What I’m Reading Now – Saint Joan of the Stockyards, by Bertolt Brecht

Time to write about a play. If only to confirm that I do read them and that I do, in fact, like theatre as well as books.

So, first off, I love Brecht insofar as any political or socially engaged theatre maker is indebted to him. He’s the Nicki Minaj of Weimar-era shit talking and he’s the innovator that allowed twentieth century Western audiences to think of theatre as a tool for radical social change.

I can’t remember who said it, or where I read it, but there’s a quote bobbling around in my head that says ‘No one has ever written a play‘*.  People have written scripts, which are not, in and of themselves, anything like a play. They are key ingredients of what is an act that can only happen in real-time.  It has to be live, to be living, and then under such conditions (an audience watching a live performance) a script and a design and a score and an actor’s choices combine to become the artistic, civic and political thing we call ‘a play’.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that Brecht’s plays are a glory to experience, but his scripts are not so glorious and I find they can be awfully hard to read.

Now that I think about it, I often hear praise of his theatrical style, his social commentary, his general innovation and comic genius, without hearing much praise for his writing. His work is in translation from German, so maybe the good stuff is getting lost.  But I’m still never excited about reading Brecht, which I had to do a lot of in college. I’m just excited about seeing his ideas happen.  Perhaps this is a more universal thing than I thought previously.

Saint Joan of the Stockyards is a play that critiques capitalism. Politics, and politics only, is its reason for being.  Kurt Weill, the composer whose music defined Brecht’s great plays, abandoned their fruitful collaboration at some point*, if I recall correctly, because he was not content simply ‘to set communism to music‘*.  So before you read/see Saint Joan of the Stockyards, know that a lot of socialism and a lot of meat is about to be served.

And, boy oh boi oh bae, is this play full of meat.  It critiques capitalism by making the horrors and mechanics of capitalism drive the narrative. Set in a fictional Chicago stockyards, the entire plot is dictated by economic interactions between meat-packers, stock-breeders, small speculators, and workers.  You have a lot of discussion of prices of steers and hogs, and if you lose the economic plot, you lose the play plot – you lose who is evil and treacherous, who is a tyrant and who is a victim. So keep your eyes on the rising price of livestock.

This is a funny play, I imagine, when staged (you can tell it contains all the material and nudges towards parody and humour) though you will not laugh while reading it. It is a play that would be very powerful, if staged, and which has some stonking monologues, if staged, but it will not power-house or stonk you in text form. It is something that I feel like screaming ‘THE HOUSING CRISIS! ST JOAN OF THE MISUSED STATE ASSETS’ to.

Because Brecht is always relevant, always a Boss Ass Bish.

Always charming, and fatally righteous

And always, always, a bore to read.

Read if – you’re a theatre student, or thinking of directing it (do!)

Avoid if – you’re a vegetarian, or a neo-liberal (spoiler – Brecht doesn’t let the market sort itself out).

*I operate a ‘My Favourite Murder’ inspired policy of not really doing any research to back up the statements on my blogs, on even easily-Google-able things.

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