Friday, April 15, 2011

"A British Soldier Takes a Last Swig of Beer"


YANK: The Army Weekly was the most widely read publication for American soldiers during World War II. The army published different versions for different regions, wherever Americans were stationed, and the photo above is from the China-Burma-India edition. The article describes the US/UK aerial invasion from India into Burma, which was under the control of the Japanese.

Although this publication reflects the experiences of American soldiers in WWII, some of the stories, photos, and other items from YANK might prove relevant to our play's British soldiers during the time of the British Raj. Regardless, it's worth noting the significance of beer in both cases.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A British Soldier's Diary

A website hosted by Northumbria University (UK) includes entries about Richard (Dick) Fawcett, who served in the Durham Light Infantry in India in the 1920s and 1930s. This entry, which includes information from Fawcett's diary, is written by his son.

On the left the camp barber gets to work. On the right Corporal Dick Fawcett.

The 1932 diary is completely filled in pencil and the handwriting is noticeably more mature and settled in style. By this time Dick had been in India for about four years (and in the army maybe eight years) and the routine was easy, filled with guard and sentry duties. He was a corporal and had a cushy number in the office of the Battalion Commander as was usual then for members of the boxing team. (It was the same when I was in the RAF in the early fifties.)

About the only break in routine in the diary was an entry in January about two young girls who had been brought into the local childrens home who were quite wild - having been brought up by wolves! Another break from the tedium was duty on the racecourse. (Although I know there was a lot of unrest in the civilian population at that time there was no mention of it anywhere in the diary so presumably he was not involved).

Dick also killed a fair number of snakes and mentioned them in such a casual way that it was obviously routine and nothing "to write home about" - although once, as an experiment, he put a small snake into a corked bottle to see how long it would survive in an airless situation. He was amazed that it was still moving over a week later but must have got bored with it all as he never mentioned the outcome!

All the men slept in tents but it was so hot that many were in the habit of sleeping outside “under the stars” where they carried their beds and put up the necessary "mossy" nets before retiring. There were many entries mentioning the beauty of the full moon. On the whole, Dick was very contented with his lot and although some of his comrades were homesick at times, the army was his home so he was okay but later in the diary, knowing that their term in India was almost over, he was also caught up with “boat fever” expressed at the end of some pages as “JILLO that boat” - meaning "Roll on"!

Each day for Dick started with tea (or char as they put it), bath, parade, breakfast, then – if he was in training, which seemed to be most of the time –PT in the gym followed by a seven mile run (road work), bath, attending to things in the office (which never seemed to take long and wasn't every day) or writing letters, dinner, bed (this was every day and must have been a siesta), tea, Pictures (cinema, mostly silent films!) or the skating rink (I don’t know whether it was ice or roller) – both places had a half-time break for tea and cakes! He went to the pictures every day for a few weeks then stop for a couple of weeks and read every day instead.

When in full training just before a fight he would do more road work before going to the pictures and at other times would fit in visits to the swimming baths. Then his day would end with more char and chats or playing the mandolin and singing with his friends before going to sleep under the stars. (Years later when in “civvy street” he would often sleep out on the lawn in the summer!) As his routine contained very little "work" it’s no wonder he loved the army!

At one time he even started cross-country running which was probably no different to his roadwork and was training over hurdles.

While he loved the army, some things about it annoyed him and started him thinking of home. For instance, one day they were instructed to take down their four-man tents and re-erect them "six inches to the East"!

Another day, the CO came round on his horse, dismounted, got a bucket of water and threw it over their tent shouting that it was a fire drill. Dick was not amused by the fact that most of the water went over his bedding and his clothes.

Then there was the time they were ordered to scrape all their leather equipment, sandpaper it, and make all the straps and belts brown instead of the normal black.

Another entry mentions the added expenses like his topi (tropical helmet) which had picked up a stain. He had to pay to get it recovered for the next day's parade.

Also some things were noted which made you realise he was thinking of home when, for instance, he wrote on Saturday April 23rd 1932 "Newcastle 2 - Arsenal 1". Even in India the Geordies supported their team.

However his routine received a hiccup when he got into trouble for the first time:
"May 17 Argued with a sergeant in the dining hall who was throwing his weight about and I was going to bash him but was rushed into the hoosegow. I was put in the big cell and nearly pegged out with the heat and was soaked in sweat when they transferred me to a smaller cell with a fan.
May 18 In front of CO. Stripped of a stripe.
May 25 Transferred to B Company."

From then on he was disenchanted somewhat with his lot and was looking forward to his tour of duty being over and returning to "Blighty".

The disenchantment subsided as he made new friends. However he drove himself hard when training resulting in winning all of his fights and becoming more popular than ever particularly with his Commanding Officer who asked him to arrange boxing contests and camp concerts.

He found in B Company that he had a new audience appreciative of his singing and mandolin skills resulting in being in demand to teach the instrument. B Company were living in bungalows with verandas and it was only a short walk through the park to the riverside where they went swimming and Dick regularly showed off his high diving abilities after which they had regular sing-songs to the delight of the local civilians then more private sessions back on the veranda.

Later, as rumours abounded of Boat Dates for the return to Blighty, Dick began to dream of home and wondering what the future held. In late October, the first batch left for home via Bombay and in early November a new squad of "draughtees" arrived to be taught the ropes.

Finally, towards the end of November, Dick was told he would be on the next boat due to leave on the 3rd of January and so began a countdown entered at the top of each page. The last day of the year was spent going round wishing everyone a "Happy New Year" and "Goodbye". An emotional day and the last in the diary. We can only assume that he left on or about the 3rd of January 1933 after around five years in India.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Mahatma and the Clown

Add ImageRecently I watched Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning film Gandhi, an epic film that (along with a phenomenal performance by Ben Kingsley in the title role) presents a great look at how the British Raj functioned in India, and how Gandhi's practice of nonviolent resistance helped to win Indian independence. The depiction of the 1919 Armitsar Massacre, when a British general ordered a brutal attack on unarmed civilians, is particularly relevant to our play. (You can watch the devastating clip on YouTube.)

The film also tipped me off to an interesting historical footnote:

In 1931, when Mahatma Gandhi traveled to London for a Round Table Conference on Indian Independence, he also met with cultural luminaries like George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin. Professor Madhu Dandawate spoke about the encounter between the political and spiritual leader of India and the world's most famous clown:
Gandhi went to see Charlie Chaplin in a small house in a slum district of London. After their meeting was over, Gandhi asked Charlie Chaplin: "Would you like to see the demonstration of our prayers?" He said: "There is no room for you." Gandhi said: "You sit on the sofa, we will sit down on the floor", and he offered the prayers, Charlie Chaplin wrote. "Gandhi and his men did not feel embarrassed to sit on the floor in front of me but I literally felt embarrassed to sit on the sofa and look down upon Gandhi and his colleagues."
Chaplin's son also wrote about the encounter in his biography of his father:
He [Charlie Chaplin] always felt that the degradation of the very poor is the cruelest of all suffering. I remember how horrified he was by the wretched poverty he saw in India... and how admiringly he spoke of Mahatma Gandhi, who joined with the outcasts when he could have lived a very comfortable life. Gandhi, he said, was not only one of the most brilliant men he'd ever met, but one of the most godlike as well...
Supposedly Gandhi had never seen any of Chaplin's films, but he agreed to meet with the film star when he learned of his humble upbringing in an impoverished section of London.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Man = Machine

One of the ideas raised in Brecht's play is the effect of technology on our sense of humanity. Are new technologies exciting and empowering, or are they threatening and dehumanizing? Perhaps this anxiety was a response to the mechanized slaughter of WWI (1914-1918) and the proliferation of more automated systems of labor -- for example, Henry Ford introduced conveyor belt systems in his main plant in 1913.

This ambivalence was evident in other works from the 1920s and continues to exist into our own era, in which we see the theme of man vs. machine, or man becoming machine.

The Adding Machine: Mr. Zero is driven to madness and murder when, after 25 years at his job, he is fired and replaced by a machine. Elmer Rice's 1923 play is a seminal work of American expressionism, and in 2007 it was successfully re-imagined as a musical.

R.U.R.: Human-Machines who are designed to serve people turn rebellious and threaten to destroy the human race. Karel Capek's 1921 science-fiction play is credited with introducing the word "robot."

Metropolis: Fritz Lang's famous 1927 film depicts a workers' nightmare in which a giant machine called Moloch literally devours people.

Modern Times: In this 1936 film, Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp offers a more comic version of the struggle between man and machine.

And the combination of fascination and fear continues to this day...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Performer + Role: Joel Grey in Cabaret

Here's a link to a video of Joel Grey in Cabaret performing "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes"--a great combination of the charming, the ridiculous, and (in the final punch line) the disturbing. The film, based on a Broadway musical, is set in Weimar Germany--the same era in which Brecht wrote Man Equals Man--and it borrows the performance styles of the era.

Like a Brechtian clown, Grey's EmCee does not have a realistic "character" with clear psychological motives; he is a performer who functions wholly within the world of the cabaret, and here he is "playing" a man who is in love with a gorilla. The line between performer (EmCee) and role (man in love with gorilla) is not entirely clear, and neither is the performer's attitude towards that role.

The potentially Brechtian result is that the audience cannot be sure whether this performance is anti-Semitic or a critique of anti-Semitic attitudes. They must wrestle with irony and ideological uncertainty, perhaps thinking about the issue in a new way.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Kipling: "The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney"

Karl Eigsti called to my attention the short story "The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney" by Rudyard Kipling. First published in 1889, this story of an Irish soldier and his "transformation" into an Asian god (involving a palanquin and the need to find money for beer) surely influenced Brecht's writing of Man Equals Man.

The website of the Kipling Society features some commentary on the story, along with links to the full text and to some helpful notes.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Brecht Quote: Criteria for Judging Acting

Peter Lorre played Galy Gay in the 1931 Berlin production of Mann ist Mann. The critical response to Lorre's new style of acting was mixed, so Brecht defended the actor's choices in a letter to the Berliner Borsen-Courier, 8 March 1931. It contains some specific insights into Lorre's performance, as well as general methods of acting in Brecht's epic theater. Brecht contrasts "dramatic acting," which presumes a consistent character through a linear plot, with Lorre's desire to show a character constantly changing through a variety of different episodes.
A certain capacity for coherent and unhurried development of a leading part, such as distinguished the old kind of actor, now no longer matters so much. Against that, the epic actor may possibly need an even greater range than the old stars did, for he has to be able to show his character's coherence despite, or rather by means of, interruptions and jumps. [...]

The fact that at one point Lorre whitens his face (instead of allowing his acting to become more and more influenced by fear of death "from within himself") may at first sight seem to stamp him as an episodic actor, but it is really something quite different. To begin with, he is helping the playwright to make a point, though there is more to it than that of course. The character's development has been very carefully divided into four phases, for which four masks are employed--the packer's face, up to the trial; the "natural" face, up the his awakening after being shot; the "blank page," up to his reassembly after the funeral speech; final the soldier's face. [...]

As against the dramatic actor, who has his character established form the first and simply exposes it to the inclemencies of the world and the tragedy, the epic actor lets his character grow before the spectator's eyes out of the way in which he behaves. "This way of joining up," "this way of selling an elephant," "this way of conducting the case," do not altogether add up to a single unchangeable character but to one which changes all the time and becomes more and more clearly defined in course of "this way of changing."
Excerpted from "The Question of Criteria for Judging Acting" in Brecht on Theatre, translated by John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 53-57.