Category Archives: History

BERLINER ENSEMBLE: “MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN” WITH HELENE WEIGEL, “AN UNMISSABLE OPPORTUNITY”–UK GUARDIAN ·

STREAMING FROM FRIDAY FOR A WEEK: BERLINER ENSEMBLE–“MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN” WITH HELENE WEIGEL, FROM 1957  

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Stay at home – BE at home: While the doors of the Berlin ensemble must remain closed to our audience, we provide you with a recording of a repertoire or historically significant staging as an online stream once a week. The stream of the week is always available from Fridays and then for a week.

We are very pleased that we can now show you, in collaboration with the Bertolt Brecht Archive of the Academy of the Arts, a recording of Bertolt Brechts and Erich Engels’ staging of “Mother Courage and Her Children” with Helene Weigel from 1957 (German audio only!). We can now make this staging, which is important in terms of theater history, accessible to a larger audience for the first time and thank the Bertolt Brecht heirs and Suhrkamp Verlag for this. The stream is available free of charge until midnight on May 21, 2020 at “BE at home”.

From May 22, 2020, 6:00 p.m., we will show a recording of Heiner Müller’s “Macbeth” in a production by Michael Thalheimer (with English Surtitles!).

Further digital offers from the Berlin Ensemble can be found at www.berliner-ensemble.de/be-at-home.

Photo: © Hainer Hill ©AdK, Berlin

 

Read more from Chris Wiegand in the Guardian:

Mother Courage

Achtung! Here’s an unmissable opportunity to catch a piece of German theatre history (though without English subtitles). The Berliner Ensemble is streaming a different production each week for its BE at Home programme, and from 15-22 May you can see Brecht’s classic play about the 30 years war in Europe. Legendary actor Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife, plays the title role. Weigel played the part of the indomitable profiteer and matriarch more than 200 times in her career.

For further streaming events

 

Synopsis, from Wikipedia:

Mother Courage and Her Children

The play is set in the 17th century in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. The Recruiting Officer and Sergeant are introduced, both complaining about the difficulty of recruiting soldiers to the war. Anna Fierling (Mother Courage) enters pulling a cart containing provisions for sale to soldiers, and introduces her children Eilif, Kattrin, and Schweizerkas (“Swiss Cheese”). The sergeant negotiates a deal with Mother Courage while Eilif is conscripted by the Recruiting Officer.

Two years thereafter, Mother Courage argues with a Protestant General’s cook over a capon, and Eilif is congratulated by the General for killing peasants and slaughtering their cattle. Eilif and his mother sing “The Fishwife and the Soldier”. Mother Courage scolds her son for endangering himself.

Three years later, Swiss Cheese works as an army paymaster. The camp prostitute, Yvette Pottier, sings “The Fraternization Song”. Mother Courage uses this song to warn Kattrin against involving herself with soldiers. Before the Catholic troops arrive, the Cook and Chaplain bring a message from Eilif. Swiss Cheese hides the regiment’s paybox from invading soldiers, and Mother Courage and companions change their insignia from Protestant to Catholic. Swiss Cheese is captured and tortured by the Catholics having hidden the paybox by the river. Mother Courage attempts bribery to free him, planning to pawn the wagon first and redeem it with the regiment money. When Swiss Cheese claims that he has thrown the box in the river, Mother Courage backtracks on the price, and Swiss Cheese is killed. Fearing to be shot as an accomplice, Mother Courage does not acknowledge his body, and it is discarded.

Later, Mother Courage waits outside the General’s tent to register a complaint and sings the “Song of Great Capitulation” to a young soldier anxious to complain of inadequate pay. The song persuades both to withdraw their complaints.

When Catholic General Tilly’s funeral approaches, the Chaplain tells Mother Courage that the war will still continue, and she is persuaded to pile up stocks. The Chaplain then suggests to Mother Courage that she marry him, but she rejects his proposal. Mother Courage curses the war because she finds Kattrin disfigured after being raped by a drunken soldier. Thereafter Mother Courage is again following the Protestant army.

Two peasants try to sell merchandise to her when they hear news of peace with the death of the Swedish king. The Cook appears and causes an argument between Mother Courage and the Chaplain. Mother Courage is off to the market while Eilif enters, dragged in by soldiers. Eilif is executed for killing a peasant while stealing livestock, trying to repeat the same act for which he was praised as hero in wartime, but Mother Courage never hears thereof. When she finds out the war continues, the Cook and Mother Courage move on with the wagon.

In the seventeenth year of the war, there is no food and no supplies. The Cook inherits an inn in Utrecht and suggests to Mother Courage that she operate it with him, but refuses to harbour Kattrin. Thereafter Mother Courage and Kattrin pull the wagon by themselves.

When Mother Courage is trading in the Protestant city of Halle, Kattrin is left with a peasant family in the countryside overnight. As Catholic soldiers force the peasants to guide the army to the city for a sneak attack, Kattrin fetches a drum from the cart and beats it, waking the townspeople, but is herself shot. Early in the morning, Mother Courage sings a lullaby to her daughter’s corpse, has the peasants bury it, and hitches herself to the cart.

JOAN ACOCELLA: ON MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV AND ‘THE WHITE HELICOPTER’ ·

Mikhail Baryshnikov as Benedict XVI and Kaspars Znotiņš as Georg Gänswein in The White Helicopter at the New Riga Theater

(Joan Acocella’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/14.)

THE RED SHOES

The White Helicopter

a play by Alvis Hermanis, at the New Riga Theater, Riga, Latvia, opened November 21, 2019, with additional performances planned for 2020

(The theater is temporarily closed.)

In 1967 Clive Barnes, of The New York Times, flew home from a trip to Russia and reported that in a class at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute, the Kirov Ballet’s school, he had encountered “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen.” That was a weighty announcement. Barnes, the Times’s lead dance critic, had seen a lot of dancers, and this one, Mikhail Baryshnikov, was only nineteen. Because Baryshnikov became an extraordinary dancer so young, many people failed to realize he was also an extraordinary actor. One of the earliest performances I ever saw him in was a Soviet movie, Fiesta (1971), an adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. He played Pedro Romero, the teenaged matador whom Brett Ashley seduces, and he was a thrill: handsome, open, and innocent, a flower awaiting the scythe. Acting was not new to him. It was part of his training, as it was, and is, for almost all serious ballet students in Russia. And dramatic inventiveness was central to his breakthrough role at the Kirov, as Albrecht in Giselle, where he turned the male lead, traditionally played as an aristocratic cad—an interpretation that supported Soviet ideology—into a lovestruck boy.

Once he defected to the West in 1974, Baryshnikov again and again triumphed as an actor-dancer, in new ballets such as Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove (American Ballet Theatre, 1976), in which he played a sort of confused hipster, and also in nineteenth-century ballets such as the Russian Don Quixote, of which he made a new production for American Ballet Theatre in 1978, dancing the part of Kitri’s lover, the barber Basilio, himself and shocking that tired old piece back into life.1 He bit off those assignments with gusto. Good ballet, bad ballet—it didn’t matter. He filled each role to its very skin. When, in 1978–1979, he abandoned his opera-house repertory to go to New York City Ballet and dance in George Balanchine’s largely nonnarrative works, he was sometimes scolded by critics for doing too much acting—for making faces, as they say in the trade.

Some critics, when they could, described his achievements in the classroom vocabulary,2 not, I believe, because they thought the reader would understand those words but because the words sounded rich and fine enough to convey the critic’s astonishment that Baryshnikov could draw out of his body so elaborate and poetic a response to his dramatic situation. After all, he was only a Sevillian barber (Don Quixote) or a boy in love (Giselle) or something like that. Yet when he performed those beautiful, clear, fantastically difficult steps, he was no longer just a barber or even just a dancer—even a great dancer—but a metaphor, for all the intelligence, energy, and allure that a human being might aspire to.

Baryshnikov returned to ABT in 1980, now as the company’s artistic director, and remained there until 1989, at which point, having had several operations on his knees, he pretty much abandoned classical dance. This was not shockingly early. He was forty-one. Most ballet dancers quit by the age of forty-five or so, for the same reason he did. They can’t hack it anymore, physically. Then, typically, they go on to something less interesting. If they are big stars, they may be asked to direct a company. Far more often, they simply teach, or find a hedge-fund manager to marry.

But Baryshnikov, though he retired from ballet, did not retire from dancing. He just switched to other kinds of dance. Practically the minute he left ABT, he got on a plane and flew to Brussels, where he went to work as a guest artist for his friend Mark Morris, whose modern-dance company was headquartered at that time at Belgium’s royal theater, the Monnaie. (At one point, Baryshnikov was to have been the Nutcracker in Morris’s Hard Nut, which premiered at the Monnaie, but his knee problems scotched that plan.) In 1990, together with Morris, he founded the White Oak Dance Project, a small, rather deluxe modern-dance company (live music; private planes, if they needed one). He also did tours with people he admired—Tharp, the postmodernist Dana Reitz, the kabuki star Tamasaburo Bando—and he made guest appearances with Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, and, above all, Morris.

(Read more)

CLOSED THEATERS ARE NOTHING NEW. THE GOOD NEWS IS, THEY REOPEN ·

(Matt Wolf’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/9; via Pam Green.)

LONDON — We live in unprecedented times — or so they tell us. The coronavirus lockdown, which began in Britain on March 23, has led to the cancellation of all theater performances through May 31, at least. What happens after remains to be seen.

But this is hardly the first time the city’s playhouses have been closed: During Shakespeare’s time, and then again during World War II, to name two examples, they shut their doors in response to different calamities. But they reopened in due course, affirming a heartening capacity for cultural rebirth that speaks ever more urgently to us today.

The plagues of the Shakespearean age did not allow for the contemporary comforts of social media or Zoom, but an artist’s need to create continued then as it surely is doing now: Shakespeare kept busy writing, retreating to the insular world of poetry and the comfort of home.

His theater, the Globe, not subject to the health and safety requirements of the modern age, was a vector for contagion, not to mention inflammation: It burned down in 1613 and was rebuilt, only to be shut three decades later by the Puritans, who represented an obstacle to performance of a censorious rather than viral sort. That edict was eventually lifted in 1660 when the high spirits of the Restoration ushered in a new theatrical age.

(Read more)

BOOK: ‘AMERICAN HUMBUG’–ROBERT WILSON’S BIO OF P.T. BARNUM ·

(Nathaniel Rich’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 4/23.)

American Humbug

Barnum: An American Life

by Robert Wilson

Simon and Schuster, 341 pp., $28.00

Since his heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, P.T. Barnum’s name has been shorthand for ebullient humbuggery, maximalist entertainment, inexhaustible self-promotion, rags-to-riches industriousness—for fun. After The Greatest Showman (2017), a highly fictionalized musical that defied studio expectations to gross a Barnumesque $435 million, fades to black, the screen fills with a sober epigram: “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” Barnum wrote this at the end of his life, during a period in which he referred to himself as “The Children’s Friend.” He groomed himself to look like Santa Claus.

Yet the images that animate his biographies—of which Robert Wilson’s Barnum is at least the fifteenth, not counting Barnum’s own serially revised and overlapping memoirs—are united by an eerier quality, suspended between the pitiful and the grotesque. The most indelible of these includes the Fejee Mermaid, a three-foot monstrosity composed of the lower half of a large fish stitched to the upper half of a small monkey scowling at the indignity of its afterlife. The What Is It? was a mentally disabled, microcephalic eighteen-year-old black man, four feet tall and fifty pounds, dressed in an ape costume, ordered by Barnum to speak in gibberish, and touted as the “connecting link between man and monkey.” The gargantuan elephant Jumbo, upon being purchased by Barnum and forced to leave the zoological gardens at London’s Regent’s Park, blurted a trumpet call, lay down in the road outside the park’s gates, and refused to budge for a full day. “Let him lay there for a week if he wants to,” said Barnum at the time. “It is the best advertisement in the world.”

There were also the catastrophic fires, five of them, that destroyed Barnum’s museums, circuses, and most opulent estate, yielding horrors equal in their majesty to any of his exhibitions: the pair of squealing white whales burned alive after their tank was shattered in a failed effort to douse the flames; the escaped tiger roaming the streets of lower Manhattan in a snowstorm; the white elephant that, having been led to safety, repeatedly charged back into the inferno in frantic determination to commit suicide.

Wilson is the editor of The American Scholar and the author of two previous biographies of nineteenth-century pioneers, the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and Clarence King, an explorer of the American West. When Wilson set out to write a new life of Barnum, he made a point of courting his predecessors. The most distinguished of these is the historian Neil Harris, whose Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (1973) uses Barnum’s story to examine the birth of modern American culture. Harris gave Wilson his blessing, telling him that “each generation seems to need its own” study of Barnum. Harris’s own thesis, however, suggests otherwise. Barnum built his legend, he writes at the beginning of Humbug, on “the myths and values of a self-proclaimed democracy.” This is what makes Barnum’s insights feel timeless: as long as Americans boast of the triumphs of our democracy (the wisdom of crowds, the beneficence of a free market, the promise of equality for all), his story will continue to mock such ideals as deranged humbug.

(Read more)

MYSTERIOUS RUSSIAN ARTIST NICHOLAS ROERICH’S NEW YORK ‘HEADQUARTERS’ ·

(John Varoli’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 2/20; photo: John Varoli, Alexander Krasavin/Sputnik.) 

The Nicholas Roerich Museum in Manhattan is North America’s only institution dedicated to the heritage of the great Russian Symbolist painter. While the museum is a treasure trove of the artist’s works, few New Yorkers, or Russians, even know it exists.

Soon after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917, Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) fled St. Petersburg and sought refuge in Finland, then London, and finally made his way to New York in October 1920, staying and traveling around the U.S. until May 1923. A large exhibition of Roerich’s art, which was organized by the Chicago Art Institute, began in New York in December 1920 and which subsequently toured the country. 

During Roerich’s time in the U.S. he founded the Master Institute of United Arts (an art school in New York) and the Roerich Museum, which opened in November 1923 at a location overlooking the Hudson River (310 Riverside Drive, Manhattan’s Upper West Side). 

Like many other talented Russian emigres who fled the Revolution, Roerich quickly found admirers among New York City’s rich and powerful. Some patronized his art endeavors and were enthralled with his progressive ideas of world peace and spiritual harmony. 

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NEW APP LETS YOU HEAR CHAUCER’S THE CANTERBURY TALES IN ORIGINAL 14TH-CENTURY ENGLISH ·

(Ellen Gutoskey’s article appeared, 2/4, on mentalfloss.com; via Pam Green.)

One of the many reasons Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century magnum opus The Canterbury Tales is considered a groundbreaking collection of stories is because he chose to write it not in a highbrow language like Latin or French, but in the common tongue of the people: Middle English. Since colloquial English has changed quite a bit over the past seven centuries, The Canterbury Tales that you might have encountered in high school looks and sounds significantly different than it did when Chaucer first created it.

To give us a chance to hear The Canterbury Tales in its original, lyrical glory, an international team of researchers based at the University of Saskatchewan developed an app that reads it aloud in Middle English.

“We want the public, not just academics, to see the manuscript as Chaucer would have likely thought of it—as a performance that mixed drama and humor,” University of Saskatchewan English professor Peter Robinson, who led the project, said in a press release.

(Read more)

LIZA MINNELLI OPENS UP ABOUT MOM JUDY GARLAND, WORKING WITH FOSSE AND GOING TO REHAB ·

(Marc Malkin’s article appeared in Variety, 2/4.)

Liza Minnelli is getting ready to be photographed for the cover of Variety. She’s wearing an off-the-shoulder black beaded shirtdress and perched on a director’s chair. As she adjusts herself, trying to find the right position to extend her bare legs, she screeches, “I’m getting f—ed by a chair!”

As if on cue, the room goes silent. But before anyone can blink, Minnelli’s distinctive throaty cackle bounces off the walls. It’s the permission everyone in the room needs to howl at what they can’t believe they just heard.

At 73, Minnelli is still the consummate entertainer, taking an awkward moment and turning it into a bawdy joke about getting intimate with a piece of furniture.

Minnelli isn’t a Hollywood icon — she’s a show business legend. Over the course of her career, she’s won four Tonys, two Grammys, an Emmy and an Oscar. But even before she danced her first step, sang a single note or memorized a line of script, she was famous.

“I was born and they took a picture,” Minnelli says.

That’s what happens when your mom is Judy Garland and your dad is Vincente Minnelli.

A few days before the shoot, Liza is settling in for a rare interview. She’s sitting on the couch in the living room of her modest Los Angeles-area apartment. The room is cozy, with a grand piano squeezed into the corner. Her Oscar for “Cabaret” sits on a low table alongside a copy of a 1972 Time magazine with Minnelli on the cover. On a table next to the couch are her Tonys, while a collection of additional awards crowd a sideboard near the entryway.

Hanging on one wall are reproductions of iconic Warhol paintings of Minnelli and her parents. The unending fascination with Garland continued last year with the release of “Judy.” Renée Zellweger is the favorite to win the Oscar for her transformation into Garland during the last months of her life. Minnelli has no interest in seeing the film. All she will say right now is “I hope [Zellweger] had a good time making it.”

Minnelli is wearing her signature black turtleneck and leggings, a look that originated out of comfort rather than fashion. “It’s what I’d wear to dance class because it was easy,” she explains.

She is a dancer at heart. She insists that’s all she ever wanted to be, but she was raised on movie sets and in concert halls. Singing and acting were inevitable. In fact, a one-sentence report in Variety on May 7, 1947, reads, “Liza Minnelli, 14-month-old daughter of Judy Garland, makes her acting bow in Metro’s ‘The Pirate,’ which her father is directing.” The headline: “In Ma’s Footsteps.”

When she was 19, Minnelli became the youngest person to win the leading actress in a musical Tony for her turn in the 1965 Kander and Ebb musical “Flora the Red Menace.” Four years later, she received her first Oscar nomination for her performance in the romantic comedy “The Sterile Cuckoo.”

Then came “Cabaret” in 1972. The Bob Fosse-directed big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name earned eight Oscars, including one for Minnelli’s work as American expat Sally Bowles in 1930s Berlin during the rise of Nazism.

Joel Grey, Minnelli’s “Cabaret” co-star, who took home an Oscar for his role as the Master of Ceremonies, first met her through Hal Prince when she made her nightclub debut at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. “She was this fresh, bursting, bright-eyed talent,” Grey remembers. “You could see that connection to her mother and father. You just knew that she was somebody that was going to happen. She was so tender and frail and fragile and strong at the same time.”

(Read more)

WHY ALL NEW YORK HOTELS TURNED AWAY FAMOUS SOVIET WRITER MAXIM GORKY ·

(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 1/28.)

America in the early 20th century turned out to be an even more puritan country than Russia.

In the spring of 1906, Maxim Gorky, “the voice of the Russian revolution”, who would later become one of the Soviet Union’s greatest writers, arrived in America, accompanied by a lady whom the local newspapers initially referred to as Mrs. Gorky. However, the real Mrs. Gorky was back in Russia, looking after a terminally ill daughter, while the writer’s companion was Maria Andreyeva, an actress from the Moscow Art Theater, for whom the writer had left his wife and children. An extramarital affair of a public figure, albeit a visiting Russian one, was apparently not something that the U.S. public was prepared to tolerate.

Why did Gorky go to America?

A year before the writer’s trip, the tsar’s troops in St. Petersburg fired upon a peaceful demonstration of workers. That day, January 9, went down in history as “Bloody Sunday” and marked the beginning of the first Russian revolution. Maxim Gorky condemned the tsar’s actions and called for freedom of assembly, for which he was arrested and thrown into the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Under pressure from the public, including prominent foreign writers, Gorky was released. He joined the Social Democratic Labor Party, from which the Bolsheviks later emerged. However, in his homeland, Gorky’s political activity was not welcomed, so in order to avoid a new arrest, he decided to leave Russia.

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CURSING CORIOLANUS ·

(Lauren Shook’s article appeared in Shakespeare and Beyond, 1/7; via Pam Green.)

In 1608, famine plagued England. Preachers responded with sermons begging the gentry to show compassion for the poor, King James I responded with royal proclamations against grain hoarding, and Shakespeare responded with Coriolanus, a Roman revenge-tragedy.

Likely composed in 1608 and staged c. 1609-1610, Coriolanus opens with starving citizens storming the stage with rakes, pikes, and clubs, demanding that the Roman government release corn (a catch-all term for grain) to them. Within the first 20 lines, the citizens plan to “kill” Caius Martius, the play’s hero, whom they deem the “chief enemy to the people.” They believe Martius has been hoarding corn and that killing him would secure “corn at [their] own price” (1.1.7-11). The citizens also target the Roman government. They believe that their “leanness,” “misery,” and “sufferance” benefits both Martius and the Roman elite. “Let us revenge this,” exclaims one citizen, “with our pikes ere we become rakes; for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge” (1.1.19-24). The citizens are a dangerous bunch. For an early modern audience, revolt against the government and threatened murder of Rome’s famed warrior Martius are treasonous acts.

(Read more)

POWER PLAYS: THEATRE AND EAST GERMANY, 1989 (BBC RADIO 3) ·

POWER PLAYS

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As East Germany crumbled in 1989, actors were centre stage. Andrew Dickson discovers how had theatre had survived under communist rule, with its censors and secret police spies. Focusing in particular on the playwright Heiner Mueller he explores the brilliant creativity and unique relationship with audiences that made theatre so important. But there were compromises and setbacks too. And after the end of communism actors and writers struggled for relevance – though Mueller’s work on global themes is enjoying a revival today.

Producer: Chris Bowlby

Editor: Penny Murphy