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Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori rehearsing Brecht's Mother Courage, Public Theater, NYC, 2006

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 Kline.

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 constantly.

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?

Alexandria Wailes, Meryl Streep, Frederick Weller and Geoffrey Arend in Brecht's "Mother Courage," Delacorte Theater, NYC, 2006TK: 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 war.

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?

TK: Yes--surrendering 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?

Meryl Streep (Mother Courage) and Kevin Kline (The Cook) in Brecht's "Mother Courage," Delacorte Theater, NYC 2006TK: 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.

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NOTE: This interview first appeared in CIBS (Communications from the International Brecht Society) 35 (Fall 2006).

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