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Unleashing O’Casey: Julian Barry, Lenny Bruce & American tragedy


“Tragedy is always on the edge of the absurd.”

Julian Barry’s current work is the most toxic, most controversial, most tragic and most important of his career. It’s an opera called Zyklon with book and libretto by Barry and music by Peter King. “Zyklon,” he says “is about the life of German-Jewish scientist, Fritz Haber who developed mustard gas for the Germans during World War I. He was a genius and he used it to help his country. He gained fame and the Nobel Prize for his isolation of ammonia from nitrogen in the air. This was instrumental in the development of synthetic fertilizer, which replaced bird shit. Why would I want to do this as an opera? Because he also developed the gas Zyklon B, which was used by the Nazis to exterminate six million Jews and an uncounted number of Gypsies, gays, pacifists, and labor organizers. And he was a Jew. That’s the tragedy. He was a brilliant Jew who wanted to be more German than any other German. That’s why he converted to Christianity.”

He asked if I could see that as an opera. “It’s a tough subject. It’s almost absurd.”

I agreed. I thought absurdity was a great place for modern operas to go.

We were having our cognac on his patio on the first day of May. It was a May Day of flowers, not Karl Marx. May Day in Connecticut!

“Before I tell you about the opera, let me say something about the line between the absurd and the tragic. This may actually be a little original. I once worked with Orson Welles. I’d just gotten out of the army and Welles was directing King Lear at the City Center in New York. I had a non-talking part and I was on the stage in sixty pounds of chain mail sweating under the lights. There were six of us. Silent soldiers. It’s like being a pear carrier in an opera, but I was working with Orson Welles and getting paid. Welles was a genius and a tyrant. He loved to control everything. He was fighting with the unions at the time, with the electricians. Who is responsible for what? They hot-wired his mike. He was in a bad mood. He called me Lohengrin because I was sweating and I had this sad look on my face. One day, when the technical problems interrupted the rehearsal, he pulled me aside and asked “Do you know what this play is all about?” All my early acting had been Shakespeare. He told me what he thought. He said “The play is about a noble knight who sees that the king is making a terrible mistake and he wants to tell him that, but he is not high enough in the court to be able to approach the king and speak with him.” The real stuff of tragedy. Welles patted me on the back. He wanted me to understand my role. I had no lines, but it was his way of gaining control, even over an extra. He patted me on the back and told me now I understood the play. ‘You want to help, but you’re too far back.’”

My cognac was kicking in and I dropped the glass from laughter. And then there was an Epiphany. Cognac has that power.

“See, that’s the absurdity of tragedy. It’s not for nothing that Peter Hall, before he was a sir, directed Waiting for Godot in London at the age of 24 and then went on to do Shakespeare. Tragedy is always on the edge of the absurd. Just imagine if I broke in during the play and told King Lear what was wrong? That’s the line where tragedy and the absurd meet on the stage. What do you think Welles would have done if I’d crossed the line during a performance?”

“Kill you.”

“Right. Now let me tell you about Fritz Haber. It was Peter King’s idea. He played in the orchestra when Eddie Izzard did Lenny Bruce in London. Peter Hall directed. Peter King played alto sax. I played it too, but he is a pro. I asked if he’d give me some lessons. He agreed. Then he played me some of his music, a string quartet he wrote. I really dug his music. We got real close and he told me he had an idea for an opera. He wanted me to listen and see if I’d agree to write the libretto. He told me the story of Fritz Haber. It got to me right away. If the tragedy of Lenny Bruce had been that he believed in the law and pursued it until it either freed him or killed him; and if the tragedy of Jean Seberg had been that she was this tiny, petite little stick of feminine dynamite whose passion and sexuality led her to defend those who had no power in the dirty world of realpolitik, even if it insulted in her suicide; then the tragedy of Fritz Haber was to place at the hands of his nation a superbly honed intellect that would bring about death and destruction not only for Europe in general, but also specifically for the Jewish race which he had once belonged to, but finally denied.”

These were subjects that grabbed Julian Barry and drew him to the fire of opera and tragedy. In his research, he discovered that Haber was born in Silesia in 1868 of a wealthy German-Jewish family who traded throughout Europe in pharmaceuticals. From childhood, Haber was a science prodigy with brilliant skills in chemistry and thermodynamics. He converted to Christianity to gain admission to some of Germany’s finest universities, including Heidelberg and Jena. There he excelled in organic and physical chemistry. By 1911, he was appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry, where he played a leading role in developing the solution to trench warfare: mustard gas. He said at the time “In peace a scientist belongs to mankind; but in war he belongs to his nation.”

Barry saw that as the core of the opera, his debacle. Haber’s wife, Clara Immerwahr, also a scientist, was so upset with his work on deadly gases, she committed suicide using his own pistol.

“As a Jew,” says Barry, “he was trying to be more German than the Germans. But the real kicker was when he developed Zyklon B. That was the gas Hitler used against the Jews in Buchenwald.”

Barry was amazed at the irony and the fact that so little has been said about the subject. Haber fled Germany in 1933, after Hitler came to power. For his service as a German military scientist, he was called “That Jew Haber.” He died in Britain in 1934. “He died before the full irony of his scientific work on poison gases was unleashed on the world. It’s a very powerful story.”

Julian Barry and Peter King have been working together on the project for more than three years. In December of 2004, there was a performance of the opera at CCNY’s Elebash Recital Hall that knocked the audience into shocked silence and then applause. Tim Henty performed selections of Zyklon at a concert at St. John’s Smith Square in London.

My assistant, who had less to drink than I, since she has promised to drive me back to my hotel, pointed out the relevance of an opera on weapons of mass destruction!

“And what has changed?” says Barry. “Now China and the US are stating outright that if we lock onto each other with nukes, they’ll fire at us and we’ll fire at them. It’s worse now than ever. What is it that we can learn from Fritz Haber? I think that’s the question our opera, Zyklon wants to ask.”

Barry has little hope the opera will make it to the Met. His hopes are in Britain. “My work has been produced more there than anywhere else. Peter Hall did three. I love British theatre. You can be an actor there. Work on the stage. Work for the BBC. Do TV like Judy Dench. Do an opera. I think we have a good chance of getting it done well in London. The British don’t have Hollywood on their doorstep.”

[Photo by Mark Sullivan: l-r Ben Pleasants, Charles Bukowski, Steve Richmond]

Ben Pleasants is a writer and the author of Visceral Bukowski: Inside the Sniper Landscape of L.A. Writers. You can find more of Ben’s work here.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 14th, 2009.