Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

A Cubist Mother Courage
[original title: Cubist Curiosity:
Courage at the Cocteau
A Cubist [Mother ] Courage
at [the] Jean Cocteau Rep[ertory]]
AUFBAU 63:7 Mar. 28, 1997 p14

514 words
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Mar. 24, 1997

If you'd like to see a cubist curiosity of a production of one of the century's greatest plays, run [don't walk] to the Jean Cocteau Repertory production of Mother Courage, (Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery) [playing in repertory on an engagement extended now thru May 18].

This is the first performance anywhere of the music written by French composer Darius Milhaud in 1959 to an English version by Eric Bentley of Bertolt Brecht's German classic. "Version" is the correct term, rather than "translation," for Bentley changed the order of the scenes and added a moving anti-war song text of his own (which, he said in a telephone interview, "Brecht just never got around to writing") for the Chaplain, deleting Brecht's religious parable later in the play for the same character. The new (uncredited) song is by far the best in the show, the only one that works better than the Paul Dessau music on which Brecht himself collaborated and which, in Bentley's words, Brecht's "heirs wanted to force on everybody." They still do, in Germany, though Eilif's song, sung by Christopher Black and choreographed by Karen Lordi in this production, was also set by Kurt Weill and particularly beautifully by Hanns Eisler, whose version has sometimes been interpolated [(in Bochum and Bremerhaven, e.g.). There is no definitive English translation, however: H.R. Hays' was first, published in the 1940s by New Directions; Marc Blitzstein's of 1957 has yet to be produced; Bentley's re-working to go with the Dessau score is published by Grove Press; there is also one by Georg Tabori, which was favored by Lotte Lenya].

The music for the first production, in Zrich (1941), by Paul Burkhardt (of "O mein Papa" fame) has also been forgotten, but might be worth hearing as a curiosity, as Milhaud's definitely is. In Milhaud's case, one hears the free-flowing thirds creating ambiguously bitonal ninth chords characteristic of so much of his music. It is a French touch that is accentuated
by Robert Klingelhoefer's inventive cubist set: the turntable takes up the whole stage (the action often spilling into the auditorium) and on it may be seen three wheels of varying sizes and perspectives turning as the wagon (along with the world) turns.

Elise Stone is a little young for the title role that was created and owned by Brecht's wife Helene Weigel, though many great actresses from Gisela May to Anne Bancroft to Lotte Lenya (in Recklingshausen and in California) have essayed it since. But she does carry it off, with energy and temperament. Will Leckie is quite good as the bitter, war-hungry Chaplain. Harris Berlinsky is an understated, fearful Cook. But the best supporting parts are those of the whore/madame Yvette (Amy Fitts) and Courage's heroically martyred daughter Kattrin, movingly portrayed by Molly Pietz. Ellen Mandel has arranged and conducts the score (originally for 14 instruments) for flute, trumpet, drums, and piano/accordion. [Credit the Florence Gould Foundation for helping to bring this French Courage to life. Now there should be a recording, with the full instrumental complement.]

© 1998 Back to List of Articles | last updated on: 8/1/02