Tony Kushner on Mother Courage
An interview by Jonathan Kalb
The following Interview with playwright
Tony Kushner took place at the Public Theater in New York City
on July 17, 2006. Kushner did the English translation for the
Public's production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage,
which opened at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in August,
directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Meryl Streep and Kevin
Jonathan Kalb: How did
you first become interested in translating Mother Courage?
Tony Kushner: It goes
back to when I was a sophomore at Columbia University--the first
time I ever read Marx. I had a humanities professor who was a
Latin American Marxist--a very smart guy, who said I should read
The Necessity of Art by Ernst Fischer. That was a transformative
experience that really made me rethink a lot of assumptions. It
got me interested in Marx, and then I read the manifesto and 18th
Brumaire and several chapters from Kapital, and then
the next semester I took a class in 20th-century drama and read
Mother Courage. It was the first Brecht that I read.
Then Richard Foreman did Threepenny Opera at Lincoln
Center and I fell totally in love with Brecht. Whenever I teach
playwriting I use Mother Courage. I directed the play
20 years ago at the University of New Hampshire, because Carl
Weber, whom I studied directing with at NYU, was supposed to direct
it and wasn't feeling well and asked them to hire me. That was
one of the first paying jobs I ever had. We used Ralph Manheim's
version at New Hampshire, and ever since then I've wanted to do
an American English version of it. And on the very first day of
reading the script for the film of Angels in America--which
was the first time I'd ever met Meryl Streep-- I went up to her
at a break and said, "I've been waiting a long time to ask you
this: is this a part that you'd ever consider doing?" And she
said, "Yes, somebody else just told me that I should think about
playing it." So that was when it really started for me. She and
I talked about it off and on for a while, and then as soon as
Oskar Eustis started at the Public Theater, he said he'd like
to do it.
JK: How's your German?
TK: I have a rough reading
knowledge of German. It's not good. But I did Good Person
of Setzuan for La Jolla Playhouse. Lisa Peterson directed
it with music by the rock group Los Lobos ten years ago. Good
Person is my second favorite Brecht play. This is aside from
the learning plays, which are my real favorites: the Baden
Baden Lehrstück, etc. But of the big Brechts, it's Courage
first and Good Person second. For Good Person
I used a literal translation that I hired somebody to do. But
that gets very messy. You know, if you use a literal translation,
then you have to credit the literal translator, and it becomes
unclear what's yours. And I feel that if I do an English-language
version, by the end it's pretty much 100% my version anyway. So
with Mother Courage I tried it myself. My brother lives
in Vienna, so I'm there all the time. And I try to read German
JK: What other versions
do you know?
TK: I know the Bentley
and I know Manheim and Willett, who did separate versions. The
problem is that the German is strange. It's Brecht's approximation
of 17th century German. It's not modern, sort of Bavarian, although
it definitely has modern things in it. And it's hard to find an
approximation in English. It's not like Good Person,
which is written in sort of a clean, plain style. What Manheim
did with Mother Courage is beautiful. It sounds a bit
like Grimm's fairy tales. And Willett does a very Cockney, northern
English sort of thing. I don't know what David Hare does--I deliberately
stayed away from his version while doing mine, but I'm going to
read it as soon as we're done. And Bentley's, as with all of Bentley,
is very smart and funny, with that punchy, specific voice of his.
It's hard to find an American approximation of what Brecht was
doing, though. I mean, there's no American regional dialect that
would work. There's no familiar American speech that sounds premodern,
that sounds old.
JK: How much do you feel
you grasped the flavor of the German?
Not as well as, say, Ralph Manheim. But the flavor seems to me
clear enough, words are shortened, the rhythm's rough and bumpy,
the lines seem punctuated weirdly, run-on sentences. Courage has
a kind of logorrheic thing going, and the Cook speaks in sentences
that are occasionally Proustian in length, dependent clauses and
parentheticals that aren't parentheticals. So I felt like found
my own approximation as I clawed my way through it. It took me
about three months to do a really ugly version. Then I went back
and cleaned it up. But that draft was still, word for word, pretty
close to the Brecht. I think it's safe to call the finished version
a translation, not an adaptation. Liberties have been taken to
make the play feel alive onstage in American English, but line
by line, it's still Brecht.
JK: One danger in translating
is normalizing language that wasn't meant to be normal-sounding.
The translator, for instance, knows what a grammatically correct
English sentence would sound like, but the original wasn't grammatically
correct. Or the translator wants to make a joke wholly understandable
when in fact the humor of the original joke was a little off.
TK: Yes, the humor of
this play was something I had to make a decision about. I think
that the jokes are amusing but not ha-ha funny in the original.
I've made them more ha-ha funny.
JK: That's interesting.
Was that because you sensed that American audiences needed more
ha-ha laughs to appreciate the play?
TK: Well, I've come through
a journey on this. When I started, I wanted to recreate the experience
of being in the Schiffbauerdamm Theater in Berlin in 1949--that
terrifying setting for the first performances of Mother Courage
after the war, with people climbing over rubble to get to the
theater. And I came to realize that you can't. We're so not that
audience. We're culpable of many terrible crimes right now, but
we're so free of the consequences. We're also less of a community
in a certain sense. We're more atomized. And one thing I think
that laughing out loud does is it knits an audience together.
It's a moment when the audience really gets to aggressively assert
its claim on the space, against what's going on onstage. Laughter
is noisy and big and you can see the actors react to it. I feel
that laughter is perhaps the most important means by which a crowd
of unconnected, isolated and atomized, maybe even somewhat antisocial
or at least anticommunitarian Americans knit themselves into a
collective entity, an audience, that little comminity formed at
each performance of every play. There are times when I've seen
Courage--and this was true when I did it in New Hampshire--when
the jokes felt a little quaint. I mean, you smile with a kind
of bemused affection. They don't have an edge anymore, the humor
feels like it's failed -- which has the opposite effect of effective
humor -- failed jokes panic and atomize the audience. I felt it
was incredibly important that we keep the evening crackling.
JK: When the Jean Cocteau
Rep did the Marc Blitzstein version of Courage in 2005,
several reviewers said that the play felt repetitious. Do you
have any response to that?
TK: I think, after having
spent the past year living with the play, that there isn't a single
word that's unnecessary, not a single line or stage moment that
isn't entirely justified and contributory to the play's immense,
inexhaustible field of meaning. I think those reviewers are wrong.
But of course the performers have to earn every moment. The Kattrin-Courage
relationship is incredibly rich, beautifully delineated. Her anger
and her love for this impossible child is stunning. And the relationship
with the other two kids, and the sexual relationship between the
Cook and Courage and the other kind of relationship between her
and the Chaplain--it all has great human density and complexity.
She says she's called Courage because she was afraid of her bread
spoiling, so she ran through the bombardment at Riga--in other
words, because she wasn't courageous. But there are moments all
the way through where she does selfless things, generous things.
And then she acts like a complete shit again.
JK: She's also not against
TK: Right. She's against
herself, she comes increasingly to hate her powerlessness, and
she displaces this self-hatred increasingly onto the her own class
-- she comes to hate powerless people, the poor, she wants more
and more to identify with the wealthy, she becomes a self divided.
Two scenes in particular--Scene 6 and Scene 8--are just amazing
in terms of this dialectics, and it's also a dialectics about
the war. In Scene 6, Courage and the Chaplain sit around crowing
about how war, because it will never end and will go on forever,
is a safe business investment. She's prosperous and watching Tilly's
funeral, despising soldiers and poor people and maundering about
the Field Marshall. And yet in the language and in the beats of
the scene--there's this terrible rainstorm and the scene ends
with Kattrin getting scarred--there's an emotional devastation
that's completely at odds with the way the people are lounging
around contendedly. It creates a really disconcerting effect,
I think. Scene 8, on the other hand, when peace comes, is fantastic
because everybody's ruined, everybody's starving. The entire economy,
which is an economy of war, disappears, gone, and nobody knows
what the fuck to do and everybody's terrified because it's something
new. As Heiner Müller says, "the first appearance of the new is
terror." So the rules of the world suddenly are gone. Everybody's
running around saying, "Oh my God, what are we going to do, what
are we going to do?"--yet it's the most joyous scene in the play.
Everybody really wants what they say they dread, this thing called
peace, which is greeted like a happy calamity. Then at the end
of the scene the war starts up again and Courage comes running
in, her business saved, excited and ready to get back to work
in the war, but headed into the terrible final scenes, towards
absolute deprivation and unbearable loss.
One of the things I really love about Courage
is that it operates on one level in a way that's unapologetically
a political parable, sloganeering even -- if we try and live in
an evil system, live off of evil, we're going to pay a terrible
price for it. But underneath the parable and the agitprop -- and
there's nothing wrong with great agitprop, bythe way -- but alongside
the perfectly legible object-lesson that Courage offers
is, I think, the greatest tragic drama of the 20th century. I
find it devastatingly sad. It's a passion play, it's deeply rooted
in medieval Christianity, one foot in the middle ages, appropriate
to what Brecht was attempting. Part of his genius was how deeply
he understood the connection between progress and sacrifice, between
progress and loss, the way that the individual's resistance to
the collective stems from the fears of death, and not without
reason. This is what he examines in the Lehrstücke and
certainly in Courage, his darkest and most hopeful play.
Much more than with Arturo Ui, Courage is Brecht's response
to Hitler. I wonder if perhaps Trotsky's writings were floating
around in Brecht's house, in particular I wonder if he had read
Trotsky's essays from 1927 and 1928 that predicted the rise of
fascism in Germany. Trotsky in exile identified this group of
people in Germany that had just begun to emerge from the economic
and military devastation following World War I, each with his
or her tiny piece of property -- Trotsky called them the wildgewordene
Kleinbürger, the petty bourgeois run amuck -- a tiny bit
of property that saved them from falling into horrendous poverty,
and Trotsky predicted such imperilled people would do anything
to hang onto what they owned --vote for anyone, go to any depth
of hell, to keep from letting go of that little bit of security
they'd managed to grab onto. I think that's what Courage
comes from and is about.
JK: Is that the contemporary
note in the play for 2006?
democracy, saying that any price we have to pay, including everything
that this country's supposedly about, is acceptable.
JK: You said before that
you thought the play was tragic. Can you say more about why?
TK: Tragedy involves a
person caught up in a tremendous struggle with fate, with understanding,
and with comprehending fate, or destiny, or history, which is
a better term to use with Brecht. Brecht would be of course offended
that I was calling his play a tragedy, but I don't share his use
of Aristotle as a straw demon. Courage maybe doesn't
purge emotions but it works on its audience through pity and terror.
It's tragic in the Nietzschean sense: opposing forces collide,
resulting in an absolute devastation from which something new
can be born. It's the tragic vision of Benjamin, that there is
progress, but progress takes the form of catastrophe piling up
in a giant heap of horrors and ruination.
JK: Is it wrong to ask
whether there is any hope in the play? Or about what some might
see as its fatalism about mankind and war?
There is hope, because Kattrin saves the town. She's the Christ
figure in the play, the one for whom there's no room at the inn.
And Courage, by doing the loving thing, refusing to leave Kattrin
and go off with the Cook to his inn in Utrecht, delivers her daughter
to her passion and brings the town its redeemer -- Kattrin would
surely have died in the mountains had Courage abandoned her. There
are unexpected consequences to love. There's great hope in that.
Kattrin climbing up on the roof with her drum is the only example
that I know of in which a playwright effectively dramatizes successful
political action onstage. The scene is so astoundingly dramatic,
with its heartbeat drumbeat, terribly suspenseful, you know what's
going to happpen, Brecht tells you in the scene title -- Kattrin
saves the town, but she dies, and her death paradoxically legitimates
the salvational heart of the scene and of the play, her tragic
sacrifice gives her courage and sacrifice and her success as a
historical agent --as someone who does something, changes the
world a little -- its dramatic weight, its enormous power. It's
what makes it possible to watch this heroic scene and not feel
like it's some recruitment poster, not feel like you're watching
"Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy."
JK: In his Brecht
Memoir, Eric Bentley recounts an interesting incident when
Brecht fielded questions about Mother Courage from an
earnest Communist Youth group who pressed him on whether the play
was anti-war, or pacifistic. He chose his words carefully in response,
saying that the play depicted a war that happened to be wholly
bad, with both sides blameworthy. When the kids then asked how
the play supported the socialist heroes fighting good wars of
national liberation around the world, Brecht said evasively that
"There was, of course, no socialism in the 17th century." What's
your response to people who, communist or not, might say that
not all pursuit of war is bad? There's always going to be some
audience members who, despite what happens to Mother Courage and
Kattrin and the boys, think, "But our war's different."
TK: I think Mother
Courage is a play about human beings caught up in systems.
It's an anti-system play, it's about any tautological system that
works for its own regeneration, for the reproduction of the conditions
of its existence, heedless of the human consequences, in which
human life is only grist for its particular mill.
JK: Who is the anticipated
audience for Mother Courage today?
TK: We're doing it at
the Delacorte Theater, New York's free theater, which means we
can hope for a more heterogeneous audience than one might get
on Broadway for $120 a seat. I saw lots and lots of young people
at the performances, people who didn't know Courage and
didn't know Brecht, and who, in these terrible terrible times,
were getting a chance to get to know his skeptical, secular, ironic,
compassionate voice, hoarse with rage at injustice -- just the
voice for these times. The audience for Courage is the
audience for most theater -- urban, progressive, alarmed, bewildered.
Courage should only deepen their bewilderment. The central
mystery of the play is how the audience is to judge the central
character. Is she a victim of circumstance? Is she a perpetrator
and perpetuator of horror? Is she guilty of her own undoing? The
play seems at times to push you towards that conclusion, towards
condemning Courage. On the other hand, the play is constantly
reminding you that she was born into a world of war, into the
midst of a war she has very little hope of surviving, a war that
begins before the play begins and ends long after the play ends.
We make and are made by history. Neither presumption nor despair
is right. It's a play of very old and very immediate agony. And
judgement is finally suspended, it has to be, like all great plays
Courage demansds that its audience thinks, and think
hard, about what it's seeing and hearing, but no one watching
Mother Courage can watch it cold or remain unmoved. I
don't know who the intended ideal audience for this play would
be. Certainly not cold people.
NOTE: This interview first appeared in
CIBS (Communications from the International Brecht Society)
35 (Fall 2006).