In Israeli Production, It's Brecht Minus the Alienation

In his version of 'Mother Courage,’ director Udi Ben-Moshe focuses on the characters, actors and plot and less on Brecht’s techniques - and gets away with it.

Of all the playwrights staged in Israel and abroad, Bertolt Brecht is the most complex. It is universally agreed that he was one of the most influential playwrights and theater personalities of the 20th century.

Brecht was successful in Germany between the wars (with his "The Threepenny Opera" and other plays), before fleeing to the United States, where he spent World War II. There he continued writing but saw little success as a theater producer, despite his hopes. Following questioning by the FBI about his communist leanings, he returned to Germany, where he established a theater that, in the new East Germany, was to embody his theories of drama.

His theory of drama, Verfremdungseffekt - often translated as the "alienation," "estrangement" or "distancing" effect - is an obstacle facing any director staging one of his plays. To oversimplify things, Verfremdung is meant to prevent the audience from identifying with the characters, forcing viewers to interpret the piece critically.

Brecht’s looming shadow caused his avid followers to assess each new production based on its concurrence with his theory, as they understood it. Such plays are therefore judged by a theoretical yardstick that was probably never fully adhered to, even by Brecht himself. Even Brecht never committed to being free of self-contradictions.

As most stage directors and most viewers find out, Brecht the playwright often foils Brecht the theoretician. In several of his major plays one can find, in addition to the characteristics of his episodic epic theater (such as banners that inform the audience where and when a scene is taking place, or what its current relevance is), characters who refuse to be a pawn in the intellectual-moral-political game. These characters often dominate the emotions of the actors and the audience, taking over the story line.

One such character is Grusha in "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." (It's also possible, though more difficult, to detect such elements in the character of Azdak in the same play). Another is Shen Te in "The Good Woman of Szechwan," who in order to protect herself from her feelings takes on the character of her cousin Shui Ta. The character of Mother Courage also fits this mold.

Organic to the show

These are the three major Brecht plays that director Udi Ben-Moshe has grappled with in recent years at the Cameri Theater. Based on these three projects we can discern some defining threads in his work. It's clear that more than trying to fulfill the intentions of Brecht the theoretician, Ben-Moshe tries to stage a performance with many elements of entertainment (an attribute that wasn't foreign to Brecht himself). With Ben-Moshe, these elements are organic to the show, not alien.

In this aspect, "Mother Courage" is the least "theatrical" performance. At the Cameri it is promoted as a "musical performance." In addition to the original songs by Paul Dessau, Ben-Moshe added songs composed by Kurt Weill (of "Threepenny Opera" fame) and music specially composed by Yossi Ben-Nun. All these songs blend organically into the show.

Meanwhile, of all Brecht’s plays, "Mother Courage" is the one that least conforms to his theories. He intended to tell the story of a wartime peddler, letting the audience judge her deeds harshly. Since she accepts the logic of war and is driven solely by thoughts of profit and survival, she loses her three children to the war.

Brecht discovered that, in all the productions of this play during his life, his theory had been disproved. The audience’s heart goes out to Mother Courage. Her suffering makes viewers identify with her, even though they acknowledge her complicity in the processes that brought it about.

This play is the quintessential example of the failure of Brecht’s theory of Verfremdung. Every Brecht fan can provide an example of this in the scene where Mother Courage’s dead son is brought before her. When her mouth opens she can only utter a silent cry - the esthetics dull the emotions. But the simple truth is provided in the play itself. Mother Courage's silent cry conveys that she cannot show that she is connected to someone who was executed for treason.

It seems Ben-Moshe understood that this story conveys the play's message more than Brecht’s theorizing. Since the punishment Mother Courage receives is so terrible, her moral faults don’t have to be emphasized. They speak for themselves. She can behave rudely and defiantly as much as she wants, with insensitivity and from utilitarian motives.

Ultimately, she drags the empty wagon alone across the stage, still trying to profit from the war. The audience pities her, even when she removes the shoes from her dead daughter’s feet, hoping to sell them. Such a brutal act at such a shattering moment does not require interpretation as alienation. Its significance is plain and hard to accept, but who can harshly judge a bereft mother?

A bit less Brechtian

This play has been staged in Israel since its founding, roughly once every 12 years. This is due to the war that never ends and the fact that the mother’s character appeals to many actresses. Compared to other great actresses I’ve seen in that role (and from what I know of two others I haven't seen), Tiki Dayan has one natural gift that the others have struggled to evoke.

Dayan, in her short hair and slightly parted legs planted firmly on the stage, knows how to be down-to-earth, rough and direct. She approaches the role straightforwardly, exposing Mother Courage’s basic feelings and impulses without trying to present them as what they are not. She lives off the war and has adapted to its laws. Dayan as Mother Courage behaves this way throughout the play, even when she knows she will have to pay a price she can't afford.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well, including Yiftach Ophir and Udi Rothschild as the two sons and Gloria Bass as the mute Catherine (a role that always steals shows, as it does here). Orly Zilbershatz, who plays the prostitute Yvette, equals Dayan in her roughness. Rami Baruch is the warm and likable cook and Gadi Yagil is full of vitality as the priest.

It's true that Ben-Moshe drastically cut the play and did without the projected texts and any "interpretation." He went with the characters, the actors and the plot. And wonder of wonders, the message carries over well.

Brecht fans recently had the chance to see the classic Brecht at a guest performance at the Cameri by the Berliner Ensemble, the theater he established and which maintains his legacy. But it’s not fair to compare "Mother Courage" and Brecht's "The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui," with its absence of emotional dilemmas. "Arturo Ui" is a satirical and didactic play that tracks Hitler’s rise in terms of an American mobster.

German director Heiner Muller (1929-1995) forwent the banners between scenes, putting forth a precise and calculated performance that benefits from a caricature description of its characters. He had at his disposal a wonderful actor, Martin Wuttke, who has been playing Arturo Ui since the first production in 1995.

Brecht fans have thus enjoyed two different approaches to Brecht in one week. The plays and theory go on, examined anew with each production.

Daniel Kaminsky