Baal was the first play Brecht ever wrote, and his last. He completed its first draft as a young man in 1919 to parody German Expressionism, a style that revolted against industrial modern life and advocated a return to a mythic pastoral era. Brecht wrote Baal long before he had formulated his later famous ideas about utilizing critical distance in the theatre to support Leftist politics. Over the course of his life, he rewrote the play repeatedly, attempting to fit it into his subsequent, more utilitarian view of theatre. But Baal, like its protagonist, resisted any type of imposed structure, and its four subsequent drafts, including the one Brecht was working on at the time of his death, were failures.
Because Baal is a play that resists structure, you cannot apply academic formulas or easily box it into a category. It will not give in to traditional approaches to production. It is often mistaken for German Expressionism, and Baal is frequently made out to be a rock star, fighting the system. But, of course, rock stars are one of the ultimate expressions of the system, and no successful rock star would refuse the offer of material success made to Baal in the opening scene of the play.
This play must be approached on its own terms, which is one of drunkenness. Baal is drunk on women, wine, and principle; and the actions of the play’s inhabitants must always be seen through this lens. Baal is the name of a Mesopotamian fertility god, and is later a major demon in Medieval Christian theology, the genesis of the name Beelzebub. And like an audience with a demon who is also a god, being in the presence of this play as spectator or artist calls for constant awareness, openness, exploration, and risk...
And throughout the whole play is the music. Brecht wrote it with lyrics, and Josh Schmidt has composed ravishing original songs for this production using Brecht’s text. When the characters and the plot are not obvious, the hymns and the songs lead us through the passion. Because of that, Baal’s model is as much Medieval Mystery play as it is a parody of German Expressionism; it is an attempt to present something eternal. Perhaps that’s why Brecht could never force the play into his later, much more limiting, political beliefs.
- Jacob Juntunen, Dramaturg