Theatergoers who see the Khan Theater’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Man Equals Man” (directed by Sinai Peter) get two bonuses. One is a short 1938 essay by Brecht, “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties,” which for me set the play in the present context. The obstacles confronting anyone who wants “to combat lies and ignorance,” Brecht writes, lie in finding “the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons. These are formidable problems for writers living under Fascism, but they exist also for those writers who have fled or been exiled; they exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails.” (translation by Richard Winston)
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Given that we live (and write and view and stage) in a country where civil liberty prevails, I consider the Jerusalem-based theater’s decision to mount a production of Brecht’s 1926 work (written before Germany became that place to which a comparison must not be drawn) to be part of the cunning to which Brecht referred.
This, then, is the story of a good, innocent man, the porter Galy Gay (played by Yossi Eini), who wants only to go on leading a quiet life and eating his fish and getting along with everyone. As a result, he finds himself mobilized into the army and manipulating his way forward as situations of opportunity arise in his new reality. He gets along, but loses his identity and his name, undergoes a (fake) execution and even attends his own funeral. Finally, he finds himself enthusiastically shelling a fort in which there are also civilians, as part of an occupation army.
Brecht does not hide from the audience his intention to tell a didactic tale, whose essence is sung for the viewers by the Widow Begbick, an early version of Mother Courage. (She is played with lusty presence by Odelya Moreh-Matalon; the original and excellent music, written by Shosh Riseman, is played on a variety of instruments by Ofer Shalchin from deep on the stage, as part of the production spectacle.) Here’s the widow’s text: “Herr Bertolt Brecht maintains man equals man / – A view that has been around since time began. / But then Herr Brecht points out how far one can / Maneuver and manipulate that man. / Tonight you are going to see a man reassembled like a car / Leaving all his individual components just as they are. / He has some kind friends by whom he is pressed / Entirely in his own interest. / To conform with this world and its twists and turns / And give up pursuing his own fishy concerns. / So whatever the purpose of his various transformations / He always lives up to his friends’ expectations. / Indeed if we people were to let him out of our sight / They could easily make a butcher of him overnight.” (translation by Gerhard Nellhaus)
Why is the very choice of this play “cunning,” as Brecht recommends? Because in our country, where civil liberty prevails, the rulers, as well as no few Internet commentators, are sensitive to words and their interplay, such as “occupation” (a phenomenon unacknowledged by Israel’s cabinet ministers of 2016) and “butcher” (a description always reserved for our oppressors).
But the play deals with Her Majesty’s army in India. It is not of this time and place, and anyone who wants to look for contemporary analogies does so at his own peril.
Strongest of all
The cunning extends also to the method of presentation chosen by the director, together with the set designer, Frida Shoham, and the costume designer, Dalia Penn Heller. It’s demonstrative theater, with a tank made of plywood that comes onstage with its cannon aimed at the audience and is disassembled to become the canteen of the Widow Begbick. What’s important here is that the look of the stage and its sounds are above all a highly theatrical event, which is diligent about not creating an illusion, but behaves like a type of entertainment.
Overlaid on this is the enthusiasm of the actors, from the sergeant, in an exaggerated performance bordering on the grotesque, by the terrifically amusing Erez Shafrir, to Galy Gay’s wife, played by Yael Toker. Much of the play’s charm derives from the special personality of Eini as the affable-innocent-nice-guy porter.
Eini possesses a basic innocence that allows him to execute on the stage a series of minor deceits that, with exploitative charm, become increasingly major cons. He always behaves as though the world is taking advantage of his basically benevolent desire to get along with everyone and not make waves. Theatergoers will benefit from reading the playwright’s remarks about his play, which are reprinted in the program (in Hebrew translation). And that is the second bonus. Brecht writes, “You will see that among other things he [Galy Gay] is a great liar and an incorrigible optimist; he can fit in with anything, almost without difficulty. He seems to be used to putting up with a great deal. It is in fact very seldom that he can allow himself an opinion of his own.”
That description could fit the vast majority of Israel’s citizens, even me sometimes. So it’s important to go on reading the playwright’s analysis of his protagonist: “But this Galy Gay is by no means a weakling; on the contrary, he is the strongest of all. That is to say he becomes the strongest once he has ceased to be a private person; he only becomes strong in the mass No doubt you will go on to say that it’s a pity that a man should be tricked like this and simply forced to surrender his precious ego, all he possesses (as it were); but it isn’t. It’s a jolly business. For this Galy Gay comes to no harm; he wins. And a man who adopts such an attitude is bound to win. But possibly you will come to a different conclusion. To which I am the last person to object.” (translation from Brecht, “Collected Plays,” vol. 2, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim)
The play’s title is a tautology, a definition of something by means of itself. “Mann Ist Mann.” Which is surely not a little, but certainly not enough. No less – that a man is subhuman – but also no more, not a superman (member of a chosen people?). And if this play induces the spectators – who live in a society whose rulers sanctify unity, supremacy and army – to wonder about their self-definition as human beings and to ask themselves about the measure of their humanity and their place within the mass, about their adaptability and the benefit they extract from it, for that alone it is worthwhile.
The next performances of “Man Equals Man” will be at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem on May 1 and 2 at 20.30.