“The toilet! Best place in God’s creation/Where you can calmly sit in contemplation/Your dreams are on the wall before your eyes/Your accomplishments below you, drawing flies.” Such lines scandalized the first audiences of Brecht’s first play, just as they were meant to do. Barely 20 years old when he wrote Baal in 1918, Brecht had been working as an orderly in a military hospital in Augsburg, drafted out of medical school, as he once put it, to patch up soldiers so they could be sent back to the front.
It wasn’t just disgust with the war, though, that inspired the nihilistic play, which follows the brutally hedonistic exploits of an amoral protagonist. Brecht was also satirizing an Expressionistic tradition that glorified the poet as humanity’s sole and suffering hero. Specifically, Baal responds directly to Hanns Johst’s The Lonely One, a grandiloquent, episodic drama that exalts the 19th-century German Romantic poet Christian Grabbe as a misunderstood visionary. Brecht borrows many of Johst’s plot elements—the hero’s seduction of his best friend’s lover, his relentless downfall into poverty and ignominy, the suicide of a discarded mistress, the appeal to nature as cleansing primitive force, the assertion that the poet’s art transcends all worldly cares—but he exaggerates and twists Johst’s Romantic obsessions toward hilarious and horrible extremes. “Why can’t I fuck trees?” Baal wonders.
There’s an anti-nationalistic undercurrent to Baal, too, one that surges up from time to time through allusion and implication: Brecht’s first audiences would not only have known Johst’s play and the long line of starving-artist dramas it emblematized, but also that Grabbe was an ultra-nationalist and virulent anti-Semite, and that Johst was, too. (He soon became a cultural leader of the Nazi movement.)
Such background goes a long way toward explaining Brecht’s fascination with—and critical celebration of—his ravenous, rapacious antihero. Knowing the high-flown German tradition also makes Brecht’s youthful pleasure in turning rhapsodic rhetoric to such subjects as screwing and shit all the more enjoyable. Indeed, Brecht has his cake and eats it: Baal’s scatological, sex-crazed poetry is strangely beautiful, as sharp and glimmering as broken glass—qualities that are well-captured in Peter Mellencamp’s pungent and playable new translation. (“In bars and churches and other dens of sleaze,” goes a line in the opening ode to the hero, “Baal roars and crashes toward the cure for his disease./When he’s too sick to go on, he doesn’t even slow/He grabs the sky by the neck and drags it down below.”)
But what’s left for a contemporary American audience that has no connection to the jingoistic, lonely-poet derring-do of Brecht’s predecessors? Some recent, simpleminded critics have read the play autobiographically to “prove” the writer’s profound misogyny and shameless egotism—as well as his bisexuality. Creep—and bisexual—though Brecht may have been, Baal has much more to offer even those who are a little rusty on their German classicism, at least when a director grabs hold with both fists, as Jim Simpson has done. Setting the play in the late-1940s U.S. and providing almost nonstop accompaniment by a first-rate jazz trio, Simpson and company have produced a lean, 90-minute descent into a particularly American postwar mania that has gorged itself into oblivion. Insatiable, self-absorbed, and as wasteful and spewing as an industrial giant, Simpson’s Baal is naughty and natty in pleated pants, suspenders, and double-breasted jacket—incarnating the consumerism that was unleashed in the ’40s and that America has been bingeing on ever since.
Brecht’s imagery, relentlessly insisting on the proximity of ripeness to rot, and of lust to loathing, seems to grow organically out of Simpson’s setting, and the Bats, the theater’s resident company of young actors, perform with poetry-slam energy that overcomes many of their technical and textural limitations, especially in the production’s tight and lively first half. Michael J.X. Gladis, in his New York debut, is a blustery, belching, balls-scratching Baal, who handles the language most delicately, enabling one to truly hear the poetry.
The second half of the play begins to sag, though, especially as the plot turns to Baal’s journey with his mysterious friend Ekart (also an element taken from Johst). Their meanderings through the forest make less sense transposed to America, and Andrew Ledyard’s portrayal of Ekart lacks the charisma and drive that draws Baal—and the audience—to follow him. He and Gladis, strangely, step back from the blatant homoeroticism between the two characters in a production that otherwise seethes with sensuality.
Still, Simpson’s be-bop Baal gives us Brecht’s raw and raunchy universe in all its glory and rejection thereof, a world where shit stinks something awful, and for that reason alone, is the proper stuff of poetry.