Demands for Empathy
By Martin Harries
The Threepenny Opera
By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
Brooklyn Academy of Music
What first person demands this, and of whom?
Is this a symptom of the incoherence those hostile to the occupy
movement seek in its manifestations, or is it the core of the
call for economic justice? This positive demand for an affective
response does not accept the blindness to consequences that describes
the signature of the invisible hand. Its dislocation of a struggle
over economic injustice to the sphere of affect might also, however,
defuse the force of the critique: if you feel my pain, I will
go home and occupy the private space where you think I belong.
Further, the demand for empathy might undo the material basis
of the movement's protests against massive inequality.
And yet one might also give the sign credit
for a more mischievous canniness, about finance, politics, and
empathy alike. Far from the na´ve call for palliative fellow-feeling,
for the corporate citizen condescending to stoop to imagine my
place as his, her, or its own, the sign's demand may register
precisely the impossibility of such recognition: such empathy
does not belong to the corporate world. For the mere act of asking
for it reveals the inhuman autism of the corporate "person" and
mocks the idea that any such empathy might ever take meaningful
or material form. The demand for this empathy includes the demand
for economic justice that would make empathy meaningful. Until
then, there can be no empathy: it doesn't belong in this theater.
Brecht famously complained that the established
theatrical apparatus of his day could neutralize any content.
In notes he wrote in the connection with The Threepenny Opera,
he famously complained:
The theater apparatus's priority is a
priority of means of production. This apparatus resists all
conversion to other purposes, by taking any play which it encounters
and immediately changing it so that it no longer represents
a foreign body within the apparatus -- except at those points
where it neutralizes itself. The necessity to stage the new
drama correctly -- which matters more for the theater's sake
than for the drama's -- is modified by the fact that the theater
can stage anything: it theaters it all down.
Brecht was worried that the opera he, Kurt
Weill, Elizabeth Hauptmann, and others had produced might have
neutralized itself on the way to its success, might have become
something other than the subversive "foreign body" inside the
apparatus that they had hoped to lodge there. The play's political
purpose had become the purpose of the apparatus, "theatered down"
to entertainment. Robert Wilson's encounter with The Threepenny
Opera raises similar questions: Will the Wilson machine resist
"conversion to other purposes" or will it change in response to
the "foreign body" of Threepenny? The spotlights, the
elegantly lit cyclorama with the complicated sequences of perfectly
calibrated sheets of color, the entr'actes played before the curtain,
the almost tortured choreography of angular bodies, the late expressionist
glitter and doom making up the actor's faces: could anything give?
In short: no. The Wilson apparatus proved invulnerable to any
potential subversion that Brecht and Weill's piece might yet hold.
What, then, of the much-repeated notion
that Wilson was in some way intended to direct The Threepenny
Opera? "My own opinion is that Robert Wilson was destined
to confront the superior ensemble work of the Berliner Ensemble
and to wrestle with the material of Threepenny Opera,"
said Joe Melillo, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Academy of
Music. This is puffery, of course, but maybe more than puffery,
and it points to another question. Maybe a better question. Not:
in what way does The Threepenny Opera change the apparatus
that is the Wilson stage machine? Rather: in what way might the
essence of the work have been lurking there all along?
Wilson has for some time now been searching
for his Brecht and Weill: collaborations with Tom Waits and William
S. Burroughs, with Lou Reed and Edgar Allan Poe, and other such
confabulations, have visited Brooklyn and toured the world, but
none has yet caught fire in Wilson's era as Threepenny
did in Brecht and Weill's. (It's true that the recent collaboration
between Lou Reed and Metallica began with songs Reed wrote for
Lulu, a Wilson production based on Wedekind, so maybe
Wilson has found his Bobby Darin. Probably not.) He's clearly
looking for the edgy-popular, and longing for a commercial hit.
Imagine, say, Alice -- the 1992 collaboration between
Waits, Wilson, Paul Schmidt, and Lewis Carroll -- running for
two years on Broadway and you have something like the shock of
the initial success of Threepenny.
All the productions just mentioned might
be seen as would-be successors to Threepenny, which invite
us to ask what Brecht (or the emulation, or envy, of Brecht) makes
newly visible in Wilson. Those whited sepulchers passing for characters,
that frigid precision that makes stage pictures as alluring as
they are isolating, those stabs at humor that seem like slapstick
for an audience that has forgotten how to laugh: the Wilson apparatus
has always appeared to resist incursions from a political or social
world outside it. The sheer ease with which that apparatus subsumed
Threepenny into itself, then, might lead one to think,
to paraphrase Brecht, that Wilson wilsons the politics all down:
the foreign body of political content becomes part of a formal
experiment that neutralizes it.
Such an indictment raises larger questions
about what political force can possibly survive the festival circuit
and the ever-receding, ever-returning next waves of the Brooklyn
Academy of Music. These are beyond the scope of this essay. But
let me nibble at the corner of them via a face.
Right now, in late 2011, this face has a
particular pop-culture referent. With its exaggerated eyebrows,
the goth outlining of the eyes themselves, the deathly whiteness
of the skin, it recalls nothing more vividly than the petrified
mask of V in V for Vendetta, the comic mask of the revolt
against the security state. The revivified Guy Fawkes of graphic
novel and film is omnipresent nowadays: in the global reoccupations
of public space, his mask -- "the jokey icon of festive citizenship,"
as Jonathan Jones calls it in The Guardian -- has appeared
everywhere in assemblies. This evocation of V recalls especially
the climactic scene of the film, where thousands of anonymous
Londoners don identical masks in preparation for V's explosive
demolition of the Houses of Parliament. Yet the iconological roots
of the mask go much deeper, as Jones argues, deep into the carnival
culture of Europe. And these roots inform Wilson's pale creatures.
Why these white masks now?
Consider the women in Wilson's Threepenny.
The superbly agile performers of the Berliner Ensemble made Wilson's
exaggerated versions of gendered movement all the more startling.
The abjection of the women, coerced into absurd postures, emphasized
the isolation into petrified gender roles that is one feature
of Brecht's text. In the opening scene, Mrs. Peachum (Traute Hoess)
was especially constrained, moving as if in some Teutonic rendition
of a geisha's movements, with touches of a shorebird's shuffling
and pecking. Then her transition into song was striking: singing
of the moon over Soho at the end of that scene, Hoess was transformed
into someone very different, powerful and enlivened.
"When an actor sings," Brecht wrote in
his commentary on Threepenny, "he undergoes a change
of function." Here that change included a female performer refusing
the femininity Hoess had evoked and exaggerated a moment before.
"His aim," Brecht writes further of the actor who sings, "is not
so much to bring out the emotional content of his song (has one
the right to offer to others a dish that one has already eaten
oneself?) but to show gestures that are so to speak the habits
and usage of the body." With Hoess and all the show's performers,
their change of function during singing brought out habits and
usages of a potential body, of a self sometimes quite radically
different from the one seen constrained at other times. The songs
did contain the charge of "emotional content," as expected in
musicals, but this content was also the site of a political charge:
masks fell, or different masks became visible.
It is strange that Polly Peachum sings
one of the most beloved of Threepenny's songs, "Pirate
Jenny"--strange because soon enough we also encounter a character
named Jenny, who might just as well sing the song. This repetition,
as though there weren't enough names to go around, is part of
the point: in singing from the standpoint of the harassed barmaid
who knows that a ship with eight sails and fifty cannon is soon
to come in and rescue her, Polly sings for Jenny, too. The actress
Stefanie Stappenbeck, whose "Pirate Jennie" was one of the highlights
of the evening, owned this song, so to speak, by giving it away--by
understanding the deep engagements implied by Brecht's understanding
of the songs. The political content didn't have to do with the
actor, in the theatrical or the political sense, but rather with
a potentiality to change one's place, which belongs to everyone
and anyone. For all its frozen style and the elaborate control
over the choreography of every movement, this production brought
home the destabilizing force of this ability to change one's skin.
It may be that the Wilson apparatus, with its Grand Guignol parade
of pale masks of the neoliberal order, has always contained a
ghastly suggestion of something like this power to transform.
The carnival promise--you become the mask
you wear--is also always a kind of threat: you may be not Polly,
but the pirate incognito.
Furthermore: a lack of certainty about
who the other might be always complicates empathy. What connects
the occupation under the sign of V and a rarefied production of
Brecht is not only a carnivalesque challenge to certainties about
self and other, but also the latent threat that comes with that
Threepenny Opera photos copyright