Review: Baal ~ theatre notes

Friday, April 08, 2011

Review: Baal

Baal, pagan Lord of Heaven, god of rain and fertility. Baal, the first king of the Christian Hell, best known to us as Beelzebub. Milton's Baalim, one of those evilly ambiguous demons who, "when they please / can either sex assume". In the hands of the young Bertolt Brecht, he's the archetypal rebel poet and criminal anti-hero, a voracious appetite on legs, epic hater of womankind. The original title of the play was "Baal eats! Baal dances! Baal is transfigured!" What, asked Brecht, is Baal up to?

Baal was up to no good, that's for sure. The titular hero of Brecht's first play, written when he was only 20, he's a savagely ironic portrait of the ultimate Romantic outsider, stripped of his romantic dress. He's modelled on a range of sources. Perhaps the first is the Chinese poet and famous carouser Li Po, whose work Brecht devoured in his teens. Another is the 15th century French poet, thief and vagabond Fran├žois Villon, whose contemporary equivalent might be Shane McGowan of The Pogues. Another strong influence is Arthur Rimbaud, the teen genius who horrified and intrigued literary Paris with his defiant lack of hygiene, and whose scandalous affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine, which has echoes in this play, sparked the masterpiece A Season in Hell.

Perhaps most intriguingly, in 1926 Brecht himself named a real poet - Josef K, a car mechanic (perhaps a precursor of Ern Malley?) and the bastard son of a washerwoman - as the biographical model for Baal. Who knows if this had anything to do with the publication of Kafka's novel The Trial in 1925? All the same, the echo is suggestive: Kafka's Josef K is, like Baal, a passive character around whom events happen, but otherwise almost precisely his negative: where Josef K is sick with sexual guilt, Baal is sick with the lack of it.

What's unarguable is that Baal derives from an ancient genealogy of exclusively male poets: he is the archetypal troubador, the dark glint of male violence and amorality that inhabits the allure of every bad boy rock star. In Brecht's play, here given a starkly intelligent production at the Malthouse by Simon Stone, he remains as deeply problematic as he ever was, with his ugliness upfront. Whereas in the 1920s his deepest crimes would have been the outrage of bourgeois social mores, a century later it's his misogyny.

For my part, I don't believe the portrayal of misogyny is the same as its endorsement, and I'd argue strongly that this production is critique rather than advocacy. For art to ignore the existence of misogyny would be risible, given, say, the recent behaviour of football clubs or the Australian Defence Force: nothing Baal does is without its contemporary precedent. All the same, there's no getting past the sexism of the play, even given the reflexive nature of its argument, and because of the amoral (or perhaps, to pick up on Bataille, the hypermoral) light in which Baal is cast, its misogyny remains its most confronting aspect. The character of Baal reflects back in magnified form the society in which he lives, erasing its softening hypocrisies, and his use and abuse of women is brutal. Worse, although he is always culpable, he remains innocent.

Another thing worth keeping in mind in approaching this production of Baal is Brecht's own estimation of it: the play is not meant to provoke empathy or identification. As Brecht said in 1922, in an early version of the artistic intuition that later become Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect): "I hope in Baal... I've avoided one common artistic bloomer, that of trying to carry people away. Instinctively I've kept my distance… The spectator's 'splendid isolation' is left intact; he is not fobbed off with an invitation to feel sympathetically, to fuse with the hero and seem significant and indestructible as he watches himself in two different versions. A higher type of understanding can be got from making comparisons, from whatever is different, amazing, impossible to overlook."

Stone's production, co-translated with Tom Wright (not to be confused with Thomas M. Wright, who is playing Baal), is a serious and often brilliant attempt at Brecht's play. Although the script is hugely cut, it sticks closely to the original text, transposing its obscenities and undeniable beauties into contemporary colloquial English. Likewise, Brecht's songs are set to electric guitar by Stefan Gregory, but remain ballads rather than rock'n'roll. Baal is no Thyestes or The Wild Duck, in which a new text is spun out of the bones of the original, so here the estrangements of poetry are added to the alienations produced by its lead character.

The word that resounds through Brecht's text like a knell is "nothingness". Baal is the eye of the storm, the passive genius who absorbs the vacuum around him, and - in parallel with his hideous description of childbirth as the agonised expulsion of something that was received with pleasure - ejects it as a monstrous nullity. The poetry he creates, lyrical celebrations of disgust, is almost a by-product of this process; it neither redeems nor excuses him, and in fact he asks neither of it. This is where his innocence exists, and is why even towards the end, despite his vile behaviour, his friend Eckhardt calls him a child: his one virtue, if he can be said to have any, is that his actions, however selfish, lack the pettiness of self-interest.

All these complexities are given savage life in this production. There are aspects that remained (at least on opening night) unresolved; there were moments when the action was unclear, and when its physicalisation - notably the violence - was awkward, although these are minor points. Perhaps the biggest problem lies in how the production addresses the knotty gender question.

Stone has replaced all the secondary characters with a chorus of women taking multiple roles, who end up representing the broader society brutalised and challenged by Baal. Out of a cast of nine actors, three are (ambiguously) male. I suspect that this might have been conceived as a way of giving voice and weight to the women who are otherwise largely present as objects to be consumed and destroyed by Baal, but the immediate and (I hope) unintended effect is that women become the custodians of social mores, their traditional role in patriarchal societies.

Despite this, the show generates a compelling, chilly brilliance that I think is absolutely correct for Brecht. It's performed by a cast unafraid of its challenges, and delivers scenes of astounding poetic theatre. Wright as Baal carries the weight of performance, at once charismatic and abject, knowing and blind. As the composer Eckhardt, his friend, lover and victim, Oscar Redding is an assured (and relaxedly nude) presence: he is the troubled satellite drawn into and destroyed by Baal's presence, who attempts nevertheless to wake him to a consciousness of his crimes. And Geraldine Hakewill gives a luminous performance as Johanna, the young innocent who is Baal's first real victim.

This is followed through with an extraordinary design, a Manichean world of white and black designed (lighting and set) by Nick Schlieper. Human beings, often naked, move through these unrelenting abstractions, their bodies ever more exposed, more abused, more abject. It opens with a white rectangle, the antiseptic world of Baal's bourgeois admirers, the only object a black amplifier and guitar; as Baal continues his Rake's Progress to oblivion, the walls collapse and expose a black, featureless earth on which falls a punishing, endless rain, the manifestation of the godhead. Some of the visuals create arresting contemporary echoes of Renaissance images of crucifixion; still others recall Robert Mapplethorpe or Lucien Freud.

In short, Baal is a discomforting production of a deeply discomforting play. I've no doubt it will divide audiences; it certainly refuses a lot of easy options. As a work it wears its antecedents on its sleeve, and yet there were goose-bumping moments during the show when I realised that I had not seen anything like it. That's a rare feeling. One thing is for sure: those who go expecting titillation will be disappointed, because they'll get poetry instead. And what breath-taking poetry it is.

Pictures: Top: Thomas M Wright as Baal; middle, Shelly Lauman and Thomas M Wright; bottom, Wright and Oscar Redding. Photos: Jeff Busby

Baal, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright, directed by Simon Stone. Set and lighting Nick Schlieper, costumes by Mel Page, composition and sound design Stefan Gregory. With Bridig Gallacher, Geraldine Hakewill, Luisa Hastings Edge, Shelly Laumann, Oscar Redding, Chris Ryan, Lotte St Clair, Katherine Tonkin and Thomas M Wright. Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until April 23; Sydney Theatre Company, May 7-June 11.


Anonymous said...

BAAL if you research a little deeper will be revealed to you not as a demonic god but a god of ferility, of the sun, and that cultures past worshipped BAAL for these reasons, and still do today. What this production needed was a stronger sense of who BAAL was, and the complexities that form our structure as individuals. BAAL's pop culture status as a 'devil' is an easy way to portray this charcter and gave little to the actor to sink his teeth into. I think this production lacked depth, breadth and nuance, all the attributes it required to be successful on ALL levels, for one cannot fault the production as a spectacle and I agree that elements of the spectacle I had not been witness to. However, to testify to its success would be a grave lie. The performers do a magnificent job with the shallow material given them, when it should have been, what a section of the press have been claiming it achieved, "beautiful". Beautifully horrid in fact. What we got was a stripped back insignificant BAAL that belonged more in a mental institution than on the stage as a rock star. If we go diggin for BAAL comparisons perhaps you should look no further than Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jones Town Massacre. I was dissapointed that an opportunity was lost to portray a character that was depraved yes, but what he saw was not his depravity but the constraints of society pulling him down, pushing him closer to the edge of his wild emotions. I think it is a shame for anyone to give credit to a portrayal that does not elicit understanding or empathy, or even the base feeling that you would want to be with him. This BAAL is boring and cannot be saved by some moments of stunning visual and aural beauty.
From twistedson

the scorpion said...

c'mon anonymous, don't you know that the theatre world currently has a love affair with spectacle? That Malthouse theatre are the champions of such stylistically successful episodes that ultimately fail miserably on any deeper reading.

The question you need to ask yourself though, is whether you want art that is spectacle (perhaps entertainment is a better word), or whether you want to be stupefied by esoteric meanderings that might be better served alone in a small room with texts from near and far.

Perhaps though, the answer lies in allowing artists the opportunity to engage with older works in ways pertinent to them. Thus, the way you read BAAL would be different to how I would read BAAL. Ultimately, you differ in the way the text has been interpreted.

The solution? Well that's obvious. This solution is called 'original' work. I mean, what the hell has happened in this country? Must everything be an adapatation? We have I am afraid incorporated the cultural cringe into our very being.

And could I point out that adaptations after all, are the poor cousins of imagination. If the artist who takes on adaptations consider themselves as crafting new works, or even of creating something new from old, one might like to ask whether sampling Bohemian Rhapsody is the same as writing Bohemian Rhapsody?

The answer is plain. It cannot be. The story is the same, the characters, the title. To the extent that adapting a text (as distinct to translating a text) is an equally valuable proposition, then no greater nonsense has been perpetrated on us all. To think that this production of BAAL will exist beyond and above Brechts BAAL is a fantasy too far. There lies your answer Anonymous. No fear, for BAAL by Brecht and not BAAL by Stone will decide it's own fate.

To me, having no penchant for reading old words, I rather enjoy an adaptation - possesing as it does an opportunity to be made aware of something. But to the extent that I want to support new writing (and especially Australian writers), I simply cannot compare a new text with an adaptation. They exist not in the same league.

Oh, and if you want to be entertained and/or tittilated, I don't know, try Crazy Horse. Or just an i-pod on volume 10, a jar of lube and the internet ;)

Alison Croggon said...

Bless you, Anon. You obviously forgot to read the first line of the review (as well as the quote from Brecht). You are perfectly entitled to your view, as indeed am I, but it would help your argument if you had read mine.

Greetings, Mr Scorpion.

Carry on.

Anonymous said...

in support of anonymous 1 (as distinct from myself - let's say anonymous 2), croggon, et al - the origins of Baal's identity are sincerely illuminating. i'm grateful to you both for leading me toward clarifying through historical reference. as scorpion says one goes to meet the work and may not necessarily have the knowledge to assist one's understanding so then we meet it as a piece of art in it's own right - given my lack of prior knowledge about Baal as a glorified or disqualified deity i still found the interpretation shallow. and as a woman i was not offended by the contextualised misogyny, no matter if it was intended or not - i found it flacid and without mystery. i don't also want to feel like i have to understand playwright tropes to be invited into an understanding of a work. so with all that in mind, what i think this production fails at is to show him as a god worth deifying and in contrast to this a perception of him as a false god, as asserted in hebrew mythology - no light and shade. at all.

Anonymous said...

The rest of your treatise was too absorbing Alison, I clearly did not re-read your first paragraph, and my feelings got the better of me. And again they get the better of me:
Scorpion – you raise an issue which needs to be answered by theatre makers across this country.
I cannot stand spectacle on its own which is why in my opinion BAAL fails. When a production succeeds only on that level, it is as anon below you wrote, “flaccid”.
Yes, there is an obsession with spectacle, I cannot and will not argue with you on that count as I agree, geez, ‘Tis Pity… was much the same, even to a greater extent. Michael Kantor was obsessed with the spectacle, productions that look beautiful, sound beautiful, stimulate the senses on many levels, but lack any depth. Wasn’t “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam in one of his productions? Probably with the intent of being ironic. I do not want to be entertained. When, “well at least it was entertaining” is what people say in a productions defense, they are afraid and for some reason under the misguided impression that main stage productions are beyond reproach, or they have no issue with theatre as television drama.
Melbourne’s main stages are programmed for the wealthy, for the elite, and the ominous scent of the established set. Which is changing, but it seems to me that a deeper shift in consciousness is required, not just personnel. And that shift comes from as you say, ‘ORIGINAL WORK’, new voices that have been and are relegated to the cultural fringe. There are token productions each season that are new works, and supposed dedicated projects and developments of new work, but they are just tokens.
I go to the theatre because it has and always has had a social, political and spiritual voice, and to find that voice you need to dig deeper into the creative heart of this city and the country as a whole. And be willing to get a little lost along the way. It’s my fault, I want the main stages to be presenting work that will move me on these levels, which is not too much to ask, so I go back, again and again, hoping that the next show will do just that. And BAAL should’ve.
New work, original work - well of course they are creatively and imaginatively more stimulating than the cannon, but that is not to relegate those works to the trash. There is reason to bring those works out into the light and reveal them anew. Look at them under a different light, perhaps the light of our current state of existence perhaps, in all its complexity, not just tabloid, pop culture bull-shit that panders to inattentive audiences. This country compares sport to art, there is a serious problem don’t you think? And reveals the tragedy of art in this country. Main stage, independent, adaptation, original work, I was not aware that I was comparing Scorpion. I would not even go there for as you say, the comparison is pointless.
Sorry, this is more rant than argument, I will refrain from comment here on in.

Alison Croggon said...

(NB Anons, there is a facility when you comment which allows you yo enter in a nom de plume, thus making it less confusing to discuss things. And why go away when it's getting interesting?)

I found this production, for all the reservations outlined in my review, deeply exciting, and couldn't stop thinking about it for days afterwards; so clearly I am moved by different things. That's theatre. What surprises me - quite a lot, actually - is that no one who's objecting to its spectacle (not at all sure if that is the right word here) seems to have listened to the text. I always listen very carefully to text, and this production seemed to me to be a show that that uncompromisingly framed performance and language. Bold visual strokes for sure, but what is striking is their simplicity: they all focus on the human body and human speech. And if you listened, the text was moving in poetic ways - Brecht is always a poet first - that defy the expectations you are looking for here. Which is why I simply don't agree that this production is "tabloid, pop culture bull-shit that panders to inattentive audiences": no, you had to pay attention, and you had to listen to the language.

It's interesting that when this play was first performed, it prompted a lot of the same kinds of polarised responses. It's a play that refuses, quite starkly, to permit the audience any easy empathy with its anti-hero. And that is quite deliberate on Brecht's part: that's not the kind of response he wanted. So the question is, if one is doing Brecht, does one attempt to do Brecht, or something else? To transform Baal into some kind of empathetic creature would have been a travesty. To perform Baal as he would have been done in his day, with Caspar Neher's stylised drawing rooms, would have made it a museum piece. Which is why I so admired the ambitious solutions Stone found here: it foregrounded the lawless force of poetry that Baal is in a contemporary theatrical world. And no, that's not comfortable, and neither should it be.

Should we bother about Brecht? Or should one of the most significant and influential playwrights of the 20C be abandoned as old hat, from whom we have nothing to learn or in whose work there is nothing new to discover? Well, cultures move on; but it's obvious what I think. I do recommend reading Brecht's version (there are a number of translations available. I've got two) and maybe some of the widely available books about Brecht's theatre - Martin Esslin has a good one - and thinking about it again.

the scorpion said...

Perhaps the matter we now face is the spectacle of our cultural cringe here in all her glory. Not only must we face day to day the endless parade of old canonical placemats, they force from the table those new canons that blast us they could with what we have here before us, right now to feast upon.

Should we turn away from such old work or should we simply ask where are the new poets, and where those from within this corner of the world can be heard?

There is, and this is a fact, a return to old plays, by old men, with young men, all white doing them.

Arguments of late for the role of women in the theatre industry with all merit crying out for attention, replace that matter of even more primary importance.

The matter of Australian artists and Australian stories being told. These matters are crucial to who and what we are as a people. Their absence shows, replaced as they are by these adaptations of old documents (not withstanding their ability to show us the world we live in), the very matter that we should be alarmed by.

That the lack of new Australian work can somehow be argued away by new Australian productions of old non Australian work is simply a case for marketing. It is simply a case for a deeply shallow engagement with the role of both our publicly funded theatres and the level of development these organisations put into place for the development of an Australian culture.

Am I saying an Australian theatre culture? No. I am saying an Australian culture. Full stop.

The direction the Malthouse has taken since its name change from Playbox is one that may well have secured to an extent the finances of the place but it has done little for the telling of Australian stories.

For those endless rapes are of myths we do not know, so too those villages where rivers were dammed for their catch, those plains of grasses and the passports to travel. The mighty land and her people so shallowly explored, such lies and propaganda. Such matters of great national importance we turn from attacking in preference for these pitiful stories from elsewhere, told countless times, to be brought to life by such pitifully ignorant and selfishly wasteful men, such a lazy lazy thing an adaptation, such a blazing lack of importance that to slave yourself in its creation renders you nothing if not wasteful of your place in this country, with this wealth.

Adapting an old German play (irrespective of it's place in theatre history), or a greek masterpiece (again irrespective), to do these things with public funding - to the extent of it's dominance over our newer works - or even those more ancient stories from masters yet to be discovered - is a failing, and it is a disgrace.

Indeed, without such engagement with the new, then the old so soon turns back in on itself. Indeed, what old can be regurgitated again for us? What much more old must we sit through? What more must we take from these old things, on brittle paper their lies still fester, the truth of our world, that world still beaten down by these historical fantasies, and paid for by us all with tokens of beads and blankets infested.

Indeed, one might go so far as to call it an abbrogation of duty, a lazy mans inability to face the challenges of today.

And this my friends, is the way that our director led theatre and our obsession with collaboration has led us to the place we are now.

All white, all male, all old being done with mighty images on posters and the cheering squads of meaningless Australiana.

Thus it is spakest. The adaptation is dead long live the adaptation.


Alison Croggon said...

A couple of points. This production isn't billed as an "adaptatiion"; it is, and quite rightly, billed as a "translation". It's cut, as I said, and as far as I can tell - I haven't read the translation so can't be sure - has looked very hard at the various versions of Brecht's text. It is certainly a very close engagement with Brecht's play.

It seems very odd to me, too, to erase the creative work of everyone except the writers. This is a work of theatre and its newness exists in its design, its direction, its performance as much as in its text. Cultural cringe exists in an empty nationalism as much as in empty dismissals. In saying we should do Australian work no matter what, while at the same time dismissing the creative work of the many Australians involved in this production, it seems to me that you're playing Cultural Cringe Bingo. Or are we to have a theatre culture that is hermetically sealed off from both its past and the rest of the world? That way lies death, frankly.

Lastly, I can't see this lack of engagement with "the new". Coming up next in the Malthouse season are: Porn.Cake (Vanessa Bates's new play), Golem (Lally Katz's new play) and Moth (return season of Declan Greene's new play, premiered last year). Three new Australian plays, two by women, on the Malthouse stage before June.

the scorpion said...

Should the public purse be opened for such works irrelevant as they are (apart from being artworks and justifiable to that extent) to the story of Australia and her people.

To the extent that this production is a translation, then the writers/translators cannot be called writers, rather editors, or perhaps designers of words.

Thus, my point being salient and unremitting. No telling of the stories of Australia. Just again, Australia looking elsewhere for her stories to do here.

The new season yes is impressive. Moth, Porncake aside, the Golem piece suggests to me a different thing (but perhaps further thought needs to be had on this), in that there seems to be no established text being used, thus the writing is new. Yes the mythology of the Golem is drawn upon, but like drawing on God or the devil - a concept that stretches across time.

Quite opposed to some dead dude who wrote some play years ago.

Thus. new writing, versus new theatre using old writing.

Point break.

x scorp

Alison Croggon said...

Your point, Scorpion, is no point at all. There is no such thing as "new writing" vs "old writing". If you actually care about writing, that is. Nothing you have said engages with anything I've argued, which might be interesting. You're just making a bunch of confused and unsupported assertions.

Re the "Australian stories" thing: maybe you should read the news stories I linked to in the review. Irrelevant? Or are those just the wrong kind of "Australian stories"?

the scorpion said...

Footballers behaving badly, soldiers behaving badly are the articles to which you refer.

In answer, yes they are Australian stories, indeed, stories of males in society that track back through time and space to be here we are here now and always have been and always will be. To this extent, anything is relevant to Australia and her stories.

However, my point is this. New writing does exist, in the crafting of new arrangements of words, based on what is held within the mind and the world it perceives.

The point I make is that adapting or translating an existing bunch of words is less brave, cheaper and more meagre than struggling to create a new story.

Thus, taking a story already told is not a new story, it is a new telling. So no, this is not new writing. But taking material - that has been and will be forever only inclined to an individual - is a more difficult, more expensive, and more valuable task than copying a map and drawing new symbols in it.

Making a new version of tomato sauce is remaking something that already exists - reinventing it. But it is not creating a new sauce that uses tomato's and goes well on meat pies.

That is the point and I say again, that yes while something may have relevance to Australia (footballers and soldiers), everything does. But writing a play based on a play someone wrote about that issue is not the same as creating an entirely new work - not based on an existing text.

the scorpion.

Alison Croggon said...

Scorpion - This is a deeply unrewarding argument, since you are basically arguing for the total erasure of culture, whereas I prefer to have a memory. But heigh ho.

You have clearly never attempted to translate something. It's much more difficult and challenging than you appear to think, and most certainly involves "what is held within the mind and the world it perceives". One reason why it is a good idea for any writer to attempt: it removes the temptation towards narcissism, and moves the mind towards the contemplation of something other than itself. You should try it some time.

It's impossible to create anything original if you don't understand the originality of works that have already been made. If you don't understand that, you will always mistake novelty for originality. Ignoring "old writing" is certainly the most direct method of reinventing the wheel. Exciting productions of classic texts can't be anything but good for new work. It's one reason why the independent theatre here is looking so interesting.

As a side note, it's kind of depressing how Brecht still calls up the same objections as he did in 1923. Then he was repudiated for "copying" Buchner.

jena zelezny said...

Dear TN

I often read your reviews. Can I say that they're much better than what I see in the papers and for the most part they are well researched.
I want to make a comment about Brecht's Baal. I have just read about ten or so reviews, a couple of interviews and have watched one video from the ABC's Fenella Kernebone. I listened to the director's and translator's interviews too. I have to say that Ms Croggan's comments are closest to the research on Baal that I have been doing for the last four years.

There are so many silly, dubious statements, misconceptions and inaccuracies in what I have read so far in the papers - The Herald, The Australian etc. - AND in the blurb put out by the theatre company, the director and the translator. There is no scope to address them because there are SO many! Believe me.

Let me just say this. It's OK with me if people want to 'read' Brecht differently BUT please don't try to claim that you are knowledgeable and that you are representing Brecht's intention or Brecht's 'world view,' or even the historical context.

I don't mean to suggest that I am including Ms Croggan in this category although the review for TN was not entirely accurate.

I am disheartened by the commentary for at least two reasons. Firstly, the lack of research by 99.9% of reviewers who seem to be content with copying the publicity releases sent to them or fudging from program notes. Secondly, there is much more to Baal than what is represented and IF new readings and translations are to be done, wouldn't it be great to include scholars in these projects. I am disappointed (as an artist/writer/researcher) to find that in Australia there seems to be no dialogue, and no relationship between theatres and the academy. This was not the case for Brecht and it is most certainly not the case in Europe or Britain now.

I put this question to you TN. Why not?

Finally, as just one example of inaccuracy, I need to point out that Baal was not Brecht's first play and that there were at least three different versions of it.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jena - nice to hear from you. And yes, quite, we have no real culture of dramaturgy here, as it is understood in Europe. As a person who is thoroughly innocent of any academic qualifications and has no professional connections to universities, I am entirely the wrong person to ask about the relationship between theatre and the academy. There are connections, but I think others can address them better than I can.

To address your points: I've referred in the comments, if not specifically, to the various versions Brecht wrote of this play. I am certainly aware of them. I wasn't concerned (and seldom am) with putting everything I know into a review, so much as pointing to aspects that illuminate my argument. Secondly, maybe Brecht wrote some juvenilia of which I'm not aware. Baal is certainly logged as the first full-length play in the Brecht canon, written in 1918, although it wasn't the first play produced: that was Drums in the Night, written in 1919. Depends by what you mean by "first", I guess.

jena zelezny said...

Hi Alison,

Thanks for your response. I didn't mean to put you on the back foot. I was simply taking you up on the idea that the blog is for discussion.

A couple more points. Eckhardt is actually Ekart in both the German and the English texts and Baal, is, ironically framed as juvenilia by most theorists. It is not 'logged' as the first play in Germany and first actually means first. It is not an ambiguous term. And, I don't think you were the one emphasizing this, it was the publicity, the director and the 'translator.'

To recap, I wasn't aiming to criticize you in particular, I was lamenting the standard of criticism in the print media. The ABC's Fenella Kernebone is a bit silly and appears to do absolutely no preparation but there you go ...
This is representative of the standard.

From your review, which does not mention which version is being used, I can gather that it is not the last. It is probably the second. I wondered which version the production team claim they translated that's all. They're not clear about whether they did a translation or whether they did an adaptation.

The emphasis on the mythological figure of Baal is misleading.

Anyway, if you want to continue or open up a discussion about the absence of dialogue between production and 'knowledge' (usually framed as the academy) I would certainly like to join in. Is there still an anti-intellectual trajectory in Australia?

Brecht was familiar with Hegel, Holderlin, Sophocles, Goethe, Schiller, Wedekind, Feuchtwanger, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Kipling, Verlaine, Villon etc before he was familiar with Marx,Korsch, Benjamin etc. He was incredibly well informed and well educated, but did not have a degree.

In other words I don't believe knowledge and innovation can be necessarily associated with the academy.

Anyway, if you've got time, respond, if not that's the way it is.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jena - (Am I to take it that you haven't seen this production yet?) I wasn't taking exception, just clarifying: first play to me means the first play written. (The spelling of Eckhardt comes from this version, btw). So what is Brecht's "first play", if not Baal?

I should say there is a huge difference between an academic-style translation, as in Peter Tegel or Eric Bentley's versions, and what is offered here, for a particular theatrical production, by Tom Wright and Simon Stone. The latter comes out of a culture of collaborative theatre and performance that has produced some of the more intelligent theatre made here over the past few years. (And is also partly what previous commentators have been railing against.) It's fair to say that this tradition is more concerned with creating theatrical immediacy than with slavish accuracy; there would be a fair bit of plumpes denken going on. We are talking about smart theatre artists, the reverse of anti-intellectual. This translation seems to be working with all the extant variants, taking what they wanted from them.

"Is there still an anti-intellectual trajectory in Australia?" Where do you begin?

jena zelezny said...

Hi Alison

Hmmnn - some people would consider both Peter Tegel and Eric Bentley to be intelligent theatre makers.

Let's chuck out the term academic and we might get somewhere.

No I havn't seen the production and it's not because I don't want to it's because I can't afford it. Despite the reviews and interviews and the statements from the director and writer, which do not sound knowledgeable or intelligent, I would go because it is a supposed reading of Brecht and I am interested in seeing how Brecht is interpreted.

My comments do not come from pedantry or intellectual conceit.

Look I'm sorry but I don't actually think there is much (real)difference between Tegel's translation and the original German. There are anachronisms yes, but I really don't think that the Wright/Stone combo have 'got it' and I havn't spent four years twiddling around. I thought you said you havn't read the translation? And can I ask have you read all three versions in German and in English? And have you seen any other productions? And if not, how do you know that the Wright/Stone production isn't a surface reading, mutilation, misdirecton, or worse, a vanity exercise?

All of these questions are relevant IF one is claiming to attribute thoughts and intentions to Brecht which is what the production team is doing.

If you think that what Wright and Stone have done is intelligent that's OK. I don't have to agree. I will publish my thesis in toto or in parts shortly.

I like your blog. It's a great idea.

Alison Croggon said...

I wasn't suggesting anything negative about Tegel or Bentley, just that these artists have entirely different ambitions to those translators. I'm not writing a thesis about Brecht here; I'm responding to a particular, deeply interesting production done by some artists whose work I've followed for some years, about a playwright who also interests me deeply, and who I have read over many years.

To answer your questions: I have read both translations, but not the German, although I have read some of Brecht's poetry in German, albeit very slowly. Yes, since saying I haven't read the translation, I've been sent two drafts of it: one the original (from the German) and one the version that ends up on stage.

I can only recommend you go and form your own opinion. You clearly have your own take on Brecht and it seems likely to me that you will have a more purist take on it than I do (I am not purist about anything in theatre). Student tickets are quite reasonable - $26 - and given your level of interest, it would probably be worth it. You would also, whatever you think about it, have a clearer idea about what I'm talking about.

Alison Croggon said...

As a PS, I'm kind of curious what you make of Heiner Muller's writerly relationship with Brecht...

J-Lo said...

I'm tempted to suggest this chain of comments is a microcosm of the best and worst of internet commentary on theatre ...

TN - I'm waiting for your review of Howie the Rookie?

Cameron Woodhead said...

Re: the Verfremdungseffekt. That's an ex post facto justification on Brecht's part, of course. Baal, at least in this production, is much more expressionist theatre than epic theatre, and its relationship to emotion should be judged accordingly.

@Jena: So many strong opinions for someone who hasn't seen the production! If you want to narrow the distance between the academy and the theatre, stop griping and bloody well go.

@ Scorpion: Your whinge about adaptations/translations of classics is misplaced. Ditching Australian writing for the latest Sarah Ruhl play, on the other hand ... WTF?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi J-Lo - for a number of reasons it would be tedious to relate, I haven't seen Howie the Rookie yet. I'm going tomorrow night.

Cameron, at the time Brecht was very definitely one of the signals of the end of Expressionism, and I'd say rather that Baal is the beginning of a critique of the Expressionist artist. Clearly he hadn't invented his theories about Epic Theatre yet. Still, as early as 1920, he wrote: "I can compete with the ultra-modernists in hunting for new forms and experimenting with my feelings. But I keep realising that the essence of art is simplicity, grandeur and sensitivity, and the essence of its form is coolness." Which is coming from another place entirely.

Should I see the Ruhl, btw?

Richard Pettifer said...

Alison, I just didn't get the poetry. And I shouldn't have to listen harder. I'm not lazy!! I think really hard in the theatre!!! But no poetry, from the moment Thomas Wright turned his back on me and I couldn't quite make out what he was singing, struck me with any sort of force or personality that a wet mattress couldn't muster. The exception is a few admittedly ripper one liners - (Baal declares "Whatever I am, I'm not anymore!" or something to that effect) that did a nice job at ripping up and pissing on various philosohical and artistic standpoints.

But I feel empty in response to what I feel is an empty play, and that is a disappointing feeling to leave a theatre with, and I believe raises bigger questions about its creation, as, sitting on the smaller seating bank and looking over at the crowd, I saw was a general feeling of 'Who cares'. And these are the people who actually came to the show. What about the people outside? The ones who don't come to the theatre? Why should they care???

Certainly, I felt a strong sense of status quo from this play... it devalued life, it took away my love. In doing so it disempowered me. Who am I without love?

Reading back over this it all sounds very harsh - I believe I just accused the play of stealing my humanity - but I suppose my biggest fear is that decisions have been taken here in the name of 'cool'. If this is the case, I think the opposite is true, and from shallow pursuits, shallowness has been the reward. Perhaps I'm mis-assigning the meaning of the aesthetics, scripting and production to the show itself. I hope so.

I'm willing to forgive a show with good intentions, I just feel that this didn't have them.

Richard Pettifer said...

(***part A - edit pls Alison??)


My thanks for a great review.

Sorry to jump in on this engaging and interesting argument. (To give my 2 cents, I think a purist take on Brecht is kind of against the spirit of the guy, y'know, he was full of energy and anger, and i believe he wasn't all that concerned with historical accuracy, he sure gave it to the Begger's Opera, so I suppose why should we be concerned about his i's and t's?? Or Baal's for that matter, when Baal is virtually reduced to the symbolic here anyway).

Anyway no doubt I will cop it for that... but I just don't think about Bertholt Brecht and Baal when I'm sitting in the Malthouse watching a show, I care about what's in front of me.

And, to pick up on the thrust of some other arguments, (anon #1, anon #2, Jena) I feel that this was 'shallow'. Whether we are talking about depth of research, depth of ideas (I doubt I've seen anything that borrows from German theatre cliche so much??? maybe that is harsh but you can't just rip something out of Sasha Waltz and put it on stage and pretend no-one will notice, it was only 2 years ago. And the rock star thing??????????? CAN WE STOP DOING THE ROCK STAR THING???!!!!!) or depth of character, there was an emptiness in this play that I whole-heartedly object to though I have no accusations at any particular party.

Aimlessness, nothingness, nihilism; these are full, beautiful concepts, if these are merely performed and not philisophically investigated they are ironically boring, despite containing potent revolutionary energy (if not now, then let's say they did in Brecht's time.)

In summary I think this theatre is lifeless, impersonal, cold, dehumanising and sterile. (I'm certianly willing to acknowledge that these can all be good things in the theatre, and perhaps in this case they were and I'm just not feeling the vibe?)

Cameron Woodhead said...

Brecht was a genius, but it would be unwise to trust what he has to say about himself. Baal is so obviously influenced by his friend Wedekind, and it was a rewrite of an expressionist drama in the first instance. Stone's production was expressionist par excellence, didn't you think? Right down to the Christ-like carrying off of the corpse. Very "station play".

My slag of Ruhl's play is up on the blog. Based on your reviews of her previous work, I'd say give it a miss ... On the other hand, the critics in Sydney loved it, and you've never been one to shy from controversy!

Alison Croggon said...

4 Coffins, I deleted the extra post but can't reorder them - so people will just have to work it out...! I've had a couple of wines, so won't respond now: I'd like to respond properly. I actually don't understand what you mean by saying nihilism is a full concept: some kind of negative reflexiveness? That seems to me to deny the, well, nihility of nihilism... But there are some things I've thought over the past week about Baal's sterility which I'd like to tease out.

Cameron, I know that it's common to claim that artists are not to be trusted speaking of their own work, and artists very often are the first to say so. Still, I think it's worth taking note of Brecht here (and in that other note I mentioned from 1926) - he strikes me as an artist who always had a very clear (even brutally clear) idea of what he wanted to do, and those vague early searchings in no wise contradict the ways his work went later. Yes, Baal was written in response to another play, but in order to mock its premises: his early work, like the Hauspotille was often parody. Yes, parody is of course half homage. Yes, all the same, from the beginning he was aggressively scornful of the post-Romantic idea of the artist that came out in Expressionism.

Richard Pettifer said...

I suppose I mean that Nihilism can fill a theatre, as opposed to Emptiness, which... leaves it empty? One can be Nihilist on stage and still be giving to an audience. Emptiness is subtration, a taking.

(To be honest I'm not sure what I mean but there I had a go at it.)

Alison Croggon said...

Awake, and more or less alert: so here we go. 4Coffins, I don't know what to say about the poetry: it's there in the script, all the time. This translation gives us Brecht's early poetry, tough, crude, often offensive and lyrical.

You say: "In summary I think this theatre is lifeless, impersonal, cold, dehumanising and sterile."

I can perfectly understand how you might feel that (although I, personally, didn't find it a lifeless experience). As someone said in a conversation elsewhere, this production refuses consolation on almost every level. It is a genuinely nihilistic play (which is actually quite rare): Baal destroys every possibility of redemption and, yes, love.

Here I should probably restate that I'm not uncritical of the production (and will probably see it again, because I'm curious to see how it has developed in performance). There were aspects I didn't think were entirely worked through. And there's no doubt that the original play lacks the intellectual and aesthetic elegance of Brecht's later work, although its energy is, to my mind at least, compelling. It's an energy chiefly compelled by anger. I do think this production delivered Baal as the figure Brecht imagined. He was attacking the romantic cliche of the poet: this production gives us the romantic cliche of the rock star (sort of: it's not an exact fit. Maybe more a rock star poet).

Baal is an ancient god (or, actually, several gods) of fertility. Brecht certainly drew from this symbology: he alludes to natural forces like rain, sky and fertility constantly. But here this natural force (Brecht describes Baal as a "wild animal") is placed in a social context in which that symbolic possibility is neutered. It leads to perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this play: this symbol of fertility loathes and fears fertility. He hates the fertility of women with a passion: for him fertility is deathly. He is, in every sense except his production of poetry, sterile.

In many ways, Baal is Brecht's youthful expression of hatred for his own bourgeois background. Baal rejects every system of value, and especially rejects any redemptive possibility for art. It doesn't redeem. It doesn't educate. It doesn't make us better people. It doesn't console. It just is, like the wind and the sky are. All those values are projected onto it, and in that projecting, they kill it. Baal is sterile because he refuses all the other deaths that are offered him: literary success, bourgeois happiness, transcendence. His final words (and the final words of the play, in this and Tegel's versions) are: "I'm still listening to the rain". Which is the closest he gets to meaning. But even this doesn't get to the central intuition in the play, that art itself is an expression of sickness, a symptom, if you like, of the inherent Fall of civilisation: it's what happens when bourgeois comfort and self-interestedness make life itself, in its rawest and most authentic sense, impossible. It's a crude apprehension here that nevertheless explains Brecht's later attraction to Marxism.

And I guess that that argument is, to me, still worth stating, although I am personally no nihilist. We load the production of art with all sorts of hopes and expectations that imprison its originating energies: we want it to educate us, to redeem us, to console, to make us better people, to give us careers, and so on. Brecht is saying that art doesn't do any of those things.

I agree that you can see all sorts of influences, especially European influences, in the direction: like I said, this production wears its antecedents on its sleeve. But for me, it made something different out of them.

Anonymous said...

What if the problem isn't that there are adaptations / translations of classic work, but that they're all being done by the same people? How many more dead playwrights are we going to see skinny-jean clad Stone and Co. resurrect before we get sick of their brand of semen-drenched spectacle? How long before their stale old saint, Godfather Wright, drops from his perch at the Wharf? Perhaps then someone other than packs of well-to-do, educated, middle-class white boys might get a shot?

I hate to go Germaine Greer on you all, but this industry is obsessed with boys.

And no matter who they're dressed up as, or who's words they're reinventing, they all look and sound exactly the same.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - I agree that women face particular problems in working in the theatre. But is it true that only men (and only some men) are looking at the classics? What about directors like Anne-Louise Sarks, who directed that excellent production of The Nest last December and this year will be making a highly anticipated production of Antigone? Or Adena Jacobs's excellent production of Elektra last year, which featured the brilliant Zahra Newman in the title role? Or Marion Potts's Venus & Adonis or her adaptation of "Tis Pity She's a Whore in February? Or most recently, Margaret Cameron's production of Minotaur, which among other things was jumping off a classic opera?

I can understand your frustration, but at the same time it seems wrong to me to dismiss good work simply because it is made by men. What needs to be done is to support the excellent work of women that is also being made, rather than unwittingly erasing it.

Anonymous said...

Of course women are adapting classics too, but compare the plays you have mentioned to those of Hayloft. Where are they playing? The Dog Theatre? Abbotsford Convent? Meanwhile, Hayloft (and their sole female member - oh representation, what a wonderful thing!) have saturated the main and independent stages with their repetitive aesthetic and practice. My argument is not against classics or 'good theatre', but the opportunities for others to demonstrate theirs - particularly in larger, supported venues.

And you assume that my argument relates only to women. Of course, I acknowledge the success of Marion Potts (although, unlike Hayloft, she has a career of experience behind her). But I mention class and race very specifically. Where are the companies with a commitment to diversity? Wouldn't it be more interesting hearing a Chekhov or Ibsen told from those perspectives? Why are main stages rewarding Hayloft for their lack of inclusion? In the case of 'Baal', it is fascinating to consider what Hayloft do end up saying when women become an integral part of their performance. If I get an opportunity, I'll elaborate on why I think your reading of the misogyny of this production is more forgiving than it should be.

In essence - same old, same old. I reiterate: the industry is obsessed with, and fetishises, young white men who make proficient theatre. They're cool and edgy, apparently. But good, sustainable and inclusive theatre it is not.

Alison Croggon said...

So - the work of Anne-Louise Sarks doesn't count, because she's part of a boy's club? How do you define "integral", if not being artistic director of a company, as are both Marion Potts and Anne Louise Sarks? (And no, I didn't assume your argument related only to women, which is why I mentioned Zahra Newman). Of course it is more interesting to see a diversity of approaches to classic work. I've written here about quite a few of them, by both women and men.

Perhaps my reading of the misogyny is "forgiving". I'm not sure about that, although as I said I thought the gender question was not thought through. I don't see any excuses for misogyny anywhere in this production, which is more than can be said for places like the AFL. Or do we just pretend that misogyny can be combated by an unremittingly "positive" representations of women and men? Isn't there a place for a representation of just how ugly it is?

But return to my earlier point, I've been in lots of circumstances where someone has - just as you have here - asked "where are the women"? And being present in whatever way, have found myself in the disconcerting position of being erased or dismissed, in part because I am there. Which results in a kind of double erasure. I'm not sure that helps anybody, and I'd prefer not to do that. However well-meaning and, yes, justified your anger might be, you're dismissing the work of those women as somehow being less significant than that of the men you're talking about. I, for one, don't think it is.

Alison Croggon said...

I suppose I ought to say that Anne-Louise Sarks is artistic director of Hayloft. Not sure if that's clear here.

Anonymous said...

No, the work of Anne-Louise isn't discounted because of that. Conversely, it is highlighted because she is the only hint of diversity within the company. Which is troubling for a company who are everywhere and getting opportunities everywhere - particularly on main stages. And that highlighting of Anne-Louise as Artistic Director (although, within their company structure it isn't clear what that role actually entails) becomes an issue of potential tokenising itself.

I'm not asking 'where are the women?'. Clearly, there are excellent female theatre-makers making excellent work. Your blog does a great job of exposing many of them.

I'm asking 'why aren't there more women, people of colour, and those from a broader range of backgrounds getting better opportunities?'.

To ask that question doesn't mean you ignore the ones who are successfully making / successfully in positions of power. But it means you don't rely on them as sole examples of why the dominance of white men in the industry, and the rapid main stage embrace of a youthful male-dominated company like Hayloft, is not problematic. Individual achievements and successful productions which showcase diversity, while completely deserved of attention, are not counterpoints to systemic inequality.

There is not equality in this industry. And that point needs to continue to be made, critiques and questions need to continue to be asked, if there is any hope of effecting change.

Alison Croggon said...

Wow, Anon. Suggesting that Sarks is a "token" AD is putting yourself on shaky ground indeed, and illustrates my point: why dismiss the work that women are making and having success with, in order to support the (uncontroversial, to my mind) contention that there is inequity in our theatres and that more diversity is a highly desirable thing? (Why am I getting the feeling that you're based in Sydney?) Sarks has directed two hit shows for Hayloft, both of which also hit my "best of year" lists - Yuri Wells and The Nest. She's hardly "the only hint of diversity" in that company - eg, Hayloft premiered Rita Kalnejais's BC - and quite clearly is holding the reins now Stone has moved to Belvoir. How can you claim to be feminist and at the same time deny that this woman has genuine authority in that company?

I totally agree that diversity is a problem on our stages. If it is an endemic problem, then particular attacks on particular works of art/companies doesn't strike me as the best way of ensuring that inequity is addressed. And if critique is to be truly effective, its first duty is accuracy.

Anonymous said...

You misunderstand, Alison. Re-read what I wrote:

'highlighting of Anne-Louise as Artistic Director... becomes an issue of potential tokenising itself.'

I have never suggested that she holds her position as AD as token, and nor would I. What I'm suggesting is that it's very easy for an observer to say 'look, there is a female AD!' and use that as an argument for equality. There have, and always will be, female ADs. There is no demonstrable correlation between female ADs and increased opportunities for female / other artists (I can dig up research which suggests female ADs are more likely to discriminate against female artists).

My point about the structure of the company relates to my understanding of it's decentralised nature. It appears to have many things running in different places at the same time by different groups. Again, it is not a criticism of Anne-Louise or a claim about her authority, merely an observation and an admission that within those parameters, I do not clearly understand what the role of their Artistic Director is.

Your example of Rita Kalnejais' play highlights my earlier points: a play which had one season in 2009 as part of Full Tilt, directed by Simon Stone. I did not see this show - I am not Melbourne based - but in the scheme of their activities it is an exception. You again put forward one example of something, but forget four or five others which contradict it. As I said earlier, this is dangerous and mitigates the reality of this company's producing. If you looked at Hayloft's activity on the whole, you could not honestly say they were dedicated or committed to diversity or inclusion.

They are not the only company guilty of this. There are many, many others. But my problem rests with the main stages giving them unparalleled exposure and support. I would love to see them use those opportunities to challenge themselves, their models of work, who they work with and why. To really critically engage with what they are doing and open all of that up.

Criticism is, in my opinion, at least the initial site on which this should occur. How else to encourage them to take a look in the mirror? They might only see what they like looking back at them, but at least then we can know that they've looked.

Alison Croggon said...

I read what you said very carefully, Anon. My point remains. You began by saying that no one aside from a few select male artists do the classics; when I pointed out that wasn't true, you shifted ground. And have all along.

You say, for example: "it's very easy for an observer to say 'look, there is a female AD!' and use that as an argument for equality". Where did I do that? Yes, that's right: NOWHERE. I have nowhere suggested that there is not a problem in theatre in general. I am suggesting that this kind of attack, which relies on gross and inaccurate generalisations, is counter-productive: it does nothing to address those endemic problems, which are difficult, and by denigrating the women who are achieving, succeeds in marginalising the work of women still further. You have been, frankly, grossly insulting, to Anne-Louise Sarks in particular. There are indeed questions to be asked, but this is wholly counter-productive.

I'm not sure, in any case, why Hayloft is at issue here, since Baal is not a Hayloft production. Hayloft is a very small, independent company. The only thing they seem to be "guilty" of is producing interesting theatre. Single seasons are the rule rather than the exception: their first production, Spring Awakening, which was in any case a completely different production when it appeared at Belvoir, and the various Fringe seasons of Yuri Wells, are the only exceptions I can think of. Maybe have a look at the ethnicity of its members before accusing it of a "non-inclusive" policy: its members include people from Greek, Lebanese and Hispanic backgrounds, hardly white-bread WASPS...or are they considered "white" and can therefore be marginalised too? I'm sorry but I don't get it. How about the idea that the more women achieve and are recognised artistically, the more becomes possible?

Chris Boyd said...

At the risk of violating TN's comments policy, I'd just like to tell jena zelezny to get comprehensively fucked. My research never -- repeat never -- includes press releases and program notes. (If I read them, I read them only after I have completed my review.) For my review of Baal, I went to John Willett, Deborah Philips, Steven Berkoff and many others including Brecht himself.

My review was for a newspaper, not a peer-reviewed journal. It's for the masses, not the academy. It's a part of journalism. By all means engage with what I wrote... get specific -- instead of making dismissive and defamatory generalisations -- so that I can respond.

Anonymous said...

Alison, please don't be condescending. Even someone who had never seen theatre in their life would be able to assume that women also adapt classic texts. My point always was and remains that the majority of these adaptations on the main stages are from the same perspectives - white, middle-class men. I acknowledged that Marion Potts was an exception, and noted that your assertions are constantly backed-up by those kinds of exceptions, not rules. Shall I generate a list of adaptations by Andrew Upton, Tom Wright, Simon Stone and Hayloft featured on main stages from the last five years and put it alongside those done by women?

I have already said I fully believe in celebrating the successes of women and underrepresented groups in the theatre. But there comes a point where you have to move beyond that because celebration isn't ultimately productive. It's passive. It doesn't lead to anything. You say that the kinds of arguments I am raising are counter-productive, that they don't address endemic problems, but then I ask you Alison: what are you proposing instead? How are you suggesting we move beyond the stasis of inequality? How are you addressing those endemic problems? You're not. You're applauding, and celebrating, and saying that we should be happy with the exceptional successes here and there and that somehow, 'more becomes possible'. That just isn't good enough and it certainly isn't feminism. Regardless of your response to my views, I am trying to raise the issues to the forefront so that people may at least consider and engage with them (and they are not exclusively held views), not just sweep them under the carpet.

I actually never said you claimed female ADs were a sign of female equality in the industry (although I'd argue that you probably did when you posed "How do you define "integral", if not being artistic director of a company, as are both Marion Potts and Anne Louise Sarks?") - I said it is easy for observers to do so. And they do. Constantly. Read the press from Marion Potts' appointment, for example. What I am arguing is that equality is so, so much more than simply positions of power in a company. And while those women should be celebrated there is so, so much more to do.

I take offence that you think I would attack another woman for being successful. I don't know Anne-Louise Sarks (although I have heard she's extremely talented), I openly admitted that I don't know what her job is as an Artistic Director of Hayloft (which I should note that according to their website, Simon Stone is also) and I have consistently said we need more women, and under-represented groups, in these positions and included at all levels of theatre making. Ethnic diversity of company members is a good start, though scanning their website, I found little evidence of continuous involvement from many. As I continue to argue, and will argue until there is equality, there needs to be more. Where were they in 'Baal'? In 'Thyestes'? What roles did they play in the creation of these works? You don't address serious imbalances by offering up and celebrating one or two exceptions. That is not how change occurs.

I admit there is an issue which I have conflated - adaptations and original works. It is Hayloft's adaptations, and the adaptations done by its members whether or not they are wearing their Hayloft hat, which my criticism is predominantly targeted at. These are the works that I have seen. Of course, the bigger issues are all interconnected - their key performers and creatives are still overwhelmingly male - but I apologise for being tangental in my argument.

Instead of trying to make me out as some demon bitch hell-bent on destroying other women, why not engage with me and offer what your solutions are to the inequities of the industry? Where, and how, do we get somewhere more representative? Is optimism really enough? If you get the time / opportunity, I would love to read your thoughts.

Alison Croggon said...

My goodness, aren't we all in bad tempers today? Fair 'nuff, Chris.

Anon (I'm finding it increasingly annoying that I don't know who I'm arguing with): Wtf? Demon bitch? I was disagreeing, not calling you names. I'll not condescend, if indeed I was (I thought I was just cross at your extremely unjust attack on Hayloft) if you stop projecting things I wasn't thinking onto what I say.

I was simply suggesting you get some facts straight. Like, for instance, your insistence that I am arguing that everything in theatre is perfectly fine and equal, when I am in fact saying the complete opposite. The argument began when I said that it is counterproductive to erase the work of women that IS visible on our stages: why misrepresent an already bad situation, in order to make it worse? When did I say that the minority presence of women was perfectly fine because at least there are some of them there?

How am I addressing these endemic problems, from my powerful position in my own study? I am paying attention to the work of women - writers, directors, designers and performers - with the same respect that I would pay to a man. I'm a critic. That's my job. I don't dismiss or trivialise work because it's made by a woman. Equally, I'm not going to dismiss a work I admire because it's made by men. Just as I won't pretend to admire work just because it's by a woman, or pretend to admire mediocre work just because it's by a man. Etc. That's a call I'm not prepared to make. Fortunately, there are talented men and women all over this town. What needs to be addressed, I agree, is the bottleneck that happens on the main stages. I rather suspect the ecology is different in Sydney; maybe things here are mitigated a little by the health of independent theatre. In any case, I'm looking forward to the next two plays at the Malthouse, both by women, and I hope this is the beginning of more under Marion. The first step - and who knows, maybe the last step? - is paying proper attention to the work itself, on and off the main stages, especially by those in a position to make decisions about what is programmed.

jena zelezny said...

This is going to be my last comment and I'll begin with a quote from Alison, which reads, 'I do think this production delivered Baal as the figure Brecht imagined.'

I have to ask, how can you have an absolute understanding of what Brecht imagined? Surely you can see that this statement is absurd. No one can possibly pretend to know what Brecht 'imagined' especially when his practice and theory can be considered as a work in progress, even at the end of his life.

The production is an interpretation, and can only be an interpretation of Brecht, because it is not Brecht. This is not a negative reflection on the production.

I like your comments in general and still think the blog is a good idea. I'm not a purist nor am I politically correct, or sexually frustrated, or crusty, and I probably use and know more swear words than you. (Sorry I've run out of all the reasons people use to put others down these days.)

I'd like to talk further but not in this format. It's too limited. I am detecting that there does seem to be a prejudice about the academy though and I am someone who doesn't feel entirely comfortable with that. It's a shame.

To Cameron I have to say, don't be so rude please. I am poor. If you've got a good income fine, but $26 is alot of money for me and I've spent the last 14 years studying, mostly Brecht which means I've been living below the poverty line of this country for that time. I'm not an academic, I don't get paid. I'm not whinging about it or about the production, I am asserting my hard won knowledge and my 'interpretation.'

To Chris. You have a foul mouth buddy. Does that make you cool and certified to speak for the 'masses' or does it simply bring you down to the lowest possible common denominator. I refuse to engage with people who interact in this way. Brecht often reviewed theatre too. Being a reviewer doesn't entitle you to pander to ignorance, especially your own. Willett's been quite dead for some time now, what about reading someone more contemporary. Me for instance! HA!

There may be a way for me to speak with the writer and director and to see the production. If so Alison I'll let you know what I think.

best regards to you,

Alison Croggon said...

Ok, Jena, I'll pay that one. I never normally assume that I know what an artist "imagined". (Mind you, this also applies to what you are saying - you have your own interpretation, which is in fact as contingent as mine). I meant, of course, that what I saw on stage seemed to me to be an interpretation of Baal that closely accorded with what I think he represents and is.

I imagine that if you approached the Malthouse and explained your particular interest in Brecht, they might nicely offer you a complimentary ticket. Theatres can be quite generous in that way. Always worth a shot. I do agree that relationships should go both ways - you can hardly complain about the gap between the academy and theatre when you don't attend the theatre. And it's simply absurd to judge a production on its publicity.

Re Chris's comment, well. It's an understandable reaction.

Yes, this blog has been a good idea for around seven years now.

Chris Boyd said...

I’d be happy to read your work -- 14 years of it versus my mere 14 hours -- though you’ll understand if I’m already deeply suspicious of a writer who, patently, is so obsessed with a dramatic text and, apparently, so uninterested in a Real Life performance text. I suspect all of my “silly, dubious statements, misconceptions and inaccuracies” are merely responses to the semiotics of its production. Incidentally, you are quite wrong in presuming the production team has “attribute[d] thoughts and intentions to Brecht.” Quite the contrary. Which, surely, is one thing my review made perfectly clear.

I am neither cool nor the people’s poet. Nor do I harbour an aversion to the academy. Been there, done that. Nothin’ to prove. Just averse to the boorish & easy slanders of self-appointed know-alls.

Publish or be damned.

the researcher said...

Jena Zelezny wrote:
"Finally, as just one example of inaccuracy, I need to point out that Baal was not Brecht's first play and that there were at least three different versions of it."

Jena Zelezny also wrote in this article:
"The article considers the early work of Bertolt Brecht, particularly the first play Baal and its expression of a possible queer sensibility. ...
Baal was Brecht’s first adult attempt at writing for performance in a theatrical context after many years of writing poetry and songs ..."

An edifying, if undermining, read.

Also, for links between the academy and theatre, see The Stork theatre company, along with Not Yet It's Difficult, all the work of Jane Montgomery Griffiths etc. Of course, you'd know that if you had the money to go see theatre. Jena, maybe you should become a theatre reviewer so you can get free tickets! That way you and Chris Boyd could get to know each other in the foyer over a glass of free wine on opening nights. All in favour, say aye!

Richard Pettifer said...

Um it seems silly to go back to my niggly little nihilism thingy after all this drama but, well, I've already written stuff in a word doco as I didn't have access to internet, and there's stuff I need to air and think about. And perhaps this is an opportunity to return to the play at hand. So here in quotation marks with some additons in brackets:

"A solid argument(defense?), Alison, but I fear you are paying far too much respect to a play that, for my mind, hasn’t earned it.

It feels like this play reveals, to me at least, a distinction between Nihilism, that respected philosophy with revolutionary potential, and Emptiness, which in this context constitutes a rejection of theatre as tool of change, anti-human, close to giving up. A theatre is not empty, it is filled with people and thus potential. I reckon that emptiness can be presented but cannot exist as the be all and end all.

For one thing, this approach strikes me as ironically anti-Brecht. To my knowledge, his entire energy was bent towards the revolutionary potential of theatre, and he never ignored his audience (oh god please feel free to correct this but don't call me names).

Richard Pettifer said...

Perhaps Nihilism has become part of our consciousness, and has lost its revolutionary potential. In which case, I disagree with you Alison when you say that the argument is still worth stating, simply because it is not an empowering, it is futile. Which I suppose is the key issue I take with the show.

But I doubt that Nihilism has become futile. The affirmation offered by consumerism provides plenty to be angry about, giving nihilism a different target (ironically, the spectacular is part of this), for example.

I guess where this leads me is the feeling that the text has been mis-appropriated. I see the anger, but I have nothing to direct it towards (and so perhaps I turn it on the show). It was like watching a dude on the tram rant into thin air, unconscious that there may be people watching, speaking to hear himself. I’m not asking for a half-curtain and placards, but I would suggest the aesthetic of the show significantly adds to this sense of distraction, and morphs into a sort of anti-Brecht. This is a play that rebels against itself, and in doing to strangles itself.

Perhaps there is an argument in here that Brecht cannot exist without politics. I am not sure how I feel on this. I certainly would hold this show up as an example of the former: I did not exist for this show. That, to me, feels like a crime, and it is one that gives Baal an air of arrogance and pretence, whatever the actual intentions behind it."

Any opinion on this Jena? :) I'm by no means a Brechtspert. Though I did learn how to pronounce his name correctly. Brecghccckt.

Alison Croggon said...

This is The Thread That Will Never Die... Just a note: Blogger seems to be throwing quite a few comments into the spam folder, so if they don't appear, they're waiting for me to rescue them.

Thanks, Researcher. Well, it sounds as if the First Play problem is solved. And thanks for the pointers on those collaborations.

Hi 4 Coffins - call you names? Never! You're one of my favourite argufiers. You'll have to excuse the brevity of my response, though.

Brecht wasn't a revolutionary at 20, although he was pretty cross. To my knowledge, there's not much evidence that he was interested in the revolutionary stuff that was happening in Germany in his teens, although he was certainly rebelling against his bourgeois background. Revolution came later, when he started investigating Marxism. You have to remember how early this play is.

Have you read it? The company really didn't do anything much to the play (aside, as I said, from cutting scenes in the middle). What's there is pretty much what the play is. I think he was always dialectic in intention - that's what he means by "cool"- even before he worked out his ideas about Epic Theatre. Most of the structuring and aesthetic comes from Buchner, ie pre-placards. The idea was, even here I think, to make work that made people think about their situation, rather then "carry them away". So the be all and end all, I guess, isn't the theatre itself, but what happens to the audience afterwards.

Nihilism means, broadly, the destruction of all values. There's various reasons (all personal, really) why I found this production the reverse of disempowering, just as parts of that problematic writer Nietzsche can be empowering; but as I said above, I can wholly understand your response to it. I suppose all I'm saying is that your responses seem to me to be very much a result of Brecht's text. as much as the production.

Alison Croggon said...

Just an afterthought to Anon above, re the Hayloft thing: I'm not sure what you mean by adaptations v original works. But if you're worried by male-only adaptations of classic works, maybe Hayloft might be a model of a way forward, in that The Nest was an adaptation co-written and directed by Ms Sarks, as is the up-coming Antigone. Ie, the structure of this (tiny, as I said, and the core of a loose collective of all sorts of artists) company does seem to permit people of both sexes to make this work.

There is a great deal of difference between small independent co-ops like Hayloft and institutions like the MTC and the Malthouse, which is where, I'd suggest, the real problem exists, and where your critique would be better directed. Still, when Thyestes was done at Malthouse last year, it was side-by-side with Jane Montgomery-Griffiths's stunning Sappho in 9 fragments, directed by Marion Potts (which was in a bigger theatre, as it happens). It's not there yet, but that's the kind of programming I'm suggesting is worth pursuing. I would add that theatre companies have no control at all over the media stuff that reinforces a lot of this male-centric attention.

What concerns me most of all in your comments is that there seems to be no interest at all in the work that is produced, aside from adding up the apparent sex/ethnicity/class of the people involved. Anything that is going to seriously address this issue has to address the work too; art is about a lot more than ticking the right boxes.

jena zelezny said...

To the researcher who dares not speak her/his name.

I'm not afraid of saying that I was mistaken. How about that? Now that I know that I was wrong I do not intend to perpetuate the hegemony of English-speaking Brecht studies people. 'Baal' as Brecht's first play is a mistake that the academy makes in Australia. In earlier days I tended always to respect (and believe) what my lecturers told me. I don't do that anymore, I check their work. Since finding my error I have become aware that a large portion of Brecht's plays, fragments and writing on theatre has been left untranslated.

I don't wish to assume the position of Governor General of Theatre Studies in Australia and even if she offered me her old wigs and clothes I would not wear them.

Sorry no. I'm not into drinky poos with Chris. I'm into intelligent research, exploration and engagement with new ideas and interpretations. I use Brecht for his contribution to the understanding of how the social world is made. I don't really care what colour his bedroom slippers were. Brecht trivia quizes are not my game.

What else ... oh yes Jane Griffiths. Yes I have spoken with her. She's teriffic.

What's remaining? 'Not yet it's difficult'. Oh p-lease. Try some viagra.

To Alison. Brecht was always revolutionary. Marxism does not have a monopoly on revolution - think about all the dogmatic, revisionist 'marxists' wasting space in universities all over the world. Let's bracket totalitarian thought, put it aside and engage with the thinkers who are alive and well and perhaps living in Berkeley.

Oh and Yes thanks Alison, I got a ticket from Malthouse.

I'm sure you or someone else will have the last word but answer this?Who has spoken about the production itself yet? You know the design, the music, the lighting, the performances... just asking?

If you want to read back you'll see that my original comments weren't about the production but about the reviews and the assumptions about Brecht.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jena - I'm glad to heat you are seeing the production. Brecht was, after all, a theatre artist, and knew very well that theatre is about a lot more than the text. I find the idea of writing about theatre texts while ignoring their context and realisation a rather baffling approach.

It would be interesting to all of us if, for example, you could tell us what Brecht's first play actually was. I've always understood that Baal is Brecht's first full-length play, though there were a few one act things and sketches written after the first draft of Baal, in 1919. Or if you could explain how he was revolutionary in those early years up to 20, as opposed to merely in rebellion against his middle class background. (Certainly, especially after 1917, there was a lot of revolution about.) You might provoke more positive responses if you seemed to be more interested in the exchange of knowledge, than merely in scrawling marks in red pen over their perceived mistakes, few of which seem to be actual mistakes.

jena zelezny said...

Hi Alison

I love Brecht's work. I think he was a philosopher/thinker/artist who has made and still makes an incredible contribution not only to theatre but to critical practice.

I don't mind the comments I am overjoyed that a Brecht play is receiving such attention in Australia. It's great and I would like to see more. I'm sure you would too.

When I think about revolution I think not only about overthrowing the dominant order I think about revolution in thought and ways of understanding existence. Brecht loved Hegel don't forget and was no intellectual slouch. You may recall that by all accounts Hitler thought of his movement as a revolution too. The Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 (which interrupted rehearsals for Brecht and Feuchtwanger's 'Edward' in Munich) was propagandized as a revolution, the intention being to seize Munich and restore the Bavarian monarchy. Brecht was according to many accounts involved in the twists and turns of Post-Wilhelminian politics - who could help not being involved? Brecht first showed 'Baal' to Lion Feuchtwanger, a well known thinker, novelist, and a Jew. How could Brecht not be aware of the human propensity toward violence? He was also involved with Helene Weigel by when 1923-1924? AND his production of 'Jungle' in Leipzig was disrupted by a Nazi raid.

My research, according to letters and diaries finds that a draft of Baal was completed by 1918 before the end of the war and was originally set in pre-war Bavaria around the Augsberg region, the rivers, and the Black Forest. The last, and shortened version was completed in 1926 and given three productions with co-producer Oscar Homolka as Baal. So, the first drafts were many and so were the contributors, inclusive of Cas Neher, Brecht's mate and the designer of many of his productions as you know. OK, so Brecht was 20 in 1918 but he was 28 in 1926 and had a few other plays under his belt, a reputation as a radical, and the Kleist prize for new writers.

The 1926 version was not published till the 1960s I think though correct me if I'm wrong. This was after Brecht died in 1956.

The point I make relates to shifts in emphasis dependent on the changing nature of Brecht's influences, interests and stimuli. Thus I can't really see the point in trying to fix the play in a particular place and time. The 1926 version sees Baal as a figure contending with a developing, technologically driven industrial world. The early drafts see Baal in a different way, struggling with destruction, death, war, and changing social systems. Brecht's own comments about the early plays are ambiguous.

Therefore, the approach I take in my research of three early Brecht plays does discuss the context in which they were written but the readings that I offer assess the plays for their contribution to an understanding of contemporary discourse, theatre-making and dramaturgy.

I'm not a theatre historian although I find history fascinating and it has its place.

Alison Croggon said...

If memory serves me right (thank you Iron Chef) Brecht started reading Marx around 1923, which is when he began to formalise his ideas and develop the notion of the collective. Revolution is more than the revolt of the individual, which is kind of (with reservations - in the end the individual doesn't exist) where Baal leaves us; but I think it's fair to say that Brecht always had an instinct towards revolt. Buchner too was a revolutionary, and Brecht was clearly very familiar with him at 20; hard to imagine he wouldn't have known Buchner's Hessian Papers. I still think in Baal he was mostly enamoured by the idea of the outsider poet, pace Rimbaud, Villon etc.

Interesting to ponder the relationship between art and revolution, which was one of the major debates of the 20C (is it now? Maybe in the places where revolution is happening). The revolutionary artist isn't always a revolutionary. Rimbaud might have been at the Paris Commune in his teens, but he ended up running guns and writing reports for the French Geographic Society...

I don't think anyone here is too concerned with pinning Brecht down anywhere. Theatre always has to be reinvented so it inhabits the present, which is what making it now is all about.

Tom Willis said...

Allison! What an amazing thread of discussion. I read this review last week, and thought I would revisit it with the hope of finding some form of ensuing debate...and what a find!

One thought to Jena Zelezny (and indeed, others). As a member of the production team on this show (albeit a minor one - associate designer), I'd strongly suggest that you see the production before suggesting that it is a "vanity exercise" on the part of it's creators.

As theatre makers, we are constantly asked to interpret. It's a fundamental part of our job. It is what makes theater unique in the pantheon of art, in that a single text can be imagined anew a thousand times over, and in doing so, find within it new life, new ideas, new contexts and new meaning.

I do not mean to discredit your research or your (it appears) very strong understanding of all things Brecht. However, suggesting that one requires such a comprehensive prerequisite knowledge of a writer to be eligible to direct a production would lead to a very boring theatre indeed!

Simon Stone doesn't spend his every waking moment studying Brecht (although I wouldn't say he's a novice on the subject either). Rather, he spends it learning how to be a better director. He read Baal, and found something in it that engaged him, that made him want to explore its ideas and its language. Just as a reader of a book translates words into an image in their head, Simon (with the help of Tom Wright, Nick, Stefan, Mel and the rest of us) did so with Baal. The only difference (and what makes theatre special) is that we as creators can invite you, the audience, to experience that world, and take of it what you will.

Do not begrudge Simon, nor any of us, for that matter, the right to interpret Brecht in our own way, with our own backgrounds and knowledge base. In return, we will cheerfully welcome your reaction to it, be it positive, negative, or indifferent.

jena zelezny said...

Dear Tom Willis

At last! the designer. WOW. Thanks for your comments. Just want to clear up a few things that I have actually said and things I havn't said.

I wrote to Alison because I thought the reviews and pre-publicity matters were a bit dodgy and did not seem to represent factual accuracies. I mentioned a couple of things as examples, repeat, examples. There are many other factual inaccuracies that I did not mention.

I wrote to Alison because I wanted to discuss the dialogue between theatre makers and the academy.

I did not suggest that the production was a vanity exercise and you are welcome to check back. I was asking Alison IF the performance text was a translation or an adaptation and I wanted to find out which version(s) were being used. I asked, how do you know if it is blah blah and blah if you have not read the original Brecht and have not read the translation either.

This is totally different to suggesting that the production IS blah blah or blah. Don't you agree?

So, to reiterate. I wrote to Alison about reviews and pre-publicity but THE issue for me in the first comment related to dialogue between theatre makers and the academy.

Then a few other people jumped in and one told me to F.OFF. But I'm still here. Another 'anonymous' researcher mentioned an article of mine written within one year of beginning my PHD. I wrote that Baal was Brecht's 'first attempt as an adult' ... This was used to knowingly discredit me rather than the statement. The statement is accurate but the researcher didn't care about that and suggested that the article undermined me. It doesn't.

Please can we have the type of discussion that I hoped for? and yes Malthouse have kindly given me a ticket and I am going tomorrow night.

(Just for background I am an artist with quals. and experience in visual communication and I am a writer for performance AS WELL AS a thinker I hope.

And yes, I 'get' the creative processes involved. I think in images too.)

I guess, to avoid getting blogged down, I should have simply asked for an interview with the guys. But I have communicated with Malthouse before on similar matters and they have never responded. To conflict the situation I could not afford a ticket and it would be silly to interview a director without seeing the work.

Some of your thoughts are related to things that I would not attempt to address through this medium. As I have also said, it's too limited.

You wrote 'Do not begrudge Simon, nor any of us, for that matter, the right to interpret Brecht in our own way, with our own backgrounds and knowledge base.'

I don't. My discussion with Alison will make it quite clear that interpretation is all one can do with Brecht. (Please check back)

I would assert though that it is a little presumptuous to assume that so-called creative persons cannot be so-called academics and that the input they could have offered would not have enhanced the production.

This is basically, my point. What has happened to the role of dramaturgy in the rationalisation of the 'theatre as industry'?

From what I have seen and heard, it is not like this in Europe where some of the best theatre is being produced.

I would really like to talk to Simon Stone or Tom Wright and you for that matter. But I have already asked for an interview through Malthouse and if you do not want to talk to me then I'll have to write-up this part of my thesis without the benefit of their views after seeing the show. That would be a shame but OK.

So, to conclude and recap. I was talking to Alision about things that she and others had written or said. I would not write about the production itself without having seen it.

I sincerely hope that this makes things clearer.

Anonymous said...

The only vanity project here is JZ's PhD

Alison Croggon said...

Inaccuracies? Gosh. This last post is rife with them, Jena. Speaking of which, despite my asking several times, you still haven't told us which play is Brecht's first, if it isn't Baal... so none of us are the wiser why that statement might be wrong.

Instigating the dialogue you hope for could be better done. Chris's outburst, for example, was prompted by anger at your own defamatory remarks, which traduced his work without saying specifically why he was wrong (in which case he might be able to defend himself - he's clearly not afraid of robust debate, and I have had a few with him myself). You suggest that Australian theatre is merely an "industry" without any apparent knowledge of it. No one anywhere here has suggested that "so-called creative persons cannot be so-called academics" (the reverse, rather). Although I can't say that your contributions here have illuminated how you could possibly have "enhanced the production". You clearly had drawn conclusions about the production earlier, even though you hadn't seen it. And so on. (And you never answered my question about Heiner Muller, which was asked out of genuine interest!) If you were less agressively defensive, and more open to listening, you might not raise hackles quite so efficiently, and invite instead the conversation you are seeking. (I agree, it could be an interesting conversation.) Or maybe this is some bizarre kind of performance art?

Anonymous said...

this thread is so hot right now.

Anonymous said...

Eagerly awaiting a relevant response (be it positive or negative) from JZ once she actually sees the production.

Great comment thread.

Tom Willis said...

Hi Jena,

I would be quite happy to sit down and chat with you about the show. Unfortunately, I'm off to Sydney for a couple of months, which makes it a bit tricky to tee up.

Regardless, I think you would find talking to Simon or Tom Wright far more rewarding - after all, they were the ones who translated the text. They too, unfortunately, are based in Sydney.

Responding to your last post, I appreciate the context in which you used the phrase "vanity exercise" (your third post I believe). However, I still find the relevant statement somewhat presumptuous and and antagonistic, appreciating the fact that you had at the time not seen the production. I am pleased to hear that you are now going, and agree with Anonymous no.187 that I sincerely look forward to reading your comments thereafter.

Regarding my view on Academia vs Industry, please do not think that I do not respect and value the input of research and academics in a production environment. My point was rather that research is but one part of the production process, and while a show may benefit from it's inclusion, one must be wary that the show does not become beholden to it. This is not an argument against your prior statements...its just me stating my point of view on the matter.

Finally, a minor dig if I may at some of the other contributors to this blog. I find the use of the 'anonymous' badge somewhat infuriating. Surely, if you have a valid opinion, why not be brave enough to sign your name to it? Are you perhaps afraid that people might hold you accountable for what you say? Jena has stirred up a fair bit of debate here, but at least she's put her name behind it!

I'll shut up now...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tom - thanks. Just wanted to say a big YES on the anonymous thing. I don't have a problem per se with people remaining anonymous, and don't especially want to change the settings; but when it involves an argument I do wonder why people don't want to stand by their words.

jena zelezny said...

Dear Alison and Tom, (alpha order)

thanks Tom. I appreciate your goodwill and faith in mine. I'll be enjoying the show tonite.

Alison, respectfully, and honestly, you are the reviewer and you and your colleagues are being paid. So are the publicity people etc. I therefore think that you should do your job and the background research. The issue of Brecht's first play is unimportant to me BUT I feel small details should be accurate IF they are going to become part of the promo.

So, it's easy to find out - it's not rocket science.

I've never seen a production of Heiner Muller's work. I've read it and I've read Elfride Jelinek. I can relate to the latter more. I also like Sarah Kane and Daniel Keene (who lives in Paris), The Wooster Group and the BE are also on my list of things to see among other things.

As far as revolutionary thinkers are concerned, I adore Judith Butler's work. Some of her lectures are on youtube, for instance, the Edward Said memorial lecture given in Cairo at the end of 2010. If you want to see a genius at work - watch.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jena - that's hardly in the spirit of exchange, surely?

I didn't ask what you thought of Muller's plays, but what you thought if his relationship to Brecht, as perhaps his greatest heir and critic.

And while we're on corrections... I commend your taste in playwrights, but have to point out that Daniel Keene does not live in Paris, but in Melbourne. With me.

A footnote to my comment on anonymity: Internet identity being a fluid thing, a pseudonym that creates an identity - eg 4Coffins, a regular here - is not what I'm referring to.

the scorpion said...

Jena Zelezny is none other than not someone named Jena Zelezny.

Chris Boyd said...

I'm with the Scorp. Either JZ's identity has been 'jacked... or she was cutting it fine for the seven o'clock show. (She doesn't strike me as a Blackberry/Smartphone type.)

Dare I point out that La Croggon has been keeping herself nice all year? Doin' it "free, gratis and for nothin'" again...

Alison Croggon said...

Sounds like the Butlerian acolyte who wrote that essay to me. Either that, or a marvellous literary mimic. Certainly, whoever JZ is or is not, a performance.

Thanks for noting my fiscal purity, Chris.

James Waites said...

Hiya - you guys still at it at past one am in the morning - weeks later! Good on you Melbourne - yep we LOVED the Sarah Ruhl play - totally our glass of tea. Absolutely. We shall probably shrug off Baal with a few comments about whether the naked bodies were HOT - and then head off somewhere retro for champagne and coke and enjoy some sport stars glassing each other.

What do I look forward to? Seeing the show! Especially after Wild Duck! I think Simon Stone is interested in making theatre, of which words (however famous) are just a part.

I look forward to JZ's review after her litany of cringing comments. Can't afford it! I don't buy that - not if this is all so important to you. Suck it up - don't eat for a couple of days. Anyway they have given you a ticket now. Let's see how your theatre reviewing skills stand up again La Croggon and others who have gone to the trouble to put their views out there.

Or better still I look forward to - lol - discovering Jena is actually Jana - just kidding. I don't know any more. You Melbourne people with your intense and passionate cultural debates.

BTW: I do wish people would use their real names. In my book, comments are only as good as the reputation their staked on.You got a reputation- risk it! You ain't got a reputation - earn one!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi James - We take our theatre seriously here, doncha know! Well, maybe...I'm not sure this thread really demonstrates much beyond car crash fascination.

I hope you enjoy Baal when you get there. I think you might. Btw, I'm seeing the Ruhl on Saturday, so we shall see.

No, Jena is not Jana. I enjoy my arguments with Jana. And besides, she is frequently seen at the theatre.

Martin Ball said...

Hey, what a discussion! Pity we can't be all in the room together at the same time. That would take some (mother) courage.

But I liked the comment that Jena Zee should become a theatre reviewer. She can take up the slack at The Age - from which I have recently resigned (being heartily sick of writing inadequate 250 reviews that can be savagely subbed without consultation). It's a largely thankless task, being a newspaper reviewer; and when the financial compensation is so slight, it becomes even less appealing.

All power to the blog...Keep it up, Alison.

Martin Ball

James Waites said...

Yes, I saw Jana had been to Baal and of course her comments like yours are always of interest - it was just a little joke I couldn't resist. I admire you both muchly. Tempted from all the above to do NO prep for Baal (never read it) and just take it in on the night - whatever is served. Yes this thread really has pretty much everything from lack of women artistic directors to 'what in theatre is the original text' - great Easter reading!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Martin! Lovely to hear from you. I heard that you'd resigned, and it's not hard to see why. And yes, being a newspaper reviewer was never much of a career choice here, and now it isn't even that. I think Fairfax's decision to cut to 250 words is frankly shameful: it's the one broadsheet in town, for god's sake! You can't help wondering what will happen. I mean, people have to eat, quite apart from anything else.

I hope we'll still spot you in the odd foyer, btw. Stay in touch.

the scorpion said...

Now perhaps Jena is as the Jesus Bunny Christ, an adaptation, a rip off or a translation and being as it is this most holy Friday for drink driving and churchgoing and eating really really puke rending vileness with some sort of pattern on its toasted goodness she/he/it is off somewhere getting ready to reappear on Sunday, by rolling the Stone away, or rolling it on top of her, and then we shall all hear the world go ahhhh and understand that one can borrow the story of the messiah and faithfully retell it, one can change it into something different to achieve new things but still related perhaps, or one can take that story and retell it in a whole new language.

Question is, at what juncture is any of that an actual new messiah?

Perhaps Jena herself is that saviour?

jena zelezny said...

James Waites?! I was wondering what you were doing and where you were. I did a course that you taught at UWS way back. I did sort of think about reviewing after your great class but decided against it. Not because I'm a purist or I think it's dishonourable or anything and Adison de Wit was only a selfparody by Mankiewicz after all.

I got the info on Daniel Keene from his website Alison. Maybe it's old. The Keene/Taylor project was one of the best things I have ever seen. I know that you asked me about the Muller/Brecht relation but I don't really want to get into it. I don't buy the standard stock issue phrases about certain people being 'heirs' etc.

Yeah! I am who I say I am and I did cut it fine for the performance. I was late but so were a few others so the show didn't start till about ten past. Sorry! I do like the theatre and never usually come late but the trams in Melbourne are as slow as wet weeks.

Speaking of wet. The performance of Baal? Singin in the rain ...

I tried to participate in the culinary method i.e., consume was was put in front of me. But I couldn't because I know the play and its variants.

Ok first, it's NOT a translation it's an adaptation after Brecht and I think really that, as I have been saying, the promo material should not be misleading. (The 1982 British Institute production with David Bowie as Baal is described as an adaptation by John Willett and Alan Clarke.)

I could see what the writer was doing and why but it ended up having the trajectory of a Greek tragedy rather than the discursive, and processual Brechtian feel. For me this was a limitation.

I loved the design by Nick Schlieper and the change was stunning. It took my breath away. I could and did derive my pleasure for 75 minutes watching and listening to the rain.

Nothing else matched this. The performances were, on the whole, bland. Thomas M Wright as Baal had a few inspired moments in the early scenes but the script did not allow for any development or nuance. I could see some Mick Jagger in the body but I could also see some Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott.

The Emilie character was underdeveloped in performance and in the writing as were Sophie, Johannes and Ekart. The actors who played Mjurk and Mech were very interesting but the range of ages used contributed to the blandness/sameness of the performances.

The direction suffered under the script but I loved the way the matress came on, and off. The scene in the hospice/refuge was interesting and shows-up the Greek chorus influence.

The music was competant and well performed but I think also that this is where it all comes apart. Oscar Homolka and Rainer Werner Fassbinder have played Baal and so have David Bowie and Matthias Sweighoffer (recently in 'Valkyrie'). These performaces were in films! AND I wonder two things ... whether this Brecht play is best served through film and whether the part needs a very charismatic and/or very brilliant known actor.

Personally I wouldn't choose this particular early play to adapt. I did a similar surface reading after the first few weeks of studying the play but decided against it because it left out so much.

I then recognized the difficulty of staging the work as written and so have to admire the guts of Stone.

James, I do suck up quite a lot thanks and I'm sick to death of it going on and on and on.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Jena. Good to see that you went to Baal. I think your comments about the discursive aspects are in the right direction.

I'm not jumping off "stock issue phrases" (why this sneering assumption again?) about Muller, but his very interesting critiques on Brecht's work. There's also Muller's long connection with the Berliner Ensemble, for which he was an artistic director. But no mind.

Daniel Keene's work is frequently performed in France, but that doesn't mean that he lives there. We've been married for a couple of decades, but neither of us thought his marital status important to note on his website. However, a moment's research in the "about" section of this blog, where I have put various disclaimers of possible conflicts of interest, would have informed you.

We all suck things up. I think that might be James's point.

jena zelezny said...

Dear Alison

OK I ran and got a mirror and I'm looking at myself as I write. Am I ... no ... I don't think I am ... sneering.

Earlier I was listening to Emma Ayres on headphones while I did some proofing. I love listening to Emma Ayres so I don't think I was sneering then either especially as she was having an amusing conversation with Amanda Smith.

Yes and I understood what James was saying and if he takes offence then I really think he can speak for himself and then I could say that I had no intention of being offensive.

Honestly I don't really care who anyone is married to (unless I want to have an affair with them and then I think it's probably good to know). I guess I wasn't that interested in finding out about your personal life. Is that a bad thing?

Alison Croggon said...

The "about" section is not about "my personal life", but about this blog. Since, as you've said so often, you think TN is such a good idea, and as you are so red-hot about people doing their background research, perhaps you might have been curious enough about what it is to spend a moment clicking through to an information page. Only a thought.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Just so it's clear that it works both ways, my marital status doesn't appear in my writerly biography either.

Chris Boyd said...

Gotta agree with JZ here. Performances on Thursday evening were underpowered and lacked the sharpness and trajectory of the first [please note Jena: that's 'official' (premiere) first, not 'actual' (preview) first] performance. I wonder if the 1pm matinee threw them? Or if end of season fatigue has set in...

When the wall collapsed, an item of clothing (looked like a cardigan, might have been a scarf) blew from the front row to the back row! Word is that someone lost a wig at one performance... this story might be apocryphal!

Chris Boyd said...

P.S. A bit late for commend moderation, isn't it AC? :D

BTW, in a "fraudian" slip, I typed PERView instead of PREview. Heh!

Chris Boyd said...

Oh, and James, we can cope with you liking the vibrator play, but if Dead Man's Cell Phone was Sydney's chai latte, then we formally wish to sever all ties across the Murray. It were shite!

James Waites said...

Hi Alison, hi Jena, hi Y'all. Full marks to you Jena for not just going to the show, but for rising to the challenge and writing about it! I don't care what you wrote - you wrote! Good for you not to be intimidated out of the debate.

You are also very polite to me here after I 'dissed' you fairly comprehensively. In fact, as I posted, I did get a sick feeling that I just been quite rude to you - certainly patronising. But no going back once the button is pushed. The 'suck it up' reference was actually a comment about poverty. To me it wasn't a good enough excuse for your not seeing the show - not if you were choosing to comment on it in such depth. Well I haven't seen the show either, so where does that place me?

I realised on reflection that the thread had dragged you into water that was deeper than you were ready for. Initially you were commenting with the validity of a literary expert. But comment after comment led you to a place where you could go no further without seeing the show. And so you did!

Similarly I stepped in as a reviewer from another city to make comments about commenting. I was certainly not in a position to make comments about the show. And would not think to. (Though I have already written my review from the upcoming Sydney opening night based on this feast of a debate - Yep - I loved the nude stuff...hott!)

So you have 'sucked up' quite a lot, Jena. You could have retreated, you could have become more combative, but in fact you have risen to the challenges you found yourself in - somewhat cornered by baying wolves - and you have held your ground in good grace. You have also stepped up the the challenges put to you.

We are all on this site courtesy of Alison Croggon, and what a mighty job she does not just launching her 'ships' (her reviews) but steering them through the oceans of comment that often follow. She does that with mighty good grace, deftness and a rare spirit of open-mindedness. Here we all are more than 75 comments later, the ship still afloat!

A lot of this is about tone (within the framework of a blog debate) and I think both you and I, Jena, can take some good lessons away from this particular on-line conversation.

Richard Pettifer said...

I think it's fine to remain anonymous, (even without a valid reason to provide an alias, of which there are many.) Sometimes I enjoy anon comments like the couple above commentating on proceedings and saying it's so hot etc.

Alison and Daniel do not publise their marital status for the same reason Hollywood stars don't, so that you, the average joe, can imagine...

...But enough.

A small point Jena, Alison has politely and patiently insinuated a couple of times that you are coming across as abrasive, overly defensive, and kind of outrageous. If you want to provide good commentary, and I make no insinuation that I necessarily do but I certainly try) I would suggest reading her comments carefully and taking them on board. It's been interesting to read this particular thread but if you keep giving you 50000 cents it's going to get old pretty quickly? And I worry it's been largely divertive in this case... anyway for my mind, I reckon this is one of the best places to talk about theatre. Make sure you fill it with the good stuff, valid questions, and we can generate good criticism that is sadly missing alot of the time (all the more so without Matin Ball's reviews. Oh well, at least it's more space for Cameron to blossom...).

Alison... can you kill this thread now?? Declare it dead or something??

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks everybody - I saw Baal again tonight and this time enjoyed it very much. Much sharper and clearer this time. It sparked the usual range of responses in conversations afterwards, from cool to hot. But there's an astounding number of people who have returned for a second look. It's certainly been an Event.

I'm not sure I have more to say on this topic, but people are welcome to keep commenting on the thread (is this the Thread of the Undead?), if they so wish. It opens at the STC next week, and some readers might want to post their 2c too.

Just one note: because this post is older than two weeks, all comments go into moderation now (a defence against the spam which otherwise buzzes in) so there may be delays in comments appearing.

Night all.

Sylvia said...

82 comments! What a debate!

I saw this production about a week ago. It made me angry. Firstly, I don't object to full frontal nudity, simulated sex, excessive consumption of alcohol, violence etc etc.... I object to seriously under-developed, shock-for-the-sake-of-shock, and downright BORING theatre.

There are those arguing that the fact we didn't care about the characters (particularly Baal) was the whole point. That we are supposed to feel detached. But that's a cop-out to me. I wasn't objectively shocked by the behaviour of Baal. I was disengaged and bored in a dull and directionless production.

I don't usually agree with anything printed in the Herald Sun, but I think Herbert had it right: if you're paying more attention to the plumbing than the actual story then something is amiss.

Particularly for me I feel the female actors had almost nothing to work with. It seems Stone thought there would power in numbers - but in fact I think it's the exact opposite. They're meaningless.

It makes me very sad to think of the money wasted on this huge co-production. I heard that Wright and Redding wear 8 pairs of jeans a show between them - and that they alone cost $200 per pair (someone please correct me if this is wrong). Not to mention the water works, and hundreds of twirling, flying UDL cans. This feels like a play that should've been experimented with on a smaller scale - instead of looking like a colossal waste of money.

I am so sick of reviews that write up wank like this as 'confronting' and 'brave'. Give me Robert Menzies standing on the one spot delivering the harrowing story of The End any day.

jena zelezny said...

Thanks James, I was drawn in as you say. BUT intimidation had no part in it. I'm a Brecht/Butler scholar.

I know that all publicity is good publicity and that controversy is good in terms of box office.

A few points to note however.

The show is NOT politically incorrect as advertised. It's pretty mild 70's feminism. Arn't people sick of the Sid Vicious story along with Jagger, Jones, Richards et al I certainly am.

The simulated sex and nudity were pretty tame compared to film these days. Ekart has a nice arse, and the tits were rounded. Nice healthy middle-class bodies. So what?

For Malthouse and the publicists. The words 'new translation' should be removed from the advertising. This is blatant misrepresentation and could have legal consequences.
It's an adaptation.

and I agree that it's pretty much over now but I will want to read James Waites because he's good.

i don't mind being misconstrued as abrasive - at least I'm accurate.

Alison Croggon said...

Jena - you haven't once demonstrated you are more "accurate" than anyone else. You have simply made a series of unsupported assertions.

Sylvia, we can agree to differ here. I had a wholly different experience in the theatre to you, for reasons I laid out in the review. However, I did not say the production was "confronting": I said the most confronting aspect of Brecht's TEXT was its misogyny. And I nowhere said it was "brave". Perhaps read the review again, if you wish to argue with it.

jena zelezny said...

ah dear me

well, Alison, I can't really copy and paste my entire thesis onto your blog now can I.

and I've got to get back to it 'cos I'm due to submit. Seeing the production adds to the validity of my reading so that's all i need.

note to Chris. you're probably a really nice chap. James' notes reminded me that we all should treat each other well. so I'm smiling not sneering.

so long farewell etc

Sylvia said...

Confronting and brave in sentiment. In the reviews in general - not specifically just your review. The quotations were for effect - apologies.

I just meant I'm sick in general of people applauding mediocre theatre because it's seen to be "dangerous" (again - not direct quote. Using them for effect.)

Alison Croggon said...

Jena: No: we weren't asking for your thesis, but answering a few simple queries might have helped bolster your increasingly wobbly case. Very few readings are not valid, theatre being theatre, but your understanding of contemporary theatre practice is clearly very limited.

Sylvia: fair 'nuff. I'm all for theatre being "dangerous", but in fact that wasn't why I liked this production. I didn't think it was. (I think Romeo Castellucci's new show, which has just opened in London, might be more the kind of thing... ) What excited me was seeing poetic theatre in action. Seeing the show again last night confirmed that conviction.

Interesting conversation today about the problem of an L-shaped auditorium, and the fact that it might have worked more powerfully on a pros arch stage, which seems to me a perceptive criticism. The action was certainly best front-on, and stage images on the other side were not nearly as effective. Most other objections I've heard seem to me to be unfulfilled expectations about the play itself, which seem to me to misunderstand what the play is.

But hey, didn't I say I'd said my piece on this?

James Waites said...

I AM trying to get off here: but no Chis I personally did not care too much for In The Next Room. It's a wow of a money spinner but that's about it. The smart women in Sydney, Augusta Supple and Michelle Kotevski (Urban Theatre Projects), had smoke coming out of their ears at the end.

Never saw the other Sarah Ruhl play.

Anonymous said...

"Ekart has a nice arse, and the tits were rounded."

Wow. You could get a job as a reviewer at the 'Tiser. Better if you mentioned if the women had hairy armpits or not.

Jel, Seddon said...

I got to what I think was the last performance. For what it's worth, I thought it was a good show...certainly above average. Much of what's been commented here I don't really understand, certainly it doesn't tally with what I saw on stage. That's fine though.

What mystifies me is that this thread has over a hundred responses. The thread on Tis Pity She's a Whore has eleven. Why? From where I sat that was an abysmal piece of theatre, poorly thought out, dismally acted, with a nonsensical design and no apparent structure or craft. By comparison Baal was a masterwork. Why weren't there a hundred comments about that? For me that's the big problem...that the same company in the same theatre can produce such incoherent work as Tis Pity and assured work like Baal, in a month.

I had a few problems with Baal, but they were so minor compared to what I felt in those same seats a month ago.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jel - Myself, I don't mind failures nearly so much as monotonous competence.

I don't know why this review attracted so many comments. I blame the ghost of Bertolt Brecht.

the scorpion said...

I blame the tall poppy syndrome.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Oh come on, we all know it's JZ's fault. She's insolent and uppity and uses her knowledge like a blunt weapon rather than to elucidate discussion. And after finally seeing the show, she proved beyond dispute she isn't a theatre critic's arsehole. It never fails to amaze me, when you think of the legions trained at university to be critics, that so few of them should be any good at it. Ah well.

John McCallum said...

The Thread That Wouldn't Die has probably ended now, but having finally seen Baal last night in Sydney, I sat down today to read through it (the thread that is). Now, quite some time later, I have finally reached the end. I think it's time to open a bottle of wine.

I agree substantially with your original review, Alison, and with most of your comments, including your reappraisal when you went back. I guess the show I saw last night was more like the one you saw second time round.

But my main comment here, having read these posts in one sitting, is that I greatly admire your patience and forbearance (and, dare I say it, grace) in dealing with all this stuff! I honestly don't know how you do it. Keep up the good work.

Alison Croggon said...

Blogger has been offline the past 24 horus or so, and appears to have completely swallowed this comment from John McCallum. So I paste it below, with cheery greetings to anyone who gets this far...

The Thread That Wouldn't Die has probably ended now, but having finally seen Baal last night in Sydney, I sat down today to read through it (the thread that is). Now, quite some time later, I have finally reached the end. I think it's time to open a bottle of wine.

I agree substantially with your original review, Alison, and with most of your comments, including your reappraisal when you went back. I guess the show I saw last night was more like the one you saw second time round.

But my main comment here, having read these posts in one sitting, is that I greatly admire your patience and forbearance (and, dare I say it, grace) in dealing with all this stuff! I honestly don't know how you do it. Keep up the good work.