I should have known that my life was destined to be intertwined with serious theatre when I started to read the plays of Bertolt Brecht while still in high school. Brecht was not exactly “on the reading list” at my suburban high school catering to the children of the upperwardly mobile. We read what you must read to get into college. More significantly, in the early 1960s, we continued to live in the shadow of the McCarthy era and the fear of communist infiltration, a fear that continues to haunt America because of its politically convenient association with the dreaded “S” word: socialism. Even the “old left” had rejected their most articulate living playwright. Brecht had shocked the American left by not only appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he had turned his testimony into a sort of mini-Brechtian play, using his cunning wit and his purported lack of facility with the English language to give the committee members twisted answers that they perceived as unusually cooperative.
Some biographers view his testimony to be a cop-out designed to spare him “black listing” and assure his passage through customs to return to Europe after his World War II exile to Southern California. Brecht was never able to find a place for himself in Hollywood except among his exiled compatriots. While he had a few writing assignments from the commercial entertainment world, his only real success was a legendary collaboration with Charles Laughton on Brecht’s masterwork: “Galileo.” However, if you listen to the recording of his testimony to HUAC, it perfectly mirrors Brecht’s well-honed ability to set two contrasting statements against one another, leaving the listener to determine “what is right and wrong.” He is a master of little dialectical conundrums that clearly communicate his point of view to those ready to hear, but that also pander to the distortions of those who profit from misunderstanding or who behave as if they do not understand. At the end of the hearing, HUAC Vice-Chair, Kurt Mundt (R-South Dakota) thanked Mr. Brecht for his cooperation and the next day he was on a plane to Switzerland and soon after founded his famous “Berliner Ensemble” in East Berlin with the support of the East German government. “Happy endings are the rule, dear!” (“Threepenny” lyrics as adapted by Blitzstein).
My attraction to Brecht came from two related, but also dialectally opposite sources: the influence of my father and my emerging sensitivity to the systematic injustices of our American way of life. My dad, not much of a theatre fan (that was my mother’s department), had seen the original production of Marc Blitzstein’s ingenious (if significantly distorted) adaptation of “The Threepenny Opera” that helped establish off-Broadway as an alternate New York theatre movement at what was then the Theater de Lys, now known as the Lucille Lortel Theater, named for the great producer who made her theater a place for works that could not survive the pressures and finances of the Great White Way. He bought the original cast album with the likes of Scott Merrill, Charlotte Rae, Jo Sullivan, Bea Arthur, and, of course, the legendary Lotte Lenya, who was Kurt Weill’s widow, advocate, and executor.
I fell in love with the original cast album, one of the first in my teenage collection of musicals (a sign of a hidden identity I was yet to embrace). Actually, the recording was among the first 33 1/3 long-playing “high fidelity” cast recordings. But this show was no “Oklahoma!” or “Damn Yankees” (at least not damning those Yankees). It was biting satire. It turned the usual plot devices on their head and used the conventions of the musical to portray a world where “justice gives way before humanity” and “food is the first thing; morals follow on” [Act III and II finales].
It was filled with characters that could not be categorized as good or bad; they were all about survival. And the show seemed to mock itself – “an opera conceived with the splendor of which only beggars can dream, yet so cheap that even beggars could afford it” [Prologue].
I had to rely on the summary on the back of the LP cover for the story of this “opera.” But Blitzstein’s lyrics told me all I had to know to discover that musical theatre could go beyond just making you feel good. In fact, it could make you feel bad, too. And not just the type of bad you feel when the poor Billy Bigalow returns to his daughter’s graduation in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” to the brilliantly sentimental melody of “When You Walk Through a Storm.” No, this was a musical that, I was discovering, said it “like it is”: “The world is mean and man’s uncouth; and sad to say, I tell the truth.”
I grew up in a suburban Jewish community near Philadelphia. Like a good little Jewish boy, I went to Hebrew school. I tried to learn the Hebrew alphabet (I rarely got beyond gimel). I listened to the lessons of the old testament, and like most children brought up to believe in their family’s religion (no matter the level of commitment or practice), I assumed those rules and guidelines governed people’s behavior (yes, I was naïve; but I was young and sheltered). Slowly, but ever so surely, I began to see the contradictions between what I was taught and what I observed. I knew some people who went to Shul on the High Holidays and I observed that their daily lives had nothing to do with the multitude of aphorisms uttered by the Rabbi. In my mid-teens, I came to question the role religion (and even God) in people’s daily lives. But this “doubt” was as closely guarded a secret as my repressed homosexuality. If there is a God, [I like to think of myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist: no proof either way and my religious upbringing was too weak to instill faith, but I’m open], I thank God for my reformation and coming out politically and sexually in my 20s. I am a child of the 60s.
So, “The Threepenny Opera” was not just an odd indicator of my emerging identity as a gay man who stereotypically loves musicals, it was actually a formative influence on my entry into a world filled with doubt, irony, and contradiction. And, since I read plays while most teens read novels (at least most teens who were trying to get into “the right college”), I began to devour Brecht: “Mother Courage,” “The Good Woman of Szechuan,” and “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” I was a classic “good boy;” in fact my college girl friend (briefly my wife, before dealing with that “other” secret) described a picture of me as a pre-teen as looking like “the type of kid they beat up in the parking lot.” And I was! Of course, my parents moved to the upscale Nether Providence school district to prevent any such malady.
But reading Brecht was bad boy stuff for me. Here was an author that not only viewed the world as I was beginning to see it, but also shifted the responsibility for that messy world to his audience. He never simply told them what to think; he presented both sides with startling wit and precision and then turned to his audience and said, almost as my Jewish grandmother might say, “Sooooo, vhada you think?” Later in my passion for Brecht, I wanted to write my doctoral dissertation on Brecht’s extraordinary Lehrstücke (learning plays). Unfortunately, I suffer from a rare case of foreign-language-phobia and could not envision learning German at the level necessary to interpret the subtleties of Brecht’s mother tongue. For me, though, these short plays, designed to “educate” the working-class in factories and on the street, were Brecht at his finest. One, entitled “The Yes Sayer,” told the story of a group of children who were journeying across a mountain range to secure medicines to relieve a plague that had broken out in their village. Along the way, one of the children is injured and, if the children stop to save him, they will not get the drugs in time to save their village. In traditional Marxist form, they decide to sacrifice their comrade in favor of the greater good and continue their journey. When Brecht saw the workers reaction to his fable, he was alarmed. Rather than simply questioning the balance between the good of many and the good of the individual, they took the play as a lesson in that most fundamental socialist value: the greater good. This was not the type of “learning” Brecht intended. He wanted to promote critical thinking, not blind allegiance. So, he sat down and wrote a companion play called “The No Sayer”: same plot, but the boys stay with the injured comrade and place the town at risk. Brecht then insisted that the two plays always be performed together. Dialectical drama at its purest! BTW – These learning plays are among Brecht’s most poetic, with concise language that rivals the achievements of the most minimalist of poets.
Brecht fell out of favor in the late 20th century, except in the confines of academia. His work is seen more as a manifestation of a period in history, than as relevant to our current zeitgeist. Professors still profess his impact on modern drama and there is the occasional production of one of the classics, usually a play with universal themes: “Mother Courage” and the impact of war or “Galileo” and the conflict between church and science. “Morther Courage” is a play about a woman merchant who survives by freely changing sides in an endless war in which is it frequently hard to tell the enemies from the allies. By the time Brecht wrote this play, a host of world powers had already tried to “tame” Afghanistan with as much success as we are currently experiencing. “Galileo” was faced with the choice between his freedom as a scientist and a church and political infrastructure that saw science as a threat to societal stability, not to mention the power of the ruling class (thank you, Mr. Perry and Ms. Bachmann). Even though the issues in these plays are as central to our social and political lives today as they were when written, Brecht is not seen as a playwright that speaks to the 21st century.
Last Saturday I saw a (almost totally) brilliant production of “The Threepenny Opera” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was a production by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, conceptualized and directed by Robert Wilson. The production had all of the common Robert Wilson qualities: everything in black and white and florescent neon with strategic dashes of red. The movement was highly stylized with lots of jagged steps and posing. Sound effects created the environment. But what was truly amazing was how Wilson used his usual tools to create a production that would have had Brecht enthusiastically giving a standing ovation, as did the audience at the evening’s end. He truly captured the detachment that Brecht labored to create, aided considerably by the use of the original version in German (with subtitles). This “Threepenny” kept smacking the audience in the face and then turning around and tickling their minds. It was also quite startling that the text is so very relevant — the portrait of the moneymakers and the un-moneyed victims who buy into the system; the collaboration of public authorities and the criminals; and the absolute power of money as the means to an end. The audience applauded Macheath’s timely speech about the corruption of banks at the end of the play and that was a perfect bookend with the scene at the beginning when Peachum explains his corporate rules to his new beggar recruit.
The performances were both very Wilsonian and very Brechtian — stark, curt, no direct interaction among characters except when Brecht wanted to point up the absurdity of their actions. The Peachums were particularly wonderful; Jurgen Holst as the honest but grumpy capitalist driven by his confidence that he makes the rules and others must play by them; and Traute Hoess as his wife who sees her daughter as a commodity about to be removed from her proper place: in service to her mother and father and their business interests. Their characterizations were stereotypical, but only as a reflection on their stereotype. Stefan Kurt was perfect as Macheath with a strangely pitched voice and an extraordinary way of lecturing the audience while drawing them into his little perverse universe. Polly was played by Stefanie Stappenbeck as a sort of silly putty, becoming whatever the situation called for and thus embodying Brecht’s frequent view of the survival of women as a pathway though adaptability (a sort of happy go-lucky Mother Courage). And since they were using the original Brecht/Weill version, Polly had all of the songs that were stolen by Lotte Lenya in Blitzstein’s wonderful but monstrously altered revision. The other women (Anna Graenzer as Lucy and Angela Winkler as Jenny) are retuned to their supporting character status and the diversity of Polly’s musical interludes becomes much more a reflection of Brecht’s view of the women as consummate adapters, capable of overcoming every obstacle to survive.
The less-than-brilliant aspects of the production involved two choices that also contributed to its success in capturing Brecht’s much-misunderstood Verfremdungseffekt (his name for the “defamiliarization effect” that continues to be his historic theatrical legacy, thought to have influenced playwrights as diverse Eugene O’Neil, Samuel Becket, and Harold Pinter). Many of the songs were treated as patter numbers, less sung and more rhythmically and didactically spoken, allowing the band’s original instrumentation to carry the melody. Ironically, Mr. Brantley in the New York Times had qualms about the production but declared it as the best sung “Threepenny” he had ever heard. But Weill’s music is a perfect counterpoint to Brecht’s lyrics, with the melodies rubbing up against or parodying the text. So, when the song is acted (even quite effectively), rather than sung, it loses its artful power. I must also admit that Brecht’s lyrics (in supertitles) do not have the witty punch that Blitzstein’s very-free adaptation delivers. They come off more like the dialog, which may well have been Brecht’s intention. Actually, the dialog in many of his later plays (in what appear to be authentic translations) have a much more poetic and musically expansive style — so the limited success of Brecht as a lyricist in “Threepenny” may just be a function of his early development as a playwright. That said, the musicians in the pit were the absolute best advocates for Weill’s style I have ever heard.
The other problem relates to Mr. Wilson’s trademark style. While he skillfully adapts his technique to Brecht’s theatrical principles, at times that style draws out an already long piece (3+ hours) and occasionally draws attention to itself rather than to the focus of Brecht’s text. Even with those reservations, this was a very special evening in the theatre and one that felt as contemporary as any topical play I have seen recently.