Sunday, July 08, 2007
08:42 Brecht: Collected Plays Volume 2
Brecht: Collected Play Volume 2
Lead to this book because of my interest in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, I discovered it was actually my least favorite of Brecht’s plays, preferring A Man’s a Man and The Threepenny Opera. I’m rather bad at reading plays – even Shakespeare – never getting as much from the text as I do from an even halfway decent performance.
But some understanding of Mahagonny was needed as I was going to see an experimental film that used the entire opera, sung in German, as its soundtrack. The filmmaker Harry Smith was (wikipedia puts it best) “an American archivist, ethnomusicologist, student of anthropology, record collector, experimental filmmaker, artist, bohemian and Kabbalist.” As your grandmother might say, Harry was a “real character,” the kind that used to populate Greenwich Village and gentrification has dispersed to God-knows-where. Smith’s film of Mahagonny divided the screen into four equal quadrants, showing a variety of images in each quadrant. Often the same image would be shown in two quadrants though reversed in one, creating a mirror effect. The images were home movie quality, shots of New York as it was in the 1970’s and stop motion animation using whatever Harry happened to have in his apartment, mostly cigarettes and liquor bottles. I had seen the film several years ago and this time, read Brecht’s play beforehand, thinking that a familiarity with the opera would add to my understanding of the film.
Sadly no. I realized fairly early on that there isn’t much correspondence between Brecht’s text and Smith’s film; or rather, that like much of Smith’s work, the connections and meaning are so esoteric and personal that viewers remain outside. Brecht’s play itself is said to be a satire of America, following the experiences of immigrants to a golden city who seek only to get rich, become vulgarians when they do and eventually succumb to the city’s violence and corrupt legal system. I can see why it would appeal to a bohemian like Smith; what I can’t see is what it has to do with his film. As nostalgic as I am for the New York of 30+ years ago, my second viewing was a restless experience.
Brecht’s play features the standard Brechtian devices to remind audiences that they are not seeing reality but a play, a representation of reality. Culture, not nature. But the vaudeville-type satire is rather tiresome, despite the inventive technique involved. Again, this is as text. It’s likely that a well-staged production would reverse my opinion. Better are the two earlier plays included in this volume. The Threepenny Opera features the scheming and fighting among the criminal underclass and has better characters and a narrative drive lacking in Mahagonny.
The real surprise was A Man’s a Man. A group of soldiers, fearing the wrath of their sergeant when one of their company goes missing while drunk, convince a local dockworker to impersonate the missing man. He agrees with the ruse, thinking it to be temporary, but stays and eventually becomes a better soldier than the rest of the troop. It’s a funny take on identity as being determined more by your surroundings than anything innately personal. The military farce is silly enough to be an episode of Sgt. Bilko or a lost chapter of Catch-22 and its theme on the malleability of identity haven’t dated at all.