Today’s Letter From Jim (with an Assist from Bertolt Brecht)
On A Great Actress
She has a small stature, regular and robust. Her head is large and well-shaped. Her face is narrow. Soft, with a high, somewhat raised forehead and strong lips. Her voice is rich and dark, and pleasant even in sharpness or in a scream. Her movements are definite and soft.
What is her character?
She is good-natured, Gruff, courageous, and reliable. She is unpopular.
What is her acting like?
When she acted the maidservant in a Greek play – the maidservant who has to report the death of her mistress – she cried dead, dead offstage in a completely emotionless, piercing voice. Jocasta is dead. It was ugly without lamentation, yet so definite and irresistible that the bare fact of Jocasta’s death was more effective at that moment than any sorrow could have been.
I woke up yesterday and the day before and for several days before that struggling with feelings of unease coupled with uncertainty, how’s that for a cocktail? And could you throw in a dash of bitters? Things were just jumping all over the place in my mind caused by all the usual suspects – the state of the world, the state of our politics, the awareness that already the optimism of election day is fading and the mood is “a rapid return to its old corners.” It was all just hanging in the air waiting, circling, looking for a place to land. Then I deleted the final draft of what was to be Tuesday’s What’s on Jim’s Mind. People and a Safari search kept telling me “it’s out there someplace, lurking, waiting to be found,” but so far I can’t find it. So now I’m attempting with uncertain steps to reconstruct it from notes and memory.
Prior to my deletion yesterday a little past noon, my uncertain thoughts had led me at a little past 2 am to thinking about Helene Weigel, someone who lived with uncertainty for decades, the likes of which I can’t begin to comprehend but can only sit at my laptop in awe of. She was one of the great actresses of the 20th Century, yet she went years at a time unable to step on a stage, because, as a jazz musician once told me, “Life calls.” Today, Weigel is probably still best remembered for her Mother Courage, two words that aptly describe her. She did not create the role. The play was first performed in Zurich during the war, at a time when she was a refugee halfway around the world. But she played it when the play premiered in Berlin and for more than twenty years thereafter. At the end of scene three, when she is asked to identify the bullet torn corpse of her youngest son as it lies before her, but cannot because to do so would cost her and her sole remaining child their lives. All she can do is turn away screaming with her whole body but with a sound. Weigel’s “Silent scream” has come down to us as an iconographic moment of theatre history. There is no mention of it in Brecht’s stage directions. The moment is hers.
Though she was never listed as a formal collaborator or co-author of her husband’s plays as Hauptman and Steffin and Laughton were (though admittedly oft belatedly and under pressure), her influence on them is everywhere. In the 1960 German film Mother Courage, a “model book” staging of the original Berliner Ensemble production, it’s is fascinating to watch her as she adds or cuts small lines, words and exchanges, making subtle changes to what was written originally and what remains in the printed version of the play. The improvements are hers.
In the 1920s, she had risen to prominence as a major European actor, first at the Berlin Staatstheater and then as a member of Max Rinehardt’s famous company at the Deutsches in Berlin. In 1930, she became the second wife of Bertolt Brecht and remained married to him until he died in 1956. With her husband, she founded the Berliner Ensemble upon the couple’s return to Germany following the war. Her performance of Courage in Berlin in 1949 marked the founding of the Berliner Ensemble. As its “Intendant,” or company director, she managed the day to day running of the company, acted, and made sure she held the copywrites to Brecht plays. In addition, she held together the complex and often complicated Brecht household on its refugees’ journey from Germany (fleeing the day after the Nazi’s burning of the Reichstag and only a few hours before their Berlin flat was raided) to Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and on to the United States.
During this time while Brecht was writing Mother Courage, Setzuan, Galileo, and Caucasian Chalk Circle, as I’ve told you so often his finest plays, she managed to act in only a few scattered performances here and there – in Señora Carrar’s Rifles in Paris in 1937 and Copenhagen in 1938, and in Fear and Misery of the Third Reich in Paris in 1938. In America in 1941, she played a small, non-speaking part in the Spencer Tracy film The Seventh Cross.
“She played, a few rare times, with small worker companies after only a few rehearsals, to other exiles; otherwise she was busy with housework and bringing up her children in a small fisherman’s cottage far from any theater. Her desire to play too many had brought her to where she could play only to a very few. Perhaps the persecuted who heard her forgot their own troubles, and they always left the hall made stronger. This was because Weigel showed them her own wisdom and her own goodness. She perfected her art more and more, she carried it, ever-increasing, to ever-deepening deaths. Thus when she had quite given up and lost her first fame, her second fame began, her fame at ground level, the fame that was made from the esteem of a few persecuted human beings. She was in good heart: it was her aim to be praised by the ones on the ground, to be praised by as many as possible, but by a few if more was impossible.”
The first night of the theater of the new age
Was when Courage cartwheeled onto Berlin’s ruined stage.
One year and six months pass
Mothers watch the Mayday Procession
Point out Weigel to their children
And speak out loud in praise of peace.