On October 30, 1947, Bertolt Brecht gave a command performance for Congress. The House Un-American Activities Committee summoned the German playwright, poet, and Doors lyricist to the Cannon House Office Building to examine him about matters of the direst urgency and the gravest possible consequence to the Republic, such as the name of the leading actor in Hangmen Also Die! and the lyrics to Brecht’s song “In Praise of Learning.” By what vile, McCarthyist tactics they extorted from Brecht these most closely held secrets of the Third International, I dare not print.
The recording is presented by the critic Eric Bentley, whose narration bridges edits in the tape and provides historical context. Like most Folkways records, the LP comes with a booklet; this one reproduces the transcript of Brecht’s testimony and Bentley’s voiceover along with a facsimile of the hand-corrected statement Brecht prepared for the occasion but was not allowed to read. From the booklet’s introduction:
It is an encounter that rivals in drama some of the great trial scenes in Brecht’s plays, and it will fascinate equally both those interested in Brecht and those interested in the HUAC.
Although tantalizing fragments of the recording have been heard in Brecht on Brecht, and the complete transcript has been printed by the government, this is the first time that the encounter has been brought to the public. Bertolt Brecht’s voice was recorded few times in any language, and this is almost certainly the only recording of Brecht speaking English.
You know you’re talking about an old record when its subtitle includes the phrase “an historic encounter” (or, in the cover artist’s words, “an historical encounter”). But the interests of these ghosts’ voices, speaking in the Caucus Room 70 years ago, are not so remote. Over a decade before this engagement, Brecht had addressed Germans’ perplexity about truth in politics under the Nazis and what the Führer really believed in his heart in “On the Question of Whether Hitler Is Being Honest,” which cut the Gordian knot in its concluding sentences:
Certainly, Hitler could be honest and mean well, and yet still objectively be Germany’s worst enemy. But he is not honest.
Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities is still available as a CD, cassette, or download from Smithsonian Folkways. Below is a clip of Brecht’s questioning.