Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Why Brecht & Weill Matter More Than Ever

I have an erstwhile friend from college days (the 1960's) who insists that the early, socially-conscious works of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) are "irrelevant," and that all of Brecht's later plays were somehow diminished in stature by the end of the Cold War, the demise of Communism as we knew it, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I say "erstwhile friend" since I ceased all communication with this person about six months ago. My late mother once told me, "In mixed company, avoid all discussions involving three subjects: sex, politics, and religion." I later learned that there was an exception to that rule. One may discuss such things freely and openly with friends; in fact, one cannot truly count as a friend anyone who so completely disagrees with you on matters sexual, political, and religious that they take issue with your every pronouncement on the matters.

This erstwhile friend -- let's call him Tom -- was a person I looked up to in my undergraduate years in college. He was a year ahead of me and well-read, and I mistook his opinionated loquatiousness for erudition. But, then, to me he was erudite. Not only had I come as a freshman to a buy-your-degree "play" university in North Texas from a small city on the Gulf Coast almost 400 miles south, I virtually threw away my three years in high school in favor of playing class clown. (In retrospect, I think I had A.D.D., but now that we know a lot more about the drugs used to treat it at the time, I am glad that some wise synapse in my mother's brain told her to avoid such things as Ritalin, which might have made me "behave.")

Tom had superior knowledge of the very things that interested me most: film, theatre, literature, and the performing arts. But I soon enough learned that these were the only intellectual pursuits we had in common, for we were, politically, diametrically opposite. He was a Goldwater Republican and I was a Kennedy liberal. Sex and religion did not at the time enter into our discourse. Only later in life would those subjects rear their heads and become for me insurmountable obstacles to maintaining a friendship. To make a long story short, it was Tom's politics that dictated his feelings about Brecht and Weill, politics that seemed to me to have degenerated from Goldwater's libertarian, states' rights brand of conservatism to what I can only describe as the crypto-fascist wingnutiness of the neo-cons.

As the recent PBS broadcast of the L. A. Opera production of Aufsteig und Fall der Standt Mahagonny demonstrated, Brecht and Weill are alive and well in a "City of Nets" near you. Productions of the opera are relatively rare, so it's odd that 2007 saw not one but two of them. One was mounted at the Charleston Spoleto festival (founded in honor of Carlo Menotti); the other, recorded for PBS, at Los Angeles. Reviewing the Spoleto version, opera critic Fernando Rivas wrote in the Charleston City Paper that Mahagonny was a "Marxist scream of defiance against capitalism" and wondered why this particular work had turned up at a music festival that 'is in so many ways the product of a solidly capitalist system."

Rivas then went on to speculate that the schisms between the haves and have-nots that were always at the heart of the Brech-Weill collaborations were possibly prophetic. He asks, "why does that final scene of Armageddon [in Mahagonny] when people unhappy with Mahagonny carry protest signs and kill each other seem so...contemporary?" Then, Rivas asks, "Is it possible that Brecht's larger message, not about socialism and capitalism, but about humanity's inability to resolve conflict and its inability to cope with its own fears and violent appetites is still relevant?"

He also wonders why the subplot of a "hurricane barely missing a city" manages to "hit such a responsive chord" in a place like Charleston? Was the Spoleto audience recalling how our federal big brother mishandled the Katrina disaster even as the nation was bogged down in a preemptive invasion in Iraq? Apropos the invasion, ironically the first Gulf War was called "Desert Storm." Instead of claiming that 9/11 was God's wrath visited upon a wicked nation populated by homos and abortion doctors, perhaps the fundamentalist preachers should have speculated on a different cause: Iraq. But God forbid the fundamentalists should ever engage in arguments from post hoc, ergo propter hoc analysis of events. It would seem to me that if we hadn't been spending so much money in the Mideast, we might have had more resources to aid New Orleans. It is commonly known that many rescues in that city, post-Katrina, had to be called off due to a shortage of helicopters.

Brecht and Weill began their association during the Weimar Republic, a time that has come to be "synonymous with political instability, inflation, and decadence," as one Kurt Weill biographer, C. J. Schuler, has written. It might be observed that these same ills mark early 21st century America, especially if, by "political instability" one points to partisan deadlock in Congress, and by "inflation," the rising cost of all goods and services spurred on by oil selling at record prices, and by "decadence" the gross disparity between the middle class and the super rich. For all their troubles, the Nazi's blamed the Jews, while the Republican Party, in appeals to its base, blames homosexuals, illegal aliens, and pro-choicers. It is the use of fear itself that leads to the sort of insanity seen in the Third Reich, and fear has become the ruling politicians' weapon of choice. All we need now is a Beer Hall Putsch.

Schuler noted that the Reichstag Fire, blamed on Jews and Communists, "led to the suspension of civil liberties." Today, we have our "Patriot" Act -- just possibly the least patriotic legislation ever created and passed by Congress, given that it suspended many civil liberties, including that most important right: habeas corpus. Substitute "Islamic fascism" for Communism in almost any account of the transition from the Weimer Republic to the Third Reich and the parallels are easily seen.

My erstwhile friend Tom's contention that Brecht is "irrelevant" would seem to be based almost entirely on the notion that since Brecht was a Marxist, and since Communism collapsed with the Wall, the message of Brecht is either no longer necessary or meaningful in the context of today. I beg to differ. For one thing, equating Communism with Marxism is misguided if not downright silly. The English Catholic essayist, G. K. Chesterston observed that there was "nothing wrong with Christianity, it's just never been tried." Neither has Marxism been tried. After the death of Lenin and the assassination of Trotsky, the Stalinists and, later, the Maoists, made a mockery of Marxism by justification of all manner of evils, including pogroms that made the Nazi's look like amateurs, in defense of Communism's lifeblood.

As I am forever reminding the fabulously wealthy pastors of so called "Christian" superchurches, Jesus also said that the rich would no sooner enter the Kingdom of Heaven than a camel will pass through the eye of a needle. The early Christians were communists in the finest sense of the word: they held no property in private and shared all wealth, and especially food, clothing, and shelter, with their fellow Christians. Far too many Christians today, perhaps the greater majority, have not only forgotten what the founder of the faith stood for, they've made as much a mockery of his principles as Mao and Stalin did those of Marx.

The "Armageddon" critic Rivas discusses as forming the climax of the opera's second and final act, comes after a collage of set pieces involving the "decadence" of the Men of Mahagonny, consisting of drinking, eating, boxing, and fornicating. (It's not for nothing that Brecht and Weill, when reunited in America after escaping Nazi persecution, immediately collaborated anew on a "sung ballet," The Seven Deadly Sins. Isn't it strange that Brecht, an avowed Marxist, would be so obsessed with the Christian concept of "sin"?) Now, take each of the subjects of the Mahagonny set pieces and one does not have to think long and hard to see our modern parallels: widespread use of alcohol and recreational drugs; a nation with so large a population of obese gourmandizers the government has named it a national health problem; major sports figures convicted of staging dog fights, and sex, sex, sex all over TV, magazines, and DVD'S.

No, Brecht and Weill are just as relevant today as in the '30s. They serve as living reminders of the ultimate fate of those who allow themselves to be distracted by mundane, self-indulgent pursuits while their government is robbing them blind, taking them into evil wars, and stripping them of their liberties.