Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Film Vs. Stage

I spoke last week about the capitalization which came as a direct result of the “Threepenny Opera”s success. I would like to take a chance to further explore this by briefly comparing and contrasting the endings of G.W. Pabst's film version and that of the original 1928 stage play. Through this it will become clear that while the overall intention may be similar, there are many similarities which bastardize Brecht's original view.

Negating the legal struggle which resulted from Pabst's re-interpretation of “Threepenny”--which he also won—we must first consider the political views of each opposing side. Brecht, we know, was a devout Marxist at the time he penned this play, as well as throughout his career. His work with the techniques of the Epic Theatre made use of “putting on a show;” or, rather, distancing the audience from the spectacle. In the case of “Threepenny”s ending, particularly, he brilliantly orchestrates a fantastical happy ending which highlights corruption on every level.

This is not something that Pabst overlooked, as it can not be easily missed. However, in the ending of his adaptation, just as with many plays turned films, we are given the sense that it is the people we should be concerned with. Just as I spoke of this in the second to last scene of the play (in the last post), Pabst seems to have embraced the humanity of the characters—instead of the intended caricatures they represent. As a well known director, one can only assume that Pabst was interested in not only cashing in on the wild success of the 'hit-musical', but also on figuring out a way to make the story more relatable to a widespread audience. In essence, Pabst was most likely interested in using his skill and influence to tell the story as he saw it. And from what can be seen of his oeuvre—a long list of films which focus on the plight of women in the societies of their day—it is of interest that he made sure to include longer song selections for both Polly and Jenny: two leading ladies of their day.

Pabst provided a disservice to the play by cutting out many of the songs concerning the true issues of human nastiness. Perhaps film goers had no interest in be called “shit,” or receiving lessons on the effects of sexual obsession. Yet, these messages were written for a reason, and their omission gives the appearance that Pabst is softening the proverbial blow—something that Brecht obviously would never approve of. While Brecht shows us a magical messenger on a horse who 'saves the day', well sort of, Pabst shows us three corrupt men who decide to combine their efforts by manipulating the financial system. Granted, all of the aforementioned characters do possess unique insights into how they can beat the system and get away with it, and this does make Pabst's ending more plausible. But is it really plausibility we're looking for here? Surely audiences weren't as blind to the exploits of the bourgeois as this. Right?

Brecht wanted us to question the plausibility of his ending. It was something audiences were supposed to ponder and discuss later—a fairy tale that could maybe happen. Ultimately he wanted audiences to identify his play as a play and then realize that they might never be so lucky as Mac, because in life there are consequences. With Pabst there are no consequences for the characters in question. They become legitimate and we ask ourselves how they could get away with it. As I said earlier, there are obviously comparable objectives with each piece, but I'm still stuck on how un-alienated I was while watching this film. In this case I am doubtful of a certain conclusion.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

13 Used from $8.95 !!!

It is a shame that this play is not further realized for its political implications. Outside of study groups, I am curious as to whether people simply take the actions, songs, and messages at face value; or if they are more hungry for meaning. While it seems that the point would be hard to miss, I was myself surprised that it took much prodding—even for me—to really get to the meat and meaning of this play.

It is true, as previously discussed, that the blatant use of deus ex machina does much to drive home the point that: No, this is not reality. Yet, in the build up to Mac’s execution I can’t help but feel like Brecht and Co. have played with the audience a bit; goading them into caring about Mac’s fate. (What will happen if he’s really hanged?! Who will ultimately ‘win’? What about poor Polly? So on and so forth…) With that in mind, the second to last scene of this play almost leans towards the Aristotelian tradition; even despite its use of alienation through song.

It is for this reason that I believe audiences, original and present, tend to gloss over the rather heavy-handed social messages of the piece. Granted, the end will leave us all wondering why the particular choices were made; but what of the people who are involved? They seek forgiveness, and they just want to survive and thrive. What’s to stop them from doing so? What’s to stop us? When everyone is looking for enjoyment in their lives, what is to stand in the way of getting it no matter the consequence. Should audiences be made to feel guilty for attending the theatre? Is an enjoyable spectacle a privilege we should feel guilty for partaking in? These are all questions that arise for me when considering the success of this play.

On, the 1997 cast recording is ranked number 13 of all “Broadway & Vocalists” as well as number 23 for all “Movie Soundtracks.” This is a fact that would either make Brecht turn in his grave or laugh. However; I’m fairly certain that the former is the case. I cannot understand how this direct commentary has been turned into an entertainment. Though I do believe that civilized society has taken a shift. Rather than identifying the abhorrent traits within the criminal bourgeoisie depicted in this play, ticket holders now distance themselves, and identify with the comedy and empathy that they are used to as theatre going audiences. (Imagine the tourists hitting the Broadway strip, who only a day earlier took in “The Lion King” with the kids, only to slip out the next night for an adult show such as “Threepenny.”) These audience members will leave the theatre, through the gift-shop, and buy the soundtrack; perhaps even a t-shirt. This was not the aim.

All we can hope for is that those who have effectively ‘bought into’ “Threepenny” have a chance to reflect in what it means down the line. Who’s to say if it will ever change them, or really affect them. But, just as Brecht called this work one of his greatest failures; we cannot overlook the fact that it helped him pay the rent. Was this an instance of selling out? Was Brecht Mr. Peachum, or did the war and his exile serve as the messenger on a horse which allowed him to write his greatest plays?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Man on a Horse [Spoiler Alert]

At the conclusion of “The Threepenny Opera” Mac is saved. Tiger Brown rides up on a horse and announces that all is well, and with the Queen’s blessings nonetheless. Mac will not be hanged, and we are left to wonder just what his future dealings will entail. After such a grand public gesture, we can only imagine that Mac’s power will be greater than before. In a sense, this day has become his coronation; and all thanks to Brecht’s deus ex machina.
In early Greek drama this very device entailed the intervention of a deity, in order to resolve or cast judgment on a situation. While in the plays of Euripides and Aeschylus (for example) this device was a device and nothing more. At the time of their presentation, people still championed and feared the power of their deities. It was the people’s explanation for natural events—all which they didn’t understand. Though, in the case of “Threepenny” there is very little mention of ‘God’. The characters in this play are secular, and it is through the Mac’s stay of execution, and Brecht’s literally labeled deus ex machina that we are given a chance to further examine the true intention of this Opera: to properly characterize bourgeois and the prevalence of injustice which exists among ‘civilized people’.
This argument may seem lose, but let’s consider the elements of the last act. In the beginning, Mac is free and the peasant revolution is all but ready to happen. This is followed by Peachum’s amendment that he must once again go into custody. As this is set into action, and he is indeed once more incarcerated, we are given an indication that all hope is lost. The evil man will indeed be punished. His many friends can’t help him, and he is a lost cause. I.E.- the threat of a revolution has proven too much. Though, as the act progresses, forgiveness is asked, lust is somewhat rationalized—albeit from varied prospective—, and standing threats are re-examined. For most of this act, Brown stands as a powerless figurehead, much as the Queen herself, and the analytical observer can infer that this was not a mistake. A fine example of this would be Brown’s seemingly defeated admission that he must wear his official uniform on the day of the Coronation.
Act III is by no means lacking in humor. It’s themes however are amplified through the dialogue and songs. Moreover, from the third finale of deus ex machina we are given a clear example of what Brecht set out to achieve. It is a farce in which the bestial acts we’ve already heard so much about are repaid with exoneration. In the end the worst of the worst (the capitalists) prevail; the beggars return to begging; and the upset wives still have questions. It is a mirror of the upper echelon which reveals an untold ugliness, now told. It is no wonder why Brecht considered the jovial reception of this play as a smudge on the reputation of his oeuvre.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

“What Keeps Man Alive?”

In the conclusion of act II of “Threpenny” we learn that man is kept alive through “Bestial acts.” Why is this important? Well, namely because of how Brecht chooses to illustrate this throughout the act. In this collection of scenes we are shown reflections on fornication, jealousy, treachery, and revolt (just to list a few). What seems most curious to me, however, is the blaring theme of justice's role in the pursuits of capitalism. While this theme is handled rather slyly—and with comedy to boot—it is one that cannot be overlooked.
This act deals with Mac's fleeing for safety, only to be turned in by those he trusted and later incarcerated. Although he does manage to escape from his dire circumstances, he fails to adequately preserve his relationship with Polly, and unknowingly exact further revenge on the Peachum's (who I'll get to in a moment). Throughout this act the struggle is fairly clear. Mr. Peachum has vowed to have Mac hanged. Polly, of course disapproves; caring only for the safety of her new husband. Through the Peachums actions, both on stage and off, we learn of just how important a figure Mac is. Granted, by this point we know that he is the captain of his 'industry', and that he is a relentless pursuant of his own fortune. In essence, Mac is the 'star above the city', and Peachum a bland, yet daring, proponent of capital. Both men threaten each others' trade and way of life, as honest or dishonest as they may respectively be.
Enter justice. The opposing lynch-pin of this entire act is the involvement of Chief Tiger Brown: a man who is both 'the law' and its servant. By all accounts Brown could be considered a central figure in London—this fact being illustrated through his constant concern for the coming Coronation ceremony. (Let's not forget the symbolic power of a Coronation in this particular episode.) This fact alone shows us that Brown is indeed at the behest of the Monarchy. In addition, these scenes more clearly define that he is also at the mercy of Mac, his friend, and Peachum, the 'Beggar King' of London; both of whom he will end up alienating by default. Aside from the disagreement between Mac and Peachum, we now know that Brown is in the middle and will lose. Justice will not prevail—as if it had earlier—and by the end of the act we can smell the desperation. Mac is on the lose again, Polly is beyond reproach, and Peachum has invoked the might of the lowly classes.
I'm hungry to know which way this desperation will lead the characters. Though, from this act's finale I can only trust that someone, if not all parties, is going to 'take it too far'. In a theatrical context this is what we want from a play. And, in the Brechtian context, it is clear that politics are clearly coming into play. Some favorite lines which drive this point home are Mac's exchange with Jake, upon being presented with the new charges against him:

MAC: Finished?
JAKE: No, I just got to the rapes.

This above conversation, in a whorehouse. Lastly, line-wise, is Peachum's invocation of Egyptian history to imply Brown's fate for letting Mac escape:

PEACHUM: ...On the death of Ramses II, the police Captain of Nineveh, or was it Cairo, committed some minor offence against the lower classes of the population. Even at that time the consequences were terrible. As the history books tell us, the coronation procession of the Semiramis, the new Queen, 'developed into a series of catastrophes thanks to the unduly active participation of the lower orders'. Historians still shudder at the cruel way Semiramis treated her police captain...snakes she fed on his bosom.

If this isn't an overtly political statement then—well, OK, I'm quite certain that this is an overtly political statement. If nothing else, it is a brilliant way of setting the scene for whatever bestial acts are sure to follow. For, at this point, we know that all of our characters are relentless here, and no one is pulling any punches, rather throwing them. I can hardly wait to see what will transpire. But, I doubt that they will be tame.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Macheath: The Specter Haunting London

“Art is always and everywhere the secret confession, and at the same time the immortal movement of its time.”

After a long week of mental detachment and shifts of focus, it has been refreshing to get back to Brecht. I last left off on a broad evaluation on the first act of “The Threepenny Opera,” and the humorously pessimistic comedy therein. This is by no means a subject that I am done exploring, though, for this installment, I’d like to touch on a few points that were made through the duration of Monday’s in class discussion; points which have in my mind brilliantly highlighted Marx’s influence on Brecht and his work.

Originally there was a clear juxtaposition between the audiences of this show (those who can pay) and those producing the show (those who are working). But, I had yet to previously consider the capitalist struggle that is ongoing in the opening of this play—the struggle of Mr. Peachum to maintain the integrity of his business and family v. Mac’s clear control over London’s lowly ‘elite’. My first impression of either side paid no consideration to the clues which eluded to these characters’ bourgeois self-perceptions. To me, both sides of the conflict were steeping in the underbelly, and in effect thriving while doing so. That is to say, they weren’t the ones with fake stumps. Yet, the sociopolitical argument that is unfolding before us in the first act of “Threepenny” is definitely one which calls to be deconstructed. I can only hope that this deconstruction will be guided more deeply in further group discussions.

In a transcript following the text of the newest Penguin Edition of this play, we are provided a transcript of an interview between Brecht and Giorgio Strehler which examines the social impact of “Threepenny”’s original run. In this transcript Brecht comments that the play was successful in bringing young proletarians into the theatre and, moreover, encouraging them to come back. In addition, he remarks that through the harsh comedic portrayal of the bourgeois, their very laughter became something which made them aware of the behaviors that were being criticized. In effect, while laughing at themselves, they now were self-conscious and resentful of certain behaviors. Now, if this isn’t within the epic idea of inspiring change in society, I’m just not sure what is. The analysis of this play promises to be evermore alluring.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

...And Man's a Shit.

As a young actor I was once told to never apologize before a performance was over. If an infraction, or accident occurred—one which proved to be wholly detrimental to the production in progress—perhaps then, and only then, would it be acceptable. And even still, after wards. Another one of the lessons that was beaten into me at a fairly early juncture was to never insult one's audience...unless it is through “bawdy humor.” But as we all know, a joke that falls flat is somewhat of an insult in its own right.
Throughout the first act of Brecht's “Threepenny Opera” we are given a healthy dose of the bawdy. So much so, that I can hardly imagine the original actors of this play being coached into telling the elite of Weimar Germany that: “Life is poor, and man's a shit.” To me, a student living some 80 years later, this statement is as funny as it is poignant. Considering the subject matter of poverty, both in general, and especially in post WWI Germany, the context of “The First Finale Concerning the Insecurity of the Human Condition,” gives us a lot to think about. Namely, well, our own insecurities. Are we indeed shit? In a sense, yes, it would seem so. But why?
The Peachums may be our most important key to understanding this notion. Here we have a family whose business is poverty. Their very livelihood is contingent on ensuring that those who “have not” come consult Mr. Peachum before even trying to “have,” and even still, for a price. With this Brecht automatically has dispelled any possibility for an apology to audiences. Instead, he chose to show us deplorable wretches, just being themselves. Thus we are left to wonder what it is that has made them this so terrible. With this in mind it is easy to see just how this would be received by the upper echelons (such as the subsequent banning of the play by the Nazis only a few years later).
Yet, it is quite fascinating to reflect on just how this modern classic became a classic. How, among the likes of so many other transcendental plays, the enduring themes of class struggles and interpersonal conflicts come into play when there's something to be gained seems like an astonishing feat. Though, as we know, Brecht was well ahead of his time in choosing to adapt Gay's “The Beggar's Opera.”
I am eager to continue reading this play with the new understandings that are being forged in regards to historical context. And any Doubters may rest assured that my curiosity in this opera and its tactics will continue to be explored. Henceforth, I will not apologize for this incomplete analysis. The show is not over yet. Not on the page and not in my mind.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Caucasian Country

The ‘bible belt’ has never really presented itself as the ideal environment for thought provoking spectacles. This statement is not meant as a passage of judgment. This region could benefit immensely from life changing theatre. Yet, often times, people here limit themselves to the scope of their own comfortableness. They do not like to be challenged. This is a place where every type of soda is referred to as “coke.” This is a place where no one expects to encounter Brecht or his ideas. To this end, I must commend Dr. Wayne Chapman and the theatre department at UALR for ambitiously undertaking “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.”
In this play, which readers of this blog are undoubtedly familiar with, the audience is given a show which challenges their political and moral standards. I hadn’t really thought about just how difficult the actual staging of this play could be. Though, UALR handled the technical challenges of this production with sheer proficiency, if not aplomb. The set design, a large series of scaffolding, served as a centerpiece which resembled a post-industrial playhouse. This concept may very well have influenced the joviality of the performances on stage, as well as the production concept. The assurance that there was very little to work with set wise, allowed the actors to really play out the epic without fear of having it seem “too real.”
This idea of acting for the epic theatre was one that I was particularly curious about upon entering the auditorium. Though, this had clearly been taken into account by Dr. Chapman, and after the first scene my trepidation was all but gone. The only qualms I had with the acting—and this is completely acceptable considering the varied levels of performance training—was the hit and miss vocal projection. Personally, I enjoy sitting towards the back of the house when seeing a play, and in this case, it was a bit of a mistake. Aside from this though, I once again must commend the ability of the performers to tell the story without risking emotional attachment to their characters.
The cutting and re-interpretation of this play didn’t sit incredibly well with me however. For instance, the exclusion of the prologue somewhat eliminated the coveted “play-within-a-play” concept. And the use of the location “the gulf” did absolutely nothing but confuse me. It was as if I was expected to reflect on a far-off/maybe near-by place in which conflict was ensuing. While I do see how and why this was set in place, I do feel that it directed my attention away from the story. Where they still talking of Persia, I would have been able to stay focused on the action and story, from a distanced perspective, and still possess the faculties to make connections between the relevant struggles in the world. This is to say, the concepts of war and corruption will still endure. They need not be made more accessible through a vague ‘localization’ for accessibility sake. The same can also be said of the choice to change piasters to dollars. Cuts and changes like these shifted my focus from the story, in favor of curiosity about where these people were and how it played into the story’s meaning.
All in all, I greatly enjoyed the production, and am actually excited to know that the theatre department will encourage its budding artists to take chances. Risk taking is such an important part of the creative process, just as Beckett said “Fail. Fail better. Fail again.” With this production, confused audience members should be glad that they are confused. They should sit with this material and discuss it with their families or dates, or whomever. And, moreover, this audience member has realized the power of a play to be presented as its author wrote it. Though I do think that Chapman and Co, have done an excellent job in introducing the newbies to the awesomeness of Brecht.