Eva’s Threepenny Theatre

By Andrew Steinmetz

One of the hallmarks of what’s come to be known as literary postmodernism is the shift of attention away from texts as something made and onto the conditions of their making, emphasizing process over product. In some ways it’s akin to the playwright Bertolt Brecht’s goal of alienation, deliberately making the audience aware that what they are watching is something constructed by taking them behind the scenes or in some other way outside of their comfort zone. The goal? “To represent the familiar as unfamiliar.” The method? “Estrangement, disharmony, detachment.”

Which is one way of introducing Eva’s Threepenny Theatre, a “fiction about memoir” wherein Andrew Steinmetz reflects upon the life of his great-aunt Eva and (though he fails to get equal billing in the title) grandfather Hermann Hans. Exactly how much of the story is fiction and how much memoir is impossible to say. Steinmetz inserts himself as a character into the narrative – sitting at a table with Eva and recording her voice on a tape recorder, digging into his own memory vault to bring the family chronicle up to date – but even here he doesn’t tip his hand. Indeed as the book progresses it becomes harder to figure out who is supposed to be talking, as though the narrative’s proscenium arch – Steinmetz’s or “Steinmetz’s” own point of view – had quietly dissolved.

One thinks of Edmund Morris’s controversial biography Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, and how he put fictional elements like invented characters and dialogue to use in attempting to paint a fuller portrait of the notoriously distant (I’m speaking euphemistically) president. Since Morris the blurry line between fact and fiction in memoir has become something of a cultural tar baby. Steinmetz avoids getting sucked in to the debate by labeling his book a novel, but the tension is one he still wants to employ, both for the power it grants him to get inside his subject (see Morris), and for its usefulness as a tool to explore the relationship between art and life (see Brecht).

Brecht himself is both a player in a bit part and a Puckish presiding spirit, strolling through the text in signature garb – “Blue poplin jacket. Cap and cigar. Workman’s trousers, and socks down around his ankles” – casting Eva as a whore in Die Dreigroschenoper, and giving lectures on Epic theatre. From an early age Eva is “theatre people,” the world her stage. Unfortunately the times went mad and the Nazis were theatre people too, albeit given to producing political kitsch for the masses they despised. Life, to restate my own corollary of Wilde’s dictum, imitates bad art. Eva came to Canada.

If Brecht tells us that all art is artifice, Eva reminds us that “art and life are two different worlds that share the same stage.” Again we have the foregrounding of the truth/fiction divide: “Life is what happens when you breathe. A story is a life pulled through the theatrics of time and place. Eva knew the difference.” Meaning she knew that any life turned into narrative, any life remembered (the brain has an affinity for narrative), has become a fiction. And so Steinmetz can declare that “Eva and I meet on the high plateau where authorship is shared, where vision is everything and reality nothing.” They are both theatre people in their bones.

The resulting performance is a highly original reflection on memoir, one that views not only an individual life but an entire family history as a coherent – because shared and mutually meaningful – stream of spots of time “pulled through the theatrics of time and place.” That it is a novel, a fiction, is made to seem less a Morris-like cop-out than an inevitability. Life is what happens when you breathe and fiction is what happens when you write.

Review first published May 18, 2009.

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