Oct 12, 2011

Talk About a Brechtian Bark

Michael Feingold, on Robert Wilson's Threepenny, covered previously here:
Although the installation-like works of his creative years, long since past, employ live performers and move through time, Wilson has never really had any interest in the theater. He actively seems to disapprove of the theatrical impulse and even to resent its continued existence. Least of all, engaged as he has been in a world of wealthy backers, museums, and foundations, has he ever had any interest in theater with the kind of social-activist impulses that partially fueled the creation of Threepenny. Premiered before Brecht became a communist, the work is not actively political as many of his later works are, though he tried to make it so in subsequent rewritings. It was meant as provocative entertainment for middle-class theatergoers—part satire, part shock effects, part aesthetic innovation, part moral indictment, and part sheer theatrical diversion. Audiences worldwide have relished the unexpected, heady mixture ever since.

Wilson carefully removed all these aspects of the piece, turning Brecht and Weill's middle-class wake-up call into dead entertainment for rich people.


Ken said...

Couldn't agree more. Decadent emptiness that flattered its bourgeois audience replaced the scalding satire that might have confronted them.

George Hunka said...

All due respect (and I didn't see the Wilson production), Threepenny has always been a popular success among the bourgeoisie. It's not like the Theatre de Lys or the Vivien Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center was exactly decked out with a working-class audience when produced there. Indeed, that's why Brecht so urgently revised the play for its novel and film adaptations -- not that these led to rampages through the streets, either.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

George, I know you're commenting on Ken's comment, but Feingold's review made it clear that he thinks the piece was intended in large part for a middle-class audience, and that Wilson's interpretation just ignored that audience. I'm not quite sure why Feingold uses the term "middle-class," except that it's less pejorative than "bourgeois" or "middlebrow." But I take his point (I also happen to find much of Brecht's tinkering ill-advised). I'd say that a more accurate term for the sweet spot hit by "Threepenny" (and no other Brecht/Weill work, not even "Mahagonny"), for better or worse, is "populist," in much the same way Elizabethan theater or the Broadway musical or television miniseries are populist--it's a work of art that was initially produced as a popular entertainment.

George Hunka said...

Hm -- it's a thought. On the other hand, it's not very clear (and here we tread into dangerous intentionist waters) that Threepenny was not really meant as a work of art, but was always meant as a popular entertainment. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course. But when Ernst Josef Aufricht first approached Brecht for a play with which to open his new theatre, it could be that Brecht and Weill saw a chance to make a quick buck, not that there's anything wrong with that (and Brecht was happy to appear in car advertisements, too, so long as he got a new car out of the deal). They were already working quite hard on the opera Mahagonny when they set that aside and headed to the Riviera in 1928 to finish Threepenny in two months -- maybe art, maybe not, but fast and to Aufricht's specifications. It was only with his increasing attraction to Marxist thought (which wasn't reflected in the earlier Man Is Man) that Brecht mentally doubled-back. His name was then attached to this, his greatest popular success, and there wasn't much he could do to bring it into line with Marxist ideology, a Procrustian bed into which Threepenny simply would not fit.

That said, I don't find Pabst's film of Threepenny -- which includes many of Brecht's ill-advised revisions, surprisingly enough, especially the new ending -- too much of a hash of the original. It's not the same as the stage play at all, of course, but it does have its charms.

George Hunka said...

Apologies for that mushed up first sentence, which should have read:

"On the other hand, it's not very clear (and here we tread into dangerous intentionist waters) that Threepenny was meant as a work of art, but instead was always meant as a popular entertainment."

I'm not sure how much of a "wake-up call," as Feingold puts it, it was intended to be, but I'm not going to argue with him; he's spent more time on this than I have. Anyway, whatever Wilson did to it, he must be welcome to his interpretation by his own lights, and implying that his approach was somehow driven by his engagement with "a world of wealthy backers, museums, and foundations" sounds to me like a bit of an unfair back-handed slap.

Ken said...

I'm not saying that a faithful rendering of "Threepenny" would have caused the BAM audience to immediately renounce its own affluence and privilege and join the underworld of pimps, prostitutes, and pickpockets, but if you do not even touch upon poverty/economic inequality, or how the bourgeois conception of "morality" is a fragile construct which can so easily be swept away in times of economic disaster, then I don't know why you're doing the play.