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I got a call yesterday from Peter Duffy. Peter used to be Irondale’s Education Director and was instrumental in restructuring our approach to teaching and adding new educational partners as we began working out of the Irondale Center. He now heads the University of South Carolina Master of Theatre Education program. “I’m doing a unit on teaching Brecht, and I know this is very last moment, but would you mind doing a 45 minute Facetime call this afternoon so my students can ask you some questions about the Good Soul?” “I’d love to.”

Peter called at 6:30 and we were off to the races. As many of you know I never spied weeds I didn’t want to venture into. The first question was “What do American directors get wrong about Brecht?”

“Everything,” I said, starting with a complete misunderstanding of the “alienation effect.”

“Ah, the Verfremdungseffekt.”

The class knew their terms.  “Yes, the Verfremdungseffekt.” That one term meaning ‘to make the familiar strange’ led us into discussions of why the Hope and Crosby Road pictures are Brechtian, why Mr. Smith goes to Washington almost is, why Brecht changed his whole approach to playwriting during his exile – he still wrote the first drafts very quickly but now rewrote and rewrote them. “What else could I do?”, he wrote in his journal, “I didn’t have a stage.” 

The students were wonderful, bright, curious, focused, and so much fun to be with. We never got around to talking about the Good Soul that much. But we did get into why we chose it. I told them that beginning with our 1599 Project each new Irondale project has been chosen based on the idea that this is the most important play for us to be doing at this particular moment, “What does this play say about us and our world here in Brooklyn, New York, in February, 2020?”

Why did Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe fail in the end, and why does the Good Soul succeed? Because Frank Capra, teh director, after creating powerful tensions between his protagonists (Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper) and his antagonists (in both cases Edward Arnold), can only offer up a fairy tale answers in his quest for a fulfilling ending – the corrupt senator has a change of heart after Jimmy faints on the Senate floor in the midst of his “lost cause” filibuster and the “people” arrive at midnight to keep Cooper from jumping off the roof of city hall. 

Shen Te, faced with impossible choices and abandoned by her deus ex machina, can only turn to her audience and squeak, “help.” We are told our economy is the greatest, that unemployment is at a fifty year low, and yet every day I pass people sleeping on the subway or huddled on heating grates. Brecht offers no “feel good” answers and he doesn’t hide from the depth and complexities of the problem. He lays them out before us on the stage and asks us what can you do through your work, your associations, your contributions and your vote to make the world a better and easier place in which to live. It’s a marathon.

And that’s what’s on my mind today.


Jim Niesen



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