Brecht understood theatre not just as a form of entertainment, but as a vehicle that could help workers understand and analyze their political situation, he felt theatrical performances should appeal to reason and not simply give way to sentimentality. In the 1957 book, Brecht on Theater, the playwright described his theory of “alienation effect” theatre as being that “which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor – and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer.” The original Brecht production of Mahagonny, as with his other plays, utilized various contrivances to prevent viewers from being lulled into a theatrical fantasy. Stage settings were deliberately sparse and flooded with harsh lights, with no attempt to hide stage lighting equipment. Slogans and explanatory text were projected upon stage walls, and actors carried placards onstage bearing political messages. With outbursts of songs whose lyrics drove home his political points, Brecht would use music itself to interrupt stage action.
By the closing scenes of the L.A. Opera production, if you haven’t already recognized that we are all living in Mahagonny, the opera offers a reflection of our commodity spectacle society that is so searing you’re likely never to forget it. It’s here that the brilliance of John Doyle’s direction becomes apparent. As the lumberjack Jim MacIntyre is put on trial for the crime of having no legal tender, the stage is transformed into something evocative of a set for a television game show. Paparazzi and court reporters roam the stage with hand-held video cameras, projecting the court proceedings onto a giant flat screen monitor suspended from the ceiling. As Jim is sentenced to die and we see his face larger than life on that huge flat screen, it’s as if the ghost of Brecht has come back to scold us for being so easily distracted by the frivolous media spectacle that daily blinds and misleads us.
The updated finale of the L.A. production preserves Brecht’s intention of theatre provoking an audience to thought and action. Jimmy MacIntyre has been executed, and as the people abandon the deteriorating and collapsing city of Mahagonny in droves, an oversized electronic ticker-tape machine suspended over the stage flashes its digital red letter message – For the Freedom of the Rich – For Property – For Theft. Forsaking the sinful city, a long line of black-suited men carrying briefcases shuffles grimly by, and out of their midst comes the prostitute Jenny. She’s carrying all that she has left of her lost love Jim, an American flag that has been presented to her, smartly tucked and folded into a tri-cornered shape, the type of flag presented at US military funerals. The obvious reference to America’s war dead in Iraq is chilling. Jenny holds the folded flag up towards the audience – and the stage goes dark.