"It was the kind of evening," wrote German Critic Friedrich Luft, "when a critic is reduced to admirer and fan." Night after night crowds stormed the box office of West Berlin's Renaissance Theater without success: the four-week limited engagement of Jerome Kilty's Dear Liar had been sold out overnight. Based on the series of "wicked, wicked letters" that George Bernard Shaw exchanged over the years with Actress Stella (Mrs. Patrick) Campbell, the play crackled with the thrust and parry of Shavian wit neatly done in German. But for once G.B.S. himself was being upstaged by an even more powerful drawing card: famed Viennese Actress Elisabeth Bergner, 59, emerging from semiretirement to score the triumph of her career.
One of pre-Hitler Germany's greatest stars, "Lisl" Bergner fled the country in 1933, scored a series of brilliant U.S. and British stage and screen successes (Stolen Life, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Escape Me Never, Catherine the Great). But in the years just after the war, the Hollywood magic somehow gave out; Bergner appeared in a succession of stage flops, finally retired to London with her husband. Film Producer Paul Czinner. Last week's performance proved that her retirement had been premature.
More recitation than straight drama, Dear Liar (first presented last spring in a U.S. tour by Katharine Cornell and Brian AherneTIME, April 27*) provides Actress Bergner with the kind of virtuoso acting opportunities she needs. With top-notch support from German Actor Otto Hasse as Shaw, Bergner limns the famous affair-by-letter, beginning in 1912, when Actress Campbell, at the height of her fame and beauty, was writing to her "Joey the Clown" about appearing in his Pygmalion, through the declining days in Hollywood (where Stella was like "some sinking frigate firing broadside after broadside at anyone who tried to help her"), to the year before Stella's bitter, poverty-stricken death in a Pyrenees village in 1940, when the 83-year-old Shaw wrote a plaintive curtain line: "I am too old, too old. too old!"
Appearing successively in three filmy, billowy gowns, Actress Bergner played on her audience with the familiar, huskily resonant voice (she practiced in her hotel room, crying sharp, staccato "ha, ha, ha's" up and down the scale), the erectly graceful carriage, the suddenly confiding smile. In stunned silence, the audience watched her run the gamut from regal pride to jaded irony to a kind of enervated despair. Said a damp-eyed Bergner in her dressing room afterward: "Most of the generation who used to know me are dead or disappeared. It's so terribly touching."
* Currently on tour in Hempstead, Long Island prior to Broadway opening Dec. 27.