The Commons Theatre

Her graduate thesis boiled down to a single question: can a commercial theater trying to maximize profit also preserve its artistic integrity? But after talking to her for an hour, I realized she didn’t see any fundamental difference between commercial theaters and their not-for-profit counterparts. “Everyone who puts on a play wants as many people as possible to see it,” she said, “so what’s the difference if one theater wants to make a profit, and the other doesn’t? They both want to produce hits.”

Sure, every theater is trying to fill seats, I agreed, but there’s still a difference. The people involved in not-for-profit theater want to produce plays that are as truthful, penetrating, and provocative as possible. If they succeed, the show probably will be a hit, but the point is, they’re not aiming for popularity. They can disregard what’s popular in favor of what’s original and insightful. Commercial producers, on the other hand, want to be popular. If they can make a few bucks doing art, they will, of course; but their primary concern is profit, and if they are forced to make a choice, they will opt for popularity over originality any day.

The more I talked, the more elitist I sounded, and the less convinced I became of my position. Don’t artists want to be popular, too? Can’t commercial producers operate out of a genuine love for theater? By the time I finished, I had almost convinced myself that serious theater artists are also pandering–they just appeal to a more educated segment of the market.

Then I went to see Tales From Hollywood. This delightfully literate play by Christopher Hampton is a sad, funny story about European writers–most of them German speaking–who, having fled the Nazis during the 1930s, have ended up plying their craft in what seems like a plausible place–Hollywood. Of course they discover that truth and beauty have no place in the land of fantasy and glitz. Those who maintain their artistic aspirations are ignored and discarded, while those who pander to popular taste and prevailing political prejudices do just fine.

The narrator and main character is Odon von Horvath, who actually was one of the most promising writers in Germany during the rise of Hitler. In 1938, however, the real Horvath was killed during a trip to Paris, when a branch of a chestnut tree on the Champs Elysees fell on his head. In his hotel room were found notes for a novel to be titled Adieu Europa; these began, “A poet emigrated to America . . .”

That is Hampton’s jumping-off point. In Tales From Hollywood, Horvath does take shelter under that fateful chestnut tree during a thunderstorm; but another man, possibly a writer, is standing there, too. After they chat for a few moments, the branch falls, but it kills the other man, leaving Horvath to wonder, “Why is it people are so afraid of the Nazis? Why aren’t they afraid just walking down the street?” Horvath then emigrates to America and begins a bizarre odyssey through the fantasy capital of the world. Here Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia is news because it means “a loss of 2 1/2 to 3 percent of total foreign film income.”

But this is also a trip into the heart of darkness, where Horvath, like the other writers he encounters, must grapple with the temptation to compromise artistic integrity for the sake of fast, easy money. Certainly in Hampton’s view there is a big difference between making art and making entertainment designed to turn a profit.

Horvath slams into this difference shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, when he agrees to write a screenplay about Edward II based on Christopher Marlowe’s play. Because of his weak grasp of English, he is able to complete the assignment only by relying heavily on Marlowe’s Elizabethan dialogue, but what really antagonizes the agent who gave him the assignment is when Horvath presents Edward as a homosexual. “But this is historic true,” says Horvath in broken English. “So what?” screams the agent, whose name is Mr. Money. “For all I know Robin Hood liked to do it with sheep; you think anyone wants to see that?”

Hampton relies on a certain amount of historic truth: Thomas Mann, his older brother Heinrich, and Bertolt Brecht were all denizens of Hollywood at some point, and all turn up in the play. Hampton depicts Thomas Mann as a pompous ass who puts Horvath, his guest, to sleep by reading from his latest book. And after Horvath lands one of the jobs created by Warner Brothers for emigre writers, he bumps into Mann’s brother Heinrich, whom Horvath reveres. Although considered the superior writer by many, Heinrich is known in Hollywood only as the author of The Blue Angel. “I used to say, I didn’t write it, I wrote a novel 35 years ago on which the film is very loosely based,” says Heinrich ruefully. “Then I understood they didn’t want to hear that. . . . My entire American reputation stands on the legs of Marlene Dietrich.”

Unlike his brother, Heinrich is humble and steadfast in his ideals. Like Professor Unrat in The Blue Angel, Heinrich is married to a much younger woman who used to work in a cabaret, and he is beset by financial problems, but when an American publisher offers to publish one of his novels if Heinrich just makes a few changes, the writer refuses, and gives up a desperately needed source of income.

Hampton reserves his deepest contempt for Brecht, depicted as a slogan-spouting communist who swims comfortably when dropped into the waters of the free enterprise system. Sure, he sneers at capitalism. “Everything here is sell, sell, sell,” he says. “If they could, they’d sell their piss to the urinal.” But before long, Brecht is working on an inane romantic comedy and trying to talk Horvath into collaborating on others, thinking that together they can crank them out faster.

Over the years, Horvath gradually acquires the knack for producing salable screenplays. He keeps moving into larger apartments in better neighborhoods, while laughing cynically at the compromises made by his friends. But Horvath too has known compromise, as he finally reveals, and he reserves his deepest cynicism for himself.

The Commons Theatre production of Tales From Hollywood displays plenty of craftsmanship, despite a meager budget and an inexperienced cast. Director James Bohnen has coaxed some perceptive performances out of the actors. As Odon von Horvath, Calvin MacLean is onstage for most of the play, either as narrator or participant. It is a difficult, two-sided role, but MacLean achieves an admirable consistency, allowing sarcasm to show through the humble immigrant writer and humility to show through the sarcastic intellectual. Judith Easton reveals Heinrich’s wife Nelly to be a pathetic waif totally lost in the rarefied intellectual atmosphere her husband draws around himself. Larry Baldacci is sublime as Heinrich, a frail old man who still has more backbone than any other character in the play. As Helen Schwartz, the Jewish scriptwriter who becomes Horvath’s lover, Ellyn Duncan projects both sex appeal and intellectual intensity. Unfortunately Ken Kaden, although he has an amazing physical resemblance to Bertolt Brecht, still tends to lapse into buffoonery, his specialty as an actor.

Tales From Hollywood is not merely about the way we compromise our ideals. That’s a theme that’s been done to death. Rather the play is about how we compromise our ideals and then lie to ourselves about what we’re doing. It’s about how we silence our own inner voices and allow ourselves to become ventriloquists’ dummies animated by the dictates of the marketplace. Such self-betrayal is often defended with that all-purpose excuse, “But I have to make a living”–and that excuse is hard to refute. It muddles the distinction, however, between art and commerce, which is probably why the student I met has a hard time detecting any difference between them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony V. Martin.