Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad
So I had on more for dessert
Just started with that to get your attention.
My head feels just fine. I do have a bit of a stiff neck, the result of sleeping on a too-soft pillow with a cat snuggling in next to my head who was struggling to keep warm on a night when the temperature outside was plunging into the lower twenties.
I also woke up Tuesday morning thinking about Charlie Willard. Charlie taught with Barbara during her early years at Carnegie Mellon and, besides being a valued colleague, became one of Barbara’s best friends. Charlie died much too young in a boating accident on his beloved Lake Placid in the Summer of 1991, the day we returned from Paris, where Barbara had spent the summer studying with Jacques Lecoq, which is how I can keep the date so clearly fixed in my memory.
Charlie was a theatre man of the golden age of Broadway. Listening to him talk over dinner was the oral equivalent to reading a sequel to Act One, Moss Hart’s romantic account of his apprenticeship at the foot of George S Kaufman (who grew up on Walnut St in Pittsburgh, just a few blocks from where I am sitting right now.)
Charlie, like Moss, was an ace mechanic specializing in a kind of theatre that didn’t write plays so much as designing and building perfectly functioning “Rube Goldberg” machines. A Rube Goldberg machine, named after American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, is a chain reaction-type contraption intentionally designed to perform a simple task in an indirect and overly complicated way. Usually, these machines consisted of a series of simple unrelated devices; the action of each triggering the initiation of the next, eventually resulting in achieving a stated goal. These plays were made by the rule book. They were based on routines played with perfection and the more complicated the routine, and the more exquisitely they were pile on top of each other, the better.
Charlie knew the rules better than anyone I ever met. “That play doesn’t work because you put a star into it. In a play like that the play is the star.” Speaking of stars one of Charlie’s last jobs was as the Company Manager for Julie Harris’s tour of Driving Miss Daisy. Of course, she and Charlie became the best of friends. She gave the address at his memorial service at the Helen Hayes Theatre and she also endowed an acting award in his name given each year to a Carnegie Mellon student, which Barbara presents.
Charlie is the person who told me about “White Heat”. That strange moment in the creation of a new production when all of a sudden everything goes into overdrive, food and sleep get placed on the back burner, and all the problems that have been vexing everyone from the first days of writing and rehearsal suddenly are solved in a burst of spontaneous creativity from the whole company. Everyone has an idea, and every idea is good.
For a play like Mother Courage to work, you need white heat. A lot of it.
Like any other truly great play, the multitude of ideas it contains offers up a banquet that is too much to be fully consumed and digested by any singular production. The possible dishes and courses from which a Mother Courage meal could be made up are: family tragedy, cutthroat economics, a power that wants nothing but more power and whose only purpose is to screw over everybody else. The main course in this feast is rampant inequality run amok. This sounds like a rather harsh and bleak evening in the theatre, doesn’t it? But the way that Brecht puts it begins with a recipe filled with a multitude of indescribable flavors. Then he spices it with classic vaudeville, German comedians, and American Screwball films of the 1930s and ’40s. Just before it plunges into worlds of tragedy and noir, before cleansing your palate with a dash of slapstick. (Think a combination of the Marx Brothers and films like Ninotchka.) The play defies genre or acting style, and it changes course on a dime.
The play is universal. It’s everybody’s story who’s alive in this world we’re inhabiting right now. It’s also funny, it’s outrageous and it is sassy smart. And, which goes without saying, it is so difficult to pull off without the white heat running full out.
Mother Courage is surely one of the most complicated “Rube Goldberg machines” ever designed, and it threatens to go off the rails or blow a gasket at every sharp turn. What’s going on right now? Delight? Tragedy? No. Right now it’s just jabbing you in the eye with sharp objects in an act of relentless provocation. And, while it’s doing all this, it’s making you take a good look at what’s going on around you in the world and how we are all dancing with its ultimate warning message. “Anyone who suppers with the devil must have a long spoon.”
And finally, don’t worry. We’re about to crank up the white heat. I can feel it already. Take a look at these pictures.