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.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"O Moon of Alabama"

Near the end of Scene 8, Galy Gay sings the refrain "O Moon of Alabama," which comes from “Alabama Song” by Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, made famous in the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930).

The opera is set in Wild West America, and characters include Alaskan Lumberjacks and an enterprising fugitive from justice named Leocadia Begbick. A whore named Jenny Smith sings “Alabama Song” as she leaves home to pursue "whiskey, dollars and pretty boys." You can hear Teresa Stratas sing the operatic version in this clip from a 1978 Metropolitan Opera production.

Brecht wrote the lyrics in English, and the song has been covered by American and British artists, including Nina Simone, The Doors, and David Bowie.

This article from Opera News contains an excellent analysis of the song, the opera, and the subversive impact of the Brecht-Weill musical style.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Brecht Quote: "A Jolly Business"

From the speech Brecht made on the radio to introduce a 1927 broadcast of Man Equals Man:
I imagine also that you are used to treating a man as a weakling if he can't say no, but this Galy Gay is by no means a weakling; on the contrary he is the strongest of all. That is to say he becomes the strongest once he has ceased to be a private person; he only becomes strong in the mass. And if the play finishes up with him conquering an entire fortress this is only because in doing so he is apparently carrying out the unqualified wish of a great mass of people who want to get through the narrow pass that the fortress guards.

No doubt you will go on to say that it's a pity that man should be tricked like this and simply forced to surrender his precious ego, all he possesses (as it were); but it isn't. It's a jolly business. For this Galy Gay comes to no harm; he wins. And a man who adopts such an attitude is bound to win. But possibly you will come to quite a different conclusion. To which I am the last person to object.

["A Radio Speech" in Brecht on Theatre, translated by John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 18-20.]
Note how Brecht sets up his audience to engage critically with the play. First, he tells them what is going to happen in the play before they hear it. For Brecht, the key question is not "What is going to happen?" but rather "Why does it happen?" and "Is it right that it should happen?"

Brecht informs the audience that the play presents "a jolly business"--in other words, a comedy with a happy outcome. But I hear great irony in this statement, since he then encourages the audience to "come to quite a different conclusion." I believe Brecht gives us a comedy--and a truly funny and enjoyable one, at that--but he also wants the audience to see the horror in Galy Gay's transformation and his submission to the "great mass of people."

The audience cannot be sure whether to interpret the play as a comedy or a tragedy, so they must engage critically with the performance to come to their own conclusions. In this radio speech, Brecht uses his characteristic irony to foster the ambiguity and uncertainty that will inspire deeper engagement and thought around the themes of the play.