Thursday, January 04, 2007

an exchange of letters about steve pearson's ;production of brecht's mother courage in 2006 at the uw school of drama

Let me let you have the customary unvarnished estimate of your Mother Courage from someone who spent six months, chiefly at the Ensemble in 1957, someone who had seen Mother and the Ensemble first in Paris that Spring, which convinced me to leave Munich for Berlin, and if the wench had been faithful there I would have stayed; not too much to entice one back to the US mid-fifties, after all. And from someone who spent a few weeks two years ago thinking and investigating what a truly Americanized Mother C could be, but that cowardly mediocrity Kurt Beattie then chickened out on his pathos-ridden wish to put Mother on in Seattle 60 some years after its European whelping, and where he put his money instead, well just look at the fallow seasons of ACT....

First to the good: some of the young actors at the School are admirable, and can sing too! Your wife is delightful too, though she seems to be an escapee from Three Penny Opera and does not convince me that she might last longer than one week on the road, much less a thirty years war.

Now to the execrable:
Brecht may have made a major enlightenment-engendered change in Aristotle's aesthetics and substituted a series of small catharses for that one big one [paralleling the procedure of psychoanalysis], but in the more fundamental respects of the unity of time, place and action he understood that to focus an audience's mind you could not be all over the place, that theme and variation creates the requisite knife to get through to the audience's thick skull; that is, he did not make a change in the western notion of an organic work of art, that would come subsequently.

Thus your all over the place style, -- mod suits, contemp party dresses mixed in with authentic 30 years gear nonetheless playing on the map of the thirty years war that is also projected onto the back drop - that 50s Chevy truck being the prime culprit - may in the shallowest of ways subscribe to the au courant of post modern aesthetics, but then lacks the aesthetic as well as political conviction of those premises, and so remains a purely decorative tease. That map with all those great place names of the 30 years war thus ought to be the map of the world, and if your truck derives from the 50s... Mother C. needs to change modes of transportation... you and I both know the places of conflict where say, the various Ms. Halliburton & Co., have done ever profitable biz. ... to the suggestion of the super sonic jet....

Your misconceived compromised abortion comes a complete cropper at the end [1] when Mother Courage needs a winch [lacking a revolving stage the actress lacks the vigor to pull it by herself] to wind around an invisible tree to pull the Chevy, on its visible surrogate wheels.... what... just a few feet further into the eternal roundelay of war. One of the greatest images of 20th century theater -- Helene Weigel, as her own nag, pulling the business cart forever, eternally onward, and here ... alas, the quintessence of a pathetic fallacy.

2] Mute Katrin drumming, thrumming to warn the townsfolk -- what do we have here instead of that stark and memorable image: a lot of folks running around, a stupid winch, another winch pulling her up on a metal tray, instead of her sitting at least atop the cab of the silly over-sized Chevy; all it takes is one soldier aiming his blunderbuss -- what do we have here: something off in the rafters the size of the telescope... alas, a busy-minded unfocussed director...

3] The Hare adaptation is at least good Brit, instead of Bentley's unspeakable [the wonderful Eric then lacked ears], or the fusty Mannheim, but I do not recall that so much of the dialogue was of the fuck shit corruption variety... that one might agree with Roger Downey that Brecht was a very bad playwright [well, roger seemed to object to bert screwing all the girls that crawled into his bed].

4] Brecht's kind of singing which he extracted from no matter his collaborator - that off-kilter delivery within a non-harmonic music - led to his notion of arrhythmic non-rhyming poetry, and this also influenced his dialogue, which is not naturalistic gibberish as it becomes in the mouths of your actors. The estrangement effect if you have heard of it, or if Sarah, who claims to have been your dramaturg, managed to impress it on you, is absent here...

5] Though the Acting School's actors can sing and act they still can't talk their way out of a brown paper bag...

That ought to do it for this drizzly day.


Dear Michael Roloff:I admit to being perplexed at receiving your e-mail... perhaps mystified is abetter word...particularly as to why it was sent. My first thought was that you intended a useful aesthetic response which might cause me to think moreexpansively or specifically, ie a practical critique. I quickly rejected thisnotion as I read words like 'execrable' and 'compromised abortion' and'busyminded, unfocused', not words one might use, even to one with as thick a skin as I have, if one is truly trying to teach or encourage thought or even shock to action as Brecht might have wanted. The vitriol of your writing, and general mean-spirited personal tone of it is guaranteed rather shut down dialogue, to in actuality alienate. Or perhaps you thought that we had some kind of personal relationship which might withstand such a communique? We don't. We are at best very distant acquaintances and as such might expect some kind of professional courtesy or at least restraint.But the most telling clue to the fact that this was not a genuine attempt atartistic communication was that you sent it not only to friends and colleaguesof mine but also to people I don't know. How disingenuous. If you are bloggingwhy not make it a public review and call it that? Clearly it was not intendedas a real communication to me. So what was it? The main clue is in the carefulestablishment of your Brechtian bona fides. From your writing it is obviousthat you are an expert on Brecht. I am reminded by Shunryu Suzuki's statementin ZEN MIND BEGINNER'S MIND that in the beginner's mind there are manypossibilities but in the expert's mind there are few. And the promoting of this Brechtian intellectual expertise seems to be the chief intent of the email. But for whom? Certainly not to impress me or the other people that you villify in the document. So I assume it was for that Len Berkman?...or Sabine Wilke...or more likely for your own sense of yourself? ... if so, how sad.A few specific points. The woman who played Mother Courage is Robyn Hunt, andsince you sent this email to her you might have the courtesy to refer to her by name. She is after all a full professor in this university, a highly skillful artist, a recognized master teacher and intellectually astute. In your reference to her ability to survive I must assume that you saw something in her performance which caused you to draw conclusions about the Mother Courage she created, rather than what she as a person might be capable of. The qualities of MC which she conveyed are subject to debate. If you are referring to her personal fortitude then your ignorance is complete. You know nothing about her and show great arrogance in drawing any conclusion.I have always thought actors are some of the most courageous people I know.They put their ideas up for view in the moment and are judged by the reactionto that moment. In this aspect Robyn Hunt evidenced an extraordinary courage in daring to put up to view her ideas about one of the great roles, in herhometown, and in the shadow of the much hallowed Helene Weigel.As to 'all over the place style'.....the clothes came from a fairly narrow time period in the mid twentieth century..there were in fact no contemporary party dresses, no mod suits and no thirty years war clothing. The setting was not post-modern..I have no interest in that notion, or in being au courant for that matter... it was an image which I believed would resonate with this audience. The truck has an American patina and seems also somehow to typify the 100 years war of the twentieth century, coming as it does from the center of that century. This American audience knows very little of the thirty years war but, according to many responses I had, found visual rhymes with trucks in WW I, the dustbowl, WW II, Korea, and certainly the most recent wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They also got the connection to Halliburton et al. They were not 'thick-skulled' but quite perceptive. Many people said that it was as if the play were coming off the newspaper page. So historicity did seem to work on some level.1]How interesting that you would fault us for not having a turntable, and thatyou were so locked into a fundamentalist view of how the end of the play should be done that you didn't realize that the truck was indeed extremely heavy and that Robyn Hunt did in fact push it by herself and that with the use of the block and tackle we paid homage to the image of Weigel by having her pull for a time in order to get the truck rolling, and that in spite of the actual physical difficulty, MC was going to persist. Many in the audience did get the fact that she was continuing in her feeding off the war in spite of magnified difficulty.2]The gun which killed Kattrin was a replica of a machine gun used at leastuntil the end of the WW II. The winch a practical and aesthetic decision to infact place her above everyone in the scene and the audience. Scholars anddesigners as well as general audience members found it theatrically anddramatically persuasive. The scene as written is chaotic once she starts todrum. 3]I suggest you re-read the Hare adaptation. And that you resist thetemptation to make some kind of snide personal attack on Roger Downey.4]The V-effect worked for others who approached the work with intellectualrigour at least equal to yours.I have spent too much time on this, but hope that it will at least encourageyou not to trespass on my time (or professional email address) unless you havesomething constructive to say.Steven PearsonAh. I just read what you wrote to Roger Downey. Your motives are transparent. I admit to being embarassed to read such elementary schoolyard vituperation from a grown man ...and to notice that another name has been added to the cc list... And I like Peter have thrice been faithless..... well I have a good junk mail filter on this email address.

Steve,sorry to get back to you only now. i had a to finish a big piece & then wentto the premiere of peymann's new production of Brecht's MUTTER KURASCH @ theensemble. Below a link to a review that does the production justice, and ifyou haven't the German you certainly know some folks who can give you thegist. might want to go to Berlin over the holidays and find out what the realthing is like. if you can't make a reservation, you can always contact peymann and say that you've come for a first handremedial.i am also sorry to have felt to write as i did since i was about to, at aforum, praise you as one of half of half a dozen directors whose work i haveseen here the past decade that i could recommend - i was thinking of yourPlatanov, what you did with Handke's HOUR, and on such short notice with theHeiner Mueller texts when I came to see your KURASCH.however, not all that sorry since i am still waiting for at least a dozenreplies & promises and the like from half a dozen hoaries of the past. nodoubt these remissions of yours and others, such as lacking thecourtesy to come to my handke lecture, whom you claim to love so dearly,contributed to my "not wrapped in the usual cotton candy" comments.however,since the pearson family claims to live by the vauntedauthenticity, i was then going to be authentic if nothing else.well, you asked for it.your production was not only all the things i said in my first missive, buton further reflection & now comparison it entirely lacked the EPIC - itlacked a SENSE OF THE LONG TIME & therefore it lacked the ESSENTIALEXTRAORDINARY PATHOS of the piece that reaches it culmination with the twomajor scenes at the end that you managed to muck up with busyness, all thosefolks running around. inexcusable. u.s. chicken without heads.It is good to hear what you had in mind stylistically with the variousreferences. why then play these signals on the ground visual and earthy ofGerman lands during the 30s year war? Evidently I misread your signals.evidently we exist in separate universes of logical artistic references,which always have their effect cumulatively. well, i've been misreadingAmerican signals ever since i thought i really could kiss sue dorland underthe mistletoe back in junior high, where she had positioned herself, only toscream if anyone tried. if not post modern, it was a stylistic hotch potchby accident, which is even worse.I couldn't tell what that black tube was up in the rafters though I wasstaring at it directly vis a vis. anyhow, katrin is not killed from's a small but important point. and WW I, though the Brits suckered the USto come in on their side... it was a better moment for this country than thedays of Andrew Jackson, Polk & Buchanan...when democratic business feastingof the public trough first really went big piggy..... well, to me it cameacross as a stylistically muddled cabaret version of Mutter Courage.Eminently consumable, too, judging by the reactions of the friends Ibrought,for none of whom Brecht is more than a name... and so are as undemanding asthe rest of the nice Northwesterners are in that respect. but it didn't sinkin deep.A reference to Helen Weigel in using the winch to pull the chevy truck,in-jokes where scarcely any one knows what is being referred to?? and towaste one of the great moments over that. of course i considered what to doif one hasn't a revolving stage. once you committed yourself to thatchevytruck, however... you forced yourself into work-around mode...However, I ought to have complimented you and your actress wife Robin Huntfor dramatically bringing out the pain that Mother's conflicted relationshiptween her love for her brood & survivorship and need to go on truckin'.That was finely and strongly manifested, and for that lack of mine Iapologise. if only the rest had been as starkly drawn.And it is probably true that I am locked into some originalist version ofwhat I think the piece can accomplish. but it is no more than a rock of areference point. when kurt beattie of menopause the musical van gogh inlondon fame asked me a year or so ago whether i might be interested in doingan American adaptation of the play i first checked with variousacquaintances in NY who had been involved in the usual failed u.s. Brechtventures for the past 50 years fortheir pessimistic assessments. i got as far as concluding that i wouldsituate the play in the civil war era and have Big Mama Thornton as mywaggoner in a symbiotic relationship with the various armies, and then "cutout west" with the confederate disarray that fled there... but then Kurt puthis money on fiction and no end of other crap at ACT.Sisyphus was complimented no end for his hard work, to no avail of course.Be constructive? Any concrete criticism is constructive.However, i must say that i was quite pleased to see roger rabbit flushed outinto the open to get a good dose of deserved buckshot. that came as awelcome and surprising opportunity. perhaps tony kuschner will have thegenius to develop a latent element in mother courage and model her on roger,perhaps r. will get to like brecht.i am ccing sarah since she is one of two people i know in these parts thathave a fine sense of brecht. the other is sammy mcclean, emeritus associatein german, whose first rate book on the origins of some of brechts methodsin the german country fair and its ancient traditions i was the first tocrack in the near thirty years that it has been gathering dust at oodegard.Sincerely,Michael "Ezara" Roloff

1 comment:

  1. dude--

    an e-mail you sent to a director, and his practical "cease and desist" note back to you, doesn't exactly make an "e-mail exchange."

    get a life.


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MICHAEL ROLOFF exMember Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS: "MAY THE FOGGY DEW BEDIAMONDIZE YOUR HOOSPRINGS!" {J. Joyce} "Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben] contact via my website


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