Un-Brechtian Business As Usual Lacks Meryl Streep's Courage

A few words about the wayward production of Mother Courage and Her Children in the Park, starring Meryl Streep:

Ms. Streep, at least, is wonderfully wayward! She appears to be kicking the entire production into heroic life, though the now-mythic Mother Courage alone cannot carry Brecht’s demanding saga of war on her broken back as if dragging her cart behind her.

All eyes are inevitably on Ms. Streep, whose flawed, fantastic performance is inspired and unpredictable at its core. Perhaps three or four actresses in the world possess her magnetic, electric pull onstage. (Vanessa Redgrave at her greatest is one.) There are those who believe Ms. Streep can be too perfect and too transparently technical. If so, a rough, spontaneous daring is the springboard to her staggering performance, as if we were witnessing Ms. Streep do battle with the near-impossible role itself.

The soldier’s cap she wears at a jaunty angle is a peculiarly willful mistake. (The pragmatic, most unjaunty, raggedy Mother Courage, who makes a living off war by unscrupulously supplying troops on any side with anything they need, would in any case have sold the cap.) Ms. Streep’s ersatz military uniform is similarly too much the all-purpose costume in place of a strict Brechtian reality. But the star is living dangerously in every conceivable way.

Though Brecht never denied tragedy its low comedy, she affects a wisecracking delivery and Bronx accent—a defense mechanism of overcooked comic flippancy that reduces Mother Courage’s desolation. But in her staggering, self-lacerating Act One closer, “The Song of the Great Capitulation,” Ms. Streep is so furious and astonishing that she touches a kind of sublime madness. Her brutal lament for a world that has fallen from grace takes us to the end of days. The song—and Ms. Streep sings well—left me laughing uncomfortably to myself. “I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh” was Brecht’s hope for the witnesses to his plays.

Mother Courage, a saga about the cost of war and survival, is a good choice for our times by Oskar Eustis, the new artistic director of the Public Theatre. But I have yet to see a great production of what is arguably Brecht’s best and most challenging play. Michael Feingold of The Village Voice reminds us that the opportunistic, amoral Mother Courage has accidentally raised three idealistic children—“one brave, one honest, one loving,” and “lives to see all three die for not being like her.” We ought not to admire Mother Courage, then, as many people mistakenly do, for “surviving.” Brecht was no sentimentalist. The formidable Mother Courage doesn’t survive, except as an empty shell. Her courage is practical, not idealistic. Rather, she’s a tragic example of humanity destroyed.

And she’s destroyed as much by peace as war. (Hence Brecht’s sick, sardonic line, “Peace has broken out!”) The play isn’t specifically “anti-war.” Brecht, the Marxist, treats war as a continuation of peaceful business by other means. In that sense, Mother Courage is a symbol not of the survival of noble virtue, but of conniving capitalism.

No one appreciates this better than the play’s new translator, Tony Kushner, whose fine work mirrors Brecht’s earthiness and the direct, unvarnished truth of his stage poetry. “I won’t let you knock war,” goes the bitter, uncompromising line of Mother Courage. “ … the weak don’t fare any better in peacetime. War feeds the people better.”

Even so, Mr. Kushner reveals a welcome jokiness and weakness for bad puns in the midst of the bleakest events. (So did Brecht and Shakespeare.) I remain uncertain about the anti-Bush jabs for the gallery. “But it’s expensive, liberty,” announces the Cook (played by Kevin Kline, of all refined cooks). “Especially when you start exporting it to other countries …. ”

One should always endeavor to cut a line when it’s greeted with applause, as the liberty line was. For the audience isn’t applauding the line, but itself. Like Brecht, Mr. Kushner is no purist, however. As Brecht advised in Saint Joan of the Stockyards:

Be two in one! Be here and there!

Keep the lofty and the low one

Keep the righteous and the raw one

Keep the pair!

But George C. Wolfe’s production of Mother Courage is showbiz Brecht, oversimplified for the masses, neither here nor there. In the maddening essentials, the production is no different from the notoriously uneven, pedestrian Shakespeare productions in the Park. It’s the same populist formula.

It doesn’t trust the play to speak for itself, but craves to please and “entertain.” Needlessly trying to show the continuity of war, the costumes are from every era, including the present—as they were in Macbeth, the previous production in the Park. The battle scenes are once again fought in slow motion (as was the big battle scene in Macbeth). The all-purpose costumes, the slow-mo deaths have been done so many times before—when will they stop?

But the production also tries to popularize a tragedy (subtitled “A Chronicle of the Thirty Years’ War”) with the usual very familiar effects—rain, snow, fire or the introduction of a U.S. jeep onstage to remind us blatantly of the Iraqi war. The death scene of Mother Courage’s heroic daughter is itself a special effect. Harnessed clumsily to wires in advance, she flies off above the battlefield to the heavens like Peter Pan.

Mr. Wolfe’s window dressing is the antithesis of everything Brecht tried to do. The new score by the usually excellent Jeanine Tesori is a pastiche and synthesis of many different styles—including Weill, Dessau, Sousa and the blues—which suggests a world view, but lacks the enduring stamp of any individual voice. The songs themselves aren’t acted/sung, as Brecht required, but almost always “sold” to the audience, as Broadway tradition prefers. “Song of Fraternization,” the ballad of the hooker Yvette, thus becomes a conventional showstopper that would have thrived in Mr. Wolfe’s jazzy production on Broadway of Jelly’s Last Jam. Similarly, Mr. Kline’s “Song of Solomon” is delivered like a showy star “turn” in a spotlight center stage.

The Park productions invariably have star actors (Ms. Streep and Mr. Kline) to attract the crowds, but there’s never any sense of an authentic ensemble or uniform acting style. Anything goes. Though Mother Courage is heavily miked, there’s lots of shouting. Nothing is ever left ambiguous.

So goes the Public’s weary formula for success in the Park, where tickets are mostly free. I’m sorry, but it’s become too high a price to pay. If only they would trust the play more—and with the play, the intelligence and open minds of eager audiences. Ms. Streep aside—a big aside—and despite all good intentions, George C. Wolfe’s production of Mother Courage amounts to un-Brechtian business as usual.