Saturday, January 28, 2012

If Amnesty International Had Its Own Theater Company

Boston Herald theatre critic Jenna Scherer writes:

If Amnesty International had its own theater company, Bread & Puppet would just about fit the bill.

In the course of its nearly 50-year existence, the Vermont-based collective has tackled more human rights issues than any other troupe out there. B&P’s viewpoints are incendiary and its style unorthodox, and attending one of its shows is a totally unique theatrical experience.

I would not dispute the point that Bread & Puppet's style is unorthodox; so at variance with the rest of the theatre world that I regard the rich dramaturgical vocabulary is worthy of study by both theatre artists and scholars, indeed "Bread & Puppet" has become a generic term to refer to a style of protest theatre: any usage of large allegorical papier-mâché puppets. However, I question Scherer's assertion that B&P should be representing any human rights group. After all, how do you square a concern for human rights with public statements by B&P founder and artistic director, Peter Schumann?

I think it’s awful that the Western community does not interfere with what Israel’s doing as an occupation force [in the West Bank]. The Western community does not do anything about it. They don’t even speak up against it. They don’t do anything. They basically serve as the Israeli propaganda for the events there.

In this statement, from a 2008 interview with the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, Schumann does more than criticize Israeli policies in the West Bank (in this specific instance, it was the the wall that was built to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel.) He claims that "the Western community" by which he appears to mean the governments and media outlets of the European and North American nations are somehow under Israeli control. How does Israel get the "Western community" to produce propaganda for Israel and obey Israeli interests? Money? Well-placed people in government? If it is the influence of money or well-placed people, how is this substantially different than other forces influencing the "Western community." I have noted this implausibility elsewhere. This "Western community" is either made up of sovereign states or media outlets that reside in sovereign states that have interests other than serving as "Israeli propaganda" organs.

Schumann is not "criticizing" Israel, rather, he is openly propounding an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, using the fuzzy logic of allusion and moralistic pronouncements. This conspiracy theory is not unlike those he would have encountered during his childhood in Nazi Germany. While Schumann often speaks of his childhood in Silesia, often bitterly complaining that it was annexed to Poland after World War II, he rather consistently neglects to mention that Silesia was part of the Third Reich. He has also managed to solicit cooperation from interviewers in misrepresenting his childhood. By Schumann's logic, one could accuse the Vermont press of serving as Schumann propaganda by helping him hide his origins.

Take this cover from a 1942 issue of Fliegende Blätter depicting Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Rosevelt, and Joseph Stalin as puppets of "The Jews.":

Another 1942 cartoon portraying the same world leaders as puppets of a Jewish puppeteer, this time in the Lustuge Blätter:

This 1940 cover to the Lustige Blätter reads "Englands Führung Liegt in Guten Handen!" or "England's leadership is in good hands!" while depicting Winston Churchill being led like a child by a stereotypical Haredi Jew:

While in this 1934 cartoon from Die Brennessel portrays a Jewish controlled press subverting Germany from abroad:

The imagery in these cartoons certainly were incendiary: They had the overall effect of making anti-Jewish legislation, street violence, deportations, and genocide more palatable to the German public-- even to those Germans who did not buy into biological racism. So it is disheartening to find a German artist who grew up during that time period repeating the same canards.

It becomes even more disturbing when we consider the strong semblance between some of these grotesque Jewish caricatures and Schumann's own personification of the evil powers-that-be, Uncle Fatso:

I have been raising these difficult questions since I walked out of a 2007 rehearsal with Bread & Puppet after Schumann made a series of installations comparing the West Bank to the Warsaw Ghetto. I was too knowledgeable about the history to not to realize that this was a misrepresentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as a form of "soft-core" Holocaust denial, in that it deliberately trivialized and misrepresented the facts of the Holocaust.

The point is that a theatre company whose artistic director creates anti-Semitic propaganda (even thinly disguised anti-Semitic propaganda) and makes anti-Semitic statements in interviews should not be proposed as the theatrical arm of a human rights NGO, as Jenna Scherer does. Not that I believe that Scherer is making a serious proposal, but it is clear that she is also not engaged in serious thought, having succumbed to the notion that theatre criticism amounts to writing blurbs.

Note: I previously took issue with Jenna Scherer when she was still at The Weekly Dig.

Nazi-era cartoons courtesy of Randall Bytwerk's German Propaganda Archive.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Some Thoughts on Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen"

Last night, I caught Flat Earth Theatre's production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. It was not my first encounter with the play: I had attended the 2008 production at American Repertory Theater and had read the script a few months ago. Copenhagen, like very few contemporary plays, holds up both as a script for performance and as a literary work. Furthermore, after seeing Flat Earth's production (directed by Jake Scaltreto who shows himself to be more imaginative, thoughtful, and understanding of the text than A.R.T.'s Scott Zigler) I felt vindicated in my 2008 intuition that the play demands both multiple viewings and multiple productions.

However, the more I consider the script and the moral argument that Frayn seems to be making, the more I come to doubt that earlier intuition. What follows is not a review, but a few questions that bother me every time I encounter this play. One of the major themes of Copenhagen is the moral responsibility of scientists during wartime, specifically focussing on Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and their work on developing the nuclear bomb for America and Germany respectively. Of course, as history tells us, Germany failed to develop nuclear weapons, while America, famously benefiting Germany's racial laws that drove most of the top physicists out of both Germany and German-occupied Europe, succeeded.

Much is made of Heisenberg's moral calculations as to why he chose to work on the bomb. He was relatively apolitical, and showed a sufficient intellectual independence from Nazi ideology to get himself in trouble with SS Reichsfürhrer Heindrich Himmler for his opposition to the Deutsche Physik movement. Heisenberg's own consciousness had been formed during his adolescence, undergoing hardships, as Germany has been defeated in the First World War. Even if he did not personally believe that a nuclear weapon was practical, even if he had distinct misgivings about the ideology of Naziism and the government's policies, he could neither be certain that other minds could not devise a practical nuclear fission weapon, nor consider the possibility that his homeland would be target of an Allied nuclear attack.

Little, by contrast, is made of Niels Bohr's moral calculations. Frayn does not mention Bohr's own humanitarian work during the era: prior to German occupation of Denmark, providing refuge to German-Jewish scientists, nor does it mention Bohr's important role in the rescue of Denmark's Jews: When Bohr escaped to Sweden, he refused to board the plane that would take him to America to work in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project until the Swedish government agreed to give asylum to Denmark's Jews, most of whom would arrive a few days later, narrowly escaping deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. In other words, Bohr made his contributions to the American bomb dependent on the rescue of eight-thousand people who were otherwise destined for extermination.

Instead, in the voice of Heisenberg, we hear much of German victimhood from Allied bombings and ultimately the horror of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the Manhattan project made possible. Heisenberg complains about the humiliation of former friends, who had developed the American bomb, refusing to shake his hand though he had failed to develop a German bomb, as if these were moral equivalencies. They are not: the scientists at the Manhattan Project were saving the world from fascism and genocide; had Heisenberg succeeded he would have unleashed more genocide and a more muscular fascism.

The point being that when we look at civilian casualties during World War II, they are estimated to amount to roughly 40 to 52 million, or approximately 62% or nearly two-thirds of those killed during the War. However, ~58% of those killed were Allied civilians while only ~4% of the total dead were civilians of the Axis powers. Bohr knew not only of Germany's genocidal intent against European Jewry (his mother was Jewish) but he knew of Germany's strategy of massive bombing campaigns against civilian populations in order to demoralize the enemy. When one looks at the statistics, there really is no comparison: considering the civilian death toll of World War II, both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan got off fairly lightly compared to the countries they invaded.

So, the question that bothers me each time I encounter the play is why is Copenhagen's Heisenberg allowed to draw such moral equivalencies in a situation where the contrast is so stark? Is it merely because the play was written for a British audience that is well aware of the constant bombings that British civilians endured during the War-- and are thus assumed not to accept such equivalencies? Is it because Bohr's own reasoning is deemed so obvious to the British audience that only Heisenberg's need be explored? Is it because it ties in with the play's guiding question of why Heisenberg visited Neils Bohr in his Copenhagen home in 1941? Is it because we, as the victors living in democratic societies, have the luxury of questioning ourselves? Or perhaps, more nefariously, Frayn's own reliance on David Irving's 1967 The Virus House for information on the German bomb program (Irving, rather infamously, has come to be known as a fraudulent historian, Holocaust denier, and Hitler-apologist)?

(I would be remiss not to mention the excellent Copenhagen blog by Flat Earth's dramaturg David Rogers, which explores many of the other themes of the play.)

Nota Bene: Art Hennessey reminded me that he raised similar questions about Frayn's moral and historical relativism during A.R.T.'s production in 2008, though while I noted Frayn's connections with David Irving, he notes Frayn's philosophical writings. I also clarified Bohr's own Nazi-era humanitarian work that Frayn doesn't discuss in the play.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

John Logan's RED: a play about Mark Rothko Reviewed

In my fifth outing as a reviewer for The Arts Fuse I review SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of John Logan's Red a two-hander about Mark Rothko during the 1950s when he was working on his mural commission for the Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan. Directed by David R. Gammons, and featuring Thomas Derrah and Karl Baker Olsen.

...[T]ragedy does not sit well with commerce: Rothko enjoys his fame and commissions but despises the capitalists who pay him as well as the privileged bourgeoisie who dine at the Four Seasons. He rationalizes putting his paintings in the Four Seasons as an attack on consumerist values. Simultaneously, while Ken enthuses about the new generation of pop-artists...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Theater Commons Comes to Emerson and What This Means for the Boston Theatre Scene

As 2011 was coming to a close, the big news on the Boston theatre scene was that David Dower and Polly Carl of the American Voices New Play Institute would be moving from their base of operations at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage to Emerson College. In the midst of this excitement, The real question was what this means beyond Rob Orchard's aim to make ArtsEmerson a major regional player in the performing arts.

As outlined by Dower on the Arena Stage blog, this is essentially means that efforts that had previously been grouped under the hashtag of "#newplay" are branching in two directions under the auspices of two separate organizations. The first, staying at Arena Stage and retaining the American Voices New Play Institute name, will, amongst other things, focus on the much lauded resident playwright program and on Arena's own developmental work.

The second branch, now using the name "Center For the Theater Commons at Emerson College" will focus

on the tools and initiatives designed to advance the national infrastructure for new work and the people who make it. So, where the AVNPI will house Arena's activities, this new entity, The Center for the Theater Commons, will develop and maintain the tools of the #newplay commons and act as staff to the nationwide effort. The map, the live stream channel, the journal, the research projects, and the activities of Howlround will be housed at the new Center, situated in the Office of the Arts at Emerson College. The web portal for this platform becomes

Polly Carl and Vijay Matthew, writing at Shareable while explaining the needs that brought the New Play Institute into being, outline the projects that the Commons will continue to develop at Emerson. Most of these involve using technology both to both build and document the "new play infrastructure." The two most visible of these initiatives that the Commons will be bringing to Emerson, are the online journal Howlround and the New Play Map, of which I've written about twice before.

Given my position in the industry: entering the field of playwriting without the connections that comes with an MFA, not having a salaried position at a regional theatre, I have had little use for the Howlround. The contents had sadly struck me as being more about omphalloskepticism than about theatre featuring often cryptic essays by more connected figures than myself wondering if they were reaching an audience or not.
The New Play Map, on the other hand, was a project I have supported enthusiastically since it went online last year. It is a crowd sourced map, documenting the new play infrastructure, presenting the artists, collaboratives, conferences, venues, and companies writing, developing, and presenting new plays. I even explored the possible uses that could be explored since the source code was released (New Dance Map anyone? New Opera Map? New Performance Art Map?)

The question, for the Boston theatre scene returns to "how do we use this?" Theater Commons, despite being local, is under no obligation to show Boston playwrights or Boston theatre companies any special favor, especially when the new staff understandably come with any number of professional obligations to past collaborators, however it does become incumbent on the Boston theatre scene to become aware of what is going on in its own neighborhood.

I have already suggested to the newly elected board of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston to strongly urge that member companies, and individual artists working in new play development document their efforts on the New Play Map. Some already have started to do just that, some already had. This longer essay is for those who have not responded to the Alliance's urgings. Placing our work on the map is not just to advertise our presence to the larger national scene, but to document how we operate, so that organizations like the Theater Commons have a better grasp on what tools we (both nationally and locally) need.

What this means for the local theatre community is what we are willing to make it mean.