Theater Review: “The Blue Flower” — The Kitsch of Death
The set-up sounds promising, a look back at a time of furious intellectual and artistic ferment, especially with its demand for art that challenges rather than caters to conventional tastes, creativity that revels in distortion, the surreal, the political, and the visceral.
The Blue Flower. Music, Lyrics, and Script and Videography by Jim Bauer. Artwork, Story, and Videography by Ruth Bauer. Directed by Will Pomerantz. Movement director, Tom Nelis. Set by Marcha Ginsberg. Costumes by Carol Bailey. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through January 8.
By Bill Marx
After attending the play Ubi Roi, Alfred Jarry’s 1896 homage to anarchy, W. B. Yeats realized an era had ended: “After us,” he wrote, “the Savage God.” A hundred years later, the Savage God has morphed into the Sappy Godling, at least in the teary, Broadway-ized vision of the story of Teutonic modernism promulgated in The Blue Flower, a musical its creators, Jim and Ruth Bauer, ironically dedicate to “the possibility of learning from history.” And there is something to be learned here—about the perverse ways and means of cultural amnesia.
Set principally in the Wilhelmine, Weimar Republic, and Third Reich eras (with a needlessly prolonged death scene taking place in America during the 1950s), the proceedings follow the trials and tribulations of characters inspired by the German Expressionist painters Max Beckmann (Max) and Franz Marc (Franz), Polish-born scientist Marie Curie (Maria), and Dadaist performance artist Hannah Hoch (Hannah).
The plot revolves around an anti-war theme: Franz dies in World War I, and his lover, Maria, blames Max for not talking his friend out of serving in the military. The trauma and guilt of Franz’s death never leaves Max, who takes up with Hannah and begins to spew nonsense talk (Maxperanto) as a response to the insanity he sees growing around him. Max leaves Germany in the late 1930s after the Nazis label him a “degenerate artist”; Hannah stays behind to wage a lively but doomed battle with censorship and the coming wave of madness.
The set-up sounds promising, a look back at a time of furious intellectual and artistic ferment, especially with its demand for art that challenges rather than caters to conventional tastes, creativity that revels in distortion, the surreal, the political, and the visceral. And the idea of approaching these eccentric personalities and their unruly energies though a dramatic application of collage suggests a refreshingly non-linear attitude. What’s more, the ART cast members are game for something edgy.
But in an apparent effort to make Beckmann and company comforting and/or inspirational for mainstream tastes fearful (or ignorant) of the genuine articles, the Bauers dumb down Max’s bohemian life into what comes off as a long (over 2 hours) episode of Friends—the show’s focuses less on nervy protest than on a kitschy romanticism conveyed through long ballads filled with self-consciously poetic yearnings and heartfelt meanderings. Life, it turns out, is all about deep feelings, regrets too painful to speak of, youthful ideals shattered, a heaven glimpsed but never had . . . ad nauseam. Of course, the real Beckmann and company would have sneered at those dime-store banalities—they were interested in expressing harsh and beautiful realities, not papering them over with gauzy fantasies.
The easiest culprit is the score: an easy-listening, forgettable amalgamation of country-music licks, Sondheim, Brecht, and Vegas schmaltz. Punk rock or hip-hop, modern music that at least flirts with the savage, would have made more robust sense. At least there would have been the potential for evoking the unpredictable, the volcanic. Country music and Broadway hokum lead to far too many easy-to-take uptempo numbers or ear-numbing ballads, such as when Maria goes back to the Eiffel Tower, her favorite lovers’ haunt with Franz, and launches into sugary sonic profundity — you can practically see a Celine Dion clone belting it out in the film version. And when Franz croons his ballad about the waste of war, video footage of German soldiers in WWI screened in the background, the effect is trivializing rather than galvanic.
Worse, though set in a tumultuous period of cultural volatility, The Blue Flower ignores the drama of conflicting ideas, ideologies, and economic beliefs: at one point, somebody mentions Communism. That’s about it regarding politics. Artistic differences are left out as well — you wouldn’t know, for instance, that Beckmann had disdain for Hannah’s brand of Dadaism. Neither would you know that, in real life, Hannah was omni-sexual — but that might upset conventional sympathies.
History is reduced to a potted, Monty-Python-esque romp through the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Two pages of Joseph Roth’s magnificent 1932 novel The Radetzky March will tell you more) or a lecture from Max on the spiritual emptiness of the post World War I period. Most of the time, the performers sing at the audience (not to each other) or orate at us with an unnerving earnestness: the significance of the show’s title symbol, The Blue Flower, is patiently explained (It stands for hope) as if we had asked for traffic directions.
The problem might be that the show’s creators assume that the visuals will do much of the work—there are original videos as well as images and films from the 1920s and 1930s, including footage from Man Ray, Walter Ruttman and All Quiet on the Western Front. The pictures look great and supply plenty of period atmosphere, but they also, paradoxically, underscore the cloying soft-headedness paraded on stage. The truth is that, for Beckmann and most of his fellow experimental artists, sentiment was the enemy of meaningful creativity. Here’s what Beckmann thinks about the cult of the touchy-feely in his “Creative Credo,” written in August 1918:
I believe that essentially I love painting so much because it forces me to be objective. There is nothing I hate more than sentimentality. The stronger my determination grows to grasp the unutterable things of this world, the deeper and more powerful the emotion burning inside me about our existence, the tighter I keep my mouth shut and the harder I try to capture the terrible, thrilling monster of life’s vitality and to confine it, to beat it down and strangle it with crystal-clear, razor-sharp lines and planes.”
(From Max Beckmann: Self-portrait in Words, Collected Writings and Statements, 1903–1950)
Nothing is “razor-sharp” in the gooey Blue Flower: the music and script are designed to domesticate rather than strangle ‘the terrible, thrilling monsters of life’s vitality.” The evening’s vigor is supplied by the talented cast, especially when Meghan McGeary, as Hannah, gets a chance to warble a rebel yowl of a tune. As Max, Daniel Jenkins combines intellectual authority and a suffering soul, doing dutiful battle with the on-again, off-again gibberish of Maxperanto. Teal Wicks and Lucas Kavner drum up some erotic melancholy as lovers, though neither rises above the soap-operatics of Jim Bauer’s lyrics.
The musicians are sharp, effortlessly weaving country music riffs into unlikely (and unwanted) places, while Will Pomerantz’s direction races along with antic and inventive dispatch (though even he has trouble making dramatic sense of the talky narrator, “Fairytale Man”); he makes sure that the powerful visuals accent, rather than overwhelm, the performers.
As for the show’s insights into cultural amnesia, they form the interesting link between what looks like warring directorial approaches: the imperial auteurist rhetoric of the ART under Robert Brustein and the pop makeover temperament of Diane Paulus. The latter’s choice of The Blue Flower reflects the theater’s continuing unease with cultivating the imaginative empathy needed to understand the intention of the artist, to delve deeply into another world, to excavate the ‘unknown country’ of the past for compelling discoveries.
If the earlier junta fell into the pit of chic innovation for innovation’s sake, Paulus jettisons aesthetic demands for difficulty completely, softening up Modernism (or Shakespeare, etc) around the edges, making it easier to sell to audiences who go to theater to be soothed rather than riled up. The time had to come: Theater of Revolt—The Musical!
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.
Not that I think I can dissuade you of your opinions, but I soundly disagree with your assessment of The Blue Flower. I saw it twice, I liked it so much. I thought that the music was wonderful, the riffs and whiffs quite enjoyable, dropping hints all over the place. The actors were superb. Teal Wicks’s Eiffel Tower was particularly wonderful.
As to “cultural amnesia,” I’m tickled pink that there is a show that deals with the time and culture at all. Of course, the thought of Marie Curie being the love object of two of the times’ most avant garde artists is a huge clue that we are to hang on for a ride for two hours. Can’t we enjoy the ride and not have to have a history lesson? Daniel Jenkins’s Maxperanto is worth the price of admission. On that we most certainly do agree.