THE AMERICAN premiere of Bertolt Brecht's The Days of the Commune is tonight at Sanders, in Cambridge-our own feeble rival to Paris as the setting of the street-barricade species of political activism. One hundred years have passed since the Paris Commune was crushed; the event, a coarse bloom of indigenous French socialism, has been the horror of the bourgeoisie because of its bloodshed and its affronts to property and the delight of the Marxists for reasons roughly similar. Marxists do not relish violence per se, but there is no denying that French history furnishes the most spectacular, the most theatrical examples of bourgeois squalor and proletarian idealism, tailored along lines which, since they are the stuff of history, cannot be mimicking a Marxist schema, even when they appear to be doing just that. Marx, Brecht and Peter Weiss have all followed the same blood-splattering trail into the labyrinth which is France's past.
Leonard Lehrman, not easily deflected in any endeavor or by any obstacle, mastered German in a summer in order to translate Days of the Commune, the only major play in the Brechtian canon unknown to English-speaking audiences. The Germans, fastidious in matters literary, rank this particular play as one of Brecht's three or four best. Brecht himself they mention in the same breath with Shakespeare and Goethe. One word about Lehrman: music comes just as easily as instant linguistic virtuosity to this Dunster House dynamo. Having studied piano seven years under Elie Siegmeister, Lehrman has for the past few years been the impassioned devote of Mare Blitzstein, the American composer and disciple of Brecht.
Blitzstein, who taught at the Downtown School in New York during the thirties with none other than Elie Siegmeister and Hans Eisler as colleagues, inspired Lehrman to take a new look at Brecht's 1948 didactic play about the Paris Commune-or, more precisely, Blitzstein with an interpretational gloss thrown on his work by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein in 1940 presented a production at Sanders of Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. Bernstein adopted a "cantata form, from the piano." Lehrman, himself the director of a 1969 Cradle Will Rock production, explained in a 1970 essay about Blitzstein. This is "exactly the way I plan to stage my own adaptation and translation of Brecht and Eisler's Days of the Commune for the 100th anniversary of the Paris Commune this March-under the auspices of Winthrop House and the November Action Coalition."
In adapting Days of the Commune in "Cantata" form, Lehrman included the four songs by Hans Eisler which Brecht originally wrote into the texture of his play. But hoping to make Brecht's uncompromising moral preachments more palatable to American audiences, whose effete musical diet dates from the Ziegfeld Follies, not Wagner, Lehrman has inserted six more songs by Eisler and the Communist anthem "Internationale" to make Commune more fully music-drama ( Theater mit Musik ). He justifies the increased emphasis on music not solely as a concession to American sensibility, but as the "use of a Wagnerian technique to make it [ Commune ] more Brechtian."
Tuesday night. Winthrop Junior Common Room. Final rehearsal before the big night at Sanders. I could not believe that a cast of 40-odd actors of diverse ages could synchronize their timing in a play as challenging as Commune. I was right. In the cramped surroundings of the Junior Common Room, our Communards were not acting anarchy; frequently, they seemed to be living it. During the big ensemble numbers in which the whole company boomed out numbers like the "Solidarity Song," my petty cavils about diction (and the French accents affected were appallingly heterodox) became suddenly irrelevant. Moments of total excitement such as these are rare in theater. I am sure that tonight's performance of The Days of the Commune will measure up, on the whole, as a success-if only for this robust fusion of music and dramatic spectacle. In Sanders, the slide-show of period engravings and photographs should make the mise en scene more convincing-and, with a little more coordination of scene changes, less awkward. In any event, Brecht, Eisler, Lehrman and his company merit the whole University's attention. Tonight may be a sequel to the teach-in. It may be something more.