkwardness that is anything but melodic. She states that “You had to know something about the poetry and the time/context these songs were written. You’re talking about these two German artists living under incredible duress.” Similarly, the audience members awaiting something fantastically magical are left hanging in the abyss—outside of time and in utter distress at the stale performance of Ms. Levitt who sings with a vacancy of soul and performs devoid of lingering spirit. My gripe with the repertoire stems not solely from Ms. Levitt’s flat soprano, but rather from the conjuring of backdrops as World War II, the dark stark poetics of social commentary in Bertolt Brecht’s plays, the ramifications of human casualties at the hands of the Fascists and the Cold War, thus I cannot grapple with a simple centennial Birthday Bash, lamenting Eisler and his defunct career.
Eric Bentley’s a gifted theatre critic, but perhaps it’s best that he refrain from writing lyrics and penning his plaintive translations of Bertolt Brecht. I may arguably ingest Eisler “crowned as prince” but I fail to digest Bentley’s Brecht Eisner Songbook’s release. If music’s a continuation of the soul; I felt extremely detached.
Lights dimmed, Austin Pendleton appeared, resembling a shackled Scrooge, disheveled; reciting a sonnet which he stumbled over, confessing that he was ill prepared. The Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra played at inappropriate moments. Oberlin’s Theatre Professor Roger Copeland, entertainingly witty, professed that Bentley knew that a playwright’s intellect ought to translate into passion on stage. As Tony Kushner, on a kind of acid trip, sped through his homage to Bentley, in a raspy voice—a sharp elderly gay couple turned to me and waved their hands in the air appealing to God. As one of them uncurled his moustache; he complained: “When will they stop kissing ass already? What’s the point? They’ve probably been handsomely paid far in advance.” Bravo, I couldn’t agree more. That, together with the fact that many audience members left mid-concert is notable.
Happy Birthday, Eric Bentley! (A Centennial Tribute Concert) was held on December 7th, 2015 at 8 PM at the Town Hall. www.TheTownHall.org