Trap Door Theatre

By Justin Hayford

By the time Bertolt Brecht completed his undergraduate studies in 1917, only 5 of his original 68 classmates were on hand to take the exit exam. The others had been shipped off to the war. Many never returned, and several of Brecht’s boyhood chums were killed as well. When Brecht’s good friend Caspar Neher–who would become an important artistic collaborator in later years–returned home on leave, he told Brecht of the more than 30 battles he’d survived.

All these deaths had a profound impact on Brecht’s worldview. In 1914 he’d written a column full of patriotic fervor and romanticized jingoism for a local newspaper. In “Augsburg Letters on the War,” composed as the first wounded and dead were arriving back in Augsburg, he described “the ruins of young men as they were carried past us on that gray day” yet concluded that “the great single thing that we Germans want is: To guard our honor. To guard our freedom, to guard ourselves. And that is worth every sacrifice.” By 1916, however, when a professor assigned an essay on Horace’s famous line “It is sweet and proper to die for your fatherland,” Brecht turned in–and was nearly expelled for–a single paragraph ridiculing Horace as an empty-headed propagandist.

So it’s no surprise that when Brecht sat down in 1918 to write his first play, Baal, it featured a charismatic, amoral young poet hell-bent on squeezing every last drop of pleasure from a hollow, dying world without idealism or heroism. Some critics assert that Brecht based the title character on the poet Villon, and others suggest that Verlaine and Rimbaud were the playwright’s models for Baal and his tortured occasional lover Ekart, while the playwright insisted that his inspiration was a certain hedonistic young man, Josef K., who haunted Augsburg. But the most satisfying explanation is that Brecht, a 20-year-old debauched egomaniac, based the character on himself. Both he and Baal sang their racy poems in taverns and brothels to pick up money; seduced, exploited, and discarded lovers of both sexes; and generally proceeded as though the universe had been set in motion to satisfy their every whim. The only telling difference between the two was economic. Baal, a true bohemian, scrounged for his meager existence on the margins of society while Brecht merely adopted the pose; his wealthy father provided him with hand-tailored clothes, which he made a point of keeping as wrinkled as possible.

Brecht may have indulged in a bit of wish fulfillment with his self-destructive, self-satisfying character Baal. But he also created an astonishing and brutal portrait of the alienated psychology that descended on Europeans as a consequence of World War I. Baal stumbles through a world in tatters, where moral absolutes have been obliterated and only habit remains. People do little but eat, sleep, drink, and make money. But Baal won’t settle for this deadening routine, which seems to have numbed everyone around him. With ferocious contempt for bourgeois complacency, he tries to hack out an existence “beyond morality,” wrestling perverse pleasures from the sober grip of death, which waits around every corner. He may seduce an important publisher’s wife, drive a lover to suicide, or murder his best friend, but at least he can say on his deathbed that he’s truly lived.

Baal was produced only once during Brecht’s lifetime and has rarely been staged since. But it’s the kind of dark, raw, disturbing play that the Trap Door Theatre has never shied away from. It’s also a deadly difficult work with no discernible structure and intensely poetic dialogue that at times verges on non sequitur. Director Stefan Brun, who studied at Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, keeps his cast focused squarely on Brecht’s poetry, giving it singsong cadences and choral recitations: this Baal is about as lyrical as the play is ever going to get. Brun even sets the piece in a hazy netherworld where everyone walks and talks a little too slowly and is dressed head to toe in brown felt.

This shrewd approach lifts the burden of naturalism from Brun’s cast, a burden that could easily have crushed them (as it crushed Brun’s production of Brecht’s Fatzer: Demise of the Egotist for Prop Theatre four years ago). Thank God these nine actors aren’t out to convince anyone they’re really living in 1918 Munich; instead they focus on Brecht’s script–on what critic Herbert Ihering famously described as “language you can feel on your tongue, in your gums, your ear, your spinal column.” Brun’s cast may not reach the visceral depths Brecht’s poetry demands, but they keep his descriptive imagery in the forefront of every scene.

Further frustrating any realistic impulses, Brun cross-casts by gender. That choice works best with the lead: playing Baal is the wiry Sharon Gopfert, her lean, muscular physique and ratty gnarl of hair reminiscent of young Brecht himself. And she exudes the kind of frank sexual allure Baal must have; why else would so many fall at his feet despite his callous, unrepentant ways? Merely painting on thick eyebrows to become “masculine,” rolling up her sleeves, and diving into the play, Gopfert is so convincing that her sex quickly becomes a nonissue. But many other cast members devote half their energy to playing the opposite gender, typically in a broad, stereotyped manner, even though gender identity has little to do with the play. The effort expended tends to obscure rather than inform the action.

And it’s the play’s action that gives Brun the most trouble. Granted, Brecht didn’t provide much of a plot, impulsively stringing together a series of erratic encounters. But Brun’s lyrical suspension can’t suggest the agonized desperation that pollutes Brecht’s world and that must drive Baal forward. Brun’s dissipated, self-absorbed Baal is essentially idle: he seems to have given up before the play even began, passively casting himself upon the sea of fate. Death, which must continually prod Baal from the shadows, is never evident. Yet if Baal is to have any kind of stature, it must come from his struggle to forge his own rules in the face of widespread, indiscriminate death.

Since Baal has nothing to fight against, the audience has little to root for: this staging lacks the urgency that would turn a collection of poetic sketches into a play. And if there was one thing Brecht in his subversive genius wanted, it was to incite the audience to cheer a moral degenerate despite themselves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Theo Zabierowski.