Brecht on Brecht, Theater by the Blind Through June 30, at The Blue Heron Arts Center, 123 E. 24th St. (between Park-Lex) $19, $15 seniors and students – call smartix 212-206-1515 or show up 45 minutes before the show.
Bertolt Brecht, the revolutionary German playwright, learned his politics and developed his theatrical perspective in a period characterized by the optimism of the first years of the Russian Revolution and the multiple crises in Germany leading to the rise of Hitler, and the struggles against fascism. Thrown into exile, he kept one step ahead of the Nazi armies, eventually landing in the U.S., where he worked in Hollywood for a while. After WWII ended he was again hounded for his political beliefs, and the day after being interrogated by the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he left for East Germany, where he was honored and his theater was supported.
Brecht attempted in his plays and other writings to express a Marxist perspective which would illuminate the raw truth about oppression and exploitation, but also show how our illusions help maintain that system. In Threepenny Opera, he wrote, “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the opening of a bank? What is the killing of a man compared to the hiring of a man?” And in his poem “To Posterity” he reflected on the fact that “we who wished the world be kind, could not, ourselves be kind.”
With Brecht, it is more than political analysis. It is attitude. He is, indeed, un-American in his rejection of sentimentality and wishful thinking. He wants us to see things as they are. If what we see is too stark, too raw, too harsh, we should change the world, not use rose-colored glasses to block it out.
This play, Brecht on Brecht, is a collection of his writings dramatized by a very fine cast. The play was first produced in 1961, and later in 1970. Yet it seems like Brecht was writing for today. The themes of opposition to militarism, of the harshness of the world of the poor, and the ironies of the struggles against exploitation and oppression have a remarkable immediacy for our times. The hour-and-a-half production is divided into eight segments. Each segment is organized around a theme, such as “Questions from a Son,” “Change the World, She needs it,” “Conversations in Exile” and “Theater”. In many of these segments we hear taped episodes of Brecht answering questions from HUAC.
This version of the play is presented by Theater by the Blind, and the cast includes both sighted and blind actors. The ensemble works remarkably well together. We are always aware that some of the actors can’t see, yet this is not a disability, but rather a difference, which adds to the production.
Indeed, I felt that the acting itself contained an egalitarian vision, which would have been appreciated by Brecht. While there were especially good actors among the individuals in the cast, the entire ensemble brought Brecht’s words to life. If I have a criticism, it is that the acting was better when one sensed that the actors fully understood the multi-layered social and political meanings of the words, whereas in a few pieces where I felt that if they got Brecht’s ideological perspective better, they would have performed more deeply.