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domingo, 24 de julio de 2011

"At least he's European"

Brave New World: Artists in Exile
By Adam Kirsch

In 1938, five years before his death, Max Reinhardt directed the Thornton Wilder play "The Merchant of Yonkers" on Broadway. Back home in Germany, Reinhardt's visionary productions had made him one of the most famous and influential theater directors in the world. In 1905, at the opening night of his "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which featured a revolving stage covered in real grass, the audience called, not for any of the actors, but for Reinhardt — the first time in the history of the theater that a director was the star. By the 1920s, he was in charge of 10 theaters across Germany, and mounted up to four dozen productions every year. "At his favorite restaurants," Joseph Horowitz writes in his wide-ranging, entertaining book "Artists in Exile" (Harper, 458 pages, $27.50), "conversation ceased when he was escorted to his table."
But when Hitler came to power in 1933, Reinhardt — a Jew whose real name was Goldmann — had no choice but to flee to America. And like most of the European directors, actors, conductors, and composers who feature in Mr. Horowitz's book, Reinhardt found that a Weimar reputation was like a Weimar fortune, unconvertible into American currency. At one rehearsal for the New York production, remembered the set designer Harry Horner, Reinhardt gave an actor his notes on how to read a line, only to find the producer's young assistant tapping him on the shoulder. "Max," the assistant said, "don't you think the way the actor did it before was better than what you suggest?" Reinhardt was dumbstruck by this act of lèse-majesté, only managing to say, "Get away from me — please get him away from me." To Horner, looking on, "It was a moment in which a world collapsed."

As Mr. Horowitz shows, however, this sort of collapse happened over and over again. Usually, when the history of the interwar years is written, the great migration of talented refugees from Europe to America is seen as a pure boon for the New World. Jews and leftists persecuted by Hitler, liberals and experimentalists persecuted by Stalin, all found a haven in our country and helped to enrich it — a shining example of how democratic virtue is its own reward. If not for the blindness and cruelty of Europe, America would never have had the honor of sheltering Mann and Nabokov, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Lubitsch and Lang.
It is a well-known story, and in fact there are few tales in "Artists in Exile" that have not been told before. Mr. Horowitz, a former music critic for the New York Times, is at his best evoking the works these refugees managed to create, against the odds, on American soil. His descriptions of Bartók and Szigeti's recording of the "Kreutzer" Sonata, or of F.W. Murnau's silent masterpiece "Sunrise," are radiant with his own enthusiasm. But his potted biographies of artists, from dancers to set designers to virtuosos, break little new ground. Mr. Horowitz's treatment of Hollywood's German colony follows in the footsteps of Otto Friedrich's classic history of Los Angeles in the 1940s, "City of Nets," and his discussion of émigré composers frequently echoes Alex Ross's "The Rest Is Noise," published just last year. Nor can Balanchine's tenure at New York City Ballet, or the way the Stanislavsky method influenced the Group Theatre and the Actors Studio, be considered virgin territory.

What distinguishes Mr. Horowitz's book is the way he is drawn — at times, it appears, in spite of himself — to the dark side of his subject. The subtitle of "Artists in Exile," with its sloganeering reference to the way these exiles "transformed the American performing arts," seems to promise an uplifting tale of cross-cultural fertilization. Mr. Horowitz is continually drawn to the phrase "cultural exchange": "I use this term," he writes, "as a shorthand for the synergies of Old World and New, outsider and insider, memory and discovery, that distinguish the films and dances, symphonies and shows, made by Europeans who relocated to the United States."

Yet these synergies, like the kind promised by corporate mergers, prove highly elusive. Much more often, on Mr. Horowitz's own telling, the encounter of Europe and America led to incomprehension and mutual disdain. The Reinhardt episode is just one of dozens of examples. Take Arnold Schoenberg, who was forced to retire from his UCLA professorship when he reached 70, on a pension of just $29.60 a month; when he applied for a Guggenheim fellowship, the greatest living German composer was turned down. Yet Schoenberg was far better off than Ernst Krenek, whose opera "Jonny spielt auf" was a Weimar sensation — ironically, thanks to its evocation of American jazz. Krenek ended up dying in Palm Springs in his 90s, utterly forgotten by the American music world. In a 1990 interview, Mr. Horowitz writes, when Krenek was "asked 'What do you like about the United States?' he could find no words." Schoenberg and Krenek were refugees, with no choice but to swim or sink in the New World. But even Europeans who came to America freely, in search of the greater audiences and resources it had to offer, usually wished they hadn't. A classic example is Murnau, one of the most successful directors at the UFA studios in Berlin, who came to Hollywood in the 1920s on a princely contract with Fox. His first film for an American studio was the great "Sunrise," which flopped at the box office. The next two were forgettable commercial products; the fourth, and last, was a quasi-documentary shot in the South Pacific, "Tabu." When filming was done, Murnau so dreaded returning to Hollywood that he bought a house on Tahiti, and he might have lived there forever if he hadn't died in a car accident during a visit to America, at the age of 42. "The thought of cities and all those people is repulsive to me," he wrote from his Tahitian retreat. "I am never 'at home' anywhere — I feel this more and more the older I get — not in any country nor in any house or with anybody."
The inability of so many talented émigrés to feel "at home anywhere" is not hard to understand. Virtually every artist who arrived in America with a substantial reputation found himself cut off from the sources of his self-esteem. The most advanced European techniques, in stage design or film editing or music composition, were usually too advanced for American audiences, who in the 1940s were still not completely free from their old inferiority complex about the Old World. What America offered instead was a great reservoir of democratic energy and commercial opportunity, which the Europeans' snobbery and ingrained elitism made it impossible for them to access.
Which is not to say that none of them tried. Of all the varieties of frustration documented in "Artists in Exile," the worst might be the frustration of those émigrés who tried earnestly to fit in, only to find that compromise meant losing the qualities that had made them great artists in the first place. Indeed, if Mr. Horowitz often sounds disgusted with the Americans of the period, who couldn't appreciate the treasures they were given, he is equally condescending toward a figure like Kurt Weill, who remade his acrid Berlin style in the image of "American informality, egalitarianism, and eclecticism." Weill claimed, with impeccable earnestness, that "my success here (which people usually ascribe to 'luck') is mostly due to the fact that I took a very positive and constructive attitude towards the American way of life and the cultural possibilities of this country." Yet it is still "The Threepenny Opera," not "Street Scene," that ensures Weill's posterity, even in America. Mr. Horowitz largely dismisses Weill's Broadway shows as the works of a "ventriloquist," whose voice was "mediated by commercial considerations unknown abroad."

If the usual fate of "cultural exchange" was cultural misunderstanding, then the real mystery Mr. Horowitz must solve is why a few lucky immigrants actually did manage to thrive in the New World. But it is exactly here that "Artists in Exile" suffers from its episodic, anecdotal structure, and from the uncertainty of Mr. Horowitz's attempts to analyze what he vividly describes. In his closing pages he invokes Nietzsche in proposing a division between German émigrés — arrogant, lugubrious, and closed-off — and Russian émigrés, who were more open to experiment and self-reinvention. There is something to this, but it is probably not, as Mr. Horowitz seems to suggest, simply a matter of national character. This is especially the case when so many of the émigrés, whether they held German or Soviet passports, were actually Jews — a fact Mr. Horowitz recognizes, but never grants any real importance.
A more plausible reason why some artists thrived while others withered has to do with the timing and motives of their emigration. Most of the Germans who came to America after 1933 were political refugees. They had been deprived of homeland, language, audience, and possessions at a stroke — usually because they were Jewish, but sometimes, as in the cases of Brecht and Mann, because they were outspoken antifascists. For such exiles, America was like a lifeboat, a place to survive but not a home to live in. Not coincidentally, many of these refugees ended up going back to Germany, or at least to Europe, during the McCarthy period, when America's erstwhile hospitality was replaced by shameful bullying of its eminent guests.

Most of the emigrants from the Soviet Union, on the other hand, were not political exiles. Vladimir Nabokov, whose father had been a leading liberal politician under the tsarist regime, was an exception to the rule. Much more often, the "Russians" — who were generally Georgians like Balanchine (born George Balanchivadze), or Armenians like the theater director Rouben Mamoulian, or Jews like the set designer Boris Aronson — left the Soviet Union before it had become implacably opposed to experimentation in the arts. In the 1920s, in fact, many Soviet artists still believed in the false dawn of the revolution, and some who had fled the turmoil of the civil war actually returned to Russia. Those who went to America were motivated, like generations of immigrants before them, by a desire for a better life. As Balanchine put it, "We were hungry all the time. We dreamed of moving anywhere at all, just to get away … I always knew: if there were ever an opportunity, I'd leave!"
Artists who arrived in America with an immigrant's mentality, as opposed to an exile's, had a much better chance of flourishing. Balanchine, of course, was a legendary success, single-handedly creating the tradition of American ballet. But even Mamoulian and Aronson, whose careers in the theater were far from smooth, at least managed to do important, influential work: They were not condemned to the kind of compromise that afflicted a Weill or a Fritz Lang. The tragedy of Mr. Horowitz's book is that those success stories, as he writes, "can be counted on the fingers of one hand." And even the immigrants who had most reason to thank America could seldom bring themselves to love her. When Balanchine handed over the reins of New York City Ballet to the Danish dancer Peter Martins, Mr. Horowitz writes in a fascinating footnote, he was heard to say, "At least he's European"

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