By Aine Abruscati (@AAbruscati)
Imagine that you’re 99 years old. And imagine you’ve had a long and distinguished 70-year career as a playwright, translator, critic and performing artist. Now imagine that in honor of your career, life, artistic contributions and passion for theatre and life, your friends, collaborators and fellow respected artists come together for a one-of-a-kind tribute performance to celebrate your life. Sounds to be the stuff of theatre, itself.
This year, Theatre Hall of Fame inductee Eric Bentley will turn 100 years old and in recognition of this milestone Royal Road Productions is presenting “Happy Birthday, Eric Bentley! A Centennial Tribute Concert,” a one-night only show on Dec. 7 at Town Hall in New York City, featuring reminiscences, anecdotes and readings from Bentley’s classic works by artists such as Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and celebrated playwright/actor/director Austin Pendleton.
One of the most anticipated moments in the evening will be the musical portion featuring a recital by the celebrated soprano Karyn Levitt who will perform Hans Eisler songs in English translation/versions by Bentley. Accompanied by Eric Ostling, Levitt will sing songs from her upcoming debut album, “Eric Bentley’s Brecht-Eisler Songbook,” available from Roven Records beginning in January. The tribute is meaningful and special for a number of reasons; Levitt is singing Bentley’s English translations but she also worked closely with him on the album and the concert, both of which have been four years in the making.
Bentley was born in England in 1916, became an American citizen in 1948, as inducted into the (American) Theater Hall of Fame in 1998…Bentley has had a long and distinguished career as playwright, translator, critic and performing artist. He also taught at leading universities. Three volumes of his plays were published as Rallying Cries, Monstrous Martyrdoms, and The Kleist Variations, and Broadway Play Publishing Inc. recently published four Bentley titles: Round One, Round Two, A Time to Die & A Time to Live, and The Sternheim Trilogy. At least two of his many critical studies are now classics; The Playwright As Thinker and The Life of the Drama. In The Brecht Memoir, appended to his book, Bentley On Brecht, he details his personal association with Bertolt Brecht. The latter’s chief translator and interpreter in the English-speaking world; Mr. Bentley is also editor of the Grove Press’s Brecht edition.
“This has been in my heart’s imagination for a long time, ever since I met Eric,” says Levitt. “The project has been an enormous amount of work. Everything is a matter of urgency when you’re working with someone of that age, and that’s how I’ve been living my life, with certain urgency.”
She spoke to Center On The Aisle (#COTA) about the profound, broad and deep influence that Bentley has had on American theatre, music and literature as well as on how people think about the theatre. “He’s an extraordinary artist that can’t be pigeon-holed into one category. He wrote these seminal works on the theatre and it was all very new when he wrote them. Yes he’s the worldwide authority on Bertol Brecht, one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century, and one of the most respected translators of Brecht’s works. But Eric began his career as a concert pianist and cabaret performer, and has translated many, many playwrights, expanding the theatrical canon by including playwrights who didn’t write in English.”
Levitt, an Oberlin-trained performer who has appeared at Carnegie Hall and other distinguished venues, shared the story of her first interaction with Bentley and how it changed her life forever. Levitt was classically trained but she loved and was drawn to all different kinds of music including jazz, Yiddish operetta and contemporary sets of Shakespeare sonnets. She had built a career of creating one woman shows and in 2011, began planning a show on works by Brecht and his frequent collaborator Kurt Weill. “I had always loved the music of Weill and had the opportunity to perform ”Berlin in Light,” a piece he composed in 1928 to commemorate the electrification of the city of Berlin. It’s this beautiful German song — so pretty and happy — and on one occasion when I was performing the number, my acting coach who was in the room said, “You must get in touch with Eric Bentley.”
Levitt did her homework before reaching out to Bentley. She read seven of his plays translated into English, his commentaries and his books. In late August, after a month of preparation, Levitt wrote Bentley a formal letter describing her love for Weill and interest in doing a one-woman show, and offered to take him out for lunch.
About a week later, while online for the ladies room at New York’s Lincoln Center where she was seeing War Horse, Levitt received an email response from Bentley. “It was a cordial message, thanking me for my letter and saying that singers in New York have focused far too much on K.W. If you want my suggestion, he said, go with Hanns Eisler. He also suggested that I look into these matters before we meet for lunch.”
Eisler’s work remains largely unfamiliar to popular audiences. Eisler’s music and Brecht’s poetry were banned by the Nazi party, both artists sought refuge in the U.S. Eisler’s promising career as a composer in the U.S. was interrupted when he was the first Hollywood artist blacklisted by the movie industry and deported to East Germany.
Bentley, who had started to translate and write about Brecht’s work during World War II, recognized Eisler, whose work remains largely unfamiliar to popular audiences, as the “crown prince” when Brecht’s partnership with Weill ended. Eisler and Brecht forged a strong collaboration beginning in Berlin in the 1920s and lasting their lifetimes. They collaborated on plays and protest songs, and their earlier work tended to look at life from the perspective of prostitutes, hustlers, the unemployed and the working poor. As part of his research, Bentley uncovered 10 volumes of Eisler’s songs. Incredibly, he sang through every song in these volumes and soon also began making his own English versions — initially to assist him in interpreting the text. Relatively few of these translations subsequently saw the light of day.
The assignment Bentley gave Levitt was intimidating and the proposal was different than her original idea. She went to Colony Music store, which unfortunately no longer exists, and on their shelves was Bentley’s 1967 The Brecht-Eisler Song Book. She bought it.
“Eric had recorded songs in the 1960s. English translation mainly, accompanying himself. It was my first exposure to Eisler and it took me a long time to realize that I had heard two of his songs before but didn’t know they were his. I investigated all these other singers who sang Eisler. Most of the material was in German. I was listening to different interpretations – some of it was very harsh, some very lyrical.”
After several email correspondences, Levitt wrote to Bentley saying that she had heeded his guidance and asking if he would now have lunch with her. “At the time I would have no clue what would happen but it was all such a marvelous, wonderful opportunity to connect with someone on something extraordinary.”
The lunch meeting took place on Sept. 10. “I got lunch at a deli and brought it to him, along with a bouquet of yellow roses. We had lunch in his kitchen. Three hours later, I had 12 pages of notes and a whole list of possible shows based on our conversation.” Bentley gave Levitt a book of Eisler’s unpublished songs to use but it would be difficult and complicated to obtain the rights to use them. “The Brecht estate, the Brecht-Eisler agreement, the Cold War, East Germany…everything had to be untangled against the backdrop of this complicated history.” And at this point, Bentley hadn’t even heard Levitt sing. “I wasn’t sure if I could get the rights to this stuff and whether it was even worth it. So I asked Eric, ‘Would you like me to come and sing for you?’ And he said, ‘Karyn, you can come and sing for me any time.’”
Bentley suggested that Levitt select a few songs and record a demo right away. She told him she would get back to him in a week to 10 days. “Some of the repertoire was so strange to my ears and other parts were really melodic,” Levitt told #COTA. “All of it proved challenging because you had to know something about the poetry and the time it was written and the context. You’re talking about these two German artists who were living under incredible duress.”
Levitt recorded the demo with her accompanist at the time and FedEx’d it to Bentley. “I’m thinking to myself, can a lyric soprano really sing this? I sent it off with a wish and kind of just let go.” A couple of days later, Levitt recalls taking a nap when a thought came into her mind. “The thought was ‘Brava Karyn’. You did the best you could.” Ten minutes later, Levitt went to her computer and there was an email from Bentley: “Bravo Karyn. Now create a whole show…call me tomorrow and let’s get started.”
Shortly thereafter, Levitt left her life in Boston and came to New York to move forward with the show. She went to Bentley for coaching and found a pianist. It had only been a few months since their first correspondence and all of a sudden, things were full steam ahead.
“Everything about the project has been both inspiring, thrilling and very challenging and difficult.
One thing about Eric is he’s a taskmaster, and I mean that in the best of ways. He’s a lyricist so he also really cares about the message. Your job as a singer is to convey the message. That’s a privilege but a lot of responsibility and an awful lot of experimentation. ” Levitt would learn 26 songs in slightly more than a month and performed them for the first time at Halloween for one person – Eric. “Once that was over, Eric said, ‘Now do another show in another month and add another 4 or 5 songs and perform for a few more people.’” By November of 2011, 2 and a half months after that initial lunch meeting, she had already met him and had performed his show twice.”
Another challenge Levitt faced was getting the show out there and discovering who would be the audience. Bentley suggested Levitt start with colleges so she went that route. “You would think that the world would want to know about this material. I would write to people all over the country and the response was people couldn’t believe that Eric Bentley was still alive.”
Despite the obstacles, Levitt says she never once felt like giving it all up. “As a singer, the best thing in the world is to find the repertoire that’s right for you. There’s not always a match. In my case, while I was always experimenting and doing everything from Greatest American Songbooks to Puccini, when I encountered these songs and what they demanded musically, it pulled me up in myself and made me work harder that I ever have. And when I mastered a song, the feeling was indescribable. I found my own personal El Dorado.”
When asked about her favorite songs on the record, Levitt said, “They’re all so terrific but the song that I feel has become mine which was so difficult for so long is ‘The Love Market.’ “It’s a song of such resignation and yet it can’t be sung with resignation. There’s an irony to it. You can’t be in those emotions. You can’t suffer, you can’t be in self-pity. It ruins the song. You have to have a certain distance. It’s a challenging and fascinating thing for someone who has always been a romantic to take on a repertoire that is as unromantic as you can possibly imagine. It’s changed me in many ways.”
The culmination of four years of incredibly hard work is nearly here, and Levitt is definitely looking forward to the event, which she describes as really textual. “It will be an evening of extraordinary people paying homage to a truly incredible talent through music, poetry and theatre. A rich celebration with substance and emotion. And Eric is so thrilled this is happening. His wish that lots of young people will come.”
“Happy Birthday, Eric Bentley! A Centennial Tribute Concert plays Monday, Dec. 7, 2015 at 8pm at The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com, 800-982-2782.