Tom Stoppard’s last two plays, Coast of Utopia (a 3 play trilogy) and Rock ‘n’ Roll, explore the historical periods preceding significant events as a way of contextualizing and unpacking those outcomes. To make sense of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Stoppard placed his 9 hour Utopia trilogy in the years between 1833 and 1866 when philosophical debates were raging in pre-revolution Russia. RnR tracks the role that popular music played in the democratic movement that emerged in Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
To hold to a historical orthodoxy while still creating an engaging theatrical experience is not a trivial accomplishment. Stoppard, a master of the theater of ideas, is well positioned—probably more than any living playwright—to deliver up both history and theater. Speaking personally, both these plays have impacted me deeply, transforming my view of the evolution of these two major historical events.
The Blue Flower, currently playing at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, takes on another historical arc—the transition in Europe from the Belle Époque at the turn of the century through the end of World War II. Conceived, composed and written by a musician and a visual artist, Jim and Ruth Bauer, the production approaches the tumultuous events of this period primarily through the lens of art. The lead characters are based loosely on three artists—Franz Marc, Max Beckmann and Hannah Höch—as well as a scientist, Marie Curie.
Ruth Bauer’s sensibilities as a visual artist permeate the production as well as the narrative point of view. There are art tropes throughout, from the Blaue Reiter’s defiant rebellion to Dadism’s absurdist response to the Great War. The staging and the styling of the production are fragmented and collage-like, a kind of grand gesture homage to Kurt Schwitters. It is rare to find so much art consciousness in a dramatic stating.
In a particularly brilliant move, the lead character Max Baumann, (inspired by Max Beckmann) refuses to speak his native German. For most of the play he communicates in an invented language, Maxperanto. Not only is his refusal to speak the common tongue a powerful statement of political and cultural defiance, it is also an adept metaphor for the artist’s position in a world gone mad.
The musical score, mostly minor keyed, is poignantly crafted and expertly performed (Bauer describes his eclectic sound as “Kurt Weill going tête-à-tête with Hank Williams”.) The music also serves as an emotional bridge between events that took place over 100 years ago and the incomprehensible mess we are grappling with now. Our world seems every bit as fragile as Weimar and also poised for catastrophe from polarizing politics, short sighted policies and institutions that no longer work.
The program notes are some of the best I’ve encountered and in many ways are required reading to step fully into The Blue Flower experience. The contextualizing provided is thoughtful and insightful.
Here are a few sample passages from Jim Bauer’s accompanying commentary:
Weimar, the fragile German experiment in democracy after World War I, became a classic and singularly tragic confrontation between traditionalists and modernists, conservatives and liberals; between those who believe that what is past is pure and those who believe that what is new is better.
By and large, events from the early part of the twentieth century lie hidden in the long, deep shadows cast by Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II. Like a three-legged colossus, they stand so large in the middle of the century that it is difficult to see past them. But it is only by peering into those shadows that one can see how the twentieth century took shape and how the twenty-first may yet be sculpted.
We have always lived and, it seems, will always continue to live in or between two wars: whichever the last one was and whatever the next one will be.
In the beginning of the Weimar period, ballast for heavy grief and suffocating remorse was provided by a weightless sense of relief, a buoyant feeling of optimism. there was a burst of creativity, a sense of freedom, adventure and open horizons, a feeling that the world could be made anew. The Weimar spirit was driven in part by the possibility and thrill of creating things instead of destroying them, building them up instead of tearing them down…But Weimar was also a world fractured into many pieces and deeply divided: outwardly blooming with hope but inwardly trembling with fear of and gnawing doubts about the horrors of the past and the shadows those horrors cast on an uncertain future.
With a demagnetized compass and a broken rudder, society swirled freely about in a political, economic and cultural maelstrom until Hitler, wasting little time and with a keen eye for opportunity, found a way to make things appear simple.
This is a thought provoking, slow fused work. An evening of light entertainment it is not. In that sense Don Aucoin’s review in the Boston Globe misses the point altogether. Anyone concerned about the state of the world will find The Blue Flower deeply moving.
The Blue Flower runs through January 2011.