Brecht’s ‘The Mother’: The Revolution will not be dramatized
The Wooster Group

LOS ANGELES—One of my most memorable moments as a theatergoer was at the Performing Garage, the black box theater in Soho, Lower Manhattan, where the Wooster Group staged Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage half a century ago. In this anti-war play, the title character travels around Europe, and at one point during the drama, when Mother Courage’s wagon was on the move, the avant-garde troupe literally raised the Performing Garage’s entryway and took the show out onto Wooster Street. This was totally unexpected and something I never forgot after 50 years.

So, when I heard that the Wooster Group (co-founded by Willem Dafoe in his pre-Green Goblin days) was coming to Los Angeles to present another production by Brecht, my favorite 20th-century playwright who also wrote The Threepenny Opera, I just hadda see it!

Brecht’s The Mother is a 1932 adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel of the same name about the 1905 Russian Revolution, which has been called “the dress rehearsal” for 1917’s Bolshevik Revolution. After the defeat of the Czar in the Russo-Japanese War, a wave of mass strikes swept Russia in 1905, and this story is set during that period of revolutionary ferment.

Pelagea Vlassov (Kate Valk) is the eponymous mother, who is swept into the communist movement because her son Pavel (Scott Shepherd) is a factory worker and leftist agitator, supporting a strike by, among other things, making leaflets with comrades at his mother’s apartment, much to her initial disapproval. The tale follows the evolution of Pelagea, who grows from being a subservient, poverty-stricken, God-fearing housewife into a courageous revolutionary.

The Mother recently enjoyed a very short run at REDCAT, the black box performing space adjacent to Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. It’s over now, but still worth comment and documentation. Jim Fletcher, who has multiple roles, opens The Mother by explaining this is a Brechtian Lehrstücke, or experimental teaching play, and that what Brecht is instructing the audience in is “learning about communism.”

Throughout the 90-or-so-minute one-act work, the Wooster Group uses a number of theatrical devices to disrupt and pause the onstage mise-en-scène across a largely bare stage, with a long table, some furniture, and projections, mostly of industrial images, on a backdrop and screen. Jazzy recorded music accompanies the action, and some of the dialogue is delivered in a gangster movie-style vernacular. At one point, the thesps actually tell the sold-out audience they are stopping the action in order to clean the stage of some debris.

Of course, these onstage disruptions (Brecht’s famous “alienation effect” on display) serve the purpose of alerting the audience that this is a play, not real life, and unlike fourth-wall naturalistic theater, which viewers are encouraged to relate to emotionally, Brecht wanted his spectators to not only feel about the story and characters but more importantly, to think about them. But none of The Mother’s crafty stage techniques are remotely as inventive and unforgettable as when their Wooster Group forebears threw open their garage door and marched out into Manhattan’s mean streets to continue Mother Courage lo those many moons ago.

Although the subject matter is certainly laudable, this production’s take on it may be too cerebral, and some—dare we say it?—emotion and onstage action might be required to depict the industrial proletariat’s epic struggle against the capitalist class and czarism, for liberation. It’s as if the Wooster Group were taking stage directions from Gil Scott-Heron: “The Revolution will not be dramatized.”

V.I. Pudovkin, the great Soviet filmmaker, clearly understood this when he adapted Gorky’s novel for the big silent-era screen. According to The Guardian, in his 1926 Mother:

“Pudovkin’s most ambitious montage, later in the film, has few equals in any cinema. Mother is full of shots of the Russian landscape. At first, these seem almost random; only in the final march on the prison does the full power of the imagery hit home. As the mother and comrades march towards the prison, it’s spring and the snow is starting to melt. Cut to an immense frozen river, its surface cracking, splitting.

“This is a piece of Marxist poetry. The river is history, flowing unstoppably, breaking out of the carapace of ice under which it has been trapped through the long czarist winter. It’s awesome, scary. When the son breaks out of jail, he’s chased down to the river’s edge. Trapped! His only chance is to jump on a block of ice, let the river carry him, and that’s what he does. He seems doomed as the ice is carried very fast—he’ll never make it—but he does, and the film moves to its historically-determined climax.”

The Wooster Group

Of course, even if the Wooster Group’s production does use projections, cinema, and stage are very different mediums. But unlike Pudovkin’s exciting oeuvre, Wooster’s The Mother never takes off, it remains flat minus arcs and is too content to “teach,” rather than creatively dramatize and stir both emotions and thoughts. After all, from the cable TV companies that force us to pay to watch commercials to inflation to the CEOs’ rapacious greed, there’s lots to despise about capitalism, the economic system you love to hate.

Speaking of films, the Wooster Group’s production of The Mother tacks on a head-scratching, inexplicable ending that neither Brecht nor Gorky put pen to paper to concoct, a sort of “Hollywood ending.” Maybe it’s a sly reference to the fact that Brecht actually went to Hollywood in the leadup to the World War II period. He really did live in a bungalow in Santa Monica and wrote screenplays, such as Hangmen Also Die, a 1943 anti-Gestapo film noir directed by his fellow German émigré Fritz Lang, with Lionel Stander, and a score by Hanns Eisler.

In 1947, after having already fled fascism in Europe, Brecht was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (as Stander and Eisler later were) around the same time as the Hollywood Ten. Brecht pulled the wool over HUAC’s totalitarian eyes: After pretending to be a “friendly witness,” following his testimony, Brecht escaped from “the land of the free” and landed in the German Democratic Republic, where he established the Berliner Ensemble experimental theater in East Berlin.

P.S. Here’s a historical note to Vladimir Putin: Russians don’t like losing wars. The Czar losing to Japan ignited the 1905 Revolution, while Russia’s entanglement in World War I triggered 1917’s February Revolution, and when Kerensky failed to extricate Mother Russia from that catastrophe, the Bolsheviks mounted the October Revolution. The Soviet debacle in Afghanistan arguably undermined the USSR and helped hasten its demise. Don’t be surprised if Putin’s ill-advised invasion of Ukraine—even if NATO expansionism was a major cause—leads to the downfall of Putin. What The Mother teaches us is: Don’t count the Russian working class out. History can be a practical joker, with plenty of tricks up its sleeve!

See also: Bertolt Brecht (and me), by Victor Grossman


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.