The Playgoer: "Brig" Fights Back

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

"Brig" Fights Back

A letter in the Voice this week from Kenneth Brown, author of the 1963 Living Theatre play "The Brig," currently being revived by the same company.

Re Michael Feingold's Prisoners of the Past [May 2–8]:

Thank you so much for saying in a third of the space what Charles Isherwood could not bring himself to say in a whole page in The New York Times: My play, The Brig, is evidence, testimony acquired through personal experience, that answers the question about how decent American youth could be transformed into the monsters who inflicted the horrors at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Brig procedure was established more than a century before I wrote the play, and the limitations on the brutality of the guards are and were imposed because they were disciplining their own young men meant to return to duty on completion of their sentences. Obviously, when the prisoners are identified as the enemy, all such restrictions are lifted. Failure to recognize the current importance of the play is a frightening affirmation of the fallacy that history is irrelevant. Similar propaganda has enabled the current administration to loot the treasury, diminish civil rights, and conduct an illegal and immoral war based on lies. Like the treatment of the prisoners in brigs around the world, such things have happened before, are happening now, and will happen in the future if nothing is learned from the past.

Kenneth H. Brown

Haven't seen The Brig yet. But if you have, tell us if you agree with Mr. Isherwood that
Today the two hours of seemingly unstructured experience put onstage in ''The Brig'' don't seem particularly revolutionary. Not when you can watch a cheddar cheese age live on the Internet, 24/7, thanks to the wonder of 21st-century technology.


Art said...

Hi Garrett,

I am not anywhere near my bookshelf, but I do believe Robert Brustein took Walter Kerr and company to task for similar pronouncements about the original production of the Brig.

Brustein thought that the shrugging attitude in the reviews were indefensible in the face of the seriousness of the work.

I think what ignited Brustein was an attempted quip from Kerr about how much these actors had to go through to make a living.

Brian said...

As a piece of theater, this production of The Brig is definitely worth seeing. It's like a beautiful, brutal ballet. What remains experimental about it is that it is indeed not really a play but a physical exercise in which certain rules are laid down and actors onstage go through motions that conform to those rules. Somehow, it remains pretty gripping and it reaches some amazing crescendoes of activity. This resolute unwillingness to become a story is probably why Isherwood didnt respond to it.

The problem with the piece, which is sort of what Isherwood is saying (though incompletely and snidely) is that the production is not horribly revelatory about Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Anyone who is pretty pacifist or left-leaning will not find any new ideas, just a very thorough and rigorous presentation of the military's dehumanizing rituals, performed on a stage where they lack almost entirely the power to shock (the moments where the guards punch the prisoners, for instance, stand out as completely fake in the context of the rest of the staging). It's not a substitute for a documentary (I suppose for that we have to turn to Michael Winterbottom's film "Road to Guantanamo"), but rather it takes the evidence and raises it to the level of physical poetry. In other words, theatrically interesting but politically (at least to me) ineffective, or at least effective only at reinforcing what most in the theater probably already believe.

p.s. I'm the anonymous "card-carrying Marxist" from the Mike Daisey debate. Not sure why I felt the need to cloak myself in anonymity back then; I thought you were right on about that and still do. Really enjoy your site.

Anonymous said...

The thing about "The Brig" I found most revolutionary was the high level of craft and commitment from the company. I don't know many artists or companies who could pull off what The Living Theatre does here as compellingly as they do. I might even go so far as to say that I don't know any. Despite the subject matter, I found it a hugely inspiring piece that demonstrates how powerful the theatre can still be (in the right hands, of course).

Unknown said...

Bam34: The "beautiful brutal ballet" that you describe, when successfully executed, is the essential aesthetic identity of The Brig. The elements are so many and varied that it is virutally impossible to perform them perfectly every night even after more than four months of rehearsals and performances. Obviously, the performance you saw fell short in the punches. On another night, when the punches were more perfectly executed, something else would have been lacking, like the marching for example, and you would have taken issue with that, and justifiably so in a work of art with such unforgiving demands. Though I disagree with your contention that the play has no political relevance, the issue seems to me to be oddly misplaced. The Brig, a crucial ingredient in the history of American theatre, is what it is and requires no metaphorical comparisons at all. Perhaps it is the strength of the play that encourages such misplaced reaction, but similar scholarship concerning plays of its age or older would nullify their existence altogether. One would never speak, for example, of O'Neill, Williams, or Miller in terms of their political relevance today, but that has nothing to do with their artistic validity.

Anonymous said...

For anyone interested, the run of The Brig has been extended indefinitely due to favorable reviews and an overwhelming response.