26 January 2010

'Brother, You’re Next'

[Late in 1967, Leonardo Shapiro, then an NYU theater student, and classmate Stephen Wangh produced Brother, You’re Next, a Vietnam-war street musical Shapiro and Wangh wrote with Chris Rohmann and Robert Reiser. Brother, a 25-minute adaptation of Brecht’s anti-militarist Man Is Man reset to the Vietnam war, came out of the mounting Greenwich Village trend of performing free on the streets. “The center of gravity in advanced theater activity is again shifting,” wrote a contemporaneous observer of the scene. “Forms are changing and so are the locations: the new ones are the streets, the parks and the college campuses . . . .” Many small troupes had taken to the streets to agitate not so much for artistic and theatrical audacity, but political and intellectual liberties. While Shapiro and his friends usually presented Brother on the sidewalks and in the parks of New York City as guerrilla theater, on one occasion the itinerant troupe did a series of performances indoors as part of an anti-Vietnam war event organized on 26-29 January 1968 by the Theatre for Peace, a project of the Committee of the Professions to End the War in Vietnam. On the 42nd anniversary of that presentation, I publish this account.]

Brother, You’re Next was developed, mostly through improvisation, by a group of friends from the NYU undergraduate theater program. Rohmann, whom his friend Stephen Wangh had invited to join the effort specifically to write the music, came to New York City from Ohio where he had been living; he was the only member of the company not connected to New York University. The play evolved, maintained actor Larry Pine, one of the original participants, because the band of friends and, save Rohmann, classmates, were simply frightened by the prospect of being drafted and sent to die in Vietnam. “There was lots and lots of dead people coming back and we were all scared shitless,” Pine said. They were all facing the ends of their student draft deferments, too: Pine, himself, had already been called for military service, as had Rohmann. “I was sitting in my hometown in Ohio waiting to be drafted,” Rohmann recalled. “I’d been drafted and I was appealing, and Steve [Wangh] called me up and said, ‘Come to New York and use whatever liberty time you’ve got left to good advantage.’” Their goal, according to Wangh, was to stimulate those who saw Brother to emulate their efforts with “similar things.” It was a frankly youthful impulse of personal commitment.

Like Man Is Man, a play which had come to have special meaning for Shapiro after he saw the Living Theatre’s 1962 production starring Shapiro’s friend (and later collaborator) Joseph Chaikin, Brother, You’re Next showed how a man could be turned into a fighting machine against his will, his personality manipulated at the whims of others--in Man, the soldiers of the detachment and in Brother, the draftee’s friends and family. It calls to mind the first part of Full Metal Jacket, the 1987 film directed and co-written by an inspiration of Shapiro’s, Stanley Kubrick. The film follows a group of Marine recruits through boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, where the drill instructor, a contemporary and perhaps more realistic rendering of Man Is Man’s Bloody Five and Brother’s Sergeant, abuses, brutalizes, and humiliates them into becoming mindless, soulless “killing machines.” In Brother, for instance, the Sergeant tells the Inductees that in the army, “We make all the decisions for you. You never have to think at all.” Later, in the song “Uncle Sam’s Grand Army,” the young soldiers are ordered, “Just leave your brains” at the induction center and that Uncle Sam will “cut out your heart and then throw it away” as the new soldiers will no longer need to think or feel. Symbolically, they, like Kubrick’s Marines, are encased in a “full metal jacket,” the hard copper casing that covers the soft lead slug of the 7.62-millimeter ammunition U.S. forces were issued for their M-16 rifles.

Like Brother and Man Is Man, Full Metal Jacket probes what turns people into killers as they are dehumanized by the system and posits that while the American establishment thought it was helping the Vietnamese cleanse their country of communism--“We gas, we torture, we napalm to civilize the Reds,” sing the soldiers in Brother, You’re Next in “War Is Fun”--it was actually contaminating its own populace by turning them into robotic murderers. When Michael, the young draftee in Brother, hesitates to shoot a defenseless woman, the Sergeant commands him, “Listen, soldier, in the Army you see with your ears as well as your eyes. I’m telling you that’s a Viet Cong guerrilla. Now kill it!” As Crazy Earl, one of the Marines of Full Metal Jacket, muses in the second part of the film when the unit is fighting in Southeast Asia: “These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we’re gonna miss not having anyone around that’s worth shooting.” This is not far from the lines Michael utters near the end of Brother, You’re Next while he is being celebrated for participating in a massacre of civilians that seems to predict the events at My Lai where a U.S. Army unit slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese women, children, and old men and then burned the hamlet. The returning hero asks wryly, “What did I do to deserve this praise? I only killed a few people, raped a few women, burned a few villages--nothing that any red-blooded American boy wouldn’t do if he had the chance.” (The massacre at My Lai happened in 1968, but the military kept the incident secret. The atrocity was revealed by the press in 1969.)

(The mirror image of the world of Full Metal Jacket is perhaps seen in Kubrick’s 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, a depiction of a world so dehumanized that its citizens are programmed to behave acceptably through Skinnerian conditioning. In this dystopia, Kubrick suggested, the sole outlet for actual human action is violence, since it is the only behavior a person remains free to select. Conditioned behavior, he said, is not truly human: “When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” Clockwork is Kubrick’s vision of a future in which Galy Gay and Michael, clothed in their own full metal jackets woven by military training and fitted by war, “rotate back to the world” with the attitude expressed by Crazy Earl. If 2001: A Space Odyssey is about machines becoming human, Clockwork is about humans becoming machines. The title phrase is a Cockney expression that describes something which appears normal on the surface but is artificial and unnatural beneath.)

Brother, You’re Next, whose script, Chris Rohmann recalled, had not been written down until after several improvised performances--though Wangh noted that the songs were set--was presented in unscheduled, unannounced outdoor performances around New York City starting in July 1967. Only one indoor presentation of Brother, at the Cooper Square Arts Theatre in the East Village, departed from this practice; all others, almost exclusively during the warm-weather months, were set up, presented, and struck while pedestrians gathered and watched. Wangh noted that the company avoided performing before anti-war rallies, though they were often invited to do so, because they “didn’t want to preach to the converted”; however, the Brother troupe did go to Washington and performed on the steps of the Pentagon during the demonstration there on 21 October 1967. Pine burned his draft card in front of the headquarters of the Department of Defense.

The group was also invited by Abbie Hoffman, the legendary anti-Vietnam revolutionary who was a leader of the Pentagon protest, to take the show to Woodstock in 1969, Christopher Rohmann recalled, but they decided they preferred working in the streets. The troupe, which numbered about 20, all of whom knew the script well enough so that as few as five could pick up at a moment’s notice and mount a performance by simply shuffling roles, made a “conscious decision” to go where they could perform for “ordinary people who didn’t see Washington Square type of street theater.” They frequently traveled to all the boroughs of New York City, often setting up in locations like the sidewalk in front of military recruiting stations, but regularly returned to perform in Washington Square Park, New York University’s unofficial campus quadrangle and a center of counterculture life in New York City. Rohmann remembered that some spectators, especially young men but some young women as well, reacted very strongly to the piece. Recognizing themselves or loved ones in the character of Michael, struggling with the notion of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, they would approach and thank the performers for helping them to understand some of their concerns and fears. Some told Rohmann that the play had helped them make decisions about their draft status and Wangh recalled that some men asked to be put in touch with organizations that did draft counseling. Shapiro remembered hearing about performances of Brother by other groups in Chicago and cities in California and Minnesota and requests by distant groups, Rohmann suspected, was the reason that the text was eventually written down.

Originally composed in the year Martin Luther King. Jr., led a march in New York against the war in Vietnam where nearly half a million U.S. soldiers were then fighting and some 50,000 protesters demonstrated against it at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Brother tells the tale of a draftee at first determined to escape military service--a plot device shared with the musical Hair, which opened Off-Broadway that same year--but who eventually learns that “war is so much fun” and readily participates in it “to help the boys back home who manufacture guns.” Perhaps Shapiro still had lodged in his mind the final lines, not dissimilar to those of Full Metal Jacket’s Crazy Earl or Brother’s Michael, from the Living Theatre’s Man Is Man which he had seen five years earlier:

For already I feel within me
The desire to dig my teeth
Into the throat of the enemy
The instinct to kill
Providers of families,
To carry out the orders of
The conquerers

History had converged with art during the years Shapiro and his co-creators were working on Brother, You’re Next. Around the time of the Cooper Square performances in January 1968, the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo had been captured in North Korean waters and the Tet offensive was underway in South Vietnam. By the end of 1968, when further performances of Brother were being planned or presented, both King and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated; “Red” Rudi Dutschke, the radical German student leader, had been shot in West Berlin; students and workers in Paris had engaged in a strike and those in Mexico City rose up in protest on the eve of the Olympic Games; the Prague Spring had collapsed under the weight of Soviet tanks; and Richard M. Nixon had been elected President of the United States. The next year saw both the Woodstock celebration, which Shapiro attended, and the disclosure of the My Lai massacre.

In a 1967 statement, the founders of the Theatre for Peace, who included Viveca Lindfors, Joe Chaikin, Eric Bentley, and Alvin Epstein, among others, averred that the project’s aim was to develop and stage theater pieces whose purpose was to end the Vietnam war. One of four pieces in various styles, Brother was part of a commitment “to a theater of propaganda in the best sense of the word.” These performances of Brother were the only ones formally “produced” by an outside organization or offered in an indoor space--and the only ones reviewed; a local critic astutely described it as “an event rather than a play . . . planned to take place almost spontaneously in the street or a park.” Directed by Wangh, Brother made use of direct contact between the performers and the audience; in the street performances, the actors played scenes among the spectators. At the start of the play, for instance, the actors watched the audience from the stage while preparing whipped-cream pies. The spectators were clearly expected to wonder if they were about to become the targets of a bombardment, and were surely relieved when they were not. As serious as their anti-war stance was, Shapiro and Wangh, like Brecht, were not above using farce and slapstick. “The play is funny and entertaining,” wrote two of the participants, “yet people have approached us after performances to tell us we had changed their thinking about the draft.” “Irresponsibility” and “lightheartedness,” Peter Brook observed, are necessary parts of this kind of theater and George Bernard Shaw argued that in the theater “the oftener you laugh the better, because by laughter only can you destroy evil without malice, and affirm good fellowship without mawkishness.”

Brother, as Shapiro acknowledged, was an agit-prop play but, crediting the performance’s reliance on theatrical effect rather than polemics, the West Side News, a neighborhood paper, declared that it provided a “sardonic, gung-ho quality which is almost ambiguous enough to speak to people who are not yet actively against the war.” In addition to playing among the spectators on the sidewalks of the city, the company engaged the audience in the progress of the plot, even to asking them to help torture one of the characters. “Our constant effort is to never allow the audience to dissociate itself from the action and the issues of the play,” wrote the creators. The troupe even allowed hecklers to become part of the performance text. At Cooper Square, Show Business, the theater trade weekly, judged that the “spirited” cast “held its own” with songs in the folk-rock protest vein, typical of the period, accompanied by a lone guitar and somewhat reflecting the style of Bob Dylan (who was Shapiro’s cousin).

Brother, You’re Next had music by Chris Rohmann and lyrics by Rohmann and Wangh. The cover page of the script bears the following annotation:

The authors and copyright holders hereby grant permission to perform BROTHER, YOU’RE NEXT royalty-free under the [condition that] no profit is to be made from such production . . . .

The creators explicitly intended the show to be produced in varying venues, for diverse audiences, and under changing circumstances. (An existing text shows elements of such changes: original references to “Lyndon” have been altered to reflect Nixon’s election in November 1968.) They expressly permitted alteration of the text and even the lyrics to suit the needs of the producing organization. This was all in conformance with the goals of the Theatre for Peace to create material to be disseminated to like-minded protest groups around the country and establish traveling troupes to carry its convictions to other cities and towns.

[As a sidelight, the cast of Brother, You’re Next became the kernel of a street troupe, the New York Free Theater, which performed anti-racist, anti-war, and social-protest songs and sketches all over the five boroughs of New York City from 1968 until the mid-1970s. Shapiro left New York for points west in the summer of 1969, spending two years leading the Appleseed Circus, a guerrilla-performance troupe in the area near Taos, New Mexico. (I’ve written some about this latter endeavor--“Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos)” and “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 5 August and 31 October 2009, respectively--and the New York Free Theater may be the subject of a future post on ROT.) Steven Wangh, who served for some years as the dramaturg of Moíses Kaufman’s Tectonic Theatre Project, is on the faculty of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and, as a project for one of his classes, assembled many of the surviving members of the Brother company and made a tape of a reconstructed performance (ca. 1991). Some of the cast also recalled their experiences with the street performances and I’ve quoted some of those remarks above.]

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