by Kirk Woodward
[Last 8 December, shortly before The Scottsboro Boys closed on Broadway, my friend Kirk Woodward, a frequent contributor to ROT, saw the play, the victim of mixed reception and the bad economy. Reaction to this play and its production were often confused (and confusing) and ranged from near adoration to abject rejection. Kirk, who’s response falls at the positive end of the spectrum, has analyzed the play and his reaction to it. I’m very pleased to share with ROT readers Kirk’s explanation of why he liked what he saw and what he made of it. ~Rick]
I don’t believe I’ve ever had as many people I respect tell me that I had to see a show, as occurred with The Scottsboro Boys, a musical with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb and book by David Thompson that opened on Broadway on October 31, 2010. People told me that the show was brilliant, a classic, magnificently well done, with an ending that remained in the mind long after it was over.
They were correct. When I saw The Scottsboro Boys I was overwhelmed by both its style and its content. Susan Stroman, who directed, brought a coherent, evocative, and powerful look and feel to the entire production, in the service of the theme of the show – the dismal race relations in the United States in the 1930s and later, and the transmission of the story of segregation from event to book to person until it exploded in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and beyond.
Briefly, the musical recounts – with historical accuracy, retold through vividly theatrical means – an incident in Alabama in 1931. A false accusation of rape made by two white women sent nine black train-hopping teenagers (who didn’t even know each other) to jail, to trial, to death sentences, and to a number of retrials, at each of which they were found guilty, despite a lack of physical evidence and the recanting of testimony by one of the accusing witnesses.
Through the entire incident, the musical dramatizes the dismal state of race relations in the United States as a whole in the first half of the twentieth century, the frequent bias at that time of the justice system against the poor and particularly against blacks, the rabid impact of segregation in the South, and the misuse of power by law enforcement personnel, in a picture powerfully presented in song and dance.
I left the show thinking intensely about my own attitudes and convictions about race, and in a larger sense about the way I treat other human beings. I also left the theater thinking about Bertolt Brecht (1896-1956), the German playwright and theoretician. Why did Scottsboro make me think about Brecht? For at least three reasons. The musical reminded me that:
Brecht wants audiences to observe, rather than to immerse themselves in, the story of the play.
In order to accomplish this goal, Brecht championed what he called Epic, as opposed to Dramatic, Theater. Brecht says that dramatic theater exists for the sake of its ending; audiences wait for the payoff, which Aristotle calls the “catharsis.” Both sex films and the kind of drama Brecht dislikes reach toward what both call a climax. Epic theater, on the other hand, is supposed to be as interesting in its separate parts as in the whole.
Brecht described his approach in a number of ways. One of the most interesting is that theater, he says, ought to resemble a sporting event – specifically he’s thinking of boxing. Audiences, he says, ought to assume the attitude of a stadium crowd, drinking and smoking and coolly watching what happens in the arena.
Brecht’s view is a tonic against sentimentality and drivel, but how practical is it? Sports audiences become enormously involved with home teams, school teams, and popular sports personalities. Joe Lewis inspired passionate feelings in his day. Millions of American men watch football more avidly, perhaps, than they would ever watch a play.
Brecht also suggests that an audience might take an objective stance when the elements of an art work act independently, rather than together. A famous contemporary example is the choreography of the late Merce Cunningham, whose dancers sometimes didn’t even rehearse with the music that accompanied them. The music, then, doesn’t add A to A, but B to A, or perhaps it doesn’t add anything at all, but merely exists at the same time. However, the degree to which this technique keeps the audience on its toes surely varies from piece to piece, and often an audience likely would not be aware of it at all.
Brecht expanded his techniques for encouraging an audience’s objectivity by such strategies as: the extensive use of a narrator, often a character who ironically comments on the action of the play; using signs to announce the content of scenes; interrupting plays with song; multimedia elements like projections and film; replacing tinted stage lights with bare white glare; leaving lighting instruments visible; minimal or suggestive set pieces; placing musicians on stage; and most importantly, an acting style that tries to report rather than to involve.
Many of these staging ideas can be seen in some form in The Scottsboro Boys. Some of the events of the play are narrated; signs like those in a vaudeville show announce the change of the years. Since the show is a musical, songs definitely interrupt the action. Projections are used; the lighting instruments are visible; the set is primarily a number of chairs arranged in various configurations; and the actors are narrators of the story, as well as participants in it.
A word frequently used to describe Brecht’s intentions is the German word Verfremdung, which doesn’t have an exact English equivalent (Brecht coined the word, actually) but is frequently translated as “alienation.” The term may indicate more of a distance between audience and play, and even more hostility, than Brecht really intended, and I only refer to it here because it’s a word that is routinely used in discussions of Brecht’s dramaturgy, not, I think, terribly helpfully.
However, there is no question that some of Scottsboro’s features disturbed members of its audience, or so I would judge from several conversations with people who did not approve of the show (although no one advised me not to see it). One genuinely controversial element in Scottsboro was its use of the minstrel show, a form of performance deeply associated with racism, a jarring association that forces the audience to observe the action rather than immersing itself in it. Another example was a particularly vivid dance about being executed in an electric chair. People I talked to who disliked the show uniformly cited these two examples.
But most remarkable, to my eyes at least, was the fact that the various staging devices in Scottsboro “worked” the way I believe Brecht would have wanted them to. I found myself both involved in the story of the accused men, and removed from it – thinking about race relations, justice and the fallible people who are responsible for maintaining it, and the government structures that contribute to justice or harm it.
The point is that I was thinking – which would cheer up Brecht no end. In talking with other audience members, I found that they felt the same way, even those who disliked the show.
The fact is that the American musical is the genre of theater that most uses the theatrical approaches that Brecht developed. We’re so used to musical comedy that we hardly even notice when a scene location is changed just by bringing a sign onstage, much less when an actor bursts into song. Brecht’s staging techniques have been assimilated by the mainstream commercial musical theater, clearly demonstrated by the success of Bob Fosse’s production of Pippin on Broadway in 1972, a musical that is practically a living textbook on Brecht’s theatrical techniques.
Today musicals frequently use projections and film; actors play musical instruments in some productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals, and sit on stage in Cabaret; directors stage scenes for ironic distancing.
Does the musical in general, then, represent the triumph of Brecht’s approach to theater? Not at all, for two reasons. First of all, Brecht intended for his theatrical techniques to keep the audience “distanced” from productions, to keep the audience, in effect, on the edge of its seats, startled and alert. But in a remarkably short time (Brecht died not sixty years ago), Brecht’s techniques have become clichés, and today they don’t surprise anybody.
Richard Kramer, the proprietor of this blog, illustrates how techniques do in fact become conventions through repeated use when he writes, “You can only use a tea-bag so many times, then it stops making tea and just makes tan water.” A “convention” – a stylization – in theater is first impenetrable; then fascinating; then old hat. That progression can take almost no time at all. Today’s daring cultural borrowing is almost literally tomorrow’s cliché.
So what looks like the triumph of Brecht’s ideas of staging is actually their defeat – they’ve become acceptable, and they’re no longer remarkable. (Scottsboro, I will claim, is an exception for important reasons.)
But there’s an even more fundamental reason that the musical does not represent the triumph of Brecht’s kind of theater:
Brecht wants plays to accomplish important social purposes.
Brecht insisted that any worthwhile art has to have a social – one could almost say a political or an economic – purpose. Brecht’s idea of just what social purposes the theater should serve is very specific. He was a communist, and proclaimed that theater should lay bare the oppressive structures of capitalist society and offer alternatives.
However, few Broadway-scale productions today use Brecht’s techniques for reasons other than for entertainment; their ability to alter the behavior of audiences is by definition nil, since they don’t attempt to alter behavior in the first place. And, ironically, there is close to universal agreement among the writers with whom I’m familiar that the plays of Brecht that come closest to his political and economic aims are his worst, and the ones that present the most contradictions and difficulties are his best.
However, the main point is that . . .
Brecht wants plays to effect change.
It’s worth considering whether theater itself can actually do anything much to change society. The theater once was a center of the world of entertainment and culture, but as Brecht was beginning to write and stage his plays, movies were elbowing theater out of its dominant position. Nowadays, to many people, theater is marginal and elitist.
But even if we grant supreme status to theater for the sake of argument, we still have to ask if it can get people to do much of anything. At certain times it does seem to have had some practical effect on the affairs of the world. The agitprop drama of the thirties (for example, Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets) may have encouraged the labor movement, and it confirmed sentiments that already existed among the Left. Ibsen’s later dramas, like A Doll’s House, do seem to have raised awareness of social issues, although they certainly were not his sole concerns. Henry Fielding’s plays in the first half of the eighteenth century in England threatened Robert Walpole’s ministry enough to lead to the creation of the Licensing Act of 1737, which instituted the censorship of the English stage. The Irish National Theater seems to have spiritually, if not practically, nourished the fight for independence against England, and in fact William Butler Yeats, who led and wrote for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, speculates:
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
although at this remove it’s hard to picture how his plays really had that effect.
On the other hand, Aristophanes’ attacks on Cleon and the Peloponnesian War seem to have affected neither the dictator nor the fighting; it’s possible that the biggest impact of his plays was to make it easier for the state to execute Socrates. Shaw lamented that his plays didn’t have any effect on the world at all. The satirist Tom Lehrer, quoting comedian Peter Cook, points out how those wild cabarets of the ‘30’s sure did stop that fellow Hitler!
How could the theater change people, then? First of all, people would have to be induced to see the production somehow. They would need to want to go; it would be pointless to force them. Then they would need to pay attention, and they would need to be open enough to be changed by the content of the play. All in all, that’s a big order, and by some standards, at least, Scottsboro didn’t meet them: it ran on Broadway for only forty-nine performances and closed on December 12, 2010, so at least by the standard of how many people came to see it, it failed by Broadway’s typical standard of measurement.
What was Scottsboro’s “natural” audience? I can think of two groups of people who could be expected to flock to the show: people with an interest in first-class theatrical work, and people with a serious interest in race relations. Considering those limitations, perhaps we should be glad the musical ran as long as it did.
Of course one kind of audience will always be roused to accept the point of view of a play, namely, the audience that already accepts what the play is saying. Brecht on occasion wrote for an explicitly Communist audience, and the irony is that those plays essentially confirm an audience’s preexisting opinions, and, as such, take advantage of an audience’s passive state. But although Brecht wrote a few such plays, for the most part he was after bigger game, namely, the audience that makes its own decisions.
What kind of change did Scottsboro make? It made a change in my heart, not because I was previously a virulent racist, but because it brought home to me more than ever before the terrible thing we do when we classify people as members of a group and then discriminate against them on that basis. Scottsboro also gave me an increased awareness of the brutally discriminatory nature of the United States until very recent years – an experience which we know has left scars everywhere. And it gave me new faith in the power of change, even when change may seem unlikely.
Would Brecht regard that as enough? Probably not, in one sense – racism still exists! The poor are still exploited! On the other hand, he might be pleased to see that his intentions were carried out in such an imaginative and creative way, even if not in the ways he’d envisioned, and that the results justified his ambitions – theater can get under our skins, stir us awake, and give us a new sense of purpose, if it’s done as well as Scottsboro was done.
In a way we’re back to the age-old question of whether art should instruct or entertain. An alternative to this hoary dilemma is that the purpose of drama is to fill our human need to be conscious of ourselves (whether by instructing or entertaining or some other means) – to present ourselves to ourselves, to observe ourselves in action. The result may teach, entertain, distract, amuse – whatever the case, it will increase our consciousness of ourselves.
[The Scottsboro Boys, which opened for previews at the Lyceum Theatre on 7 October 2010, ran from 31 October to 12 December on Broadway; it played 29 previews and 49 regular performances. After a series of workshops and readings at the Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre in 2008 and ’09, it began its stage life in New York City Off-Broadway with its world première at the Vineyard on East 15th Street with previews starting on 12 February 2010 and continued in a run that lasted from 10 March to 18 April. It received a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor (Brandon Victor Johnson); Outer Critic Award nominations for Outstanding New Score, Outstanding Director of a Musical (Susan Stroman), Outstanding Choreographer (Stroman), Outstanding Lighting Design (Kevin Adams), and Outstanding Actor in a Musical (Dixon); and Drama Desk Award nominations for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Actor in the Musical (Dixon), Outstanding Director of a Musical (Stroman), Outstanding Choreography (Stroman), Outstanding Music (John Kander and Fred Ebb), Outstanding Book of a Musical (David Thompson), Outstanding Orchestrations (Larry Hochman), Outstanding Sound Design in a Musical (Peter Hylenski). The Off-Broadway production won Lortel Awards for Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Choreographer (Stroman); the Outer Critics Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical (in a tie with Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson); and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics (Kander and Ebb). (There were numerous other nominations and awards as well.)
[Scottsboro was the last play on which John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman) collaborated as Ebb died on 11 September 2004, while the team was still working on the script. Susan Stroman (The Producers, Contact) first met with David Thompson (Steel Pier), Kander, and Ebb in 2002 to "research the famous American trials." When they read about the notorious Scottsboro Boys case, the team decided it was "a story that needed to be told." The work was put on hold after Ebb died but in 2008, Kander reapproached Stroman and Thompson, and they picked up the project again with Kander writing the lyrics Ebb had been unable to complete. After the Off-Broadway production in New York City, Scottsboro Boys moved to Minneapolis and ran at the Guthrie Theatre; previews there began on 31 July 2010 and had an official run from 6 August to 25 September. Since the precipitous closing at the Lyceum, a revival on Broadway has been rumored (for Spring 2011) in addition to a national tour. There is also talk in Hollywood of possible musical film of Scottsboro Boys. The original cast ablum was released by Jay Records on 23 April 2010.]