Brecht Bytes #1

I mentioned in our last official class”meeting that I would be posting some poems and material from Brecht for the next few days to correspond to rehearsal meetings that are one-on-one with individual actors as they develop their “roll call” of characters. I think these snippets or “bites” (I just had to make it a “y” spelling since this is all coming to you digitally) offer a window onto the kind of theatrical world Brecht envisioned and which we might consider creating in our production of Laramie. This is a theatrical world where “realism” means something distinct from any kind of photographic reproduction of reality (scenographically or emotionally). Instead, Brecht advocated making a “true realism …one [which] make[s] reality recognizable in theatre … [by offering the audience a way] to see through reality.” In order for an audience to experience this “true realism” the production must make it possible for spectators “to see the laws that decide how the processes of life develop. These laws can’t be spotted by the camera. Nor can they be spotted if the audience only borrows its heart from one of the characters involved” (Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, 1964, pg. 27).

I love that phrase “only borrows its heart from one of the characters involved.” I think Laramie poses particular challenges for us to make sure all “hearts” are equal, are allowed to affect the “reality” the play presents/deconstructs. I think our conversation with the amazing Maude Mitchell, last night, made those challenges all the more apparent and real.

Maude Mitchell as Nora in Mabou Mines Dollhouse.

So, byte #1 (or 2 if you consider my quote above to be our starting point) is the poem that Jeff’s been referencing in class for the past couple of weeks. It was written about Helene Weigel’s performance in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. The play premiered in 1941 in Zurich (the mid-point of WWII). The poem does not contain the phrase “workman-like props” but I think such a sentiment is reflected in the title and the theme of the piece. I’m also including an image of Weigel as Mother Courage to give you a sense of the preparation Brecht describes.

Helene Weigel as Mother Courage.

Weigel’s Props**
Just as the millet farmer picks out for his trial plot
The heaviest seeds and the poet
The exact words for his verse so
She selects the objects to accompany
Her characters across the stage. The pewter spoon
Which Courage sticks
In the lapel of her Mongolian jacket, the party card
For warm-hearted Vlassova and the fishing net
For the other, Spanish mother or the bronze bowl
For dust-gathering Antigone. Impossible to confuse
The split bag which the working woman carries
For her son’s leaflets, with the moneybag
Of the keen tradeswoman. Each item
In her stock is hand picked: straps and belts
Pewter boxes and ammunition pouches; hand picked too
The children and the stick which at the end
The old woman twists through the draw-rope
The Basque woman’s board on which she bakes her bread
And the Greek woman’s board of shame, strapped to her back
With holes for her hands to stick through, the Russian’s
Jar of lard, so small in the policeman’s hand; all
Selected for age, function and beauty
By the eyes of the knowing
The hands of the bread-baking, net weaving
Soup-cooking connoisseur
Of reality.

**Translated by the late Brecht scholar John Willett, this poem appears in his edited volume Bertolt Brecth Poems: 1913-1956 (1979). I’ve not found a specific year for the original text; Willett attributes it to poems written by Brecht between 1947-1953.

And just to incite your interest further in reading and seeing (if you’ve not already) Mother Courage, here are two clips of recent productions. The first is from a 2006 production at The Public Theater starring Meryl Streep as Mother Courage and the second from a 2010 production at Britain’s National Theater starring Fiona Shaw and directed by the amazing Deborah Warner. Interesting to note, both productions used the Tony Kushner translation of the Brecht text. Different musical styles for the songs/soundtrack, but the same translator.

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