The Downfall of Egotist J. Fatzer
Nitery Theater, Stanford University, February 2015
Photo Credit: Frank Chen
Fragment by Bertolt Brecht
Translated, Adapted & Directed by Jessi Piggott
"In the morally denuded time of the First World War, a story of four men took place, ending with the utter downfall of all four, but revealing, amidst murder, perjury and degeneracy, the bloody traces of a new kind of morality. In the third year of the war, four men occupying a tank disappeared turing an attack near Verdun. The four men were thought dead and in early 1917, they secretly surfaced in Mühlheim, where one of them had a basement room. From then on, living under the constant threat of being seized as derserters and shot, they had a very difficult time providing sustenance, all the more so because there were four of them. All the same, they decided not and never to part ways, since their only prospect rested on the senseless war ending through a general revolution of the people. The four hoped to be able to help in this revolution they were expecting." --Chorus, Fatzer
Produced as part of the TAPS 2nd Year Grad Showcase, this 50-minute adaptation of Brecht's unfinished Fatzer fragment was awarded a distinction by the Stanford TAPS faculty.
Lillian Bornstein (Busching), Lily Lamboy (Cook), Maggie Medlin (Fatzer), Raquel Orendain Shrestha (Mellerman), Erich Eich (SM/Chorus) | Photo Credit: Frank Chen
"Close up your ears, for you will
Hear nothing human.
What help is it to know
Who butchers whom, when both
Are sure to die?"
--Bertolt Brecht, Fatzer Fragment
Noemi Berkowitz, "'The Downfall of Egotist J. Fatzer': A hilarious, clever and nontraditional exploration of Brecht, war, and gender." Stanford Daily, 23 February 2015.
Theater Editorial Board, "Top 5 Stanford Theater Productions of 2015." Stanford Daily, 12 January 2016.
“With Piggott’s mastery of Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt and a cast of rowdy revolutionary soldiers all played by women in drag, 'Fatzer' emerged as one of the few on campus productions to contribute to the ongoing intellectual debate about what theater is and how it can be used to make audiences think critically about their own respective places in history”
-- Stanford Daily
Lily Lamboy and Raquel Orendain Shrestha | Photo Credit: Frank Chen
In his commentary on the Fatzer fragment, Brecht left a brusque piece of advice (as messy in German as it is in English): “Simply smash it to pieces, the whole play, since indeed impossible, for experimentation, without reality, for self-understanding.” This invitation to take up Brecht’s work in raw form, smash it up, and experiment was precisely the kind of provocation ideal for a university project. To take up this challenge has been one of the most exciting and educational experiences of my career. Perhaps because of the wealth of tasks this project demanded—from archival research to translation, dramaturgy to direction, devising to designing—forming a coherent narrative from all the fragmented pieces of this process seems impossible. In lieu of any such forced unity, on the following pages I’d like to offer some fragments of my own.
Casting & Gender
Before settling on this text, I was intent on working with a cast of mostly, if not all, women. In departments where the vast majority of trained and enthusiastic student actors are women, continuing to choose plays that focus on and star men while dismissing the potential for cross-gender casting is sexism, plain and simple. I wanted to find a play that would not only be possible to cast with women, but also one that might even be improved by such casting. Brecht was a clear choice. Cross-gender casting seemed to be one sure-fire way to produce an alienation effect.
What I wasn’t expecting initially was that this cross-casting would bring far more to the piece than alienation from the presented world of the play. It also alienated the “universal” subject of history, politics and morality. That universal “man” of Brechtian aphorisms took on new significance when uttered by a woman in drag: “The more you look, the less a man seems like a man” (22). Indeed. While such moments were, of course, comical, they also drew attention to how that universal subject continues to be be gendered masculine. While Fatzer (especially without the Theresa subplot) might not be a play about gender, it’s also not not about gender. I think (and hope) that laughter was tainted with a sting of irony.
Lasting just over five weeks, our rehearsal process focused on developing two distinct “worlds” which we could bring into dialogue with one another on the stage. The first was the world based on Brecht’s Fatzer, what we called the world of the play. The second we called the world of the theater. To borrow the language of narratology, you could say that the first was diegetic and the second was extradiegetic.
World 1: The world of the play was developed through rehearsals aimed at giving physical and textual coherence to the skeletal script. Rehearsal techniques included, for instance, text analysis, blocking exercises, and a drag king workshop. One of the biggest challenges of the script was the demand for multiple and extremely diverse characters who appear only briefly. You could call them “stock characters,” but more in the sense of socially-determined roles, rather than personalities. Given the limited cast size and our poor aesthetic, these characters had to be obvious and recognizable with the help of only a small costume piece and a few lines of text.
In order to achieve this effect, I developed an improvisation exercise based on “sketching” political cartoons with the body. We began by examining political cartoons and focusing on the ways in which physical exaggeration offers meaning. We did a close read of the scenes where these stock characters appear, and discussed which social conditions and relationships they might be used to convey. This was a group discussion in which all actors were encouraged to offer their thoughts on all characters, rather than the private-property approach in which actors keep their thoughts directed only to those characters they’ll be playing. Such brainstorming gave the actors a wealth of ideas to start from. We then moved into physical exploration in which each actor chose a stock character and embodied them as they would be drawn in a political cartoon. Actors were asked to make bold choices to exaggerate some body part physically, and then allow this physicality to affect their movement and voice, repeating a single line of text while traversing the space. Actors then taught their political cartoon bodies to each other—a process that crystalized and amplified choices as movements and postures were mirrored back by the ensemble. From this exercise, we developed Lily’s large-bottomed sex worker, Raquel’s no-neck butcher, and Lillian’s bulldog-bicep soldier, to name just a few.
These caricature-like physicalities and the gender play discussed in the previous section began to lend the text comic notes that I had not originally anticipated. At the same time, the material that was being generated seemed right somehow, especially during the first two thirds of the play. Much of the work began to remind me of vaudeville—particularly “Fatzer’s Promenade.” After some research (and the pure stroke of luck that was Maggie’s tap dance training) we started coloring scenes from that stylistic palette, but always with the intent to warp them just a little. I’m unsure how to describe the source or progression of this impulse precisely, but it had to do with the cutting irony of the text, particularly during the lighter first two thirds. Fatzer speaks over several pages of text, rejoicing about how bad things have gotten for the people—and how good it is that they have, since he takes it to be a sure sign of The Revolution. I wanted this contradiction to be present in physical and aural form as well, which led us to the warped Tiger Rag and the slapstick gestures. Of course, drawing on this familiar repertoire of movement tropes runs the risk of turning such scenes into funny throwaways. This is a point I’m not entirely sure succeeded; comedy is a fickle thing. How do you tell if an audience is laughing for the right reasons?
World 2: In the second (extradiegetic) world, performers moved and spoke as themselves—that is, as young women intent on thinking, understanding and creating. One way to articulate this second world would be to say that it framed the first. It included everything we did from the moment the actors entered the rehearsal space until they left. This world had two specific challenges. First: how do I help establish a space that allows these actors to develop and express their engagement as artists (rather than puppets)? Second: how do we transport this world to the space and time of the production?
Creating the space was the main objective of the first week of rehearsal, during which we spent a great deal of time talking about the questions raised by the text, as well as its inconsistencies and challenges. This discussion was less concerned with the typical talk of character background or objectives than it was with something much closer to how we analyze plays in seminars—picking apart the details, speaking about the larger picture, highlighting themes and poetic devices, asking questions, and venturing hypotheses. While doing this, I could hear the voices of my past directing instructors insisting that so much chatter would guarantee these actors would spend the rest of their time trying (and likely failing) to “get out of their heads.” While I understand why this choice would be a problem for some styles of acting, I feel strongly that having an actor who is “in her head” isn’t necessarily antithetical to good theater. In fact, having a group of smart, critical artists meant that getting them to be in their heads not only enriched the thematic palette of the performance, but it also allowed them to develop their own personal investment in the project.
The next step was to turn these discussions into visual and dynamic (readable) practices. We did this through specific exercises aimed at linking this creative, generative space with the world of the play. One particularly helpful exercise was “tell and show”—a riff on Brecht’s idea of having a performer tell the story of witnessing a car accident. Each actor was to tell us about a person she knows, describe that person in detail (especially physically), and then show us how this person would tell a story by stepping into the physicality they first describe. The most compelling (and useful) moments came during the unplanned switches between self and character; Raquel makes a gesture while telling a story as her grandmother, and then breaks character suddenly to say “you see, she always wore this armful of bangles. I can still hear that sound,” before returning to the story as told by her grandmother. Without them knowing it, or being daunted by potentially overwhelming concepts like “Brechtian acting,” these performers instinctively understood the presentational style that I wanted to employ for this piece. They began to understand what needs to be imitated or evoked physically in order to get an audience to see something, rather than feel or identify with it.
We developed this style further with “advocation” exercises. These were all based on scenarios in which the actor must, as herself, advocate for the choices made by a particular character. This proved immensely useful, especially in terms of how it allowed us to employ a familiar vocabulary of emotion, motivation, objective, without being seduced in to creating souls. The deep psychology of these characters was only important to the extent that it related to social circumstance, and this influenced our work with the text in a very positive way. For instance, rather than actors resisting direction in terms of the (very familiar) “I just don’t think my character would feel/act/want this thing,” where coherent psychology becomes the ultimate goal, we were able to shift discussions towards how character choices related to the social environment, what consequences they had, and ultimately, whether or not these were ethical or justifiable choices. Performers were encouraged to have and express thoughts on characters’ choices, which is a crucial step in getting them to understand how we might put the emphasis on showing the audience these choices and letting them decide for themselves.
While I believe this work would have been somewhat apparent during the actual run regardless, I still wanted very much to emphasize this framing world in the performance. I wanted it to be clear that this group of actors was showing you a show. My initial idea to achieve this was to bring in our contemporary, irreverent and energetic warm up music: punk. It often set the tone for our rehearsals, and so it seemed a good choice to use this music to help frame the internal episodes during transitions. After watching an early rehearsal, my supervisor Leslie Hill commented that the transitions looked rushed, and after explaining what I wanted to achieve with them, she helped me brainstorm ideas for making this framing device more prominent. I came to our next rehearsal armed with ideas, snacks and drinks. For the last hour of the session, we turned up some Bikini Kill and the actors formed their own air-band: “Breasts Akimbo” with “SM Eric” on vocals. After rocking out for a while, we worked through the transitions with the same attitude of a band setting up for their next number, and voila!
This framing device also became crucial for the opening of the show. Following the drag king workshop we attended, the actors were all really intent on applying facial hair. I was more focused on their physicalities, concerned that the facial hair would be little more than a distraction, especially during the fist few scenes. But following our air-band session, I had the idea to have the actors actually enter the performance space from the house door, the same way they would in rehearsal. They would greet each other and prepare for the show while the house was open, much like a warm up. This is where they would apply facial hair and warm up their drag personas, all in full view of the audience. By stepping into a rather presentational sense of masculinity without hiding that transition at all, we introduced the audience to the parameters of the show before it even began. They saw Maggie, Lily, Lillian and Raquel—four young women—enter the space and play at being men, taking turns watching each other and giving feedback, helping adjust beards, reminding each other of the “tricks” of het-masc posture (“armpit, armpit, crotch!”). This way, the audience had time to adjust to the idea of drag before text was spoken, and they understood (or were at least given the opportunity to understand) that verisimilitude was not the goal. There was no wasted energy or attention on thoughts like “that’s clearly a girl” or “how’d they do those beards?”—we’d beaten them to the punch by showing them everything already.
Aesthetics of Telling and Showing
As these rehearsal techniques suggest, the overall aesthetic of the performance had a lot to do with the ideas of telling and showing. However, this emphasis does not, at least for me, equate to straightforward anti-illusionism. In fact, quite the opposite. By showing the showing, I think theater has the potential to be magical. This was one of the hypotheses I wanted to explore through set design in particular. I wanted to see if showing and telling with clarity would result in a (magical) transformation of terribly simple objects—the same way it does for, say, good puppetry with simple material. I think Brecht underestimated an audience’s willingness to believe, and how that willingness might not just belong to the escapist theater he criticized.
While drawing a rectangle on a blackboard and labeling it “TANK —>” (see video below) is the visual equivalent of yelling “THIS IS A PLAY,” it seems to me that the audience, after a quick chuckle, was willing to accept that this was, indeed, a tank, with no assistance beyond the simple lighting shift and actors committed to the scene. With clear lighting shifts, transparently created sound effects, a few basic black boxes, and a little chalk, the actors were able to shift locations and times without ever hiding anything from the audience. Making the creation and destruction of illusion extremely apparent, rather than doing away with illusion all together, might be a good way to find a balance between the rational contemplation Brecht wanted of his audience, and an audience’s desire to see magic. They needn’t be antithetical impulses. Maybe they’re even complimentary.
(Two anecdotes that most clearly define what I learned in this process)
Anecdote 1: For weeks before we approached it, I had had nightmares about blocking “Fatzer’s Promenade.” I wanted the sense of motion through a city, with new characters appearing and disappearing around corners. When we finally got to it in week 2 of rehearsals, it was an absolute disaster. I was trying to paint with too many bodies and consider far too many elements at the same time. The chalkboard wasn’t on wheels yet. The actors were confused about what I wanted, still had scripts in hand, and weren’t generating any impulses. After 40 minutes of sheer torture, I gave up, moved on to a simpler scene, and ended rehearsal early—defeated and nervous. That night, it occurred to me that one of the benefits of casting student is that they're often up for a challenge. Why not turn the difficulties into a problem they could try to solve collectively?
The next rehearsal, I got there early, and out of sheer desperation, clamped the chalkboard to a rolling clothes rack—a makeshift solution that ended up a major part of the final product. I wrote out the beats of the scene (the various characters and settings) on the chalkboard. After a brief warm up, I gave the actors an assignment. Scripts down, I asked them to work together to narrate the beats of this scene and, while doing so, follow two simple rules. First, for every new beat, the chalkboard had to rotate sides. Second, each beat had to happen at a different place on the stage. With that, I left the room and hoped for the best, saying I’d return in 30 minutes. When the door opened 25 minutes later, I was sure they were coming out to tell me the exercise was impossible (so severe was my fear of this scene). But in fact, they had finished early. I returned to the space and they showed me a brilliantly composed choreography, full of motion and the sense of city-life. In addition, the narration part of the exercise had lent it a bit of a goofy, presentational tone—something about Maggie’s skipping and strutting while narrating “Just walkin’ along the street, walkin’ walkin’” immediately reminded me of Gene Kelly and top hats. A little polishing was all that was needed to turn this into what was, by far, my favorite scene in the play. The moral of this story: theater is collaboration—put the strengths of your actors to work.
Anecdote 2: About a week before tech, we still didn’t really have an ending to the play. It ended in the sense that the characters all died, but I didn’t really know what to do after that. A piece of chorus text I found had something very right and, at the same time, very wrong for an ending:
We advise you all: be
Agreed. For it happened
As you saw here, and no other way.
He who swims against the current
Gets water in his mouth
While the first half was on the right track, the second half seemed like a bad joke. How could we end this complex, ethical dilemma with a moral like that?! I shared it with the cast, more as a joke than anything, and surprisingly, it became a heated discussion—half loved it, half hated it. Half thought “that’s so Brecht,” half thought “what was Brecht thinking?” After arguing about how right it was, and from whose perspective that could be the moral, I sent them home with the assignment to come up with (or find) at least one moral for the play that they would use if advocating for their character. At the same time, I revisited the discarded fragments and started collecting all the “moral”-like aphorisms Brecht wrote in conjunction with the piece. At the next rehearsal we read them all, discussed, and—most importantly—argued. It became clear that we weren’t going to find the moral of this piece, which was good. I don’t think there is one. But listening to the them engage in the material with insight and passion, I realized this was exactly what we needed to stage for the ending. After some improv, the scene became:
(The four characters are scattered about the room, dead. With the next line, the actors stand and move to the apron.)
SM/ERIC: We advise you all: be agreed. For it happened as you saw here and no other way.
LILLIAN (stepping forward and delivering to the audience): He who swims against the current gets water in his mouth and drowns.
(Beat. The other three exchange glances)
LILY (quietly, as if for the audience not to hear): Is that, is that supposed to be the moral?
LILLIAN: Yeah, that’s what he wrote.
ALL (taking a step back and ad libbing over one another, quietly): Really? / That’s doesn’t seem... / I thought... / but who... / etc. (this discussions goes on for a moment until:)
LILY (to hush the others): Ok, ok, what about…(steps forward to address the audience, the others step forward with her). It is folly to swim against the current, but there’s wisdom in knowing its direction.
ALL (ad libbing over one another, a little more loudly, they step back from the audience): Well, if you don’t like the current thing / come on / that doesn’t even mean anything / etc.
MAGGIE (to hush the others): You guys, I got it. Ahem. (Steps forward, the others step forward with her). He who makes a beast of himself does away with the pain of being a man.
(Beat. Tentative nods)
LILY: Wait, did Brecht write that?
MAGGIE: Nah, but he plagerized everything anyways.
ALL (uproar, all step back, ad libbing over one another, loudly now): He did not / Ever heard of Elizabeth Hauptmann? / You can’t do that / why not / etc.
RAQUEL (to hush the others): Ok, I’ve got it, it’s obvious. (Steps forward, the others step forward with her). They learned nothing but their solidarity and that is what destroyed them. They employed solidarity on a man who had none.
ALL (simultaneously, ad libbing dissent): Nah / no way / Fatzer has solidarity! / I like the swimming one / If you think about it / etc.
(The four leave through the house door they used to enter, still arguing)
SM/ERIC: We advise you all: be agreed. For it happened as you saw here and no other way. Lights 72 go.
In a way, it was like staging the failure of the Lehrstück structure, or staging the attempt to apply a model to material that exceeds and escapes it. The moral of this story: sometimes, there is no moral. Lean into that.
Fatzer, select scenes from dress rehearsal