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Bertolt Brecht Finally Gets the Time of Day

Theater: Los Angeles, the city that once spurned the playwright, honors him with an egalitarian centennial festival.

February 06, 1998|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though he'd been acclaimed across Europe, he was treated in Hollywood as just another hack writer--and he often found himself at odds with the studio mind-set. His screenplay "Boy Meets Girl, So What?" got nowhere.

He called this "the city of merchandisable dreams," and he left muttering about what a sewer it was.

Fifty years later, however, the city that spurned Bertolt Brecht is rallying to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. Theater artists, musicians and others are collaborating on the West Coast Brecht Centennial Festival, which began Thursday and continues through Tuesday with free events from Santa Monica to Claremont. Readings of Brecht's plays--from such early works as "Baal" and "Edward II" through such masterpieces as "Mother Courage" and "The Good Woman of Setzuan"--share the schedule with performances of his songs (many written with Kurt Weill) and poems, as well as showings of films and Brecht-inspired visual art. Among those scheduled to participate are Eric Braeden ("The Young and the Restless," "Titanic"), Angela Paton ("Groundhog Day") and Weba Garretson (one of the more avant-garde of Los Angeles' cabaret performers).

What would the late German playwright think of Los Angeles paying tribute to him?

"I would like to think that Brecht would chuckle," says David Catanzarite, who envisioned and is organizing the festival. With a hint of a chuckle in his own voice, Catanzarite adds that it's "a little subversive" to flood a city where money talks with the words of this Marxist dialectician.

In keeping with this ethic, Catanzarite is trying to make the festival as egalitarian as possible. All events are free, and artists of various cultural backgrounds are adding their distinct perspectives to Brecht's work.

"I want to see Brecht done in as many different ways as possible, because there is no one right way," says Catanzarite, 40, a visiting instructor who heads the directing program at Pomona College in Claremont.

Thus, the schedule includes Tony Kushner's recent adaptation of "The Good Woman of Setzuan" (amended to "The Good Person of Setzuan"), read by a mostly Asian American cast; Thulani Davis' Creole-flavored adaptation of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," performed by African American actors; and a reading of "Edward II" directed by Michael M. Michetti and performed by much of the multicultural cast from his award-winning, India-set production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

What festival-goers won't find, however, is a presentation of "Galileo," one version of which (there were several) received its world premiere in Los Angeles in 1947, starring Charles Laughton. The play just received a couple of high-profile readings in its anniversary year, and Catanzarite says he wants to focus on pieces "people haven't had a chance to see."

Nor will festival-goers hear any formal discussion of the charges that have put Brecht back in the headlines in recent years: the claims in John Fuegi's 1994 book "Brecht & Co." that much of Brecht's work was written by others who had collaborated with him--three women in particular.

"I think it's great that Fuegi pointed out that Brecht was not some kind of communist saint," Catanzarite says. "He was a rake, and he was fairly cynical, and he was also rather concerned with material comfort. I think that was very useful, and also to point out the important role that these women played in the work. However, [Fuegi] just doesn't convince me that they wrote the plays and he just managed to claim credit for them--because there's a consistent style, a consistent language among the plays. And it's Brecht."

Brecht believed in theater as a laboratory of social change, where pressing or troubling issues could be thought through. "Class justice was one of the main things," Catanzarite says. "He was part of that movement in the first half of this century for equality and economic justice."

Because Brecht felt that such issues should be considered objectively, he attempted to distance the audience by writing in a concentrated, heightened language. He trained actors to separate themselves from their characters, so that they, in effect, narrated their roles; and he orchestrated all staging elements--from music to set design--to comment on, contradict or provide additional context about the action.

"He didn't want to get rid of emotion on the stage," clarifies Catanzarite, who enlisted such groups as the Goethe-Institut German cultural center and the Claremont Colleges to fund the festival. "He just wanted to replace emotional identification with other emotional experiences: the passion for inquiry, the passion for feeling outrage at an injustice that is taking place."

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