postcards from berlin #12 [those old racist plays]
DICKICHT (r. baumgarten) @ maxim gorki theater berlin
man i love this play. or rather the play it’s based on—the adaptation crosses a line into new text creation so they’ve shortened the title. no longer “in the jungle of cities” just “jungle.”
it’s brecht’s first play, one of those ones that doesn’t get taught in school, before brecht had a defined political program, just an angry and excited young artist with a gift for turning phrases and an acute sense of humanity. the play is like a magnificent infection that brecht caught from reading rimbaud—metaphysical, mystifying at times, totally epic and poetic.
and it also has a gross thread of ugly and mostly tangential racism running through it that makes it hard to swallow. i say tangential because it reads like early 20th century orientalism, isn't terribly well flushed out, doesn't have a strong dialectic argument about it, and the dramaturgical purpose it seems to serve is to "other" and marginalize schlink--but it’s more character detail than nexus of social interrogation. it's not central to the play, or at least the way the play turned out (in early conceptions it seemed to be more important in bb's notes).
i've picked up the play more than once wanting to do it in canada, because i think the big fight, and the idea of love and hate existing on photonegative dimensional planes, is an exciting one. there's a burning question at the play's core about what it means to be close to someone, invasively intimate. but there's this thread about schlink being malaysian that's just tightly woven enough to be hard to eliminate, and not important enough to make space for a real conversation. it's also gross enough that artistic directors would have trouble looking past it even if you had a proposal for cutting it.
so i wonder where the line is. i don't blanket reject old stories that depict bigotry or negative stereotypes in some form or other (given how our values have changed so rapidly that would mean banning 90% of western lit). in fact i'm often drawn to them if there's enough material for a conversation. i think it's important to see homophobia onstage. i think it's important to see gendered power at work. i don't believe in censorship and i don't believe theatre would be interesting if it just showed people with similar values sitting together treating each other well. but i also don't see the value in investing a lot of time & energy & money into something that's going to reproduce dated stereotypes without much reflection.
i think it’s easy as someone not coming from the german tradition to dismiss brecht’s IN THE JUNGLE OF THE CITIES because it doesn’t have the same history of meaning for us as OTHELLO, MERCHANT OF VENICE, TITUS ANDRONICUS, or TAMING OF THE SHREW. and perhaps another primary difference in those texts is that the bigotry they depict is more central, and lends itself better to meaningful examination—unlike, for instance, antisemitic jokes in TWO GENTS. i re-read CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF recently—there’s a lot of latent white supremacy in there that now has the effect of pulling us away from the questions of the play—jarring us out of an otherwise wrenching story about denial and addiction and legacy. there’s an endless list of texts that have merits and timeless questions on one hand, but on the other depict cultural uglinesses we are trying to grow past and heal.
how do we salvage these texts? are they worth rescuing? i don’t think they’re worth categorically dismissing. there's a really exciting question at the centre of DICKICHT, but i think we’re past the time when these issues could be plastered over, skirted, or ignored. baumgarten’s production casts a thirty-something white guy in the role, but doesn’t excise the racism in the dialogue. it also doesn’t really address it, which surprised me for a production at the gorki, and it's even mentioned in the website copy. there’s also the argument that to focus on it pulls us the production from the core conflict, but i’d say not examining it does that just as much. (i’ve written a whole post about nothing but). it demands to be addressed, but what that looks like is obviously case-by-case. i also don’t know that a berlin audience is jarred in quite the same way by passing racism as i was. not yet at least. i’m curious what german theatre’s response to this dialogue will be if/when it becomes more prominent in their artistic culture. whether they’ll take it on in the context of ethics, perhaps, rather than morals, which tends to be the north american response. the theatre culture here certainly tackles other political questions with bravery and vitality.
for more about the show click here.