At the Wilbur
Repertory Boston, so recently given up for dead, is demonstrating not only life but considerable liveliness in presenting the English-language premiere of Bert Brecht's "episodes from the history of the landowner, Puntila, and his hired man, Matti." Its official opening, scheduled for Tuesday, was postponed until tonight because of an injury to a cast member; at Tuesday night's preview Puntila appeared as an odd, erratic, interesting, annoying, basically refractory and intractable script, worth, in its Wilbur incarnation, more than many considerably smoother enterprises.
Brecht devoted much of his career to his ever-recurring contention that whatever decent impulses men have are frustrated by a social system based on inequality of income, and Puntila is a variation on this theme. But it is more cheerful than many of his works, since the emphasis is not so much on the system and the monstrous creatures which it makes of men, as on the abounding exuberance and health of the impulses it cannot entirely suppress. As Puntila gropes drunkenly toward the friendship of his hired man, and as the hired man gropes cockily toward the privy parts of Puntila's red-headed daughter, the outlook seems positively sunny--until Brecht's characteristic bitterness clamps down again and the hired man takes to the road, convinced that Puntila's intermittent decency cannot be relied on, and that the daughter could not live a proletarian's life no matter how much she wanted his proletarian body.
Puntila is supposed to be a fine Falstaffian fellow when drunk, (he is usually drunk): ready to use his money and power to satisfy the human and animal urges of himself and his friends. It is only during his "attacks" of sobriety that he becomes cold, hard, selfish, and nasty--or, in a word, capitalistic. "Everybody gets along with Puntila," mutters Puntila, potted--but his drunk scenes are written in a vein of repetitive, magniloquent slobbery that makes him more unpleasant drunk than sober.
His daughter and the hired man are much better company, and the celebration of the sexual instincts which they represent borders, at its best, on comic poetry. But this erotic yea-saying degenerates in lesser moments into remarkably explicit single-entendre that is crude without being funny. Crudity seems, generally speaking, to be the defect inherent in Brecht's attempt to simplify life to the point where it can be described in his almost-allegorical terms. His characters are often lifeless stick-figures whose only identity is a label, and his political and social pronouncements are over-stated, over-emphasized, over-dramatized past the point of exasperation.
This harsh, shrill, constantly-hammering quality in Brecht's writing has led Alex Horn, who directed, to impose upon his cast a degree of rough broadness in their playing that they cannot convincingly sustain. Ray Reinhardt plays Puntila with considerable authority (he can actually look like a dying deer while somebody is telling him not to); Anne Meara as his daughter has a high-spirited charm that shines out of everything she does. But even they have strained and labored moments, and certain minor cast members have no moments of any other kind. John Lasell plays the hired man with an ironic impassivity that makes a welcome contrast to all the posturing and shouting going on around him.
It is easy to spot what is wrong with Puntila, but the satisfactions of the evening, except for certain beautiful erotic-comic passages, are harder to pin-point. The play is based on a group of Finnish stories, and it manages to achieve a vaguely Finnish atmosphere: bracing and sparse. The series of unpretentious, easily-changeable settings (designed by Robert Skinner and Lorna Kreuger) have a good deal to do with this; the backdrops for successive scenes are frankly mounted on a large picture frame, and the effect is never more Brechtian than when substantial sections look as if they were made out of old packing-crates. The folkish songs composed (or, sometimes, borrowed) by Caldwell Titcomb, and sung mostly by Johanna Linch, are also highly atmospheric. These are the familiar devices of Brecht's "Epic Theatre" staging, but it seems to me that in this production they are fused in a new way with the words of the play, to create an ambience none the less real for being more vivid, perhaps, in memory than actuality.
And, as always with Brecht, there is the sense of an original, individual talent, undiverted and uncompromising, stubbornly being true to itself. This sounds like a moral rather than an aesthetic virtue, but it insures that Puntila, though often repetitive and clumsy, sometimes even boring, is seldom commonplace.