Letter from Martha Gellhorn to Bernstein
The writer Martha Gellhorn wrote this detailed and heartfelt letter to Bernstein, laying bare her intense reactions to West Side Story:
"Lenny pot my dearie one; I waited for the right time to write about West Side Story but probably the exact right time will never come, so now on a rainy (can you beat it?) Guernavaca morning, my fourth here, and my first not spent jumping with rage and activity against this house, I shall begin. But I know I am not going to do it well enough.
"How can it be called a "musical comedy"? It is a musical tragedy, and were it not for the most beautiful music, and the dancing which is like flying, people would not be able to bear to look and see and understand. Certainly they would not pile into that giant stadium, paying huge sums, in order to be wracked by fear and a pity which is useless because how can help be offered, how can a whole world be changed?
". . . I was literally frozen with fear. Do you realize there is no laughter in it, no gayety [sic] that comes from delight, from joy, from being young? You do, of course, and all of you knew what you were writing about. The immensely funny song, "Please Officer Krupke" (I will get these titles wrong, but near enough), is not laughter, but the most biting, ironic and contemptuous satire. And I felt it to be absolutely accurate--not the perfection of the wit, in music and words--but accurate as describing the state of mind of those young. Again, the Puerto Rican girls' song, when on longs for the beauty of home and the other mocks, is not laughter; but the hardness of life, the rock of life, a dream of something softer (softer inside, where it counts) as against the icy material measuring rod of modern big city young. The love songs made me cry (they had before, when I heard the whole show twice in one day, listening to Shaw's record in Switzerland.) But this time, with the visual picture there, and the murderous city outside, and in America, where West Side Story becomes a sociological document turned into art, they made me cry like a sieve, from heart-broken pity.
"But what stays in my mind, as the very picture of terror, is the scene in the drug store, when the Jets sing a song called "Keep Cool, Man." I think I have never heard or seen anything more frightening. (It goes without saying that I think the music so brilliant I have no words to use for it.) I found that a sort of indicator of madness: the mad obsession with nothing, the nerves insanely and constantly stretched--with no way to rest, no place to go; the emptiness of the undirected minds, whose only occupation could be violence and a terrible macabre play-acting. If a man can be nothing, he can pretend to be a hoodlum and feel like a somebody. I couldn't breathe, watching and hearing that; it looks to me like doom, as much as these repeated H-bomb tests, with the atmosphere of the world steadily more and more irrevocably poisoned. I think that drug store and the H-bomb tests are of the same family.
"What now baffles me is that all the reviews, and everyone who has seen the show, has not talked of this and this only: the mirror held up to nature, and what nature. I do not feel anything to be exaggerated or falsified; we accept that art renders beautiful, and refines the shapeless raw material of life. The music and the dancing, the plan, the allegory of the story do that; but nature is there, in strength; and surely this musical tragedy is a warning. . . ."