What to expect from Brecht — Bertolt Brecht , Bobby Darin , Mack The Knife — AAPEX

Friday, January 25, 2013

What to expect from Brecht

Bertolt Brecht

I was first exposed to Brecht at the tender age of 13 in, of all places, Asheville, North Carolina where me and mama settled after she got out of the nuthouse. Strange times. 

I'd done a couple of "young adult" theatre shows with, if I remember correctly, The Tanglewood Children's Theatre, which was a division of the Asheville Community Theatre (still going strong today). From who knows where, this radical 60s avant garde theatre troupe blew into town with a production of Bertolt Brecht's CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE and they had this one role for a kid, so I ended up sitting inside some kind of infernal mask speaking a few lines, feeling really weird - but I also got to hang out with a bunch of young actors who were high on Brecht and his fascinating views on theatre. I could say "verfremdungeffekt" before I could say "Stanislavski." 

Somewhere in there I went down to the Asheville Public Library on Thomas Wolfe Square and checked out everything they had on Brecht (which, if I remember correctly, wasn't much - though they did have the complete works of George Bernard Shaw, which I had taken home the year before). Whatever I did learn, it was enough for me to know who Lotte Lenya was when my mother and I saw her (and Judi Dench) in the West End production of CABARET in London that fall. 

My most prized possession for many years was Lenya's autograph on that CABARET program. 

They sure didn't teach Brecht - or theatre, or German - in the North Carolina State Mental Institution where I spent the last three years of high school, but when I got to Chapel Hill and started getting "As" in German, I soon found myself spending an entire semester with Bertolt's plays and theories, which complete radicalize the purpose of the theatre. 

If there is a "magic doorway" into Brecht's world for us United Statesians (ok - Amerikans), that would be the song MACK THE KNIFE made so famous by Bobby Darin, which comes out of the mind blowing Brecht/Weill operetta THREE PENNY OPERA - which was a big hit in Berlin in 1928. 

I can't believe it possible that there's anyone out there over the age of 20 who does not know Bobby Darin's version of MACK THE KNIFE, but if you DON'T, please watch it below. 

MACK THE KNIFE opens THE THREEPENNY OPERA with these words - "Oh the shark has/pretty teeth dear" - kind of creepy and even more ominous in the original German "und der Haifisch, der hat zaehne" with it's sibilants. In hindsight, it certainly foreshadows the Nazis. It also in that one lyric, especially when delivered musically in tandem with Kurt Weill's wry melody, that you will find the seed and the epitome of Brechtian Theatre (which owes as much to Kurt Weill, Elizabeth Hauptman, Lotte Lenya and a bunch of other amazing artists as it does to Herrn Brecht. 

Now there are folks - academic folks - out there who are the last word on Brecht and are quick to let you know it. I know who you are and I know you are poised to pounce, so let me testify right here that I am no Brecht scholar. If anything, I am a 13 year old boy who has just been traumatized from appearing on stage in one of Brecht's plays. 

But it wasn't until I was on the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1980 and had students that were young actors that I asked myself - "What is Brecht talking about when he says things like "verfremdungseffekt" - or that if half the audience doesn't get up and storm out of the theatre in either a huff or a fury, then the folks on the stage have not done their job. 

Up until Brecht, theatre had existed almost solely as a "divertissment" - for Brecht it's a social pressure washer - though there is plenty of Brecht in Moliere's TARTUFFE, TARTUFFE is still a truffle, while Brecht is a pot full of chittlins - you just don't know if you want to eat it, but everybody else is chowin' down. 

The problem with staying close to Brecht in this country is that his plays are so seldom performed, so Nashville is in for a rather historic treat with the upcoming production of THE GOOD PERSON OF SETZUAN at Vanderbilt in a few weeks and VUT - Vanderbilt University Theatre - is certainly on a par with the theatre departments of Yale and Harvard, at least these days - at least if last year's production of David Ive's THE LIAR is any indication of what's going on behind those hallowed halls. There's nothing wrong with being world class. 

Come to Nashville and Go to the Theatre!

Jaz Dorsey

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