My Pilgrimage: Chapter Two
By Michael Moriarty
As I’ve said in Chapter One of My Pilgrimage, Richard Wagner never started entering my life in any serious way until at least two thirds of my present life was already over.
Bertolt Brecht, on the other hand, has been an indelible corner of my consciousness since my senior year in college during which I performed as Mack The Knife in the Brecht/Weill musical, The Threepenny Opera.
In one of my previous years at Dartmouth College, I appeared in a play, Danton’s Death, by one of Brecht’s foremost influences, the early 19th Century German playwright and indisputable genius, Georg Büchner.
There are geniuses and then there is the record-setting, intellectual prodigiousness of Georg Büchner.
It is difficult to imagine a mind as young as Georg Büchner’s not only setting revolutionary alarms at the tender age of 22, but, because of a revolutionary pamphlet critical of social justice in the Grand Duchy of Hesse, he was charged with treason by the local authorities. As a result, Büchner fled to Strasbourg.
Then, two years later, he moved to Zurich where he eventually died from typhus at the age of 23.
Not without a massive combination of both coincidence and irony, a composing hero of mine, Alban Berg, set another one of Büchner’s plays, Woyzeck, into one of the greatest operas of the 20th Century, Wozzeck.
Still a revolutionary opera to this day.
The state of mind and emotions which Wozzeck leaves its audiences in is still like no other that I have ever experienced.
Its influence on me, to this day, is on as profound a level as anything I experienced as an infant with Rachmaninoff or as a teenager with Miles Davis.
Twelve tone romantic lyricism seems almost a contradiction in terms but, yes, a heartbreaking love story can, indeed, be told through the seeming chaos of an atonal jungle.
So, in my early 20s I’m introduced to both the prophetic genius of a 19th Century, demi-infant terrible, Georg Büchner and his 20th Century, musical interpreter, Alban Berg.
I’m an actor, however… and… well… gee… I’m also obsessed with the potential power of a truly modern opera!
No! Not the melodrama’s of Wagner nor the romantically irresistible and luscious harmlessness of Puccini’s love songs but an entirely new way of looking at reality through a revolutionized harmonic system.
And I’m not even 25 years old yet.
No, that doesn’t, by any means, show any genius on my part… but it does, however, begin to share my growing plight with the increasingly irresistible magnetism of what I was obviously obsessed with: the requisite necessities for a truly modern and, by now, important third millennium opera.
When do I meet Bertolt Brecht again and what might be described as German, Leftist Expressionism again?
During the end of the 1960’s!
At the Guthrie Theater Company.
There I’m appearing in small roles for that ensemble in Brecht’s satire of Adolf Hitler: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
Upon leaving the Guthrie in 1969, I’m playing George Garga in a production of In The Jungle of Cities in Boston.
I am, just now, listening for the first time in a long time, to The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
It is officially called an “Opera”.
The format, however, also has as much a sense of a Broadway satire with music as it does any full-fledged opera!
With the importance of the Brecht/Weill corner to my second opera for The Lionhead Ring, this is a blissfully inspiring liberation!
Am looking forward to finding my own distinctively operatic style amidst these major, wildly apparent influences: Wagner, Ancient Greek music, Alban Berg (The Büchner influence eventually upon Bertolt Brecht), Kurt Weill and, finally, after increasing experience with the world of opera, Moriarty’s own, unique and individual “operatic” style!
It is a most thrilling potpourri of influences surrounding me!
Not to mention all the possible allusions to America’s popular songs and musical styles.
Is the very Brectian “Narrator” a possibility?
With Jimmy Blossoms/Dionysus throughout The Lionhead Ring, the “Narrator” already is a major centerpiece to all of the operas?
Will there be the classic three operas, the Wagnerian four or a revolutionary five operas within some of my “Rings”?
That remains to be seen.
With all this concern about the “finished product”, I’ve lost touch with the chronology of my life experiences with opera and the likes of Wagner, Brecht, Georg Bushner and Alban Berg.!
Where were we?
My appearance in Boston as George Garga in the Charles Street Playhouse’s 1970 production of Brecht’s The Jungle of Cities.
Brecht: ONE UNENDINGLY LONG AND ANGRY SHOUT!
Weill’s music doesn’t move through the drama, it POUNDS through it.
Brecht’s plays and librettos satirize EVERYTHING!
He doesn’t, as he implores his audience to, objectively ponder and meditate on what occurs onstage.
He looks down on it!
And one gets the strong feeling that Brecht looks down on his audiences!
In short, he looks down on everything!
His only joy seems to be the depth of his smugness and self-satisfaction.
No wonder he is eternally “fashionable”!
The “Fashionable” of the world?!
They all seek a perch where they too can look down on everything.
Where is the chronology in my life with Bertolt Brecht?
Brecht returns to it in the mid-1970’s.
In the activities of my Manhattan theater company, Potter’s Field.
A reading of Brecht’s first play, Baal.
Not even then has Richard Wagner, nor any of his operas reached the forefront of my consciousness.
It’s Brecht again!!
My sneaking suspicion that, as a disillusioned and increasingly lapsed Catholic, Brecht may be right about the basic fundamentals of man’s most passionate pursuits in life: eating, love-making, fighting and drinking.
The more hypocritically highlighted objectives for society such as business, a “civilized” society, charitable institutions and generally self-righteous behavior everywhere?!
All worthy only of Brechtian contempt!
But here is where my two main subjects, Wagner and Brecht, may involuntarily find a meeting place and similarly suicidal conclusions!
Both The Ring of the Nibelungs and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny have a similarly despairing conclusion.
In the third act of Mahagonny an unavoidable conclusion to the preceding two acts is that the humanity of Mahagonny cannot be sent to hell because they are already in hell.
As in the last opera of Wagner’s Ring, Götterdämmerung, Brecht has what is left of civilization burning in the background.
Both Wagner and Brecht, in their largest and longest creations, conclude that there is nothing anyone on earth can rely on.
Meanwhile, the poet of Brecht’s first play, Baal, commits an entire bouquet of heartless crimes.
As Wikipedia describes the play’s final scene: “Baal is nonetheless brought low by his debauchery, dying alone in a forest hut, hunted and deserted, and leaving in his wake the corpses of deflowered maidens and murdered friends.”
There is nothing more conducive to a spiritual renaissance than the bitterly intellectual misanthropy and malevolence contained in the “realities” of an atheist like Bertolt Brecht or a virulent anti-Semite such as Richard Wagner.
Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who starred in the landmark television series Law and Order from 1990 to 1994. His recent film and TV credits include The Yellow Wallpaper, 12 Hours to Live, Santa Baby and Deadly Skies. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/@MGMoriarty.