Monday, December 20, 2010

Fast Forward 13 months

Holy blog is still here. OK, so let's try this again...I did indeed get accepted into a PhD program. I just completed my first semester at Texas Tech University where I am working on my PhD in Fine Arts, with a concentration in Theatre, focusing on Theatre History/Theory and Criticism and Acting and Directing.

My family moved to lovely Lubbock in July, we've been here for nearly 6 months and so far so good...It has been a monumental year for us...Olivia (who now refers to herself as Livi) started Middle School and is attending the Arts Magnet program at O.L. Slaton. Aidan (who now refers to himself as Aidan) started Kindergarten at Centennial Elementary and Lara and I are wondering if and when you can enroll your kid in military school...

In my first semester, I had to prepare two different formal auditions (I don't act, so that was hilarious), I assisted on a mainstage production of Jane Martin's Anton in Show Business and directed a cutting of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis...I took 9 credit hours (Graduate Directing, Dramatic Analysis and Postmodernism which was the hardest goddamn class in the history of the entire universe) and generally had a fantastic time with things, even if I did occassionally bitch and moan about some of the inanities of academentia...I also served as the TA for a fabulous class called Crtitical Issues in Arts and Culture that was team taught by faculty from the music department, art department and theatre department. The theatre instructor was a PhD student called Kyle Conway and he was/is FABULOUS! Passionate about his subject matter, genuinely interested in his students, creative in his was great watching him work this semester.

I finished up, grade-wise, with an A+ in Directing, a B+ in Postmodernism and the strangest damned B in the world in Dramatic Analysis...apparently despite the successes I have had as a director, if you ask me to analyze a script for you, there is a good chance I will only be able to handle 80-89% of it or something...anyhoo, moving on...

In the Spring, I am taking Theatre History, Teaching of Acting, and a Contemporary Music class (the program is interdisciplinary so I will take courses in Art, Music and Philosophy as well as theatre), I am guest directing Conor McPherson's fabulous play The Weir for a local company and directing a one-act play for the (R)ed-(R)aider (O)ne (A)ct (P)lay festival in March. The play is called Well It Ain't Ozzie and Harriet by one of my new peeps and fellow PhD student Michael Flood...I am also teaching an Intro to Acting class, so I am really looking forward to January.

So I am going to attempt to reconnect with this blog, I am actually pleasantly surprised I remembered how to log back in...time permitting we will be discussing the life of a 40 year old PhD student, his (slightly older) harried long suffering wife, my often endearing and sometimes ridiculous kids and just the world in general. I am in a much better place mentally than I was a year ago, I have settled some of the demons that were created by my leaving my AD job (LexArts are still fuckers though and I gotta ask when the hell is anyone gonna take a look at how absolutely poorly they are being run) and I am excited about the future. This week is Christmas, which we are celebrating here in Lubbock, followed by a trip to Dallas to see my great in-laws and then on to San Antonio for New Year's Eve on the Riverwalk with my terrific father and step-mother.

In the meantime, I wish you all a very very happy holiday season filled with joy and love...

I'm back bitches!! (We'll see for how long this time!)

Peace and love
Rick St. Peter

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Play #9: Mother Courage

Ah Brecht...What to say about Herr Brecht? I consider myself a neo-proto-quasi-post-Brechtian (whatever the hell that means) but I don't like a lot of his plays. I adore The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (My pops and I saw an interesting production of it at the Lyric Hammersmith in London a couple of years ago that essentially turned Arturo into Robert Mugabe, I thought it worked on a simplistic level, Pops didn't like it). I have also always wanted to direct Galileo, which I believe to be Brecht's finest play. A couple of years ago, my buddy and favorite writer Chazz and I kicked around an idea about doing an adaptation of it, but the Brecht estate is notoriously difficult to license such things (ironic considering his proclivity for "ahem" adaptations, don't you think?), so unfortunately we didn't get it off the ground.

So when it comes to wrestling with Brecht, you have three different versions of Brecht to wrestle with: Brecht the theorist, Brecht the director, and Brecht the playwright. For me, in order of preference, I would rank them that way: I prefer theorist, then director, then playwright. But make no mistake, he was a total man of the theatre. And though this blog is supposed to be about Mother Courage, since I don't really like the play that much, I will focus more on Brecht the practitioner and theorist with a quick nod to Brecht the playwright in general and specifically Mother Courage.

"For our London season...our playing needs to be quick, light, strong. This is not a question of hurry, but of speed, not simply quick playing but quick thinking. We must keep the tempo of a run-through and infect it with quiet strength, with our own fun. In the dialogue the exchange must not be offered reluctantly, as when offering somebody one's last pair of boots, but must be tossed like so many balls. The audience has to see that here are a number of artists working together as an ensemble in order to convey stories, ideas, virtuoso feats to the spectator by a common effort." This was the last thing Brecht ever wrote, he died on August 14, 1956 and his company, the Berliner Ensemble, opened Mother Courage in London on August 27 with his wife Helene Weigel playing the title role.

To understand Brecht, one really needs to understand both the times he lived and worked in and the influences that shaped the artist he became. He was a Communist ("Oh no, not that!") and worked with a Marxist dialectic, he remained loyal to the Soviet Union for many years, he could be enormously cruel, but was a brilliant poet...influenced by Rimbaud, the painter Gauguin (coincidentally my favorite painter as well), Rudyard Kipling and the early German expressionist writer Georg Buchner (author of Woyzeck, we will hear from him again...) He was also adept at adapting other people's work for his own purposes (think Marlowe's Edward II), he was influenced by the Russian filmmaker Eisenstein, Charlie Chaplin, Meyerhold, Piscator and others.

For Brecht, the writing of a play was but one part in the creation of a theatrical experience, he was not a playwright but a production creator, who would write the play, direct the play, supervise the design and creation of the music and it all served his fundamental vision, his hope that the theatre could become an organ of that end, he synthesized a variety of styles to create what he called Epic Theatre, a style of theatre that meant to rebel against naturalism and realism, to impact the viewer intellectually as opposed to emotionally, to constantly remind the viewer that what they were witnessing was an artificial creation with a specific goal: to encourage revolution. The widely used term (often misused) for Brecht is "Alienation Effect", which is almost impossible to properly define, but the idea in performance can be described (as Brecht does in his essay The Street Scene) as Actor as Demonstrator. There is no disappearing into character, no Lee Strasberg nonsense, no Marlon Brando "I gotta feel the pain for real" kind of silliness. From Brecht: "The theatre's demonstrator, the actor, must apply a technique which will let him reproduce the tone of the subject demonstrated with a certain reserve, with detachment (so that the spectator can say: 'He's getting excited -- in vain, too late, at last...' etc.). In short, the actor must remain a demonstrator; he must present the person demonstrated as a stranger, he must not suppress the 'he did that, he said that' element in his performance. He must not go so far as to be wholly transformed into the person demonstrated." I like to call it sketching a character, others call it commenting on the character...the bottom line is that the actor NEVER disappears into a role, the audience is always reminded the actor is in fact acting. The same theory applies to design as is suggested, scenes are introduced with title cards, scenes of incredible sadness are accompanied by upbeat, jaunty music that would be wholly inappropriate for the occasion if what was occurring was actually real...Brecht made great use of film and projections to suggest location, costumes and props remained visible onstage throughout, as did actors...Tony Kushner once described his ideal production of Angels in America as one in which "the wires were visible" or something to that is a made thing, why hide it?

So, here is a quick summary of Mother Courage and then back to Brecht:

Recruiting Officer and Sergeant are introduced, both complaining about the difficulty of recruiting soldiers to the war. A canteen woman named Mother Courage enters pulling a cart that she uses to trade with soldiers and make profits from the war. She has three children, Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese. The sergeant negotiates a deal with Mother Courage while Eilif is led off by the recruiting officer. One of her children is now gone. Two years from then, Mother Courage argues with a Protestant General's cook over a chicken. At the same time, Eilif is congratulated by the General for killing peasants and slaughtering their cattle. Eilif and his mother sing "The Song of the Girl and the Soldier." Mother Courage scolds her son for taking risks that could have gotten him killed and slaps him across the face.

Three years later, Swiss Cheese works as an army paymaster. The camp prostitute, Yvette Pottier, sings "The Fraternization Song." Mother Courage uses this song to warn Kattrin about involving herself with soldiers. Before the Catholic troops arrive, the Cook and Chaplain bring a message from Eilif. Swiss Cheese hides the regiment's paybox. Mother Courage and company hurriedly switch their insignia from Protestant to Catholic. Swiss Cheese is captured by the Catholics while attempting to return the paybox to his General. Mother Courage deals her cart to get money to try and barter with the soldiers to free her son. Swiss Cheese is shot anyway. To acknowledge the body could be fatal, so Mother Courage does not acknowledge it and it is thrown into a pit.

Later, Mother Courage waits outside of the General's tent in order to register a complaint and sings the "Song of Great Capitulation" to a young soldier waiting for the General as well. The soldier is angry that he has not been paid and also wishes to complain. The song persuades the soldier that complaining would be unwise, and Mother Courage (reaching the same conclusion) decides she also does not want to complain.

When Catholic General Tilly's funeral approaches, Mother Courage discusses with the Chaplain about whether the war will continue. The Chaplain then suggests to Mother Courage that she marry him, but she rejects his proposal. Mother Courage curses the war because she finds Kattrin disfigured after collecting more merchandise.

At some point about here Mother Courage is again following the Protestant army.
Two peasants wake Mother Courage up and try to sell merchandise to her while they find out that peace has broken out. The Cook appears and creates an argument between Mother Courage and the Chaplain. Mother Courage departs for the town while Eilif enters, dragged in by soldiers. Eilif is executed for killing peasants but his mother never finds out. When the war begins again, the Cook and Mother Courage start their own business.

The seventeenth year of the war marks a point where there is no food and no supplies. The Cook inherits an inn in Utrecht and suggests to Mother Courage that she operate it with him, but he refuses to harbor Kattrin. It is a very small Inn. Mother Courage will not leave her daughter and they part ways with the Cook. Mother Courage and Kattrin pull the wagon by themselves.
The Catholic army attacks the small Protestant town of Halle while Mother Courage is away from town, trading. Kattrin is woken up by a search party that is taking peasants as guides. Kattrin fetches a drum from the cart, climbs onto the roof, and beats it in an attempt to awake the townspeople. Though the soldiers shoot Kattrin, she succeeds in waking up the town.
Early in the morning, Mother Courage sings to her daughter's corpse, has the peasants bury her and hitches herself to the cart. The cart rolls lighter now because there are no more children and very little merchandise left.

Umm...the end...(thanks Wiki for the extra long summary)

It is a remarkable anti-war play, an extremely sad affair in that our heroine learns nothing from the death of all her children, she stubbornly carries on...It is an indictment of capitalism and war profiteering and it shows the inherent randomness of war. The final iconic image of Mother Courage pulling her almost empty cart across the stage is one of the defining images of 20th century theatre.
So, ok Rick (you ask), what is it you like about Brecht? My answer is complicated. I certainly don't believe in his politics, I don't care for many of his plays but what I like about him as a theorist is the style in which his plays were/are presented. As you can see from the above summary, they are very episodic, meaning scenes are presented in an almost patchwork fashion, and the presentational style of the acting appeals to me in a way that allows theatre to differentiate from film and television. When it comes to realism/naturalism, theatre cannot compete with mass media art forms. In film, if we want to show an army climbing a mountain, we show an army climbing a mountain...all of the work is done for you as an audience don't need to engage your imagination, you just have to sit back and be assaulted by "real" pictures. In Brecht's theatre (and I hope in mine), you are required to participate, you have to be actively imaginative for the evening to work. Our contemporary society more and more revolves around instantaneous images at our fingertips and as a consequence, we have a hard time imagining anything we cannot see. I want you to be an active participant in the theatre we are collectively your imagination needs to allow you to "see" an army crossing a mountain when 3 actors on stage clamber over a raked stage, in The Laramie Project, when an actor is describing seeing a sign upon her entrance into Laramie that says "Hate is not a Laramie value", you need to be able to "see" what she is seeing...Does it make for a better experience than going to the movies? I think so, I know I am in a TINY TINY minority when I say that, but I think one of the reasons why people get so bored going to theatre is that when you are watching a piece of realism unfold, there is a sense of "why am I here, I can see this watching TV at home". And Brecht invented nothing, a lot of what we are talking about here was being done by the Greeks, by the Elizabethans and so on. Brecht refined it for his own political purposes, but his impact was massive...

So at long last, Waiting for Godot, Look Back in Anger, and Mother Courage all opened in London within 18 months of each other...(Godot and Courage had already played in other places), and the English speaking theatre was never the same. And I think that is a good thing...

Bertolt Brecht is my guy and I believe his influence on 20th century theatre is 2nd only to Stanislavski's and in reality, Brecht may be THE MOST influential figure in 20th century theatre history...

One final little Brecht piece, from Kenneth Tynan's interview with Richard Burton:

TYNAN: Is there any great playwright whose work has never tempted you at all?
BURTON: Brecht.
TYNAN: Why not Brecht?
BURTON: Loathsome, vulgar, petty, little, nothing.
TYNAN: Large, poetic, universal, everything.

I'm sure they had already had 11 highballs and 62 cigarettes each at this point...I'm with Tynan on this one!!

Thanks for being patient, have a great weekend...

Peace and Love
Rick St. Peter
November 6, 2009

PS. I didn't see it and far be it from me to criticize Meryl Streep, but I always find the photos from the production of Mother Courage she did in Central Park a few years ago to appear to be very show-bizzy...anyone see it? Any thoughts?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Where the Hell have I been??

Hello Dear Reader(s) --

I flatter myself by adding the (s) after "reader"...So, October is coming to an end, where, pray tell, have I been??

Well to be honest, October has been what can charitably be described as a "dogshit" month...there was some good stuff, but mainly it has been a month worth forgetting the sooner the better...

I did get to spend the first part of the month visiting the school I plan on attending for my PhD. That was fun, and I got to go to San Antonio TX (where I spent a good part of my childhood) for the first time since 1989, which was wife had a birthday, also cool. (It is especially cool since she is approximately 7 weeks older than me and for those 7 weeks, pretty much annually, I am merciless in my "older woman" jokes with her. It is the comedy gift that keeps on giving!)

Beyond that, the month sucked...On October 15, one of my best friends passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer, which breaks my heart and simultaneously makes all of my subsequent bitching seem petty and self involved...after all, I am still alive...(I think)...

I had short listed for a directing gig which I ultimately didn't get...for the first time in my professional career, I have no idea when and if I am going to direct a play anytime soon. (I am currently substitute teaching at a school that had a Halloween costume contest today, I dressed as an unemployed director, which meant that I just wore regular clothes. Further side note, I was sitting with the art teacher at this school at lunch earlier this week and she was talking about a "Day of the Dead" project she had her students working on. We spent a few minutes trying to remember who had died in 2009 BESIDES Michael Jackson and at one point, I said "My career.") My life is dangerously beginning to resemble Steve Coogan's in Hamlet 2, without the cool "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" finale.

I have emotionally and mentally checked out of the city I am living in, I kind of feel like a prisoner waiting for my parole date, which can't come soon enough. The city is hosting a major event in just under a year and there are stupid countdown signs for it all over the place, so literally everyday, those signs mock me...It is approximately 330 days away, so I have subtracted about 60 days from it (give or take) to start my own I got roughly 270 days left in purgatory...

So enough bitching, I plan on getting back on track in November. I still owe you a reading of Mother Courage (if anyone cares) and I will try to get to it this weekend. I literally haven't been in the mood to read plays this month. So I have read some other stuff:

1. Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer...I first came across Krakauer when I read his book Into Thin Air, about a disastrous ascent of Mount Everest that claimed the lives of a number of climbers. He is an astonishingly humane writer, reading his stuff, you feel like you are having a conversation with him. Where Men Win Glory is the heartbreaking story of Pat Tillman, the NFL safety who walked away from a multimillion $ contract in the NFL to join the Army Rangers following 9/11 and was subsequently killed by a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan in 2004. To say Tillman is a kind of Greek tragic hero is an understatement. He certainly comes off larger than life but at the same time, there is a tragic flaw (an overdeveloped sense of duty/honor that leads him to join the military and prevents him from getting out early when offered, even as he recognizes the blatant illegality of the Iraq invasion...) His death has a rippling effect through his family, including his wife, his parents and his brothers, one of whom joined him and was present in Afghanistan when he was killed. It is a terrific read, alternating between Tillman's life story and the development of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and I recommend it heart breaks all over for his family...

2. The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons...My buddy Scotty turned me on to Bill Simmons back when he was the "Boston Sports Guy" and he has become one of my favorite writers for his ability to mix sports with pop culture, two of my favorite things. His new book, The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy, is his attempt to explain why certain teams and players matter more than others. My first ever "hero", when I was 7 years old, was an NBA basketball player named George Gervin of my beloved San Antonio Spurs. I love basketball and have been enjoying my foray into Simmons's book...It's long, like 700 pages long (they were actually trying to shoot bullets through the book on an ESPN show earlier this week and it stopped a 9 mm bullet!) but it is fun to read. Another favorite writer of mine, the BRILLIANT Malcolm Gladwell, wrote the Forward...If you like the NBA, pop culture and great humor, it is worth checking out.

So here I sit on October 30, 2009...contemplating what the hell is going on with my life and how the hell I am going to get anything out of what is rapidly becoming a wasted year for me...I am enjoying substitute teaching, it is like being a guest star on a different sitcom every day, but I am really missing the buzz of being in rehearsal and having a creative project to work on. Plus my son Chicken Butt has decided in the last two weeks to become Damien from The Omen movies. Suddenly, at the ripe old age of 4 1/2, he has decided the following things:

1. He doesn't like school.
2. He doesn't like his teachers.
3. He doesn't like following rules.
4. His brain tells him to be bad.

I am sincerely hoping this is a phase that will be short lived and not the beginning of a path that will lead him to become Jeffrey Dahmer II: Electric Boogaloo...but just to be on the safe side, I have already started looking for military schools for Kindergartners...

So to sum up, my life sucks...I hate the town I am in, I am spending all my time with Bill Simmons and Jon Krakauer and my son may or may not be on the road to the serial killer hall of fame...My lovely wife and I were talking about him the other night, you know how whenever they show the serial killer Behind the Murders documentary, there is ALWAYS the section where some relative or neighbor says, "We never would have believed that (insert horrific murderers name here) could have done these things...he was always so quiet and well mannered, we were just shocked." When they do the special on Chicken Butt in 2027, my wife and I will be like, "YES! The little bastard! We totally saw it coming, it started when he was 4 1/2 and frankly we are surprised everyone made it out of his Pre K 2 class alive!"

Anyhoo...that's enough bitching and self-wallowing for now. I hope everyone has a safe and Happy Halloween!!

Peace and Love
Rick St. Peter
October 30, 2009

PS...Go see Michael Jackson's THIS IS IT to see glimpses of a consummate professional in rehearsals. It should be required viewing for anyone aspiring to a career in the performing arts, no matter what your discipline. He was a genius and the world is a lesser place without him in it...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Play #8: Waiting for Godot

"I know creatures are supposed to have no secrets from their authors, but I'm afraid mine for me have little else." Samuel Beckett

To prepare us, here is a funny Beckett story from John Heilpern: "One day he was walking through a London park with a friend. It was a glorious day and Beckett seemed almost uncharacteristically happy. The friend said it was the kind of sunny day that made one glad to be alive. 'I wouldn't go that far', replied Beckett...and that is pretty much what you need to know to understand and appreciate Samuel Beckett!

I first read Godot as I was preparing for grad school in 1995. At the time, I was totally perplexed about what this play was supposed to be about. Reading it again in 2009, it is easier to understand it intellectually and to appreciate it as a great work of art, but ultimately it is not for me.

Vladimir and Estragon, two tramps (Beckett loved Chaplin and especially Buster Keaton) are perpetually waiting for someone called Godot to meet them in a kind of wasteland whose dominating feature is a kind of gnarled old tree, and that's what they do...they wait. If the breath of drama is found in action, the breath of Godot can be found in inaction. The action of the play is almost all misdirection....Didi and Gogo (as Vladimir and Estragon call each other) wait, they question, they seek, they fret, and they wait. Two characters called Pozzo and Lucky appear, Lucky is a kind of slave to Pozzo and Pozzo waits with Didi and Gogo. The time passes (the time would have passed anyway, as one of them says to the other) and in the end, we find out that Mr Godot will not come today, but surely will come tomorrow...and for the tramps, the never ending cycle starts all over.

Absurdism is where we are and as a style, it kind of had its hay day in the 1950's with playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco. I think what made absurdism what it was, and gave it its dramatic power, was a direct result of the time that produced the plays. For the first time in the history of humanity, someone could press a button and destroy, wipe out, obliterate all of humanity. It made for an existential crisis, what was the point of humanity? Why bother? If language could be perverted to support the policies of (pick one) communism, capitalism, racism, genocide etc than there is clearly no meaning in language. Words themselves are is meaningless. You are born, you suffer, you die...the end. That is what Beckett is getting at with Godot.

While I intellectually appreciate the play and I can see how good actors could attack it, I don't think I would be terribly inclined to see it in a theatre. A couple of years ago, I saw a sensational production of Endgame at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and while I admired the production (the acting, directing and design were all first rate) I could not love the play. As I stated earlier, I have to find some ray of light for me to fully engage in a production or play. I know life sucks, I go to the theatre to find alternatives and perhaps even better, deeper ways of living. To be told "why bother" is disheartening.

As I mentioned in my Look Back in Anger post, Godot is the 2nd of three plays I contend changed forever the English speaking theatre world. Godot had its world premiere in Paris during the 1952-53 theatre season and even though Beckett was Irish, the play was written in French and didn't have its English language premiere until 1955, when Peter Hall directed it at the Arts Theatre in London. Of the English language production, Kenneth Tynan wrote that he cared "little for its enormous success in Europe over the past three years." He did, however and much like Look Back in Anger, ultimately give it his seal of approval. "It forced me to re-examine the rules which have hitherto governed the drama; and, having done so, to pronounce them not elastic enough."

In his autobiography, Making an Exhibition of Myself, Peter Hall discusses the original English language production in some detail: "I, and everyone else at the Arts, thought the enterprise was a huge gamble. The text had arrived in my little cupboard of an office several weeks earlier and in the most conventional way possible -- through the post. With it was a letter from Donald Albery, a leading West End manager, asking if I would like to stage it. Attempts to set up a West End production had completely failed. Many luminaries, Gielgud, Richardson, and Guinness among them, had refused to appear in it."

Hall goes on to talk about his reaction to reading the play: "I found it enormously appealing, and written by a master. This was poetic theatre. What do I mean by poetic? Well, it wasn't sequinned with applied adjectives like Christopher Fry, or with dry ironic platitudes like T.S. Eliot. Here was a voice, a rhythm, a shape that was very particular: lyrical, yet colloquial; funny, yet mystical. Though expressed in natural speech, unpretentious and believable, it was much more than natural speech: there was a haunting subtext."

Hall's reporting of the opening night audience is a beautiful indicator that the artists tend to crave the new and the audience tends to crave the familiar: "On the first night, very little went right. After half an hour, there were yawns and mock snores and some barracking. Later on the audience nearly erupted into open hostility but then decided not to bother and settled instead into still, glum boredom. A few people laughed with genuine recognition; and the same few applauded enthusiastically at the end. It was a mixed reception, with the mixture very definitely on the side of failure."

Ultimately the play was saved by the Sunday critics, notably Harold Hobson, and was subsequently produced in America for the first time, in Miami of all places. The American production starred Bert Lahr as Estragon and was billed (oddly) as the "Laugh Sensation of 2 Continents." If the British reaction was mixed, the American was openly hostile (imagine that, Americans being threatened by something that requires thinking). At intermission on opening night, more than 2/3 of the audience had left. Lahr received a letter from someone who walked out: "How can you, Bert Lahr, who has charmed the youth of America as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, appear in this Communistic, atheistic, and existentialist play?"

And so it goes...what is the purpose of Art? What do we want our theatre to do? Is the theatre supposed to be something more than empty calorie entertainment? Does it need to strike a balance? I always refer to the Greek notion of Profit and Delight...yes it needs to be entertaining, but there needs to be more than that. I think the theatre should stimulate the heart and the head and that being challenged with some difficult intellectual concepts can be an ENTERTAINING night out. Of course, I am still searching for the theatre where this kind of work can thrive. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Know Theatre and Ensemble Theatre in Cincinnati are three companies that have a rigorous intellectual bent to their very entertaining work. From the outside, they seem to be thriving, or at least succeeding.

So the quest continues. I am off to Texas in the morning and hopefully will have some definitive news soon...stay tuned!

Rick St. Peter
September 28, 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Play #7: Look Back in Anger

"I believe we started out with hope, and hope deferred makes the heart sick, and many hearts are sick at what they see in England now." JOHN OSBORNE, 1959

These next few posts are going to concern 3 plays that changed the English speaking theatre world and all premiered within 18 months of each other...First was Peter Hall's English language premiere production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in 1955. The second was the world premiere of Look Back in Anger by the new English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in May 1956 and the third was the Berliner Ensemble's first visit to London with Mother Courage in August 1956, two weeks following the death of Brecht. Those are the next three plays we are going to look at on this journey and we will begin with John Osborne.

It is hard now to understand the impact Look Back in Anger must have had when it was first produced. George Devine at the Royal Court apparently didn't care too much for it and was talked in to producing it by Tony Richardson, the original director of the production.

In creating the character of Jimmy Porter, Osborne forever altered the world of English theatre and began to shatter the dominance of the Binkie Beaumont-dominated theatre world of Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan and others. Simply put, Jimmy Porter is a son-of-a-bitch...he has beyond firm ideas about what he believes in and at one point, he actually says, "You are either with me or against me." (Sounds familiar, no?)

Being an American, reading Look Back in Anger is to truly read a foreign play. 1950's England was still recovering from the decimation of World War II. The country was struggling to redefine itself in the new world and its rigid class system was coming to grips with the changing times. Conservative factions wanted to return to empire, liberal factions were crafting what would become the cradle-to-grave welfare was a country at war with itself and Jimmy Porter breaks through conventions to take on EVERYBODY.

This is from Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright's fantastic book, Changing Stages:
"Look Back in Anger is set at the epicenter of 50's inertia -- an early Sunday evening in a small rented room in a dull Midlands town, with the air thick with boredom it sexual frustration? The protagonist, Jimmy Porter, runs a sweet-stall in the market and is engaged in an attritional war with his wife Alison, trying to goad her into life: 'If only something--something would happen to you, and wake you out of your beauty sleep! If you could have a child and it would die.' (She does get pregnant and she does lose the child.)
He is cruel, violent and iconoclastic (he is also a thinly veiled portrait of Osborne himself, check out John Heilpern's book John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man for a definitive Osborne biography), and he hacks away at his pet aversions with a wild and always beautifully orchestrated rhetoric: the upper classes, the middle classes, the Sunday papers, his wife, his friend Cliff, women, Americans, apathy and absence of feeling. Not exactly misogynistic -- he gives far too much credit to the power of women for that -- but demanding a commitment from them that is absolute."

English class structure is interesting...Alison is solidly middle class, her father is a retired Indian army colonel, and Jimmy is solidly working class...he clearly married above his station, Alison's parents disapproved of the marriage, and he has been taking their disapproval out on Alison ever since. He seems to do everything he possibly can to drag her down to his class level...she becomes pregnant and leaves and Jimmy takes up with her friend Helena, which doesn't work out any better than he relationship with Alison does. Alison eventually loses the baby but returns to Jimmy, Helena and Jimmy's friend and roommate Cliff (with screaming homosexual subtext) leaves, leaving Alison and Jimmy alone in a final scene that is sort of an anti-Doll's House.

What makes this play extraordinary? Simply put, it was a new voice on the British stage...the anger, frustration, bewilderment of Jimmy Porter (and by extension Osborne) was something new. Peter Hall, the original director of Waiting for Godot, thinks Beckett deserves more credit for changing the landscape because he changed form. Look Back in Anger is a conventionally structured 3-act play, like the kind Osborne played in as an actor in regional reps early in his career. But the voice was unmistakable. Tony Richardson, his director, says of Osborne, "He is unique and alone in his ability to put on the stage the quick of himself, his pain, his squalor, his nobility -- terrifyingly alone." This voice appeared at a time when the British theatre was "hermetically sealed off from life" as Arthur Miller had famously remarked. Already in the United States, plays like Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real and The Rose Tattoo had premiered. The combination of Binkie Beaumont and the Lord Chamberlain made sure nothing of like measure was being produced by British dramatists at the same period. Osborne changed all of that...he made possible Wesker, Bond, Arden and others and he helped to establish the Royal Court Theatre has the most important theatre for new plays in the world.

I actually hadn't read this one till last week and I am a fan, though I don't know how a production would play today. I would suspect that in the United States, it would be seen with a kind of intellectual bewilderment, but how about in England? Jimmy Porter is a virtuoso role for a young actor and the writing sizzles...I also think I am a fan because I would want to make Kenneth Tynan happy. Tynan, perhaps the greatest theatre critic ever, famously remarked in his review of Look Back, "I doubt if I could love anyone who didn't love Look Back in Anger."

Look Back in Anger is a critically important play because it provided a snapshot of a time and place and captured it perfectly through the eyes of its creator. It is also a major accomplishment because of what it prologued. Look Back in Anger helped usher in a golden age of British theatre, even if the entire "Angry Young Men" label was largely media driven, it still helped capture the mood of its time and provide inspiration for a number of young artists who previously may have never thought about writing plays as a means of their expression. It is a singular achievement and Osborne is certainly a singular individual.

Up next, Waiting for Godot...

Rick St. Peter
September 20, 2009

Quick Post Script: Can the American theatre in 2009 (0r ever) produce a Look Back in Anger? If every the great American play was going to be written, it seems now that our hopelessly polarized times could produce a galvanizing play. Of course, the theatre in America doesn't have the same place as theatre in England does, and in 2009, even theatre in England is diminished by all of the competition. I am not sure if it is possible for the American theatre to produce a work like Look Back and even if it did, the country is so distracted by the stupidity of our mass media and conglomerate entertainment, would anybody even hear it? Unfortunately I don't think so...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Play #4 (through #6 actually) The Oresteia

Greetings all! Hope everyone had a pleasant and relaxing is extraordinary that tomorrow is already Thursday. Sorry for my absence, I had a relaxing weekend but at the same time, I have been getting my ass handed to me by Aeschylus!

The Oresteia is perhaps the oldest extant playscript we have. It is the only trilogy still the Ancient Greek theatre, plays were performed as part of a religious festival, a couple of times a year, and each performance consisted of 3 plays, built around a theme, and followed by a satyr play which basically spoofed the trilogy that came before it...Of all the Greek plays still around, including Sophocles' Oedipus plays, The Oresteia is the only remaining trilogy....

Basically, the story of The Oresteia is the worlds oldest family feud...the Fall of the House of Atreus...

Play One: The Agamemnon

The Greeks await anxiously the word from Troy, it has been 10 long years since the Greek armies departed, determined to recapture Helen and destroy Troy. Suddenly (actually there is a lot of talking first), a signal fire blazes from across the sea! Success...Troy has fallen and the great king (or "Clan-chief" in Tony Harrison's extraordinary tribal adaptation/translation) Agamemnon will be returning to Argos!

However, there is a problem...10 years prior, his army was stuck on the shore, unable to get a favorable breeze to lead his forces to Troy. In order to do so, the Gods made him sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia...which naturally has pissed off his wife Clytemnestra. Perhaps the first villain-ness in dramatic literature, Clytemnestra has been plotting her revenge (and shacking up with Aegisthus) since Agamemnon departed...upon his return, Clytemnestra feigns joy, he steps on the purple carpet, goes into his palace...and is whacked!! Welcome home, Agamemnon!! In addition to this, his trophy from the Trojan War, the poor Cassandra, is also murdered. Has any character had it worse in history than Cassandra? How would you like to have the ability to see the future but never have anyone believe you because Apollo has also made you appear to be completely nuts? So, play ends with Agamemnon dead, Cassandra dead and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (who has his own issues with Agamemnon: his family, particularly his father and brothers, was essentially destroyed by Atreus, Agamemnon's father) ruling Argos and the citizens, represented by the chorus, in despair.

Play Two: The Choephori (The Libation Bearers)

, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra is home! He stands before his father's woefully distended grave. No honors have been laid out for him, no proper he mourns, he cuts off a lock of his hair and places it on Agamemnon's grave. Suddenly, a group of women appear and he moves off to overhear them. The women, led by Electra, are bringing libations to pour over the grave of Agamemnon, a little too late, but I guess better late than never. Electra is clearly reluctant to do anything, as she hates and curses her mother for the murder of her father. Clytemnestra, like Lady Macbeth down the road a ways, is wracked by guilt and nightmares about the murder. She keeps dreaming about giving birth to a serpent that will come for revenge. At the grave, Electra notices Orestes lock of hair, realizes it is just like hers and begins to surmise that her brother has returned, because, clearly, all it takes for recognition in ancient Greece is a lock of hair! Orestes and Electra reunite, they hatch a plan for revenge, and hijinks's ensue...(every synopsis of every play ever written can include the phrase "hijinks's ensue"). Orestes disguises himself and pretends to deliver word to Clytemnestra and Aegisthus that Orestes is in fact dead....he then avenges his father's murder by killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. And immediately feels guilty and exits, pursued by the Furies!

Play Three: The Eumenides

The third play in the trilogy (Episode Three if you will) is in effect a trial. So we have a bunch of murders...Agamemnon murdered Iphigenia, for that Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon, for that Orestes murdered Clytemnestra...quite the family tree! Orestes has been pursued by the Furies to the Oracle at Delphi and has sought refuge with Apollo. When we discover Orestes, he is surrounded by sleeping Furies and under the protection of Apollo, who is actually responsible for the Furies falling to sleep. Apollo takes responsibility for having Orestes murder Clytemnestra and urges him to flee to Athens, where he will essentially have a trial before Athena.

The Ghost of Clytemnestra appears before the sleeping Furies and tries to roust them up to avenge her murder...after her exit, the Furies awake and debate Apollo over which is the worst crime: a wife murdering her husband to avenge her daughter or a son murdering his mother to avenge his father...and there is the conundrum of the plays...Orestes arrives in Athens:

Athena, high she-god, I was sent by Apollo. Look on me kindly, I'm cursed and an outcast. Though still a cursed outcast there's no need of more cleansing. My bloodguilt's been blunted enough by my contact with places and people who helped my purgation. All this was decreed by Apollo at Delphi. I've crossed land and sea to your house and your statue. Until the issue's decided, I stay beside you.

The Furies arrive to kill Orestes ("seek seek scour the ground/the mother-killer's got to be found") and are preparing to kill Orestes when Athena arrives, fresh from Troy. A trial begins, with Athena has judge. The Trial of Orestes takes place in the Acropolis and is presided over by Athena, with a jury of 12 Athenians...and Apollo essentially serving as Orestes' defense attorney and the Furies the prosecutors.

The argument of Apollo and Orestes essentially boils down to Clytemnestra had it coming to her simply because she was a woman. She had no right to murder Agamemnon and his death outweighs hers, since he was a guy and all plus he was a hero during the war with Troy...and she was just a woman. (Sorry ladies, it was a patriarchal society, although Apollo does say it would be ok for a woman to kill a man if she is an Amazon!)

Ultimately, we see the first hung jury in the history of the world, Athena as the judge votes to acquit Orestes, he is thrilled and before he returns to Argos pledges his never ending support to Athena and Athens. The Furies are pissed! The third play concludes with a long debate between Athena and the Furies where she convinces them not to pursue revenge on Orestes, but rather stay and make Athens a great city...which they agree to do...THE END!!

Now we have tragedy...everything that comes after, from Sophocles and Euripides to Shakespeare and Ibsen to Brecht and Beckett to August Wilson and Arthur Miller, comes from the roots of these plays...Aeschylus expands the number of characters onstage, thereby allowing for conflict to happen more easily (even though the violence happens offstage) and the rest, as they say, is history.

I love these plays...I expect in our modern day and age they are difficult to do well, I am wondering if this Tony Harrison translation/adaptation is from Peter Hall's 1981 production, which I believe was performed in Greece.

Questions about the plays:

1. Do they need to be performed only be men, as listed in the script? (they originally would have been performed by men for men, since women didn't attend the theatre)
2. Do they need to be performed in masks, or does it work without masks?
3. They are extraordinarily they move well as theatre? And can you do all three in one sitting in this day and age?

I'd like to tackle them one of these days. My friend Chazz and I have been chatting about one day doing our own version of the Trojan War, pulling from all the myths and creating our own telling of it. I love the Trojan War, I admit I've always hated it when Hector dies at the hands of Achilles but if I have learned anything over the last few years, it is that I am apparently a sucker for lost causes...But unlike, say, Shakespeare's History plays that have been adapted into the War of the Roses and such, I believe the Greek tragedies work on levels beyond even Shakespeare because they are so primal. What makes Harrison's translations so interesting is how primal and even savage they are. This is not the Greece of Pericles the great orator...this is primitive, dangerous, tribal Greece...

It is a hard read but I urge you to check them out....The Oresteia...the birth of tragedy, the development of character and the start of our 2,500 year theatrical tradition.

While we are here, if I could go back in time, I would love to go to one of the Festivals of Dionysus and see an original performance of a Greek tragedy (probably The Trojan Women by Euripides) at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, I'd like to sit in on a rehearsal and the original production of Hamlet at the Globe and I'd like to see Brecht in rehearsal...

Where would you go? What would you see?

Until next time: "Let the terriers yap, all bark and no bite!/You and I, we'll rule this house, and set it right." Clytemnestra to Aegisthus, final line of The Agamemnon...

Rick St. Peter

Friday, September 4, 2009

Happy Labor Day Weekend!!

Hope everyone has a great weekend...I will be laboring over Aeschylus's The Oresteia and will be back by Monday...Be safe everyone...

BTW, after my post about Star Trek yesterday, I decided to see it again...took my fabulous wife and lovely children...good time was had by all!!

Until next time, Live Long and Prosper...

Rick St. Peter
September 4, 2009