When theater historians reflect on the 20th century and come to playwright, director and dramaturgical theorist Bertolt Brecht, they will have much to cover. They will explain his “epic theater” style, which told Aristotle and his famous Poetics to take a hike up a high Greek mountain. They will revisit his Marxist politics and diaspora through Europe and even Hollywood during World War II. And, as with all major historical figures, they will enumerate and rank his triumphs and visions, his rights and wrongs. And finally they will double-check that list of wrongs and spot something shocking and unexpected in the number-one spot: he died too soon.
Why is that? Because no one could have predicted, when Brecht died of a heart attack in 1956, the degree to which the rationale for his Marxist philosophy would be underscored and justified by the morally reprehensible global economic picture of the 21st century. Nearly 60 years after Brecht’s death, income disparity in the U.S., for example, is at its highest level since the first 12 humans roamed the Earth and realized that 11 of them were poor. One can only wonder what Brecht would have made of the maniacal greed of the U.S. monied class, of how our once egalitarian-leaning democracy has become a thoroughly corrupt plutocracy run by Wall Street bandits, petroleum barons and Koch thieves.
But we can wonder what Brecht would have wondered as the enduring Irondale Ensemble (85 Oxford St., Brooklyn) offers a revival of his Saint Joan of the Stockyards. Written during the waning years of pre-Hitler Germany, it has been given a new staging by the acclaimed German director Peter Kleinert, based on a version he directed earlier at the Schaubuhne, the famous state theater in Berlin. Stockyards tells of a romance between a meatpacking tycoon and a Salvation Army worker, and is set amidst the “unemployed immigrants, high-rolling millionaires and do-gooding Black Straw Hats” of 1920s Chicago. Kleinert takes full advantage of Irondale’s space to embody the “epic theater” style, signs and all, that Brecht pioneered. The production also represents a revisit for Irondale, which first presented the play in 1993. Seven actors and a beat-box musician play more than 40 roles.
This is Brecht’s vision of capitalism run amok in all the various incarnations of America’s gilded ages — the times of McKinley, of Coolidge, and, most importantly, of now. Stockyards at its dramatic heart is the simple story of a Salvation Army worker and a scoundrel. It was the successor to the Brecht-Weill musical Happy End and a precursor to the less political but marvelously entertaining Guys and Dolls. Inequity, corruption and hypocrisy lie at the heart of all three works and still resonate with the America of 2015.
We spoke with Niesen about the production, and in the middle of the interview, the table shook and the air ran cold. Something profound was taking place, and at first we were not quite sure what it was. But then we knew it can only mean one thing, and it did.
For tickets to Saint Joan of the Stockyards, click here.
And now, 5 questions Jim Niesen has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Why don’t most of the productions of your plays make them funny?”
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“You keep talking about alienation? Why didn’t you write a play about real alienated people like teenage dropouts?”
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Why are they singing in German?”
The table shaking and chilly air meant that the ghost of Bertolt Brecht had materialized in the room — back from the dead. Naturally the ghost of Brecht took over the interview, asking these questions of Niesen.
Guten tag. Jim, did you read my 1930 notes on The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and the difference between dramatic and epic theater? Instead of “feeling,” I wanted “reason”; in lieu of giving audiences “sensations,” I wanted them “to take decisions”; I said forget “suggestions,” I want “argument.” These American audiences — they lack “reason,” they don’t “take decisions,” they don’t understand “argument.” How does your work prove my point that modern theater is epic theater?
Herr Brecht, you were facing the same audience challenges in the theater of your times as we face in ours — plays that rely on overly dramatic and simplistic resolutions of conflict and appeal to boulevard audiences coming to the theater for cheaply performed, easy entertainment rather than to be challenged.
Your last 10 productions: how would I have staged them? What would you have wanted me to know about them before I walked into rehearsal? What about your work would make me yell “Scheisse!“?
I would hope very much the way we did them, since we have so been guided by your artistic mentorship from beyond the grave. Our productions emphasized image over naturalistic realism, used a vocabulary appropriate to the stage rather than to film, and employed radical shifts in tone and atmosphere throughout to keep the audience guessing and on edge. We learned from you, Herr Brecht, the value of the clown.
There is no God. From my perch in death, however, your Occupy and even that töricht Tea Party are fascinating cases of the proletariat rising against its oppressors. Create two works illustrating epic theater — one on Occupy, one on Tea Party. What’s step one in the process? Why?
To reread Thomas Piketty for his assessment of economics and its relationship to politics. The Tea Party play interests me more, because it has more complex villains, and is more difficult to gain an audience’s attention.