CULTURE & THE ARTS
Fighting] The Good Fight
Against a Brecht-Free New York
AUFBAU 64:1 Jan. 2, 1998 p13
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Dec. 22, 1997 905 words
The Irondale Ensemble Project, now entering its 15th year as "the only permanent experimental and educational theatre in the United States," has presented dozens of plays in New York and around the world, among them six by Bertolt Brecht, including the most recent month-long run at Theatre For the New City of the German playwright's 1932 adaptation of Maxim Gorki's 1906 novel, Mother.
Twelve years ago the iconoclastic "Rough Theater" company ran into trouble with the Brecht Estate, which forbade them to perform his Galileo in New York, in order to try to make the property more attractive to more commercial producers. The company went ahead and produced it anyway, calling it "Not Galileo," and, in a twist worthy of the master himself, proclaimed them-selves fighters against a "Brecht-Free Environment" and told the audience that although forbidden to perform the play, "if we could've performed Galileo, it would have looked a lot like this..."
Mother, or The Mother (the definite article having been acquired in the German translation from the Russian), was apparently the first time the company used a score by Hanns Eisler--though Eisler also wrote excellent music for Galileo. And this time it was the Eisler Estate that came after them, the composer's widow Stephanie demanding 30% of gross receipts. One hopes the company and the heirs will settle their differences (and accounts) amicably in time for at least a partial revival of the work in honor of the Brecht and Eisler centenaries in 1998 (in February and July, respectively). Meanwhile, though, the company simply put the "scene" into the show--one of the students of Marx (dutifully studying Karl Marx's Das Kapital and the Marx Brothers' Why A Duck?), played by Executive Director Terry Greiss, comically murmurs about getting his 30%, while Michael-David Gordon takes off on a late F.B.I. Director in drag, billed as "J. Edgar Hoover Explains It All To You," with no apologies to Chris Durang, or anyone else.
The translation into English is credited to Lee Baxandall, whose 1959 effort was originally written for and very successfully performed by The San Francisco Mime Troupe. But the 8-member Irondale cast, directed by the ever-resourceful and imaginative Jim Niesen, plays fast and furiously with the text, encouraging audience participation and ad libs, constantly stopping to ask each other, "Is that in the translation?"
About half of the 13 Eisler songs can be recognized--especially effective is the "Lob des Lernens" (In Praise of Study), the translation of which Brecht debated in 1947 with the House Un-American Activities Committee. "Du musst die Fuehrung uebernehmen" does not mean the threatening "You must be ready to take over," but neither does it mean (as Brecht pretended) the innocuous "You must take the lead." Eric Bentley's "You must take over the leadership" is literally correct, though clumsy. Baxandall has it right: "You must [be ready to] take power" - the words in brackets added for the rhythm.
In an excellent program essay, Carnegie Mellon University Professor Brian Johnstone characterizes Brecht's theatre as stripping away levels of psychology so that "Identities and the relationships between them are suddenly revealed in their naked essentiality as social and economic elements and forces." The image is especially appropriate as it applies to Baxandall, who, subsequent to his years as a Brecht translator, has become America's primo naturist and espouser of "naked essentiality" in everything!
The song "In Praise of Communism," which was an enigmatic specialty of Brecht's widow, Helene Weigel, is missing. But the program appropriately notes that Communism may be defined as "a political philosophy that embraces the ideals of Robin Hood and the teachings of Jesus as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount." A Communist, however, is someone "who has nothing and wants to share it with you." Whatever "Irondale" means, it obviously stands at least in part for irony.
The musical score in Irondale's production is filled out by the addition of songs like De colores in Spanish, the Internationale in French (used twice for underscoring), the subversive round "Joy Upon This Earth" by Charles Seeger (Pete's father), Woody Guthrie's "Union Maid," and the latter's son Arlo's "Santa Claus Has A Red Suit - He's A Communist!" One is tempted to smile: "Only in America!" But actually much of the improvisation, both musical and staging, is squarely in the agitprop and in the Russian tradition: the powerful ending of Act I, where the title character (movingly played by a radiant Sarah Dacey Charles) picks up the red flag dropped by a comrade who has been shot, is pure Gorki, and is genuinely stirring--largely because of the (mostly improvised) melodramatic musical underpinning that preceded it, as in the great Soviet silent film by Pudovkin based on the same novel. Musical Director Walter Thompson, Ethan Iverson, and Rolf Sturm performed singly or together (depending on the performance) on piano, ercussion, and occasional saxophone, comprising the "Walter Thompson Orchestra," and deserve credit for making the most from minimal resources.
According to Niesen, the company "always returns" to Brecht whenever "it's time to take stock and go back to roots.... Brecht tells us exactly where we are and what we have before we go off again in a new direction." Whatever their next project is--perhaps the New York City premiere with the full Eisler score of Brecht's 1934 Roundheads and Pointedheads ?--it is to be looked forward to.
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