Sunday, 19 May 2019

All that is Useless is Human

Visiting the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp outside Berlin was eye opening for me, perhaps not for the obvious reasons. It was not — like camps such as Auschwitz and Majdanek — so much focused on immediate extermination as it was on a death that came more slowly — through starvation, lack of proper medical care, torture, and overwork. The distinction might seem like hair-splitting, but I would propose that what happened in Sachsenhausen exemplified the Nazi philosophy. ‘Those who deserved to live’ had to be separated from ‘life unworthy of life.’ It is true that at Sachsenhausen some were murdered quickly and in cold blood (Soviets, for instance, where killed here immediately, much the way Jews were in other camps). But many prisoners at Sachsenhausen were not immediately killed, and the ones who survived did so because they had the fortitude to live through the often meaningless and torturous jobs that were assigned them. In this way the propaganda on the entrance gate ‘arbeit macht frei’ (work will make you free) became a nightmarish truism.
Nazis were obsessed with those that they felt did not ‘contribute’ to society. This should remind us that what makes humans humane is taking care of those who may seem to ‘contribute’ less — for instance, those who cannot, for whatever reason, take care of themselves. It should make us think of  the inscription on the Statue of Liberty — ‘bring me your tired, you poor, your huddled masses.’ But it should also make us think about the distinctions that we make today — especially in the digital capitalism — between who is ‘productive’ and who is not.
The mega-corporations that dominate global capitalism consistently hire only those who will produce the most goods for the cheapest pay; and humans are gradually being replaced by machines, because machines are cheaper, faster and ultimately, more productive.
In reality, all that makes us human also makes us useless in terms of productive work — our capacity to love, to experience fear, to be inspired, and to have pity for others. Big capitalism would have us believe that modern mega-corporations like Apple and Google are interested in hiring radical thinkers and generous souls; in truth they are interested in people who ‘radically’ and ‘generously’ serve the company’s profit margin. 
To think otherwise is to believe propaganda on the level of ‘arbeit macht frei.’
Oscar Wilde made much of the notion that all great art is useless. And though I do not mean to suggest that we do not need science or technology, our ability to achieve in those realms is not what separates us from what is not human. No, it is those things that cannot be quantified or qualified, it is all that can be felt, imagined and dreamed; our sensitivity, our creativity and our imagination that makes us unique and ‘worthy of life.’
As humans, we must value what is ‘useless’ about us, for it is the essence of what makes us good and beautiful.
The lesson of history lies before us.
Please believe me. 

We value ‘use,’ over all else, at our peril.

Monday, 13 May 2019


There were no standing ovations at the Berliner Ensemble in Germany last night. I have just seen Endstation Sehnsucht (A Streetcar Named Desire) directed by Michael Thalheimer and designed by Olaf Altmann — and ‘from the English by Helmar Harald Fischer.’ Though I adore this play on the page, I have never seen a production of Streetcar that I liked. No arguing with Marlon Brando’s performance; but Vivien Leigh was just too over the top for me (where is Jessica Tandy when you need her)? Nevertheless the performances in Kazan’s 1951 film are so iconic as to have blotted out this play as play. 
Anyway, the title of this German version translates as ‘Destination Yearning” (Destination Nostalgia is a literal translation). It seems to me to be somewhat of an adaptation (I don’t speak German so I was unable to read the program notes) but it strikes me that the English subtitles provided were not identical to the play that I have read so many times. Some text - here and there — was definitely changed and/or excised. It doesn’t really matter though, because this interpretation made this old play seem so alive to me. Thalheimer and Altmann have apparently collaborated before; the design and direction were unique and unforgettable. 

Realism is abandoned — as one might expect from a theatre espousing Brecht— and the set is nothing more than a ramp carved into a kind of cave in a massive wall (very technically difficult, I would think for the actors to act on). From the beginning this speaks to Blanche’s tragedy — as characters are constantly falling down or climbing up. Often they speak directly to the audience. At the back the walls light up at certain moments (the ‘coloured lights’ mentioned by Stanley) accompanied by heavy metal music.  

There were three major differences in this production and any other production I have seen. First, the class issues in the play were perfectly clear — Stanley and Stella’s working class friends were yelling and laughing (one section I will never forget was just a woman laughing savagely in the dark for what seemed like a whole minute)  in ways that reminded me of my Hamilton Hardcore working class neighbours. Second, Stanley wasn’t sexy, nor a brute (he had a pot belly) he was simply horny, somewhat violent man — like so many others. And Blanche was definitely horny too; in their first meeting she was clearly seducing him — it was her a mode of survival. All of this makes the play clearer as treatise; finally the fog of sentiment has been cleared away. Blanche is not fragile, she is a biting, scratching, desperate woman, very much as Stella describes her — misused by life and discarded in a pile of furs and fake pearls at the bottom of the ramp/cave at the end. Stanley isn’t a hot guy you might secretly want to rape you, he is just a working class man, caught in a web of his own male privilege and the class exploitation imposed upon him. 

The audience must think; but still, I was crying all through. All about the acting; the gestures — fierce, moments of repetition — haunting. Blanche whispering ‘Stella Stella Stella Stella' — a hiss. Stanley at the end, saying over and over again ‘everything’s going to be alright' until it becomes a yell. A production unafraid to be politically incorrect and completely real — oddly without a speck of old-fashioned ‘realism.’ We will not see the likes of this in Canadian theatre, for obvious reasons. And there was no standing ovation — like I see those oafs in the audience do for every bad play we see in Toronto. In Berlin, the audience just clapped and clapped and clapped (and clapped), because there was nothing left to do.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Remembering Jenny

I have to say a few words about Jennifer Phipps, who died very recently. I met her at the Shaw Festival when I was working there in the early 1980s. I had been brought in from Toronto by Christopher Newton to assistant direct, and due to my relationship with Christopher some of the actors seemed to view me with some suspicion. Not Jenny. We got to talking and I told her about my frustrations being away from my Toronto theatre company and I mentioned that I had written a play called Jungle Boy, about an incestuous relationship between a mother and a son. She immediately expressed interest: “I’d love to read it darling.” She always used that word — it always made me think of her as an old time movie star. I never thought that a big Shaw actress would be interested in acting in one of my plays; but in no time we worked it up and presented it in the Shaw lobby to an audience that was made up of an acting company somewhat bewildered by our efforts. A couple of years later I wrote a play about Cocteau called Radiguet, and I needed someone to play the role of a madwoman; Jenny enthusiastically agreed to star in the play at the tiny Poor Alex Theatre in Toronto; it was the first play that I directed Edward Roy in (of whom she was very fond). 
No one has said several things that it is important to say about Jenny. She was an enormously charming, generous woman. She loved gay men; I’m not sure why, but I knew that it wasn’t just me, but the fact that I was gay, that was so attractive to her. She was an enormously talented actress, highly underestimated because she was so kind and modest (not like her old friend Joan Collins, at all!). To work with her was a lesson in acting; her work was very instinctive and real. If you put a prop anywhere near her it was in danger of being used — perhaps in ways you had never imagined, so you had to be careful! I saw her at Shaw in a definitive performance in Coward’s perfect comedy Hay Fever, and she was perfect in it, as the dotty Judith — so full of love and insanity that she kept me in stitches from the moment she walked on stage.
I had written a play for her in the 80s called Cheri (inspired by the Colette novel) which was rejected by Urjo Kareda at Tarragon. The play was lost, but when I happened to see her a couple of years ago I rewrote it for her and we tried to do it again together, but she became ill.
And this is the final thing. At one of the rehearsals for Cheri, I asked Jenny her age, and it unleashed a tempest: “Oh I don’t tell my age darling,” she said “because it’s become an issue. Because they think that someone who is 84 years old can no longer act. And it’s because I’m an old woman. It’s not fair. It doesn’t happen to old men!” Her fury frightened me somewhat but I sympathized, because I know she had struggled — despite her magnificent record at the Shaw Festival — with finding work during her last years. If anything were to come of Jenny’s death it might be that artistic directors should remember their old actors. Being old isn’t very popular these days; but Christopher Newton had a practice in his company that I truly respected; he always made a place for them, even if it was a butler, carrying a tray. We could do worse than remember them.