Theater of War

Meryl Streep Does Bertolt Brecht

Dec. 1, 2010
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Meryl Streep is an actress of astonishing range, fully inhabiting characters in films as different as Sophie’s Choice and Mama Mia. In Theater of War, a documentary on the 2006 New York production of Mother Courage and Her Children, we watch as Streep rehearses her role as the title character—a cynical and tragically sympathetic profiteer in Bertolt Brecht’s play about the folly of war. Streep’s talents aren’t confined to movie sets; she is entirely in the moment throughout rehearsals in the riskier medium of live theater.

The documentary by filmmaker John Walter includes Streep’s response to the material, but focuses on the Brecht play and its fresh English translation by Tony Kushner (Angels in America). In the words of Mother Courage, the play wonders why the poor trudge along uncomplainingly, bearing “the weight of the wealthy on their stupid backs,” and march with “perverted courage” into the guns of other poor people from opposing countries, fighting battles for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

The production at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater was mounted in response to the war in Iraq, and its directors and cast were inspired by the ideal of theater as a flame of light in the darkness. Mother Courage asks what ties us to destructive behavior as Streep’s character rushes into the war zone to sell her wares. She welcomes the conflict even though she can gain little of lasting value and lose everything. Brecht sought answers in Karl Marx, who taught that we are formed by social forces rooted in the economic structure of our society; we are given little say in our making, but what if we took charge?

Theater of War gives a brief history of Brecht, who fled Germany shortly after the Nazi takeover and wrote Mother Courage in U.S. exile under the surveillance of the FBI and the inevitable summons by the House un-American Activities Committee. Still photographs and interviews with participants show the play’s 1949 debut in the stark setting of East Berlin, still largely in ruins after a war embraced with enthusiasm by many of its foot soldiers. Theater of War is out on DVD.


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