Something new is needed.” So Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum addresses the audience at the beginning of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, which has just finished its run at The Gate Theatre. “My business is too hard, for my business is arousing human sympathy. There are a few things that stir men’s souls, just a few, but the trouble is that after repeated use they lose their effect.”
What, then, stirs men’s souls and to what end can, or should, they be stirred? For Brecht, the theatre, his style of theatre, could move people to want to improve the world around them. Brecht preached an “Epic theatre”, a style typified by The Threepenny Opera, wherein he aims to provoke his audience to recognise injustice and hopes to move them to leave the theatre and affect change. Brecht’s Epic theatre is a departure from traditional Aristotelian drama. Instead of having the spectator invest him or herself fully in the “world” of the play until it has ended, it seeks to make the spectator be constantly aware that the play is just a representation of reality. It’s a theatre of “montages” rather than one seamless plot, so that the viewer is kept alert and critical. Brecht saw the climactic catharsis of emotion that we get in traditional modes of theatre as a comforting illusion. It left an audience complacent.
By making the audience aware that the play is a play, Brecht aims to show us that our own reality is also just a construct; we can affect change as long as we are aware enough of the circumstances we find ourselves in and know that they are changeable.
The Threepenny Opera then, in keeping with Brecht’s ideas of what a play should be, is incredibly self-aware, something that requires great acting to be carried off. The cast are performing to the end that the audience is aware of them “acting” (usually a theatrical flaw) but at the same time they must keep the audience engaged. If Brecht wanted an audience to leave the theatre feeling imbued to affect change then both he and The Gate succeed with The Threepenny Opera. The script is great, the acting is spot on and the adoption of Dublin accents and localisms makes the play come alive in a way that makes it seem more applicable to ourselves, something Brecht would no doubt have approved of.
The Threepenny Opera at The Gate is a powerful performance of Epic theatre, and particularly apt for Ireland today. It follows beggars, prostitutes, criminals and crooked cops as they try and endure an existence wherein “the world is poor, and man’s a shit and that is all there is to it.” The play asks what’s the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of one? What’s the murder of a man compared to the employing of one? Brecht deliberately doesn’t offer any neat solutions. And why should he? He shifts the responsibility onto the audience as to what the “message” of the play will be. Ultimately, the final scene is how we act when we’ve left the theatre. It raises interesting questions as to what responsibilities lie with the playwright, the audience and, of course, the producer.
Michael Colgan has been Artistic Director of The Gate Theatre for thirty years. He tells a story of the playwright Harold Pinter having dinner with Alan Ayckbourn, who was to play Stanley in Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Ayckbourn, with his performance in mind, asked Pinter if he could tell him what the play was about. Pinter replied “That’s none of your fucking business.”
Pinter’s view would appear to be very different from Brecht’s idea of a playwright’s duty. What is the playwright’s responsibility, or does he have one? I ask Colgan what he feels his own responsibility is in his position at The Gate in terms of the theatre he puts into the public sphere. “I don’t feel that I have to get to the bottom of the banking crisis. I don’t think that’s my responsibility. The social responsibility [of the theatre] is to educate and I feel that we here at The Gate are educating society.”
Though Brecht had an overt socialist agenda to incite what he saw as change for the better, Colgan has a more measured view of what his role is in bringing theatre to the public. What they would both agree on, however, is why the theatre is so important as a medium. “People go to the theatre because, live, it’s much more potent. It’s also the need for people to rub shoulders, to commune, to do, to actively participate. It’s a need to act as one; to me, to be part of a community.” Though perhaps, in some cases, theatre is no longer the best medium. Colgan gives the example of how theatre’s role as a provider of “laughs” may now have been surpassed. “I don’t think it was the best decision of mine to do Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourn. That was a decision that was saying, what with people now in the recession, maybe we should just go for a good old fashioned laugh. This was instead of trying to deal with the recession like with An Enemy of the People or giving a side of things to people which would jolt them into a way of thinking about where we are. I think the quality of comedy on television now may have surpassed Alan Ayckbourn’s plays.”
The handing over of the role of provider of “just laughs” to television would be approved of by Brecht. A play that just makes you laugh and nothing else is a waste of a play. Though laughter is important, and there is a huge amount of great comedy in The Threepenny Opera, there should be so much more to any piece of art than laughs. The Threepenny Opera offers plenty of laughs, just not the old fashioned kind. It’s not a comedy in the traditional sense of the word, neither in terms of theatrical form or content. People are more educated now says Colgan and are recognising humour in the likes of Beckett that wasn’t seen before. Laughter makes a play accessible. It doesn’t mean it’s offering people a means of escape, which is not what Brecht wants, rather it gives us a new perspective on important issues that we might be too used to engaging with in a way that oppresses us.
“We want to educate. When somebody is reading constantly about, for example, austerity, sometimes they want to get away from that. I don’t mean they want to just get away and have a laugh. I don’t think that The Gate should be doing panto.” The beauty of the theatre, what TV or film can never give us, is its tangibility. Colgan says sometimes you have to let a play wash over you, not to ask what it’s about. Colgan sees The Gate as “offering more of a holistic education, rather than educating on specific issues.” It’s up to us to take what we will from what we see.
What Brecht offers in The Threepenny Opera is an event where you sit and watch but are always aware that you’re observing. That awareness means you learn, you participate; you become mobilised, though it might sound too strong a word, to take that exact same attitude and apply it to life. It’s the sense of being there. Here then, perhaps, is the something new, something that might “stir men’s souls”. Though The Threepenny Opera is 85 years old, compared to the Aristolean tradition of theatre, Brecht’s Epic theatre is still in its infancy. What it seeks to do is inform by entertaining. Colgan is right, we’re not to ask what the play is about. Rather, we have to ask what life is about.
The issues in The Threepenny Opera seem to be perennial. “Let’s practise goodness who would disagree? But sadly on this planet while we’re waiting, the means are meagre and the morals low.” “The search for happiness boils down to this: One must live well to know what living is.” “Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance in keeping humanity repressed.”
These are all ideas we deal with every day, but as Peachum said, the problem is that after repeated use they lose their effect. What the theatre can do is reawaken us to what we already know but have become numbed to though habit. It’s not Brecht’s job to write a play, or Colgan’s job to produce a play, or my job to plug a play. The responsibility is, as always, on the individual to go and do.