Monday, September 14, 2020

345. THE MEASURES TAKEN. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Tom Crawley, Jerry Mayer, Jim Carrington, Chris McCann, Susan Topping.

THE MEASURES TAKEN [Drama/China/German/Politics] A: Bertolt Brecht; TR: Eric Bentley; D: Leonard Shapiro; M: Hans Eisler; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Little Theater (OB); 10/4/74-5/18/75 (102)

This was the first professional New York production of Brecht’s 1930, 70-minute, agitprop drama. I myself, as an undergraduate, had directed it at Brooklyn College in 1962, in what may have been its first English-language staging anywhere. The present production was by the Shaliko Company, founded by a group of New York University students devoted to experimental theatre.  u

The play is about the official investigation by the Communist Party into the killing of a Chinese communist agent by his four comrades during a 1919 mission in Mukden. This offbeat work was given a decent rendering at the Public, where Shaliko had been provided with a residency. During part of its run, the play was performed in repertory with Ibsen’s Ghosts, reported on in a previous entry.

Called a lehrstücke or “teaching piece” by its author, The Measures Taken had limited appeal to a New York audience of 1974, especially in its overtly Marxist didacticism. Yet its controversial theme—whether the killing of a party member whose compassionate ideas were at variance with the strict party line was justified or not—still held much interest. To further intensify involvement, the production incorporated audience participation by requesting its opinion, a notion that did not always sit well with some of those attending. 

Clive Barnes would have preferred a “more interesting” staging instead of the drily intellectual event he witnessed. The lack of an effective choral approach to the singing of Hans Eisler’s music disturbed Martin Gottfried, and Douglas Watt was unhappy with the “noisy and tiresome” proceedings. However, Jack Kroll said the actors “hurl themselves into this locomotive of a play with blazing ardor.” None of the critics appreciated the device of questioning the audience, although Watt was “somewhat startled to hear some of [his] fellow reviewers respond.”