The Courage of Their Convictions

Photo: Michal Daniel

Considering the stature of the play, the talent of its leading lady, and the prominence of the stage, Meryl Streep’s Mother Courage in Central Park may be the greatest piece of miscasting you’ll ever have the good fortune to see. Bertolt Brecht’s famous character drags a wagon full of wares across the battlefields of Europe, vainly struggling to get her children through the Thirty Years’ War alive. And here is Streep, shouting and singing, tearing around the Delacorte in a soldier’s cap and battered skirt, unassailably the greatest actress of her generation. She has to be, to take on a canonical role that fits her so imperfectly and still deliver a performance that lands so well.

The issue isn’t a lack of ability, God knows. Often called the female King Lear, Mother Courage demands everything of an actress—physical and vocal prowess, dramatic and comic expertise—and at the darkest moments of Brecht’s play, Streep does a couple of things I’m sure I’ll never forget. Her problem, if you can call it that, is a natural radiance, some eerie luminosity that’s been with her from the beginning; she remains the best living proof that stars are lit from within. The roles that have always seemed like the biggest reach for her are the downtrodden, hardscrabble, rough-and-tumble types. Alas, Mother Courage, the war-ravaged “hyena of the battlefield,” may be the most rough-and-tumble woman in all of drama.

It’s not an easy role to play, nor an easy play to stage. But in spite of the difficulties, the production around Streep develops an unsettling power. Two days after seeing the show, I find it resonating more and more. To some extent, that’s the hum you get from any encounter with a play as great as Brecht’s. Written in 1939, while he was in exile from the Nazis, the work uses Courage and her doomed children to show how war turns positive virtues into fatal liabilities, and ensures that the safest life is an amoral, self-serving one. Crucially, it also contradicts itself: Despite the depredations of war, Courage and others love it, and declare that in peacetime, the injustices would be even worse.

Yet the play’s appeal also owes something to the way the Public Theater treats it. To an extraordinary degree, the show is the product of overlapping relationships that date back 10, 20, 30 years. Call it the Public/Angels Entente, a group of artists who have worked in and around Joe Papp’s theater and were responsible for the great public-minded play of their generation, Angels in America. They are dedicated to the idea of a political theater with wide popular appeal and have reached the stages in their various careers where they can put such shows before an audience. At least, they can try.

You can see this impulse at work in director George C. Wolfe’s approach to the play. Set in an unspecific time, his production adopts the familiar trappings of Brechtian drama, devices that call attention to the show’s artifice: Song titles are projected on a beam overhead; scenes are announced with the same flat delivery whether Courage is about to lose a child or part with four shirts. Everything’s done in weathered wood, including the revolving platform at center stage. Then, over and around Riccardo Hernández’s set, Wolfe starts laying on the showbiz.

A bombed-out building at the back of the stage bursts into flames, a whole squad of troops—for the second time on this stage this summer—slump melodramatically to their deaths, and from time to time, loud cannon fire explodes to one side; the people at the Beresford cannot be happy about this. Mostly the spectacle helps. The machinery that whirls onstage whenever the platform starts to spin adds to the grim, dehumanizing vibe. But when Wolfe sends a Jeep clattering into view or gives the last death in the show an extra touch of stage magic, he only detracts from the heartbreak.

In interviews, Tony Kushner, who provided a new translation for the show, has said he wanted to restore the colloquial power of Brecht’s original, to find a way to engage a modern American audience. Step one, apparently, is swearing. Far more than earlier translations by Eric Bentley, Ralph Manheim, or David Hare, Kushner’s script is laced with profanity. This is soldierly dialogue for a war play as Mamet might have written it, where the F-bombs drop like, well, bombs.

Kushner has added some jokes to Brecht’s script, pretty good ones. “I’m not broke,” says the Cook (Kevin Kline), Mother Courage’s lecherous sometime companion. “I’m between money.” Kline got a solid laugh with that line on Saturday night, then had some trouble. Try reading this out loud: “They give me roots and boots for the soup pot then they throw the consequences piping hot in my face.” Possibly you got tongue-tied on Kushner’s rhymes, roots/boots/soup and pot/hot. On Saturday night, Kline sure did.

Starchy passages like these dot the script, and Kushner’s rendering of the key lyric of Mother Courage’s theme song, “Let Christian souls crawl out of bed, pull on their socks and conquer death,” sounds oddly life-affirming. But Kushner ably connects the political concerns of Brecht’s original with the pressing issues of the day. Brecht may not have mentioned that the Swedish king offered “tax exemptions” to the rich when paying for his army, but he did write that the king thinks God wants him to fight, that the people who have been liberated in battle seem not to want their freedom, and that God approves of soldiers who die in a holy war. Unfortunately, the play really is as timely as it seems.

Of course, it’s not the prospect of seeing unforgiving German drama that has people camping out for tickets. However equivocal the result, Streep in Mother Courage represents a genuine episode in New York stage history. In the past, she has shown a knack for rising to these occasions. Recently, I was lucky to see a video of The Taming of the Shrew that she and Raul Julia performed on the Delacorte’s stage in 1978. Even on tape, she’s breathtaking. Her playfulness, desire, and animosity were vivid and direct, and Julia gave as good as he got: On every line, they might have kissed or killed each other. Five years ago, when Streep made her long-awaited return to the Delacorte opposite Kline in The Seagull, she showed the same sure-footed poise, turning a cartwheel just because she could.

Compared to the physical virtuosity she showed in those roles, her apparent discomfort here is a surprise. As she browbeats her children, wheedles the soldiers, and puts up with the affections of the Chaplain (Austin Pendleton), Streep often bounces on the balls of her feet, flutters her fingers, and punctuates her sentences with a self-affirming, unscripted “Yeah.” If she made a conscious choice to play Courage this jittery, it wasn’t wise; the accreted gestures look like what the dance writers call steppiness. In fact, they look like evidence of an actor straining to inhabit an ill-fitting role.

But this is only, so to speak, the light work; when things get really serious for Mother Courage, the old Meryl magic appears. Jeanine Tesori’s music calls for strong, athletic singing, and Streep makes the best use of her lovely voice in years, particularly in the “Song of the Great Capitulation,” about her lost youthful ideals. When soldiers present the body of her son, and Courage’s survival depends on her not reacting, Streep doesn’t do the silent scream that Helene Weigel made famous in the role 50 years ago (and that Streep used at the climax of Sophie’s Choice). She mutely shakes her head, jerking it from side to side while wearing an expression of terrible, wide-eyed sorrow. That is a look you remember.

Streep’s co-star Kevin Kline knows something about historical encounters with the great roles himself. He doesn’t have all that much to do as the Cook, but he makes the most of his chances. Late in the evening, while announcing the scene in which the Cook will leave Courage and her daughter, he applies new makeup, darkening the shadows under his cheekbones and around his eyes, making himself more gaunt even as he talks to us. As the scene begins, Wolfe has called for snow to start falling. Remember: This is an outdoor theater. With a light rain coming down and plenty of breeze in the park that night, the snow started blowing into our faces. Some combination of Brecht’s bold theatricality, Wolfe’s stagecraft, Kline’s forceful delivery of “The Song of Solomon,” and the weird weather created, however briefly, a kind of alternate reality in the gray light of the Delacorte. Never in my experience has the line between the world of a play and the world of the audience grown more blurred. When I think back on the play, I remember feeling the cold and gloom of Mother Courage’s world, even though it was a warm night in August.

There’s something exciting about a work of political theater that leaves you not just with intellectual stimulation but a mildly transcendent experience. This also makes it the most satisfying of the “triptych” of war plays that have been produced this year by Oskar Eustis, who, as dramaturge of Angels and now artistic director of the Public, is the central figure of this little Entente. In hindsight, David Hare’s Stuff Happens seemed exceptionally well intentioned but out of date, and misguided in its analysis of how the Iraq fiasco went down. The second play, Macbeth in Central Park, had some relevance, but not because of the war stuff; it seemed far more urgent because of Shakespeare’s portrait of a nation burdened by a terrible leader, as when one noble asks a blessing on “this our suffering country / under a hand accursed.” But Mother Courage, a serious indictment of war and social injustice that also happens to be playing to packed houses, gets enough things right to be genuinely provocative. Can we today find real political theater in New York? Sure, and good luck getting a ticket.

The Courage of Their Convictions