The Playgoer: More "Courage"

Custom Search

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

More "Courage"

A commenter may be right that I was premature in declaring a "consensus" nay-vote in the Mother Courage reviews. According to said comment, some defenders include John Simon (behind firewall), USA Today (where do they hide their theatre reviews?), and Time Out (still not available online). A significant one that is linkable is David Rooney's in Variety:

Is Streep a perfect fit for the part? On the surface, no. She's too refined and delicate to be a natural for coarsened survivor Anna Fierling, nicknamed Courage after she drove her merchandise cart through the cannon fire at Riga. But from the moment she comes into view, yelling "Retail!" as she hawks her wagonload of wares in song, Streep's Mother Courage is riveting. This is a full-bodied, swaggering characterization, emboldened by fierce intelligence, quicksilver emotional shifts, inexhaustible physicality and, most of all, sly humor...

With its inorganic, vaudevillian songs and key action stated in advance of each sharply differentiated scene, the episodic play largely defies fluid presentation. Wolfe and Kushner have nevertheless fashioned the ambling narrative into a reasonably trenchant three hours, albeit with some sluggish patches.

Another positive comes from blogger Joshua James.

On the other side, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins--Mr "Best Plays" himself--in his Seattle P-I column, take his place with the contrarians, including faulting Kushner's work:

For all of its relevance and sharp humor, however, it seems as though neither Kushner nor Brecht have found the sharpest focus for their argument. In this regard, the two great playwrights are less than ideal collaborators. Brecht's construction of this work includes in each scene a transaction (some are personal, others financial) and a lesson. Although Kushner smoothes the bumps of the original German, he also might have trimmed 30 to 45 minutes from the play, making those lessons more stimulating to consider.

Indeed, while the political bond is clear and Kushner bears Brecht's influence in many ways, the former is a notorious overwriter and the latter a taciturn man of "blunt tactics."

And speaking of blunt, here's one more nix, from ex-Times man Peter Marks in the WaPo:
Direct satirical hits, however, are scored only very sporadically in this high-profile, low-impact production. As directed by George C. Wolfe, the theatrically adventurous Brecht comes across as surprisingly toothless. The wait for something to catch fire onstage proves as futile as hanging around the box office hoping for last-minute seats.
He also makes the fine point that Brecht's songs "overproduced" as "outright musical numbers," a point I hope to take up later.

I must say, I've noticed over the last week this site has been receiving an unually high number of hits, with yesterday a peak. I can only assume it's because this show has become topic-A in American theatre this slow August.

Let the debate rage on!


Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

I've been visiting a lot, I confess. I've got a post (linking to you) on my wickestage blog with links to all the reviews I can find (not all the links work, perhaps, but they did when I posted them). Can't wait to hear your more fully developed thoughts—

Mark said...

Here's a straight-up rave.

Anonymous said...

Re. John Simon's review, I found it yesterday, the day it was published, by going to and looking around. (In case the address will work for others: it's still at

I agree with you that Kushner overwrites; I didn't expect it in a translated work, but I think it's there. I also agree (with Peter Marks) that the songs are overproduced, and I look forward to seeing what Playgoer has to say on that point.

Some of the other criticisms of the production seem to expect it to be the kind of show that it isn't and probably shouldn't be. For instance, Variety is really just describing it, but appears to be criticizing, when it says "the episodic play largely defies fluid presentation." I shouldn't deign to comment on Brecht and Brechtianism, because I've forgotten a lot, but isn't a "fluid presentation" the kind of lulling, turn-your-mind-off thing that Brecht didn't want?

Which reminds me of a topic I'd like to see someone else discuss: is Brecht Brechtian enough these days?

Anonymous said...

For a really intelligent and very positive review, see Jeremy McCarter on

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Sorry, my blog is called thewickedstage, not wickestage. Typed in haste—

Damaso Rodriguez said...

Though it may take some of the fun out of searching, I find to be an indispensible must-read. It links to pretty much every review or theatre-related story from one place. Filter by region if you like.

Keep up the great work, Playgoer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for stoking the debate, PG, but I must wag a finger at you about one point: your description of Brecht as a writer of "blunt tactics." This is one of the most wrong, but most repeated, ideas about Brecht in the United States. Maybe it's because American's can't appreciate the intricacy of BB's poetics in German, nor the manifold allusions to German traditional drama and other sources, plus a tendency to believe that anything with political commitments must ergo be blunt and didactic. This is a canard.

Playgoer said...

Ah, not so fast, Eilif. I'm taking the phrase "blunt tactics" from Brecht himself! (Hence the quote marks.) I remember this from W.Benjamin's writings on him. The German phrase escapes me for the moment--but I think it's actually "dicke" as in thick/fat.

But look--you're absolutely right that Brecht's work can't be reduced to one style or genre. Some of his work (lehrstucke) was deliberately "blunt" but he also had a refined aesthetic and poetic sense in the great German tradition. Hence, "Mother Courage" is such a difficult and multifaceted play. Which is why John Branch hit it on the head, eloquently, in asking "is Brecht is Brechtian enough for us today"?

The guy keeps confounding us that he's not so unsparing, emotionless, and artless as he taught us to want playwrights to be. Which makes him even greater, of course.