Stage Review: “The Weavers” and The Art of Starvation

Death, starvation, futility, revolution, exploitation — no wonder The Weavers is never produced in the land of plenty.

By Bill Marx

Gerhart Hauptmann — He articulated the poetics of paucity

No play in the history of theater presents a deeper or more lacerating vision of the inhuman nuts and bolts of starvation, from the poetics of paucity to the politics of poverty, than Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1892 naturalistic masterpiece The Weavers. Based on fact –- a riot by the horrifically oppressed weavers of Silesia in 1844 –- the epic script has been saddled with the dubious honor of being called the “first socialist play” since the rebelling weavers are positioned as the drama’s collective hero. But the script is far more than a simple diatribe against sweat shop labor; its admirers have ranged from Bertolt Brecht and V.I. Lenin to James Joyce and Eugene O’Neill, who in 1932 said that the work of Hauptmann “stands with that of Ibsen and Strindberg as the source and inspiration of all modern drama.”

Death, starvation, futility, revolution, exploitation — no wonder The Weavers is never produced in the land of plenty. Tonight and tomorrow the Boston University College of Fine Arts (through December 16 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts) offers theatergoers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a drama that, given America’s appetite for cheap goods and indifference to the slave labor needed to keep those low prices low, carries more than a historical punch.

Of course, to be fair, The Weavers calls for a prohibitively large cast — there are over 40 speaking part companies — so theaters are scared off by the cost and logistics of a production. But the play’s reputation as a dated rabblerouser (a Teutonic anticipation of Clifford Odets) starring the courageous poor rising up against corrupt fat cat factory owners, the air thick with speeches about the rottenness of the rich, also works against revivals.

And there is some of that fist-waving rhetoric in the script, though most of the harrowing details about the hideous existence of the workers -– children dying from eating glue, famished families living off recently buried animals, the workers embrace of a song accusing the upper crust of torture — are taken from newspaper accounts of the riots. Moreover, what happened to the real life weavers undercuts any facile leftist inspiration — after storming some textile factories the rampaging workers, about 1500 strong, were cut to pieces by the army. There is no sense in the play that things are going to turn out differently.

Also, Hauptmann’s capitalist kingpin, Dreissinger, is given a plausible (and historically accurate) reason for keeping the weavers’ pay scandalously low –- mechanization was on the way. The labor intensive craft of the weavers had become a thing of the past –- handwork was no longer needed. The script doesn’t salute a working class coup but brilliantly dramatizes the final wheeze, the last bit of frenzied energy an expiring culture expends before it dies. Besides providing memorable images of debilitating hunger and the devolution of man into animals and/or madness (O’Neill’sThe Hairy Ape owes something to Hauptmann), the play is filled with lyrical apocalyptic warnings, such as the claim that the weavers will find justice only when “snow catches fire.”

The spectacle of energy expended for the sake of nothing but breaking free of respectable constraints, the exhilaration of self-destruction (a Modernist mantra) in the face of certain oblivion, explains why, along with Brecht and Lenin, O’Neill and Joyce adored this play. On the one hand, The Weavers is set at the zero hour of human endurance, the reduction of the body to nothing but skin and bones. Hauptmann carefully calibrates the various levels of panic and anomie that hunger works on the weavers. Many of the skeletal, despairing, physically crippled characters repeatedly say they wish to die but can’t. These absurdist figures, begging for their pap, would fit perfectly into a Samuel Beckett play. At one point, shades of Beckett’s Trilogy, a hungry worker talks having to suck stones rather than eat.

Color lithographic poster for Hauptmann’s play Die Weber (The weavers) by Emil Orlik, 1897.

Sensing extinction, Hauptmann’s weavers run wild, invading and wrecking Dreissinger’s home, stealing food and drink for one last good meal, tossing stones at the soldiers that come to stop them. All of the illusions of security in a hypocritical society crumble in the face of the weavers’ rampage — religion, the police, and the bosses. The chaotic violence generates joy and shame among the workers, providing, to my mind, a far more complex picture of self-destruction than the shrill cartoon in Streamers.

The Weavers deals with an entire community committing an exultant form of suicide: as one aged character confesses, “I’d have preferred not to join them, but you see … a man must breathe fresh air once in his life.” The Weavers is well worth reviving, though Frank Marcus’s 1980 translation, while admirably straightforward, is dated and annoyingly British: there are too many references to “blokes” and “juvenile delinquents.” Someone should do a new translation and adaptation with the modern global economy in mind.

The Boston University production boasts a fine set –- huge beams that hover menacingly over the performers. The student cast is variable, to say the least: the actors are too well fed to suggest the weavers’ debilitating hunger and they are far too bushy-tailed to come off as dangerous rebels – at the very least the mob has to whip up an air of anarchistic peril. The weavers’ costumes are ragtag silly, and for some inexplicable reason director Elaine Vaan Hogue uses Indonesian music, which provides little rhythmic propulsion. (Also, more use could have been made of the sound of the looms, which should be omnipresent.) But with all its faults the earnest staging gives the curious a chance to see a fabled play that brilliantly captures the end of a world.

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.

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