Bertolt Brecht‘s best-known, possibly least-understood, certainly least-faithfully-implemented “big idea” was the Verfremdungseffekt, usually translated as “alienation effect” or “defamiliarization effect.” I count myself among those who at best imperfectly understand what Brecht was getting at – but inasmuch as I do, it’s that I understand what he was fighting against and not that I know exactly what he was aiming for.

What he was fighting against was catharsis, Aristotle’s theatrical “big idea.” (Or perhaps more properly, Sophocles’s, since Aristotle’s theory is based substantially on his understanding of what Sophocles was up to.) For Aristotle, the function of tragedy was the purging of the audience’s souls of dangerous passions through the vicarious experience of pity and fear. But of course, for Aristotle (and for latter-day followers like – I would argue – Freud) tragedy was a feature of life, something we have to learn to live with. For Brecht, on the other hand, theater aimed not at a healthy accommodation to reality, but at raising the consciousness of the audience so that reality could be changed. And tragedy was, generally speaking, not a feature of existence but a consequence of human beings being crushed by social forces that are – theoretically at least – subject to human control.

The aim of defamiliarization, then, was to short-circuit easy identification with the characters and action on stage. Direct address to the audience, songs that broke up rather than advancing the action, actors leaving character to comment on the action – all of these techniques are intended to stop the audience from feeling that it was being taken on an emotional journey with a “satisfying” destination, and instead focus their consciousness on the social cause of the events taking place, and leave them dissatisfied. The point was not to dull the emotional response but to turn pity and fear into anger – but wise anger, anger focused on the proper target.

The techniques described were not invented by Brecht. Shakespeare, for example, used all of them at one point or another. Direct address to the audience was common in Elizabethan theater, and no playwright used soliloquy more variously or with greater complexity than Shakespeare did. Anticipations of Brecht are not hard to find throughout the canon – Macbeth‘s porter; the minstrel, Autolycus, from The Winter’s Tale; pretty much the entirety of Troilus and Cressida. Rosalind, Puck and Prospero all break character at the end to acknowledge that we have been watching a play, and even Bottom’s character-breaking interjection to Theseus –

No, in truth, sir, he should not. ‘Deceiving me’
is Thisby’s cue: she is to enter now, and I am to
spy her through the wall. You shall see, it will
fall pat as I told you.

– is a comic “defamiliarization” of drama; how can we experience catharsis in King Lear once we recall that “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” also comes on cue?

Brecht’s plays, meanwhile, don’t always achieve the effect he describes, even when they are played with some fidelity to his theories. I attended an astonishing and invigorating production of The Good Person of Szechuan at the Public Theater last year that, among other things, did a brilliant job of marrying Brecht’s distancing to conventions out of drag performance. But I certainly experienced an emotional journey. I didn’t leave the theater ready to smash the capitalists. I found the play, well, cathartic.

So perhaps it is not so paradoxical when I say that, though Stratford’s Tom Paterson Theatre is having a very Brechtian season this year, the least-Brechtian show of the three currently playing is the one Brecht himself wrote.

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That play is Mother Courage and Her Children, which, I’m embarrassed to say, I’d never actually seen before, only read. From reading it, it struck me that it would be difficult to do a properly Brechtian production. How can you see Mother Courage viewing the body of her bullet-ridden Swiss Cheese, or the mute Kattrin banging on her drum, and not be moved – to pity and fear. It reads as a play about survival in extremis, an anatomization of human beings under the pressure of endless war, and the personal toll that struggle to survive takes on them. You can imagine it having been written by Primo Levi.

It feels like director Martha Henry agrees, because she plays the drama very straight, as the story of a bunch of people with whom we are emphatically supposed to identify. And to a person the cast makes that identification easy. E. B. Smith’s Eilif is more eager to please than I imagined him, and hence more sweet – he’s not a thug who found his proper metier in war, but just a big, strong guy who adapts to circumstances. Antoine Yared’s Swiss Cheese is less dim than deeply conscientious. Geraint Wyn Davies has a grand old time as the randy Cook; you can hardly find it in your heart to hold against him all the wrongs he did Deidre Gillard-Rowlings’s nimble Yvette. And Ben Carlson does a solid turn as the cowardly, critical Chaplain.

The heart of the play, meanwhile, is the relationship between Mother and daughter, and that heart beats fiercely. Seanna McKenna and Carmen Grant are really ideally cast for their respective roles; McKenna in particular gives an effortlessly modulated performance, while Grant’s every move has the painful transparency that is the soul of Kattrin. It’s a pair of performances, and a production, that pulls at our heart strings just the right amount to actually make us tear up, not so much as to feel like we’re being manipulated. Exactly the opposite, in other words, of what Brecht claimed to want.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there was something missing from the play, and I think it comes down to that word that Brecht used to describe his theater: epic. Though it ranges across battle-scarred Europe over years and years of war, the play felt distinctly small. I never felt the proximity of the war, never smelled the cannon. The stage is spare and remarkably neat and clean. Even the mythic cart seems small; I feel like Tevye pulled a heavier load in last year’s production of Fiddler.

Some of this is in the nature of this particular stage – but not all of it. Last year’s Mary Stuart was staged in the same space, and a very simple concept – ringing the stage in barbed wire – brought home an essential quality of the drama in a visceral way. It felt like this production didn’t have any real view on what that essential quality might be, where its viscera might still be bleeding.

I found myself thinking about another, very Brechtian war play, of more recent vintage: Black Watch, about the deployment of the Scottish regiment to the area around Fallujah in 2004. That play didn’t stint on bringing home the individual stories of these soldiers. But its anger was visible, and genuine, and infectious. Mother Courage and Her Children is set during the Thirty Years’ War, proportionately the bloodiest European conflict of the last 500 years, a war fought on all sides under the banner of God, but with the omnivorous ferocity of hellhounds. That’s the monster that devours Mother Courage’s children, even as it provides her her livelihood. That’s the kind of scope the play needs, to really hit home.

Perhaps, instead of performing it into English, Stratford should have translated it into Arabic.

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Antony and Cleopatra is usually thought of as one of Shakespeare’s great love stories – a doomed, tragic love, like Romeo and Juliet’s, or Othello and Desdemona’s, but, like them, an authentic love that is supposed to inspire us to, yes, pity and terror. We want to be swept up with Antony’s rapture, to feel just why he can’t let go of his Egyptian love, even though, when Roman thoughts strike him, he knows he should. Maybe if we experience such a dangerous love vicariously, we’ll cathartically slake the thirst to find it in reality.

The thing is, the play knows better. Those Roman thoughts are mistaken. In Act II Scene 3, the Soothsayer and Antony engage in this dialogue, right after Antony has made his marriage to Octavia, Octavius’s sister, so as to mend the growing rift in the triumvirate:

Mark Antony
Now, sirrah; you do wish yourself in Egypt?

Soothsayer
Would I had never come from thence, nor you Thither!

Mark Antony
If you can, your reason?

Soothsayer
I see it in
My motion, have it not in my tongue: but yet
Hie you to Egypt again.

Mark Antony
Say to me,
Whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar’s or mine?

Soothsayer
Caesar’s.
Therefore, O Antony, stay not by his side:
Thy demon, that’s thy spirit which keeps thee, is
Noble, courageous high, unmatchable,
Where Caesar’s is not; but, near him, thy angel
Becomes a fear, as being o’erpower’d: therefore
Make space enough between you.

Mark Antony
Speak this no more.

Soothsayer
To none but thee; no more, but when to thee.
If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose; and, of that natural luck,
He beats thee ‘gainst the odds: thy lustre thickens,
When he shines by: I say again, thy spirit
Is all afraid to govern thee near him;
But, he away, ’tis noble.

Mark Antony
Get thee gone:
Say to Ventidius I would speak with him:

Exit Soothsayer

He shall to Parthia. Be it art or hap,
He hath spoken true: the very dice obey him;
And in our sports my better cunning faints
Under his chance: if we draw lots, he speeds;
His cocks do win the battle still of mine,
When it is all to nought; and his quails ever
Beat mine, inhoop’d, at odds. I will to Egypt:
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I’ the east my pleasure lies.

The Soothsayer has already predicted (whether by hap or art) the futures of Cleopatra’s waiting women, and though we don’t know their fortunes yet, by the end of the play we know he was a true prophet. Antony’s star is fading. Octavius will be lord of the world. The only question is how Antony will respond to this inevitable turn of fortune.

Antony thinks his is a story about a man losing his manhood, his power, his very sense of self, because he has fallen under the spell of a particularly desirable woman. That’s what Enobarbus thinks as well. The other Romans hope that Octavia will “settle the heart” of the hard-partying Antony, and Enobarbus thinks he knows better, but they’ve all got it wrong, and the Egyptians have it right. This is not a story about a man losing himself because he has fallen for a woman. This is a story about a man who falls for a woman because he is terrified that he’s losing himself – that he’s growing old, being surpassed by a younger man who isn’t a patch on him as a soldier or a lover, but who has the grace of fortune, and will rise inevitably as he falls.

It’s Cleopatra who’s desperately in love, and who truly throws it all away for love. The Soothsayer did not say her spirit quaked before Caesar. Her peace with Octavius was secure, before she threw her lot in with his rival triumvir – and if she would only throw him over she could live secure again. She knows that Antony is holding a losing hand. Perhaps that’s why she tries to save her navy. She’s genuinely surprised when he follows her, disastrously – perhaps she really thought he was a Roman, still and all. When I read Act III Scene 13, I read a woman, a queen, realizing belatedly just how far gone her lover is – how far from fortune’s favor, how captive not to her but to phantom gestures of chivalry – and trying to figure out what to do. How to survive. How, if possible, to save him. How to buck him up, help him be himself in death if he cannot be saved. She’s more like Mother Courage than we knew, he more like one of her poor, hopeless children.

It is a great love story, one of the greatest. Just not the one that Antony thinks it is.

But what if the love story doesn’t really play? What’s left then?

Well, if you want to know, you can check out Stratford’s current production, which has many virtues but, if not a lump of lead as cold as steel, then a hollowness, not where a woman’s heart should be, but where Antony’s should. Geraint Wyn Davies would seem, on paper, to be perfect for the role: charismatic, sexually potent, fleshy, both a man’s man and a ladies’ man – and at just the right age to seize the part by the testicles. And he’s worked wonderfully well with his Cleopatra, Yanna McIntosh, before. But his performance suggests a man who’s cut just a little too close by precisely the themes I harped on above, and an actor trying very hard not to see just who he’s actually playing. There’s an air of distraction about him; he doesn’t seem really to be feeling either the sting of his defeats or the desperation of his passions. He’s strongest in the early Roman scenes, deploying his contempt for Caesar along with his charm, and in the scene where Enobarbus, who has just left his service, receives his share of the camp’s treasure – but in that scene he’s not really himself, but Enobarbus’s noble image of his once-great master. And that, I think, is telling.

So what happens as a result? What does this absence do to the play? Well, Antony and Cleopatra can read as a very cold, even Brechtian look at how politics works in a world where there is no natural order, no proper right to rule. The two competing principles, then, are love and interest. The cold and calculating Octavius, played by Ben Carlson with his trademark dyspeptic rectitude, stands for interest. He’s not much of a general; he inspires no natural loyalty. But he’s run the numbers; he has the votes; he knows he’s going to win. He’d like to win at the lowest possible cost. But his pursuit of Antony is ultimately nothing personal, not even with his sister (a sincerely sweet Carmen Grant) in the middle. It’s just business.

Antony, meanwhile, is the brilliant soldier, the man of chivalry, who inspires an instinctive loyalty in his followers. They follow him for love of him. And so they can’t, on some level, fault him for following Cleopatra in his love of her (though, as I say above, I think Antony is a bit deluded about what’s really going on in that relationship).

Between the two stands Enobarbus, the Brechtian alienation figure, played by the incomparable Tom McCamus with a perfect autumnal rue. He’s our cynical voice of reason, who sees through the drama to the forces beneath, and tells the audience the truth about what they are seeing. He’s a marvelous character, and can seize control of almost any production, but in this production he is exceptionally prominent. We agree with his choice when he leaves Antony. And we want to die with him not because this Antony really deserved his love to the end, but because leaving meant renouncing love as such. And who wants to live in a world where that’s the only sane course?

And what about Cleopatra herself? Notwithstanding her lover’s distraction, I was grabbed by McIntosh’s Egyptian queen – but primarily by the quality of her regal mind. Her passion burned stronger in her anger than in her ardor, but more powerful than both was the sense I got that she understood the drama she was in, that she was observing her own emotions along with everybody else’s. I owe a good deal of my understanding of the play as articulated above to her performance.

And I give her the credit, because she is helped very little by her larger surroundings. By which I don’t mean to say the cast, which is excellent down to the minor roles, but the design and direction. The Egypt conjured up by director Gary Griffin and designer Charlotte Dean is a compendium of cliches. It doesn’t feel ill-thought so much as not thought at all. McIntosh and her attendants slink winningly in their peek-a-boo sheathes, but it’s an exceptionally stale exoticism that they’re pitching. One would be hard-pressed on any stage, much less the narrow runway of the Paterson, actually to show the Egypt of Enobarbus’s rapturous description – that’s part of the point of his speech. But we shouldn’t be conscious of such a yawning chasm between what we’re told and what we see; we need the right visual hints to carry our imagination to the full heights of wonder that Shakespeare’s language evokes.

This problem – the lack of a sense of wonder – is a problem throughout, but never more so than in the climactic death scenes. Antony is hoisted not up to a tower, but onto a bare, nondescript platform. It’s a serious anti-climax, and having attendants carry him as though he were crucified does not improve the situation, either visually or poetically.

When Caesar finally arrives, and bears perfunctory witness to the passing of greatness, there’s supposed to be an air of “oh, well; that didn’t work out the way I hoped, but at least it’s done. Now down to business.”

But I don’t think I’m supposed to agree with him.

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The most compelling of the three Brechtian dramas on this year’s program is the least-familiar, at least to me – so perhaps it required the least defamiliarization. King John is one of Shakespeare’s relatively early plays, believed to have been written after familiar early plays like Richard III, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but before he launched on a deepening period that ran from The Merchant of Venice through to his breakthrough tragedy, Hamlet. It’s yet another play about war, politics and business, and yet another with something of an enigma at its heart. And it’s yet another play with a key character who performs an alienation function: Philip the Bastard.

Philip, played zestily by Graham Abbey, is a very different sort of bastard than King Lear‘s Edmund. Where Edmund calls on his natural god to “stand up for bastards,” Philip begins the play protesting his legitimacy to defend his inheritance against his younger brother’s claim. But everybody on stage – including Philip himself – seriously questions that kinship, and when the King (Tom McCamus) and his mother, Queen Eleanor (Patricia Collins), recognize the resemblance to the late King Richard, they make him an offer Philip has no desire to refuse: proclaim his own bastardy, and they will avouch his Plantagenet blood and join him to their court.

Philip is a Brechtian alienation character par excellence, speaking directly to the audience and commenting on the action. And the action, at least in the first half, is Brecht-worthy  scabrous comedy. John, you see, is at war with France over his title; the King of France (Peter Hutt) is sheltering a pretender to the throne, the teenaged Arthur (a precocious Noah Jalava, who I expect we’ll be hearing from in the future), and the two Plantagenets square off before the town of Angiers to dispute the question. Or, rather, their mothers do; Seana McKenna, playing Arthur’s mother, Constance, like Mama Rose at an audition, and Collins, playing the Queen Mother as an elderly coquette – Kate Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine from “The Lion in Winter” crossed with Aunt Alicia in “Gigi” – so thoroughly and hilariously overbear their sons that I’m not sure I’ll be able to take Coriolanus seriously ever again.

Alternating with the cat fight, the two armies go at each other, inconclusively except for the poor sods on both sides who are slaughtered. The mayor of the town won’t let either of the claimants to the throne in until one has proven victorious, so the two Kings decide to join forces and make war on the town instead – at which point the mayor comes up with a perfect, and thoroughly dishonorable, compromise that costs John’s heirs a bit of their kingdom and Arthur and Constance the whole gamble. To my mind, nothing in Mother Courage is quite so effective as this comprehensively cynical crew.

From that point, the plot gets a bit twisty and unsatisfying. John makes a stab at playing Richard III after all, ordering his teenage rival murdered, but he doesn’t really have the stomach for that level of villainy, and has a quite picturesque nervous breakdown on stage when he thinks the order has been carried out. Which, it turns out, it hasn’t – which news sparks a remarkably swift recovery, until we learn that Arthur is dead anyway, from a botched escape attempt or a successful suicide, depending on how you read the scene. John has troubles retaining the loyalty of the nobility, who can’t believe he isn’t implicated in Arthur’s death, but nothing a bit of luck and base bribery can’t bring to amends. And then he dies, still an enigma, to us and, perhaps, to himself.

The play, ultimately, feels like a portrait of a leader utterly lacking in charisma. John isn’t Richard II; he isn’t stupid, or vain. He’s not Richard III; he isn’t deeply evil, or a master of manipulation. He isn’t Henry V either, the charismatic machiavel. He’s weak but clever, unpopular but willing to buy loyalty. He earns our grudging respect, ultimately, by proving clever enough to convince everyone else that he just isn’t worth toppling. John Boehner might well tear up in recognition.

The production, meanwhile, is the only one of the three that really suits the space. It makes the most of its Elizabethan costumes and the other trappings of original practices favored by the director, Tim Carroll (you can read my larger thoughts on this approach to Shakespeare here). And, again in keeping with that approach, doesn’t fuss much about set. And there’s no need to: the language moves us along vigorously, bringing us in close when we need to be, conjuring the vasty fields of France or the confines of a cell when either is called for.

Of the three Paterson plays, it’s also the one I’ve meditated on the most since seeing it. And what I’ve reflected on most is the friendship between Philip the Bastard and King John – and I don’t think that’s the wrong word to use. After the battle before Angiers, and its ignominious aftermath, Philip the Bastard learns a thing or to about politics, and the low behavior of these high-borns whom he longed to join – and he then teaches us. He has no illusions about this world he’s joined, or the King he’s bound to. King John isn’t much like the fabled Coeur de Leon, Philip’s biological father. He’s a shifty, changeable schemer, with a fragile claim on the throne to boot. Philip the Bastard represents, on one level, everything he isn’t: he’s a natural man and a natural leader, one who eagerly spoils for a fight, makes decisions quickly and sticks to them once made. In another play, this would breed a species of contempt. But the two of them share a remarkable bond. The King obviously likes him the moment he meets him – and the feeling, notwithstanding the fairly pathetic displays that his Highness indulges in later on, remains mutual to the end.

And, in the midst of so much cynicism, there’s something restorative, if not cathartic, about that.

Mother Courage and Her Children, Antony and Cleopatra and King John play in repertory at the Paterson Theatre of the Stratford Festival through September 28th.