Edmond Chibeau looks at performance and theatre from the avant-garde communication perspective

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Location: Mansfield, Connecticut, United States

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Streep as Brecht's Mother Courage

Photo: Michal Daniel, Public Theater
The Associated Press

Great theatre bad Brecht! By Edmond Chibeau

By Bertolt Brecht, translation Tony Kushner
Directed by George C. Wolfe. With: Meryl Streep,
Kevin Kline, Austin Pendleton, Jenifer Lewis.
Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, N.Y.
21 August to 3 September 2006.

Mother Courage has a reputation for being a difficult play to produce.
A great director, three great supporting actors and the greatest living American actor were unable to conquer the contradictions of the text.

The current production at the Delacorte offers us an epic battle with Aristotle Stanislavsky, and the Group Theatre, supported by the whole apparatus of Hollywood Realism on one side, versus Hegel, Engel, Marx and Brecht supported by Husserl Heidegger and The Living Theatre on the other.

While the battle of the Protestants and the Catholics rages across Europe the battle of Hollywood realism Vs. Brechtian Epic rages across the boards at the Delacorte.

It makes an audience member want to smoke a cigar and shout out when Alienation lands a left hook or Hollywood Realism pounds in with a right cross.

The presentation at the Delacorte Theatre is an antiwar play in the Aristotelian tradition. It is Aristotelian theatre at its best; it soothes the savage beast. It offers imitation of nature; it engenders fear, pity and catharsis.

It temporarily turns the world upside down, allows the audience to heap abuse on the powers that be and then sends them home for a beer, happy to have seen a great performance by actors who share their point of view. Great theatre bad Brecht.

It is a great production. As people were filing out an audience member was overheard to say, “This is one for the ages.” One has no doubt that the actors in this production are against war in general and the current American invasion of Iraq in particular. The question is, “what did the production change?”

When we think about Brecht we must consider three concepts:
Epic Theatre: a strategy for social change that asks the audience to consider the social problems of a play with their intellect as well as their emotions.
Gestic Reading of the Lines: a strategy by which the actors keep the metric of the dramatic poetry by lengthening or shortening, stressing or unstressing certain words.
The purpose of the gestic reading is to allow aural power of the dramatic poetry to have its full effect on the audience.
Alienation Effect (Verfremdungsetfekt ) a strategy by which the circumstances are made “strange” to the audience. This causes the audience to be thrown. In order to recover they must use their intellect to understand the new situation.

Epic theatre, unlike the theatre of the 19th century or Hollywood realism, does not want us to identify with the protagonist, but to think about why the protagonist finds herself in that predicament. The point of attack is not late in the story, moments before a crisis but begins earlier in the life of the protagonist. Epic theatre dos not demand high suspense as to the outcome of the plot

The Alienation Effect or A-Effect or Verfremdungseffekt uses all the elements of theatre to help us to see things in a different light. Brecht wants familiar things to seem strange to us, then we will use our dispassionate intellect to analyze the situation and find a solution to the problem. If the problem presented on stage is familiar and sentimental then we become comfortable and accepting of our fate, rather than willing to struggle to build our future. If we are creatures of “fate” then we have no future, no free will, and nothing to work toward.

Streep drops her voice to a deeper register when she is trying to convince the recruiter that she is a fortune teller and she can predict if he will survive the war by whether or not he draws a blank piece of paper or a paper with a cross on it. Then to her son she says, “You won’t pull a cross because you’re the cross I bear.”

The human comedy is not separated from the tragedy of mother courage.
Brecht’s interest is in the exposing contradictory social relations. His talent is in painting contradictions in human relationships.

Streep embodies the human dilemma. Her words say one thing while her body indicates another. She will make a strong declarative statement while she is moving in one direction and then pause, turn as if to move in anther direction, and then change her mind and continue in the original direction. The tonal qualities of her voice add a third dimension to the multivariate calculus that is her performance.

Streep goes everywhere with her voice. The vocal gymnastics alone are enough to leave an actor exhausted but Streep adds a constant manic vaudevillian energy to her part; one that would have made Brecht proud. She’s been thinking about this play for a long time.

Streep sometimes uses a traditional vaudeville style of movement and vocal delivery to alienate the audience from the bathetic emotions that a particular scene might cause. The use of the vaudevillian style was not an attempt to be funny. Neither she nor the script needed help in that regard. She chose a “presentational” acting style used to make the audience aware that a thesis is being presented.

The idea of a gestic reading is Brecht’s way of describing the way an actor must lengthen or shorten, stress or unstress certain syllables to draw the most powerful interpretation out of the rugged metric of his dramatic poetry. The elision of a syllable in a metical foot is to be accounted for by the variation of stress that can be placed by the actor. This allows the actor to temporarily stop the play, to bring the listener up short and hopefully to hear the line and to see the situation as if it were a strange idea, heard for the first time and able to be considered without the biases of tradition.

Kushner’s sensitive translation allows the actors to use the imperfect scansion of the lines to set off the irony of certain statements and to create the Alienation Effect:
“Corruption is the human equivalent of god’s mercy.”
“Necessity trumps the commandments.”

The difference between irony and Alienation is that irony allows us to chortle at the foibles of human nature, while Alienation motivates us to change the status quo.

Through Kushner, Brecht tells us that we need a “long burning rage” rather than a short anger which soon burns itself out.

This wasn’t just a chance to see some famous actors live on stage; it was a great theatre experience. Whether or not the current production has helped to end the current war in the cradle of civilization is another matter.

It is a great production of an Aristotelian drama but it is not Brechtian drama.
Streep must be exhausted at the end of every performance. She puts out a ton of energy. She is full of constant movement but that movement is always focused.

The closing scene of Mother Courage is one of the great difficulties in modern theatre. Brecht asks his audience to critically analyze, and his performers to coolly demonstrate, the political relationships that allow war to happen while performing one of the most heart-rending scenes written in the 20th Century.

Streep takes us through stages of emotion as she keens over her dead daughter, she denies that the girl is dead, is angry at the war makers for taking her away, despairs over her loss and then accepts her situation and becomes resolved to go on.

Brecht uses the contradictions of human nature to foreground the contradictions in society.

We were quivering with excitement, on the brink of tears. It will go down in history as one of the great examples of theatre in our time. The audience went home thoroughly satisfied. The production was a failure.