Tuesday, April 19, 2011

All the world's a stage

We had the kind of night out that only tourists really do: an ice-cream in the sunshine in Trafalgar Square, dinner at Planet Hollywood and then a West End Show. It seems I barely leave the house any more except to go to Wilkinson in Stratford; this excursion was the cause of much excitement for me. It's long been one of my favourite films, and Kander and Ebb's music is always wonderful, although much of their shows are pretty much unheard of these days. (I really want to see a revival of Flora, the Red Menace though!) The two that survive, Cabaret and Chicago, both provide Brechtian social commentary through the filter of a meta-dramatical show within a show.

When I mentioned how much I loved Chicago to a friend, she was taken aback that a feminist would enjoy such a sexist musical. It is true that all the characters, male and female, are dressed only in transparent black underwear throughout, except Mama Morton, the prison warden, Billy Flynn the lawyer and Amos, the cuckolded husband. For two of these, their clothes mark the power and status they enjoy over the other characters, mostly criminals from Prohibition-era Chicago's seedy jazz-men-and-booze-ridden underworld. For Amos, his cardigan is a reminder of his utter boringness and near-invisibility.

While I tend for some reason to rather enjoy all the near-naked dancers, I wouldn't be so crass as to uphold them as a model of progressive feminism. When I think about why they need to all wear body stockings, I come up with this: to uphold the comparison that is constantly drawn between the real world and life on the vaudeville stage. Murder, prison, the trial: all are presented as showpieces with a different music-hall audience each time. The famous 'Razzle-Dazzle 'Em', Billy Flynn's advice to the murderer (all the murderers are females who have killed men) facing Death Row, is the key to the whole musical.
Give 'em the old three ring circus
Stun and stagger 'em
When you're in trouble, go into your dance
Though you are stiffer than a girder
They'll let you get away with murder
Razzle dazzle 'em
And you've got a romance
Do wear your silver shoes; do start crying and have to be passed a handkerchief; do ham it up for the jury. And of course Roxie and Velma, two budding stars who are willing to follow Billy's advice and put on a bit of a show, are both found Not Guilty. The nearest the show comes to a moral about crime and the justice system is through the only accused murderer who consistently appears innocent: the Hungarian, whose faith in Uncle Sam's justice leads her straight to the hangman's noose.

It's an immensely satisfying experience to watch a show that laughingly accepts the world for just as corrupt, money-grubbing and violent as you experience it yourself. The depiction of the gutter press could have come straight from a blog like Angry Mob. No one is what they seem, and judge, jury, murder victim and murderers alike are all stripped bare to their fishnet. What you say no longer matters, just the way in which you say it. And the glitter you spread around. Well, that can't be a new concept to many of our politicians. Think, for example of US former Ambassador and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who would wear a different brooch to accompany different speeches. What was she doing, if not giving 'em the old razzle-dazzle?

How else is Chicago important for women? Well, it's about women. Women and the men they use - Amos - and the men they are used by - Billy Flynn. So it consistently problematises male-female relations, taking the view that all relationships are primarily materialistic (see All I Care About is Love). Except in Chicago, when men outlive their usefulness, you shoot them in the head with a sub-machine gun. Roxie and Velma use men to get to the top, but they are both eventually let down by them; not in the 'usual' way, but because everyone in Chacago is interested in one thing only: fame. When another, more exciting murderer comes along and grabs the headlines, the two stars find themselves having to turn to each other to keep their show-biz careers alive. This is no beautiful proto-feminist reconciliation: they have already highlighted their reluctance to rely on anyone else in a little number:
I play in a game where I make the rules
And rule number one from here to the end
Is 'I am my own best friend'
I don't want to present Chicago as a miracle of modern feminism. Like all art, it is deeply marked by the society that produced it, and it certainly doesn't harm ticket sales that there are a lot of near-naked dancing boys and girls. But it has to be remembered it is a play about the devious, dishonest things women have to do to succeed in a male-dominated society. As the ultimate amoral characters, Roxie and Velma achieve a Brechtian detachment from the audience: we are unable to empathise with them and so they are able to teach us something, unhindered by any feelings of kinship or psychological understanding. This detachment is crucial to what Brecht perceived as 'radicalising' theatre: the actors are giving the audience a message, not creating a safe space in which we can all share our feelings. The message is not didactic: we can choose how we respond. It could even be summed up by Brecht himself:
Ein guter Mensch sein? Ja, wer waer's nicht gern?
Doch leider sind auf diesem Sterne eben
Die Mittel kaerglich und die Menschen roh
Wer moechte nicht in Fried und Eintracht leben?
Doch die Verhaeltnisse, sie sind nicht so!
And having brought us this message through a couple of hours of amazing dancing, humour and song, leaving the audience as razzle-dazzled as the jury, Chicago goes out with a bang. as Roxie and Velma do their big number. They have succeeded in their dream: but audience are fickle and we don't know how long the dream will last. One thing Kander and Ebb love is the circular narrative. And one thing we know is that the Chicago underworld and its avid press reporters will remain completely unchanged by the events of the show. The question is, will we?

My favourite line from the show comes from the finale, a celebration of the ridiculous and permissive nature of modernity, 'Nowadays'.
You can like the life you're living
You can live the life you like
You can even marry Harry
But mess around with Ike
Here at last, Velma and Roxie have put aside their differences to focus on what the have in common: a shared interest in fame and money. The musical thus presents the sisterhood as having been formed through contingency not solidarity: and while we might not want to believe this as young, positive idealists, there is certainly some food for thought there.

1 comment:

Frances Grahl said...

To be a good man? Of course, we all want that!
But this world just never has enough
Resources or good feeling to go round
Of course we'd like to live in harmony!
But the real conditions won't let us be.

(Brecht and Weil, my translation, from The Threepenny Opera)