Sunday, April 13, 2008

Theatre Review - "Puntila and His Hired Man, Matti"

Bertold Brecht’s “Puntila and His Hired Man, Matti,” Frank Theatre, City of Minneapolis Garage.

The Frank Theatre is probably one of the most political theatre companies in this town, along with Penumbra, Mixed Blood and Intermedia Arts. Frank specializes in left-wing content, and moves its ensemble cast to unique locations, acting in a different venue for every show. I consider it the best political theatre in town. This time the production, which has now ended, was in a garage along Hiawatha Avenue used by the City of Minneapolis. Frank built comfortable risers to sit in, painted parts of the walls, railings, and various objects to look like birch trees, and generally used the space well.

The play, a typical comic cabaret, is set in Finland, where Bertold Brecht lived in exile for a time. It was written in collaboration with Finnish-Estonian playwright Hella Wuolijoki, but then Brecht renamed it and published it under his own name entirely. It tells the story of a landowner, Puntila with multiple personalities, who is interested in marrying-off his daughter, Eva, to a diplomat. The play is based on the transitions between a drunken, gregarious and generous life-of-the-party Puntila to a sober and vicious milk landlord Puntila, and back again. Matti, his trusty chauffeur, has to deal with the transitions, never forgetting that the drunk will turn back into a landlord with a hangover. Matti is almost the sole voice of logic and reason in the play. The actor, with a beard, goatee and driver’s hat that made him look vaguely like V.I. Lenin, at one point asks, “What is to be done?”

Indeed. What is to be done with the bourgeoisie?

While drunk, Puntila and Matti engage in banter, and Puntila discovers that Matti is a ‘real human being.’ Puntila is also acting like a ‘real human being’ when drinking, though a high-handed and arbitrary one even then. When drunk, Puntila loves Finland’s natural beauty – its birch forests, 70,000 lakes and mountains – and even chastises Matti for thinking he would ruin a forest to make money. (Marx himself equated the destruction of nature with the exploitation of the working class. It seems that Brecht is echoing this theme here.) Puntila, played by the actor Grant Richey, is a non-stop fun show when drinking. Over one randy past-midnight jaunt to a small village, he somehow manages to get engaged to four different village women, inviting them all to come to his estate on the same day for the culmination of their ‘engagement.’

The engagement day actually centers on the engagement of his daughter Eva to the “attache,” a gay young man in the foreign-service who owes Puntila a lot of money. Puntila, for somewhat obscure reasons, is encouraging the romance in order to gain favor with people in the government. Chain-smoking Eva is a pampered young woman schooled in Switzerland, who is trying to rationalize her engagement to a homosexual, but is having some doubts. Matti and she eventually hatch a plan to break the engagement by pretending to have a romantic tryst in the sauna. Minnesota readers will appreciate the sauna scenes, which incidentally feature no nudity. Now, at least, we know what goes on in such places..

The big day arrives. Early in the morning, Puntila’s four prospective brides arrive, each with a ‘ring’ on their finger made out of curtain rod loops that Puntila had given them, and the requisite ‘drink’ of aquavit. In a sober rage, Puntila orders the foolish women home, and they trudge the many miles back to their village while telling stories about the cruelty of the landlords and businessmen of Finland. One story involves the reds jailed after the working class rising there in 1918. Finland, after 600 years of Swedish rule, was from 1908 until 1917 under the control of the Czar. In 1918 the USSR gave Finland independence, something Kerensky had not been willing to do. During the white terror in 1918 during and after the Finnish civil war, won by the Whites under Mannerheim, between 8,400 and 14,600 red guards were executed out of hand. Anyone missed by the terror was blacklisted from work, kicked out of school or otherwise brutalized. This is the historic background for the seemingly innocuous joking atmosphere of the play itself.

The big day continues as the now drunk Puntila examines his prospective son-in-law, who misses the point of an obvious joke. Puntila realizes the attaché is a waste of a forest and an idiot, not to mention a bad match for his daughter. (He would have had to sell a forest as, I think, a dowry.) Puntila chases the attaché off the property, along with his senior sponsor, another government minister.

Here starts the central scene of the play. The remaining parties gather along a long table reminiscent of the last supper, with the Rabelasian Puntila in the Christ position. He suggests to his daughter that she should really marry Matti. A priest is appalled. Eva, cigarette-in-hand and tipsy, however agrees. Matti then attempts the ‘education’ of Eva, showing her how she would live as the wife of a chauffeur. Her hands would be reddened by work. They would eat herring 5-7 times a week – the main staple. There would be no money for anything. Cigarettes would be too expensive. He’d be woken at night and have to go to work, no matter what. There would be little romance for Eva, as the exhausted chauffeur would just need his boots removed and herring on the table. Eva reluctantly agrees that perhaps that type of life would not be so enjoyable. And so Brecht undermines one of the key myths of bourgeois society – that there are no barriers between classes, and that ‘love’ conquers all.

The next morning the hung-over and sober Puntila returns, fires a worker that might have had ‘red’ sympathies (it is unclear the offense) and then pledges to destroy all the booze in the house. Booze, after all, is the liquor of democracy, it seems. The servants bring out bottle after bottle of aqua-vit to be broken, and Puntila … starts drinking again. He creates a hysterical and dangerous scene upon a pile of tables and chairs over his love of the Finish landscape. The traditional bourgeois ending of the play, of course, would have been for Puntila to find his inner 'human,' and then Matti could freely mary Eva - perhaps getting a sawmill in the bargain, and everyone living happily ever after. Instead Matti, now thoroughly sickened, leaves the estate the next morning, never to return.

The play is full of singing, as Brecht plays tend to be, and ends with a socialist hymn to the time when there will be no masters and slaves, only men. The alternation of the semi-sympathetic ‘drunk’ Puntilla with the sober/cruel Puntilla shows that bourgeois society has two faces – and that even if one is in force, the other is not far away. A dry drunk is the most dangerous of men!


Ortho said...

Great, well-written review! Your words put me in the audience.

Renegade Eye said...

Thank you for the review. I will check them out.