Jan 5, 2009

Fog of "War"

Can I be the only person who found John Walter's Theater of War, a portentous new documentary about Brecht, Marxism, and the Public Theatre's 2006 production of Mother Courage, to be a snoozily earnest study guide? I'd love to see the film Manohla Dargis saw; it sounds great. But Walter's film is a tenuous collage of tantalizing footage, Theater 101 Brecht hagiography, and tendentious analogizing (watch for the absurdly didactic, startlingly inapt propman/labor theory section).

And while James C. Taylor's review also overpraises the film, he does note a relevant influence I'd missed: the way Walter's approach, and somber music, apes Errol Morris' extraordinary Fog of War.

For the record, I loved the Public's staging of Mother Courage, and though my Broadway.com review is no longer floating around the Interweb, I obsessively followed all the other reviews at the time (my own personal precursor, I guess, to Critic-O-Meter). For me, George C. Wolfe's production, with Tony Kushner's new text and Jeanine Tesori's music, hit a thrillingly happy, necessarily unstable medium between "entertainment" and "alienation" (a false dichotomy, arguably). Its relevance to the Iraq War per se was maybe the least interesting thing about it, except insofar as a classic like Mother Courage raises fresh, prickly challenges to us wherever and whenever we meet it.

It's hard to imagine the audience that would be challenged, let alone roused, by Theater of War. I mean, would it have killed Walter to include a single bad word about Brecht or Marx? More significantly, for all its incantatory references to Vietnam, Iraq, the Holocaust, and the A-bomb, the film fails to burrow in on one of the play's most thorny quandaries: It was written during World War II by a man fiercely committed to revolutionary Marxism, but its power as an "antiwar" text has a lot to do with its portrayal of all sides as venal and cynical, of all war as inherently corrupting and devouring. Did Brecht notice the contradiction? Did he harbor illusions about the purity of the Soviet military effort, or about the Stasi? I doubt it.

Or could it be, as it sometimes seems to me, that the play is not so resolutely, comprehensively antiwar after all--that it can't finally be construed as saying there's nothing ever worth fighting for? In particular, Mother Courage's own cynicism about war profiteering, and in a larger sense her capitulating to the forces of oppression, seems to me ultimately as blinkered and naive, as socially constrained and therefore incomplete, a view as the thinking of those who swallow ideological justifications for war and sign up to be cannon fodder. Neither the cynic nor the dupe possesses real wisdom, let alone moral clarity or the courage to act on it. I think Brecht realized that, and that's one reason his play is so haunting, and why it will keep returning, whether there's a war on or not, to prod us awake from both naivete and jadedness.

So, while I did enjoy revisiting bits and pieces of the Public production through Walter's film, and I find no time spent contemplating Brecht to be wasted, I can't recommend this scattershot Theater of War except to the theater students who will inevitably be subjected to it until there's another actual production of the play to take them to.

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