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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Laughter in the Dark

In a recent discussion, and as a result of a small amount of outside research, I am coming to better understand Brecht's use of humor in his plays. As many of his works came from collaborative efforts—as discussed in previous posts—it would seem that not only is Brecht's sense of levity derived from literally having one's friends and close acquaintances present in the writing process, but also from his firm understanding of satire and the nature of his productions.

To clarify: it has recently been brought to my attention that Brecht was indeed a “fun-loving” genius. In an audio book by monologist Mike Daisey entitled “Great Men of Genius: Bertolt Brecht,” the performer explains a list of the reasons why Brecht is always pictured with a cigar and a smile. Among these reasons are the incredible amount of sex he was known to have had, as well as the fact that many of his lovers became friends and close collaborators. The intimacy of such connections speaks volumes, and the fact that he was comfortable with these people, to me, signals that they too probably shared in Brecht's sense of humor. For, as we all know, sometimes the best way to deal with a heavy subject is through poking fun—and this is an excellent time for having those closest to you right there.

Another interesting tidbit that I had failed to consider, was the early production history of many of Brecht's works. While in exile from the third Reich, the playwright's work went with him. As many of his early works had been work shopped into a repertoire this allowed the actors to take their shows into the towns and countries they stayed in. This means that they were presumably performed for audiences of varied levels of class, education, and sophistication. Thus, humor would be a necessary part of conveying the message of the play. Imagine, if you will, why “sophisticated” new dramas from Off Broadway so rarely make it down south...

It is the understanding of how to properly use humor that upped the level of satire in Brecht's cycle, and also softened the blow for some of the most heart breaking moments. For instance, in scene 5 of the Caucasian Chalk Circle, would we be more engaged with the seemingly tyrannical judgments of Azdak were they not so hilarious? No, we would sit there and judge him in an entirely different manner. Instead we are shown through his portrayal that he is little more than a representation of a public official.

This has been reoccurring theme of class, and one that I, personally, am going to explore further.
Until then!