Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Bertolt Brecht: Now it's time to play You Bet Your Life? Posted by Picasa
The Accidental Brecht-a-thon

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.

Brecht and Weigel in 1954. Posted by Picasa
Born 108 years ago this February in Bavaria, Bertolt Brecht studied medicine before working in an army hospital during World War I, where he saw the butchery of war in person. His first poems were published and his first plays produced in the early 1920s.

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.

Helene Weigel in 1951 Berlin production of "Mother Courage and Her Children." Posted by Picasa
Brecht set Mother Courage and Her Children in central Europe during the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century. After World War I, some Europeans (including H.G. Wells in England) feared the next world war would itself last 20 years or more, and destroy western civilization.

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.

Bernadette Cheyne as Mother Courage in the HSU 2006 production. photo: HSU Graphic Services. Posted by Picasa
HSU’s “Mother Courage” was presented in the 110-seat Gist Hall Theatre. It is in one of the older buildings on campus, often too warm and stuffy, with the audience looking down on the stage from severely raked rows of seats. However, about half the seats are quite close to the stage.

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.

The cart is still a skeleton in this shot
of cast members on the ramp. Posted by Picasa
Here my description and evaluation becomes intermixed with argument. It’s a problematic line, especially between critique and “here’s how I would do it.” I would be much more careful if this was a published review. But hey, this is just my blog, and I can do what I like.

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.

Lila Nelson and the band for Mother Courage at HSU. Posted by Picasa
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.

Brecht in 1935 Posted by Picasa
Mother Courage and Her Children is a kind of tragedy, but The Caucasian Chalk Circle is classically a comedy, with a happy ending. Of course it still have biting irony concerning class and politics, and some unfortunate events.

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...”