Thursday, September 24, 2020

360. THE MOTHER. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


THE MOTHER [Dramatic Revival] A: Bertolt Brecht; TR: Lee Baxendall; D/DS: San Francisco Mime Troupe; P: Chelsea Theatre Center of Brooklyn; T: Westside Theatre (OB); 11/20/74-12/23/74 (21)

Note: no photos of this production are available.

In the same season that saw New York’s first production of Brecht’s 1930 lehrstücke, or “teaching piece,” The Measures Taken, came this revival of another Brechtian political propaganda play, 1931’s The Mother, based on Maxim Gorky’s Russian novel. Its tale concerns the inevitability of revolutionary action, expressed in the character of a working-class mother who is moved inexorably to become a fighter in the class war by the exploitation she witnesses of her radical son and his coworkers. The play was vividly staged by the politically-oriented San Francisco Mime Troupe during its guest residency at the Chelsea Theatre. The production was an ensemble collaboration and no credit was given to any individual for the acting, direction, or design.

Lee Baxendall’s “stiff” translation, said Mel Gussow, was “colloquialized and improved,” two characters were changed from male to female to develop the play’s feminist implications, slogan-bearing placards with the words of Lenin and Marx were replaced by the statements of contemporary figures such as George Jackson and Richard Nixon, modern protest songs were added, and the effect was one of greater “universality” as “a general call to arms against subjugation and Depression.”

Theatricalist techniques allowed the actors to play multiple roles through quick changes. Working with minimalist means, using painted, instead of realistic, props and sets, and iconographic tableaux and movement, the troupe led Gussow to assert, “the entire production is as sharp and deliberate as acupuncture.” It puzzled Walter Kerr, however, since he thought parts of it exciting and brilliantly done, while other parts were “undefined in manner, . . . slapdash in execution.” He felt that the company’s eclectic range of methods had let them down by encouraging the actors “to do anything to avoid a moment’s dead air.” Kerr also thought the play and its call for the red flag of communism a dated one, given the hindsight that history provides of the totalitarianism that flag had come to represent.