Thirty-five years ago Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. If Postman were still around to author a sequel, I would propose that he call it Skimming ourselves to Death.
But let me digress for a moment for those of you who read my weekly column-newsletter-blast for Barbara updates rather than my prose style: She is out on furlough free of picks and tubing. No appointments until October 21, when we return to Sloan Kettering for the next phase of treatment.
Last night for our first night out on the town we went to See the Downtown Abbey movie at BAM. We were big fans of the original series, so much so that we instilled a VPN on the laptop tricking the BBC into believing we were watching from London and enabling us to see each episode three months earlier than the rest of America.
Last night we arrived for the 6:45 showing with minor trepidations as to how they could make a film that could take twenty plus characters that you have come to know rather intimately through the leisurely pace of 54 episodes and put them all into one 2 hour movie and arrive at an interesting and satisfying conclusion. The short answer is: they couldn’t. The Lyndon Johnson play currently at Lincoln Center has similar problems, parading every major political figure of the 1960’s across the stage in a series of very short sequences which only allow for the name of the character and one of their signature lines. There is no development of any consequence and seldom a moment when something of significance hangs in the balance or offers a fresh insight to this sweeping, epic moment in history.
This is all very much on my mind as I near the end of creating the working production script for our The Good Person (in German: “gute Mensch”) of Sezuan. There are 4 translations we are working from, plus the edited version in German performed at the Berliner Ensemble in 2015. And, because they are translations, each becomes a text by both Brecht and Eric Bentley or Michael Hoffmann. David Harrower or Ralph Mannheim. These various translations were done between 1947 and 2008, and like a Hollywood “period” film or costume epic say as much about the time they were created as they do about an accurate historical look and feel of the story. (When we watch a film like Flynn’s Robin Hood we are seeing a story of 13th century England as viewed through the filter of a late 1930’s and we get a film that becomes a metaphor about the need to rise up against the looming threat of Hitler).
The meaning of the words morphs and changes with age as does the style of the translator’s storytelling. Beginning with the almost fairy tale quality of the lyric Bentley version to the gritty more naturalistic language of the newer Hoffman and Harrower, each in its own subtle way takes the original Brecht text and tells a different theatrical story of its own making. German playbills and programs often carry the listing “Hamlet von Shakespeare”. Hamlet “from” a text by Shakespeare rather than our way of saying simply Hamlet by Shakespeare. You see the difference. Berlin acknowledges that the text is only the beginning of the performance and that the performance is more than an illustration or interpretation of the playwright’s words.
For several weeks now I have been promising our designers and composer a performance version “von” the Bentley translation of the Brecht text. And each day I go back and take something out or put something else back or borrow a word or two from a different writer as my own connection to the material grows and is clarified.
What did Oscar Wilde once say when asked about his day’s work. “I spent all morning deciding to remove one comma, and all afternoon deciding to put it back in.”
A tip of the hat to Oscar Wilde the patron saint of the anti-skimming movement.
And that’s what’s on my mind today as I (hopefully) near the end of the performance text for Irondale’s Good Woman/Person/Soul of Sezuan.