S. N. Behrman, to my way of thinking, is one of the most neglected of modern playwrights. Not that his plays cry of loneliness in an attic trunk, not that his produced plays do not attract customers and not that he isn’t high ly regarded by the critics, but that he hasn’t received the high approbation of the critics of the theatre this is his due. And too few critics, so far, have recognized him for the penetrating, sincere theatrical thinker that he is.
A master of dialogue, he is America’s greatest, they all say. But that is not enough. Instead of casting aspersions on his art by talking about a too-thin story, the critics might well show greater insight by discoursing on the depths and subtleties of his writings. If Elmer Rice were right about critical shortcomings, no better case could be presented than that of S. N. Behrman.
Take his latest play as a case in point. “Rain From the Heaven,” Theatre Guild presentation at the John Golden Theatre, is the best play that has yet been written about the Jewish problem in general and the Hitler question in play that isn’t set in Germany, specific instance. And it is a play that isn’t set in Germany, that doesn’t as much as once mention Hitler and in which not a single storm trooper molests a respectable Jewish family, long rooted in Germany—even to the extent of an inter-marriage or so.
PROTEST AGAINST STUPIDITY
Such are the elements of the typical Hitler play; they were the grist from which playwrighting mills turned out “Birthright,” “The Shattered Lamp,” “Kultur” and “Races.” But they are not the stuff of which “Rain From Heaven” is written.
The reason is that Behrman didn’t set out to write a polemic against Hitlerism; that his play was born in his mind around a personality and a specific instance that had the stuff of which great plays are written. In the writing, despite the maintenance of a complete neutrality, a protest against tyranny, race prejudice and class stupidity came about.
Despite the fact that Behrman is not a propagandist, “Rain From Heaven” is a propaganda play. It is a propaganda play in the same sense as the late John Galsworthy’s “Loyalties.” Both playwrights were neutral; both presented a comprehensive picture. In their appeal to the intellects of their audiences, both Behrman and Galsworthy presented unweighted debates on a given subject. It was up to the #ualences to make their own judgments, to see clearly if their minds were clear, to create propaganda from the bias that existed in their own minds.
APPEALS TO BEASON
“Rain From Heaven” is an appeal to reason. It is an appeal to the finer instincts among men. Nevertheless the characters are persons who live their own lives; they are not puppets created in the image of a playwright’s bias.
Devotees of the propaganda play —in its commonly accepted use, the proletarian play—object to Behrman’s plays on the ground that they point no solution. But is there a ready-made solution for the world’s woes; and if there is, does the theatre—more limited in scope than most of the arts—possess the capabilities to solve world problems?
Now what has Behrman done in “Rain From Heaven?” He has gathered a group of oddly-assorted characters for a talk-fest in the English country home of a lady of nobility, a woman of culture who has long made it a practice to harbor all shades of thought in her home so long as they were expounded by leading exponents. There is a young aviator, blond, vacuous and in love with his hostess. There is his brother, a leading American industrialist who sees Fascism as the only possible safeguard for his precious fortune.
REALIZATION OF TRAGEDY
There is an exiled German music critic discovered to have possessed a great grandmother of Jewish extraction. There is a Russian Royalist exile who has become quite used to being an exile. There is the stupid wife of the capitalist whose only purpose it is to act as a catalytic agent in provoking a dramatic climax.
They talk of Democracy and Communism, of Fascism and of love, of economies and of art. It is brilliant conversation, so brilliant that you become aware of the theatre’s limitations as a medium of expression for serious thought. Certainly after seeing “Rain From Heaven” you can’t help but await the play in printed forms as to extract from it treasures only half realized in the theatre.
But it is Behrman’s realization of the tragedy of the uprooted Jew that presently concerns us. It is his expression, through the medium of the critic, of his complete lack of understanding of the catastrophe that has engulfed him. This German man of culture—once Berlin’s most important music cr###—cannot understand what has happened to set the Jews apart from the rest of the world.
“THE LAST JEW!”
Hardly conscious of being a Jew at all. the critic writes a satirical pamphlet. Called “The Last Jew.” it tells of the success of the Nazi campaign against the Jews, how the last Jew is preparing to commit suicide. Then a bright young man in the Propaganda Bureau realizes the danger of ridding Germany of its Jews. The millenium has been promised Germany with the extinction of the Jews.
With the death of the last Jew, the government would have to make good its promises and. further, it would no longer have an issue around which to rally. So the government approaches this last Jew before he gets around to self-destruction. It offers to subsidize him—to put him on the government payroll and he would have no other obligation than to propagate.
After his friends turn against him the critic takes his little pamphlet to the Grand Old Man of German Letters, a man he has known for years, a man for whom he was the original torch bearer. The old man turns against the critic. Crushed, he becomes an exile.
Behrman is disappointed with the world. Hitlerism and all that it stands for, he condemns. But neither does he see Communism, that is, unless I misinterpret him. An individualist who believes that the laws of human nature are as inviolate as the law of supply and demand, he—as I see it—feels that progress can only be achieved as the individual progresses, that a higher degree of civilization is the aggregate of finer individuals.
His most vicious characterization is that of the capitalist who is money-mad and would turn everything toward his ends. It is a portrait that any Communist would endorse. But Behrman is attacking extreme capitalism, not the structure of the society. He seems to be all for what the English term “muddling through.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.