POWER AND AUTHORITY—WHO GOT THE JUICE?
I love history. History has been one of my greatest passions ever since I was very young. Taking History of Theatre Part One and Part Two has been the only reliable and constant source of real joy for me during what has been a difficult year. No matter how badly my day or week has gone, the second I walk into a History of Theatre I sigh with relief because I know that for fifty minutes I am going to be happy, intellectually stimulated, learn something new and useful, and most importantly: I’ll be able to relax, which is something that I find very, very hard to do.
The most important thing that I will be taking away with me from this course is the importance of studying the history and specifically the culture implication of any art form like theatre. History is a story in both name and function: the life of every man has a dramatic narrative wherein the ultimate conflict is always death. In the arch of life it is what is in between that reads like a dramatic narrative. Personally, I find that a lot of the time the story of real life is more fascinating than fiction, even when it doesn’t make sense quite in the same way that fiction must. Sometimes though, real life makes perfect sense as if it truly were fiction. Whether or not life imitates art or vice versa, the best thing that I have learned in this course is that to study the history of theatre is to study culture and society.
Art—theatre in this specific case—is a historical account. A playwright sees the culture and society that they exist in and they create a dramatized account of what they see. This has been the M.O. of playwrights since the beginning of theatre and drama in Ancient Greece. Last semester, what was most interesting to me was the idea that if a playwright wants to discuss a touchy current event—like the Greek Playwrights in Athens during the Peloponnesian War—they write a play set in the past. When I studied TV Production at Emerson College, I understood this artistic choice but I did not know how common it was. I knew that the TV show MASH was on during the Vietnam War but was deliberately set a generation earlier during the Korean War, in order to comment on the War without directly speaking about it. I did not realize until last semester in History of Theatre Part One that this was a very common practice. From Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, this has always been a brilliant way to directly comment on whatever is going on in society in a way that keeps the playwright’s hands clean of making a specific hot take on current events. In this way, the playwright opens the floor to discussion of current events (like the Red Scare) via historical allusion and symbolism (like The Crucible) and thus invites everybody in on the conversation by giving the audience or readers a proxy by which to discuss current events. Even when a playwright wants to comment on what is going on in their own time, they don’t necessarily need to use historical allusion to make a powerful statement on the cultural zeitgeist. I argue that every dramatic work and every piece of art created is a first hand historical account—regardless of topic. What always interests me is the historical context of any dramatic or artistic work. I think that it is very important to find the significance of the historical context in which a dramatic or artistic work was created. What I have enjoyed most in this course is studying the way in which the history theatre tells us so much about the history of different cultures and societies. For example, I learned quite a bit about English History last semester; specifically English history from the Post-War of the Rose/Tudor/Elizabethan Era to the Reformation. Even though I’ve spent years studying English history and specifically that time period, I felt as though I understood why things happened in England at that time much better than I did before I read Marlowe and Aphra Behn. One could easily study the history of English Society and Culture from this time period by reading Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, and Aphra Behn because all of their works are all first hand accounts written while living in that place at that time.
We ended this semester in Modern Day America. Reading American playwrights is fascinating because America is still a young country. America is still the New World. If American Theatre truly comes into its own identity with the works of Eugene O’Neil, then that is to say that the tradition of what is identifiably American Theatre is less than a century old. But oh, what I’ve learned from this semester is that the tradition may be young, but it is rich. My fascination has been captured by these American plays and how I personally relate to them. Reading these plays, from The Crucible to In the Blood, has made me think about my own personal American Experience as a young man descended from those who founded this nation. I love this country and I am proud to not only be an American, but to also have roots that go all the way back to when the New World was discovered. That being said, there has always been something that has bothered me about America. I neither overly criticize nor blindly praise America and I am careful to walk that line but something has always effected me negatively when I look outside my window and take a real good, stone-cold sober look at America. We’ve got problems in this country but my uneasiness goes beyond that and until now I have not been able to put my finger on what specifically upsets me about America.
BLACK, WHITE, AND BRECHT
What is the American Dream? Ever since learning about Bertolt Brecht, I cannot stop seeing things through these new lenses that I have cleverly termed, “My Brechtacles.” Time and time again, I look at what is familiar to me and it appears strange. Since Brecht, the Verfremdungseffekt keeps slapping me right in the face out of absolutely nowhere. I saw a basketball game a few weeks ago and realized I was watching ten millionaires play a game that I myself love to play. Millionaires. Playing a game. I got Brecht wrecked when I realized I was watching these rich guys work. Millions of people all over the world, like myself, were actively engaged in seeing these rich guys throw a ball around. And we were all loving it! In realizing that I was literally watching millionaires at work I was stunned. It didn’t stop me from enjoying the game though. I had a good giggle about it in fact, but it sparked this new way that I started to think about America. I realized something I’d already known as the truth. It was all about the payday in America. That’s the American Dream and thus inseparably, the American Identity: The American Dream is to make as much money as possible in order to become an American in the eyes of other Americans and most importantly, those in power in America. Achieving The American Dream is the advancement of one’s social status via economic gain and thereby one may hope to progress all the way to the top of our system and once there be allowed to hold power and authority. Unlike any other nation in the world, in America, anybody from anywhere can become an American. We are the immigrant nation. Unlike in other nations, in America one can rise above the lowest social station and make it all the way to the top. Only in America can a man with nothing become as great as his ambitions and hard work allow. All of this is how this humble Fine Arts Correspondent has come up with defining the American Dream. In the simplest terms, the American Dream is to come to this land of opportunity and rise above your social status whether that means working hard so that your children’s’ lives as second generation Americans is better than your own or coming from a workless slum in Galloway or Qingdao and literally or figuratively striking gold and making it filthy, stinking rich. Anyone can get rich in America.
That’s what brought over so many immigrants in the first place. My family came here in the early 1600’s in order to make bank and live free or die trying. Back then—as we would like to believe now—the New World held endless possibilities for everyman willing to work for his place in the sun. Upon further review, that is a lie. The American Dream is not for everyone. White America has made The American Dream a deliberately unachievable goal for Black Americans.
This is the conclusion I have come to by analyzing American Society based on the plays we have read this semester. I have come to see America through a Marxist and Brechtian lens. The American narrative is one of Conflict Theory. This is evidenced by the dramatization of American reality by American playwrights from Eugene O’Neil to Suzan-Lori Parks. In analyzing American culture and society by both reading dramatic American works and looking at my own reality through a Brechtian perspective (Brechtacles!) I have come to the mortifying and uneasy conclusion that the American Dream is being and has been purposefully out of reach for Black Americans.
The way Brecht has affected my thinking about America is directly connected to the way in which I have read American plays. First of all, in reading The Crucible, I wondered about what in it Brecht himself would pick up and comment on. I read The Crucible with an eye out for some Conflict Theory; some economically motivated dramatic conflict. The main conflict is about the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Here, Arthur Miller writes about his experiences with the HUAC Trials going on in America in the early 1950’s by artfully using the Salem Witch Trials as an allusion to make comparisons between the mass hysteria that gripped the country both then and in the 1950’s. Today in our everyday lexicon we use the phrase “witch trial” to describe an aggressively unfair and unfounded hunt for imaginary enemies. However, as a history enthusiast, my question was, “why did this happen the way it did?” I was on the lookout for what caused these witch trials in The Crucible to get so out of hand. With my Brechtacles on, it was easy: the only reason Abigail’s sick love game gets out of control is because there is something to be gained economically by exploiting the situation that presents itself out of nowhere and out of nothing. If there were nothing to be gained economically from trying witches in Salem, this horror story of burning and hanging innocent people would not have happened. The rivalry between Putnam and Corey is evidence of this: Putnam wants Giles Corey to be found a witch and sentenced to death so that he can buy up his land. Even Rev. Parris is economically motivated. In the first scene he’s whining to anyone who will listen about how he isn’t paid nearly enough to keep his damn house warm. Proctor even points out that he’s a greedy bastard with his golden candlesticks proudly displayed on his alter. Parris is attempting a power move: if he can save Salem, maybe he’ll get that raise he feels he deserves! I know that Arthur Miller was probably not as focused as Brecht would be on the conflicts that rise from the economic exploitation of the situation, but they are prevalent nonetheless. If a situation as ridiculous as a bunch of teenaged girls calling people witches and dancing can be exploited for economic gain, then you can be sure people will try as hard as they possible to squeeze every penny they can out of it. There is money to be made even in a state of chaos and mass hysteria—and perhaps especially in a state of chaos and mass hysteria.
The point I’m trying to make in referencing my Brechtian take on The Crucible is to bolster my argument about what role monetary gain has always played in America. It may not be center stage, but that money is motivating all of the action. This play may not have been written by Puritans, but Miller did his research. The man was brilliant. He was an intellectual giant and I am sure he was aware that he was making a comment on economic exploitation by writing in the beef between Corey and Putnam. They spend a lot of time talking about that land—that’s not in there by mistake. In America, it is all about money because money means power and authority in this country.
THE VOICE OF THE EVER POWERLESS
What does it sound like? The voice of those without power? Without authority? What does the voice of the disenfranchised sound like? What is its timbre? What is its quality? How is it made? And most importantly, how does it make itself heard? How do those without power make themselves heard by those with the power? I tell you this: that voice in America, it’s got something of a Brechtian ring to it.
I propose two things: 1. That the voice of the powerless in America is inherently Brechtian (whether listened to or not) and 2. That it is when the voice of the powerless sounds its most Brechtian, then it is heard and listened to by those in power. Before I go into it though, I want to preface this all by saying that the voice right now writing this essay, the voice of your humble Fine Arts Correspondent: Ted Esten, is the voice of a very white man whose heritage is one half witch-burning, Buckle-hatted nonsense and another half Bogtrotting Braggadocio—terrifying as this may be, this is the voice of one of those in power. I am White America. As well educated, well read, sophisticated, and trying to be as conscientious as I can possibly be, I am still White America. So this is what I hear and this is what I see. (As an aside, I would say the best way to describe my socio-economic status would be “Literati” from the Ancient Chinese class system Pre-Ming Dynasty).
My first proposal was that the voice of those without the power in America are inherently Brechtian. First, I’ll explain what I mean by, “Brechtian”: what I mean when I use Brechtian as an adjective is simply to imply a connection to Bertolt Brecht’s dramatic style and his political and dramatic ideas, ideologies, and agenda. What I mean when I’m not describing a work of art as “Brechtian,” I’m trying to say that that thing has a connection with Marxist Conflict theory and Brecht’s Anti-Capitalist Agenda and thus could easily be portrayed or dramatized in the style of Bertolt Brecht.
The voice of those without power in America—those without power in this context being Black Americans—has an inherently Brechtian nature when you look at American history. Until 1863, black people in America were not human beings; they were property. By 1863 when Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation, Africans had been brought to this country as slaves for more than three hundred years. Three hundred years. Black people had been in America just as long as white people. But only after three hundred years were they officially all legally considered human beings rather than property. In America, because slavery was a racial thing, we have this combined problem of racism mixed with socio-economic inequality. Racism in America is directly connected to economics because for three hundred years we saw black people as an economic commodity—not human but property to be bought, sold, or possessed. It is not just in our national subconscious but it is also in our Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson finished the Declaration of Independence with a phrase that he stole and then modified from John Locke’s Treatise on Government. In the Declaration of Independence, it is stated that the role our government shall play is the protector of our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. This is what it says on paper in America, however the original phrase that John Locke used was, “life, liberty, and property.” That word “property” was dropped and changed by Jefferson to, “pursuit of happiness.” This idea of both “property” and “happiness” being one in the same is a big part of our American Identity. The idea that black people were at one point in our history considered to be property is stuck in our National subconscious. For three hundred years, black people were not people. Black people were property. There used to be a dollar value on a black man’s life—and it’s that dollar value that is what so sadly began the African American historical narrative.
The African American historical narrative—as a disenfranchised part of our population—is directly connected to the important role of economics in the American Narrative and Identity. The historical narrative of African Americans is extremely Brechtian.
My second point I wanted to make was that I believe that the voice of the powerless that is most often listened to by those with power is the voice that is the most Brechtian. Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, to this day are the best selling Rappers and Hip-hop Artists of all time. Both of them are considered the greatest rappers of all time. To this day, people fight about whether Tupac or Biggie is the greatest rapper of all time. I’ve literally spent a full year of my life in my spare time actively investigating this nationally polarizing question. Tupac or Biggie?? WHO YA GOT?! I have come to this conclusion: the wrong question is being asked because you cannot compare the two. (At this time, ladies and gentlemen, put on your Brechtacles and buckle up!) Both of the men are poets first and foremost, they are artists, you have to understand them as artists in the purest sense in order to fully analyze their very different talents. Tupac was a politically motivated poet writing about social injustice who found a medium where he could reach the most listeners and became a very talented rapper because of his passion, which came from telling his own story and talking about his own experience. So the way I think about Tupac is that he is one of the greatest American Poets of all time and I personally think that the way he captured his experience as an American, in a voice that was truly American, in a way that more people can relate to more than any other American poet’s work. There is a Brechtian quality to Tupac’s work in that his themes are all about social and racial injustice and meant to incite people to do something and change society. However, the thing is, is that Tupac told his own story. Tupac Amaru Shakur was his real name. Tupac did not actively try to put on a Brechtian performance; rather he tried to articulate himself and be as true as possible.
Biggie Smalls, on the other hand, I believe to be the greatest rapper because he had a natural talent for rapping and that was how he got his start in hip-hop. Biggie’s real name was Christopher Wallace from Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. His mother Valetta Wallace was a Jamaican immigrant and worked as a schoolteacher. I would contend that Biggie is the most Brechtian musician of all time. Christopher Wallace was just this goofy fat kid who used to hang out on the corner and other kids would ask him to rap for them and do freestyles because he was a naturally gifted rapper. He used to only rap for the other kids if they bought him food. He’d also charge neighborhood kids who would pay him to play the Sega Genesis video game that his mom got him one Christmas. However, once he grew up, he took on a whole new stage persona: The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls. His first album—and only album released while he was alive—was called “Ready to Die” and on the album cover was a photograph of a black baby against an all white silkscreen background. The album was very much like a concept album—not unlike Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars a la David Bowie. The album started out with a skit in which Biggie Smalls is released from jail and there follows this narrative about his life as the crack slingin’, gat-packin’, gansta, The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls. It’s just like Mackie Messer!!! Biggie created a character and told his character’s story, which was all about his struggles as a poor, inner-city, black man in America (which Biggie had experienced in his real life) and how he dealt drugs and shot people up all the time and was in and out of jail in between short, volatile stints on parole. Biggie never shot anybody. I don’t even think he had a gun—or at least never walked around with it on his person very often. Biggie’s musical genius and artistic brilliance is in the pure Brechtian nature of his work. And more importantly, the way Biggie invested in his stage persona changed hip-hop—Biggie had the highest grossing posthumously released album of all time, which was called, “Life After Death.”
After Tupac and Biggie were murdered (at ages 25 and 24 respectively), there was a void in hip-hop the same way there was in rock and roll when The Beatles broke up. The direction that everything moved in was in Biggie’s direction. Many new rappers copied Biggie’s style: they created a stage persona and exaggerated and dramatized living a certain type of life style. Even Tupac and Biggies contemporaries like Jay-Z, Diddy, and Dr. Dre went out and backed new artists that fell into the Biggie/Brecht performance style of hip-hop. This was what made the money and now all three men (Diddy, Jay-Z, and Dr. Dre) are in Forbes Magazine because they’re three of the most successful businessmen in the world. And anybody who knows anything about hip-hop knows that the money comes in once you’ve got the white kids listening.
The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls is a character that could easily be written into Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood. The true Brechtian nature of In the Blood was what caught my attention to this connection between African American Art and Brechtian Dramatic Themes especially regarding African American Art that white people enjoy and actively seek out. Brechtian Dramatization of reality is what gets white America’s attention. The voice of black America, when it comes through art, much of the time addresses socio-economic and racial problems in America. When white America does listen and pay attention, it is most often to the work that has something very Brechtian in its nature. It really is the story telling that white America seems to be attracted to and that’s why we like rappers so much. They let us in on their stage persona’s lives. They break the fourth wall all the time. They love their fans and let them know it. They have these awesome stories to tell, which are usually exaggerated dramatizations of real life. In the Blood is a much more captivating story because Parks takes a street scene we see everyday and brings it to life. However, I think that where African American Art peels off from Brecht, takes a complete turn, and does something even more interesting is where the Verfremdungseffekt is considered.
Although the familiar does appear strange to us in the role switching in In the Blood, what I actually think a lot of African American Art does instead is it makes an effort to make the unfamiliar become personal. I call this the answer to the Verfremdungseffekt: this is, “Der Wiedererkennungseffekt,” or, “the familiarization effect.”
Take Biggie Smalls and In the Blood and put them both on a Brechtian checklist: they both have storyteller performance qualities, they both address socio-economic and racial injustice, and they both appeal to the audience to right the wrongs in society. In spite of all of this though, the goal is to not appeal to the audience’s pathos by using the Verfremdungseffekt, but rather by using Der Wiedererkennungseffekt. Black artists’ goal a lot of the time is just to be understood. To make sense of their American Experience using an artistic medium. What it is like to be black and American is an extremely difficult thing for white people to understand. It is through Art that white people can come closest to empathizing and understanding. Black American artists don’t try to appeal to white people, it just so happens that white people enjoy black American’s work when it has these types of qualities I’m talking about in them. The familiarization that white America feels when a story is being told—even if it is dramatized or even complete fiction like In the Blood—is the voice of the powerless being heard by those with the power. The effort to make familiar is very evident in In the Blood in the referencing of Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter. An American Dramatist is referencing another well-known American author’s famous work in a creative, brilliant, and powerfully moving way.
The true racism that keeps black Americans from achieving the American Dream is the subtle, subliminal, subconscious racism. The type of racism I’m talking about is the one that keeps a lot of people from thinking about Hip-Hop as music and a legitimate form of art. People don’t talk about Hip-Hop the way they talk about other music. It’s dangerous. It’s bad. It isn’t music. Rap isn’t singing—it’s not a talent. It’s that kind of racism that is keeping black America under white America’s heel. But paradoxically, hip-hop has been vastly outselling all other types of music pretty consistently for the last 25 years. It is a great Marxist irony that it is the poorest, most disenfranchised, portion of the population generates an insane amount of money and makes many people rich in every industry in this country and I’m not just talking about entertainment. But the greatest tragedy in America is found in the all too common refrain repeated by so many rappers since Tupac and Biggie blew up hip-hop, “Even if you’re rich, you’re still a nigger.” This is a raw way to put it, but it is the sad truth that that’s the way it is in America. Successful hip-hop artists put it that way, I put it that white America won’t let black Americans achieve the American Dream—no matter how much money one might earn from hard work.
In Fences, I couldn’t help but think that the character Troy was a man who struggled trying to make a living in America the Booker T. Washington way: social equality via economic equality. Washington said, “Cast down your buckets where you stand,” at the Atlanta Compromise. Troy tried to do things the Booker T. Washington way and tried to force his ideas on his son by telling him to forget college and football and go keep your job and find a trade so you’ll always have work. Labor may create all wealth, but it does not create equality. I don’t know whether or not August Wilson wanted to comment on the casting down of one’s bucket, but I certainly thought a lot about it when I read Fences. The way I read it was that the tragedy of Troy was the tragedy of doing things the Booker T. Washington way. I think that Troy represents the failure of the Atlanta Compromise. And when I thought about that, I thought about another piece that was not a subtle criticism but a work that completely proved that Booker T. Washington was wrong: Kanye West’s 2013 album, “Yeezus.”
Yeezus is a fascinating album. You can tell if someone’s an idiot by how they feel about Yeezus. If somebody doesn’t like Yeezus, or respect it as a piece of musical and artistic genius, they’re a complete idiot. Kanye West fused hip-hop with Neo-Classical musical conventions and made a concept album that was a parody of a minstrel show that threw the Verfremdungseffekt in everybody’s face. Yeezus, or as I like to call it, “Yeezus Christ Superstar,” is something of a Brechtian concept album. It is an indictment of white America’s withholding of the American Dream from black Americans. Kanye performs the entire album like it’s a minstrel show—but a different type of minstrel show in which the black character is rich. What he did with Yeezus was he portrayed the way white people see rich black people. And in a very Brechtian manner, he remains critical and hyper self aware while telling this minstrel show character’s story: even though his lyrics are crude and crass they are so clever and well crafted that they are hilarious on a very highly intellectual level. And it’s all rapped over this post-modern neo-classical music that Kanye composed and produced himself that just puts Stravinsky and Phillip Glass to absolute shame. Kanye has mastered what I find to be Stravinsky’s neo-classical, unlistenable, dissonant, irritating, headache-style and made it absolutely rock. The album’s hit. It came out two years ago and people still talk about it. People still fight about it. But as amazing of a triumph as it is both artistically and in its cultural criticisms, it is a sad demarcation of time that reminds us that we have a long way to go before our race problem in America is solved.
Kanye West and Troy proved Booker T. Washington wrong: no matter how hard you work or how much money you make, white America will never let you anywhere near the power. The dream. No matter what, white America will not let black Americans have a shot at the American Dream.
A few weeks ago, a well-known professional basketball player named Thabo Sefolosha was beaten so badly by the NYPD that they broke his leg. Imagine Bertolt Brecht seeing that headline: Millionaire Beaten in New York City By Police—Cops break his leg. A millionaire! To think, in New York of all cities, in America of all countries, a millionaire is beaten until his leg is broken by the police. A millionaire! But it was because he was black. It didn’t matter that Sefolosha was rich and famous. It didn’t matter that he’s actually from Switzerland. He’s black and he was in a situation where the police felt they could get away with excessive force. I think Brecht would have a cringe at that. The Verfremdungseffekt in action: the police don’t beat a poor person in a bad neighborhood—they beat a world famous basketball star who’s extremely wealthy in Midtown Manhattan. If he read that headline or heard that story, I think Brecht would make a kind of small, morbid joke about being a bit relieved and less concerned about our greed and disgusting love of money getting in the way of justice in America.