This ‘Malfi’ Is Truly Brechtian

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Not many sub-100-seat theaters can boast the world premiere of a collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and W.H. Auden. But that’s what Theatre of NOTE is staging, in a co-production with the new Pilgrimage Theatre, opening Friday.

The two literary titans did a joint adaptation of John Webster’s bloody Jacobean drama “The Duchess of Malfi” in the 1940s. The emigree actress Elisabeth Bergner and her husband, producer Paul Czinner, had commissioned the adaptation from the duo, intending it for Broadway in 1946. But when director George Rylands arrived from London, where he had staged the original “Malfi” the previous year to considerable acclaim, he insisted on using the original script--though he agreed to a few of Auden’s alterations, including two songs from another Webster play, “The White Devil.” Brecht still received credit as an adapter in tryouts, but he finally removed his name from the production. Auden was listed as the sole adapter.

Denise Gillman “stumbled upon” the Brecht/Auden version while examining Brecht’s published collected works in the CalArts library. “I was captivated,” she said. “The poetry was so beautifully perverse.”


A recent CalArts graduate, she suggested a staging of the adaptation to the Hollywood-based Theatre of NOTE. The company put the idea on hold for a year, during which time Gillman founded Pilgrimage Theatre with her husband, Shawn Ellis, and friend Jill Fischer. So when Theatre of NOTE returned to “Malfi,” it became a co-production with the new company.

The adaptation borrows a prologue from John Ford’s “ ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” and uses an original epilogue by Auden. The adapters “changed the focus of the ending,” Gillman said, making the strangling of the Duchess the climax of the play. “Several scenes seem totally Brechtian,” Gillman said. “In the original, the incestuous brother-sister lust is only hinted at. In this version, the audience knows the secret from the beginning. It’s very Brechtian in terms of letting the audience know what’s going on.”

The two songs borrowed from “The White Devil” used original Benjamin Britten music on Broadway, but Gillman said she was unable to find the score. For this production, David Bickford of NOTE wrote new music.

Gillman checked with the Brecht estate’s American representatives and the Brecht archive in Berlin. When they said that the original adaptation had never been staged, she went ahead and dubbed her production the world premiere.

FOREVER YOUNG: People who are becoming middle-aged often make dramatic gestures to convey a younger image. Theaters that frequently bemoan “graying audiences” can do the same.

South Coast Repertory, where the average age of subscribers is in the mid-50s, is celebrating its 35th anniversary with half-price subscriptions to next season for any first-time subscriber who’s younger than the theater itself.


Prove with an ID card that you were born after May 1, 1963, and you can get a subscription at one-half the normal prices, which are $120 to $243 for the six-play mainstage season or $108 to $190 for the five-play Second Stage season. The offer isn’t valid for matinees, and the seats will not be in the center section.

The mainstage season includes “Ah, Wilderness!,” “Dinner With Friends,” “Tartuffe,” “Of Mice and Men,” “On the Jump” and one of the three productions within “The Norman Conquests” trilogy. On the Second Stage are “Dimly Perceived Threats to the Universe,” “But Not for Me,” “Skylight,” a title to be announced and “Two Sisters and a Piano.”

Information: (714) 708-5555.

THE ART OF BOGART: Director Anne Bogart, who has become well known in acting circles for expanding the Viewpoints theory of physical theater training, will conduct a lecture and demonstration at the Getty Center Saturday at 1 p.m., joined by Center Theatre Group producer/artistic director Gordon Davidson, Ahmanson Theatre associate producer Madeline Puzo and directors Travis Preston and Lisa Peterson, moderated by performance artist and playwright Luis Alfaro.

The public event culminates Framework ‘98, a two-week symposium that is being hosted by Oasis Theatre Company, in which Bogart and her students from Saratoga International Theatre Institute in New York are working with local artists.

The public symposium is free, but parking reservations are required. Information: (213) 769-5744.