Why have there been so many productions of “Baal” this year? “So many” in this case means two, but that’s two more than anyone might expect of Brecht’s juvenile obscure drama, and it’s a question that’s been raised all year by various critics. “Baal” is Brecht’s first play, written in 1918, before he beame a Marxist, before epic theater and it’s full of the kind of unfocused passion and anger you’d expect of a young playwright. Its plot is difficult to follow, no matter how strong the production (and I thought both Chicago shows this year were fairly strong); there’s no real dramatic arc, just a number of violent and tragic episodes concerning antihero Baal and the lives he destroys in his all-consuming desires. The show’s misogyny is striking—women only exist to fall in love with and then be rejected or even murdered by Baal.
Baal is very much a young poet’s play about youthful bohemianism. Its production history is patchy and strange; Brecht rewrote it several times in the twenties for various productions, and each time it changed to match a different political agenda. The most famous production is perhaps David Bowie’s made-for-TV movie (he released songs from the play as an EP), and Baal has most often been made into a rock-star figure, with his own peculiar hard-living—sex, drugs, alcohol and, oddly, nature—and ballads about himself. However, both EP Theater and TUTA’s productions this season have turned Baal into a kind of contemporary hipster figure, and I think it’s this reinvention that might help to explain why this show seems to be speaking to theater companies at this moment.
After walking out of EP’s production this fall, I remarked flippantly that Baal was just a f&*#ing hipster (to cite the most famous online source of hipster-mockery), then realized I thought it was true. As a character, Baal is the perfect spokesman for hipster ethos at its worst: rejecting bourgeois society merely to escape into self-destruction lazily disguised as art. Without getting into a debate about what hipster culture is (most definitions are designed to exclude the definer while keeping the category for use against others), there’s certainly a zeitgeist of apathetic bohemianism that’s getting attacked for the same qualities that theater is these days: self-absorption and narcissism, self-destruction, artificiality, apathy and, most of all, a sense of artistic, even ethical, betrayal as well as the overwhelming feeling that the entire scene should be “surrounded by quotation marks” (to quote Douglas Haddow’s famous Adbusters article on hipsters).
TUTA’s framing of their current production gives us a clue. The tagline for the show‚—“Is it better to stick to one’s beliefs or sell out?”—seems at odds at first with Baal’s obvious immorality (and is uncanny hipster rhetoric). It makes more sense taken with director Zeljko Djukic’s statement about the play: “In Near Eastern mythology, Baal is a god of rainfall and fertility. In The Weimar Germany, Baal was a subversive announcement of the approaching gallop of Nazism. For us today, he is a trickier figure. Like anything that has had social subversive appeal, the character of a drunken, nihilistic poet-musician has repeatedly been sterilized with the commercialism of popular culture: the Vietnam War protests and Jim Morrison; the civil rights movement and Bob Dylan. Most aesthetic monstrosities end up in safe hands. They sell. Perhaps theater can bring a glimpse of the original danger?”
What’s fascinating about this statement is that Baal could also stand in for theater itself: changing from ancient religious ritual to a pressing political art form, to a current strangely impotent version of bohemianism, coopted and commodified. If Djukic tries to bring back a sense of Baal’s original danger (and I’m not sure either TUTA or EP Theater’s productions do), it’s the very urgency of theater itself that’s at stake. Taken down by his own vices, Baal is actually the bearer of a fairly conservative moral message for such a young playwright—whatever Baal seems to be standing in for in this year’s productions, either the tendency of theater to hipsterize (if we can use it as a verb to signify a kind of cultural emptying-out and disarming through naval-gazing and apathy), or simply the danger of unchecked carnal desires, both companies seem to be lighting on a warning system for sham theater. And sham artistic lifestyles. (Monica Westin)
TUTA’s “Baal” plays at the Chopin Theater, 1543 West Division, through June 20.