Seventy years after the start of the Second World War, two pre-war plays still resonate
The shadows of the Second World War seem to lengthen ever more quickly and 70 years have passed since Hitler invaded Poland. Coinciding with last month’s anniversary were two major new London productions of plays written almost exactly at that time by two young Germans in exile, reflecting on evil at home and the possibility of war. Bertolt Brecht wrote Mother Courage and her Children in 1939 in Sweden and Ödön von Horváth wrote Judgment Day in Vienna in 1936/7. Both were writing in direct response to the forces gathering in Nazi Germany, and both address — or certainly intended to address — much wider concerns about the human predicament, of which their view was understandably bleak.
None of this makes for a nice night out at the theatre. But then again, that is precisely what Brecht thought we bourgeois oppressors should not have anyway. However, the unBrechtian theatregoer might be inclined to wonder whether there is really much point in subjecting oneself to an evening or two of misery. In the 70 years since Brecht and Horváth wrote these plays, such an immense wealth of drama, cinema, documentary and literature has been laid before us, in so many attempts to understand the horrors of the 20th century, that it sometimes feels as though we have had too much of investigating these shadows. Very few bloodstained stones remain unturned and perhaps these distant voices are losing their power, especially when, as with Brecht, the voice is above all else didactic: didacticism tends not to last.
Brecht, after all, is discredited politically, and though he is a good poet and his songs with Kurt Weill make The Threepenny Opera a great masterpiece, many of his plays are boring and bad. Mother Courage is certainly far too long.
Horváth is little known in this country. Even so, anything that interests the writer Christopher Hampton — he has created a sharp new translation of Judgment Day for this production at the Almeida (until 17 October) — is worth seeing. So, too, when the National Theatre decides to put large amounts of money and its best talent into a big production, such as this hugely ambitious and pyrotechnical Mother Courage at the Olivier (until 8 December), it seems a pity to miss it, just out of a reaction against the Brechtian orthodoxies. Fiona Shaw as Courage, Deborah Warner directing, Tom Pye as set designer, a new translation by Tony Kushner and new music from a strange sounding musician-performer called Duke Special are too tempting to ignore.
In my youth, when Brecht was achingly fashionable and his dramaturgical diktat almost holy writ among young British thespians, one approached any production with some trepidation about getting it — it being the Brechtian McGuffin, or rather the whole range of them, from “alienation” through “gestus” to “epic”. How old-fashioned that all sounds now. What seemed so edgy and subversively politically “relevant” back then, in the first post-war decades, has been so thoroughly ingested and digested, and then either excreted or incorporated by theatrical convention, that it is imperceptible to new audiences. It’s true that most productions today owe something to the influence of Brecht and Brechtians, but it is also true that little of what he demanded of theatre was really new at all, as he admitted himself. Shakespeare did alienation too, regularly breaking the theatrical illusion with asides to the audience from various characters, with lines aimed to please the groundlings and so on.
This National Theatre production starts with a true Brechtian bang — lots of people milling about a brightly lit, very functional stage before the start, all equipment showing, stage managers acting out the part of doing the practical things they would be doing anyway and so on — and it carries on with assorted acts of homage to the master. But what is striking is that the real power of this extravaganza is something rather unBrechtian: the enormous emotional force of Fiona Shaw’s long-suffering but unbroken Mother Courage, trailing with her children behind confused armies, scraping a living as a huckster between one terrible bereavement and the next, from one terrible error to the next. There’s not enough Brechtian alienation under Warner’s direction or Shaw’s exquisite psychological observation to distance us from a deep emotional sympathy with this strange 17th-century female spiv. I’m inclined to take Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel’s view of alienation anyway: “It was just a silly idea that Bert came up with to stop his actors overacting.” But, strictly speaking, this production is off-message.
So what, one might say. The production is what it is: who cares about the dramaturg, to use a horrible word that seems to be back in fashion? In this production the music was uninspiring, the aphoristic lines were often leaden in their didacticism and the scenes often too slow and too long, but it was none the less emotionally powerful at times. And there is no escaping its convincing relevance to war-stricken countries today. Mother Courage stands for every ordinary person, overtaken by meaningless war without (of course) understanding it, who struggles to survive but at the cost of most of what matters. The play’s conclusion, with Mother Courage bereft of everything but courage, still dragging her wagon behind her, driven only by the will to survive, has a fearful universality.
Horváth’s Judgment Day, though perhaps not quite so moving, is a better and much more subtle and intellectually interesting play. It is the story of a fateful chain of events, set in pre-war Germany, which lead to a disastrous train-wreck and the judgment that must follow. Though the allegory is obvious, it is not heavy-handed: a dutiful stationmaster in a small German village is distracted for a moment by a mischievous young girl and fails to give the right signals to the oncoming train, but then protests his innocence. In their attempts afterwards to find someone to blame, or to live with self-deception, or even to be minimally decent, everyone concerned is tragically compromised. Everyone is in some way responsible, even through the smallest of cruelties and the pettiest of gossip. But this is not as bleak as it sounds, despite its despairing vision and the claustrophobia of the excellent set. Rather, it is hypnotic and beautiful with some flawless performances and, of the two plays, this is the one not to miss.