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The Master Builder

At the Loeb March 1-3, 6-9

By Charles F. Sabel

Somewhere in the commodious vaults where dwell the souls of playwrights dead and gone. Two figures, faces wreathed in mist, crouch over a chess table. After a time the vapours clear, and we see the faces of Bertolt Brecht and Henrik Ibsen. Brecht speaks first.

BRECHT: But none the less Heinrich, lieber Heinrich it is an honor when they do your work, wherever, whenever. As for however, why that McBain youth meant no harm in adapting your Master Builder. He only meant, no doubt, to give the idiom a more modern ring, and to snip away that overgrowth of symbols. There are such a lot of symbols in the play, Heinrich.

HENRIK: You always were a good peasant, Bert. Direct. But an adaption? As I sat there, backstage, listening to his words and repeating my words softly for my own ears, I felt as though my body was being desecrated. Once I looked down and I swear my legs ended at the knees. Oh McBain, vile college lad, why did you poke about in the Doctor's speeches and spoil all the careful development of the younger-generation-knocking-on-the-door theme? There was no method to your wretched emmendations.

BRECHT: Quite right of course, and I only meant to take his side because there is always another side to be taken. To see some upshot of your imagination stalk about, even limp about.

HENRIK: My Master Builder is a man of magic. He mounts the highest peaks of human existence and calls out to god. They have made of him a real estate salesman! This John Williams--

BRECHT: Not a name for history--

HENRIK: This Williams roars and whines and nothing more. There is not a jot of rhapsody in him. "I had gone about all these years," my Master Builder says, "torturing myself with the effort to recover something--some experience which I seemed to have forgotten"--and Williams pronounces those sacred words as though he were a handbill about soap. Veritas indeed!

BRECHT: The women? You have such a fondness for women.

HENRIK: They are divine, they can divine. They sense imminent death and latent power. What finer efflorescence than a woman free of duty's tyranny!

BRECHT: It would be nice if she effloresced about the hips a bit, Heinrich, don't you think?

HENRIK: So visceral, Bert, so much the peasant. So what do they give me? Yakutis, Miss Susan Yakutis, interprets Hilde Wangel. She has a honeyed voice, Bert, a throat that lets slip pure and full sounds. A richly voweled music breaks from her. But her face is too fleshy, her stature too mean to be a princess. She stamps and pouts too much. Here is this woman, who should be a cistern of demonic forces, and she lets you think she quarrels over prices at the butcher's.

BRECHT: I can tell you it was no fun when they made a 23-year-old former school teacher Mother Courage.

HENRIK: As for the Master Builder's wife, there's a bit of shine in this narrative. Sheila Hart played her, Bert. Dear girl! How wonderful she was in those speeches, cruel speeches where she confesses lifelessness. Who could have heard Miss Hart and not mourned that woman? A dry passion she has, a terrible brittle passion!

BRECHT: You do overwork the exclamation a bit, Henry.

HENRIK: Why, Sir Director McBain, did you parade my characters so stiffly across the stage? They seldom move and often declaim. Why did you work so hard to cudgel the wonderment out of the play.

BRECHT: The set--forgive me, Hank--the set, they say, was masterful. Quite a palace of boards this Lee has put up.

Brecht smiles tolerantly. Off to the left the billows of cloud are agitated. Out of the turbulance emerges a small figure, black-haired and mustachioed. He turns three somersaults in plain view of the two authors. We discover he is Brecht's Arturo Ui. "In America," he says, "they think Three Penny Opera is a musical comedy." Brecht begins to weep. Ibsen hugs himself, pulls his knees up to his chest and falls off the chair, laughing.

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