Taylor Mac in La MaMa’s upcoming Good Person of Szechwan. Photo: Matthew Snead.
In a particularly silly essay for the Wall Street Journal last week, critic Joseph Epstein wrote, “[Lyricist Yip] Harburg believed it was the political dimension ‘that Bernard Shaw added to all of his plays that makes him alive forever.’ Truth is, Shaw isn’t any longer much alive, nor are most of his plays. A more recent, even more political playwright, Bertolt Brecht, is even deader. Tony Kushner’s plays will soon end up, two tombstones to the left, in the same graveyard. Art anchored in politics is almost always art condemned to early demise.” (Epstein also wrote in the same essay, “I walk the streets with dozens of song lyrics in my head and, with the exception of the verse of Philip Larkin, not a single line from a poem written after 1960. Which makes one wonder, in the realm of creative fantasy, if it would have been better to write ‘Over the Rainbow’ than ‘The Waste Land’ or ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ than ‘Sunday Morning.’” Well, shantih to you too, Prof. Epstein.)
Actually, the plays of Bernard Shaw and Tony Kushner are produced with far more frequency than any of Harburg’s musicals, which include Finian’s Rainbow and of course the legendary, masterful Bloomer Girl, so I wouldn’t assign Epstein to any obituary desk anytime soon. Brecht’s plays continue to appeal, too. In fact, coming up soon at La MaMa ETC is a new staging of the German dramatist’s Good Person of Szechwan, a production from the Foundry Theatre directed by Lear deBessonet and starring the downtown genderbender Taylor Mac in the dual roles of Shen Tei/Sui Ta. The production features live music from “indie rock vaudevillians” César Alvarez w. the Lisps. The show’s Web page at La MaMa describes the play thusly:
Can we practice goodness and create a world to sustain it? In Brecht’s comic and complex play, this question is raised by one of his most entertaining characters — Shen Tei the good-hearted, penniless, cross-dressing prostitute, who is forced to disguise herself as a savvy businessman named Sui Ta so she can master the ruthlessness needed to be a “good person” in a brutal world.
Good Person of Szechwan opens on 1 February and runs through 24 February; tickets are now available here.
Taylor Mac is a particularly inspired choice for the role, and I look forward to seeing how this may “eroticize” Brecht’s play, something I wrote about here. I have high hopes for this production — back in 2007, Ms. deBessonet staged a fine version of Brecht’s difficult and thorny St. Joan of the Stockyards at PS122. In those days, I reviewed such things; my review of that staging is below. (I wouldn’t recommend either show to Joseph Epstein; I’ll let him know, however, when I hear about the next revival of Flahooley.)
St. Joan of the Stockyards by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Ralph Manheim. Directed by Lear deBessonet. Music composed and performed by Kelley McRae & Band. Choreography by Tracy Bersley; set design by Justin Townsend; light design by Peter Ksander; costume design by Clint Ramos; sound design by Mark Huang; dramaturg, Helen Shaw. Produced by Karina Mangu-Ward. Production company: Stillpoint Productions, by special arrangement with Culture Project’s Women Center Stage. With Kristen Sieh, Richard Toth, Kate Benson, Mike Crane, Jessica Green, Jonathan Co Green, Peter McCain and Nate Schenkkan. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one intermission). June 16-July 1, 2007 at Performance Space 122, 150 First Avenue, New York.
Bertolt Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards, written in 1932 as Brecht was in his most intense period of Marxist studies, wasn’t staged until two years after his 1956 death; its only public performance during his lifetime was as a short radio play in April 1932 (featuring Peter Lorre as Slift and Carola Neher as Joan Dark). Inspired, as were so many of his other plays of the period, by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Brecht fashioned the play from the wreckage of the disastrous Threepenny Opera “sequel” Happy End, and it has remained something of an odd-man-out in the canon. It was the first of two major Brecht plays written in a parody of Shakespearean blank verse (The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, his Hitler play, was the second), but the stridency of his politics, married to a materialist vision of tragedy, rendered it problematic in the geopolitics of the time.
And it remains curious. Brecht would flee Germany following the Reichstag fire the next year, with various possibilities for the production coming to naught, and in trying to establish a career outside the German-speaking countries Brecht turned to projects that he believed would be more commercially viable, which St. Joan certainly was not (its large cast and virulent politics rendered it practically unstagable). Lear deBessonet’s production of the play in Ralph Manheim’s translation at P.S. 122 (through this Sunday), I’m happy to say, makes an excellent argument for the centrality and importance of this play in the Brechtian canon, not only as part of the playwright’s more politically-engaged, explicitly Marxist plays, but also in the development of Brecht’s career itself. DeBessonet, in hewing close to the text which is here produced nearly uncut, demonstrates Brecht’s Shakespearean range in a pared-down urban lyricism more closely resembling his poetry than any of his other plays.
In determining a Marxist approach to the form of Shakespearean tragedy, Brecht made a variety of clever, witty substitutions. The Shakespearean letter that shapes the lives of its victims no longer arrives via a messenger, but via Federal Express (in this production); instead of the machinations of various members of a family (which in Shakespeare’s time meant machinations among geopolitical powerholders), the dynamics of the play are driven by industrial leaders, workers, unions, social service agencies. Here, Pierpont Mauler is the king — a leading Chicago producer of canned meat who, warned of an impending market collapse by his New York financial backers, makes plans to exit the business. In this he is stopped by the appearance of Joan Dark, a social activist investigating the condition of the working poor in Chicago. The play describes Dark’s growing social consciousness as well as Mauler’s vulnerability to economic forces and his own heart; ultimately, it leads Dark to the Communist Party and Mauler to a consolidation of all the social forces — his competitors, the workers themselves, the unions, social service organizations, the church, the media — that threaten the success of his capitalist profiteering.
Director deBessonet wisely lets the play speak for itself; no updating here, even for a play which must tempt updating, given its 1932 composition and its setting in Chicago in 1900. So far as its picture of post-capitalist society and industry goes, one only has to turn to work by Peter Singer and Eric Schlosser to note that St. Joan‘s concerns remain relevant in the early years of the 21st century. While deBessonet has dumped the Brecht-Weill songs in favor of a country-blues score by Kelley McRae, McRae’s songs have more of a Hank Williams/Jimmie Rodgers edge to them than a Billy Rae Cyrus pathos, and are appropriately reminiscent of 1930s country music. The set itself, of a stripped-down industrial simplicity, runs down the center of the large upstairs theatre space at P.S.122 (fine work here from set designer Justin Townsend and light designer Peter Ksander, who are now indisputably among downtown’s most exciting visual artists in the theatre, along with costume designer Oana Botez-Ban), all steel and metal sliding along hard plastic casters and metal cable strung along the flies, and industrial-strength barrels and grates providing necessary tables, chairs and walls.
As Iago often takes center stage in Othello, the manipulative Pierpont Mauler often takes center stage in St. Joan. Richard Toth plays Mauler as a man torn among various forces, not the least of which is his own heart; while trying desperately to feed the greed which is at the center of his business, he is drawn to compassion for the animals ritually slaughtered upon the floor of his factory, and recognizes in Joan Dark a human connection not unlike that between a father and a daughter (and this is one of the major parallels between this play and Major Barbara). Toth often plays Mauler as lost in a deep contemplation, a morass of doubt; as his sidekick Slift recognizes (here played with an insidious, malignant serpentine grace by Mike Crane), it’s the blood of meat that forms the center of Mauler’s soul. Toth handles this most Brechtian vacillation between sensuality and rationality with aplomb and a haunting deliberation.
As Joan Dark, Kristen Sieh develops a performance that moves from an alternately giddy and lachrymose naivete (her dances, when she scores a small victory for the poor, are buoyantly joyous but so unschooled and graceless as to resemble an epileptic fit at times) to a dark, hard-edged viciousness as she herself experiences first-hand suffering and hunger in the cold of a Chicago winter and, in her dreams (the voices of this particular Joan), begins to recognize the horrifying extent of the corruption that maintains Mauler and his colleagues in permanent power. Sieh herself is slight and waiflike, which testifies to the effectiveness of her transformation into a violent radical by the end of the play; semi-crucified in the play’s final moments, her final words drowned out in a raucous second-rate disco beat (delivered directly to the audience by the ensemble) by the corrupt society that surrounds her, her performance sears into the experience of the evening.
In terms of Brecht’s gestural theatrics, choreographer Tracy Bersley pursues a truly echt-Brecht visualisation of the play’s political components. Like the language itself, movement and gesture in this St. Joan is spiky and deliberate, demonstrative and pedagogical. In the brilliant staging of Joan’s dream that opens the second act of this production, the sleeping Joan is surrounded by the sharp, violent gestures of the workers, whose presence and motions in elevating her awareness of capitalist culture and the suffering of the poor provide the final physical and gestural impetus to Joan’s transformation into a violent revolutionary. Staged in a soft blue light, the ensemble’s sharp gestures play dialectically against the stage illusions of night and snow (which is thrown up into the air by the workers themselves before settling softly on Joan’s body). It is a beautiful and effective example of the possibilities of Brecht’s gestural theatre: eschewing sentimentality, its social relevance is as clear as day.
While religion forms a central theme of the play, Brecht’s target isn’t God Himself but the uses to which society and culture put the idea of a God. Eventually, Mauler buys God when he agrees to subsidize the play’s Salvation Army stand-in, the Black Straw Hats; in aggrandizing spirituality to the benefit of the status quo, he provides the metaphysical umbrella under which a capitalist society can rationalize its corruption. “[Joan Dark] is not speaking about God at all but about talk of a God, or, more precisely, about specific talk in a specific situation, and specific remarks about God,” Brecht wrote in his notes to the published play. “She is in fact speaking about talk to the effect that God need have no function whatever in social matters, and that those who believe in such a God are called on to accomplish nothing in particular. It is enough if they have certain inner sensations. The faith thus recommended is without effect on the world around us, and Joan defines such recommendation as a social crime.”
Stillpoint Productions’ staging of this rare Brecht play (more a discovery than a rediscovery; unless I miss my guess, this is the first professional New York production of St. Joan of the Stockyards) is a fine example of a poetic text shining through performance and production, revealing the text’s enduring power.
As I noted above, Joan Dark’s final words are drowned in a pathetic, loud disco beat — an example of Adorno’s Culture Industry smothering deeper recognition of human consciousness. Below is the text of Joan’s speech, from the Manheim translation:
So anyone down here who says there’s a God
And that even if no one can see Him
He can, invisibly, help us all the same
Should have his head bashed against the sidewalk
Until he croaks.
And those preachers who tell the people they can rise in spirit
Even if their bodies are stuck in the mud, they too should have their heads
Bashed against the sidewalk. The truth is that
Where force rules only force can help and
In the human world only humans can help.