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Mother Streep in the Park

Every time there's a war on a gang of actors and producers get together and put on Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children because they think it is an anti-war play.

By 8.22.06

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Mother Courage and Her Children
by Bertold Brecht
Produced by the Gang That Couldn't Think Straight: The Public Theater.

NEW YORK -- There must be a war on. Every time there's a war on a gang of actors and producers get together and put on Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children because they think it is an anti-war play.

As I walked briskly down the path toward the Delacorte Theater at about 6:30 of a cool August weekday morning last week I noticed a line of sleep-ridden, bedraggled figures a quarter of a mile in length along the path. They could have been homeless derelicts, except that most of them were young and well furnished with air mattresses, laptops, I-pods, Blackberries, and text-messaging cell-phones. Half of them were still asleep, the other half were groggy and trying to organize themselves.

I was on my way to the Seniors' Bench in front of the theater where, if I was lucky, I would be rewarded with two "free" tickets to the Public Theater's production of Mother Courage and Her Children that evening. The production was in its fifth day of previews and not scheduled to "open" for three days. There is much theatrical buzz about this production because it features celebrity stars Streep and Kline, and celebrity writer Tony Kushner -- author and prophet of the gay theatrical world since his epic six-hour play Angels in America.

Oh, the ironies, the ironies! Piled one on top of the other like the apartments along Fifth Avenue and Central Park West looking down on the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Who would have believed that in New York, one of the richest cities of the world, the center of capitalism in America, the center of capitalism in the world, where apartments sell for $1,000 per square foot and more, where statistically every tenth person is a millionaire (at least in real estate values) -- who would have believed that a play written by the poet of the proletariat, by an unrepentant communist till the day he died, the recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize, would be playing in a million dollar production in this jewel of a park.

The ironies seem positively Brechtian in their political cynicism and layered hypocrisies, starting with Brecht himself. Born into the high bourgeoisie, his father a director of a paper factory, Brecht was pampered all his life by his parents and pretty little housemaids who encouraged his sexual development. He wore the finest hand-made clothes, smoked the best cigars as an adult, and as soon as he gave up his adolescent imposture of the tough, impoverished, bohemian poet, he lived comfortably by exploiting his mistresses and wives, and lived the last eight or nine years of his life like a prince, or rather a commissar, behind the Iron Curtain. He scorned the company of the working classes, never worked a day of his life as a laborer and was never poor. Perhaps Marieluise Fleisser, one of Brecht's many, many mistress/collaborators, said it most clearly: "In the final goal he wanted to help human beings. But in daily practice he was a despiser of humankind."

THE AUDIENCE FOR THAT EVENING'S PERFORMANCE, about 1,800 people, appeared not to be members of the proletariat either. As they lay or stood along the path waiting to be rewarded with a pair of free tickets, they appeared prosperous, well equipped with electronics, and to be members of the leisure class since it was a work day and the working classes were rushing to get to work on time. Even though the play was about the little guys of the world, the poor and the exploited, none of those were recognizable in that evening's audience as it sprawled on the park grass.

If the proletariat was not present in the audience to hear this political wake-up call to the working classes of Germany and Europe in 1939, it was even more absent amongst the movers and shakers of this production, who were, according to the New York Times, Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, George C. Wolfe, the play's director, and Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, millionaire film stars. Without the latter, it is doubtful that the play would have been mounted in this expensive venue. Ordinarily Mother Courage, almost never produced commercially because of its heavy-handed political message, is seen in sparse off-Broadway productions or university theaters where costs can be kept down.

This production has a cast of 25 actors, 7 musicians, 6 directors, 5 designers, and approximately 90 members of the production staff. How much must that cost for a New York City production with gunshots, explosions, actors falling off ramparts, theatrical rain and snow, among other spectacles. We're talking in the hundreds of thousands, aren't we? Cheaper than the Thirty Years War perhaps, but not by much.

Everyone is getting good money for all this -- the six-figure bureaucrats who run the Public Theater, the actors, and the supplementary staff. So who's paying?

Well, the producers, have no risk in this enterprise. Like good capitalists they have cleverly transferred the risk to the taxpayers of New York City, New York State, and the United States of America -- at least in part. From the taxes paid by people like Joe Boski who lives in Astoria and cleans boilers and never heard of the Delacorte Theater, much less what's playing there. And Shirley Strauss, a widow who works half-time as a nurse's aid in Skaneateles, New York, and has never been to the theater in her life. And John Marks, who works at the Bangor Broom Factory making straw brooms for two dollars over the minimum wage and who shoots rabbits on Saturdays to put meat on the family table. Bertold Brecht? Who's he? Each of these folks contributes a few dollars to the budget of "Mother Courage" at the Delacorte Theater without knowing it.

If Brecht knew what was going on here, what would he say?

The rich are still busting my balls
only they're stars now not queens,
and they need to get their political rocks off.

Who's still riding on whose back?


The problem with the Public Theater is that even though the taxpayer supports it he has no input into the kinds of plays that are produced, unlike the commercial theater where the audience members have something to say about the quality of what they see. Where the marketplace has no input the ideology of the bureaucrats determines what is financed and presented. And over the last thirty years that has turned out to be largely attuned to the sensibilities and politics of the left -- gays, feminists, and black minorities. So the real beneficiaries of this system are the denizens of Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side and not the "Public."

There's a bit of an East German Workers Paradise mentality once you fall within the orbit of the Public Theater. The ticket distribution system is a case in point. Once you become a waiter-in-line you are treated very strictly and lectured frequently about where you may or may not stand or sit or lie down; when you may go to the bathroom and for how long; what you may eat and where you may eat it. All these rules, you are told, is because they must treat everyone the same. Worker efficiency, competence, courtesy are devalued, and you, the person paying for all this, become the supplicant since they've set it up so that they hold all the cards.

The notion that the tickets are "free" is nonsense. In order to get them you have to spend many hours doing the work of waiting. Lines were part of life behind the Iron Curtain, because nothing worked efficiently. Now the Public Theater has managed to set the economics of entertainment back fifty years.

BUT PERHAPS THE MOST INTERESTING IRONY is the Public Theater's misunderstanding of the play. The production is, from start to finish, meant to be an anti-war/anti-Bush statement. That is, no doubt, why important big-money stars like Streep and Kline were drawn to this project. And with Tony Kushner (a born-again pacifist/socialist) in the bargain to modernize the language what could be more fun?

There are plenty of anti-war cliches which the audience laps up because of the way the actor delivers the line: "To go by what the big shots say, they're waging war for almighty God and in the name of everything good and lovely. But look closer, they ain't so silly, they're waging it for what they can get. Else little folk like me wouldn't be in it at all." But the main thrust of the play is about something quite different.

Mother Courage had its origins in 1939. after the Nazis invaded Poland from the west and Soviet Russia invaded Poland from the east -- an arrangement made a few days earlier when the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact was signed. This began the first phase of World War II -- the so-called "Phoney War" during which nothing very much happened except the Nazis bided their time and prepared for their invasion of the west without having to worry about fighting a war on two fronts. It was during this time, while Brecht was on the lam from the Nazis and living in Sweden, that he wrote the play.

At that time, from the beginning of September 1939 until May 10, 1940, there was no war to speak of. The fighting in Poland was over after a few weeks and the invasion of France and the Low Countries had not begun. And no one really knew what a horrific war it would become, not even Brecht.

At that time he was bitterly resentful and preoccupied with those who played along with the Nazis and enabled them to achieve power in Germany -- the war-profiteers -- the rich and powerful industrialists in Germany and the Swedish steel-makers who sold much needed steel to Hitler. That is what the play is about. Therefore the warning in scene 8: "...in which case you shouldn't forget the ancient saying that whoever sups with the devil needs a long spoon," which may be taken as the moral of the play.

Mother Courage is an entrepreneurial war-profiteer. A "hyena." The play is a Marxist trumpet blast at the capitalists: WAR IS MONGERED BY CAPITALISTS WHO PROFIT FROM ITS PURSUIT! AND US LITTLE PEOPLE ARE SUCKERED INTO IT BY BOURGEOIS VALUES LIKE PATRIOTISM AND HONOR AND DUTY!

If Brecht had lived in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century he would have been a pamphleteer -- not a playwright. That is what Mother Courage is -- a political comic book with POW! and BAM! and with the simplest of chronological plots; with bad guys and good guys you can identify by how they look and dress; with characters who are stereotypes: Yvette, the tough whore with heart of gold; the son who is dumb but honest; the mute daughter who is sweet natured, naive, and dreams of being a mother. There are three main "characters" who have no character, not even any names, who are only mouthpieces for the contradictory thoughts of Mother Courage: the cook, the chaplain, and Mother Courage are all really one character -- Bertold Brecht, who was probably the most entrepreneurial Communist that ever lived. He was always on the lookout for the main chance and for ways to exploit anyone he could -- friends, lovers, collaborators.

The play is an anachronism. It looks backwards from 1939 to centuries of religious wars -- like the Thirty Years War -- monarchical wars in which kingly whims were motivators of war and so-called nobles fought each other over who owned what. This went on in Western Europe for fifteen hundred years, until the end of World War II. Since then the countries of Western Civilization have not participated in "Marxist" wars: wars of the powerful for personal profit or gain. They have been fought over ideology -- whether wealth is to be distributed by a central authority (with all its injustices and unfairnesses) or by a more or less free market (with all its injustices and unfairnesses) since no system for distributing wealth is ever perfect.

Brecht's atavistic view of war and capitalism is as dead as Communism is itself. (Even in The Peoples Republic of China capitalism is flourishing.) In Western Europe war is also dead, unthinkable since no country has enough of an army to make war on any other country. All the fighting in Western Europe (and soon Eastern Europe) occurs in Brussels among gabbling bureaucrats on a thousand different commissions.

The old motives for war are dead as well. Wherever there is a free and open press, with free mass media, and a free blogosphere; wherever there are freely elected governments with distributed power; wherever there is a more or less free marketplace with a system of wealth distribution which allows the redistribution of wealth through trans-generational effort and education -- in such venues there can never be war in Brecht's sense.

Brecht and the Gang that Couldn't Think Straight are singing to the wrong choir. They should try North Korea, or any of the dictatorships of Central Africa, or Saudi Arabia, or the other Islamic dictatorships where Brechtian wars can still occur.

THE PERFORMANCE THAT NIGHT? Oh, yes. It was much too long as it usually is because those who undertake to produce Brecht believe his words are more or less sacrosanct. They really believe that he wrote great masterpieces like Shakespeare and therefore his words must not be tampered with.

And poor Streep was clearly out of her depth. Too good-looking, bones too fine, manners too good. She should have worn a dirty wool seaman's cap instead of a snappy officer's cap. She tried mightily to be tough and earthy, straining too much at it. She miscast herself. Mother Courage should have been played by an aging Ethel Merman -- a little fatter and older than Merman was in Gypsy.

In any case the director and two of the main actors, Streep and Austin Pendleton who played the Chaplain, could not play the scenes the way Brecht would have wanted them played. Brecht's theory of Epic Theater calls for a kind of acting which is the opposite of Stanislavskian acting. Since Brecht believed that drama should be used primarily for propagandistic purposes rather than entertainment, he wanted the audience to be kept from being swept away in waves of emotion. He wanted it to be able to attend to the intellectual content of the messages he was sending. So he did not want the actors to be caught up in their characters the way Stanislavski and the famous Actors Studio trained Marlon Brando and the others of that group.

Brecht said that there were two ways of playing Mother Courage: the way that it's usually played, the sentimental way, as Streep played her that night. In this case Mother Courage is played as a hero -- emotionally she feels she is the indomitable Mother Courage who triumphs over the adversity of losing her three children in an interminable war, and is able to go on in spite of her suffering and pain.

Helene Weigel, Brecht's last wife, played Mother Courage in the 1949 East Berlin production, directed by the master himself. This production became the gold standard by which other productions and performances came to be judged over the years. About it Brecht wrote, "Weigel's way of playing Mother Courage was hard and angry; that is, her Mother Courage was not angry; she herself, the actress, was angry. She played a merchant, a strong crafty woman who loses her children to the war one after another and still goes on believing in the profit to be derived from war....Mother Courage learns nothing from her misery...even at the end she does not understand. Few [who saw the play] realized that just this was the bitterest and most meaningful lesson of the play." Try telling that to the Gang Who Couldn't Think Straight.

Brecht went further. He wrote in 1954, a couple of years before he croaked (as he himself would have put it):

[Despite its success] I do not believe, and I did not believe at the time [1949], that the people of Berlin -- or any other city where the play was shown -- understood the play. They were all convinced that they had learned something from the war, what they failed to grasp was that, in the playwright's view, Mother Courage was meant to have learned nothing from her war. They did not see what the playwright was driving at: that war teaches people nothing...The audiences of 1949 and the ensuing years did not see Mother Courage's crimes, her participation, her desire to share in the profits of the war business; they saw only her failure, her sufferings. And that was their view of Hitler's war in which they had participated: it had been a bad war and now they were suffering.

And late that night Brecht's ironic prophecy came true once more. Neither actors nor the audience understood the real meaning of the play. Streep played Mother Courage as the long-suffering indomitable hero as she felt she was in those final moments, left standing alone on the stage triumphantly. And the audience loved her. They stood, shouted, applauded, whooped as though she were Meryl Streep, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa, and Joan of Arc rolled into one. It was a love fest. It could have been an East German Workers Collective but it was only the Upper West Side of Manhattan joining hands with celebrity to hate war and George W. Bush together.

And was it a trick of my imagination that I thought I saw a figure hovering over the trees of Central Park during the shouts and applause shaking his head and grinning cynically?

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About the Author

Yale Kramer is a psychiatrist and essayist for Horsefeathers, the blog that fights folly, ignorance, and cant.