Unhappy the land
where heroes are needed.
— from Brecht’s “Life of Galileo”
That’s perfect. In a culture that’s turned the endless banalities of first-person narrative into a veritable obsession (Facebook, anyone?), we have become collectively helpless when fame and celebrity declares their own importance. We wave banners for heroes of all stripes—on the political left or right, sports stars, scientists, explorers, and ingenues—because we live in a land that needs heroes. Why? With diminished confidence in the value of our own lives now that the world has fragmented into a million shards of unstable self-interest, we want to believe that someone, somewhere, has the guts and gumption to stand up and stand out.
That’s the backdrop for today’s epic theatrical event, and playing in the footlights we find a central dramatic tension, imploring us to appreciate the nobility of“creative differences.” That coded phrase has undone countless creative endeavors for as long as creative collaborators have excitedly leaned close to each other with wide, hopeful eyes and a big idea. Just a few days ago it happened again. Deep into preview performances before a new staging of the essential play “Mother Courage and her Children” was scheduled to open off-Broadway, the actor playing the eponymous Mother backed out. Tonya Pinkins, a Tony award winner with a long resume, decided the role as envisioned by director Brian Kulick did not match her own vision for the part.
The dust-up between an actor and a director over a 20th century theatrical masterwork presents an ironic meta-story, especially considering Brecht’s artistic proclivities toward Verfremdungseffekt. That’s a process of distancing audiences from the narrative of a story so viewers won’t get swept up in what Brecht believed could be simplistic details like character or simplistic plotting. Brecht wanted to “defamiliarize” audiences with what they might typically expect to experience in the theater. He wasn’t particularly interested in audiences identifying with a character as much as he wanted audiences to care about the world the character inhabited. More to the point, Brecht wanted audiences to feel some sort of insight about how that theatrical experience might relate to the real world outside the theater. Brecht strived for theatrical experiences that inspired intense social critiques. Traditional story hooks such as exposition, character development, plot, climax, and catharsis didn’t matter as much as the political or social implications of the theatrical circumstances overall. In fact, in many of his notes and letters Brecht went so far as to describe his frustration, even disdain, for plays that devised to deliver little more than easy identifications with characters, not to mention plots designed purely to entertain. Circumstance and political evaluation mattered more, and for him it mattered if an audience left a theater impassioned with ideas rather than filled with idealizations about the players.
Brecht famously asserted that the traditional dramatic arc of many theatrical works, usually a conflict of some sort that led to an emotional climax followed by a calming moment of catharsis, made things too easy for an audience. His alternative? The author proposed theater experiences designed to provoke some sort of social or political action. What could carry an audience out into the streets? Passion to change things! Who cares if there's a romantic clinch at the end? If we can rise up as an audience and become a political movement and feed or clothe or unshackle those people who might be otherwise downtrodden tonight, well, then, maybe that should be the sign of a successful play!
But let’s get back to the play at hand. Just as an aside, let the record stand that the title alone—“Mother Courage and Her Children”— is a worthy subject for a master class in poetics and metaphor.
The ongoing imbroglio between actor and director probably wouldn't have caught more than a fleeting moment of my attention if it weren't for the way it resonated inside the current cultural echo chamber. Even in the theater capital of the world there’s a profoundly influential trend that seems to have limitless capacity for overwhelming all other creative intentions. Here's what I mean. As countless people now spend endless hours making and sharing things of all kinds on the Internet, the overarching goal seems to be capturing eyeballs rather than saying something interesting. Pay attention here: these are not the same thing. Many makers—of films, of music, of hand-crafted puppets, of knit scarves—are fundamentally interested in converting visitors into paying customers uber alles. Quality is nice (whatever that means), of course— even desirable—but if someone is willing to pony up for a quick buy, current trends are for grabbing that chance fast. That could be in the form of a direct purchase of something specific, or it could be a much more disposable moment of cajoling eyeballs to watch something on screen, with the goal of goosing an attending Google AdWords account. Whatever the goal, the results are that artistic integrity can wait. The fact that we’re practically inured to this trend in cinema and television and the countless forms of video everyone now consumes only amplifies my point.
At least, that’s my estimation of the trend.
I’m not naive about this, or at least not too naive, I hope. Turning a sale has always been a guiding goal for creators. It inevitable: sales propagate a creator’s ability to keep creating, and as a result, creators are always looking to make a sale. Commerce has always played a part of the creative process. If paintings can bring in a patron’s paycheck, by all means, I’ll paint a pony for your princess. But it wasn’t too long ago when creative work sometimes…sometimes…had less to do with the personality of the creator and more to do with a living, breathing creative work. The difference is that in other less transient, less gig-driven, less endlessly goal oriented times, creators sometimes entered into creative enterprises with artistic goals pushing their sails before commercial goals came to mind.
That’s Brecht. And that’s why the departure of an actor who wanted more of a character’s identity to appear in a play that’s arguably more interested in political exegesis immediately thrusts this vital meta-story to the fore.
Now look. I’m neither a Bertold Brecht expert nor a dyed in the wool fan, but he was a thinker and thinkers always get my attention. He’s a vital, compelling force with enormous influences on vast swaths of artistic and cultural thought, and that captures my imagination, too. His ideas about theater being a representation of reality rather than a literal depiction of reality excites me for all sorts of reasons. Do I buy his philosophy wholesale? Not for a second. How about some of it, some of the time? Yes, definitely, even as I simultaneously have no desire to reject traditional storytelling modes. I think there’s profound and, dare I say, even hugely pleasurable potentials for strong character identification, narrative plotting, and linear storytelling. But Brecht nonetheless demands attention, both for his thinking as well as his essential works of poetry, theater, and more.
Yet these days, despite the profoundly frayed, frenzied political landscape no matter what side you call your own, political passions ain't cuttin’ it for many creatives. From ambitious highschool YouTubers to Hollywood alpha dogs, directors today are all about cause and effect presentations, usually propelled through spectacle. If the image or sound or overall look and feel isn’t something novel enough to induce a dopamine toke in our brains, the trend is to ditch it. Where the nuance of story used to reign supreme, suffused with ideas and characters and mood and mise en scène, the trend has turned toward capturing audiences in the first three seconds. The style of the day is for creative work designed to lead to a payoff, both in terms of some inventive, unexpected device that keeps butts in seats, as well as some sort of tangible ka-ching that helps creators make bank. From start to finish, regardless if the work is structurally slow or fast, the pace needs to feel high. Gustav Mahler would never get a second hearing if he were alive today.
The great courage of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” is in its attempt to provoke something beyond the individual experiences of those watching in the audience. The play as intended by the playwright shows us the inevitable depredations of war amplified by the fact that war is a culturally sanctioned means of dehumanization. Its goal is not to make us identify with the characters, but to help us identify with a culture that needs our conscious involvement to repair it and make it whole. It asks us not to simply hope for an end to war. It asks us to aspire to a better world by showing us the dregs. It asks us to take responsibility for building a culture that knows the difference, and challenges us to leave the theater impassioned enough to follow through. Or, as Brecht himself is reported to have said,
Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.
Certainly there are plenty of internet auteurs who know the difference between creating things just because they’re cool and creating things because they have something to say. But I fear those efforts are the statistical anomaly. While this particular off-Broadway performance tries to find its new footing, I find myself thinking of Bertolt Brecht in a larger context. Perhaps one of Brecht’s other creative inventions should be driving the salon conversations of my impassioned soul. When creators demand to make themselves the center of their own work, they conjure a version of Brecht’s infamous theatrical town of Mahagonny, where money means more than even love itself.