courage under fire

Who says that Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage is the greatest play of the 20th Century?

Oskar Eustis, for one. I'd never thought about it, but I think it's probably true. I personally prefer the humor of The Good Person of Sezchuan and the generous amplitude of The Caucasian Chalk Circle but in terms of its iconic power and its relevance to the events of the Century, few theatrical images can compare to the sight of Mother Courage pulling along that Godforsaken wagon. (The only thing I can think of that might rival it is Didi and Gogo standing next to the tree in Waiting for Godot.)

And yet it is also commonly acknowledged that, despite its preeminent status in the annals of modern theater, Mother Courage has never been fully embraced in America. With the exception of The Threepenny Opera, there have never really been any great productions of Brecht in New York. How many American theatergoers can even remember seeing a Brecht production outside of a university? There is no tradition of Brechtian theater in America, though there are millions of Brecht admirers. Actors respect his work but don't quite seem to know how to approach it. Which means that when high-profile Brecht productions do come along, American actors and directors step in with very little concrete experience behind them. We can do Stanislavski. We can even do Shakespeare. But no one's ever really taken the time to learn Brecht.

Which brings us back to Oskar Eustis and the Shakespeare in the Park production of Mother Courage (which I saw two nights ago). As everyone knows by now, it stars Meryl Streep in the title role. The magazines tell us that Streep is "hot" this summer -- they lump her Mother Courage in between references to her roles in The Devil Wears Prada and The Ant Bully. Well, you can rest assured that I am not going to badmouth America's Greatest Living Actress; she's actually wonderful and incredibly charismatic in the part. She's a somewhat youthful Courage and quite sexy. She's very funny and very much the overprotective mother. Meryl visibly flubbed a bunch of her lines the night I saw the show -- the first two weeks are technically "previews" -- but even this barely detracted from the performance, which will no doubt grow as the month goes on.

Wonderful, too, were Kevin Kline as the Cook and Austin Pendleton as the Chaplain; their scenes together crackled with electricity. All three were made for Brecht - they're all very intelligent actors, very precise, very good observers of behavior. They have the necessary presence of mind to render the part and render the commentary about it at the same time. Several of the set piece speeches about the nature of war are stirring and provocative.

Those speeches, of course, are delivered in English written by Tony Kushner, who has done an excellent job. He's delivered an English Mother Courage that is both political and (more importantly) theatrical. There are big laughs throughout and the language has the right feeling of salty terseness laced with instructive irony. It's a testament to his achievement that one hears the language so clearly, despite the length and density of the text, and that so many of the sentiments hit home. The translation is probably the biggest strength of the production.

Why, then, is it ultimately disappointing? I suppose that it couldn't help but be, especially to a Brechtian disciple like myself. By choosing this play for Shakespeare in the Park, Oskar Eustis (Artistic Director of the Public Theater) was going for something big: the posters on the subway platform scream "WAR"! This is topical, he's saying to us. It's epochal. The time for this greatest of anti-war plays to finally receive it's definitive New York production is NOW.

For the past two days, I've been asking myself just exactly why it didn't work. I went back and read all of Brecht's notes about the play and perused his "Model Book" of the Berliner Ensemble production. The problem with this Mother Courage is in the direction. In most of the scenes, George C. Wolfe offers the kind of casual, sloppy groupings that would seem at home in a summer stock production of Oklahoma! There is no consistent approach to the presentation of the songs. Overall, there is a complete lack of clarity. Wolfe's last minute decision to project video images of soldiers marching and gunshot sounds as Kattrin falls in slow motion from the roof seems to say nothing beyond "War is Hell." And we're in a war, Wolfe adds, so that's relevant.

In fact, Mother Courage is more relevant than ever and the play has more to tell us than the fact that war kills people. In Eustis' Program note he tells us that the play examines one of the great unanswered questions of the century: why do people consistently make choices that are against their own self-interest? In this case, why does Mother Courage continue to collaborate with the war when it takes away her children from her, one by one? Who cares if war is hell? Brecht gets that out of the way early. "War is business" is the more important point and the smaller participants never see any of the profits.

Eustis seems to have felt, rightly, that this production offered an unprecedented opportunity. Here was a chance to introduce literally thousands of people to their first Brecht play. The venue is the most prominent in the city and the audience comes from all walks of life. The show is free for Christ's sake! Here's a chance to put on a great and truly public performance. Lure them in with Meryl Streep, but have them coming out raving about Brecht. Or, better yet, have them coming out raving about the way that all of us, like Mother Courage, are responsible for collaborating with war.

Instead, it was clear from where I was sitting that the production had lost almost everyone. Perhaps some changes will shorten the 3.5 hour running time before the press opening on Aug. 21 - but even a swifter show is hardly likely to win over converts to Brechtian dramaturgy. "I like Shakespeare," I heard one woman saying as she walked toward the exit at intermission, "but I guess I found out that I don't like Brecht!"

You know that something's wrong when I, who probably knew the play better than 90% of the audience, found myself straining to grasp the point of a scene. I was leaning forward, just as Brecht would like me to do, and trying to figure out what was being put in front of me; I wasn't trying to reconcile deliberately troubling contradictions in the action, however, I was literally trying to fgure out what the hell was going on, what did this song have to do with anything, why did that person just walk around to the back of the cart etc. etc.

Brecht's Model Book reveals the precision with which he and his actors worked through every detail of a scene: How would Mother Courage open her change purse? Where would she stand as she listens to the military recruiters address her son? More than in the work of some dramatists, this clarity of stage action -- the Gestus -- is the primary vehicle of meaning in a Brecht play and this production pretty much lacks a memorable Gestus or stage picture, by which I mean one that helps us realize the underlying dynamics and contradictions that Brecht has embedded into the script.

Discussing the movement of actors across the stage, Brecht writes:

Positions should be retained as long as there is no compelling reason for changing them -- and a desire for variety is not a compelling reason. If one gives in to a desire for variety, the consequence is a devaluation of all movement on the stage; the spectator ceases to look for a specific meaning behind each movement, he stops taking movement seriously.

I am not saying that Wolfe and Streep should have recreated Brecht and Weigel's 1948 production. Brecht would certainly not have wanted that. But he offers characteristically sound and open-minded advice when he writes this about the use of his model:

The aim must be neither to copy the pattern exactly nor to break away from it too quickly. In studying what follows -- a number of explanations and discoveries emerging from the rehearsal of a play -- one should above all be led by the solutions of certain problems to consider the problems themselves.

Wolfe's direction shows little evidence that he spent much time considering any of the problems of the scenes, or even that he and his actors could identify what they were. Brecht, famously, spent months in rehearsal, breaking each scene and gesture down piece by piece and collaborating with actors to find new discoveries. That sort of working method is nearly impossible to achieve at any kind of scale outside of the the state-subsidized European model of theater and that may be one of the reasons why Brecht has never been able to find fertile soil in America (It always comes down to moeny, eh?).

The fact is that this production feels underrehearsed, un-thought through. Perhaps every production of Mother Courage is underrehearsed but not all of them are compressed into a summer schedule to accomodate movie star schedules or performed for a mere 4 weeks (2 of which are previews). If this is really meant to be the ground-breaking production it announces itself as, why not do it in a way that would allow it to be done well? Of course, that would probably mean not doing it for free. It would mean that a whole lot fewer people would see it. Ah, money again.

Mother Courage has always had a powerful effect on audiences, but from the start responses to it have consistently simplified its greatness. Brecht lamented that, though it had been written in the early days of World War Two and intended as a warning to the people of Europe, implicating them in the disasters that were to follow, the celebrated post-War performance that toured the ruined cities of the continent tended to prompt sympathetic and self-congratulatory responses from audiences who saw their own survival mirrored in Mother Courage's "indomitable spirit." (The whole point is that she's not really courageous, she's self-interested.)

And in Central Park this summer we have yet another spectacle of self-congratulation. Without a doubt the lines in Kushner's translation that draw the heartiest response come during Courage's "political" conversation with the Cook and the Chaplain, when they refer to the difficulties of importing liberty to other countries. The audience laughs appreciatively and applauds; I'm sure they'll do it every night. "It's just like Bush!" they're saying, "And we're so much smarter than he is."

The fact of the matter remains that being smarter than our President, knowing he was wrong to enter this war, and feeling self-rightwously vindicated about your anti-war stance doesn't mean that the war stops. Mother Courage lost all her children to the war and still she learned nothing. Very few of the New Yorkers in the audience had lost any children in Iraq and it is probably that fact (the fact that the elite have suffered very little from our disastrous campaign) that has allowed the Bush administration to get away with so much. I don't have a solution to the mess we're in, but I do know that the only way to find one is to stop feeling so superior and asking what we've done to prevent the war from happening. (I myself haven't done all that much.)

Should you go see Mother Courage anyway, despite all my resevrations? Without a doubt. When else do any of us really get to see Brecht performed? Any work of theater that challenges you at that level should not be missed. But it might behoove us all to continuing asking even more challenging questions once the show is over.


food for thought

I've learned recently that my foothold on sanity is maintained by a set of regular, simple rituals. One of them is (or was, and hopefully shall again be) posting on this blog. Before this summer I hadn't missed a single month, but I felt better when I was posting every two weeks of so. Hopefully, I'll get back in the swing of things.

My newest ritual is going to the gym (yes, folks, as in "I'm making an attempt to maintain my physical fitness"!). I find myself longing to spend those two or three hours a week focused on nothing but my own body (and, occasionally the bodies of those around me - wink, wink).

But perhaps the most significant of these rituals, the one that leaves me the most off-kilter when I fail to do it, is cooking at least one of my meals each day. Now don't get me wrong: I'm not preparing Martha Stewart-style goodies all the time. "Cooking at least one of my meals" means, at its best, making a dinner of pan-seared tuna steak with mustard sauce (tonight's calming concoction) but it also encompasses tossing some chick peas into a can of Classico marinara sauce in order to add some protein or, in its most minor form, slicing a banana into my morning granola.

As with the variable frequency of my blog entries, I don't always live up to this rigorous standard. More often than not and much to my displeasure, I have recently found myself eating on the go -- snarfing down a slice of pizza as I walk down the street (surely an experience that only New Yorkers ever have) or guzzling an iced coffee while I attempt to consume a muffin on the train during my morning commute.

[Footnote: Do any of my fellow New Yorkers eat on trains any more? Several months ago, it seems that the MTA instituted a newer, more comprehensive set of prohibitions against certain uncivilized behaviors on the trains, which (I'm told) includes eating. An elderly black man expressed shock that I was eating a bagel on the 2 train not too long ago and informed me that he'd been slapped with a $75 fine for doing so(!). I suppose understand the motivations behind such draconian policies -- I hate it when you enter a car littered with fallen french fries or riddled with treacherous rivulets of spilt coffee, but I don't think of myself as the type of person who "makes a mess" when he eats and I act as if I'm immune to the laws. I really have felt guilty, though, every time I pull out my muffin -- not only does no one else seem to be eating, but they all seem to be looking at me with scorn, as if they'd come face to face with Donald Trump or Newt Gingrich or some other arrogant, self-interested bastard. It's very unusual for New Yorkers to so consistently abide by restrictive regulations (when was the last time you obeyed the signal at a crosswalk, for example?), so I'm a bit perplexed. I can only assume that the fine for eating on the subway, like an arrest for marijuana possession, is the sort of thing that gets imposed much more frequently on ethnic and economic minorities and that by acting as if I don't have to worry about that, I'm simply asserting the inherent privilege of my race and class. I dunno.]

I don't like eating on the go; your digestion seems jostled. And I don't like buying prepared food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- my weekly purchased lunches tend to yo-yo back and forth between splurges on healthy things I like to eat (close to $10 for a big felafel sandwich at the local Yemenite grill or something with smoked salmon, mmmm) and cobbled together meals whose only redeeming quality are their relative affordability (egg salad sandwich from the deli with some pretzels). It's really agonizing to have to decide yet again where I'm going to buy lunch or dinner and to watch the $20 bills in my wallet dwindle to singles in the blink of an eye.

Like refreshing oases in this culinarywasteland come the nights when I can actually come home in time to shop, or the nights when I find in my refrigerator all the ingredients necessary for a healthy meal. Best of all are the (rarer and rarer) nights when I makes some kind of hearty salad (ideally featuring an unusual starch like cous cous or quinoa) that serves as an evening meal and doubles as a lunch for a few days running.

It's not just that I'm cheap. It's not just that I enjoy cooking and find the task meditative, calming. In fact, I've recently discovered that there's something else underlying my persistent need to be able to go to sleep and say, "Well, at least I prepared one meal myself today." It has to do with that all-American virtue: self-reliance.

I feel like a better person if I cook my own meals; I feel like I'm taking the reins of destiny in my own hands. It's as if I'm saying, "I ain't no fancy-pants city slicker that has to eat out all the time. Why, if I had to, I could cook up my own grub using some kindling and some flint. Don't need no retaurants to do it for me."

My choice of vernacular there is influenced by my lastest Netflix obsession: the American Western. Ok, so I've only watched two so far -- but I've been fascinated. I once had an English teacher who said that you couldn't understand America unless you were familiar with the Hollywood Western. I think he's right.

First piece of advice: rent Red River. I loved this movie. I think it first joined my queue around the release of Brokeback Mountain, since it's frequently cited as a "homoerotic" western. This has chiefly to do with the presence of Montgomery Clift, looking as cool and satisfying as a long drink of water. But Clift is incidental to the action; the main event here (as in every movie he appears in) is John Wayne.

I always thought that the "political" reading of the Western was something that had to be decoded, made up of unacknowledged subtexts of racism and imperialism that no one really picked up on until Roland Barthes and his boys started deconstructing things. Wrong. One of the most compelling things about Red River is how unabashedly it celebrates, glorifies the power of capitalism. There's a scene early on where some nameless Mexican disputes John Wayne's claim to a plot of land and Wayne shoots the man dead and calls the land his own. All property is theft (right?) and this movie moves on from there. It chronicles Wayne's single-minded pursuit of a trail that will allow him to move his cattle into uncharted territory. That's the main goal here: to promote commerce, move the heads of cattle along and increase the value of John Wayne's "brand" (the Red River "D"). Wayne will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, even if it means the death of some the men who are blazing the trail. Spring forward a few centuries and we have the Sam Walton story. At the same time that the USSR was churning out propaganda of its own, Hollywood (with no pressure from the state apparatus) was selling America the party line from the other side of the political spectrum.

Watching Red River is like having a political conversation with a charming, completely unabashed conservative. Such conversations can be incredibly stimulating, even sexy. That raw independence and libertarianism - that fundamental belief that the world is best run through a process of competition - may repulse the liberal soul but as a badge of style it has a lot to recommend itself. In the movie (and even more in The Searchers), there are people who doubt the John Wayne character's morality, his sanity, even his humanity. The critique of the philosophy that Wayne represents is written into the text of the film and at crucial junctures it is put in check (by Monty Clift, among others). In both Red River and The Searchers, Wayne is a monomaniac -- a man with no attachments, driven by a single idea. Men like that don't make good husbands, fathers, lovers, or even neighbors, the movies tell us. But they end up making damn fine countries. Men like that are a necessary evil -- they're the type of people who make progress happen.

The only other Western I'd ever seen before this was High Noon, a liberal allegory of the most simplistic variety, one of those thinly-veiled McCarthyite fables about standing up against groupthink. You can tell that the movie's supposed message of standing up for your principles in the face of opposition is pretty thin since it is cited as a favorite by Bill Clinton, of all people (he watched it 17 times during his presidency, apparently).

Red River (directed by Howard Hawks) and The Searchers (directed, much more portentously and ultimately less enjoyably, by John Ford) are far more interesting documents than a schematic picture like High Noon. And far truer representations, like it or not, of the American spirit. Disagree with them as you may, they compel attention. I would never want John Wayne as a father (Why in both movies is he saddled with pretty-boy surrogate sons -- Monty and lunk-headed hunk Jeffrey Hunter?); he'd have no time to talk things over with you, no tolerance for "sensitivity." As paterfamilias, he inspires respect and fear, but no affection.

How does all of this relate to my dining habits? Well, though the "foodie" movement in this country (by which I mean the advocacy of cooking from raw ingredients, the disdain for anything "processed") tends to manifiest itself among the liberal balsamic-drizzling urban elite, it is also in its own way conservative. It is anti-progress, looking back to traditional techniques. It's centered around the home and the family. And, like a Republican Senator who refuses to subsidize a welfare queen, those of us who insist on taking the time to prepare our own meals are proponents of the inherent value of putting in some work before you can get a reward. The fact that I feel guilty if I eat out for three meals a day is, in fact, the most conservative thing about me. It offers me that much-admired feeling touted by George W. Bush and other proponents of an "ownership society": a real sense of accomplishment.

Did John Wayne cook his own meals, though? Did Ronald Reagan?