Sunday, August 1, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Listening" (on Brewsie and Willie)

By Douglas Messerli
Gertrude Stein Brewsie and Willie (New York: Random House, 1946)

Gertrude Stein, adapted by Marissa Chibas, Erik Ehn, and Travis Preston Brewsie and Willie / performed at the 7th Floor Penthouse (533 S. Los Angeles Street), Los Angeles / the performance I saw was on Saturday, July 24, 2010

Published in 1946, just weeks prior to Stein’s death, Brewsie and Willie began as a series of essays, published in the New York Times, expressing the feelings and worries of young soldiers still in Europe. Stein’s observations were based on her own conversations with American G.I.s, with whom she had spoken on the street and at dinners in her own home to which she had invited numerous of them.

While the work is dominated by the thinking and commentary of Brewsie, egged on by the most obstinately ordinary of the group, Willie, this dialogue fiction eventually becomes filled with the voices of numerous young soldiers—Jo, Henry, Donald Paul, Ed, Jimmie, Richard, and, through Willie’s constant evocation of him, even the dead Brock—and military nurses—Janet, Pauline, and Jane.

In Stein’s original these men and women discuss everything, although often just in passing, from issues of race, cultural identity, immigration, history, economics, politics, and, in particular, their own uncertain future. Stein’s skillful interweaving of these various subjects is both humorous and powerfully moving, as one by one—some of the soldiers clearly having never spoken of these issues before—they reveal their minds, tell stories, and share their family lives and upbringing.

It is the complex matrix of these issues which allows this seemingly transparent work—a work which Stein enthusiasts and scholars might describe as too accessible in relation to her more experimental writing—to become a poetic chorus of fearful and thoughtful voices that links this to her most challenging work.

Although I might have liked to have the adapters tackle as many of these issues as possible, Chibas, Ehn, and director-author Preston skillfully and faithfully focus on issues economic and historical while suggesting the numerous other topics the original tackles. Indeed this performance was so excellent that any qualms I might have had in the adaptation of Stein are allayed by the powerful evocation of the young soldiers on the eve of their “redeployment,” a word most of them find meaningless, if not terrifying.

The youthful cast of the Poor Dog Group, most of whom are just two or three years out of the theatre program at CalArts, are precisely the age of Stein’s young Americans, and their fresh faces and simple beauty—as the men, sweating in the summer heat, briefly strip off their shirts to cool off, some of them having jumped in and out the windows of the top floor playhouse, literally unable to control their energy and, as we quickly discover, their worries—almost brings one to tears.

Having all faced two world wars back to back, and having lived through part of the Great Depression, these men of what Tom Brokaw has described as “The Greatest Generation” are terrified that upon their return there will be no jobs or, if there are jobs, the economy will be built up once more to again collapse. An early conversation between Brewise and Willie summarizes the situation as they envision it:

B: How I hate that word job.
W: You’re right to hate that word, hate it good and plenty, but can you afford to hate it Brewsie, fellows like you dont need a job you just live, eveybody’s got to see to it you live and live you do but fellows like us, well we got have jobs, what you want us to do, nobody’s going to feed us, you just watch them not feed us dont we know, no we got to have jobs, talk all you like and talk is good I like talk I like to listen to you Brewsie, but when we get home and dont wear this brown any more we got to have a job, job, job. Yes job.
B: I know, I know, I know Willie. Yes I know, you got to have a job, and it’s all right but it’s not all right, see here let me tell you about jobs. Some have to have jobs, some have got to be employed and be employees, but not so many Willie. Listen to me not so many, when
everybody is employed.
W: God, if they only just could not be employed. I aint forgot that depression, no not yet.
B: Yes but Willie, that’s what I want to say, industrialism which produces more than anybody can buy and makes employees out of free men makes ‘em stop thinking, stop feeling, makes ‘em all feel alike. I tell you Willie it’s wrong. …

In a world where, for the first time, they have had to look about, to compare their lives with others, and evaluate what it all means, these young men and women have all gradually begun to think, and before long, they are as active as Brewsie in observing, commenting upon, and questioning the world around them. And all, in turn, begin to fear that the new workaday world which they will soon face will not allow the time to think. Will they, like those of the past generations, forget all about the lessons they have learned? Will war break out once more? Will the nation overproduce to create a new depression? One could almost hear the sighs of the audience in their silent recognition of Stein’s soldiers' prescient concerns. This play is significant even for events of the present.

The on-stage rapport of these actors, their ability, so necessary in a production such as this, to work almost as a single breathing mass of beings, is, as another reviewer commented, “a miracle, pure and simple.” And the interaction particularly of Brad Culver as the loveable Willie and Jonney Ahmanson as the pondering, somewhat befuddled Brewsie made this play, for me, one of the most memorable in years. So intense is their sense of camaraderie and love that, at one moment, the director sends the entire male cast to the floor in a mass wrestling match that momentarily releases both their tensions and sublimated desires.

As Stein reiterated upon her deathbed, there is, obviously, no answer to the questions the soldiers pose. Donald Paul’s Thoreau-like logic to go back to the simple ways of living and surviving by oneself, as Brewsie realizes, will not work for most of these men. One very young soldier is determined to stay in France, but the others, despite their fears, want to return home. One or two suggest that they might embrace Socialism or even Communism, but Brewsie and most of the others realize that these are not true solutions for a country in which these ideas are so foreign.

With the help of the women, the men gradually begin to embrace another kind of possibility for their futures. Some of them, at least, come to see that it isn’t just a matter of finding a job, but of finding something meaningful to work toward. One of them suggests that their goal should be to “pioneer.” But where is the wilderness? Willie scoffs. Clearly Stein is using the word here not as a noun, “a pioneer,” but as a verb defining action as a process of pioneering, of discovering the world all over again. But this concept, as brilliant as it is, seems to emanate from the voice of author, not from the characters and, as such, brings a halt to their startlingly real interchanges.

The last speech, spoken by one of the women characters, in the book is pure Gertrude Stein crying out to her “G.I.s and G.I.s and G.I.s,” like Susan B. Anthony or others of her women heroes, with a patriotic, rhetorical flourish. Perhaps this ending was the only way to have successfully closed this work, for the soldiers have been called home and are on the move, already missing the voice of their thoughtful friend Brewsie, who has challenged them all, again and again, to “listen”:

Janet: And tell me, wont you miss talking when you go home, you do know dont you all of you nobody talks like you boys were always talking, not back home.
Jo: Yes we know.
Jimmie: Yes we know.
Willie: Not Brewsie, he’ll talk but, Brewsie will talk but we wont be there to listen, we kind of will remember that he’s talking somewhere but we wont be there to listen, there wont be anybody talking were we will be.
Perhaps, as Jo suggests, “they will talk now, why you all so sure they wont talk over there, perhaps they will talk over there.” But the stubborn realist, Willie, is convincing: “Not those on the job they wont, not those on the job.”

Thank heaven for a production such as this that helps its audience to listen, to listen attentively while loving nearly every word, if only for a couple of hours.

Los Angeles, July 31, 2010
(c) Copyright 2010 by Douglas Messerli

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