Brecht has never had an easy time of it in America, and his Lehrstücke— or teaching plays— have had the hardest time of all. Rarely produced or even studied, they are the preferred weapons of the most ardent Brecht-bashers, wielded as exemplars of his alleged deadly didacticism and Commie rigidity. This simpleminded rejection of Brecht’s early experiments— he called them “exercises”— has not only limited American scholarship; more important, it has denied us what Brecht held most dear: pleasure in the theater. For the Lehrstücke— not least because of their rich musical scores— offer abundant pleasures. On these grounds alone, the National Asian Theatre Company’s production of He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No is a welcome addition to the season.
Along with Kurt Weill, Brecht wrote He Who Says Yes in 1930 as a school opera— a popular form at the time, encouraged by Germany’s highly developed school music movement. Almost every high school in the country had a sophisticated student orchestra and choir; indeed, the Berlin New Music Festival of 1930 commissioned composers to write works for students. Weill was one of them and Brecht was happy to team up on the project; he found the form particularly appealing, as he conceived the Lehrstück as a teaching tool not for audiences— as is often erroneously charged— but for performers themselves, to sharpen their skills in dialectical thinking.
The work is an almost unchanged adaptation of the classical Noh play Taniko (The Valley-Hurling), which Brecht’s collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann had just translated into German. In the original play, a teacher sets out on a dangerous pilgrimage across the mountains, and a pupil insists on going along to pray for his sick mother. When the boy falters on the trek, the other pilgrims invoke the Great Custom: Those who can’t persist should be flung into the valley so as not to impede the others from completing the sacred journey. The boy consents. Brecht merely secularizes the tale, changing the trip’s holy purpose into a search for medicine and advice from esteemed doctors.
The debut of He Who Says Yes sparked heated controversy. Brecht and Weill were especially disturbed that the right wing embraced the work’s ostensible theme of acquiescence. Meanwhile, scores of students— there were 22 secondary school productions in rehearsal— expressed disagreement with the story’s harsh outcome, and Brecht quickly wrote a new version, He Who Says No, in which the boy rejects the old Great Custom, in favor of “a new Great Custom of rethinking every new situation.” But by then, Weill’s score had already been published, and he did not revise it for the new text.
Yes remains the more compelling half of the NAATC’s crisp evening, for Weill’s music offers complex counterpoint to the text’s simplicity with its compact classicism. Beautifully melodic, it uses fugal and canonic structures that express characters’ divergent points of view. Despite the absence of even the small orchestra Weill requires— there’s merely serviceable piano, here— the singers meet the music fully. Alan Muraoka is especially powerful as the Teacher, and casting an actual child in the role of the Boy makes the story all the more affecting. Lexine Bondoc is entirely free of the phony showbiz gloss that child performers usually acquire by the time they can tie their own shoes. It even works in her favor that her voice thins at the upper end of its range: When asked if he consents to the Great Custom, Weill gives the Boy an unaccompanied, high-pitched “yes.” That Bondoc’s voice wavers on this pure tone makes the answer all the more troubling.
Director Jean Randich creates an almost mechanistic visual world, where actors move in and out of a square frame, using simple wooden chairs as furniture, mountainside, abstract forms. While the stage pictures are always pretty to look at, the choreography— Meyerholdian poses meet air traffic control gesturing— feels desperate, as though Randich fears the piece will collapse if everybody stands still. But the more distracting choice is to dress the actors in American Pilgrim outfits in Yes and in surgical scrubs in No (while also encumbering No with a piped-in score of electronic boing-boings and thumping bass lines) as if to suggest the dubious proposition that technology has saved us from the tyranny of Puritanism. Or maybe that we must not consent to right-to-die fanatics. Still, if Randich suffers from that American director’s malady of having to do clever and busy things to texts at every moment, it’s enough that she breathes credible life into He Who Says Yes/No at all.
Those who dismiss Brecht as an agitprop hack not only misunderstand his work, they underestimate the power of agitprop in its proper setting. For the last couple of years, the Living Theater has been presenting the street play Not in My Name in Times Square whenever a person is executed under the death penalty in the U.S.— including a night last week, one of the coldest of the year. The 15-minute piece uses banners, poses, poetic rhythms, choral repetition, and plain old hectoring to protest the barbarism and irrationality of capital punishment. Part ritual, part free-speech action (they take a chunk of sidewalk without a permit in Giuliani’s New York), part aesthetic experience, part venting opportunity, the play may not change many minds (lots of passersby kept their hands stuffed in their down pockets when offered leaflets and rushed on). But at the very least, it bucks up like-minded folks who need rousing in these dark times, reminding us that the worst kind of consent is often silence.