Skip to main content

I had picked up Peter Kleinert at the Bay Ridge apartment we had sublet for him while he was here to direct St Joan of the Stockyards. (I much prefer the actual title Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthofe. And I hope you do too. Schlachthofe is such a visceral sounding word, really feels like what is going on there at the plant.) And we went for a walk, which had become our customary way of reflecting on rehearsals or stopping for beers at the German place on the corner of S. Oxford and Fulton. Later in Berlin when he was helping me with the dramaturgy of Setzuan, we would also walk for a while and then stop for a beer or a coffee. Except that in Berlin we did it on bicycles. Peter was a much better rider than I was, and I often struggled to keep up. So, I would prolong the discussions as a way to catch my breath and prepare myself for the next leg of the adventure.

Sometimes the discussion got very detailed and focused on very small minutia.

On this particular day in Brooklyn, though, we began talking about Peter’s discovery of Apple TV. “Americans are so lucky,” he said. “So many channels on the television, so much news, so many, many problems you have, so many plays you could make about them, so easily. In Germany we do not have problems, it’s very hard to make plays.”

As Mother Courage herself also wanted to do, Peter was making a cynical joke; and, also like Mother Courage, Peter is not a cynical character. They both use cynicism to keep us laughing to the end of an often very serious scene. At heart, they both Peter and Courage are philosophers laying out the truth.

Right now I feel lucky and blessed that I am not running down to the station (okay, what’s your preference station or Bahnhof?) to catch the 7:15 to Grand Central or someplace like it, and that, instead, I have the luck and the luxury to sit here on the front porch to slowly think and to slowly ruminate – as I await the thoughts, the ideas, and inspirations that will eventually turn into my weekly letter.

To prod things on a bit I sometimes follow the example of Winston Churchill – and no, I do not begin my day with a Magnum of Champagne – Churchill was a committed gardener. As was John Winant, the American Ambassador to Great Britain during World War II. As am I. Winant had replaced Joseph Kennedy, who along with several thousand other Americans returned to the United States at the onset of the Blitz. Wieland took over and did his best to be a true citizen of London for the duration. Winant’s approach to international relations – “to concentrate on the things that unite humanity rather than on the things that divide it” – came to be regarded as simplistic and naïve by subordinates. But it enabled him to establish a strong working relationship with Sir Winston.

On the weekends the two gardeners would retreat to Churchill’s home in the country. There they would list the immediate problems that the alliance needed to solve. Then they would withdraw to opposite sides of one of the many flower beds. As they pulled weeds with great care and conscientiousness, they would find themselves working nearer and nearer to each other. When they were within speaking range, they would begin their conversation, brainstorming session.

“Any thoughts?”

As any gardener knows, pulling weeds is one of the simplest forms of creative meditation – of “right brain thinking”. Problem solved, or tabled for further discussion, they would then move on to the next bed. It was said that the nitty-gritty of what to do about the Montgomery/Eisenhower relationship and other extenuating problems bedeviling Anglo-American relations were worked out not on the “Playing Fields of Eton,” but in the gardens of Chartwell.

So now I’m staring at the garden and weeding as I meditate as to what is really on my mind this morning. Of course, in the midst of 3 or 4 world crises, I’m thinking about the making of art and the big questions of who makes it, how is it done, and for whom does it exist. This was our Starship Enterprise charge for the moment Terry and Barbara, and I created Irondale.

After being at this now for forty some years, I have come to the conclusion that the question is too large for me to arrive at any meaningful answers in a single life, or as Chairman Mao said about the significance of the French Revolution, “too soon to tell.” But it’s fun to ponder the imponderable. The imponderable thought that is in there this morning, overwhelming all others, is the “what far?” question. I’m feeling somewhat glum as I pick out those name unknown little green problems that have populated every garden I have known from Brooklyn, to Pittsburgh to my mom’s house in South Holland, Ill. near the curb, the question devolves into “does art ever lead to any great societal change?” Do even para-theatre activities i.e. using art to teach literacy, prove to be as effective as other means and methods. You know, usual, old, Jim cranky stuff.

And then, suddenly I have this music in my pocket, or rather, in my iPhone in my pocket, which has just gone off by itself and is playing a cover of one of Ole’ Pete’s later songs. “Old Devil Time.” Do you know it? The cover was by Pat Humphries. I thought she was terrific. Here’s the verse she was on when it started playing:

A bit of historical context, when Pete wrote this song, he was still blacklisted from network tv, Columbia had cancelled his recording contract, and John Lewis had informed him that his services were no longer welcome in the Civil Rights movement. At the end of 1965, a purge of white “northern middle class elements” began as chairman John Lewis called for a “Black-led, Black-dominated” organization. SNCC canceled plans to extend a Freedom Summer–type program throughout the Deep South; instead, whites were told to organize in their own communities. “If we are to proceed toward liberation,” a SNCC position paper read, “we must cut ourselves off from the white people.”

Old devil hate, I knew you long ago
Before I learned the poison in your breath
Now when I hear your lies my lovers gather round
And help me rise to fight you one more time
No storm nor fire can ever beat us down
No wind that blows but carries us further on
And you who fear, oh lovers gather round
And we will rise to sing it one more time

And at the moment I knew the purpose of art, at least for today. Some of you may find my answer as naïve as the “tough realists” did Wynant’s prescription for a united world. But I’m going to tell you anyway, and if you don’t like it, you can just go Kumbaya yourself.

The purpose of art is to awaken our better, more unguarded selves and to give us comfort when we really need it.

No wind that blows but carries us further on
And you who fear, oh lovers gather round
And we will rise to sing it one more time


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

More posts by Irondale

Leave a Reply