Forum: Issues of Gender in UNCIVIL WARSposted on November 23rd, 2009 by Laura Lee Barry
UNCIVIL WARS: MOVING W/BRECHT & EISLER is an adaptation of Roundheads and Peakheads, that attempts to contextualize and simplify Brecht’s work. The production is directed by David Gordon. Though I felt that many elements of the performance were strong, the overall production lacked passion and true innovation. Some of the most effective moments were due to creative interpretations of gender.
The first effective use of gender was through costuming. The play frequently points out that scapegoats and racism are due to minute differences between people—such as having a rounded or pointed head. Gender is a quality that categorizes and separates people immediately. For the most part, the actors wore plain, shapeless, unisex black jumpsuits throughout the show. By costuming the actors in the same genderless attire, the director unified the actors and eliminated the immediate division of gender.
The costumes also showcased gender in another fashion. Nana’s womanly sexuality was important throughout the play. She was the only character to reveal the clothing beneath the jumpsuit. She had on a tight white tank top that emphasized her womanly shape. Because she was the only actor wearing white, the audience’s eyes were drawn to her figure and immediately recognized her sexuality.
The [scene] on Nana’s sexuality is quite important. During that time period in Germany, women had few rights. The Nazis were decidedly anti-feminist. They believed that women should only fulfill the roles of wife and mother. A woman’s sexuality was a way to gain power. Nana gains privileges for her family by having sex with De Guzman and earns money with her body. She is also a powerful, manipulative woman. She accuses De Guzman of raping her and seems not to care when he is sentenced to hang. Nana also seems to have power over her father. The parent-child relationship is reversed as she takes care of him throughout the play. It also is a gender-role reversal, as men were supposed to be in charge of women during that time period.
Gender reversals were frequent in this production. Some of them seemed to have little significance. For instance, the two minor nuns were both played by males. Gordon often points out that barriers between humans are unnecessary and can even be destructive. Perhaps he is making a statement that, by not paying attention to gender in this instance, he was contributing to the destruction of barriers. Or perhaps he just wanted all the women to maintain their characters during that scene. So then he had to rely on the less necessary players, male or female, to fill the minor roles. On other occasions, I believe that the cross-gender casting was effectual.
The most effective cross-gender casting was utilizing a male to play both the Mother Superior and the Madame. Both women are in positions of power. The Mother Superior runs the convent, and the Madame runs a house of prostitution. They are both also business-minded, sharp women who seem to do just about anything to earn as much money as possible. When the play premiered, it was assumed that men ran businesses and made money. Women were discouraged by the Nazis from working or pursing an education. Gordon is satirizing the mind-set of the time period—that only a man could truly be a businessman. This was a choice that added richness to the production.
Gordon also made two other cross-gender casting decisions that worked well. The entire production was minimalistic. The costumes were lackluster. The clearly fake pointed heads looked like plain cones of paper. The set did have a television but, besides that, only consisted of metal bars, moving contraptions, and folding chairs. Even the flag was just an unadorned black cloth. By taking the focus [off sets and costumes], Gordon makes sure the audience focuses on the words, movements, and songs. Similarly, he cast two older women as Brecht and Eisler. By doing so, he made sure that one would not actually mistake them for the real people. Or even worse, the audience might spend the time trying to scrutinize whether or not the actors looked like Brecht and Eisler. By making them both women, Gordon was clearly not attempting to depict Brecht and Eisler in a realistic fashion. This takes the focus off who they were and puts it on what they are saying. Cross-gender casting is used to make sure the audience is receiving the message of the play without too many distractions.
UNCIVIL WARS: MOVING W/BRECHT & EISLER is an uneven adaptation of Roundheads and Peakheads. The production utilizes gender in a variety of ways that support its message. The different usages of gender are some of the most striking and meaningful moments in the play.
Laura Lee Barry is a student at Montclair State University. This piece was written in Neil Baldwin’s fall 2009 course “Theatre Criticism: Angles of Vision.”