In his epic theater, Bertolt Brecht sought to illuminate the historically specific features of an environment in order to show how that environment influenced, shaped, and often battered and destroyed the characters. Unlike dramatists who focused on the universal elements of the human condition and fate, Brecht was interested in the attitudes and behavior people adopted toward each other in specific historical situations.
In Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera Brecht demonstrated how people relate to each other in capitalist societies. In Mother Courage, he showed how tradespeople related to soldiers and civilians during war in an emerging market society. In The Measures Taken, Brecht depicted revolutionary relationships in the struggle in China. He believed that with this “historicization” one would have the best possible chance to adopt a critical attitude toward one’s society. Brecht wanted audiences to view present social arrangements and institutions as historical, transitory, and subject to change. Epic theater was intended to show emotions, ideas, and behavior as products of, or responses to, specific social situations and not as the unfolding of the human essence.
When you see Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston in the movies or on television, their vehicle –the particular dramatization — is not intended to “estrange” or “distance” the spectator, preventing empathy or identification with situations and characters; a critical attitude toward the actions of a given plot is not encouraged. They are not paid to detour empathetic illusion or a mimesis of reality. Their bosses do not want them to expose the workings of societal processes and human behavior, showing how and why people behave a certain way in this society of ours. And they are paid handsomely for their work in what Brecht labeled “the narcotics capital of the world.” Secular opium for the masses?
I don’t know how much Brad or Jennifer get per picture, but I know that Mr. Pitt — if you average out his annual income — pulls in over a million dollars a day; Jennifer’s take is very thick gravy on their Thanksgiving Turkey.
And speaking of “takes,” I could take or leave Jennifer, but Brad has won me over in a big way a number of times. That said, a million dollars a day is something we have to address, regardless. Not because it says anything about the Pitts being greedy. Rather, it’s something essential to confront because their collective take is peanuts in our present predicament, small fried potatoes in The American Feast. All the fuss about Oprah’s bucks and Martha’s millions notwithstanding, when it comes to the disparity in this land…which is growing each day, exacerbated worldwide…the whole lot of entertainers put together (including Michael Jordan, Madonna. Rosie et. al.) don’t amount to much when stacked up against some of NPR’s sponsors, those Corporate Behemoths.
The greed in Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage’s sufferings, and persecution in Galileo, were all to be understood as historically specific constituents of a social environment, and dramatic presentations were intended to induce spectators to reflect on “why” these events happened, thus providing the audience with better historical understanding and knowledge.
The intention was to produce a kind of “shock and awe,” if you will, posing questions such as: “Is that the way things are?”, “What produced this?” It’s terrible! How can we change things?” His montage of images and other techniques were designed to provoke the desire to implement radical social change. A very far cry from what the Pitts are engaged in, of course.
Brecht’s epic theater broke with the “culinary theater” that provided each spectator with a pleasant experience or moral for easy digestion. He rejected theater that tried to produce an illusion of reality.
Bush pushes the “culinary theater” that Brecht so detested, “entertainment that provides the spectator with a pleasant experience or moral for easy digestion.” His abominations in the real world are presented merely as Spectacle, and Entertainment Tonight –all of its varieties — makes sure that we don’t delve into things like the fact that on July 26, 2001, John Ashcroft had stopped flying on commercial airlines. The Attorney General, just like Janet R. before him, used to fly commercially all the time. So why, two months before Sept. 11, did he start taking chartered government planes which cost $1,600-plus per hour? Why would he choose to go G-3 Gulfstream when he could have flown the way he’d always flown for a fraction of the cost? And, perhaps most importantly, when the FBI advised Ashcroft to stay off commercial aircraft, why did the rest of us just have to take our chances?
We will not go there, down that baleful burrow. We are too comfortable. We are too uncaring. We are too ignorant, stupid about our own history.
The irreparable devastation, the sheer suffering call out for something other than mere academic debate, waiting for the Electoral Godot, our Grande passion. But why not when we’ve got the Pitts with which to wile away the time? Besides we can point to Paul Newman, eyeglasses akimbo, peering out of a Nation ad advising us to bone up, Tim Robbins pontificating on the pluses of invading Afghanistan on a Donahue show, Garafalo going garrulous over grievances at gargantuan Media Reform Tour fare, and Moore/Franken selling tons of (dead tree) books. It all means about as much positive as the two cents that Ed Asner keeps kicking in whilst applauding the troops. We can still talk tears over Speilberg’s Holocaust, but we won’t allow ourselves a shred of decency respecting 9/11.
All of the Show begs the question of How Who would Hold Up at the next House Un-American Committee session following a 9/11 #2, if things got bad enough. Hardly a Brecht in the bunch I’ll bet.4
In the Irish Times of ’46, Beckett touched upon the River Vire which ran through Saint Lo, highlighting the difference between the mechanical, obligatory building of civilizations and the effect on the human mind of their destruction:
“Vire will wind in other shadows
unborn through the bright ways tremble
and the old mind ghost-forsaken
sink into its havoc.”
Three hundred years from now — should we survive so long — Beckett will be remembered more for his poetry and prose than for his plays. A vision, a conception of humanity in ruins, an inkling of a different way to think about our condition once again is all available to the careful reader. And even though SB would have been horrified if Brecht had gone through with his plans to do a Marxist version of Godot, I’m sure he felt much common ground with the communist. But we can’t say the same about Ground Zero groupies and grief-stricken victims of the world’s so-called terrorists.
Let me suggest what we all are likely to be remembered for, Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” and the rest of us. Recently, the new Hamas leader, Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi asserted that “God declared war” against the United States and Israel — but stopped short of saying the group would strike U.S. targets. The Hamas chief, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, renewed threats to attack Israel in retaliation for the assassination of the group’s founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Stopped short of saying that they’d strike at American targets? How can that be believed? Who can believe that? Only by people who don’t want to tear themselves away from their habitual forms of entertainment. Only by people who refuse to acknowledge what’s motivating 9/11-type terror around the globe. Only by people who have Brad as their Baedeker.
I’m starting to hear strains of that old melodic Platters song, “Only You.”
I looked up “Brad” in my Celebrity Thesaurus, and I came way with “charismatic,” “talented,” “virile” and “wealthy.” The telling trouble is that many in America would make the same associations with Bush. With all that’s come down to date, at least half of those polled, about 50% of those about to vote most likely. But in looking for “the enemy” one should not dwell on Hussein, Osama or GWB. It’s the American public, not Bush nor bin Laden, my foolish fellow citizens.
Beckett, Brad, Bertolt Brecht and Bush, baleful, baneful and burrow. Alliteration. It’s all so entertaining, isn’t it?