Grosz and Weill Go West

By Ratcliffe, Michael | New Statesman (1996), March 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

Grosz and Weill Go West


Ratcliffe, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


George Grosz, whose outstanding show of Berlin work from 1912 to 1930 is now at the Royal Academy, left the city with his family ten days before Hitler came to power. He joined the diaspora of the Weimar Republic which chose the eastern seaboard of America in preference to California, where he would have been obliged to party by the pool with his chum Brecht, the Mann brothers, actors and directors galore. Instead he became a drinker in New York, where he was followed in 1935 by the composer Kurt Weill.

It so happens that the Grosz show arrives on cue with Lady in the Dark (1941), the Royal National Theatre's premiere of Weill's psycho-musical and biggest American hit. They make an instructive pairing, and the custody-battle they raise will never be resolved.

Applying for American citizenship, Weill described his nationality as "None - formerly German", and set out with some of the most hip writers in the business - Moss Hart, SJ Perelman, Ira Gershwin, Langston Hughes and Ogden Nash - to conquer the American musical stage. Are Grosz and Weill more German or more American? Does it matter? In Germany and America it does.

Both men adored the US and both became, in their own view and that of their adoptive culture, American artists. They worked there until their deaths in, respectively, 1959 and 1950. But worked at what? Some American critics have been keen to demonstrate that you can create just as radically in a healthy society as a corrupt one, and that, deprived of their old Weimar fix, the new boys hadn't run out of puff. You can, of course, so create; but they didn't.

Grosz never recovered the empowering energy, wit and rage that explode, crackle and fizz round the walls of this show. A retrospective in Berlin three years ago placed a selection of Grosz's often anguished, but rarely original American work beside the fresh, idiosyncratic painting of American artists at the time: Hopper, O'Keeffe, Joseph Stella, Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn. Grosz's despair in the late 1930s and 1940s is genuine, but other German contemporaries - most obviously Otto Dix in the 1920s - have been there before.

You could do something similar by setting the claims made for Kurt Weill's transformation of the Broadway musical beside the actual achievements of Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart. Here snobbery elbows in: American snobbery, that is. The US was hardly a cultural desert in 1940, though many have made that mistake. The Broadway musical was on the edge of a golden age that began with Oklahoma! in 1943 and ended with Gypsy in 1959.

Weill had nothing to do with this, and so it goes unmentioned in the programme at the National Theatre, where we read, repeatedly, that Lady in the Dark "integrates the music into the story". …

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