Posts Tagged ‘Tony Kushner’

Stanford remembers director extraordinaire Carl Weber: “the rigor of thought, the rigor of deep, sustained attention, and the rigor of history”

Monday, January 23rd, 2017
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Harry Elam, Marina Lewis, and Florentina Mocanu. (Photo: David Schendel)

 

Last week, Stanford friends, colleagues, students, and former students gathered at the Roble Studio for the memorial of the eminent German director Carl Weber, a former protégé of Bertolt Brecht and emeritus professor of drama, who died on Dec. 25 at 91 (we wrote obituaries here and here). The occasion followed the Carl Weber lecture, an annual event that began about five years ago. Plenty of pinot noir (Carl’s favorite varietal) was tipped to commemorate the passing of one of Stanford’s internationally renowned giants – thanks to Branislav Jakovljevic, chair of Stanford’s Department of Theater and Performance Studies, who organized the event.

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Branislav Jakovljevic with pinot noir. (Photo: David Schendel)

“Professor Carl Weber was a humanist whose exquisite knowledge of life, theatre and history was inspiring and daunting at the same time,” said the Romanian director and actress Florentina Mocanu-Schendel, a close friend and former student. “He lived, learned, told and retold stories with the enthusiasm of a beginner, generous, kind, and discreet – never betraying his immense experience – he encouraged us to live, practice, write with courage and humor, and always challenged us to express our vision. His question reverberates: What do you see? We know that Carl saw the world with his entire being.”

At the request of Carl’s daughter Sabine Gewinner-Feucht, she read a 1938 Brecht poem, “Legend of the Origin of the Book of Tao Te Ching on Lao Tsu’s Road into Exile.”

A statement from Stephan Dörschel, head of Berlin’s Archive of Performing Arts, also lauded the late director. Here it is:

“In April 2012, I met this man, small in stature but with an enormous  past – director, professor, dramaturge Carl Weber.  We spent four days at Stanford University researching his artistic-scholarly and biographical archive, preparing all the documents for the transport to the Archive of Performing Arts – Academy of Arts, Berlin. These were four intense, activity packed days, in which I found out about his theatre beginnings in the POW camp with Klaus Naschinsky, later famously known as Klaus Kinski. I learned about Carl’s work with Bertolt Brecht and his rehearsal methods, about his response to the Berlin Wall and GDR in 1961, and his exile to the USA, where he became the ambassador of German theater in New York. With his professorship at New York University and Stanford University, Carl was able to share his knowledge but also discover and promote young talents: he was incredibly proud of [his former student] Tony Kushner. Professor Carl Maria Weber was remarkable and his work will be immeasurably influential  in the future. I bow with great admiration and affection before him!”

(The Carl M. Weber-Archive can be accessed at the Academy of Arts, Berlin, here.)

Others shared their memories of this extraordinary man. Here are a few of them:

Harry Elam recently appointed vice president for the arts and senior vice provost for education, is a scholar of theater and performance studies. He recalled the moment Carl spat and playfully shouted, “Toi! Toi! Toi” – “which I first didn’t understand at all what we was doing and seeing my confusion, he explained that it was the German version of ‘break a leg.’” An excerpt of his remarks:

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Harry Elam and Aleta Hayes, dance lecturer (Photo: David Schendel)

Carl Weber epitomized the conjunction of theory and practice that has come to serve as the central conception of the Theatre and Performance Studies at Stanford. Carl not only understood but exemplified how the study and analysis of theatre and performance informs and is informed by the practice of theatre. Carl embodied what it meant to be a scholar/artist. An esteemed scholar and translator, one of the foremost interpreters of Bertolt Brecht, credited with bringing the work of the Great East German playwright Heiner Muller to English speaking audiences, Carl exercised and promoted the critical import of intellectual engagement with the dramatic text. …

Yet the Carl Weber who came to be towering presence in this department, whose powerful shadow and profound accomplishments still fill our hallways, was never self-promoting but always self-confident. He was at times strong willed and yet was also always open to the differing perspectives. He gave generously of his time and his artistry but also remained guarded in his criticism, finding the right time and productive ways to express concerns. Carl was indeed a special soul that has made an indelible impression on this department, on this institution, and on our theatrical world. … there was no playwright he didn’t know or play he hadn’t read, directed, or seen. So, when I talked within him about contemporary playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, he knew the work, and brought deep insight and analysis to our discussion. …

Carl kept teaching well until his eighties, because he loved it, because it kept him young and Carl always had a young and inquisitive soul. And he influenced so many, from the undergrads who took his sophomore seminars on Brecht, to many of those in this room who where his grad students, to the famous story of Tony Kushner and how he thanked Carl for his impact on his career and the list goes on. Last November, Stanford parent, film star and Bay Area native son, Tom Hanks came to Stanford and performed in a benefit along with wife Rita Wilson for Stanford. Afterward, he talked about what influenced him to go into acting … and he mentioned as a student coming across the bay on a class trip to see a production of Brecht over at Stanford. He vividly described the production and confided that was so moved by the production, so impacted by the theatrical experience that he determined then and there that this is what he wanted to do, to act. Of course, the play he saw was staged by Carl Weber. Indeed, there was no one like Carl Weber. Rest in peace, Carl.

Michael Hunter (co-founding artistic director of San Francisco’s new theater company Collected Works) is a director, performance curator, and adjunct professor at Stanford University, where he received his PhD in Drama and Directing. Excerpts from his remarks: 

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Carl in his Stanford office, 2004 (Photo: Daniel Sack)

His commitment to passing on knowledge was so deep, and he was so tireless in his energy and willingness to support and critique our work – and the two things go hand in hand: one of the main reasons his critiques were so helpful was because he was also so present and steadfast in his support of his students.

I think one of the biggest things Carl taught me has to do with the seriousness of theatre, as a tool that can shape the world. One of the reasons I came to Stanford was to work with Carl: as an undergraduate, I was very seduced by Brecht, and by the idea of theatre as a political tool, and also by the notion of the director-scholar. I remember reading Carl’s conversation with Tony Kushner about Brecht while I was flying from Edinburgh to Texas, and feeling strongly that I wanted to work with, and learn from, this man.

I also remember starting to take directing classes with Carl shortly after I arrived, and like many of us, being kind of frustrated because we spent all of our time talking about what we saw, in such intense detail. I found it a little pedantic – I was in a PhD program at Stanford! Where was the meat? And like many of Carl’s students, I look back on that training as one of the most important things that happened in my development. Carl taught me to look in a way I had never done before, in a completely patient, tireless way. That man could sit and look at something for hours and hours and his attention would not flag – and he would probably tell you later that it was too long, but that would never stop him from watching it with his full attention.

I guess another word for this would be rigor – the rigor of thought, the rigor of deep, sustained attention, and the rigor of history. Of course the undergrad in me agreed that theatre could be a tool to make change, but it wasn’t until I saw how seriously Carl treated theatre – treated dramaturgy, treated casting, treated rehearsals – that I understood that immensely hard work was required to make it a tool. It didn’t just happen; in fact, 95% of the time it doesn’t happen. But Carl taught us all not to cut corners, to work and work and work until we had reached precision, and to know our history.

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Michael Hunter (Photo: Marina Lewis)

Of course I’ve never met anyone who knew, and remembered, his history like Carl. Even the last time I visited with him, he was discussing the origins of the First World War, and he never lost that historical memory. In his dramaturgy class, when I flirted with the idea of using Brecht’s The Days of the Commune for my quarter long project, I was daunted by the double task of researching both the period of the commune itself and the post-War context in which Brecht wrote it – knowing that Carl would not let me by with short-changing either history. He was baffled that I would shirk form the challenge – for him, there was no more exciting project than one in which two historical periods would be held in tension, looked at from the third vantage of the contemporary. …

I ended up helping Carl take care of was going through his home library, and figuring out where his incredible and eclectic library – of novels and plays and history books, and the theatre journals he had collected for decades – should go. I spent weeks in that library, and I was struck initially, and most obviously, by the range of Carl’s erudition. But his collection of plays in manuscript form also brought home to me how much he had been a champion of the experimental language playwrights of the 1970s and 80s – Mac Wellman and Peter Handke especially. I remembered that this side of Carl had seemed remote to me when I first started taking classes with him – how could a man who seemed attached to concrete detail in such a literal way also have made it his work to produce these wild, anarchic assaults on logic and convention? And the lesson really came home for me that it was precisely his rigorous attention to the concrete that made it possible for him to produce this kind of work – that creating worlds that are not merely a mirror of our own requires even more effort to be precise about what people are seeing. And that in order for true experiment in the theatre to “work,” as Carl would put it, abstraction always has to be undergirded by a great commitment to the detail.

Marina Lewis was a Stanford neighbor and friend for nearly thirty years. She offered some remarks on the private side of Carl:

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Harry Elam and Marina Lewis (Photo: David Schendel)

He usually did the shopping – and time and again, at least once a week, I saw him bringing home a bouquet of flowers to Marianne, whom he adored. He was a very romantic fellow. They frequently traveled to France where they had a – so I have heard – lovely home in the countryside.

After Marianne suddenly passed away in France about ten years ago, he came back a broken man. All he could think about was Marianne and that she did not come home with him.

Then, as usually happens, time has a way of healing wounds. He had resumed contact with many of his colleagues and friends in Germany especially after the Fall of the Wall, and after one such trip I saw him coming back with a very attractive woman accompanying him. Of course I was curious and looked forward to meeting her. Her name is Inge [Heym] and she was, as I heard later, the mother of Charlie’s son Stefan. It was a passionate but brief courtship, but at the time, circumstances did not permit for them to stay together. Now, later in life, each having lived their own separate lives, they rekindled that once upon a time love affair which lasted to the day Charlie died.”

Marina Lewis, who is Austrian, has continued her friendship with Inge Heym and with Carl’s daughter Sabine, who lives in Austria. She shared this message from Inge Heym with the gathering:

Professor Carl Weber, a true friend, a good human being, has recently left us. To his many friends in Berlin, Charlie, as he was known, will remain a fond memory. Those friends shared with him the good times in the 1950s when he was an assistant of Bertolt Brecht in the Berliner Ensemble.

He had come to East Berlin from Heidelberg and was quickly drawn into the literary and artistic Boheme in the GDR. In 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, Charlie stayed on the other side and our contact grew infrequent. And soon after he left for New York.

Our contact never ceased totally, however. His friends knew and valued his work and missed his presence.

Carl Weber is dead at 91. He was Bertolt Brecht’s protégé and brought Germany’s experimental theater to America.

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016
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Florentina Mocanu came to the U.S. to study with him. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Avant-garde theater director Carl Weber began his theatrical career in a POW camp. He became Bertolt Brecht‘s protégé and brought Germany’s experimental theater to America. The Stanford drama professor, emeritus, died in Los Altos on Christmas night. He was 91.

I wrote about him several years ago (as well as on the Book Haven). He recalled his first “role” as an unwilling German soldier:

“At the first opportunity” – he recalled, and then put up both hands in the universally accepted sign of surrender – “I was a prisoner of England in Belgium.” He was sent to Colchester, Essex, as a POW.

Within weeks of his capture, he was performing Friedrich Schiller‘s The Robbers as one of a handful of performers at the Christmastime play in a mess tent, with tables for a stage. The group had a captive audience – literally.

But the event was a turning point: After Weber returned to a Germany that was “cold and miserable and in ruins” in February 1946, he finished his studies in chemistry at the University of Heidelberg and went to Berlin in September 1949 to pursue a career as an actor, director and dramaturg.

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During Heidelburg theater days, 1949. (Courtesy Florentina Mocanu)

Many of the “alumni” of Camp 186 in Colchester went on to have remarkable careers: German stage and TV actor Günther Stoll; Werner Düttmann, city architect for Berlin in the 1960s; and actor Klaus Kinski, collaborator with writer-film director Werner Herzog.

Carl began his formal career as an actor at the Heidelberg City Theater while still studying at Heidelberg University. In 1949, he was one of the founders of the Heidelberg Zimmertheater and directed the company’s opening production. In Berlin, he joined the company of Theater der Freundschaft in 1950.

His life changed course when he saw Brecht’s Mother Courage, a production that launched Brecht’s famous Berliner Ensemble:

“It is still to me the most impressive theater I have seen in my life. It was a totally different kind of theater. Simply stunning. The way of acting was different, the staging was very different.”

Weber knew right away: “I have to work with this man.”

Brecht is remembered in the United States mostly as the dramatist who brought left-wing politics to the stage. He was much more than that, however: He tore down the “fourth wall” barrier between the stage and audience. It wasn’t enough to sit in the theater and be entertained: Brecht wanted you to question society’s values and your own.

Brecht’s values exploded other conventions, too, by emphasizing the visual – “telling the story by the way the visual production unfolded,” said Weber.

“When I work with students here, my first, foremost focus is to teach how to create visual narrative – by the way you move people and objects in space; by the configuration of what you see.

“In Brecht’s staging and directing, psychology was not particularly important. Brecht quite rightly thinks the audience has no idea what the actor is thinking,” said Weber. “Actors don’t think only with their heads, but with their bodies. The sooner they move, the more they can internalize the text with what they’re doing with their bodies.”

Weber said that Brecht’s oft-repeated phrase to actors was “Don’t tell me, show me.”

He was invited, in 1952, to join the Berliner Ensemble as an actor, dramaturg, and assistant director to Brecht, with whom he worked on the productions of Katzgraben, Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Galileo.

As I wrote in 2010:

Weber’s 1952 “audition” for Brecht was a series of essays: Weber was asked to sit in on a few rehearsals and write not a critique or review – but rather what he actually saw onstage. Not surprising, given Brecht’s desire for absolute visual clarity – what was happening in a play should be evident even to a deaf person watching the scenes unfold.

Weber was headed for controversy, for Brecht was a double-edged sword in the politically charged atmosphere of the Cold War years.

When the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Mother Courage premiered at Théâtre des Nations in Paris in 1954 (it received the festival’s prize), the Communist Party in East Germany denounced it as “decadent.” Greater problems lay ahead.

In 1961, as Weber was preparing a Lübeck production of Brecht’s Trumpets and Drums, the German border was closed without warning, and construction of the Berlin Wall began. Weber never returned to his East German home.

Much of Weber’s time – especially in recent years – has been devoted to the work of one East German writer trapped behind the Wall. At present, Weber is working on a forthcoming volume of Heiner Müller’s Shakespeare adaptations, “Macbeth” and “Anatomy Titus – Fall of Rome.”

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At Berliner Ensemble with Brecht, 1955. (Courtesy Florentina Mocanu)

After Brecht’s death in 1956, Weber became one of the directors of the company. He co-wrote and directed, with Peter Palitzsch, The Day of the Great Scholar Wu. He staged a revival of Brecht’s production of Mother Courage, and he was one of the directors of Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. He also directed productions at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater and for German television.

Between 1962 and 1966, he directed at theaters in West Germany, Scandinavia, and the United States, among them the San Francisco’s Actors Workshop, Norway’s National Theatre in Oslo, and Berlin’s Schaubühne. From 1964 to 1966, he was principal resident director of Wuppertaler Bühnen, the home of Pina Bausch’s “Tanztheater.”

Weber moved to New York in 1966 when he was appointed Master-Teacher of Directing and Acting at the newly-founded NYU School of the Arts. He directed many productions in New York and theaters across America. He came to Stanford in 1984, where he headed Ph.D. Directing Studies.

His former Stanford student, Romanian actor and director Florentina Mocanu, was with him hours before his death to deliver holiday cheer and gifts (some all the way from Germany), and said he seemed well. “He was sharp and curious, wanted to know all about everyone. He made us laugh with his favorite Bette Davis quote: ‘getting old is not for sissies.'”

She looked at photos with him, and asked him as they looked at a photograph with Brecht (at right), “Carl, correct me if I am wrong – looking at this photo, I think that Bertolt Brecht trusted your sensibility and the fact that you had a way of seeing the world that he could not even imagine, a kind of respect and reverence for your talent and expertise that was beyond your young years. You came back from the war, as a surviver soldier and a POW theatre maker.” Weber replied, “Yes, that’s right.”

“For me, Professor Carl Weber is a humanist, a disciplined intellectual, a mentor who encourages originality in storytelling – on the page, the stage or on the screen,” said Florentina, who came to Stanford from Romania to study with him. “Carl wants precise answers to this seemingly simple yet challenging question: ‘What do you see?'”

One of his students, Tony Kushner, author of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning Angels in America, said, “Carl was a spectacular teacher. I feel like a great deal about what I learned about writing plays came from working with Carl as a directing student.”

“Carl is a spectacularly erudite man, vastly well-read and enormously fluent in art and in music and cinema and history,” Kushner said. “Having somebody who was a serious intellectual and thinker and politically engaged gave me permission, in a certain sense, to take theater very seriously. It mattered. It was a serious way of thinking about the world and the meaning of existence.”

At Stanford, French scholar, author, and playwright Prof. Jean-Marie Apostolidès remembered Carl as a devoted and gifted teacher, dedicated to his students work both in scholarship and performance. He also changed his French colleague’s understanding of Brecht: “I had a biased view of Brecht : I saw him as a twentieth-century artistic giant, yes, but also as a rigid and dogmatic Marxist. Charlie [a nickname for Carl Weber] told me that Brecht was absolutely the opposite. He described him as pragmatic, accepting ideas from others, using anything he could find to create a better show.”

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Directing at Stanford. (Photo: Jamie Lyons)

He also praised him as a generous artist and collaborator, as well as a close friend. The two often met in France either, in Paris or at La Miausserie, Weber’s country home.

He recalled their 1988 collaboration on Eugène Labiche‘s nineteenth-century play, The Affair of Rue de Lourcine, with Carl as director and Jean-Marie as dramaturge. “I thought I would play only a minor role in this production but Carl wanted me not only to revise his translation he had done, but above all to provide a general vision of the play that he would translate and concreticize on stage, which I did in a long text that I sent him in February 1989. This text became a sort of contract between the two of us. Only when I was working with Jean Gascon in Canada (on the production of Œdipus Rex in 1982) have I found such confidence, such generosity offered to the dramaturge by the director of the show. Gascon and Weber (who knew one another) were indeed two great professionals, never scared of possible rivalry with their dramaturge.”

He also described him also as a loyal and devoted friend: “To give you an example: he had known Bernard Sobel since the Berliner Ensemble period, around 1957. Sobel is considered a major director in France and someone close to the aesthetics of Brecht.  Fifty years later, we went to his theatre in Gennevilliers, Carl and myself, to see one of the last shows produced by Sobel. After the show, we went to congratulate the actors and the director. We spent the evening with them. For me, it was a very moving moment to see these two old guys (Carl and Bernard) kissing one another, talking together (in german, a language that Sobel spoke fluently) and digging from their memory so many souvenirs belonging to their youth.”

In his last years, Carl divided his time between America, France, Germany, Austria, and even Greece. His daughter Sabine and his companion, film and television writer Inge Heym often accompanied him in America.

Carl is survived by his daughter actor, educator Sabine Gewinner-Feucht in Austria, his son Dr. Stefan Heym, and three grandchildren in Berlin. His wife, the German theater and film actress Marianne Rossi, died while they were vacationing in France a decade ago.

Video below. My 2010 story is here.
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The movie: President Obama honors National Medal winners

Thursday, July 11th, 2013
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Yayyyyy Kay!

Yesterday we wrote about the National Medal for the Humanities winners.  And today we have pitchas.  Here’s Kay Ryan, looking spiffy, accepting the award at the White House ceremony.

But wait a minute!  We hadn’t mentioned the National Medal for the Arts yet … or rather we did, because George Lucas and Tony Kushner were in fact winners of the arts medal, not the humanities medal.

jennyJust to sort everything out, here’s the complete list for both:

2012 National Medal of Arts: Herb Alpert, Lin Arison, Joan Myers Brown, Renée Fleming,  Ernest J. Gaines, Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Kushner, George Lucas, Elaine May, Laurie Olin, Allen Toussaint, and the Washington Performing Arts Society, Washington, DC.

2012 National Humanities Medal: Edward L. Ayers, William G. Bowen, Jill Ker Conway, Natalie Zemon Davis, Frank Deford, Joan Didion, Robert Putnam, Marilynne Robinson, Kay Ryan, Robert B. Silvers, Anna Deavere Smith, Camilo José Vergara.

Another familiar face is buried behind the “Washington Performing Arts Society”:  President and CEO Jennifer Bilfield (not Jenny Bellfield, as the subtitle says)  accepts the award on behalf of the organization in photo at right – you can read more about the society here.

But bleccchhh… some of the bland clichés that were offered to presumably reward excellence and innovation in the texts!  Robinson writes about “universal truths about what it means to be human.” The Washington Performing Arts Society has “inspired generations of young performers to follow their passion” – and follow their bliss, too, I’ll bet.  Silvers, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, “elevated the book review to a literary art form.”  So what about Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, and a few others writing well before the NYRB launch in 1963?

We have the pitchas, but we also have the movie.  Kay accepts the award from President Obama at 28.05 below.  Jenny is at 20.42.

National Humanities Medal: New honors, familiar faces – including Kay Ryan!

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013
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"Witty and accessible," for sure. (Photo L.A. Cicero)

“Witty and accessible,” for sure. (Photo L.A. Cicero)

Yesterday (or was it the day before?) we wrote about California as a literary epicenter.  What could be more timely, then, than the announcement that Marin poet Kay Ryan is among those who will receive the National Humanities Medal this year?  (We’ve written about her oh, here and here and here and here.)  Here’s what Steve Moyer at the NEH said about the Pulitzer Prize winner, MacArthur Fellow, and former U.S. poet laureate:

Her work is accessible and witty, marked by mordant humor and word play, but with serious intent and long-lasting impact on readers. “I want something to get done in a poem,” she said recently in a telephone interview. “I want to know something I didn’t know.” Her use of what she has termed recombinant rhyme is one of her defining characteristics. Her tightly woven verse (lines are sometimes no more than two or three syllables) can ponder a philosophical conundrum, crystallize an irony, or hold up for brief yet piercing examination the opposing poles of a contradiction. Poet and editor J. D. McClatchy has said of Ryan’s work, “Her poems are compact, exhilarating, strange affairs, like Satie miniatures or Cornell boxes.” …

Ryan, born in San Jose, California, in 1945, grew up in towns in the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert, where she was something of a class clown and from childhood had a “rapaciousness for language.” Her father worked as a ranch hand, an oil driller, and a prospector on a chromium claim. He died when Ryan was nineteen, prompting “After Zeno,” an unsentimental meditation on lives that overlap until the day when suddenly, they no longer do. The four-stanza poem begins, “When he was / I was. / But I still am / And he is still.” After positing questions about time and plurality, the poem—her first—concludes, “There’s no sense / In past tense.”  …

Surprisingly, Ryan says she reads little poetry, fiction, or history, opting instead for the “belle lettrists,”—essays on literature by Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Joseph Brodsky. She prefers not to read fellow poets because, as she slyly puts it, “Like eucalyptus trees, they poison the soil beneath them so nothing else can grow there.” Ryan has other reading tics. She doesn’t like electronic reading devices, she chuckles, because she feels compelled to physically deface a book by taking notes in the margins.

Kushner, too.

Kushner, too.

And the future of poetry? “It will change platforms maybe, but I don’t worry about poetry or people reading poetry. It will survive because it’s pleasurable and is the most expedient method for certain kinds of exchange.”

It’s always pleasant to see friends’ names on the list … or even acquaintances.  I’ve interviewed playwright Tony Kushner before, in an article about his former mentor, Carl Weber.  It was a fun interview, though it took eons to schedule through intermediaries.  Another famous Californian, George Lucas, will be awarded, as will playwright Anna Deavere Smith and author Joan Didion will also be awarded, and Robert B. Silvers (of New York Review of Books fame).

Other winners include: Edward L. Ayers, William G. Bowen, Jill Ker Conway, Natalie Zemon Davis, Frank Deford, Robert Putnam, Marilynne Robinson, and Camilo José Vergara.

The awards ceremony will take place … tomorrow!

A good man is hard to find: Carl Weber, Tony Kushner, and Bertolt Brecht onstage in Texas

Saturday, June 18th, 2011
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Jane Horrocks as Shen Teh in 2008

What, exactly, is the title of the play? In the dark years between 1939 and 1941,  Bertolt Brecht wrote  The Good Woman of Szechuan – or sometimes its Szechwan. More commonly nowadays, the play is called The Good Person of Szechwan – or Szechuan. I’ve even found the occasional The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The original is “mensch” – a word that has more slangy connotations today. Elena Danielson, who said it’s one of her favorite plays, agrees that “person” doesn’t quite work, “a bit too sterile for ‘der gute Mensch.'”

On the other hand, without de-gendering the noun, how else would you keep the link to Genesis, where God promises to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if Abraham can find a handful of good men?  I also felt unexpected Job-like resonances in the play, when the gods come down to test the prostitute Shen Teh, known for her love for her neighbors, and someone who (again like Abraham) entertains angels unawares. Despite the gods’ insistence, Shen Teh says she’s not good, and learns after many trials, “To be good and to live splits me in two like lightning.”

Carl Weber with Florentina Mocanu (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The three gods who visit the impoverished Szechuan claim,  “Many, even among the gods, doubted that there were any good people here.” Is it true, the gods wonder, that “good deeds destroy the doer”?

In any case, last week I finally got a chance to watch last year’s Trinity University production directed by Carl Weber, a protégé of Brecht and a veteran of the Berliner Ensemble. Carl loaned me the DVD after his return from Austen.

Charles Spencer, writing in The Telegraph about a production at the Young Vic in 2008, called the play “an utter stinker” with “glib Marxist sermonising.” Obviously, I don’t agree, though I think Brecht sets up a straw man of goodness – a “Saint Never-to-Be,” as one of one of the characters sings.  Goodness is more than being a patsy.

Tony Kushner's translation of Brecht

Nevertheless, only a few minutes into the DVD, I found myself scrawling down lines from the play.  No surprise – the translator is Carl’s former student and protégé, Tony Kushner, of Angels in America fame (he’s interviewed in my article on Carl here).

According to the gods, “This world can be redeemed if one person can be found who has over come this world – just one.”

The human characters in the play protest, “The world is too cold!” to sustain human charity, to which the gods offer their intransigent reply, “Because people are too weak!”

As for the Sodom-and-Gomorrah link – aha! I’m on to something.  According to an obscure footnote in Wikipedia:

Mallika Sarabhai in Indian adaptation

In Munich in 1924 Brecht had begun referring to some of the stranger aspects of life in post-putsch Bavaria under the codename ‘Mahagonny’. The Amerikanismus imagery appears in his first three ‘Mahagonny Songs’, with their Wild West references. With that, however, the project stalled for two and a half years. With Hauptmann, who wrote the two English-language ‘Mahagonny Songs’, Brecht had begun work on an opera to be called  Sodom and Gomorrah or The Man from Manhattan and a radio play called The Flood or ‘The Collapse of Miami, the Paradise City’, both of which came to underlie the new scheme with [Kurt] Weill.

I was prepared for didacticism, and I got it.  But I threaded through  Helen M. Whall‘s online “The Case is Altered: Brecht’s Use of Shakespeare” and found this: “In many ways the story of Szechwan is a parodic version of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Within that frame Brecht mocks many other Old and New Testament parables, including Elijah’s visit to a poor woman and Christ’s miracle at Cana.”

Well, call me thick – but I didn’t see it as parody or snark. Perhaps it was Tony Kushner’s luminous translation, or perhaps it was Carl’s skilled direction, even with amateur performers, that gave the play a sense of the miraculous as the gods come down among us, looking for a good man – or in this case, woman. Or maybe it was Brecht’s searching for new answers to very old questions:  What is goodness?  And can it survive uncorrupted in a world where “the hand you extend to the poor is torn from you,” as Shen Teh says? “The world cannot go on as it is.  No one can stay good here.”

I may have come up with different answers, but Brecht’s play, in Carl’s direction, for a few hours renewed my sense of wonder at this strange and tragic world.