First, let me say that Mother Courage is not a tractor play. And after a brief sojourn into the weeds (one of my favorite places) and a trip down a small rabbit hole I’ll tell you why. That’s my first sentence. The second sentence of my first draft of this week’s letter was one hundred and ninety-two words long. In the interest of following the spirit of the writer’s first commandment which is to “Pity the Poor Reader,” I have deleted it.
Now, as we go bumper carting along through these days of a country in crisis traveling unstuck, bumping up against the other cars as they too careen through this unstuck world, I find myself filled with a perpetual feeling of unease. At times it approaches panic. But I also find myself feeling increased sympathy (or is it empathy? or is it both?) for the people I have come across this past year. Some of whom have wanted to put the whole world on pause.
Barbara and I spent much of Sunday and Monday in the blue Subaru listening to the audio version of Slaughterhouse Five. James Franco reads it, and he does a good job. We both recommend it if you’ve never read Vonnegut’s masterpiece or if you just want to refresh some of the details in your mind. Personally, I always like coming back to the passage where Billy Pilgrim watches the war movie, first forwards and then backward in time. He can do that because he’s become unstuck in time. We were going forward to and then backward from New York for another of Barbara’s now bi-monthly follow-up appointments with her phenomenal team of doctors and nurses and Technicians at Sloan Kettering. It went very well. Her recovery continues to advance forward in time. I saw the graph, a straight line slowly ascending ahead and upwards.
As we drove, we periodically interrupted our listening for a random check-in with NPR to catch the latest updates from the surreal goings-on in Washington, a place where, as opposed to Barbara’s chart, things seem to be consistently going first forwards and then hitting that glitch of reverse before bumping ahead once again.
After a while, as we navigated the endless curves and hills and tunnels of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the separate surrealisms of the Vonnegut and the news reports almost began to merge in our brains as one, creating our own unique narrative of surrealism, and we found ourselves navigating and being swept along by “unstuck” experience of our own as we more and more rapidly shifted back and forth between the novel and the news, with each commenting on how we processed and interpreted the other.
I have found myself having a similar experience to this with my work on Mother Courage these past few months, as I continued searching for the play’s core narrative. And this experience explains why Mother Courage is not a “tractor play.”
To explain here, “Tractor Play” is a term that disparaging critics of Brecht from time to time pin on all his works from the small cabarets, living newspapers and “teaching” pieces of his early plays (many of which were written with the deadline pressure of an op-ed columnist) to the great masterpieces – Galileo, Szechuan, Courage and Caucasian Chalk Circle, many of which he labored over and revised for years until they finally emerged as some of the finest plays of the twentieth century. As with all great works, the play, novel, painting then exists as a finished entity. With rare exceptions, they don’t continue to change over time to stay current. They don’t have to. What changes is our relationship and understanding of the multiple, imagistic meanings it already contains and that we, ourselves can create for ourselves from it as we go careening and bumping forward through time and events?
The easy description of Mother Courage is that it’s an “Anti-war” play. That was how it was first presented to me in the days of the Vietnam War. And so it was for me then, in 1967. By the time I started work on the Brecht in Exile project a few years ago, I had changed and I no longer saw Courage as a sweeping epic story detailing the futility of a war that lasted thirty years without ever producing a clear and meaningful ending. It had now become a “domestic” play, a series of scenes and episodes, most of them intimate encounters, through which we saw a loving family (the title’s Mother Courage and Her Children after all) being torn apart, at times through their own desires, to win at the game of material success one time too often.
Now, at least for today at this moment, I go bumping along a little differently. Today I say it’s a play about real money, economics if you will, and how the unfettered abuse of money and its power to act without any kind of conscience is ripping us apart. Just listen to the tortured logic being espoused by men and women whose only justification for their continued support of our hideous President is to ensure their own continued access to extreme wealth and power without any consideration of how such single-minded abuse affects anyone but themselves. That is what I’m hearing over the radio as the impeachment hearings commence today. And I see the direct, unbroken graph line that proceeds downward in steep decline from the loftiest heights of concentrated wealth to a world in chaos. And that is what Mother Courage is about for me, today.
Tomorrow can’t come soon enough. Let’s see what it brings. I look forward to a day when Mother Courage, will no longer be the most important play to do at this moment in time, which right now it is.
In the meantime, we continue bumping. Since I started writing this, I have received an upward tick in the graph, a moment of encouragement. It’s an email I just got from Terry.
“Richard Garmise, the Atty. for the Brecht heirs was very fulsome in his praise for Irondale and our work, especially our work on the plays. ‘You’re a good company and you do good work, and the heirs are very happy with your Brecht productions’.”
“He kept thanking ME for our interest in Brecht ‘especially in these times’. He led me to think that the gratitude comes from our keeping the work alive and relevant. He let me know that he would do everything he could to help us and that’s what the family wants, too. I asked him for our ‘wish list’ request: the rights to the play for 18 months so we could do the radio and live versions. His reply, ‘When would you like to start the contract?’”
“Finally, he was very interested in the TPSU (To Protect, Serve and Understand, Irondale’s community and police relationship-building program) and suggested I send him info on it so that he could shop it around to some foundation people he knows.”
And so it goes.