Saturday, December 23, 2006
After we lost our cat Tess, we didn't have a third member of the household for about a year. Then friends who live in a rural area up the mountain from Arcata rescued a young cat. They found her in their barn, starving and dehydrated. They got her healthy again and began looking for a permanent home for her. We visited to see this still scrawny cat, dark gold with golden eyes. She hid from us but when I extracated her from under a bed, she responded to being petted, almost desperately.
She'd been checked by a vet, who said she'd been spayed. Later the theory was that she was one of a group of cats kept outdoors at a nearby farm, some of whom had escaped. They were originally part of a "catch, spay and release" program for cats on their own. We still don't know how she came to be in that barn, or why she was so close to starvation.
We brought her home, and I had my first experience with a feral cat, which is a cat that hasn't been brought up around humans. We named her Pema, after Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun whose tapes we were listening to at the time. Pema was probably semi-feral, but I learned a lot about what to expect from a book I coincidentally happened on at a used store, which described the experiences at a shelter that had feral and non-feral cats. Feral cats are often very fearful of humans, keep their distance, don't allow themselves to be touched, though they may have close relationships with other cats. Sometimes this behavior changes and they warm up to humans, but sometimes not.
Margaret spent a lot of time with Pema and Pema bonded with her. Margaret became her mother. This time we (Margaret especially) took extra care with her food--it's free of chemicals, etc. and otherwise the best. But for months, Pema kept her distance from me. She wouldn't allow me to touch her, and she generally sped away when I was around, gradually getting a bit more comfortable as long as I kept a distance. This was of course difficult for me, given my relationship with Tess. But I was in charge of Pema's evening meal, and she got used to that.
Eventually she allowed herself to be petted a little. I made sure to rub the area of her neck which would give me her scent, which she would then recognized. Pretty soon she began to seek me out and now she likes to be petted, and rubs herself against my shoes. Unlike Tess, she likes her belly rubbed. But also unlike Tess, she won't allow herself to be picked up by either of us, and she hasn't yet figured out the concept of the lap. But she's getting closer.
She's a smart cat, and she likes to play. She has several "mice" that she alternately bats around, like mice, or licks, like kittens. The other unusual thing about her is that she won't drink from a water dish. We add a lot of water to her canned food which she laps up, as long as the proportion is right. And of course it has to be slightly heated, but not too much. She's gone from a starving cat to a finicky one. But she's comfortable running the household, and she's become a companion to both of us.
I have learned a few things from what Pema learned as a feral cat. She's very hesitant to enter a room without a clear sightline--and beeline--to an exit, and if there are two doors, she prefers that they're both open before she relaxes. Seems like a good idea.
Saturday, July 08, 2006
Since the late Lloyd Richards left the Eugene O'Neill Center, its centerpiece--the National Playwrights Conference--just hasn't been the same. Partly, one assumes, the turmoil is due to funding setbacks that were already taking a toll in 1991, when I spent a couple of weeks there. And partly it now seems to me because the people running it have lost Lloyd Richards' vision.
This is about the time of year that the conference happens. It's four weeks in July, when a dozen or more playwrights would work with professional directors, dramaturgs, designers and actors, many of them coming up from New York City. (My article about the O'Neill for Smithsonian magazine is reproduced here in somewhat expanded form.)
They've had a couple of artistic directors since Richards' retired, at least one of them leaving under a cloud. Last month--well before Lloyd Richards died--the new artistic director, 31 year old Wendy Goldberg, gave an interview in American Theatre. Her quotes, and some statements in the story which seem to be based on impressions and information the writer got from her, suggests how far the O'Neill has strayed, and for my money, fallen.
For four decades, the O'Neill had a policy of open submissions: anybody could send a script and it would be considered. Without such a policy, it's doubtful that many if not most of the new voices the O'Neill discovered and nurtured would have had a chance, and that seems especially true for its most important discovery: August Wilson.
A few years ago, the new regime tried to change that, and limit submissions to pre-selected playwrights. There was a hue and cry and unsolicited scripts were again considered, though in a narrower time frame, and with conditions that made entering a pretty pricey proposition. Goldberg reinstated open submissions, and though I don't know the exact rules and regs this year, statements that she makes in the interview suggest the situation hasn't really returned to what it was.
"We've had 800 submissions this year, a record amount of plays," Goldberg is quoted as saying. First of all, unless she is judging them by weight, she probably meant "a record number of plays." But even that is simply false, and by quite a lot. There were some 1500 scripts submitted for the 1991 conference, according to Lloyd Richards, and confirmed by others that summer.
There were also 12 playwrights chosen for 1991, although I believe they had previously hosted 14, but budget shortfalls forced both fewer playwrights and an altered schedule--the pre-conference in the spring, during which the playwrights spend a couple of days simply each reading their plays aloud, had to be folded into the summer conference.
But the conference in 2006 will host but eight playwrights, and one of them did not emerge from the regular submissions process. Moreover, this play will be "workshopped" before a scheduled production in Atlanta, something that Richards' resisted. He didn't want the O'Neill to become a venue tied to specific productions elsewhere. The O'Neill was about the playwright and the play, and nothing else.
That clearly is no longer true. Goldberg had done away with the system Richards instituted (and which other places copied) of simple, modular sets and basic production values, and script-in-hand performance, so that playwrights could change things right up to the minute of production, based on what they learned in their creative collaboration with all the others involved. Goldberg says that "each play is different" which is a truism but also signifies the distinct possibility that some plays are going to be favored in light of imminent productions elsewhere.
The critique system Richards set up is also slandered in the article, as some sort of vicious punishment visited upon the victimized playwright. I don't know what they were like in later years, but when I was there, Richards himself made sure these sessions were positive. He spoke before every one of them, about their purpose and how they fit into the larger purpose of the conference.
Through design and through his presence, authority and leadership, Lloyd Richards created a sense of the process as almost sacred, as touching the foundations of theatre and theatrical creativity and collaboration. It's no coincidence that one 1991 actor who did a lot of TV playing cops and criminals (an awful lot of O'Neill actors show up in episodes of Law & Order, a series co-created by an O'Neill playwright) described his participation as "renewing my vows."
The O'Neill was so important to so many people in the theatre, and so treasured, because it was a kind of temporary monastery (with a lot of un-monklike--or nunlike--behavior, to be sure) for the kind of pure creative process that the theatre needs. If it has succumbed to whatever pressures and necessities, or to poor judgment, then theatre will suffer for it, and so will playwrights.
And while a new generation of administrators has every right to their own vision, and certainly a responsibility to respond to today's realities, they might try respecting what made the O'Neill a living legend in world theatre. And the people who created it.
Sunday, July 02, 2006
I met Lloyd Richards, and though I spent only a few hours talking with him, I observed him over the course of a couple of weeks, and learned a lot about him from others. I didn't know however that our birthdays were one day apart. I found out just now, reading his obituary in the New York Times. He died on June 29, his 87th birthday.
Richards directed the first New York production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun in 1957, arguably the first authentic portrayal of African American life on the American stage. It was a classic when I read it in high school in the early 60s. But in his years of directing and discovering and nurturing playwrights of all races, his most important find was August Wilson, a great American playwright, who created the richest and most sustained expression of African American life in the twentieth century.
Only hours ago I opened a box of books one of my sisters sent for my birthday--an August Wilson play, an August Wilson essay, and a book on August Wilson (all from my Amazon Wish List.) Richards was instrumental in Wilson's career, and I met them both on the same day (July 1, a day after my birthday in 1991) at the Eugene O'Neill Center summer playwrights conference, where they had begun working together. It was Richards who picked out the manuscript for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" from the thousand or so that came to the O'Neill, brought the unknown Pittsburgh playwright to Waterford to work on the play, and then mounted its first productions at Yale and in New York.
Lloyd Richards was the heart and soul of the O'Neill, so important to many American playwrights. He transformed it into a community concentrating on honing and freeing new voices in theatre. He was utterly respected by everyone, for his discipline and gentleness, his rigor and humor, his attentiveness to detail and insistence on communicating the big picture, so everyone knew and shared the same vision of the O'Neill process. It hasn't been the same since he retired from being its artistic director.August Wilson died last year, and so the two giants of African American theatre are gone.
And to think just minutes ago I was ordering the last play I haven't read (apart from the one I just got) in Wilson's titanic ten play cycle, one for each decade of the twentieth century. That cycle is a truly stunning achievement, and Richards was part of getting many of those plays to their staged versions. I was looking forward to reading them all in the order of decades. Then minutes later I happened to read this. Of course, it's not as shocking as August Wilson's death at age 61. But it is another indication of an era passing. These two men have left such an incredible legacy to America and theatre everywhere.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
This post is personal reminicence, inspired by an issue of the alumni magazine of Knox College, where I was an undergraduate. And if you've arrived here from the Knox site, welcome. This particular site has become a more personal one over the past few years, though it's more about personal obsessions than a day-in-the-life.
For those who were at Knox when I was, you might be interested in a couple of other sites I've just started: 60s Now and the Boomer Hall of Fame.
I post on current events affecting the future on Captain Future's Dreaming Up Daily. If you took astronomy with me, and happen to recall my Captain Space hat, you won't be surprised at that title, nor my Soul of Star Trek blog.
And if you'd like to catch up on my past published writing, some of my favorite magazine and newspaper pieces are at Kowincidence. Now, forward to the past.
I was pleased to see Jay Matson on the cover of Knox Magazine, and to read of the Alumni Achievement Awards to David Axelrod and Bill Barnhart.
Though he identifies himself as a philosophy major, Jay Matson was known on campus foremost as a poet, at least by his senior year, when I was a freshman. We were all in awe of him---his quiet, brooding figure defined “the poet” for me. When Mary Jacobson (who I essentially---or was it existentially?-- adored) told me that my writing had been singled out as promising (for a freshman) by Jay Matson, I felt I had something to live up to.
Then I recall visiting his farmhouse several years later, where a water pipe had burst from the cold, and several rooms were virtual skating rinks. I didn’t see him on my visit to Galesburg in the early 1980s, but I did write about his success transforming historic downtown buildings in my book, The Malling of America.
As the editor of the Knox Student, Bill Barnhart honed his journalistic skills in a tumultuous time on and off campus, and he also had to deal with several unruly columnists, like Skip Peterson, Mark Brooks, Kevin Cameron (unless he was gone already), and me: wild men all.
But the person I want to acknowledge most is David Axelrod. David ran the Cinema Club, which I believe was his invention as well. He chose, booked and exhibited foreign films, pretty much monthly as I recall. This may not sound like a big deal now, but consider this: at the time there were few film courses anywhere in American colleges, and none at Knox (I believe the first at Knox was a filmmaking course given by Richard Alexander of the English department in 1967 or so.) Only a few small theatres in major cities showed foreign films at all (and of course this was before video stores and cable TV.) Movies in general were still considered disposable entertainment.
So beginning with my freshman year, I bought the little card that entitled me to see these movies with strange titles, identified as well by the magic names of the directors: Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Antonioni, Truffaut, Kurosawa… I used to read the titles and names and try to imagine what the movie would be like. When I went to them, sitting in the darkness and staring at these strange apparitions of light, I understood very little of what I saw that first year. But gradually I absorbed their vocabulary, and by the time David graduated, I was a film buff for life.
Although my screenwriting efforts got me no further than an entertaining Hollywood lunch with a William Morris agent (our waitress had been a stand-in for Lillian Gish, who she still resembled), and writing and even directing a few videos for clients, I did wind up writing a lot about film, for various periodicals. This not only involved seeing hundreds of movies but doing interviews on Hollywood sets and on one occasion, spending an hour talking with Francois Truffaut, and exchanging letters afterwards. (I even told him about the scene in which he and Godard—his friend and later New Wave rival—have a shootout, in the last play I wrote and directed at Knox. He laughed.)
The resulting article was in Rolling Stone, called "The Man Who Loved Movies." He liked it, and a piece I did on the (now lost) art of double features, which mentioned a pairing of two of his films. Both of them are reproduced over at kowincidence. (Which was a name given to me, by the way, by the ineffably beautiful Mary Jacobson. (I can see her cringing at my word choice.) I used it for the name of my temporary band for my one and only rock and roll record. But that's another story. )
I’m pretty certain I saw Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” at Cinema Club, probably my first Truffaut film. I just watched the DVD of it last week, with commentary by Annette Indsdorf, Columbia film professor. I met Annette when she was Truffaut’s translator for his U.S. retrospectives in 1979. Just another link in my life that began with the Cinema Club.
With his dark hair falling in his eyes, David was a personality and a presence at Knox. His off campus apartment featured a homemade reproduction of a Modrian painting (“Broadway Boogie-Woogie”)? rendered with colored tape, as assembled by the rapturously lovely Judee Settipani. I remember him as not saying a lot, and saying it softly (not like some of us loudmouths) but after due consideration, making it count.
I remember some of his pronouncements to this day, and not all of them about film, though this one was: he pointed out to me that the world is not black and white, so black and white movies are inherently abstract. It’s a basic concept now, but at the time it was profoundly new, at least to me, and especially impressive because it seemed to be an insight he’d reached on his own.
The only times I’ve seen him since Knox were in movie theatres: once in Chicago, and once in the mid 1970s at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, MA. (Actually I ran into him in the adjoining restaurant.) At the time I was practically living at the Orson Welles. I was seeing at least 10 to 20 films a week; once I saw 10 movies in one day. I may be an extreme example, but I’m sure there are others whose lives were enriched by what David Axelrod began, as a student at Knox.
UPDATE: If you're interested in David's more recent activities, his web site is, strangely enough, davidaxelrod.com. Which isn't the no-brainer it might seem to be, because there are lots of David Axelrods out there in cyberspace. So I figure he had to be pretty quick to get that url.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children and The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by William S. Kowinski
By sheer coincidence, the Humboldt State University campus hosted two productions of plays by Bertolt Brecht during the same fortnight, with two nights that both plays were staged simultaneously. In late February and early March, HSU may have briefly been the Brecht capital of the world.
But even though it was accidental, this local Brecht-a-thon was not eccentric. The unique ways Brecht’s plays address searing issues that are suddenly central to this moment is a chief reason several of them are being revisited on stages from Los Angeles to New York, where a new adaptation of Mother Courage and Her Children by playwright Tony Kushner will appear this summer, starring Meryl Streep.
This was one of the plays done locally, by the HSU Department of Theatre, Film and Dance. The other was The Caucasian Chalk Circle performed by the Young Actors Guild of the North Coast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy.
By 1924 he was becoming a central figure in Berlin theatre, in a particularly frenzied and creative period in Europe and specifically in Germany under the Weimar Republic. Among the intellectual and political currents swirling around him were Dada, Futurism and Marxism, as well as the slowly growing influences of Nazism. It was then he began writing his theoretical essays, and developed his “epic theatre” style, with its use of music, titles and screens. Brecht collaborated with musical composer Kurt Weill in 1928 for his most famous play, The Threepenny Opera.
As a poet he was said to be influenced by Rimbaud, Villion and Kipling, and as a playwright by Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies. Asian mask theatre as well as Bavarian folk plays and fairground entertainments are also mentioned in analyses of his work. By the early 1930s, Brecht’s anti-bourgeois and anti-Fascist politics led him to the Communist Party, and exile from Hitler’s Germany. He escaped first to Scandinavia, where in a feverish few weeks, he wrote what many consider his greatest play, Mother Courage and Her Children.
As the Nazis advanced across Europe. Brecht fled to America in 1941, thanks to the support of a large expatriate German colony in Hollywood (including actor Peter Lorre, who’d worked with Brecht in Berlin) and the sponsorship of Luise Rainer, star of The Good Earth, even though they’d never met.
But when they did take a walk on the beach together, Brecht asked her what kind of a story she would like him to write for her. Rainer suggested he try a story using the “chalk circle”—a kind of King Solomon method for deciding a child’s true mother, apparently from China. Brecht agreed, and eventually wrote The Caucasian Chalk Circle while living in Santa Monica.
Brecht wasn’t very successful in his attempts to write for Hollywood, and though like many other European exiles he felt creatively, culturally and intellectually stifled and alienated there, he did absorb aspects of American culture. He also wasn’t successful in staging plays in America--The Caucasian Chalk Circle was meant for Broadway. But he did meet a young professor teaching in Los Angeles named Eric Bentley, who would become his chief champion in America for the next half century, and with whom he would collaborate.
Brecht had been a Communist since the 1930s, and he returned to Europe the day following his questioning before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Eric Bentley believes it was only due to bureaucratic bungling that Brecht ended up in East Germany rather than West Germany in 1947.
It was in Berlin in 1949 that Mother Courage and Her Children finally had its official premiere, with Brecht directing, and his wife, the actor and director Helene Weigel playing the lead. It was the production and the performance that influenced and outshone all subsequent stagings in Europe and in America.
Though Brecht has long been considered one of the 20th century’s most influential playwrights, in America his plays were not done often, nor very successfully, at least until recent years. There is very little on film that is readily available. Apart from Cold War politics, much of the problem seems to be due to confusion about how to stage his plays, according to his own theories and pronouncements. According to Bentley, Brecht (who died in 1956) could be doctrinaire about staging, and his acolytes even more insistent on purity.
But at other times, even Brecht relented, when it became clear that the theories were getting in the way of the plays. While directors continue to worry if their productions are sufficiently “epic,” and actors wonder how best to create “alienation” in the audience, Brecht is said to have kept this motto above his writing desk: “Simpler, with more laughter.” This may be the moment his plays can be seen for themselves, without the baggage.
While the unfolding second world war was on Brecht’s mind when he wrote the play, the continuing war in Iraq is much on the minds of those doing the play now, and inevitably on the audiences.
Brecht uses plain language and dark humor to tell the story of a woman trying to eke out an existence selling goods from her cart to armies on the road, while protecting her three grown children from the very war that feeds them. The basic story is fairly simple, and is foretold early in the play by a kind of oracle, like a Greek tragedy. The three children of Mother Courage all die: first, her second son whose execution is partly his mother’s doing; second, her eldest son who is executed for the same acts that had him proclaimed a hero (though by the end of the play she still doesn’t know he’s dead) and lastly, her daughter, who wakens a sleeping town by banging a drum, to warn them of the approaching army.
Commenting on this play’s theme, Brecht said: “War is a continuation of business by other means, making the human virtues fatal even to those who exercise them.” For John Heckel, director of the HSU production, the core question Mother Courage faces is: “How do you remain soulful, how do you retain a sense of nurturance?” in this situation of endless war, feeding and fed by endless greed.
Though this production sold out every performance (and Heckel mourned the days when plays received 12 performances over three weekends, instead of six over two), he chose this theatre over the larger Van Duzer. Heckel likes to stage large dramas in intimate circumstances. After all, he did both parts of Angels in America here, an amazing and memorable experience.
The set (by Jody Sekas) was magnificent, dominated by a raised, serpentine and circular ramp, representing the road (also depicted on a large faded map of central Europe, one of the evocative hangings on either side.) The actors pulled a cart up and down this very steep ramp, anchoring it in various places for the next scene. There was also a small central area (not unlike the mosh pit in the center of the Rolling Stone’s mouth-like ramp stage at the Super Bowl), where some action took place. A working scroll above the stage area reproduced the Brechtian titles, which tell you not only when and where the next scene is, but basically what will happen.
The cart was elaborate, and styled like a circus wagon, a motif echoed in some of other decorative elements, such as the stripes on the army’s tents depicted in a hanging.
Lila Nelson, a North Coast singer-songwriter, performer and recording artist with experience in theatre as a student here, wrote new music for Brecht’s songs. She also played piano in the accompanying band (guitar, bass, sax and cello.) Her music, folk and country-inflected, brought a distinctly American sound to the production.
Though the singing was uneven (due in part to technical problems and the placing of the band behind the performers which made it difficult for musicians and singers to hear each other well enough), there were outstanding moments. Bernadette Cheyne (HSU theatre professor and actor) as Mother Courage brought a Judy Collins quality to her songs (reminding me that Judy Collins had recorded a Kurt Weill composition), and her powerful rendering of a song about anger was the perfect end to the first act in this production.
With a combination of recitation and singing, Joshua Switzer’s song as the Cook in the second act was a standout, and the soldier’s sternly plaintive song, “A soldier has no time to wait,” was a sober counterpoint to the absurdity going on around him---an important and haunting moment, well conceived and executed. The singing of the young women (Jessica Brown, Renee Carney, Jolie Colby and Missy Hopper) playing peasants caught in the crossfire of death, was soaring and heart-rending, especially in combination with poetic staging, gesture and movement.
I saw the first performance of the second week (Thursday), and the second act on its final night (Saturday.) The text was presented well, and the movement and stage pictures were often striking. By Saturday, the acting was purified, stripped to its essence. On the whole, it was a success. But for me, some of the production’s problems and missed opportunity’s remained.
Part of my argument goes to the point alluded to before, about how much Brechtian theory is necessary, or even how is it appropriately applied, especially now in 2006. Part of it is based on my conception of the play, and how to put that conception across. So again it can be construed partly as critique, or simply as alternative.
The set was memorable, and John Heckel used it well to position actors to make arresting stage pictures. But it was also a trap, even apart from the metaphorical trap of the endlessly circular road of war. Not only did the steep ramps and heavy cart prove treacherous for the actors, but they dictated a style that at time could not take full advantage of the text.
The cart was quite a problem, especially on the steep ramp, even as the actors became quite adept and moving and anchoring it with a minimum of distraction. It almost toppled, taking Bernadette with it, on opening night, causing a change in the play’s famous ending---in which Mother Courage, her children dead, pulls the cart alone down the endless road. But oddly, the change actually added to the effect: now her two ghostly sons helped her part way, and then stood as she continued (though she did not go to the top of the ramp as planned, but left the cart at the foot and mimed the ascent. Even so, there was another almost-fall Saturday.)
But the steep ramps also made it difficult for two people to stand next to each other very easily. This may have been part of the intent, but to me it didn’t allow for variations and nuances in space and pace. There were scenes in which words exchanged quickly between two people in close proximity, with appropriate pauses and so on, could have added a great deal. But they were played, as often they had to be, with the actors separated—even on opposite sides of the ramp—essentially shouting at each other, and the audience. This tended to flatten the affect, and the effect.
But again, this may have been intentional, based at least partly on a “Brechtian” approach. But I don’t think it served the play. First of all, I don’t think imposing a “Brechtian” approach is really necessary any longer. The theatre is not what it was in Berlin in 1928. We’ve had decades of movies and television, as well as theatrical experimentation that has become mainstream. We understand different cues to different approaches now.
Brecht’s theory on the theatrical effects he wants productions to avoid is also often contradicted by the text itself. “You know, Brecht would say you don't need climaxes, that they're a bourgeois illusion,” Bentley said. “But the terrific climax in Mother Courage-- in the scene of the drumbeat-- it's the orthodox place for dramatic climax, namely about 2/3 of the way through the plot. It reaches a high point, or low point according to your point of view, of tragedy. And such is the case with the other things that he's supposed not to have, like emotion. There's a lot of it. So I think a perfectly orthodox approach, critically speaking, is valid. And the same goes for the actors.”
Naturalistic and “in the moment” acting is our age’s way of creating verisimilitude. Apart from interpretations of Brecht’s theories and pronouncements on acting in his plays, the plays themselves clearly call for at least elements of what we might call performance. But I contend this should not really be a problem.
For one thing, I don’t think it requires or benefits from elaborate or self-conscious strategies. Actors sometimes seem to take “alienation” so literally that they attempt to alienate the audience with bad acting, especially with the kind of gestures and signifying that has defined bad acting for generations (though perhaps not…everywhere.)
Look at the text of this play. It begins with a Recruiting Officer and a Sergeant self-righteously complaining they are unable to trick enough men into becoming cannon fodder in the army to meet their quota. The Recruiting Officer is moaning that he’s seriously thinking of killing himself because when he finally gets a potential recruit drunk enough to join up, the guy runs off.
Here’s what the Sergeant says: “Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? They havent’ had a war here for such a long time. Without a good war, where do you get your moral standards from? Everything goes to pot in peacetime…Of course, as with all good things, it’s hard to get a proper war started. Once it starts, of course, there’s no stopping it, thank God.”
This kind of dark humor, black irony plainly stated, should not be stylistically unfamiliar in 2006. Not after Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut, Dr. Strangelove (especially George C. Scott’s General Turgeson), and the absurdist/surrealist/Brechtian films of Richard Lester, notably How I Won the War and the nuclear apocalypse farce, The Bed-Sitting Room—but come to that, his better known two Beatles films have those "Brechtian" qualities, too. Which they share with the Marx Brothers movies, including Duck Soup, another satire of war. And after that, Monty Python, and before, Chaplin---there are plenty of examples. Fantasy, realism, political and class satire, emotion, irony, gags, drama, character arcs and a flexible fourth wall---they've all been combined many times.
Brecht himself knew all about the wise fool and jester tradition that goes as far back in European history and performance as its possible to go. The court jester was really the first allowed free speech, challenging the rulers and what they do. It was also part of the folk and festival traditions, the carnival, burlesque and Vaudeville. In Brecht it may be class analysis, but it uses the tools of irony, satire, lampoon. It attacks with startling, pithy truth, but in a way that evokes laughter.
We are heirs of that tradition, and all we need is to be tipped off to the fact that we’re allowed to laugh. This to me was the greatest weakness of this production. The laughter should have begun with this first exchange between the Recruiting Officer and the Sergeant. The audience knows this is about a weighty subject, and it comes draped in art and the mystification of a playwright who has an “ian” after his name in the textbooks. They need to know these guys are clowns, and what they are saying is meant to be both absurd and absurdly truthful. Playing it on the overly dramatic side of naturalism---with the actors on opposite sides of the stage, talking loudly and slowly--- is going in the wrong direction.
Not all the parts worked this way but several of the key ones did, and a few of the actors performed this aspect effectively, especially Kato Buss as the Chaplain---and not surprisingly, he got the most laughs.
This is the tone I felt was mostly missing and at times undermined. In one scene, Mother Courage, the Chaplain and the Cook are in conversation, while Kattrin (the daughter) is trying on a pair of red shoes and a red hat left behind by a whore. It is an important scene for building the character of Kattrin, and director Heckel chose to focus on it, to the extent of completely obscuring the conversation (it was pre-recorded and kept at a soft monotone, while the predominant sound was the cello accompanying Kattrin’s movements.) Unfortunately, that conversation also contains some of the sharpest and most outrageous observations about war in the play, completely lost.
In the play as a whole, there were so many references that chillingly parallel what’s been going on with the Iraq war, that together with the play’s own drama, this production couldn’t fail to have a powerful effect. But I think I would have liked it better if it had been simpler, with more laughter.
The basic story: In the midst of a palace coup, the infant prince is left behind, then rescued---reluctantly at first—by the young peasant woman, Grusha. She is pursued by soldiers, in the dangerous landscape of shifting allegiances. Eventually the old rulers return, the governor’s wife wants the baby back, so Grusha is again pursued, and this time is caught.
Then the matter is put before a court, with the genially corrupt, former revolutionary Azdak presiding as judge. He eventually invokes the “chalk circle” test, in which the two women contending for the baby— the now devoted Grusha and the child’s ‘birth mother,’ the governor’s wife—struggle to pull the child outside the circle on their side. Though Grusha loses the struggle, because she won’t endanger the child, she wins the baby, for precisely that reason. She is finally reunited with her soldier lover, so a Shakespearian marriage is not far off to cap the comedy.
The two pivotal characters are Grusha and Azdak. Brecht’s stay in America is reflected in at least one way. In the notes to this play, Brecht writes, “In the English language there is an American term, ‘sucker,’ and this is exactly what Grusha is being when she takes over the child.” He tries to explain what the word means but there is no German equivalent, which probably suggests the concept was new to him in America.
Eric Bentley takes up this theme in a 1966 essay on this play. “To give way to the promptings of nature, to natural sympathy, to the natural love of the Good, is to be a Sucker. America invented that expressive word, and America’s most articulate comedian, W.C. Fields, called one of his films, Never Give a Sucker An Even Break. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a sucker gets an even break."
Azdak is as a character in the “fool” or trickster tradition, especially as preserved in folk tales of clever animals who sometimes triumph, but also sometimes subvert themselves with arrogance, gluttony, greed and too much cleverness. He is a kind of rogue, but he rises to the occasion in Grusha’s case.
Though the play is lighter than “Mother Courage,” it is also suffused with irony and social consciousness, this time more directly concentrated on class. But like Charles Dickens, who also wrote to champion the downtrodden, Brecht spares no class, high or low, in his exposure of hypocrisy, meanness and selfishness. He does so with comedy (as folk stories do) and irony, but never simply as a joke. A peasant in "Mother Courage" is willing to die rather than give information that would allow the sleeping children in town to be slaughtered, when the soldiers threaten her bull and cows, she relents. This is ironic and funny, an apparent comment on character, yet deeply tragic, because it’s tragically true: without livestock, the entire family might starve.
The local "Chalk Circle" production was a project for freshmen and sophomores at North Coast Prep, ranging in age from 13 to l6 (including several foreign exchange students.) More than thirty actors and musicians participated, with music composed and played by students Greg Moore and Izzy Samuels.
Director and teacher Jean Bazemore said her students responded to this play's humor and core message-- --“that there are good people who take risks and make difficult choices in difficult times. They love it. The opportunity to meet characters who make courageous choices is really appealing to them.”
Though the players were young, this was not an ordinary high school production. Theatre is a core subject at North Coast Prep, and everyone involved lives up to their membership in the Young Actors Guild ensemble: they take theatre and learning about it seriously, and work together and support each other every day.
Plus they have Jean Bazemore, a talented and visionary director who directed at HSU and elsewhere for many years. Also the set and lighting design of Gerald Beck, always breathtaking in their simplicity, elegance and appropriateness, providing these young actors with an environment that both expresses and guides them. Neither of them approaches their productions as anything less than a professional effort, and their seriousness is palpable in the discipline of the actors.
But the production still has an educational function, and part of it is to provide for as much participation as possible. Even with so many roles, some are double-cast. The Chalk Circle is quite a challenge, but added to that, it was performed in the large Van Duzer theatre over 4 consecutive nights, with two additional morning performances for other schools. (Residents of a local homeless shelter were also guests at one performance.) Double-casting in the main roles probably helped, and so does youth, but it was still a daunting schedule.
I saw it on opening night, when the cast was still getting their legs under them, though by the second half they were proceeding with more confidence and less self-consciousness. Chisa Hughes as Grusha (she alternated with Fiona Ryder) and Bo Banducci as Azdak (alternating with Isaiah Cooper) did very well in their key roles, and made sure everything they said and did was clear, with defined actions and strong stage voices.
Hughes has an impressive singing voice, though she only got to sing one song the night I saw her perform (many of the play's songs weree spoken.) Banducci has the physical ease and fluidity of a natural performer, plus a vocal quality that is not only clear but inherently interesting, like Peter Coyote’s voice, which invites and commands attention. I look forward to seeing both of them (as well as others in the cast) develop their skills to play nuance and control pace.
While not as powerful or focused as the fall production of Antigone and St. Joan by North Coast Prep’s juniors and seniors, at least when I saw it, this “Chalk Circle” was still a good night of theatre for local audiences, especially as an introduction to Brecht. I wish I could have seen it again later in the run, for I felt that this group would learn a great deal in a few days. What especially interested me was that none of these very young actors had any visible problem playing Brecht. Chisa Hughes was an appropriately sympathetic Grusha, and Bo Banducci was an appropriately ironic Azdak.
For all of Brecht’s influential theories, his plays are filled with drama and emotion, as well as irony and dark laughter (be it gallows humor or black humor, or “Brechtian” humor.) Eric Bentley said that when he taught Brecht, he didn’t start with Brecht’s theories but with his poems. (The North Coast Prep program included a great one.) Perhaps it’s even enough to start with his plays.
“The plays of so socially conscious a playwright as Brecht, who was dedicated to the task of showing his fellow human beings that the world must be changed through social action, also contain powerful poetic metaphors of human emotion,” wrote Martin Esslin, in the final pages of his book, An Anatomy of Drama. “Mother Courage pulling her cart, Gruscha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle crossing the swaying bridge over the ravine to save the child…these are poetic images of human resilence, tenderness and sensuality...”
Thursday, February 09, 2006
They weren't exactly the Boston Red Sox, but close. The 2005/06 Pittsburgh Steelers did what no NFL team had ever done: just when it looked they weren't even going to make the playoffs, they won eight straight games, including three playoff games and the Super Bowl, to become NFL champions.
So for the first time since the four championships of the 1970s, the Steelers were world famous. At least at the highest level, for there are Steelers fans all over the world. Over a billion people worldwide watched them win on Sunday. Except for the final episode of M*A*S*H (back when there were but 3 networks), more people in the U.S. watched this Super Bowl than any other program in history. Seattle has fans abroad, in Japan and other parts of Asia in particular. But you have to believe that most of the global interest was in the Steelers.
This team was unique: with veteran leadership (Jerome Bettis, beloved by teammates and Pittsburgh fans), uniquely talented young plays (Ben Roethislberger, the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl; defensive wizard Troy Palamalu) and players on both sides of the ball in the prime of their careers (like wide receivers Hines Ward and A. Randle-el.)
They didn't play their best game, the stars did not all shine, but they won as a team, because they play for the team: and so many made an outstanding play at just the right time.
The Pittsburgh community loves them for their involvement and general good citizenship, starting at the top (owner Dan Rooney, coach Bill Cowher).
I grew up nearby, I lived in the city, and even though I haven't been back in a few years, I read the Pittsburgh news sites and keep in touch as best I can. The rest is there for all to see.
Here are a few photos from the last incredible week, leading up to, during and after the Super Bowl. There are more photos on my Dreaming Up Daily site, here and here.
And commentaries here and here.
To celebrate this week, here's part of an essay on what the Steelers mean to Pittsburgh that I posted on Daily Kos, is included just below the photo scrapbook. There are other Steelers pieces on this blog, here and here (origin of the Terrible Towel.)
UPDATE: Here's some of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette account of the celebration downtown:
"You have supported us, win, lose or draw. So I want to say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for all the memories you've given me, and the way you've taken me in." -- Jerome Bettis
Clinging to lampposts, perched in trees, hanging out of office windows, crowded on parking decks and standing 15-deep in places along the 1.2-mile parade route from Mellon Arena to Gateway Center were people of every size, age and color, a true Steeler Nation that had endured 26 years of dashed dreams and unfulfilled prayers while waiting to celebrate the championship. And celebrate they did.
Grandmothers unashamedly screamed out players' names as the 58-vehicle motorcade took two hours to navigate the route, led by the flag-bearing Pittsburgh Paramedic Honor Guard.
Grown men wearing the jerseys of their favorite players gaped and shouted as individual Steelers slowly moved past in the backs of chauffeured cars and vans.
"This is a rebirth," yelled Elaine Hatton, 59, of Center Township in Beaver County, who said she had attended all four previous Steelers Super Bowl parades. This one was different, though. "We died and were resurrected," she said.
Also in the parade were Gladys and Johnnie Bettis, parents of just-retired Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. "This is just the most incredible moment of my life," Mrs. Bettis said. "We knew winning the Super Bowl was big, but this is even bigger. I had no idea there were this many people in Pittsburgh."
Although many school districts warned that they would not grant excused absences to students attending the parade, thousands of youngsters apparently came down with black-and-gold flu.
Whitehall residents Kevin Walsh, his wife, Nancy, and three school-age children -- Shane, 16, Samantha, 14, and Cassidy, 9 -- waved from a sidewalk. "I got my three kids out of school because I think this is an important family event," he said. "I don't think missing one day of school is going to matter that much when they're going to have memories of this for a lifetime."
On a normal Sunday in football season, business in the Pittsburgh area is slow, especially during the game. It's a favorite time for non-fans to go to the mostly empty supermarket, though the game will be blaring from the p.a.
On this Super Bowl Sunday, come six pm eastern time, the city will just stop. The malls will actually close. It's not just that fewer customers are likely. Too many employees want to be watching the game.
The Pittsburgh Public Theatre has cancelled its Sunday night performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest." The Importance of Being Steelers takes precedence. The city's science and art museums, and even the zoo, are running programs and contests related to the Steelers. The game is the cultural event. The Super Bowl is the city's theatre.
By the time the game ends, portions of downtown Pittsburgh will be closed to motorized traffic. A big safe space is being created for the hoped-for celebration. There hasn't been one for a Super Bowl victory since 1980.
City of Champions
The Steelers grabbed the heart of Pittsburgh with its great teams of the 70s, at precisely the same time that the steel mills, the source of the city's identity, were shutting down.
The mills were failing, the Steelers were succeeding, preaching the blue collar ethic. Steel City became Steelers City.
From then until about 1990, the city of Pittsburgh lost half of its population. But people who left in this industrial diaspora retained close connections, if not also to family and the area itself, then certainly to the Steelers. That's why the Steelers can go to any NFL city in North America and play to Steelers fans in the stands.
The Steelers were and are part of everything else that is and was Pittsburgh.
Family: you see it in the photos in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette online Steelers Nation collection: seven young cousins in Big Ben No. 7 jerseys, a father and his infant daughter in Steelers shirts, etc.
Community: you see it in the joyful faces in other P-G photos of the rally downtown last week. The Steelers organization and individuals within it, including the players, are out in the community and doing for the community.
Tradition: Pittsburgh doesn't much like people who put on airs, but they do appreciate special individuals. Sports heroes and TV news personalities, once Pittsburgh takes them into their hearts, they are royalty forever. Wherever they came from, many of them stay. Pittsburgh respects loyalty and commitment to the city, and they give loyalty back.
Football is itself a tradition there. Western Pennsylvania was once ruled by King Coal, but in recent decades by King Football. Friday nights are high school football, and everyone in town goes to the games. Why not? They've seen Danny Marino, Jim Kelly, Joe Montana, Bill Cowher, and many more later NFL stars. Saturday is college football, Pitt and Penn State and smaller colleges. Since the 70s, Sunday is Steelers time. It doesn't matter what church you go to or don't go to. Sunday at 1, everyone worships at the same shrine.
All of these, and more, come together in the Steelers. They are important to this city and its people as a symbol of winning with their values, but also of persevering in adversity.
The Steelers represent the heart of Pittsburgh, the will to keep on going in tough times, a celebration of its unique character, and the moments of victory that come into almost every life, at least once in awhile. It's very important to know how to celebrate them. This year, Pittsburgh and the Steelers did pretty well on all counts.
Friday, January 20, 2006
I caught up with the 2005 film version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice at a subrun double feature, presumably before it disappears until DVDed. I loved Austen's novels, which combine great wit and writing, social and character study, with strong stories. Pride and Prejudice has emerged as the story that touches people most deeply and has the most powerful cultural hold of nearly mythic intensity. Inevitably this kind of story is retold with different emphases at different times, by different storytellers.
The 1940 version starring Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson is one of my favorite movies, for a combination of reasons I can't fully describe. I used to watch it every New Year's Eve. But by now it's clear that like many Shakespeare plays, this Austen novel is too large to be contained in a single movie, and the best a movie can do is emphasize aspects of it with a fresh vision. If done with enough heart and skill, Austen is only enhanced.
This version is a very different kind of movie based on the same novel, and it works for me. Moreover, some of the differences are fascinating in themselves. The 1940 version was located in the Hollywood set version of elegant England. There was much talk, as in the novel, of the modesty of the Bennet household, and the financial necessity for the sisters to marry well. While the Bennet family was portrayed as a kind of small town American brood, and Olivier's Darcy and his friends were obviously snobbish, the material difference was hard to see.
Not so in the new version. Here the vast gulf between the country folk and the landed gentry with their estates and houses in London is very obvious. The Bennet household includes pigs and geese and other farm animals, and fields to cultivate and harvest---so there's a sense of how it actually supports itself, missing from the 1940 version. Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) is a working farmer, as well as the father who retreats to his ramshackle study for the shelter of books. We see a direct contrast in the uniformed servant with his precise walk to the exact center of the room to announce visitors to the Darcy crowd, and the shamble by the Bennet's hayseed hired man to announce theirs.
The country folk are mostly unattractive but excited at their noisy, sweaty ball, but they all freeze into a gaping frieze at the appearance of the two gentlemen, Mr. Bingley (Simon Wood) and Mr. Darcy ( Matthew Macfadyen), and the snobbishly cynical Caroline Bingley (Kelly Reilly). In this scene, director Joe Wright also makes Darcy appear about a foot taller than everyone else in the room. After gaping and bowing at them like the freaks they are in this place, the locals then ignore them as they go back to their enthusiastic dancing.
Late in the film, Wright ups the ante even more by presenting Darcy's estate as huge and utterly magnificent. In an almost modern touch, he follows the heroine Elizabeth Bennet's refusal of Darcy's offer of marriage with a scene of her touring the palace that could have been hers, on a kind of great homes tour.
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But there are also noteworthy and interesting differences in narrative and character shadings. Though keeping some of Austen's references to the ages of the sisters (the oldest in her late 20s), this film portrays them as younger, especially Keira Knightley as the heroine, Lizzie Bennet. She is bright and witty, but no Greer Garson. She seems more like a mischevious 20 at the oldest, trembling with girlish energy. This actually works to make plausible the idea that she's considered the less attractive sister. When she wrinkles up her nose, giggles and ducks her head, having fun with her sisters, it's plausible that her beauty, so evident in repose, would go unnoticed.
Her "more beautiful" older sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike) is evidently beautiful, and is seen much more in repose. What makes this film work immediately is how perfectly matched she is with Simon Wood's Mr. Bingley. Both are shy, modest and sincere, and seem out of place except with each other. They are also both blond. It takes the dark-haired Elizabeth and dark-haired Darcy awhile to discover the secret of their darkness: though both are flawed with pride and prejudice, they share a fierce moral rectitude not at all incompatible with physically passionate natures.
As for this film's take on Darcy, I endorse Stephen Holden's description in his New York Times review (this time in contrast not with Olivier but Colin Firth's portrayal on the 1990s miniseries):Mr. Firth might have been far more dashing, but Mr. Macfadyen's portrayal of the character as a shy, awkward suitor whose seeming arrogance camouflages insecurity and deep sensitivity is more realistic. Isolated by his wealth, ethical high-mindedness and fierce critical intelligence, Mr. Darcy is as stubborn in his idealism as Elizabeth is in hers. The disparity between his diffidence and her forthrightness makes the lovers' failure to connect more than a delaying tactic to keep the story churning forward; it's a touching tale of misread signals.
This is the first major film by director Joe Wright, and it has the studied innocence and ambition of a first movie. Somebody will no doubt study the significance of the many appearances of flame, and how they dissolve into something else. There are plenty of references to other films, especially Olivier's more famous romantic role in Wuthering Heights. But he has so much visual energy (with a score that suggests Philip Glass playing appropriate bits from classical composers, and I say that with admiration) that the symbolism of Lizzie whirling on a swing when she's confused is not at all heavy-handed because it's so deftly done and neat to look at.
He and the screenplay author (Deborah Moggach) also deliver some subtle scenes and dialogue that illuminate minor characters, in place of the delightful movie caricatures,of 1940, particularly Sutherland's Mr. Bennet. Brenda Blethyn's shrill and frenetic Mrs. Bennet also gets some sympathetic moments, when she makes clear what she's up against, that the necessity of five daughters marrying decently if not exceptionally well is no joke, in an age and place that could condemn them to the most degrading circumstances Dickens presented. (This couldn't have been an easy script to write either, as the story seems to defy Hollywood's preferred simple three-act structure.)
In the last part of the movie, realism is perhaps stretched to accomodate the romance, but the film has earned some indulgence. Perhaps someday I'll put together my own double feature of these two Prides and Prejudices. Maybe next New Year's Eve.
Sunday, January 15, 2006
You have to be a veteran Steeler---a veteran Steeler fan, that is--to appreciate the emotions of today's game. For three quarters plus, the Pittsburgh Steelers (#6 seed in the playoffs) dominated the Indianapolis Colts (#1 seed), the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl. No #6 seed had ever done this.
For veterans, it was like thirty years had melted away, and the Steel Curtain, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were invincible. Those were the days when every schoolkid wore a Steelers jacket, and waitresses would ask you if you wanted your coffee black or gold.
Then after another defensive crush, the Steelers were on the goal line for the touchdown that would put the game away, when their Mr. Automatic, the Bus, did the unthinkable and fumbled the ball. The Colts nearly scored a touchdown after recovering it.
This then was a different echo---the talented teams since the 70s, brilliant one week, and yet in playoff games or even once in the Super Bowl, able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in terrible ways, and I'm not talking about towels.Then the Pittsburgh working class self-contempt would kick in, and it would all seem like fate. The little guy never gets a break.
Needless to say, the bonehead plays of the 70s teams were all forgotten, because that now mythic team won so many crucial games, more by the skin of their teeth than most memories would allow.
Anyway, the Steelers survived that scare today when the Colts improbably missed a field goal to tie, and the team that deserved to win did. (In addition to the fumble, the Steelers had a late interception taken away on an inexplicably bad call on replay; they'd lost a couple of other crucial calls as well.) It was the biggest upset of the weekend, although Denver over New England was close.
I taped the game so I could watch it without commercials, and only if it turned out to be worth watching. I didn't even see the score until it was over. I've paid my emotional roller coaster dues. But I'm sure this would have been impossible if I still lived in Pittsburgh (I'm in CA now, where the traditional afternoon games are in the morning, which makes it easier to resist watching them) and my first thought when I read about the fourth quarter, was that I hoped my old friend Clayton didn't have a heart attack.