“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”
–Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir
“For many, the theatre is the abode where dreams are created. You, players, sellers of drugs, in your darkened houses people are changed into kings and perform heroic deeds of safety. In rapture over themselves, or seized with pity they sit in happy distraction, forgetting the toils of daily life. Runaways….”
In his epic theater, Bertolt Brecht sought to illuminate the historically specific features of an environment in order to show how that environment influenced, shaped, and often battered and destroyed the characters. Unlike dramatists who focused on the universal elements of the human condition and fate, Brecht was interested in the attitudes and behavior people adopted toward each other in specific historical situations.
In Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera Brecht demonstrated how people relate to each other in capitalist societies. In Mother Courage, he showed how tradespeople related to soldiers and civilians during war in an emerging market society. In The Measures Taken, Brecht depicted revolutionary relationships in the struggle in China. He believed that with this “historicization” one would have the best possible chance to adopt a critical attitude toward one’s society. Brecht wanted audiences to view present social arrangements and institutions as historical, transitory, and subject to change. Epic theater was intended to show emotions, ideas, and behavior as products of, or responses to, specific social situations and not as the unfolding of the human essence.
When you see Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston in the movies or on televison, their vehicle –the particular dramatization– is not intended to “estrange” or “distance” the spectator, preventing empathy or identification with situations and characters; a critical attitude toward the actions of a given plot is not encouraged. They are not paid to detour empathetic illusion or a mimesis of reality. On the contrary, their bosses do not want them to expose the workings of societal processes and human behavior, showing how and why people behave a certain way in this society of ours. And they are paid handsomely for their work. I don’t know how much Brad or Jennifer get per picture, but I know that Mr. Pitt –if you average out his annual income– pulls in over a million dollars a day; Jennifer’s take is very thick gravy on their Thanksgiving Turkey.
And speaking of “takes,” I could take or leave Jennifer, but Brad has won me over in a big way a number of times. That said, a million dollars a day is something we have to address, regardless. Not because it says anything about the Pitts being greedy. Rather, it’s something essential to confront because their collective take is peanuts in our present predicament, small fried potatoes in The American Feast. All the fuss about Oprah’s bucks and Martha’s millions notwithstanding, when it comes to the disparity in this land…which is growing each day, exacerbated worldwide…the whole lot of entertainers put together (including Michael Jordan, Madonna. Rosie et. al.) don’t amount to much when stacked up against some of NPR’s sponsors, those Corporate Behemoths.
The greed in Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage’s sufferings, and persecution in Galileo, were all to be understood as historically specific constituents of a social environment, and dramatic presentations were intended to induce spectators to reflect on “why” these events happened, thus providing the audience with better historical understanding and knowledge.
The intention was to produce a kind of “shock and awe,” if you will, posing questions such as: “Is that the way things are?”, “What produced this?” It’s terrible! How can we change things?” His montage of images and other techniques were designed to provoke the desire to implement radical social change. A very far cry from what the Pitts are engaged in, of course.
Brecht’s epic theater broke with the “culinary theater” that provided each spectator with a pleasant experience or moral for easy digestion. He rejected theater that tried to produce an illusion of reality.
Samuel Beckett hated both to talk about his work and his war time activities. He had been a courier for the French resistance, nearly caught on several occasions by the Gestapo, and later in the war he would go out with the Marquis, sabotaging German soldiers in the Vaucluse mountains. He was personally decorated by Charles de Gaulle, but would never mention it. When Jerome Lindon, a early SB publisher, was put on trial for revealing the use of torture by the French military in 50s Algeria, Beckett came to his rescue risking much personally to do the right thing. (1) From San Quentin (where he made a major contribution on behalf of the prisoners) to Saint Lo in France (where he threw caution to the wind assisting the Irish Red Cross), Beckett devoted himself to selfless acts of kindness and compassion. As a rule, his work did not address politics directly, but one could not find a greater humanitarian. Consequently, in a deeply hidden way (often), a sense of history is crucial to understanding much of Beckett. We are uprooted people, we Americans, and in Waiting for Godot Beckett underscores the amnesia that afflicts us all:
Vladimir: At the very beginning.
Estragon: The very beginning of WHAT?
Vladimir: This evening…I was saying…I was saying…
Estragon: I’m not a historian. (2)
We are forgetful and intolerant of true inquiry:
Estragon: ….Yes, now I remember, yesterday evening we spent blathering about nothing in particular. That’s been going on for half a century.
Vladimir: You don’t remember any fact, any circumstance?
Estragon: Don’t torment me, Didi. (3)
Today, we not only have historical amnesia and are forgetful, we have select concerns about what we’re willing to talk about, even within the realm of progressive issues; that goes for very involved activists/leftists too. On top of all, we have no time, and time is moving at a breakneck speed. We are all virtually, to a one, sucked dry by the syndrome Leilla Matsui and Seth Sandronsky touch upon in “The Passion of the Donald Getting in Touch With Your Inner Psychopath“:
“Reality TV (and “The Apprentice” is no exception) reinforces the notion that “success” hinges upon one’s ability to tap into his/her inner psychopath to reap the benefits that come with a jobless recovery. On planet Reality, life imitates what kindergarten would be like if John Waters and the cast of “Pink Flamingos” were running the show. On planet earth, the Bush team has taken the farce even further with their tax cuts for the rich.”
Whether or not we actually watch the nonsense, we’ve already bought into notions like pushing for “war money” to be allocated to the public school system. That’s the educational industry that brings you children volunteering to serve in the military, and parents serving as their willing cheerleaders. We push for that for the same reason, I suspect, that we push for Condoleeza Rice to testify. There’s a common denominator between the Trump fans and the traditionally trumped. There are a handful of exceptions, but, for the most part, the American public –voting and non-voting, activist and full-of-ennui others– are crippled by the notion that (on some level) they can be Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston, that it’s the Bush administration that’s brought about all the disparity and death, and that tuning into PBS, CNN, CBS, BBC, NPR or whatever is going to provide more than entertainment protecting the status quo. Hardly anyone is acknowledging that a complete overhaul of the system is requisite to creating the communal concerns necessary for personal prosperity, planetary survival. The 9/11 talk has descended to the level of Spectacle. What wasn’t known already? Why are people surprised? How come the partisan political aspects aren’t paramount in people’s minds? What is anyone prepared to do about all that’s on the stage that would have them behaving differently than they did during the S&L crisis, the Irangate scandal or the Baneful Theft of 2000?
Entertainment, with the Greek root meaning “to hold” (attention) being primary, is what the Pitts and their colleagues and supporters are all about, whether or not some of them take an occasional foray into enlightening the public periodically. History has its place, a hit here, a huge hiatus there. Bush wants the general populace to be distracted by the likes of the Pitts, the Winfreys, the Texas Rangers and all the so-called reality shows that seem to rule the entertainment roost these days. He doesn’t begrudge them their income because they’re helping him to stay in the loop of much larger stakes. At our expense. Bush pushes the “culinary theater” that Brecht so detested, “entertainment that provides the spectator with a pleasant experience or moral for easy digestion.” His abominations in the real world are presented merely as Spectacle, and Entertainment Tonight –all of its varieties– makes sure that we don’t delve into things like the fact that on July 26, 2001, John Ashcroft had stopped flying on commercial airlines. The Attorney General, just like Janet R. before him, used to fly commercially all the time. So why, two months before Sept. 11, did he start taking chartered government planes which cost $1,600-plus per hour? Why would he choose to go G-3 Gulfstream when he could have flown the way he’d always flown for a fraction of the cost? And, perhaps most importantly, when the FBI advised Ashcroft to stay off commercial aircraft, why did the rest of us just have to take our chances? We will not go there, down that baleful burrow. We are too comfortable. We are too uncaring. We are too ignorant, stupid about our own history.
The irreparable devestation, the sheer suffering call out for something other than mere academic debate, waiting for the Electoral Godot, our grande passion. But why not when we’ve got the Pitts with which to wile away the time? Besides we can point to Paul Newman, eyeglasses akimbo, peering out of a Nation ad advising us to bone up, Tim Robbins pontificating on the pluses of invading Afghanistan on a Donahue show, Garafalo going garrulous over grievances at gargantuan Media Reform Tour fare, and Moore/Franken selling tons of (dead tree) books. It all means about as much positive as the two cents that Ed Asner keeps kicking in whilst applauding the troops. We can still talk tears over Speilberg’s Holocaust, but we won’t allow ourselves a shred of decency respecting 9/11. All of the Show begs the question of How Who would Hold Up at the next House Un-American Committee session following a 9/11 #2, if things got bad enough. Hardly a Brecht in the bunch I’ll bet. (4) In the Irish Times of ’46, Beckett touched upon the River Vire which ran through Saint Lo, highlighting the difference between the mechanical, obligatory building of civilizations and the effect on the human mind of their destruction:
“Vire will wind in other shadows
unborn through the bright ways tremble and the old mind ghost-forsaken
sink into its havoc.”
Three hundred years from now –should we survive so long– Beckett will be remembered more for his poetry and prose than for his plays. A vision, a conception of humanity in ruins, an inkling of a different way to think about our condition once again is all available to the careful reader. And even though SB would have been horrified if Brecht had gone through with his plans to do a Marxist version of Godot, I’m sure he felt much common ground with the communist. But we can’t say the same about Ground Zero groupies and grief-stricken victims of the world’s so-called terrorists. Let me suggest what we all are likely to be remembered for, Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” and the rest of us. Recently, the new Hamas leader, Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi asserted that “God declared war” against the United States and Israel – but stopped short of saying the group would strike U.S. targets. The Hamas chief, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, renewed threats to attack Israel in retaliation for the assassination of the group’s founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Stopped short of saying that they’d strike at American targets? How can that be believed? Who can believe that? Only by people who don’t want to tear themselves away from their habitual forms of entertainment. Only by people who refuse to acknowledge what’s motivating 9/11-type terror around the globe. Only by people who have Brad as their Baedeker. I’m starting to hear strains of that old melodic Platters song, “Only You.”
I looked up “Brad” in my Celebrity Thesaurus, and I came way with “charismatic,” “talented,” “virile” and “wealthy.” The telling trouble is that many in America would make the same associations with Bush. With all that’s come down to date, at least half of those polled, about 50% of those about to vote most likely. But in looking for “the enemy” one should not dwell on Hussein, Osama or GWB. It’s the American public, not Bush nor bin Laden, my foolish fellow citizens. Beckett, Brad, Bertolt Brecht and Bush, baleful, baneful and burrow. Alliteration. It’s all so entertaining, isn’t it?
To what end?
(1) Proceedings were instituted against Lindon for “incitement to military disobedience.” In the U.S. we have laws on the books which would make comparable actions by citizens vis-a-vis Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere equally dangerous…for similar reasons.
(2) and (3): Rather than cite the exact locations of the passages above, the writer urges all readers to read or re-read Waiting for Godot, a play which has been described as the only dramatic work in theatre history in which nothing happens…twice. Notices of good productions, rare these days, are welcome.
(4) Brecht’s testimony in front of HUAC has been compared to a zoologist’s being cross-examined by apes.
RICHARD OXMAN is a former professor of Cinema History, Comparative Literature and Dramatic Art at various institutions of so-called higher education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, but, out of respect, not on April 13 or May 13, one of which is certainly the birthday of Samuel Beckett.