The New York Times, December 30, 1934


Mr. Behrman Tells of His Sources for 'Rain From Heaven'


On Aug. 27, 1933, there appeared in these columns an article called "The Sentimental Journey of an Exile" by Alfred Kerr. An editorial note preceding the article informed the reader that Mr. Kerr had been for many years the dramatic critic of the Berliner Tageblatt and that he was "one of the many Jews who are no longer free to practice their profession in Germany." The article, written with a lightness of touch and an extraordinary urbanity certainly non-Teutonic, told of the author's wanderings from Berlin to Prague and from Prague to Vienna and Zurich and from Zurich to Paris. It ended with the quotation from the German poet and dramatist, Friedrich Hebbel, who wrote in his journal on leaving Paris: "May this city flourish longer than any other city in the world."

When I read this article I hadn't the faintest idea that I was to put its author into a play. Could I have fallen a victim to the insidious delusion that gayety and charm are the meringue of superficiality? When a man writes of his delight at watching girls deliciously snub-nosed while sitting at a café table in Prague or of being ravished by the voices of the ladies in Vienna, can he feel so keenly the deprivation of his position and métier at home? I read the essay, felt the ingratiation of its charm and then forgot all about it, having never until that Moment heard of the author at all.

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Some months after this, during the Winter, I went to call on Dr. Rudolf Kommer, the sage of Czernowitz, and was pottering shamelessly about among his books and magazines while the (to use Mr. Woollcott's phrase) mysterious Rudolfo was engaged in arranging a luncheon party over the telephone. I came upon a German magazine published in Amsterdam which displayed on its front cover the names of Klaus Mann and Thomas Mann and Alfred Kerr and Aldous Huxley. When the luncheon was finally arranged I asked Dr. Kommer about this magazine and he told me that it had been sponsored by a group of German literary exiles, voluntary and involuntary, with the collaboration of foreign writers like Huxley and Wells.

Dr. Kommer mentioned Alfred Kerr, and I remembered the amiable flâneur of Prague and Vienna. I had, after all, not forgotten him. There he was, docketed in a special brain-cell-Kerr, dramatic critic, exile, likes snub-noses, feminine Viennese voices, little sausages called "talianys" served with wild horseradish. It appeared that Alfred Kerr was not merely an unrealizable and remote dramatic critic traveling on pleasant trains to escape an unrealizable ukase; it appeared that he was a real person whom Kommer knew quite well, that he was in addition quite the most distinguished dramatic critic in Germany, that people sat up nights to read his notices, that you might get a very good press from everybody and be profoundly unhappy if Mr. Kerr did not like you. This was close to home. In Dr. Kommer's study on Seventy-ninth Street Alfred Kerr gained in nearness and intensity.

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Moreover, he was not a dramatic critic alone—he was a distinguished writer. Dr. Kommer fumbled among the serried piles on his writing desk and volumes emerged signed by Mr. Kerr: books of travel, books of dramatic criticism, a book of verse. A poem called "Tolstoy—1916"—singular prophecy—berates the great man for deprecating the Russian revolutionary movement. Another poem written during the war presents a remarkable fusion of skepticism and intense patriotism. There are exquisite ironic verses on chamber music parties and an extraordinarily evocative lyric to a literary man whom Kerr had met for a few minutes at a party, toward whom he had felt a flash of sympathy which contained the potentiality of a real friendship and of whose death he had just heard.

After this personally conducted tour through Kerr's poetry, Dr. Kommer told me of Kerr's long friendship and devotion to Gerhart Hauptmann, how he had propagandized and written with all the eloquence he could summon, in season and out of season, year after year, in praise of his hero and how during the political crisis marked by the election of Hitler, the Grand Old Man turned his back on Kerr, as he did on all his friends and associates who did not measure up to the new standardization. When I walked home from Dr. Kommer's I saw that scene of Kerr's repudiation by his friend and hero. I saw Mr. Kerr coming in to Hauptmann expecting the familiar and mellow greeting. (I could visualize Hauptmann from his pictures—he looked like Goethe. Kerr, in this twilight day-dream walking home through the New York December dusk, I visualized as young, ardent, dark, romantic. Actually, I am told, he is a man of 64 with an Assyrian beard and two children.)

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I saw this scene, which probably never occurred until it did to me, but which when it did emerge meant that I was condemned to write the play which I started a few days later and which was to move far away from this locale and this original impetus as most writing does from its original starting point. The meeting between Kerr and Hauptmann became only a narrated incident in the finished play, but it seemed to me then, and still does, an essential conflict. There they were, these two men, two artists, two civilized men, two essences of what the race might hope to be—the author of "The Weavers" and the author of an exquisite poem in which a man mourns the untimely passing of another artist who might have become a friend. Here, in the great man's quiet study one might hope for the emergence of a spirit and an understanding transcending the clamors and ferocities of the marching, lustful mobs. Here, in a clear vapor, might rise an emanation so distilled and powerful that miraculously it might delethalize those other and headier exhalations from the test-tubes of the poison gas chemists and from the heated breaths of the demagogues. Because if not from this room, from where else? That it did not come—this for me—was essential tragedy.

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For the mob is the same in nearly all countries whether it engages in a pogrom in Russia, an Armenian massacre in Turkey, a book-fire in Germany, a lynching-bee in America. One does not expect anything from it but massacre or senseless vilification on the "stinking breath" which nauseated Shakespeare. Isolated fragments of the mob are equally predictable in their conduct and, therefore, for the playwright quite uninteresting. There is no surprise in them: they may be reduced to the generalizations of the crowd-psychologist. When one drunken moron (whether in dinner clothes or overalls) murders another in a brawl over a woman it is only a sanguinary bore. There is not here any of the dignity of tragedy. But should George Bernard Shaw, for example, have walked across Adeiphi Terrace one day and killed J. M. Barrie in a quarrel over Mrs. Patrick Campbell that, for the dramatist, would have been news. For it would have involved a struggle beyond the physical contest between Mr. Barrie and Mr. Shaw. The tragedy would inhere not in the death of Mr. Barrie, regrettable as that might be, but in the sudden destruction of Mr. Shaw's acquired characteristics by his inherited ones.

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Such a destruction is visible in this poignant confrontation of Alfred Kerr and Gerhart Hauptmann. We are so used to slaughter that the doleful mass-necrologues of history no longer give us pause. Mr. Lloyd George tells us of several hundred thousand men needlessly murdered at Passchendaele by Sir Douglas Haig. Well, we think that was careless of Sir Douglas Haig. We read of a government-engineered famine in Russia in which 3,000,000 people die and it may occur to us that such a government is willful but actually it is not possible to visualize malnutrition on such a scale. The truth is that these vast lapses from civilization are so continuous, so wearisomely repetitious that they become literally unimaginable and boring. If they were at all imaginable would they recur so devastatingly? I knew a charming boy who told me he would go to war in a minute though he didn't believe in it because he couldn't withstand the excitement. I gave him Laurence Stallings's "The First World War." He said: "It's awful, but just the same I'd go to war if war were declared because I couldn't resist the excitement."

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But the battle which might have taken place in Gerhart Hauptmann's study reveals the impasse in which the human race is suffocating with a vividness, as far as the playwright's problem is concerned, beyond battlefields and holocausts and carnage. For one thing you can't get a battlefield on the stage—you can get a man on the stage, a superb specimen-man with a facade conveying nobility and when you get him there—and his opponent—you have history and the past and the present and future—as a scientist may have a disease or its antidote in a drop of water—all these innumerable deaths and the arresting savior.

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