Essays: The great Lenya |
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The great Lenya

ON Wednesday night’s News at Ten (ITN) Alastair Burnet was in a bitchy mood. ‘And there was more bad news for Mr Trudeau. He didn’t just lose the election. He heard that his wife was threatening to come back to him.’ I have been underestimating Alastair.

Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht: A Salute (BBC2) saluted Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht by mounting productions of ‘Little Mahagonny’ and ‘Happy End.’ Under the deft baton of David Atherton, the London Sinfonietta tootled and plunked while an assembly of British singers did their best to evoke the poisonous atmosphere of old Berlin. All they did was evoke the poisonous atmosphere of old Bournemouth, but you can’t blame people for being nice. Besides. the songs which the Radio Times tells us ‘cheerfully and sardonically castigate the bourgeois society of the 1920s’ are no longer scandalous. They retain all of their charm, but the satirical point has vanished into history. Bourgeois society carried the day.

In an absorbing Omnibus (BBC1), Lotte Lenya harked back. Now 80 years old, she has survived everything, and even knew how to survive the questions put to her by Peter Adam, the show’s producer. Peter is strong on European subjects but he has a knack for turgidity which his European accent serves only to emphasise. He paid tribute to Lenya’s woyce and described Berlin as ‘a city dancing on a wolcano.’ Lenya took it all In good part. The cameras were on her again and she has never pretended to be otherwise than madly excited by the whole idea of grabbing an audience.

Lenya’s singing, especially in German, has always been phrased just like talk. She makes most opera singers sound artificial and all popular singers sound naïve. She has lived the tragedy of modern Europe and understood it. Her reminiscences are worth more than any amount of theoretical speculation about bourgeois society being castigated. It was Peter Adam who described the ‘Threepenny Opera’ as ‘a slap in the face of bourgeois society.’ Lenya confined herself to recalling how wonderful it had felt to be in a big hit.

‘Happy End’ would have been a hit too, but Brecht’a Communist friends didn’t like its dearth of political content. On the first night Helene Weigel invaded the stage during the last scene and bored the audience out of the auditorium by reading a political pamphlet. Lenya thought highly of Brecht’s talents as a poet and director, but obviously had instinctive doubts about the castigation of bourgeois society. She was, of course, dead right.

‘What would the “Threepenny Opera” be without Kurt’s music? What would it be?’ Lenya asked rhetorically. The question was pregnant with implication and would have been well worth following up, but Mr Adam had some pregnant views of his own. ‘Soon the social message of the “Threepenny Opera” and “Mahagonny” would become bitter reality.’ Actually those operas had no social message of the slightest relevance to the rise of Nazism, which owed its success not to the innate corruption of bourgeois society but to the collapse of democratic government — an act of vandalism in which the Communists vied with the Nazis to do the most damage.

When the reckoning came, Lenya and Weill went to America and Brecht went East. Weill was a success on Broadway, but he never again met a lyricist as good as Brecht had been. Nor could Brecht himself have been as good again. Telling lies destroyed his talent. There was a lot of talent so it took a long time to destroy it, but eventually it all went. When Lenya met him again in Berlin after the war and told him that she was recording the old songs for CBS, she found that Brecht had forgotten them. By then he was full of his theories about Epic Theatre, which Lenya, with a sure instinct denied to some of our own young playwrights, recognised immediately as trash. But he still had shreds of his grandeur. Lenya was touching about him, and truly moving about her 26 years with Weill.

Horizon (BBC2) found a Caribbean Island where girls turn into boys at puberty. Apparently it’s the testosterone that works the trick. It should have worked the trick in the womb, but got held up. Nobody on the island seems too concerned about the changes, which are ascribed to the will of God. The personality alters as smoothly as the physique, which means that the psychological implications are as startling as the medical ones. Could it be that the personality differences between the genders are not, after all, learned?

In South Africa a black adolescent girl/boy of truly intersexual status was shown being turned into a boy by a kindly looking white doctor. There was some can’t-watch film of breasts being removed and bits of flesh being formed into a penis. The owner seemed happy with the results, which is all that matters. The same could be said about those instances in Britain where little boys with micro-penises are divested of them and turned into womb-less girls. There is some case for interfering with nature when nature has already interfered with itself in a way that can produce nothing but misery if left alone.

But there is a line to be drawn. An East German doctor called Dorner was shown crossing it. If the programme was worried about Dr Dorner’s activities it didn’t say so. But certainly the rats who participate in Dr Dorner’s experiments should circulate a petition or organise some kind of demonstration. To find out if the males and females have different brains, he subjects the rats to stress — a fancy way of saying that he tortures them. As so often in such cases, it is necessary to say that whatever the experiment might be telling us about its ostensible subject, it is telling us everything we need to know about the experimenter.

Dr Dorner thinks he can detect female brains In the womb. If the female brain is contained in a male baby, then Dr Dorner thinks he has detected a case of homosexuality. He has a cure for this condition. The cure comes in a long needle, which he sticks into the mother’s belly.

The idea that homosexuality needs curing is, of course, not new in Germany. Hitler was a fervent proponent. But Dr Dorner’s methods are more practicable than the Führer’s were, and we could at last be on the verge of a final solu ... of an answer to the problem. As the day of universal normality dawns, one can only feel sorry for all those queers throughout history who had to suffer without respite. Think of Caesar splashing about in the Rubicon, of Michelangelo knocking himself out up there in the ceiling, of Proust chewing his pillow because his mother forgot to kiss him goodnight. One squirt each from Dr Dorner and they could all have been as butch as Burt Reynolds.

The Observer, 27th May 1979