Labor Day

From Wikipedia:

In 1882, Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed the holiday while serving as secretary of the CLU (Central Labor Union) of New York. Others argue that it was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor in May 1882, after witnessing the annual labour festival held in Toronto, Canada. … By the time it became a federal holiday in 1894, thirty states officially celebrated Labor Day. Following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, the United States Congress unanimously voted to approve rush legislation that made Labor Day a national holiday; President Grover Cleveland signed it into law a mere six days after the end of the strike. The September date originally chosen by the CLU of New York and observed by many of the nation’s trade unions for the past several years was selected rather than the more widespread International Workers’ Day because Cleveland was concerned that observance of the latter would be associated with the nascent Communist, Syndicalist and Anarchist movements that, though distinct from one another, had rallied to commemorate the Haymarket Affair in International Workers’ Day.

Posts resume next week.

Lear deBessonet’s St. Joan of the Stockyards

Kristen Sieh (center) in Lear deBessonet's  plays the title role in “St. Joan of the Stockyards.” Photo: Rachel Roberts.

Kristen Sieh (center) in Lear deBessonet’s production of “St. Joan of the Stockyards.” Photo: Rachel Roberts.

Lear deBessonet is currently New York theatre’s media darling — witness Helen Shaw’s cover story on the director in September’s American Theatre magazine and Alexis Soloski’s profile in this Sunday’s New York Times. But neither Shaw nor Soloski mention the production that first brought her to my attention: her staging of Brecht’s 1932 St. Joan of the Stockyards, a rare revival that opened in 2007 at Performance Space 122. I salute Ms. deBessonet, and am glad for a chance to revisit the production, which I reviewed below. (I reviewed her production of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan, the show that put her on the map, when it opened at LaMaMa here.)

St. Joan of the Stockyards by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Ralph Manheim. Directed by Lear deBessonet. Music composed and performed by Kelley McRae & Band. Choreography by Tracy Bersley; set design by Justin Townsend; light design by Peter Ksander; costume design by Clint Ramos; sound design by Mark Huang; dramaturg, Helen Shaw. Produced by Karina Mangu-Ward. Production company: Stillpoint Productions, by special arrangement with Culture Project’s Women Center Stage. With Kristen Sieh, Richard Toth, Kate Benson, Mike Crane, Jessica Green, Jonathan Co Green, Peter McCain and Nate Schenkkan. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one intermission). June 16-July 1, 2007 at Performance Space 122, 150 First Avenue, New York.

Bertolt Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards, written in 1932 as Brecht was in his most intense period of Marxist studies, wasn’t staged until two years after his 1956 death; its only public performance during his lifetime was as a short radio play in April 1932 (featuring Peter Lorre as Slift and Carola Neher as Joan Dark). Inspired, as were so many of his other plays of the period, by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Brecht fashioned the play from the wreckage of the disastrous Threepenny Opera “sequel” Happy End, and it has remained something of an odd-man-out in the canon. It was the first of two major Brecht plays written in a parody of Shakespearean blank verse (The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, his Hitler play, was the second), but the stridency of his politics, married to a materialist vision of tragedy, rendered it problematic in the geopolitics of the time.

And it remains curious. Brecht would flee Germany following the Reichstag fire the next year, with various possibilities for the production coming to naught, and in trying to establish a career outside the German-speaking countries Brecht turned to projects that he believed would be more commercially viable, which St. Joan certainly was not (its large cast and virulent politics rendered it practically unstagable). Lear deBessonet’s production of the play in Ralph Manheim’s translation at P.S. 122 (through this Sunday), I’m happy to say, makes an excellent argument for the centrality and importance of this play in the Brechtian canon, not only as part of the playwright’s more politically-engaged, explicitly Marxist plays, but also in the development of Brecht’s career itself. DeBessonet, in hewing close to the text which is here produced nearly uncut, demonstrates Brecht’s Shakespearean range in a pared-down urban lyricism more closely resembling his poetry than any of his other plays.

In determining a Marxist approach to the form of Shakespearean tragedy, Brecht made a variety of clever, witty substitutions. The Shakespearean letter that shapes the lives of its victims no longer arrives via a messenger, but via Federal Express (in this production); instead of the machinations of various members of a family (which in Shakespeare’s time meant machinations among geopolitical powerholders), the dynamics of the play are driven by industrial leaders, workers, unions, social service agencies. Here, Pierpont Mauler is the king — a leading Chicago producer of canned meat who, warned of an impending market collapse by his New York financial backers, makes plans to exit the business. In this he is stopped by the appearance of Joan Dark, a social activist investigating the condition of the working poor in Chicago. The play describes Dark’s growing social consciousness as well as Mauler’s vulnerability to economic forces and his own heart; ultimately, it leads Dark to the Communist Party and Mauler to a consolidation of all the social forces — his competitors, the workers themselves, the unions, social service organizations, the church, the media — that threaten the success of his capitalist profiteering.

Director deBessonet wisely lets the play speak for itself; no updating here, even for a play which must tempt updating, given its 1932 composition and its setting in Chicago in 1900. So far as its picture of post-capitalist society and industry goes, one only has to turn to work by Peter Singer and Eric Schlosser to note that St. Joan‘s concerns remain relevant in the early years of the 21st century. While deBessonet has dumped the Brecht-Weill songs in favor of a country-blues score by Kelley McRae, McRae’s songs have more of a Hank Williams/Jimmie Rodgers edge to them than a Billy Rae Cyrus pathos, and are appropriately reminiscent of 1930s country music. The set itself, of a stripped-down industrial simplicity, runs down the center of the large upstairs theatre space at P.S.122 (fine work here from set designer Justin Townsend and light designer Peter Ksander, who are now indisputably among downtown’s most exciting visual artists in the theatre, along with costume designer Oana Botez-Ban), all steel and metal sliding along hard plastic casters and metal cable strung along the flies, and industrial-strength barrels and grates providing necessary tables, chairs and walls.

As Iago often takes center stage in Othello, the manipulative Pierpont Mauler often takes center stage in St. Joan. Richard Toth plays Mauler as a man torn among various forces, not the least of which is his own heart; while trying desperately to feed the greed which is at the center of his business, he is drawn to compassion for the animals ritually slaughtered upon the floor of his factory, and recognizes in Joan Dark a human connection not unlike that between a father and a daughter (and this is one of the major parallels between this play and Major Barbara). Toth often plays Mauler as lost in a deep contemplation, a morass of doubt; as his sidekick Slift recognizes (here played with an insidious, malignant serpentine grace by Mike Crane), it’s the blood of meat that forms the center of Mauler’s soul. Toth handles this most Brechtian vacillation between sensuality and rationality with aplomb and a haunting deliberation.

As Joan Dark, Kristen Sieh develops a performance that moves from an alternately giddy and lachrymose naivete (her dances, when she scores a small victory for the poor, are buoyantly joyous but so unschooled and graceless as to resemble an epileptic fit at times) to a dark, hard-edged viciousness as she herself experiences first-hand suffering and hunger in the cold of a Chicago winter and, in her dreams (the voices of this particular Joan), begins to recognize the horrifying extent of the corruption that maintains Mauler and his colleagues in permanent power. Sieh herself is slight and waiflike, which testifies to the effectiveness of her transformation into a violent radical by the end of the play; semi-crucified in the play’s final moments, her final words drowned out in a raucous second-rate disco beat (delivered directly to the audience by the ensemble) by the corrupt society that surrounds her, her performance sears into the experience of the evening.

In terms of Brecht’s gestural theatrics, choreographer Tracy Bersley pursues a truly echt-Brecht visualisation of the play’s political components. Like the language itself, movement and gesture in this St. Joan is spiky and deliberate, demonstrative and pedagogical. In the brilliant staging of Joan’s dream that opens the second act of this production, the sleeping Joan is surrounded by the sharp, violent gestures of the workers, whose presence and motions in elevating her awareness of capitalist culture and the suffering of the poor provide the final physical and gestural impetus to Joan’s transformation into a violent revolutionary. Staged in a soft blue light, the ensemble’s sharp gestures play dialectically against the stage illusions of night and snow (which is thrown up into the air by the workers themselves before settling softly on Joan’s body). It is a beautiful and effective example of the possibilities of Brecht’s gestural theatre: eschewing sentimentality, its social relevance is as clear as day.

While religion forms a central theme of the play, Brecht’s target isn’t God Himself but the uses to which society and culture put the idea of a God. Eventually, Mauler buys God when he agrees to subsidize the play’s Salvation Army stand-in, the Black Straw Hats; in aggrandizing spirituality to the benefit of the status quo, he provides the metaphysical umbrella under which a capitalist society can rationalize its corruption. “[Joan Dark] is not speaking about God at all but about talk of a God, or, more precisely, about specific talk in a specific situation, and specific remarks about God,” Brecht wrote in his notes to the published play. “She is in fact speaking about talk to the effect that God need have no function whatever in social matters, and that those who believe in such a God are called on to accomplish nothing in particular. It is enough if they have certain inner sensations. The faith thus recommended is without effect on the world around us, and Joan defines such recommendation as a social crime.”

Stillpoint Productions’ staging of this rare Brecht play (more a discovery than a rediscovery; unless I miss my guess, this is the first professional New York production of St. Joan of the Stockyards) is a fine example of a poetic text shining through performance and production, revealing the text’s enduring power. It closes this Sunday.

As I noted above, Joan Dark’s final words are drowned in a pathetic, loud disco beat — an example of Adorno’s Culture Industry smothering deeper recognition of human consciousness. Below is the text of Joan’s speech, from the Manheim translation:

So anyone down here who says there’s a God
And that even if no one can see Him
He can, invisibly, help us all the same
Should have his head bashed against the sidewalk
Until he croaks.
And those preachers who tell the people they can rise in spirit
Even if their bodies are stuck in the mud, they too should have their heads
Bashed against the sidewalk. The truth is that
Where force rules only force can help and
In the human world only humans can help.

Those were the days

Ah, nice while it lasted …

The crucial difference from earlier spats between critics and a theatre or company was that in 2007 there was now an alternative. For a while, since approximately 2000, there had been a gradual growth in online theatre reviews. British Theatre Guide and CultureWars being two of the earliest sites, along with the early move online of What’s On Stage magazine and best, in terms of quality, if not quantity, the excellent Encore Theatre magazine, since the advent of “Web 2.0″ — the point where it became incredibly easy for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to publish their own reviews on a blog, and to publicize their writing using new social media sites like Facebook and Twitter — there had been an explosion of theatre blogs. Early adopters included theatre makers like Chris Goode, David Eldridge and Andy Field whose blogs all quickly became required reading for anyone with the slightest interest in theatre. Popular blogs from America and Australia like George Hunka’s Superfluities and Alison Croggon’s Theatre Notes turned the “blogosphere” into an international conversation. … In October 2007 the Guardian, which by this point had already been running its own “theatre blog” for about a year, instituted a weekly column called Noises Off, which offered a “best of the blogs” overview. …

Andrew Haydon
In Dan Rebellato, ed., Modern British Playwriting: 2000-2009
Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013 (94-95)

Christopher Shinn’s Teddy Ferrara

Adam Poss (Drew) and Liam Benzvi (Gabe) in Christopher Shinn's Teddy Ferrara at the Goodman Theatre.

Adam Poss (Drew) and Liam Benzvi (Gabe) in Christopher Shinn’s Teddy Ferrara at the Goodman Theatre.

A play in five acts (to be played in two parts). Directed by Evan Cabnet; set design by Lee Savage; costume design by Jenny Mannis; lighting design by Keith Parham; sound design by Richard Woodbury; production stage manager: Dana M. Nestrick; dramaturg: Tayna Palmer. With Liam Benzvi (Gabe), Adam Poss (Drew), Rashaad Hall (Nicky), Ryan Heindl (Teddy), Josh Salt (Tim), Paloma Nozicka (Jenny), Patrick Clear (President), Janet Ulrich Brooks (Provost), Kelli Simpkins (Ellen), Jax Jackson (Jaq), Christopher Imbrosciano (Jay), and Dev Kennedy and Fawzia Mirza (Campus Police). Premiered at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, on February 11, 2013. Text: Theatre Communications Group, 2013.

Teddy, we hardly knew ye. By the time he kills himself in the middle of the play named after him, we know he enjoys exhibitionistic virtual sex in a gay chat room; he’s a computer programmer; at eighteen, he’s a college freshman. Whether he would consider himself “in the closet” or not remains an open question when he leaps from a high balcony surrounding the university library atrium, plunging to the marble floor below. We know even less about another student who killed himself in the same manner only a year before.

teddy_ferrara_by_christopher_shinn_1559367571Though based upon the similar Tyler Clementi suicide of 2010 at Rutgers University, Shinn’s 2013 ensemble drama is not so much “ripped from the headlines” as inspired by them; as in Shakespeare’s dramas (to which Shinn has nodded as additional inspiration for this play), history and politics affect the private worlds of the survivors, and it’s these worlds that are under the dramatist’s microscope. Shinn’s characters are young, in their late teens and early twenties, falling in love for the first time and experiencing for the first time the excitement, pain, and betrayals this love engenders (not to mention a healthy dollop of professional ambition), in their adolescent youth unable to acknowledge the mystery that lies at the heart of every romantic relationship and seems to take on a life of its own. These relationships are especially politicized when a group of students seizes upon Teddy’s suicide as an exemplar of systemic prejudice and victimization they see embedded in the very structure of the university institution (and, by extension, the larger national culture) itself.

Ironically, it’s a senior named Gabe, the head of a Queer Students association, who offers the only practical advice at a meeting organized by the University President to discuss the situation: “I think the most important message the university can send right now is that it doesn’t accept students committing suicide in its buildings,” he tells the President. “Put up barriers on the upper balconies of the library so people can’t jump off them.” His suggestion is met with derision from other members of the group:

JAQ: But — if you want to kill yourself you’ll just do it some other way —
GABE: But it sends a message: two students have done this and we don’t accept it.
JAQ: That doesn’t make any sense.
GABE: You don’t know that he would have killed himself some other way — maybe not.
JAQ: But that doesn’t have anything to do with the underlying problem of discrimination.
GABE: No, it has to do with trying to prevent more suicides by saying, “You may not do this.”
JAQ: But if you don’t address why students are —
GABE: We don’t know why.

Neither we as the audience nor the other characters ever find out why, either. (I suspect myself that this deliberate lack of closure and resolution may have led to the play’s ambivalent critical reception.) That doesn’t prevent the students from guessing, and becoming increasingly confident in their guesses, which continue to go unconfirmed by evidence. The “media,” represented here by the passive-aggressive and somewhat vicious Drew, Gabe’s boyfriend, only feeds the fire with insinuation, speculation, and “confidential sources.” The anger is fed by social media as well, a social media that commingles private and public space and communication. It’s also ironic that ultimately this communication may have failed to assuage any of the pain and conflicts the characters experience; this digital communication may just make it easier to hurt people. Indeed, one of the factors that may have led to Teddy’s suicide was just this lack of digital social connection — Gabe’s promises to “friend” Teddy on Facebook, and his neglect to do so, may implicate Gabe himself in Teddy’s death.

Shinn’s tragedy is not unmixed with satire. He nails the vague yet puritanical appeals to diversity and inclusion made by the college president, the angry tenured faculty member Ellen’s simultaneous distance from and proximity to her students’ lives, and the kneejerk reactions of campus politicos (perhaps parodying post-show talkbacks too). There’s also remarkable compassion; on the margins of the action, as on the margins of the culture, Jay, a gay student confined to a wheelchair, may know more about victimization, and experienced more of it, than anyone else in the play.

Unfortunately, Teddy Ferrara received remarkably short shrift from the critics when it premiered in Chicago last year. Characters are deftly drawn nonetheless (in an eleven-character, 37-scene play, this is itself an accomplishment), and though the play itself is spread across Shinn’s most sprawlingly ambitious canvas yet, it’s also among his most timely — never mind Kenneth Lonergan, this is our youth. In its exploration of the nexus between public and private lives in a more and more violent world, it shares an anger and compassion with Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities; like Sarah Kane’s “university” play, Cleansed, it casts urgent warnings about the politicization of love in an ever more violent world. Teddy Ferrara deserves a New York hearing. In the meantime, the text of the play is available here. I wrote about Shinn’s Dying City here. Below, the Goodman Theatre’s video about the play features interviews with director Evan Cabnet and the cast:

Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities

Chris Goode in "Men in the Cities," 2014.

Chris Goode in “Men in the Cities,” 2014.

Play in two parts. Written and performed by Chris Goode; directed by Wendy Hubbard; designed by Naomi Dawson; lighting designer: Katharine Williams; production manager: Hattie Prust; produced by Ric Watts. A Chris Goode & Company production in association with the Royal Court Theatre. First performed at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on July 31, 2014. Text: Oberon Books, 2014.

I wonder what Chris Goode makes of the James Foley execution. Foley’s executioner was likely a British-born militant, and in an irony to be lost on no one, his nom de guerre was drawn from the name of perhaps the most pacifistic member of the Beatles. A tangled skein of tragedy, to be sure.

When Foley was beheaded on or about August 19, Goode was performing his remarkable new one-man play Men in the Cities, a stark critique of the course of masculinity and men’s lives in contemporary England, at the Edinburgh Festival; global politics is never far from the center of Goode’s critique. “Framed by two violent deaths — the apparently inexplicable suicide of a young gay man, and the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby outside the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich in May 2013 — Men in the Cities is a compelling piece about harm and complicity, and about the forces that shape our relationships,” says the jacket copy on the Oberon Books publication of the text. It is an unusually violent work (all of the violence takes place verbally within the several stories that Goode tells through the course of the evening; not a drop of blood is visible on stage), wrenching and moving.

9781783191673The characters of the play are all men, drawn from several generations — a widower nearing death, a newsagent, members of the young professional class, and a ten-year-old boy obsessed with pornography — but all of them find themselves in various states of anguish. The most domestic and telling of these characters may be Goode and his 80-year-old father, whose seemingly affectionate relationship also conceals profound discordances and affinities of identity (“My father and his father and his father” is a refrain that courses through the final 15 minutes of the play). What we may be pleased to call “the older generation” is also present in the 73-year-old widower Jeff, whose sole companion now that his wife is dead is Prissy, her childhood doll, “named by her uncle after the maid from Gone with the Wind. Butterfly McQueen with her little girl’s voice” (though, to Jeff, she speaks with a man’s voice).

All of these characters are profoundly lost, shaken by the violent deaths of others around them — Rigby’s very public, Ben’s very private. Goode’s performance text renders all of these deaths public, performed deaths, and the very real anguish of those left behind also becomes matter for public hearing. But not, it’s important to note, public healing. Goode explicitly banishes melodrama from this discourse, drawing lines straight and severe between public and private violences with unflinching attention to domestic and political detail. In Men in the Cities, every violent act is simultaneously directed inward and outward, and even the most tender moments carry with them a kind of mystery and threat. Rufus’s stepfather Neil takes his stepson to the dentist; Neil has no idea of Rufus’s richly sexualized and transgressive fantasy life, but in the dentist’s office fears for, perhaps, the boy’s future:

And then he goes back out and along the corridor and there’s Rufus, sitting on a too-small chair at a table in the corner of the waiting room. There’s this toy thing on the table, all these intertwining lines and you move blocks around the lines. There’s no skill involved. Just an incredibly limited set of options for playing. To keep the littl’uns amused and distracted. It would bore a child of six. And there’s Rufus, moving these blocks around. Totally unselfconscious. Concentrating hard. His face looks calm and handsome.

Where’s he gone?, thinks Neil. Where’s he gone to?

“An incredibly limited set of options for playing”: Goode’s definition of contemporary masculinity precisely reflects the worlds of the men in the Men in the Cities; all too often these men choose the option of violence, against themselves and others, as they fail to find emotional stability and comfort. This violence emerges not merely from anger, but from fear, failure, and ineradicable sadness. The conclusion of the play is perhaps the most chilling; although the second act takes place during the Christmas holiday of 2013, a holiday usually associated with hope, redemption, and tenderness, the final two words of the play are themselves a vicious refusal of empathy and tenderness: the male storyteller himself subversively renouncing responsibility for his story and his male characters.

White men speaking on a stage, not a woman to be found — certainly this will not be an attractive concept for those who demand more diversity in theatrical production and experience. But this is Goode’s world, both public and private: “The personal is political” is not merely a call to progressively political arms, but a frightening recognition as well. In refusing a simple or even more complex response to the men’s lives he depicts, Goode has created the first truly great English-language play of the post-9/11 world. Reviewing the play for the Guardian, Lyn Gardner concluded,Yes, we do inflict harm on ourselves and others, but this is not inevitable. There are men who are terrific fathers, caring sons and loving partners, and who care for and nurture each other. You’d never know it from Goode’s undeniably powerful but despairing vision.” This, it seems to me, misses the point. I’m sure Goode is aware of terrific fathers, caring sons, and loving partners. I’m guessing that Goode is a caring son and loving partner himself. But it is not necessarily there that the more complex stresses of contemporary masculinity can be found and anatomized. Like Arthur Schopenhauer, Goode suggests that our deepest compassion can arise only from the darkest pessimistic vision of the world.

The text of the play is now available from Oberon Books. And if Mr. Goode is not invited to present Men in the Cities at this winter’s Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater or the next Brits Off Broadway festival next year, I’m afraid I’ll just have to give up all hope for the American theatre, if I haven’t already.