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Bertolt Brechts early play Mann Ist Mann, translated as
A Mans A Man or Man Equals Man, was and remains a moving target.
According to scholars who study Brecht, he rewrote the play from 1924 to 1938 as many as
ten times, beginning with an early version in 1920 entitled Galgei. Most notable
among the revisions was the one Brecht directed at the Staatstheatre in Berlin in which
Peter Lorre played the main character, Gayly Gay.
Arena Stage of Washington, DC, using the more literal English translation by Gerhard Nellhaus and the creative direction talents of Hungarys Eniko Eszenyi has staged an engaging two and one-half hour version of A Mans A Man that plunges the audience immediately into a head-spinning whirl. The musicians, dressed in military uniforms, make themselves visible from a foxhole before the play officially starts and, once the audience has been scolded by a militaristic announcer about turning off cell phones and beeping watches, an actor who, at first seems to be an usher, interrupts the start of the action or so the audience is led to believe. The production employs lots of theater magic (hats off to set designer Karl Eigsti) from open foxholes and elevator platforms in the stage floor to heavy rain that does not get the actors wet.
The story, set in 1925 in a Kiplingesque India, concerns metamorphosishow a simple civilian man who cannot say no is changed into a ruthless soldier. Enter Gayly Gay who tells his wife he will be back from buying a fish for their dinner in ten minutes. Gay then gets snagged by a trio of soldiers who have heisted money from a temple at the cost of losing their comrade Jeraiah Jip. Because their feared Sergeant Fairchild (also known as Bloody Five or the Tiger of Kilkoa) is in hot pursuit of the temple looters and the one who lost a patch of his hair (as Jip did when he literally used his head to move the offering box), the trio must enlist a stranger to fill the shoes of the missing Jip who is just a number (the fourth machine-gunner) to Fairchild.
Transformation of Gayly Gay begins simply with a promise of cigars and beer in exchange for him assuming the identity of Jeraiah Jip. Progressively, the shaping of Gay into Jip turns absurd as he is offered ownership of an imaginary army elephant that the soldiers ask the canteen owner, the Widow Begbick, to buy from the duped Gay/Jip. As soon as the patsy receives payment for the elephant, he is arrested, sentenced, and executed in a brainwashing scheme that makes him voluntarily embrace Jips identity.
Getting an artistic assist from the Arena Stage production, Brecht further plays with a variety of metamorphoses. The sadistic Fairchild changes into a red-hatted civilian out to court the Marlene-Dietrich-like sexpot, the Widow Begbick. In a more ambitious theoretical construct the audience is awakened from the complacency of identifying with the characters to the much more active condition of thinking about the message being delivered by the actors. Widow Begbick is the precursor to Brechts Mother Courage; she keeps jolting the audience with narrative commentary that begins with her playing the usher who interrupts the start of the play. Kudos to the entire cast, but especially to Valerie Leonard who plays Leocadia Begbick.
Other techniques used by Brecht to shake up the audience include slapstick, dance hall bravado (such as cancan), clowning, mime and exaggerated body movements, the mixing of lyric expression (including poetry, song and spoken dialogue) with burlesque chatter, and a seemingly indiscriminate selection of muddled historic detail. A Chinese pagoda is plunked down in India during the time when George V occupied the throne of England, but the army in A Mans A Man keeps pledging loyalty to the Queen.
What remains to be pondered in viewing this production is its relevance to the world today. Maybe the United States has a whole army of Gayly Gays: reservists and weekend warriors swept out of civilian lifethose people just trying to buy a little more food and amenities for their familieswho have been turned into fighting machines in the utterly absurd Iraqi war.
And so the message of A Mans A Man is fraught with multiple possible interpretations, including one man is as good, or as dispensable, as the next.
Washington, February 16, 2004 - Karren L. Alenier