Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Eric Bentley insisted that just as staging Brecht doesn’t require any of Brecht’s political theory, it requires little if any of his theatrical theory. This is true in structural terms. “I think, you know, the Mother Courage structure is certainly unorthodox according to Ibsen or Arthur Miller,” he said in a conversational interview, “ but it's not that far from Elizabethan.”

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.

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