Moving Through the Multiverse While Repeating a Line from the Script
Prologue: Where the Action Is Always Late
Tracing backward and forward at the same time, the ideas for this reflection have come from various sources. Susan Hess asked that I write in response to POLITICAL SHENANIGANS: dancing w/ Brecht & Eisler, directed by choreographer/director David Gordon and presented in workshop form with his Pick Up Performance Co(s). The work was presented in three open rehearsals during March of 2014 at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City Philadelphia. I attended the first and last open rehearsals. During the in-between times, I found myself digging into the folds of information surrounding Brecht’s work, its relationship to this contemporary moment and to Gordon’s (and, now, my own) ongoing interest in drawing these connections alongside today’s political landscape.
What began in 1931 for Brecht as an adaptation and rewriting of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure became a new play, Roundheads and Pointheads. Brecht’s great friend and collaborator at the time, Hanns Eisler, wrote the music that is woven into and gives space for the poetic framing. In Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, scholar Stephen Parker outlines Brecht’s thoughts and writings on Measure. He quotes Brecht’s views on the play as “demanding of people in positions of authority that they shouldn’t measure others by standards different from those by which they themselves would be judged.” Parker takes this statement a step further by remarking that literary scholars and translators of Brecht’s works, Tom Kuhn and John Willett, frame the importance of Roundheads and Pointheads through “the use of racist politics, or even war, as a calculated distraction from social and economic problems.” The music for the play is often discussed as some of Eisler’s greatest work. Herein lies the political echo that is heard even today.
Distanciation and the Alienation Effect
During the rehearsals, we are reminded of the rapid journeys of words through time. How could these words, written over 80 years ago, find their way into Gordon’s work today? Using Brecht’s notion of the double nature of reality, Gordon makes highly visible that the double nature becomes the multiverse. There is no longer the one or the other, but rather the one or the others. Scripts in hands of players who cross boundaries of age, race and experience, push tables and chairs, hold signs and placards, stand among televisions and video monitors, intermingle with visible technical support staff, while Gordon watches from his director’s chair. The piano figures importantly in the stage design, a visual cue that marks the historical importance of Eisler’s position in and to Brecht’s work. (I once read that the piano occupied a huge space in Brecht’s country home, and it was there that Eisler sat, on occasion, composing the music.) There is always a story within a story within a story. Gordon makes all of these layers visible to us. Through the rhetorical device of repetition, we hear lines repeated. We experience the interminglings of information, of the past and the present, and the phenomenon of the multiverse. There is no one center, but multiple centers. There is no one voice, but multiple voices. There is no one reading of the text we are hearing, but multiple readings. There is no one.
Gordon makes clear in these open rehearsals and in his interviews that the ideas and methods used by Brecht hold open history and create an important space for looking at the same material in a multitude of ways. Gordon used the English translation by Michael Feingold but searched for other writings and translations. As Gordon remarked to Michael Lupu at Walker Arts Center in a 2011 interview regarding his processes of working, “The more I learn about something, the more I feel … I don’t know it.”
Epilogue: Mother Courage
If we look back to see ourselves now, what then does this tell us of our future?
Donna Faye Burchfield has been director and professor at the University of the Arts School of Dance in Philadelphia since 2010. Before arriving at UArts, she worked for the American Dance Festival for two decades, serving as dean of ADF’s Six Week School from 2000 to 2010. As professor of dance at Hollins (Va.) University from 1993 to 2010, she developed and directed the Hollins/ADF MFA program, the Post-Baccalaureate, and combined BA/BFA programs in collaboration with ADF. In May 2014, Professor Burchfield will receive an honorary fellowship from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in Israel, awarded for artistic and educational vision that has made an impact on the fields of music and dance.