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Document 1442335
 The European Origins of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined
David Caldwell
Ruined, a play by Lynn Nottage, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April 2009 after it appeared at
Chicago’s Goodman Theater and New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.1 Seeking to bring the
entangled postcolonial brutality of a central African rainforest to the urban/urbane jungle,
Nottage cites two origins for the play: her visits to Uganda in 2004 and the theater of Bertolt
Brecht. While Brecht demonstrated a metaphorical interest in the jungle as environment in his
play In the Jungle of the Cities (1924), Nottage’s interviews with female Congolese refugees in
Uganda led her to a comparison with the experiences of Mother Courage, the central character in
another Brecht play, Mother Courage and Her Children (1939).
The most direct Brechtian connection in Ruined rests in its lead character Mama Nadi, performed
in the New York production by Saidah Arrika Ekulona. She operates a comfort station for
guerillas and soldiers of various loyalties in the war torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, a
shifting African political terrain doubtlessly just as volatile as Brecht’s scenario of the Thirty
Years War, where provisions peddler Mother Courage sells her wares to customers on both sides
of the conflict. Mama Nadi is both the protector and exploiter of the young women in her charge.
Her relationship with them, as well as with her merchandise supplier and sometime suitor
Christian, is alternately stormy and tender. She mollifies Christian’s sensitivity to the hard
bargains she drives as a businesswoman by serving strategic bottles of orange Fanta on the
house, while Christian in turn lubricates the relationship with chocolates and poetry. Mama
Nadi’s and Christian’s material, emotional, and physical desires sometimes tip dangerously
toward self-destructive indulgence, mirroring on a personal level the greed and the destructive
impulses that are ravaging the country at large. Christian’s penchant for orange soda conceals a
weakness for hard drink. Mama Nadi’s proud confrontations with gun-toting customers and her
hunger for profit put her and her girls at constant risk.
Eventually their commerce culminates in a human transaction, as Christian successfully
relinquishes his battered niece Sophie to Mama Nadi’s entrepreneurial embrace. Sophie joins
Salima and Josephine in Mama Nadi’s bar and brothel, where the clever newcomer promptly
Caldwell 2 begins skimming money from Mama’s revenue in order to save up for a medical procedure that
can correct the bodily damage inflicted upon her by sexual violence. (Sophie is “ruined,” which
though never explicitly explained in the play’s dialog, we are given to understand results from
attacks on Congolese women by soldiers who rape them with bayonets.)
Salima, though not designated as “ruined,” has a similar story, sacrificed to the abusive neglect
of her husband, a soldier who lurks in the jungle near the brothel, unwilling to accept his wife’s
declaration of independence: She calls out to him “You will not fight your battles on my body
any more!” Josephine is the third girl in the brothel. She is a character reminiscent of Natella
Abaschwili in Brecht’s other great study of motherhood, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Although
she does not share the principled defiance of her “sisters,” Josephine is no less a protégé of
Mama Nadi in her determination to exploit a hegemonic male economy to her advantage.
Josephine eagerly offers herself to an aging European businessman, Mr. Harari, envisioning
herself being happily married to the commodities broker, but even more happily to his
commodities.
Mama Nadi’s ample bosom is the repository of cash retrieved from all manner of threatening
male customers who represent different sides of the civil war, the soldiers’ roles interchangeably
played by the same actors. In contemporary central Africa the sustenance of motherhood
normally associated with maternal breasts is transformed to financial transaction. “Mama” is a
title that designates not just a maternal role, rather also the material means to sustain that
function. The interdependence of motherhood and money, the prerequisite of physical sustenance
for moral actions, are conditions that Brecht understood would not be limited to his lifetime.2
Even so, playwright Lynn Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey, who directed the play in its
initial runs, are as conspicuously aware of Brechtian theatrical tenets as they are determined to
eschew them at crucial points in the work. The jungle of tree trunks comprising the set
effectively merges with the thicket of the backstage mechanical apparatus, blurring the boundary
between the reality of the theater and the constructed reality of its setting. On the other hand,
Nottage’s production also resorts to classically narrative and often obvious metaphors, relying on
such props of dramatic theater as sullen birds in a cage and a raw diamond in Mama Nadi’s
treasure box as reminders to the audience of the currently sad but obscurely promising condition
of the women trapped in a jungle of male violence. As with Brecht, musical interludes of song
Caldwell 3 and dance engage the audience, even as a concluding dance between Mama Nadi and Christian
steers the play into a search for equilibrium through romance, a resource unknown to Mother
Courage and the suitor cook who is Christian’s counterpart.
It is Mama Nadi’s secret wound, revealed only at the end of the performance, that one might
think makes the orbit of this play most elliptical to epic theater and its insistence on transparency
and provocation--functions that are undermined by Nottage’s strategic concealments from the
audience. As Ben Brantley has written in the New York Times, “The play isn’t a form-shattering,
soul-jolting shocker like . . . [a] more innovative study in wartime atrocities . . . or an intellectual
epic like Mother Courage and Her Children. However, precisely because of its artistic caution, it
may be claimed that Ruined is likely to reach audiences that are averse to more adventurous,
confrontational theater. And people who might ordinarily look away from horror stories of
distant wars may well find themselves bound in empathy to the unthinkably abused women
. . .” (C1, C9).
Celia McGee, a theater critic who interviewed the playwright, notes, “One of the first things Ms.
Nottage was able to jettison by developing her own conception rather than staging a version of
Brecht’s was [quoting Nottage directly] the ‘kind of distancing Brecht strove for from his
audience so he could engage it intellectually,’ . . . . Nottage goes on to say, ‘I believe in engaging
people emotionally, because I think they react more out of emotion’ than when they are
‘preached to, told how to feel. It was important that this not become a documentary, or agitprop.
And that Mama Nadi is morally ambiguous, that you’re constantly shifting in your response to
her’” (AR4).
The surface features of the epic theater appear to have taken hold, as Celia McGee puts it, “So
many decades have washed up against the muddy wheels of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother
Courage and Her Children, that the title has sunk deep in to the ordinary and the familiar”
(AR4).
The “hard part” of epic theater, as corroborated by Nottage herself, is the distance to the
audience, that potential for open-endedness that seems lacking in Ruined. The impulse and desire
for closure and tidiness are too compelling to allow the play to end without them. Possibly, as
Caldwell 4 Ben Brantley suggests, the playwright considers the audience already to have enough hard work
to do as they are confronted with what he terms “unthinkably abused women.” It would be too
demanding of the audience to expect them to be emissaries of epic theater through their
participation in a dialectical process of engagement. Some reviewers of the play, myself among
them in my initial responses, have suggested that opting out of Brechtian theater, with the
exceptions of a maternal namesake, some features of set design, and the songs in the play that
evoke Brecht’s use of music, translates to a lack of confidence in the audience. Brecht’s methods
empowered audiences but also challenged them and entertained them. What Nottage describes in
her conversation with Celia McGee as “engaging people emotionally, because . . . they react
more out of emotion . . .” may be seen as an abdication of engaged theater in favor of dramatic
identification without personal and political reflection. By invoking Brecht on the one hand and
on the other hand explicitly refusing to employ epic theater in any thoroughgoing way, the
playwright expresses a lack of confidence in at most the industriousness of the audience, and at
worst a lack of confidence in its ability. While Nottage indicates to McGee that “It was important
that this not become a documentary, or agitprop,” Ruined clearly appeals precisely to audiences
accustomed to consuming cultural products, for example, documentaries or entertainment
fiction—packaged narratives that relegate the viewer to a passive role, even as the viewer is
informed, enlightened, delighted, or shocked.
There are of course Brechtian moments in the play, as there are with increasing
inconspicuousness in many contemporary literary narratives. Mama Nadi remarks at one point in
Ruined, “I didn’t come as Mama Nadi, I found her here.”As Mama Nadi’s remark attests and as
Brecht taught, it is possible for individuals to learn, change, and become. In this sense one might
be encouraged that Nottage departs from the recommendations of a white 20th century
playwright. However, in the times since Mother Courage and Her Children, the healing
experienced among Nottage’s characters in 2009 takes place mainly within the boundaries of the
theater. The satisfaction derived from this competent literary experience is described by online
critic Yvonne Korshak as “… perversely… a pleasant evening of theater” [Korshak,
http://letstalkoffbroadway.typepad.com/my_weblog/ ]. But it does little to bridge the distance
between Broadway or Off-Broadway and the Congo, or to ensure that the economy of
contemporary motherhood will enable the daughter to survive the jungle any less wounded.
Caldwell 5 Critics of the play largely agree that there is a distinct cachet to citing Brecht as an intellectual
progenitor. Again the appeal remains largely on the surface, with some exceptions. The play not
only removes itself from any obligation to follow through with a Brechtian model, its author also
boldly declares independence from Brecht. Despite his personal vanity, Brecht himself would
likely have applauded that independence from a political perspective. His ambitions of versatile
and worldwide applicability notwithstanding, a vision in which epic theater equates to global
theater, Brecht was more experienced at co-opting foreign or anachronous settings (the
Caucasus, China, America, 17th century Europe) than he was at applying his theatrical concepts
to contemporary cultural realities that lay outside his immediate experience. This he encouraged
others to do in their own contexts, and for the most part they have done a good job. One thinks of
Heiner Müller in the GDR and later in united Germany, and Tony Kushner and Moises Kaufman
come to mind as successors to Brecht in the US. Nonetheless, the injunction against absolute
dualities, the ability to learn, grow, and become in the midst of threatening circumstances, as
encouraged by epic theater, does not necessarily resonate with Africans whose historical,
political, and economic reality has taught them to survive precisely by negotiating competing
sources of aggression and control. Mama Nadi can serve up orange Fanta on the one hand, but on
the other hand she can bristle and threaten with self-protective zeal. Her sometime suitor
Christian can show up with gifts of chocolate and self-composed poetry, yet he can also arrive
with a ruined girl.
It is quite possible that the women of the Congo have less to learn from an epic conceptualization
of their predicament, because from the outset, unlike Westerners, they are not adherents of
absolute categories or dualistic thinking, nor can they be. Ultimately, Nottage’s self-direction is
not unlike the impulse by which Mama Nadi can say she created her identity, or “found” herself.
Of course, a successful Brechtian production would likewise point to Brecht in an equally muted
way, not drawing attention to its method, rather to its projected outcome and to the viewer’s role
in that outcome. The ideals of an engaged and thinking, not merely emotionally responding
audience should be independent of identity with the action on the stage, i.e. avoidance of the
“fourth wall” scenario, but also independent of identity with the persona of Bertolt Brecht. Even
Brecht was aware that a cult around him as author would undermine his success in promoting
independent human thought and action. Just so, the centrality of the character Mother Courage in
Caldwell 6 Brecht’s play is challenged by the title’s extension, “and her children,” placing Mother Courage
in the context of a human constellation rather than in the role of a heroine.
One wonders if Mr. Harari, the lone European figure in Ruined, is not a stand-in for Brecht
himself. Like “poor BB,” the forlorn persona in Brecht’s early autobiographical poem, “Vom
armen BB,” the aging, roughed-up pale-skinned colonizer in Ruined appears out of place among
the black cast in much the same way that epic theater is described as alien to Africa. Harari, who
appears late in the play disheveled and barefoot, having been robbed of his shoes, is welcomed to
Mama Nadi’s bar, exploited, and dismissed, in much the same way that Lynn Nottage embraces
epic theater, culls what benefits she can from it, and then openly abandons it.
Having reluctantly acquiesced to Lynn Nottage’s separation from Brecht, I shall now attempt to
reconcile them. If Celia McGee is correct in saying that Mother Courage “has sunk deep in to the
ordinary and the familiar,” then it must be expected that artifacts of Brechtian alienation would
be present in Ruined as well. We might anticipate that alienation would be no less present in this
play than it is, say in counter-cinematic films or clever television narratives where an actor
shatters the fourth wall by looking into the camera. These techniques seldom if ever pay direct
tribute to Brecht.
I maintain that the Brechtian alienation lying within Ruined is present already in its title. To
understand this comparison it is necessary to consider the differing roles of the “children” who
are the casualties in Ruined and in Mother Courage and Her Children. In the Brecht play the
children Eilif, Schweizer Kaes, and Kattrin fall prey one by one to the overwhelming force of the
Thirty Years War. The impact of that geopolitical event, which is a stand-in for the war that was
about to befall Europe in 1939 and for all wars before and since then, is registered in personal
terms by means of children who have died. In Ruined Mama Nadi’s three prostitutes and charges
are also the casualties of war, though rather than being killed by soldiers, they stand to be
physically mutilated by them. The tally of casualties, culminating in Mama Nadi’s revelation in
the final scene of the play that she too is ruined, is not a body count the way it mounts in Mother
Courage, for example with the wrenching separation registered by actress Helene Weigel when
she performed as Mother Courage and emitted a silent scream at the moment she knew her son
had been killed. Instead, Ruined confronts us with an account of those women who are forced to
Caldwell 7 confront a different future for themselves. The term “ruined” interrogates the meaning of the war
casualty, in much the same way that Brecht in his play dialectically challenged our complacent
understanding of war and peace. The reference to peace in Mother Courage and Her Children,
i.e. that “peace has broken out” (186), creates a dissonance with our usual understanding of what
it is that “breaks out,” namely war, leading the thinking audience member to consider that war is
normal, and peace is the anomaly.
Similarly, I believe that the concept “ruined” leads us to reconsider the meaning of the war
casualty. Remarkably, there are no deaths on stage in this play, and only one that is related
vicariously, a missionary who challenged the soldiers and was reported later to have been killed.
“Ruined” suggests that the casualties of war must contend with a designation imposed upon them
by others, initially by the assailant. It is Christian who first uses the word, not Sophie. Unlike
death, “ruined” is an attribute that the victim can choose to accept or to redefine, to remedy with
surgery as Sophie hopes to do, or to incorporate into a new life as Mama Nadi ultimately
attempts.
The redefinition comes in the aforementioned dance between Mama Nadi and Christian. This
dance is a culmination of an interpersonal negotiation that has taken place throughout the play,
marked with strategic embraces and releases, assertions and accommodations. The closing image
of Mama Nadi and Christian embraced in synchronous dance signifies that there can be life after
ruination, that difference need not exclude the possibility of acceptance. What Mama Nadi calls
her self-discovery in the jungle is an ongoing process, not unlike the forward-moving circularity
of Brechtian metaphors of ongoing advancement.3 In the latest stage of development she has
made a decision to abandon concealment in favor of accepting difference and moving forward.
While the dance will not heal her wound nor put an end to sexual violence, just as Mother
Courage and her suitor cook had no more food or security at the end of Brecht’s play than they
did at the beginning , it does represent a joining of forces, a motion in tandem, agreement on
common interests and goals, and hope for the possibility of change.
Caldwell 8 Endnotes
1
References to Ruined are observations and quotations from a performance at Manhattan
Theatre Club. The play has recently been made available in print: Nottage, Lynn. Ruined. New
York: Theatre Communications Group, 2009.
2
See in particular Bertolt Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre.” 1949. Brecht on
Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willet. London: Methuen: 1964,
179-205.
3
For example, the stones rolling along the bed of the Moldau River in Brecht’s “The
Song of the Moldau:” “Am Grunde der Moldau wandern die Steine.”
Works Consulted
Brecht, Bertolt. “Vom armen BB.” Gesammelte Werke. Vol. 8. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1967.
261-3.
-----. Mother Courage and Her Children. Trans. Ralph Manheim, Bertolt Brecht: The Collected
Plays. Vol. 5. New York: Pantheon, 1972. 133-210.
Brantley, Ben. “War’s Terrors, Through a Brothel Window.” New York Times. 11 February
2009. C1, C9. Web. 15. September 2009.
Korshak, Yvonne. “Let’s Talk Off Broadway: Ruined by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kate
Whoriskey, Manhattan Theatre Club.” N.p. 15 March 2009. Web. 10 September 2009.
McGee, Celia. “Approaching Brecht by Way of Africa.” New York Times. 25 January 2009.
AR4. Web. 15 March 2009.
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