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BAAL by Bertolt Brecht. Translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright. A co–production of Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Melbourne at the Wharf 1 Theatre.

If one cares to check out the Alison Croggon’S THEATRE NOTES blog, you’ll notice an amazing 107 comments following her review of BAAL at the Malthouse Theatre (it even drew James Waites into the fray – and he hadn’t even seen it, as of that time!) It was (is) an interesting commotion to follow, and it certainly whetted my appetite to see the work, although, with all the pre-show publicity etc. , it appeared that it would demand of me an act of courage to go. An act of courage only in the sense that another unhappy view of ‘man’ on a Sydney stage, again, would be depressingly redundant and, of late, too regularly familiar. Tiresome.

I had come to the point where I was (am) tired of being told in the theatre, over and over, that the present state of man and the world is hopelessly ‘fucked’. What I have being gradually longing for from my theatre going experiences, is a message on how to live through or change that.

This depressing statement is no longer enough, unless I also was given some formula to move forward with this observation and to find a way to live, well, into my future. I feared that BAAL would just be another nihilist re-iteration of so much writing for the theatre of late.

That Tom Wright was an author of this work, along with Simon Stone, did not bode well. That Mr Wright’s writing is often beautiful is not disputed here – the poetic quotes of the songs from this version of the play in the [free!] STC program is testament to that. If read in parallel with the Eyre Methuen 1979 versions by Peter Tegel – a positive appreciation of Mr Wright’s work is inevitable. But it has dwelt, now, it seems, over time, ponderously on the dark weight of self-destructive existence. For,THE ODYSSEY, THE LOST ECHO, THE WOMEN OF TROY and THE WAR OF THE ROSES were long and searching observations. Their sheer weight, in all ways, along with other writers appearing on our stages, have been pushing me to an indigestible surfeit, that have led me to a kind of dread, maybe depression, about attending the theatre.

How wonderful to just go to John Bell’s production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and simply have a celebration of what man can achieve, Shakespeare and his poetic wit, or, to attend the Martin Fröst’s Clarinet concert with the Australian Chamber Orchestra – a reason to live.

That Simon Stone was going to give us a cast of naked men and women so that it can help solve his “bi-polar response” to this play by Brecht sounded unappetitising, at the least, considering the number of naked bodies that I would have preferred never to have seen in my long and wearied life. Clothes maketh the man, I have, in my mirror-less home, come to embrace as a truth of some impactful force. And, alas, my experience of this production had me declaring to myself during the experience, that this much discussed production, play, was like the emperor, in the fable, without clothes, indeed. This play is revealed as a young man’s early juvenile (talented) effort at writing in response to his life and circumstances.

“BAAL is the first of four full-length plays (the others being DRUMS IN THE NIGHT, IN THE JUNGLE OF THE CITIES and THE LIFE OF EDWARD II OF ENGLAND) which Brecht wrote in Bavaria before moving to Berlin in the autumn of 1924. In spring 1918, when he began work on the first of them he was just twenty…”. He re-worked BAAL over the coming years whilst living in a society of which he had many mis-givings. How the German people would survive, and how he himself would survive, with a sense of the weight of the Treaty of Versailles and its demands, topped with the gathering gloom of the Great Depression in Europe and galloping inflation, as the whole world awoke to the social and economic post-trauma of the nightmare that had being World War I. The war to end wars.

BAAL, it seems, has never really been a success on the rare opportunities it has had in production, even in Germany itself.

From the Prologue to the 1926 version: “This dramatic biography shows the life of the man Baal as it took place in the first part of the century. You see before you Baal the abnormality trying to come to terms with the twentieth- century world. Baal the relative man, Baal the passive genius, the whole phenomenon of Baal from his first appearance among civilized beings up to his horrific end, with his unprecedented consumption of ladies of high degree, in his dealings with his fellow-humans. This creature’s life was one of sensational immorality…”. From the end of the Prologue to the 1918 version “… the play is the story neither of a single incident or of many, but of a life. Originally it was called ‘Baal eats! Baal dances!! Baal is transfigured!!!’” [GW Schriften zum Theatre, p.954-5].

From Tom Wright: “ At first glance, BAAL is a simple narrative: a man is feted by his lovers of art, who admire his talent and hope some of his charisma and energy might rub off on them. But he rejects their advances, seeking a romantic ideal of an authentic life. He takes to the road, living ‘underground’, pursuing something, fleeing from something. And with him come others, people who fall through the cracks in the middle class and, perhaps from curiosity, wander into the darkness… He’s sometimes described as hedonistic, or driven by the pleasure principle. But he’s more than that; his callous treatment of those around him indicates he’s destructive, a dark force … And in the end he’s a genius, alone on a mattress. A genius whatever that is”.

In this production, Baal is not just a poet but a rock star. We meet him brooding over a computer making electronic noises (Composer and Sound Designer Stefan Gregory) where, in an abandoned looking white-walled space, from other parts of a party pumping away off stage, he becomes surrounded by a group of women in cocktail dresses and heels (Costume Design: Mel Page), champagne glasses in hand. They preen and compete. They fawn, he reacts, he attracts, he selects, he repulses, he abuses. Others arrive, men, now, as well, and they too are attracted and compete, they too are selected, repulsed, and abused. They sit on a mattress , some of them dressed, some of them partly dressed, some of them naked ,except for their shoes, to hear this Baal sing, in a posy singing voice (reminiscent of a poor imitation of Tom Waites) – unfortunately burying the text’s clarity along the way. Attending this noise in the yellow mustard lighting of the stage (Set and Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper) none of the crowd are attractive and are entirely non-sexual. (I reach back into my memory banks to the playful raunch of the film SHORT BUS (a film by John Cameron Mitchell) to imagine the proposed milieu presented in this production – memories of laptop sound-art concerts at Hibernian House, in Elizabeth St near Central railway, for similar groupie gatherings to hear poets of electronic music, stir as well.) This production fails in its realities, these are merely staged theatrical pretences: Sex… (if only! Not an erect or even stirring penis among them); Drugs (only alcohol and most of that poured over the stage – really? …no spiffs, heroin or cocaine?); and Rock n’ Roll, courtesy of Mr Gregory.

The most memorable and real event of this production is the spectacular wall collapse-scene change, a waft of wind momentarily stirs us into some interest, followed by two 2000 litres of re-cycled ‘water-wise’ rain (thanks STC for the program notes, and assurance), drizzled over a black floor, endlessly, and incredibly nosily for most of the rest of the play – requiring the actors to shout their texts to be heard. Not that that came to matter much to us in the audience, at least from Row F, at the back.Mr Wright’s text lost to us to hear and make identification with.

On the night I attended, the company of actors seemed to have withdrawn from communicating to the audience and rather, gave solace to each other, and surely, here, I thought, in the acting style engaged in, the glass walls of Belvoir’s THE WILD DUCK or WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF would have been more suitable. We and they could have been more completely isolated from each other, truly alienated. I, and I’m assuming from the tepid applause – the rest of the audience that night – were unengaged and unconcerned. For whom had this performance been given? I wondered. We and they had merely survived an almost interminable 63 minutes of non-communication. Mr Stone suggests in his program note: “By presenting humanity in extremis, tragedy shows us the extents of our psychological potential. BAAL is a nightmare catharsis of the anti-social instinct. It carries the cult of the individual to its inevitable lonely outcome.” No catharsis experienced by me from the play but certainly from this frustrating production revelations of my psychological potential poured forth and Mr Stone may or may not take some comfort from the lonely outcome of a dwindling audience response to the work, for it is there that BAAL hits its target. Anti-social non-communication, no circle of exhange of content. It did have “ an inevitable lonely outcome” – the actors inside the prism of their creation. The genius alone on a mattress. We, alone in the auditorium. A tragedy. A travesty?Genius? Whatever that is? I longed for it.

I sat there with others, after the applause for the actors work, bewildered, not angry, not passionately emotional, not anything at all. This work added nothing to my life experience. This theatre experience, was horribly empty and worse than dull.

Musing on the bus home, later I remembered some speeches from Johanna Murray-Smith’s play RAPTURE (2002). From Dan, a middle-class Melbournite:

“Actually, one of the great pleasures of getting older has been the acknowledgement that I despise artists… I used to pretend to believe in them, as some insecure confirmation that I was a cultivated sort of person, you know, as if a fondness for a woman who slathers herself in chocolate sauce then wraps herself in barbed wire as some kind of lyrical comment on the holocaust, would define me as NOT a philistine. But I’ve come to the conclusion that art, by and large, IS vulgarity. While people are starving and locked up in detention centres and children are blown up by suicide bombers…..”.

Now, I do not despise artists at all, but I have been pushed to an extremis, so some of Dan I recognise in myself, in my growing reaction to the tedious overblown statements that the new ‘installation-art’ Directors and Designers have asked me to engage in on too regular a basis. How about a good play, well acted and well directed and designed so that the audience is left alone, to solve the work, without the sleight of hand being shown so obviously, in this kind of post-modern abstraction of refining, defining intellectualisms.

Oh, for variety of taste in our theatre spaces!

A question: a translation or an adaptation of Brecht’s BAAL, by Mr Stone and Wright?

And now for my truly PHILISTINE moan. I paid $81 for this 63 minutes of theatre. I feel disheartened and maybe, really, robbed. Now that moan is not just about my money but especially my time. Cate, Andrew, how can you look us regular playgoers “in the face”?(At least the program was free instead of the usual $10 or $12.)

N.B. Quotes are either from the STC program or Bertolt Brecht. Baal translated by Peter Tegel, edited by John Willett and Ralph Mannheim – Eyre Methuen, 1979.

3 replies to “Baal”

  1. This is a fantastic review – I still have mine sitting in front of me in draft form and I am aiming to finish it off this morning. you have found words to articulate your response while I have continued to struggle. This is a show that has divided audiences, and deserves wide-spread discussion for many reasons you touch on. But gee – difficult to find the language to do so. So thanks for opening so many doors. A thoughtful, heartfelt and bold post.

  2. Kevin,
    Your detailed review encompasses so much in this experience that makes you feel you want to wrap your coat around you just that much more tightly as you take the long walk out of the Wharf Theatre…..
    Reflecting on what I had just witnessed , it was a surprise that what came to mind was Restoration Comedy. In such plays as "The Man of Mode" and "The Country Wife" ,we are presented with Dionysian figures who dazzle the men and women who are inevitably drawn to them. They are magnetic, they threaten civilized society, they raid the pantry at the slightest suggestion of an open door , and they infuriate their followers as they make their selfish retreats.The creators of this " Ba'al" would have us believe that he is the modern day heir to the mantle , the carrier of the fierce and fantastic flame – but as one watches the parade of society A-listers and fellow dissolutes tumble under his spell ,one yearns for that old restoration WIT. The destructive sex-god here is all abuse and indulgence , only broken by Tom Wright's dark -water lyrics and the blasts from the guitar.( Wild guitar solos are becoming something of an STC speciality…who can forget "The Wars of the Roses" ?) The programme notes invoke notions of 'tragedy' and 'catharsis'. But it was impossible for me to feel these lofty things , because there was never anything magnificent or inspiring about the 'hero.At the end , after the rain that hath rainethed all that time ( those poor, sodden actors !) we are left with our hero curled up in a ball crying for his mother, and it is a pathetic image , of course , but there is no sense of the loss of a heroic , glorious ideal.
    And no sense of an end to a quest or struggle , which perhaps the creators of this piece saw as fundamental to the Ba'al experience.
    Bleakness is all.
    The world without wit or humour.

  3. "Now, I do not despise artists at all, but I have been pushed to an extremis, so some of Dan I recognise in myself, in my growing reaction to the tedious overblown statements that the new 'installation-art' Directors and Designers have asked me to engage in on too regular a basis. How about a good play, well acted and well directed and designed so that the audience is left alone, to solve the work, without the sleight of hand being shown so obviously, in this kind of post-modern abstraction of refining, defining intellectualisms." Brilliant!

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