Luise Rainer, Bertolt Brecht and The Caucasian Chalk Circle
In the life of an actor there are roles that pass you by, roles that are seemingly made for you that slip through your fingers, and roles that become so synonymous with a particular performer that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the part. Then there is one of the greatest accolades an actor can receive: a part written especially for them; a part that by its very nature cannot be played be another because it was created with one person in mind. It’s a rare accolade, but rarer still to be offered such a part….then turn it down. Luise’s career is peppered with parts that she wanted and parts that seemed perfect for her, but fate or foolishness intervened; perhaps the most famous of these is one written for her by Bertolt Brecht: ‘Grusha’ in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Luise’s relationship with Brecht began in the early 1930s when she first encountered his poetry, which she has always admired, but, although Brecht spent some time with Max Reinhardt’s theatre company as dramaturg, by the time Luise joined the group he had moved on and they did not meet. At that time Brecht’s work was becoming more popular and his first great success, The Threepenny Opera, a musical adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, opened in Berlin in 1928. It was followed by two more great successes, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany (1930) and Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1931). The latter played only on Berlin radio in 1932 and was not produced on stage until 1959, a year after his death. Luise would have been familiar with Brecht’s work throughout this time, immersing herself, as she did, in the theatre of the period, but it wasn’t until 1942 that the pair would actually meet.
As Nazism grew, so did Brecht’s fear of persecution, and in 1933 he fled Germany when Hitler came to power. At first he settled in Denmark, moving on to Sweden in 1939 at the outbreak of the war, and then again to Finland as Hitler’s armies advanced northwards into Scandanavia. It was whilst he was staying in Helsinki that he applied for a visa to escape to the USA. It was during these years in exile that Brecht produced some of his most influential works, including the plays Mother Courage and her Children, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui and The Good Person of Szechuan. It was at some point during this exile that he also wrote to Luise asking her to sign his affadavit, despite their never having met. In interviews she has always maintained that it was a simple thing to do, so she did it, her fame being useful for once. She is also keen to point out that the oft-quoted story that she helped him to leave Nazi Germany is not true; he had already been in exile for a number of years before she signed his affadavit. With his papers prepared, Brecht left Finland and travelled across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian express, leaving from Vladivostock by ship and arriving in America on 21st July 1941. He would remain in the USA for six years.
Much of Brecht’s stay was spent in Los Angeles, where he encountered a similar experience to that of Luise; he was initially supported, both financially and personally by the novelist Lion Feuchtwanger and the film director Fritz Lang, amongst others. He began work on several film outlines and synopses which were rejected and did some script work on the film Hangmen Must Die (1943) (directed by Lang) but his output was limited. He felt stifled by the Hollywood artifice and commerciality. To this must be added his alien status in a country far from home, and the death en route of his aide and close friend Margarete Steffin, who contracted tuberculosis and died in Moscow, which was a pivotal moment in his life. At some point in 1942 he and his family moved to a house in Santa Monica, close to Luise’s, and he paid her a visit for the first time.
The seeds of The Caucasian Chalk Circle were first sown as this actress and this playwright walked along a beach in California. Brecht expressed his wish to write a play for Luise to appear in and asked her for her opinion or suggestions. It so happens that the first play Luise ever saw was Klabund’s Die Kreiderkreis (The Circle of Chalk) (based on a Chinese folk tale) which had a profound effect on her and which she had always admired. Coincidentally it transpired that Brecht himself had suggested an adaptation to Klabund when they had met in Germany, so he determined to write it for her. Brecht was still financially unstable at this time so Luise sought out a producer who would take Brecht onto his payroll during the writing of the play, and she organised a Broadway contract for the play to debut in 1944. The producer, Jules J. Leventhal, was someone who believed in Luise and who had been looking for a suitable role in which to star her. It seemed serendipitous for all concerned.
Brecht got to work on the play and Luise went away to North Africa to work for the war effort, entertaining troops and, for a time, assisting with ambulances in Alexandria. Upon her return some four or five months later she was shocked to hear from Leventhal that Brecht hadn’t produced a single line of the script and hadn’t returned any messages. Luise realised that this wasn’t only bad for Brecht, but for her own reputation, which she had put on the line by hiring the producer and persuading him to back the project. Luise was amazed that he could take a monthly paycheck from Leventhal without any qualms about showing the producer his commitment to the play, or, indeed, any writing. Brecht was adamant that all was well and he would send the play directly to her; it arrived the next day, two double-spaced pages which she could not make head nor tail of.
“What do you think of it?” he asked her.
“What do I think of it?” she replied, incredulous. “I haven’t seen it. I have seen only two pages of it. I haven’t seen anything.” He didn’t respond.
Luise finally arranged to meet Brecht face to face and paid him a visit at his New York apartment where he asked her to tell him about the piece and read it to him. She was completely dumbstruck; had he no idea how ridiculous the situation had become, how he been paid for almost five months to produce two pages of unintelligible script? The final nail in the coffin came when Brecht countered Luise’s frustration with the assertion that, “Elisabeth Bergner would be on her knees to me for this part.” Bergner, a great Austrian actress, had debuted in Klabund’s version in 1925. Luise, indignant, replied, “I wouldn’t, and I think you better write your play without me.” She never saw him again.
Whether the antagonisation of both Luise and Leventhal was deliberate or subconscious is a matter for debate. Brecht had already spent three years doing work in Hollywood which he considered beneath him and it’s possible that he was struck with a nonchalance and immaturity when faced with a movie star demanding a play from him, but this doesn’t explain his initial approach to Luise in the first place. Perhaps he was simply restless, without inspiration or muse. He continued, nevertheless, to write and the play was finished by the summer of 1944. The part of ‘Grusha’ had been altered slightly from his original vision, making her tougher and he created an extra act, it is thought in order to give his friend, the actor Oscar Homolka, the role of ‘Azdak’, the village clerk. It appears that the Broadway run, and Leventhal, were both still part of the process at this stage and the play progressed to translation into English. First it was offered to Christopher Isherwood, but when he declined, it passed to James and Tania Stern who agreed to translate, with lyrics written by W.H. Auden (who was living with the Sterns at the time, in Fire Island). The play finally debuted…in May 1948, produced by students at Northfield, Minnesota in a new translation by Eric and Maja Bentley. The precise state of affairs that led to the cancellation of Leventhal’s contract and that of the Broadway run isn’t known, suffice to say that once Brecht had finished the play to his own satisfaction (sometime around September 1944) he was about to become a father once again, with Ruth Berlau. The child died at birth and Brecht immersed himself in a new project, Galileo, with Charles Laughton, an ‘American’ version of his earlier work. Despite the original contract he once wrote that the structure of the play was “a revulsion against the commercialised dramaturgy of Broadway.” Leventhal would go on to work with Luise in another play, A Gift for the Bride, which debuted in 1945 and was heading for Broadway before being cancelled.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle was subsequently produced in Salzburg in 1950, and Brecht produced his own version of the play in Germany in 1953, with new music by Paul Dessau. It has come to be regarded as one of the great plays of the 20th century, and ‘Grusha’ one of the most noteworthy female roles in the theatre. When questioned now about her part in the creation of the role and her feelings about never playing the part, Luise is characteristically ambivalent; she almost seems to revel in the triumph of being able to say “No” to Brecht, but one senses the realisation of just what could have been.
Whether she harbours regret about ‘Grusha’ or not, perhaps it is best to leave it to her to explain: when asked by Sir Christopher Frayling (in an interview at the National Theatre in February 2010) why she didn’t play the part, she simply shrugged her shoulders and raised her eyebrows…”I got to know Bertolt Brecht…and I didn’t like him!”