San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



November 1966

The Crises in Germany
Salome in Berlin
German Squares
Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug
“What Do You Think of Berlin?”
The State of German Theater
It’s Still Square in Europe
Hamburg Again
A Superb Modern Opera
Welcome to England
The Lesson of Italy’s Floods
How Europe Sees the U.S. Election
Nazi Resurgence?




The Crises in Germany

BERLIN. — Just as I said, the convergence of crises —

• That in the German air force caused by the disastrous Starfighter program;

• That in international relations caused by the Vietnam war;

• That in international economic relations caused by the feverish American economy, which continues to teeter on the brink of grave disorder, the internal German infection with the fever originating in America — which has resulted in Chancellor Erhard’s program of planification designed to save the “economic miracle of postwar Germany,” and which, because it necessitates a large measure of control of wages, prices and capital investment, has met with widespread resistance;

• And last, the disintegrating effect on European political relations of De Gaulle’s bid for leadership of a “Europe of Fatherlands,” actually for a French-German dominated revolt against the United States’ hegemony in Europe.

All these factors have converged to an ever-sharpening point — a spearhead aimed directly at the heart of the present German government.

And who is sharpening the spearhead: A coalition of the Adenauer faction of the Christian Democrats, a large, heterogeneous coalition of groups within the Social Democrats, and an ever-increasing number of small and splinter parties and groups who smell the sweet spoor of power for the first time.

They may, if they help bring down the Erhard coalition, get a teeny weeny scrap of the offal of the kill — half a kidney or the tip of the tail.

Meanwhile, Johnson the Second continues to talk about the Pacific and Indian Oceans the way Napoleons First and Second, and Mussolini, and the Sultan of Turkey and the Holy Roman Emperors, talked about the Mediterranean — “Mare Nostrum” — our sea. And where are those gentlemen now?

The shift of American power from Europe gives the statesmen of Europe nightmares — nightmares of a clandestine, tacit agreement between Russia and the United States, never to be mentioned and always to be covered up with ritual abuse.

Yet when Erhard visits the White House to negotiate for greater flexibility and independence, he emerges from his conferences with Johnson the Second tied still more tightly to the chariot of Juggernaut . . . both economically and militarily.

So what happens? The Adenauer group at last comes out openly, “Erhard must go!” “Gerstenmaier for Chancellor!” “Closer union with De Gaulle!” “For an independent Europe!”

And two days after his return from the U.S. the polls show that Erhard’s support has dropped to half of the vote that elected him.

As a reward, Johnson the Second announces that he plans still further reduction of U.S. forces in Europe, and the Americans at the World Bank meeting win their fight for gold and for the dollar.

I make so bold as to prophesy that if things continue on the present course we will see an ever-growing revolt against American world hegemony and a total realignment of forces, both internal and external, in Europe.

[November 1, 1966]



Salome in Berlin

BERLIN. — As readers of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories know, Germany on the eve of Hitler’s seizure of power was by way of being a pornocracy. Until the recent American explosion, there had been nothing like certain circles in Berlin and Hamburg since the decadence of Rome and Baghdad.

The streets around the Zoo railroad station in Berlin still swarm with homosexual prostitutes, and there are rather dismal sadie-mazie bars on Augbergerstrasse, and there is Hamburg, as crowded with tarts as 19th-century Liverpool, but to a visitor fresh from the Oversexed United States, Germany seems positively prissy. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the theater, opera and ballet.

For instance, all the bawdy horseplay between Azdak and the busty and bottomy Ludovica in The Caucasian Chalk Circle was toned down to a couple of gentle pats that would not offend a deaconess.

Most startling was the Salome we saw in Munich. If you bowdlerize Shakespeare, you still have most of Shakespeare left, but if you bowdlerize this perverse exhibition which combines so perfectly the kinky arts of Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss, you don’t have much reason left to put the thing on at all.

The American girl, Felicia Weathers, who sings Salome, does a wonderful job. She is in the tradition of all-out Salomes, who act the role to the hilt as well as sing it, that began with Mary Garden. Miss Weathers has become famous all over the world for her interpretation and she certainly should be brought to San Francisco. (She has the additional merit of actually looking exactly like Salome as you imagine her — something true of no one else but Alla Nazimova.)

She wants to give it all she’s got, all that Wilde and Strauss put in it, but you can see the director, or the community taste of Munich, or both, hold her back.

The dance is a girlish romp. You feel she takes off those seven veils as she gets hot — in the ordinary, mundane, not metaphorical sense.

The head is delivered to her discreetly wrapped up, looking rather like a partridge in parchment. She squirms around it on the floor, and lifts the wrapping and peeks at it a couple of times in a kittenish way.

Finally at the climax, where she is supposed to stand up, hold the head by the hair and kiss the dead lips — which makes Herod say in a final agony of disgust, his back to the audience, “Kill her!” — Felicia Weathers picks up platter and all and stands, holding it amidships, like a waitress with a tray of antipasto, and sings out at the audience. The effect is sublimely ridiculous.

It all utterly baffled the French and American people who shared the box with us, and we decided it was a demonstration of the Munich consensus.

The amusing thing is that the Germans, who are extremely defensive about everything you criticize, spring instantly to their own defense as very dirty-minded fellows indeed. However, my girl’s knee-length skirts, extremely conservative in San Francisco, elicit wolf howls of “Mini-Rock!” from the middle-aged hot bloods of Berlin, and the customs have held up some books from Grove Press, as well as their Evergreen Review!

[November 3, 1966]



German Squares

BERLIN. — For two weeks I have been driving about Germany guided by a Viereck. (This is German for Square, and German Vierecks are much squarer than American Squares, as French Carrés are much fancier.)

Honestly, though often I may have given the contrary impression, I have no objection to this type. I know that Squares are anthropoids, of the same genus, if not the same species, as myself, and I have a Buddhist love of all living creatures, as well as a special interest in anthropology.

But you know how us anthropoids are, each to his coconut tree — we are “territorial” as they say in zoology. So, although I pass this related species constantly in my daily rounds, and smile with the friendliness of a fellow creature in a noncompeting intellectual food chain — to them their coconuts, to me my breadfruit — I go my way and I let them go theirs.

I never thought I would spend two weeks in the latter days of life in the constant company of one. However, if you don’t care for Vierecks, you shouldn’t come to Germany, because they are the dominant fauna — the ecological climax — and there aren’t many other kinds of anthropoids running loose. Although many hairy ones with tails are to be found in zoos, the pink-skinned rhomboids and rhombuses to which I am related are very, very scarce, and it takes a trained, scientific eye to recognize the German varieties, because the four sides are almost imperceptibly unequal, and off the right angle.

There are some called Gammiers, which is German for Beatnik, whose bible is Lipton’s Holy Barbarians — it’s in German — and who go about in a most disheveled condition, under the impression they are making like Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and alas, Rexroth. But like 99 and 44/100 percent of the inhabitants of Haight-Ashbury and the East Village, this is just protective coloration, like the edible moths whose spots imitate indigestible butterflies.

My guide was a very nice fellow indeed, friendly, companionable, and well informed on almost any conceivable subject, and he was incredibly efficient and polite. But he had formulas for dealing with all the contingencies of life. He already had several formulas prepared for dealing with me, and when they broke down he was a bit at a loss for a moment, but he always had an alternate to replace the broken one.

Never did he just relax, ride with the general chaos of life and accept a relationship with another human being as continuously unpredictable by its very nature.

Basic American concepts — the real foundation stones of that famous “American Way of Life” — words like ”polyvalent,” “multiphasic,” “pluralistic,” “multiple choice” — the life attitude, the inner source of action, which is an organic faith that life is never to be encompassed by any chain of syllogisms, any dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, or any and all mathematical systems put together — all this was incomprehensible to him.

Not intellectually — he was perfectly well aware of the nature of characteristic American thinking and coping. In fact, he doubtless could turn out a respectable thesis on “The Heterogeneity of the American Society and Its Reflection in Neo-Pragmatism” which would then be taught in American schools.

I am a man who has carefully nurtured his own maximum heterogeneity, and he had a formula for dealing with Rexroth the Heterogeneous Man — something like Gödel’s proof, that no mathematical system can be self-contained and totally self-explanatory.

He couldn’t understand why his Gödel’s proof as it applied to one Rexroth didn’t work very smoothly . . . it must be something seriously wrong with me, a defect in my heterogeneity.

For example, I was talking about the new movement of radical reform in the Catholic Church and of how hard it was to find the people in a foreign country, most especially when you don’t speak the language, since really they were distinguishable by a quality of sensibility, in the final analysis a special kind of prayer life, rather than adherence to a program, much less an organization.

“Oh,” said he, “it is very simple. We should go to a Catholic university and ask to speak to an expert on the subject who would then recommend the proper contact.” Unhunh.

He also thought it necessary to defend all things German, or at least West German. If I said Oscar Schlemmer was not as good a painter as Willy Baumeister, or the Hamburg Ballet was not as good as the Düsseldorf, up he came with a quiet, well-reasoned defense of Schlemmer or Hamburg.

Dead or alive, it made no difference — even if you quoted German authorities. When I said I agreed with Rilke, who said he found Faust unreadable, for once I left him speechless — until he decided it was an American intellectual joke of the Germanic formula: “New Yorker Humor.”

Don’t for a moment think this column is just whimsy, or concerned only with one individual. This is the essential difference between Americans and Germans, and the primary cause of failure of communication and resulting exasperation.

[November 6, 1966]



Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug

BERLIN. — Somehow the best theatrical performance we have yet seen in Germany got lost in the rescheduling of these columns. This was Die Wanze (The Bedbug), by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the greatest of Russia’s Communist poets, and the greatest poet of any country to work in the now, except for his poetry, practically extinct and forgotten Futurist literary idiom.

He killed himself long ago, in the very beginning of Stalin’s totalitarianization of Russian literature, and although the propaganda machine made him a kind of artificial folk hero, his plays were seldom performed.

The Bedbug is purportedly a satire on the abuses of the NEP period in Russia, the days of the New Economic Policy in the late twenties, when an upstart class of vulgar new rich, speculators, wheeler-dealers, and confidence men sprang up. The play is a Party Line play, designed to prepare the way for a return to State Socialism, the Five-Year Plans, the complete liquidation of private business, and the collectivization of agriculture.

Mayakovsky lived to see little of this, and nothing of the great blood purges and the wholesale destruction of the peasantry. He protested with a bullet through his own head at the very outset.

So the play is a complex piece of duplicity, in the manner of his disciple, Bert Brecht. Like Brecht, Mayakovsky speaks for the indomitable biological humanism, for the simple lusty animal, homo sapiens, whom nothing can kill permanently.

The Bedbug is a clown play, the story of a rambunctious parvenu, who, after many adventures, is killed in a fire at his wedding feast, but who is frozen and resurrected in what to Mayakovsky seemed the distant future, actually just about now.

The scientific, computerized, automated society of the latter day decides that although he is obviously a dangerous violent madman, to keep him alive because an entomologist has discovered that he, a member of the extinct species, Worker, is the only possible host for an extinct insect which has been resurrected with him, a bedbug.

The play was not first performed in Russia, but in Berlin, designed and directed by Meyerhold, the greatest theatricalist director of all time. This new production is essentially a careful reconstruction, a little cleaner in line and more efficient, of that production, even to the slightly ramshackle “constructions” by the Russian Constructivist Tatlin, which dominate the first two stage sets — the laboratory of the Future is much more impressive.

The acting is straight out of vaudeville and the circus, as Meyerhold wanted it to be, and the lead was taken by Germany’s greatest comic actor, Ernst Schroeder.

Expertly performed, designed, and directed, it is still an absolutely unparalleled theatrical experience. It is a pity this Berlin production, much truer to the original than the recent ones in Paris and Moscow, cannot be picked up in toto, with this cast, and most especially Schroeder, and sent around the world on tour. It would certainly do a world of good.

[November 8, 1966]



“What Do You Think of Berlin?”

BERLIN. — It is like old-time Californians and the climate, straight off on meeting everybody asks you, “What do you think of Berlin?” From the editor of the highbrow magazine Monat to ditch diggers, taxi drivers and girls in bars, they all seem to want to be reassured that they aren’t dying with a dying city.

I often answer that, if the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier symbolizes Vienna in the Indian summer of its long drawn out decay, so Berlin is a Marschallin the Second, a beautiful, damaged, but carefully repaired kept woman. Everything about the city is just a little paled out with parasitism.

Statistically West Berlin has, in money values, the highest industrial production of any city in West Germany, and East Berlin the highest in East Germany. Partly this is illusory — the great metropolis of Essen, Cologne, Düsseldorf and other central Rhineland cities are not all one town, and in many instances the major industries in that area lie outside any city limits.

Still, if the two Berlins were combined, their industrial production would be as great as that of any city between the French border and the Urals.

True, much of this is subsidized by West Germany and the USA for West Berlin, and in very recent years Russia and East Berlin have started to encourage similar development of the eastern sector. Still, this is a case where you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink unless he’s thirsty.

Socially, however, Berlin life is just a little unreal — the most loving kept woman still remains something of an actress. The Russians and the Americans and the East and West Germans keep hundreds of people busy with an immense Hitchcock spy movie.

Behind the scenes, for instance, in a couple of flashy underworld hotels just off the main street, things can get pretty rough and ugly at times, but mostly it’s all a James Bond thriller rewritten for the Reader’s Digest, 007s who have taken doctorates at Swarthmore and talk like liberal ministers who dig Ionesco.

They are all still busy fighting the Cold War, as of ten years ago, and can’t understand how or why you can be what they consider cynical and indifferent about it. You must be up to something very sneaky indeed.

Also, this results in universal Tomism. Berliners, at least in public, say what they think Americans want to hear. Well they might Tom anybody from America — you never know who you are talking to. The other night I went to what purported to be a party of mildly Leftish-Liberalish complexion. The cocktail conversation was the most extraordinary double talk.

Furthermore, I am sure they all knew one another well and had been hobnobbing at parties like this for years. I wonder what percentage of the guests went home that night and typed up reports before retiring? What fun! Trouble is, when push comes to shove, as it does by fits and starts, this fun can turn deadly. It is not all as innocent bed play as that lovely Marschallin juggling her two lovers.

[November 10, 1966]



The State of German Theater

BERLIN. — Since what I came over for was “to observe the traditional and avant-garde theater in Europe, and especially in Germany,” it’s about time I did a comprehensive report. I haven’t seen any avant-garde theater, except the American exile company, The Living Theater, and they weren’t doing an avant-garde play, but the politically infantile and artistically reactionary play, The Brig.

I haven’t seen any traditional theater in the strict sense, because I haven’t been anywhere when it was being performed — sooner or later I hope to see the representative plays of Goethe, Schiller, et al.

If an avant-garde theater exists in Germany above the level of the rankest amateurism, I have yet to find it. There are two companies in Berlin, one of which, the Hallischer Theater, has asked me to direct. But when I suggested a deadpan agitprop, Blue Blouse production of Bert Brecht’s The Measure Taken, and pointed out how relevant it was to what is happening in China today, everybody got scared. I then discover that Brecht’s relict, Helene Weigel, forbids its production in Germany, West. Naturally they are not going to do it in Germany, East. A generation ago it was performed for three nights only and shook the German Communist Party to its foundations.

What you see in Germany is enormously accomplished standard, middlebrow repertory. It is impossible to convey to an American how good this is.

You see, in the States we are the victims of several converging streams of theatrical corruption. First, there is the old Broadway, Up in Mabel’s Room, now still surviving on a pseudo-intellectual level in people like the Lunts, and with an amazing number of young followers who should know better.

Then there is The Method (Stanislavsky) for the C average students at New York High School for the Performing Arts. This is not a tradition but a sickness.

Then there is the Burton-Olivier Cornball Tradition, Edwardian ham grown rank with time, like a bad wine.

Then there’s the movies.

Then there’s television. For a young American actor, director, or designer, to get at great theater is as difficult as getting into a city completely besieged by five powerful armies — if you were not sure of where the city is, or even if it exists. No such problem exists in Germany.

We saw The Caucasian Chalk Circle in Krefeld, a town comparable to Toledo, Ohio. Every character was accurately cast and completely convincing, yet the play was stripped down to the essential stuff of dramatic impact, like a carnival or circus, a perfect exemplification of Brecht’s alienation.

In Frankfurt, Harmut Lange’s Marski, a deadpan whimsy about a collective farmer. Satire? Communist propaganda? Propaganda for greater humanity to the Communists? Lange is a consummate Brechtian, his duplicity is as unfathomable as his master’s. The design was by the same man who did the Krefeld job — Roman Weyl. Marski, a Falstaffian type, was played by Hans Dieter Zeidler, terribly funny and enormously skillful.

Then to Munich for a new play by Dürrenmatt. Typical Dürrenmatt, like a routine detective story. I knew exactly what would happen the moment the principal character entered. It is the story of a Nobel Prize winner who escapes from his hospital death bed and comes back to his old studio to die.

He rents the place from the young artist and wife who are the present tenants, burns up $3 million in prize money and royalties, while his minister who has tracked him to his hideout dies of transports of wonder and joy at the vision of such Christian contempt for worldly goods. From then on everybody who is breakable, breaks. All they need to do is to touch this old man mad with life, and they die or collapse. The scene where he wakes up after his own funeral and, with the help of a violent crazy poet who has survived in the same studio building all the years since the old days, throws the wreaths out the window, is one of the funniest bits in contemporary theater.

By this time I have begun to wonder, why the popularity of these Falstaffian plays? I think the answer is simple. Germany is not as bad off as America, but young men of equal stature are not coming up. For all the large audiences, for all the state support, for all the strength of a genuine theatrical tradition, theater in Germany is withering, too, almost imperceptibly, and still just at the edges, but withering nonetheless. More important, crucial in fact, is that the withering is taking place at the growing point.

It is the pre-Hitler people who are great, while the young men, however ambitious, simply can’t match the old professional complete competence and confidence. They are subtly corrupted by amateurism and the movies, and when the part gets deep, they are over their depth. Interestingly enough, this is by no means so true of the young women.

Germany needs what America has, a vigorous, academic and avant-garde theater to lead a breakthrough into a new dramatic universe — post-Artaud, post-Beckett, post-Brecht — a Neotheater, so to speak. This, unfortunately, it seems to lack.

[November 13, 1966]



It’s Still Square in Europe

BERLIN. — For the last few days, at the Literary Colloquium where I am staying in Berlin, the young English movie man George Moorse has been doing a film, an updated version of Kleist’s The Foundling, one of the most psychologistic of the fictions of the Romantic Era.

Kleist’s grave is only a few hundred feet from here, on the banks of the Little Wannsee, and he and his mistress stayed in the old post house down the street the night before they killed themselves. I say they did it because of the appallingly bad food.

Anyway, they’ve been filming in some of the more photogenic settings around Berlin, and now they are doing a rock dance downstairs in the ballroom of this ex-palace, ex-Nazi elite brothel. Everybody’s got up and shaking, but somehow it all looks provincial.

Mary took one look at it and said, “A bad imitation, on a very small scale, of the Fillmore Auditorium.”

There is no question but that the furtherest out young Europeans have very little idea of the vast scope of the cultural revolution that has seized on their like numbers in San Francisco, but then, with all its money for research and “saturation coverage,” does Life magazine, to judge from its recent psychedelic art story?

When you tell them that the sound and light equipment that goes with the major rock groups would fill two average-size rooms I am sure they don’t believe you. And when you tell them of the huge masses that turn out for things like the Voznesensky-Ferlinghetti reading and rock dance, or for the Artists’ Liberation Front Benefit, and all the stuff that went on — they don’t believe you either.

That’s it — it’s all awfully square, even in England — even more so in England, where the Carnaby Street scene is actually a diversion of the rich, young and evil — baby duchesses who spend 200 pounds for yé-yé clothes and take methies and read the forgotten romances of Jack Kerouac.

What makes it so square? It lacks the bite of the San Francisco scene. These people don’t mean business — they are just trying to annoy their mothers. They may be part of the worldwide secession of the young from the Social Lie — but insofar as they aren’t just wearing funny clothes and smoking grass, they are part of it only by participation in the living thing that flows from San Francisco as the primary source.

In San Francisco have arisen all the basic determinants of post-War Two culture — of post-modern culture, if you will. At the source the meanings are loud and clear. Along Telegraph Avenue or Haight Street people are living in full possession of a new kind of world. In London, and even more in Berlin, they are mostly just bobby-soxers and jitterbugs and zoot suiters, brought up to date.

[November 15, 1966]



Hamburg Again

HAMBURG. — Stopped off on our way to London and Amsterdam at Hamburg once again to see the opening of Gunther Schuller’s opera, The Visitation.

And, once again, let me say that if you are touring Germany, don’t leave out Hamburg. It is a stately city like a combination of Liverpool and Copenhagen, very masculine, a city of merchants.

Not only was it eventually the principal city of the Hanseatic League of late medieval free cities that controlled most of the trade of northern Europe, the Baltic and Russia, but we know that this was no new phenomenon. Recent archeological research has shown that the palisaded walled cities, usually approached by narrow causeways across a marsh, occupied by militarily organized trading brotherhoods, with very few women, and they mostly captives from the surrounding natives, go back to the very beginnings of civilization in the North.

This goes a long way to explain the abiding characteristics of Hamburg — just as the free-for-all morality of the Gold Rush explains the anti-puritanism of San Francisco.

We stayed at the guest house, Hotel Alster Ruhe, in a quiet residential neighborhood overlooking a canal from the Alster, the lake at the center of Hamburg, with swans and pleasure boats going by and the bateaux-mouches, vaporettos, or waterborne autobuses chugging along.

Dinner at the Zum Hanseaten just off the Jungfernstieg where a stair leads down to a landing on another canal.

The food is excellent, with a number of Hamburg specialties, and the window tables look out on the water and the swans swim by in dozens in the dusk and bed down for the night on the water in an immense cluster across the canal, like a huge white cumulus cloud in the dark. There is one place like this in Venice and it costs about ten times as much. Later supper at the Brahms wine house.

Hamburg is one of the best theater towns in Germany, with several very adventurous directors at the Stadt Theater and a repertory much like the old Actor’s Workshop, but with a far better corps of actors. It has one of the four best ballets in Germany, with its own style and several originals in the repertory. But best of all it has one of the world’s most extraordinary operas.

The set-up of management in German opera is too complicated to explain. I’m not sure I understand the chain of command myself, but Hamburg seems to be blessed with a staff of commanding officers, directors, dramaturgs, designers, etc., who share the conviction that opera is still a living art, and a theatrical art at that.

They have commissioned a large number of new pieces in the last few years, several by Americans or with American librettos. And they have produced them with first-class, but not grande luxe, singers, beautifully mounted, and as music dramas, not costumed oratorios.

This time they surpassed themselves. Gunther Schuller, I make bold to say, has written what is to my mind the only really good large-scale American opera, and the only one likely to stay in the world repertory. Let’s hope we can put on The Visitation as soon as possible. More come Sunday about it.

[November 17, 1966]



A Superb Modern Opera

HAMBURG. — I commented recently that Gunther Schuller’s The Visitation, the world premiere of which we saw here, is to my mind the only good large-scale American opera and the only one likely to stay in the world repertory, and by that statement I stand. (What are the small-scale ones? Aria da Capo and Four Saints.)

Schuller has taken Kafka’s The Trial, located it in a modern American small city and given it a black hero. The possibilities of such an idea are enormous and Schuller has taken full advantage of them.

Here at last is a man who knows what makes opera work, and who goes after it and makes it tick. Carmen, Tosca, Pagliacci, Aida, Butterfly, all the “top ten” of opera that every company must show at least once every couple of years — they are all distinguished by driving, melodramatic plots, full of action and conflict, in other words, a “story line” that sustains musical invention and continuously gives it point.

(Schuller visited San Francisco late last week and went into a huddle with Kurt Herbert Adler, San Francisco Opera general director. It appears very likely that his “Visitation” will have an Opera House performance next season. —Editor)

The average sophisticated person nowadays will tell you that opera is a dead art. Some will say that great works were written in the past but can be no longer, for all sorts of reasons. Others dismiss the whole shouting match from Monteverdi to plain Verdi as musical and personal ostentation, a chance for composers, singers and audience to show off.

Now the average contemporary composer is also the average sophisticated person. Almost all modern operas give evidence of being written in obvious disbelief.

Gunther Schuller just as obviously believes in opera. He has something to say that he thinks can be said no other way, and it excites him. This passionate belief immediately — within the first few bars — communicates itself to the audience.

He believes the opera is the thing — the whole thing together — orchestra, voices, acting, decor, lights, and most important — drama. So The Visitation has a power, a compactness, a conviction to be found in only a tiny handful of contemporary operas.

True, Schuller is as eclectic as Puccini before him. He takes his musical materials from a half dozen different schools of modern music. Even the jazz echoes by turns Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, John Handy, but mostly the Modern Jazz Quartet, with soul music, gospel singers and Austin High School thrown in for good measure. Yet it all fits because it is always communicating, it is held together both by musical devices and by the insistence of its dramatic meaning.

Schuller is very smart. He doesn’t try to write about something he cannot know much about. The hero, Kafka’s “K,” is not a character like some of those of Richard Wright’s, a Negro shut away from the white world in a purely Negro world, but an American “assimilado,” one Carter Jones, a man like all of us, with a light brown skin, who simply wants to be a complete human being.

McHenry Boatwright interprets the part with great subtlety and never strikes a false note — in his acting — his singing is simply superb.

Felicia Weathers, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite people in opera ever since I saw her Salome in Munich, plays the part of a minx of a housemaid who seduces Carter in a sort of sexual blitzkrieg. Maybe she was restrained by the prissiness of the Munich establishment, for she certainly went all out in the more broad-minded city of Hamburg.

After the bone-chilling climax, one of the masterpieces of combination of acting, singing, orchestra, lighting (which was hair-raising), choreography and decor, the audience launched into the longest ovation I have ever heard. I started timing it a little late, but it ran, a continuous roar of applause, for 27 minutes after I looked at my watch. And from the whole audience, not just a few enthusiasts who stayed on as a voluntary claque.

Needless to say, it left everybody in the company a little hysterical. Rolf Liebermann, the director, was walking on air at the supper afterwards, and Boatwright and Schuller must have gone and rested somewhere, because they showed up late, but still shaken. I agree with Liebermann, this is the best opera since Wozzeck or Lulu, with the sole exception of Stravinsky’s.

The Hamburg Opera is without doubt the most adventurous in the world today, and when it comes to New York, bringing Henry Miller’s Smile at the Foot of the Ladder and Egk’s ballet Abraxas (which is based on Heine’s Faust ballet, in which the devil is a woman, Mephistopheles is Mephistophela, like a ballet libretto I wrote once), as well as The Visitation, I would say that if you can afford it, it would be well worth the trip to New York.

If they never come to San Francisco, these are three things that we should add to the local repertory — as well as inviting Boatwright and Miss Weathers, and letting them sing anything they want.

[November 20, 1966]



Welcome to England

LONDON. — “London, of all towns thou art the a per se.”* So said the ancient poet Lydgate, and right he was and still is (San Francisco is the je ne sais quoi or the something else). The Empire is gone and the Commonwealth is falling apart and may never survive the Rhodesian crisis and there are about 20 other crises going full blast right now. But it is still, again like San Francisco, The City, although of course the term “The City” means financial London.

In fact, as its juridical role as the center of an empire vanishes, it seems to become ever more international, ever more the focus of an association of peoples on whom the sun never sets. We could feel it immediately we got off the plane.

London is jumping in a way no German city ever could jump. And it is courteous, not just formally polite. The Germans are continuously saying “bitte” and “danke,” “please” and “thank you.” There may be some significance in the fact that this is a characteristic shared by the Germans, Japanese and Italians. Ordinary Germans are genuinely concerned, but it’s just an empty formality among the overwhelming mass of bureaucrats.

The English, on the other hand, instantly convey, without any polite vocables, that they do care personally about your welfare. I have never understood the insensitivity of foreigners who cannot see beyond the proverbial English reserve. It is a reserve of good will, and all you have to do is tap it.

If you don’t need him, the Englishman thinks the courteous thing to do is to leave you to your own devices. The old England of silent, chance companions at a dining car table is gone, as extinct as the five bonny daughters of the vicar of All Hallows Barking by the Tower who once in their muslin dresses served high tea to the ladies of St. Hilda’s Guild and the Toc H Mothers.

The English are great hands at being very British about signs that in other countries have long been internationalized. As you leave the airport and take off by bus for London, you are greeted by a large sign that says, “WAY OUT.”

We got bedded down in our Bloomsbury bed and breakfast for 25 shillings lodgings and then went off through the rain in an ancient taxi to have beers with Geoffrey Bridson at the BBC club or canteen, and then to Soho for dinner. The English were all so lovely, and the food, even though it purported to be Italian, was all so horrible. But I do love that warm brown bitter beer.

And Geoff Bridson, whom I’ve known for years, has never acquired that chrome steel soul of American TV and radio big shots. Even though now I think he is not top dog, but maybe fifth dog down in the BBC infrastructure, he is just as civilized and relaxed as he was when he was a young poet writing for T.S. Eliot’s magazine The Criterion and just as friendly, and the years, as they seem to do with English intellectuals, have greatly increased his sense of humor. (Who ever heard of a U.S. communications director with a sense of humor?)

[November 22, 1966]

*Rexroth is quoting from memory. The actual line is by Lydgate’s near-contemporary William Dunbar: “London, thou art of townes A per se” (i.e. preeminent, in a class by itself).



The Lesson of Italy’s Floods

LONDON. — Reading of the disastrous Italian floods, the Californian naturally recalls the equally violent ones north of San Francisco just a few years ago and wonders if the watershed of the Arno has suffered the same destruction as the basin of the Eel River. “The worst floods in history” must be due to something new, for the history of Florence goes back to the beginnings of history itself.

Yes — just as in the California Coast Range, the Apennine chain has been subjected to ever-accelerating deforestation, overgrazing, elimination of all the factors that hold back runoff — destruction of the environment in other words. When unusually torrential rains hit, the environment gives way.

There have doubtless been far worse rainstorms in the past 2500 years, but the watershed has reached a critical point in degeneration, and it snapped, like an overloaded bridge under the last critical half ton.

The damage along the Eel River was stupendous. What had been, when I first saw it 40 years ago, California’s loveliest river, was turned into a wide ruin of gravel and sandbars. This took place in a wilderness of cut-over land. Imagine if the floods had happened in San Francisco itself and had come and gone through lands as rich as the Napa Valley vineyards and the best San Joaquin Valley farms.

Florence and the valleys of the Po, the Arno, the Adige and the Tagliamento were devastated. They were unprepared, but they certainly were not unwarned. For the past 10 years Italy’s water engineers have been telling the country that this was bound to happen. They submitted a flood-control program that would have cost about $3 billion over a 10-year period. It would have taken care of the minimum measures necessary to avert disaster, and would also have been a great economic shot in the arm and a partial solution of Italy’s unemployment problem.

Today it would have been finished for almost five years and would be paying for itself in increased agricultural production, hydroelectric power, and general prosperity in the back country.

Instead, about a quarter of that bare minimum was appropriated and much of that was spent on hydroelectric development which only incidentally affected flood control.

Unless water programs could be justified by direct returns to industrial development, they have been by and large ignored, or at best starved with tokenism.

Eighty percent of the livestock of Tuscany has been destroyed and thousands of acres of vineyards — furthermore, these were Chianti-producing vineyards, an export vital to Italy’s balance of trade. And most of the industry in Tuscany — which is situated along the rivers — has been knocked out.

Immediate net losses will total at least $2 billion. Florence estimates her “intangible” losses in art treasures and other assets difficult to price as at least $200 million. Italy’s economic development program for the next 10 years has been completely disrupted.

Let Californians take the lesson to heart. You can’t gamble with ecology. If you abuse the environment it will surely strike back.

[November 24, 1966]



How Europe Sees the U.S. Election

LONDON. — The amount of American coverage in a European newspaper is astonishing. Even consistently anti-American weeklies like the British New Statesman give almost as much space to American events and comment as to British — and at crucial times, usually more.

The reason is obvious — what happens in America makes all the difference. What happens in Britain or Holland or Germany may make very little, and that little will be determined by events in America.

So of course the European press paid close attention to the American election campaigns and to their results. Even in France, the more serious dailies gave about as much space to the subject as did the Paris Herald Tribune. To talk Texas, what was the European “consensus”?

The opinions were remarkably uniform, clear across the political spectrum, from extreme right to orthodox Communist. First, the Republicans got the absolute maximum vote that could have been expected after a Democratic Congress, which, under Presidential leadership, had tried to give goodies to everybody. Given the circumstances, it was a landslide.

Second. It was motivated by personal dislike and distrust of Johnson the Second on the part of each voter who pulled a Republican lever. It was not motivated by “white backlash,” by economic conservatism or by clearly defined opposition to the Vietnam war. It was motivated by personal reaction to the personality of a man. A year ago I said that the country was heading into a crisis of confidence. European editors agreed that the Republican vote is a direct symptom of that crisis, which is now heading toward maturity. It is like a huge carbuncle that shows that something is wrong in the bloodstream.

Even the Communist press has pointed out that the vote in Dearborn and the election of Mark Hatfield may indicate disgust with the war, but they by no means indicate that the American public is at present willing to demand the abandonment of the White House policy in favor of General de Gaulle’s.

Third. The Republican Party has not only been saved from destruction by its extreme right wing, but the old-time progressive Republican movement has made an amazing comeback after a generation of Democratic captivity.

On the whole, the European press was pleased with the election. Johnson the Second is no better liked over here than in San Antonio. But the real reason is that, insofar as they have spoken on foreign policy, the educated liberal Republicans who have won governorships and senatorial seats are European minded, they are not intoxicated with dreams of manifest destiny in the Pacific.

Further, the balance of power in America now permits European politicians much greater freedom of maneuver.

There is one exception to the generally optimistic view of the elections, and that of course is the new governor of California. His election was received with what might be best described as giggles of fear and titters of disbelief. German election campaigns are coming more and more to be managed by PR firms, many of whom send people to the States to work with their colleagues and learn the ropes. One German commentator has warned that the Reagan campaign, and to a lesser degree those of both Nixon and the Kennedys, may foreshadow a time when the apparent heads of government will be empty celebrities whose only content has been poured into them by a public relations organization, and that such content will be determined exclusively by what will sell the candidate, not by real issues, much less principles.

He goes on to say that the electoral process, and the parliamentary process, may already have ceased to represent the realities of power if they produce leaders who are little more than well-designed boxes of breakfast food.

[November 27, 1966]



Nazi Resurgence?

BERLIN. — The entire world press seems to be greatly agitated by the sudden election gains of the German right wing National Democratic Party in the provincial elections in Hesse and Bavaria.

“Nazi comeback! Resurgence of fascism!” Is this what is happening? Are the old Nazis returning? No. They have never left. You can hardly call Kiesinger’s recent bid for power a comeback.

There are plenty of ex-Nazis in positions of power on both sides of the Wall, fewer in the Social Democrats, rather more in the Christian Democrats and Strauss’s Bavarian offshoot thereof.

In the East they have positions of administrative power, but determinative power and policy are confined to the Bolsheviks.

Here is the clue, concealed in those two words, “Nazi” and “Bolshevik.” Germany, but also all of Europe, is governed by old men, a conspiracy of the aged. Even in Britain, Scandinavia and The Netherlands the younger generation plays no significant role in politics.

There is nothing, anywhere in Europe, like the careful cultivation of the New Left, the Revolt of Youth, by the Kennedy machine.

As for local apparats — a system of alliances and a web of influence like that built up by the Burtons in the Bay Area — it is inconceivably in Europe. When you describe it to sophisticated European political observers they are astonished . . . and envious. “Show us how it’s done.” I could easily get a full-time, well-paid job.

An important factor in any of the recent Republican victories was precisely this cultivation of the young. Not the very young, but the junior executives, the young engineers, and Playboy magazine types in the so-called new professions, who have suddenly, a few years out of college, found themselves in income tax brackets they didn’t even know existed.

The younger are to be found in the various ramifications of the New Left, and the Old Left simply can’t talk their language. The Oldies are still running That Man [i.e. Franklin Roosevelt] for a 10th term and fighting the Spanish Civil War.

So in Germany, the Nationalists have capitalized on the sheer boredom of the young with politics as they are. They offer the glamour of an aggressive national policy — reunification, restoration of the pre-war borders, patriotism, honor, a place in the sun, lots of tramping up and down, roaring and waving banners — strength through joy.

They are also thoroughly Poujadist, they believe that the middle class should keep all the money they can lay their hands on. Let the Americans defend Europe and help the underprivileged nations — German money for the Germans!

Since the government crisis there have appeared all over Germany posters with an outline map of prewar Germany, the slogan, “Deutschland Unser Vaterland,” and in big red letters, “CDU,” the initials of the party. This is called shaking the apple cart. It’s got a lot of apples on it and if it tips over each one can destroy a city.

[November 29, 1966]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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