Monday, April 20, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Toy Soldiers" (on Hotel Modern/Arthur Sauer's The Great War)

toy soldiers
by Douglas Messerli
Hotel Modern and Arthur Sauer The Great War / Los Angeles, Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in the Walt Disney Concert Hall / the performance I saw was on Friday 17, 2015
How do you talk about World War I in the second decade of the 21st century, a hundred years after the event, and still depict its horror and the devastating effects of that war which not only helped to create the circumstances leading to World War II, but has implications even for today? 
      Many of us have long ago experienced the cinematic renderings of that War in Rex Ingram’s 1920 silent epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Lewis Milestone’s 1930 ground-breaking Erich Maria Remarque-inspired pacifist film All Quiet on the Western Front, and the numerous others that followed, and some of have read the extensive recountings of the horror of the War which killed so many men, for so little purpose, in the trenches of Belgium, France, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Germany was so utterly transformed by its defeat that World War II that can be said to have been the result of the economic, cultural, and spiritual transformations that were played out throughout its aftermath in the Weimar Republic, ending with the National Socialist’s and Hitler’s rise to power. 
      Almost of its soldiers are now dead, its horrific battles confined to history books, the absurdity of its politics satirized in later 20th century works such as Oh! What a Lovely War—a musical play which, strangely enough, I saw in Norway in 1964 as part of an audience that could not yet quite laugh at those long ago battles; and which I saw as a very stylish but utterly cold-blooded film by Richard Attenborough five years later. The documentation that still exists, seems almost as utterly absurd as the Saturday Night Live send-up of it battles in its parody sketch “The Walker Brigade,” which featured disabled soldiers marching off to battle armed only with the lightweight machines that support their movements forward with rolling casters. Perhaps only such later films as Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters through its psychological asides about the life of its central figure, James Whale, to convey how utterly devastating the War had been upon the psyche of those who had survived.

     Gertrude Stein, who lived through that terrible time, insisted—as I quote in an essay in this volume—upon describing World War I, incredibly and rather shockingly, it was a “nice war” when compared with World War II. But even the war-enthusiastic F. T. Marinetti would reveal in his later works such as The Untameables that the First World War was neither “lovely” nor “nice.” E. E. Cummings, in The Enormous Room was able to convey its utter absurdity without diminishing the ways it had changed generations to come. World War I, after all, was the reason why Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s generation had become “lost.”  Faced with the lunacy of that world-wide confrontation, music, dance, sex, alcohol and endless storytelling seemed to be the only alternatives. No one could really go home again, even if they did. And their children would be inexorably changed by that reality.
      So, I repeat, how do you tell this story to a century of younger individuals whose fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had been so affected by the destruction of so many millions of people in so many wars that it might be hard to list them, that World War I truly meant something, that it changed the entire way which not only people in the 20the century perceived the world, but how our own time in still involved in its consequences.
      Given the ahistorical nature of American education, I cannot imagine such as work as that I encountered the other evening at Los Angeles’ Redcat Theatre being created by a company from the US; but it makes sense that a Rotterdam-based innovative theatrical troupe might wish to once again explore that so transformed their own nation. Indeed many of the great wars throughout time in Europe have somewhat inexplicably been centered upon the small nation of Belgium, Even today some observers ponder the fact that this small nation has shockingly produced a large quantity of Islamic Jihadists fighting for ISIS in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Mideast. Itself a country of two often oppositional cultural values—the Dutch-speaking Flemish, and the French-speaking Walloons—Belgium continues to be a crossroad of ideological values as well as the center of the European judiciary and financial community. In today's cultural mish-mash of ideologies and concepts, Belgium has become a strange watershed for poetry, film, and performance, works of which are often supported by its self-conscious governing leaders.


     Hotel Modern, a performance group founded by composer Arthur Sauer along with Arlène Hoornweg, Pauline Kalker, and Herman Helle, chose to focus on the War in highly theatrical terms, using miniature sets, figures, and other objects and, through simultaneous video recording, enlarging them to the screen in order to recreate some of the everyday struggles. Through letters from Prospert Eyssautier, the artist Max Beckmann, and author Remarque, the group created scenarios that might almost remind one of a child playing with tin soldiers. Indeed, at moments, with the group’s hands marching their soldiers through the muck beside large forests of parsley leaves, there is often something playful about this work, in the best sense of that word. It is a self-consciously theatricalized work that delights in its own naivetĂ©.

      Yet, if the work begins, as have so many tellings of the war, with the several attempted and one successful assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, quickly followed by a babel of talking heads of the representatives of various countries all speaking simultaneously in different languages, the somewhat Monte Python-like moment of the toy soldier affair quickly becomes quite poignantly expressive, as mustard gas lights the sky, bombings torch entire landscapes, and, with the ever-present help of the Foley-effects and music of Sauer, the thunder of cannons and explosives crackles across the skies. 
      As Singapore critic Ang Song Ming perceptively commented: “The theme of fragmentation (blowing up) extends through Hotel Modern’s liberal use of explosions in scenes of war. In “The Great War,” “blowing up” exists not just as explosions, but also as magnification—when the different animated scenes are projected onto the screen, everything produced on stage is magnified, blown up by the camera.”

     Accordingly, what first might appear as child’s play gradually becomes a series of serious scenarios and tableaux about horror and death. The bodies of the soldiers are ground down by human hands into the mud; rusty nails become markers and borders that threaten the men as potential Golgothas, a downpour of salt crystals blind the soldiers caught within snowstorms, a plant-moisturizer showers the men in a torturous rainstorm. Even the constantly moving hands of the performers as they race from front to front, soon come to stand-in for the metaphorical hand-of-God, displaying the seeming randomness and meaninglessness of the warriors’ actions. As we are also reminded, however, this is not a holy war but one of man’s making, a war created—just as the company is re-creating this one—by flawed human beings. 
     If by play’s end there is anything childlike remaining about this miniaturized, toy soldier world we have witnessed, it is in the mindset of all the beings of who helped to create the real war which this event depicts. And after a vigorous applause, the audience was invited to come upon on the stage to witness the sets in which these “blown-up” events had taken place, as if to witness the carnage that had just been depicted.  

Los Angeles, April 19-20, 2015
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2015).

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