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?


  1. Wonderful post Rick.
    I feel that I have been pretty influenced by Herr Brecht through working with you over the years. While I know many things that Brechtian does NOT mean, it is great to have your insights together on some of what it does mean.

  2. I'm glad you are back and thankful you don't have a wimp for a kid. jj

    PS (R StP)

  3. many times to I have to tell you, BRECHTIAN DOES NOT MEAN WHITE LIGHTS!!! Now get your ass to the theatre and stay at tech for 24 straight hours!!!

  4. Well, I don't know about Brecht's theories of actor as demonstrator, but I do believe that one of the charms of theatre is its ability for stylization over realism. I can think of highly theatrical plays that failed as films because they simply lost their stylization...i.e. MAN OF LA MANCHA and ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN come to mind. Realism does not serve them. Apparently, Peter Shaffer had a line in ROYAL HUNT that about Pizarro and his men: "They cross the Andes." When he was discussing the play with director John Dexter, Shaffer went: "Yes, yes, I know, it's rather vague..." or some such. Dexter replied: "If you take that line out, I won't direct the play."

    I enjoy much of what I've read of Brecht... I like Galileo. Heard a great Threepenny Opera on the BBC radio the other night. If you can get me to LISTEN to something for three straight hours, it's got to be pretty compelling. I read MOTHER COURAGE back in college. I have avoided it ever since, could've seen a production in London with Diana Rigg, avoided it. Though I must admit this one with Fiona Shaw currently playing at the National looks fascinating.

    By the by, being the writer with whom you discussed doing Galileo, I was never fully on board with that notion. Adapting Brecht seems even scarier than watching him sometimes. Moliere's easier. I'll even have a go at Ibsen or Strindberg or Chekov, but Brecht...???

  5. Brecht's principle of alienation has been very useful to me over the years. When I approach a role from an epic perspective, the audience is always a part of my process. I make choices with them in mind. I am a story-teller, not just a pantomime aping emotions and actions that are not really mine. The Epic helps me to make a performance that is authentically theatrical. It matters what I choose to play because my play's affect on the audience matters. It demands a lot of the audience who are often refreshed by the challenge. It demands much more of the artists who are oftened threatened. We cannot hide behind the fictional persona into which we submurge ourself in the dramatic, sentimental manner. In the epic theatre, we must be present as well. Ironically, it is a much more complex and a much more naked way of playing.

  6. I find it interesting that Kipling the Imperialist/for Queen and Empire and the Sun-Never-Setting was an influence on Brecht the Commie.

  7. Kipling's name jumped out at me as well. Here's a blog post that sheds some light:

    Kipling is interesting – he may be the only “imperial” novelist who couldn’t help being, at the same time, very critical of aspects of empire. He was the only British writer at the height of the empire who could capture and convey the accents of ordinary English working people: he was the bard of the Tommies in India; he spoke for them as well. The upper crust of the empire in India, therefore, did not like much of Kipling’s work – not because he was pro-Indian but because he was an advocate for the lower-class English people who were forced to serve the needs of the empire.

    While both BB and RK acknowledged that East was East and West was West, they each sought to build bridges between the two worlds. And both had little patience for the upper crust.

  8. Bob...I like your comment about being "authentically theatrical" and I believe that gets to the root of what I like about "Brechtian" theatre...I agree with your comment and think you and I should do Galileo!!!

  9. I love the Burton/Tynan counterpoint, by the by.