Rockabye Brecht Essay

Published: 2021-07-11 23:00:05
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Shortly before his death in 1956, Bertolt Brecht, in a characteristic moment of reflective irony, told a colleague that “the man who makes himself indispensable is up to no good.” A lifetime behind him of skipping town whenever indispensable leaders such as Hitler and the House on Un-American Activities Committee were hot on his trail, Brecht could have been musing about his transience as a permanent condition. It would be like him to recognize that even his own leadership of the Berliner Ensemble could be construed as a threat to the survival of his plays, their reputation hanging on the slender thread of his own impeccable, highly impermanent productions. For all the critical literature surrounding both plays and productions, and even considering the mile-high paper trail he constructed to explain himself, it’s not easy to know if he saw himself as a profound classical contender. He was too street-smart to float pretensions of “greatness,” even though he couldn’t resist the marketplace for high-falutin’ ideas. As early as 1934, he was telling Walter Benjamin that he’d have to admit to a tribunal asking him if he meant to be serious that he was finally, after all, thinking “too much about artistic matters, about what would go well on stage, to be quite serious.” That paper trail notwithstanding, Brecht the playwright was always ready to defer to Brecht the director.
He had to know, too, that both Brechts would eventually defer to history. What a charming fatalist he turned out to be, living next door in East Berlin to the bucolic little graveyard where he and Helena Weigel would eventually be buried – their bodies and souls dedicated to theatrical experiment, their bank notes stashed in Zurich just in case another quick getaway would have to be made. In Galileo, he had already pronounced his own death sentence on sentimental heroics – “Unhappy the country that needs a hero” – and he was quick to see that if the East German scoundrels persisted in medieval despotism, the people might have to be abolished.
BUT EVEN BRECHT, with all his mightily wry skepticism, could not have written 1989’s scenario of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, nor the subsequent madcap dash into free-market freefall, tribal warfare, factional terrorism and designer bombings meant to boost the popularity of America’s home-grown Arturo Uis. Mother Courage’s 30-year war looks positively innocent now compared to ethnic cleansings on all continents. And what could be funnier and more dialectically mysterious than the recent serious proposal from retailer Luciano Benetton to set up “a revolutionary kind of school without teacher or books for young artists from around the world,” to be headed by Fidel Castro? Epic theatre, whatever it may have meant to Brecht, has long since been upstaged by apocalyptic tragi-comedy.
According to John Rockwell’s New York Times account last February about small-scale epic efforts by Brecht’s theatrical heirs to rescue the Berliner Ensemble now that all the indispensables are gone, it was Heiner Muller who told him that they’re “looking for a constructive idea,” thus inadvertently putting the final seal on Brecht’s theories as a means to any useful end. Muller, of course, is currently besieged by charges that he, like so many accommodating intellectuals, did a deal with Erich Honeker’s Stasi devils, so it’s no wonder that he’s not exactly concentrating for the moment on running a theatre. Even so, he might have done better service to his own intelligence – and Brecht’s – than the hapless admission that he’s nostalgic for those great days when they didn’t have the “great burden that we can do anything and say anything.” A terrible burden, also, to be handling a $16-million annual subsidy from the Berlin city government; it’s not likely, however, that Berliners on either side of the former wall are shedding tears for an unfocused playwright as they scramble to survive more pressing emergencies, such as currency panic and reminiscent violence. Rockwell defines epic theatre as “sweeping pageants built of socially concerned vignettes,” placing Brecht in the most trivializing ghetto he can find, but monstrous injustice as this may be, it’s not more injurious to Brecht than Muller’s sweeping unconcern. Brecht, I suspect, would have abolished his heirs before abolishing the people.
In the U.S., luckily, he has no theatrical heirs, so all that has to be abolished are lackadaisical theatres with their hit-and-mostly-miss approaches to Brecht’s legacy. As Eric Bentley says, it isn’t “just the essays that are misunderstood. Everything is misunderstood.” Worse, says Bentley, Brecht’s theoretical essays keep academics busy, “confirming them in a belief that the arts are there to illustrate theories of the arts,” which in practice has meant that Brecht’s plays have been consigned mostly to our campuses while professionals everywhere have made an uncomprehending mess of everything, particularly the later plays with their elusive arguments and – truth to tell – epically German, long-winded reiterations of what is already known.
AND DESPITE, OR PERHAPS because, of the money thrown at these productions, Broadway is the worst offender: Think, if you can bear it, of Jerome Robbins’s star-crossed Mother Courage (with Anne Bancroft, 1963) in which a brilliant choreographer-director fell over himself to present a flat-footed sprawl that might have been written by a pixilated Clifford Odets reaching for “style” – Anna Fierling’s golden boys never make it in the mean old world. Or of Tony Richardson’s Arturo Ui (1963) with a honking Christopher Plummer making Stratford-on-Rhine noises, more or less passing through on the way to his next Richard III, a not-so-enigmatic nut to crack. Or, if you don’t mind dancing on the grave, dug savagely by all at the time, of Sting in The Threepenny Opera (1990).
In the absence of tradition (not least because New York knew the Berliner Ensemble mainly from Kenneth Tynan’s ecstatic accounts), our directors jumped into microwave classicism, as if the only way to present Brecht would be to adopt a cautious, imitative, respectful tone: Heavy ideas in American playhouses usually mean heavy weather.
Not that other countries have done any better. Forty years on, it’s reasonable to speak the unthinkable: No theatre anywhere has ever matched Brecht’s productions in theatrical presence, energy of thought or even plain and simple delight. If I speculate on the possibility that only truly great actors need apply, I have to recall that most of them never did. In England, the obvious Galileo – Ralph Richardson – was probably not even curious, and much the same has to be said of Olivier, Scofield and all those alarming Redgraves. When the transcendent Peggy Ashcroft tried on The Good Woman of Setzuan for size, she demonstrated only that she took more easily to Shakespeare and Rattigan. In an uncharacteristic lapse, she was at a loss to negotiate the sharp, angular, disruptive transformations on Shen Te into Shui Ta, though the latter was a mightily convincing variation on Olivier’s Richard. The same play caught Georgio Strehler in still another of his design essays on glancing pastels and the whiting-out of actors’ faces. I once saw Jeanne Moreau, Micheal Piccoli, Delphine Seyrig and Gerard Depardieu in Peter Handke’s The Ride Across Lake Constance, but I don’t need a fact-checker to confirm my guess that none of them ever attempted to take on Brecht, not even for ready money.
Money, at any rate, wouldn’t help these days, though it might buy those six- to nine-month rehearsal periods Brecht lavished on himself during that intoxicating time when East Germany, lacking a space program, fielded a showcase theatre instead. But what would our directors do with so much time, let alone money? First, they’d have to beg their actors to forgive and forget buzz words such as “alienation” and “gestus,” assuring them that Brecht, in practice, meant only to suggest great roles rather than great characters – roles with vaudeville pedigrees, a lieder singer’s shifts of rhythm and tone, a fencer’s brain, and a dancer’s breathtaking flirtations with loss of balance. Second, they might at least have to give up their designer-driven concepts in favor of a rehearsal adventure that truly addressed the unknown, the unplanned, the shock of discovery. And finally – not least – they could look at history and the anecdotal evidence behind the headlines.
Puntila and Matti at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles last spring seemed to be about a rich geezer and the hands-on-hips broads he needed when drunk or sober, thus blurring all the contrasts. In fact, Brecht brazenly lifted his elemental tale from Chaplin’s City Lights, the rip-off and the balletic elegance very much his own style. Instead, this looked like Brecht seen through the lens and awshucks orneriness of John Ford Webster. Much better, but still weighed by dutiful homage to Brecht’s sweeping white curtain and performing revolve, was Michael Kahn’s production at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. of Mother Courage, with Pat Carroll light years away, mercifully, from Bancroft’s veil of tears and even Judi Dench’s tough little dumpling soldier at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-’80s. Caroll is round, but more show-biz than dumpling, which makes her picture-book mimicry of Weigel’s silent scream look all the more mechanized and second-hand. These labored productions share a barely hidden freeze-out hostility to the deliberately disjarring stops and starts of the text. They’re struck noisily dumb, if that’s possible, by the musical episodes, the ghosts of jaunty-Weill and swaggering Lenya rendering them sunless, arch and weirdly melancholic.
GIVEN TIME, THEN, our directors might be able to break away from the dead hand of received ideas. But why bother, even if the luxury were suddenly dumped on us as reward for so many years spent like street-buskers waiting for a handout? My guess is that Brecht’s plays, punch-drunk with wicked reversals, besotted linguistic effusions and rage with a stupid universe, are not so much beyond translation as they are beside themselves with grief about the disappearing urgency of theatre itself. Alive today, Brecht the poet could easily make peace with the gods that failed. He might even be able to cope with the headlines and all the infuriating cruelties surrounding them. And in George Soros, described this summer by a Reuters dispatch as the “Hungarian-born … modern-day Robin Hood … who broke the pound,” he’d surely find still another irresistibly slippery character settling for a spectacular role on the world stage of finance and war.
But surely that’s the point: How do we tell this new Azdak that Brecht has already written him? He’ll go on anyway, maneuvering behind the scenes, making a mockery of the experts, generally demonstrating that the world doesn’t need parliaments, prime ministers, presidents, pundits – or playwrights. As a certifiable Brecht character, he’s always momentarily right and monumentally wrong. The playwright needs to regroup forces now, if only to catch up with that quick-change art known as history. Until we can look at him again as a new-born prodigy, always a fleet-foot ahead of the undertakers running the world, let’s give Brecht a well-earned rest from slow-wit and lumpish production. Long after Soros and Company are gone, Brecht, like Beckett, will go on.

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