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Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

lines from the mother

In classics long after, quotables on November 30, 2009 at 11:53 pm

“Whatever you do / You’ll still have to struggle / Your position is bad / It’ll worsen. / This cannot go on, but / What is the answer?” – Palagea (1)

The Mother somehow manages to be among Brecht’s warmest plays despite being contained entirely in the thankless task of agitation with no historic shifts, and no exotic transpositions across time or space. The explanation is found in the characters that people the piece – not the frozen grandeur of iconic heroes and their grand gestures but the everyday graft of an inexhaustible rabble many of whom we see before/after being revolutionised (the mother – Palagea – of the title, losing her family in the process, Nikolai, the squeamish teacher drawn ever closer without ever growing less insufferable). That human nature is changeable is one of Brecht’s greatest, deathless assaults against traditional drama, where personality is destiny, and people are sorted by virtue, generally having two modes at most (villains who prove heroes, or vice-versa – but the final position considered as their ‘true self’).

The Mother

“Reading is class war” – Palagea (6c)

Just how much Palagea has changed is underlined toward the finish as she proves unable to relate with other mothers. She rejects their religion, and when she minimises mourning her son (a revolutionary) for the revolution, defends her pragmatism: “It wasn’t reason that made me weep. But when I stopped, reason had something to do with that.” (10) She is even reconciled to his executioners: “…in being against him, they were against themselves.” And: “There’s not an animal would surrender its young as you do.” (13) The play ends without resolution, but the struggle is ongoing.

lines from st joan of the stockyards

In classics long after, quotables, video on November 30, 2009 at 1:30 am

“People don’t move me. They are not guiltless.” – Mauler (3)

St Joan of the Stockyards

St Joan of the Stockyards (1974 production)

Very much an ensemble piece, with large parts of the action being conducted between choruses representing meat-packers, stock-breeders and wholesalers (in a business-class manner Caryl Churchill would later echo with Serious Money), St Joan has at its heart a strange dance between Mauler, a meat trader stricken with doubts (“Oh, what a bloody business we are in”) which may or may not be tactical, and Joan, from the Black Straw Hats (akin to Salvation Army) who confronts him (literally) with the “invisible people” he exploits.

In an attempt to counter her idealistic onslaught, Mauler’s serpentine assistant, Slift, shows her how lowly-paid workers exploit each other, but she sees through crime to the logic of need: “You have shown me not / The baseness of the poor but / The poverty of the poor.”

“The cruel thing about hunger is that / However often you satisfy it, it always comes back again.” – Mrs Luckerniddle (7)

“…nothing, however good it looks, should be termed good unless it / Really helps, and nothing counted honourable but what / Irrevocably changes the world, which is in need of change. / I was just what the oppressors wanted. / Oh, inconsequential goodness! / Oh, negligible virtue! (…) Take care that when you leave the world / You have not merely been good, but are leaving  / A better world!” – Joan (8)

Joan exploits the curious hold her innocence has on the softening Mauler by sitting down in solidarity with the jobless from his plant (“The snow will be falling on someone you know”) but, in her heroism, she refuses to compromise herself with pragmatic matters, and the workers lose out as a result of her negligence. She dies, still preaching, pure and useless, canonised by her movement, who have been bought out / ‘supported’ by Mauler (“We’ll promise them that the rich will be punished – after death, of course.”)

“For there is a gulf between the top and bottom, wider / Than between the high Himalaya and the sea / And what gos on at the top / Is not known at the bottom / Nor on top what goes on at the bottom / And top and bottom have two languages…” – Joan (8)

Brecht’s real heroes are ‘flexible’ tricksters or unromantic pragmatists, and his happy endings, few – the frustration of seeing how the world really – mostly – works is supposed to send the audience out at the final curtain wanting to change it. But this play has what is maybe his most enduringly hopeful exchange – between workers who have tried and failed to convince the police that they are equals and should unite. One turns to the other: “Will it always be like this?” The audience considers the tragic conception of the human race, so endlessly fallible, the good intentions gone awry, original sin, hubris and nemesis. And, as they are taken away: “No,” answers the other.

lines from the threepenny opera

In classics long after, quotables, video on November 30, 2009 at 1:00 am

“In five minutes, I can turn any man into such a pitiful wreck it would make a dog weep. Is it my fault if people don’t weep?” – Peachum (1:3)

Threepenny Opera poster

Brecht’s early spectacular (which was spectacularly successful – not often the case for his work in his lifetime) features crime and punishment as close friends, a beggars’ bureau, a kind of anti-wedding burlesque, ballads including ‘…of Immoral Earnings’ and ‘…of Sexual Obsession’, all building to a public execution that’s aborted for the audience’s sake (stage-signposted: ‘THE APPEARANCE OF THE DEUS EX MACHINA’).

“Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance / In keeping its humanity repressed / For once you must try not to shirk the facts / Mankind is kept alive due to bestial acts.” (Second Threepenny Finale: ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive’)

See video above for taster trailer of what happened when Robert Wilson joined forces with the Berliner Ensemble for a recent production.

“The law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don’t understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it.” – Peachum (3:7)

Peachum, the king of the beggars, may have the quotes here, but Macheath (who would enter popular culture as ‘Mac the Knife’) has a hell of a black wit, and Polly, Peachum’s daughter, delivers an antisocial star turn with her song (and imagined alter-ego) ‘Pirate Jenny’ (“As they ask which has got to die / And you’ll hear me as I softly answer: the lot!”).

“Our judges are absolutely incorruptible: it’s more than money can do to make them give a fair verdict.” – Peachum (3:7)

early brecht: berlin 1928-1933

In classics long after on November 20, 2009 at 7:31 pm

Brecht: A Biography

Today’s post takes us to the end of Brecht’s first flush in Berlin – again, all props to Ronald Hayman for source material (single quotes – from his text, double – those he quotes himself). Precisely because this is his most formative phase, I’ll be moving on after – there may be a post touching on his years of exile (inc the incongruous Hollywood years) and more on the Berliner Ensemble – but expect less of a chronology in favour of splintering through posts on individual plays, collaborators or tactics/teachings.

Rejoining our hero in the afterglow of The Threepenny Opera‘s success found him materially more comfortable, but still looking to progress closer to life: ‘The activities reported in contemporary newspapers could not be dramatised through forms like Ibsen’s:

“Petroleum cannot be manipulated into five acts…fate’s no longer an integral power but more like fields of force to be observed as they send out currents in opposite directions.”

Under Brecht’s tutelage, Helene Wiegel, one of the faces of his theories, ‘called out her “Dead, dead” in a totally emotionless, penetrating voice…without any grief, but so firmly and irresistibly that at this moment the naked fact of her death had more effect than any private pain could have evoked…she used white make-up to indicate the effect death has on all who are present at it’.

Simultaneously work resumed on musical follow-up The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and the first Lehrstucke – agit-proppy ‘instruction plays’. ‘During the projection of a film…showing stills of dead bodies’ in the first’s debut,  ‘the audience became restive. Brecht ordered the speaker to announce: “Repeat showing of the badly received portrayal of death”. The sequence was then repeated’. A balancing act ‘…between Marxist didacticism and showbiz’.

By the time Mahagonny arrived, Nazis were demonstrating outside the opera house. Weill had been denounced, and Brecht was working with a more radical composer, Hanns Eisler. Riots and police finished the finale. ‘At the following night’s performance, policemen lined the walls of the auditorium and the houselights were left on’. In response, Brecht drew up a table, bulleting and contrasting epic and dramatic theatre.

“…some irrationality, unreality and frivolity should be introduced in the right places to assert a double meaning.”

He found unlikely support via a chance encounter of traditions: ‘The stylised story-telling of Noh drama offers a means of alternating between action and choric comment without any loss of clarity or intensity’. For ‘The Decision’, ‘…an important mission is endangered by one person: unless he dies, the others cannot go on… In re-enacting the events that led up to their decision, they take it in turns to play their victim – an ingenious dramatic device which deprives him of individual character while implying that each of them sympathises with him’.

1930: the Nazis, who Brecht had long mocked when he noticed them at all, were voted into opposition. Perhaps coincidentally, Brecht’s characters were depicted as increasingly twisted and grotesque, in the manner of Kabuki – ‘masks, padding and stilts…overgrown fingers…exorbitantly wide shoulders which made his arms look short…progressively dehumanised…Galy Gay had four successive masks…greasepaint and powder’.

Up next: St Joan of the Stockyards + the screenplay for Kuhle Wampe. ‘In the final scene [Joan’s] declaration of her newfound faith in violence is outshouted by the capitalists and salvationists [in league], who can now afford to canonise her because she has [inadvertently] helped preserve the status quo’ (Tretiakov’s ‘factographic’ technique had been an influence). Then: The Mother. And Measure for Measure remade into Round Heads and Pointed Heads – an allegory on Hitler’s rise (‘Racism as…diversionary strategy’).

‘Judgement is always of the essence in Brecht’s plays… One of his ideas was that a new theatre should be built in Berlin, constructed like a lawcourt, and each evening two famous trials would be recreated’ (Socrates, witch trials, Grosz…) It wasn’t to be. Back at The Mother, ‘Questionnaires were distributed at each performance, and changes made to the text according to points which arose’. Also contributed to anti-Nazi revue as it became the largest party. It was titled Oh Yes We’re Sooo Satified.

‘…on 27 February 1933 the Reichstag building was burnt. During the night…4000 communist officials and Party members were rounded up, together with writers and intellectuals who had resisted Nazism. Brecht was clever enough not to be home. He was in the clinic of a friendly doctor…’ From there – without returning home – to Prague: ‘It was obvious that none of them could go back to Berlin in the near future; it was not obvious that Brecht would stay in exile until he was fifty’.

Reichstag fire

The Reichstag fire

early brecht: berlin 1924-1928

In classics long after on November 20, 2009 at 2:40 am

Another instalment in my series boiling a biography into barest posts – we’re up to the third, 1924, Berlin, and page 105 of the original book, which it would be fairly graceless of me not to recommend, considering.

Back to Brecht, writing Man Equals Man, and his lead character, Galy Gay:

“Here is the donkey who feels inclined to survive as a pig / The question is: is he living? / He is lived.”

Peter Lorre in 'Man Equals Man'

Peter Lorre in 'Man Equals Man'

For all of which, he was ‘defiantly optimistic’ that human personality was malleable by technology, and this was not some mystic reverse but an opportunity. For Brecht, this was a “new human type” – ‘mendacious, optimistic, flexible’ (“…it is only seldom he can afford an opinion of his own”), but the play would also feature ‘the first of many trial scenes in which justice is not done, and is seen not to be done’ (‘active’ Nazis including Hitler were escaping with similarly slight sentences during this period).

‘When G.F. Hartlaub originated the phrase die neue Sachlichkeit in 1924, he applied it to the new realism with the socialist flavour, but as the phrase became fashionable, it was associated with…Bauhaus art, George Grosz’s caricatures, the abolition of upper case letters in typography, Hindemith’s music and Max Beckmann’s paintings’; Grosz & Herzfelde: “the artist would no longer be the Bohemian, sponge-like enemy of society…but a healthy, clear-thinking worker in the collectivist society”. Brecht was in synch:

“I feel no need for a thought of mine to achieve immortality. I’d prefer everything to be consumed, rearranged, used up.”

To pass his feelings to his actors: ‘Stanislavsky had had encouraged them to think of their character in the first person; Brecht forced them to stand back…by interpolating “he said” or “she said” when rehearsing dialogue’. Elisabeth Hauptmann: “Brecht finds the formula for ‘epic theatre’ – play from memory (quoting gesture and posture) – “demonstration scenes” (as B. calls them) emerge.” – ‘Instead of pretending that something was happening in the present tense, the actor would visibly be reproducing something from the past’ (“I give the unvarnished events, so that the audience is left to think for itself”).

Similarly epic, but non-Brechtian productions around this time: Piscator’s Flags, and Engel’s version of Coriolanus – and preceded by Gerhard Hauptmann’s Before Sunrise + The Weavers. The latter, writing in 1912: “The modern dramatist…may sometimes work toward a drama which like a house, an architectural creation, never moves from where it is situated.” Brecht would talk about favouring “roots” over the “dramatic event” (side-note – Meyerhold’s criticism of Piscator: “made a new theatre, but used old actors”).

“…no innuendoes, secrets, ambiguities, twilight; but facts, clear illumination of every recess, impartiality, no combination of comedy and pathos.”

Brecht now underwent a political education – ‘Marxism satisfied him as Christianity never had… His commitment was to looking at life from beneath…Brecht would argue that Shakespeare’s plays had been followed by “300 years in which the individual [having emerged from ‘feudal anonymity”] evolved into a capitalist”. ‘ Soonafter, he would meet Kurt Weill, and the two would create the Mahagonny Songspiel, with projections, placards, ‘real, unmistakable tunes’. The set? A boxing ring (Sternberg: “You don’t think in straight lines, you think in knight’s gambits”).

He would work with Piscator for the next year, and learn much about staging in the process (conveyor belts, grotesque masks, marionettes, ‘the human face blown up gigantically’ – ‘a complex theatrical counterpoint to expose the disparity between subjective impressions and objective actualities or between private ambitions and historical events…while the obsequious minister reassured the Tsarina that everything would turn out all right, a list of lost battles was projected…and a film sequence showing her being shot’). ‘Piscator wanted a functional theatre that could speak not just through the actor’s mouth but through each of its component parts… The main weakness was the texts he used’.

Original Threpenny Opera Poster

Original Threpenny Opera Poster

Elisabeth Hauptmann translated and introduced Brecht to The Threepenny Opera, which would be the next production (that they could interest a producer in). The rehearsals were beset by personnel problems, but the first night was a palpable hit with both critics and crowd (‘heralding a new world in which the barrier between tragedy and comedy is removed. This is a triumph of the open form.’ – Ihering; ‘it’s the fashionable show, always sold out’ – Kessler). So: ‘…for the first time he had a very large income’.

One shouldn’t assume that such success means the production had been compromised, and mimesised his nemesis, ‘culinary theatre’ – ‘Disliking empathic acting, Brecht incorporates scenes in which characters perform: this makes the actors act, as it were, in inverted commas. Disliking linear narrative and loving ballads, he writes digressively, extravagantly taking space for songs which are relevant only thematically…rancour is balanced by Weill’s catchy music…by the song’s irrelevence to the on-stage situation’.

Brecht had another five years in Berlin, but they would be increasingly difficult and conflicted. You know who. Coming soon.

who owns the world?

In classics long after on November 20, 2009 at 12:23 am

A sideshuffle – click-thru below to watch Kuhle Wampe (‘Empty Belly’), as written by Brecht about endemic unemployment in the Weimar Republic.

Kuhle Wampe

Full film here. The sound quality is pondlike, and the action often overwritten by subtitles bigger than extras, but consider medium-fails as A-Effekts and stay the course. Not that I’ve made it all the way through myself yet.

early brecht: berlin 1921-1924

In classics long after on November 19, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Continuing my respectful filleting of Ronald Hayman’s ‘Brecht’ bio, it’s time to speed through the playwright’s first wave of productions – staggered over a few days and set in a city increasingly filling with Nazis… He spent full days with other theatrefolk who “push each other about, write about each other” and, initially at least, the enemies he chose for himself were other playwrights:

“The compassion of the dramatists (Hauptmann, Ibsen) was the beginning of the end. The plays are all two-dimensional… There’s only one view to be taken of the characters and events – the writer’s. The stalls are taught to be ‘understanding’ about everything.”

‘He was glad that he had not imposed his own views…did not want to interfere with the spectator’s “splendid isolation” or invite them to identify with the hero’; “There’s a higher kind of interest: in making comparisons, in recognising what is dissimilar, incomprehensible, inexplicable.” His first chance to express his beliefs would be in directing current closest collaborator Arnolt Bronnen’s Parricide, but his methods caused the cast to mutiny – “It would never have been any good with them in it,” was his sarcastic verdict when they walked out, but it was he who was replaced.

There was no money, but it all to do. ‘Many of the images and some of the theatrical ideas he was evolving derive from the need to economise. When power was in short supply, he saw a production lit with headlamps intended for cars. Having fallen in love with the effect, he never used coloured light in his theatre’.

Drums in the Night

Brecht’s first play to be staged was Drums in the Night. The audience ‘…was totally unprepared for the downbeat ending. Expressionist plays usually end with ecstatic defiance, and it looked as though Brecht’s sympathies were with the rebels: no one was expecting Kragler to lose interest in them and reach out shamelessly for the pleasures his pregnant girlfriend could provide’. The critics saluted his audacity, with the same good humour they’d stiff his next, In the Jungle of Cities.

Next, he would produce a silent film with Karl Valentin (Mysteries of a Barber Shop) before moving on to an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II – ‘a play which shows a king losing his dignity – a spectacle then rare on the German stage – and pivoting on a relationship in which two male lovers destroy each other… With Neher as his designer, he evolved a simple visual style, dressing the lords and even the king in sackcloth’. Rehearsals became a necessary ordeal for the actors – he made them ‘repeat over and over again gestures and inflections that seemed important: he wanted each piece of stage business to be expressive of the whole character’.

When Valentin observed soldiers should be afraid before a battle, “as white as cheese”, ‘…they were given white make-up to wear, which made them indistinguishable from each other…it was one of Brecht’s first alienation effects’. Additionally, Asja Lacis, the assistant director who’d studied with Meyerhold, picking up the idea of making ‘actors puppet-like’: “I tried to choreograph the extras to a strong thythm. Their faces should be immobile and expressionless. They knew neither why they were shooting nor where they were going.”

Baal belatedly followed, to no coherent reception. Brecht settled full-time in Berlin in 1924. Many felt the Nazis were already finished after their abortive putsch. Elisabeth Hauptmann was now his closest co-worker, and Man Equals Man the next original script.

brecht on BBC

In classics long after on November 19, 2009 at 11:09 am

This amiable enough BBC2 doc is presented here mostly for its footage of the Berliner Ensemble (including  Helene Wiegel’s definitive Mother Courage). That said, I spent much of it snarling at the (American) voice behind the voice-over for pronouncing our immortal firebrand’s name as ‘Bresht’. There may have been some unworthy feelings of superiority draped over a series of small tuts. I liked it even less when a fellow German talking head up-popped to pronounce it the same way.

Can it be? ‘Bresht’? Sound like a drunk remakrking on a bosom. I’ve always liked the brutal percussiveness of ‘Brekt’. I think I’m going to ignore the correction, at least until told in the real world. You should follow your soft + yielding bourgeois heart.

youth of brecht

In classics long after on November 19, 2009 at 12:44 am

Reading Ronald Hayman’s biography of Betrolt Brecht. Still toddling through the early, pre-production chapters, but there have been some formative notes + quotes I thought worth recording. And so…

School: ‘…teachers tried to encourage patriotism, and the boys were subjected to inflammatory lectures from pioneer pilots and captains of submarines’ (awful, monsters, etc). Likewise, Brecht’s lifelong love of the parable form was rooted in extensive Lutheran bible studies (the first play of his juvenalia was titled Die Bibel – one can well imagine his wolf-cub relish).

“In nine years of being marinaded in an Augsberg Gymnasium, I didn’t succeed in helping any of my teachers to make any real progress…”

‘When a friend of Brecht’s tried to cheat by rubbing out some of the red underlinings [denoting mistakes], the teacher could easily spot the erasing. Brecht…drew additional red lines under sentences that had no mistakes in them and then complained…the teacher improved Brecht’s mark.’ Looking back on his school days:

“[the teacher] teaches his pupil to be a replica of himself. The pupil learns everything he needs to succeed in life. It’s the same as what’s needed to make progress in the school – deceit, a semblance of knowledge, the ability to revenge oneself with impunity, speedy mastery of commonplaces, obsequiousness, servility, willingness to betray one’s equals to the higher authorities, etc etc.”

Brecht and Paula Banholzer

Brecht and Paula Banholzer

It wasn’t long before he took the liberty of introducing himself, naturally enough, to the guitar, the opposite sex, and the ballad: ‘He loved the way that popular songs tacked cursorily from one subject to another or reduced a major natural disaster to a rhythmic couplet…discontinuity appealed to Brecht more than the idea of a single form which is ‘right’… Interruptions served as a reminder that there was no such thing as inevitability. The course of history could have run quite differently if events had been interrupted in different ways’.

His main influences as he started to write himself were ‘Villon (who became the model for Brecht’s first anti-hero, Baal), Buchner, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Wedekind’ – the latter especially (his line “Morality is the best business in the world” reads as positively proto-Brechtian).

An early incarnation of Baal was written as a direct response to Expressionist playwright Hanns Johst’s painfully-titled The Lonely One: Downfall of a Man. ‘Johst’s play was merely a clumsy restatement of the assumption that artists are generically different from other people. As a poet himself, Brecht could see that the poet must be an ordinary creature of physical habit’.

‘Brecht’s father, like his teachers, often inflamed his anticonformism. After losing a suitcase of his, he was defiantly unrepentant: “First, you could have done the same yourself; second, I hope you never get it back; third, I hope the new owner of the things more than you did, and fourth, you can easily get new things”.’

Brilliantly, he sent a copy of Baal to Johst along with a letter brassily compounding pugnacity and hauteur: “I quite understand if you say Baal and anything else I go on to write if I feel like it are nonsense, but if you say nothing, then I must think you want me to take offence” (Feel no pity for the Expressionist dinosaur – in time he would rise to high cultural office under the Nazis).

As political tumult increasingly overtook the domestic scene, Brecht’s next proposed play, Spartakus, starred a Spartacist, Glubb, but also his shadow, Kragler: ‘…who refuses to do any more fighting. He has had enough. “Everyone is top dog inside his own skin.” His girl may be pregnant by another man, but he will still be more comfortable in bed than on the barricades… Like Brecht, who had pretended to study medicine and took pleasure in defying expectation, Kragler makes weakness into strength: he has the courage of his own cowardice. And like Baal, he is fortified by indifference to bourgeois morality’; ‘What Kragler seemed to be disrupting was the bourgeois twilight, “sentimentality and business, domesticity and turpitude, high-mindedness and opportunism” (Ernst Fischer).’

Around this time, Brecht saw the comic, Karl Valentin, who would influence his ideas about performance (as Charlie Chaplin would, later):

“One immediately had the strong feeling that this man won’t make jokes. He is himself a joke.”

Karl Valentin

Karl Valentin

Brecht was now twenty, had sired his first child (“…among the peasants. May it grow fat and wise and not curse me!” – he would not see him often) and was moving to Berlin. Stafan Zweig sets a new scene: ‘Boys – and not only professionals – paraded up and down the Kurfurstenedamm wearing make-up and false waistlines; every schoolboy was set out to make money, while senior government officials and bankers were to be seen shamelessly flirting with drunken sailors…Girls boasted about their perversions, and in every school in Berlin they would have been in disgrace if they were suspected of virginity at the age of sixteen’.

His mother died. He regretted her suffering (“I no longer remember her face when she wasn’t in pain”) and that he had not been more forthright about his debt to her (“I loved her in my way, but she wanted to be loved in hers.”)

“I search for new forms and experiment with my feelings like other writers. but then I always come back to knowing that the essence of art is simplicity, grandeur and sensitivity, and the essence of its form, coolness.”

And so, another new play was begun, with the others still unperformed. Many of his love affairs had long since ended in estrangement (“like a whirlpool that forms where there’s a hole, an empty place”) and some of those he still maintained proved irritants (“her laughter’s no less unsettling than a haemorrhage”).

By 1920, ‘Brecht was already fantasising about having a theatre of his own. He would hire two clowns, and in the interval, pretending to be spectators, they would chat loudly about members of the audience and about the play, making bets on what was going to happen in the second half’. An occasional position writing reviews for a paper ended when the fledgling critic refused to rein in his scorn, as evidenced in the resulting farewell toward the owners: “… [they] understand as much about literature as a train driver does about geography.”

More blah on the actual beginnings of his actual stage career soon. I know you’ll wait.