— At the Festival

Published on July 9 2019

MAHAGONNY AND METROPOLIS: THE ILLUSION OF HAPPINESS

Grandeur et Décadence de la Ville de Mahagonny de Kurt Weill – mise en scène Ivo van Hove – direction musicale Esa-Pekka Salonen – Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2019 © Pascal Victor artcompress
© Pascal Victor / artcompress
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution profoundly changed the urban landscape in Europe and the United States. The countryside emptied out, and the ever-sprawling cities filled with increasingly larger populations. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the modern industrial city—a melting pot of hope and despair—became a subject of fascination and distress, as demonstrated by the fictional cities of Mahagonny and Metropolis.

Built in the middle of the desert by three scam artists with a lust for money, Mahagonny is a “trick city” designed to exploit the desires and vices of humankind. Its reputation as an urban Eden, skillfully maintained and touted by its founders, lures the hard-working masses, who complain of the gloominess and vacuity of their existences in big cities. It promises happiness on Earth to all. But what is this happiness? Here, it is a quiet life, with tobacco, whisky and ladies of the night. These pleasures are far removed from the virtuous and harmonious life of the utopian cities we have come to know in works by classic writers. Mahagonny is indeed closer to Sodom, Gomorrah, Babylon and Las Vegas than it is to the Abbey of Thélème imagined by Rabelais in Gargantua (1534), although both share the same motto: “Do what you like.” With their opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill reappropriate and transform the classic theme of the “ideal city” by criticizing the values of unbridled capitalism and denouncing the illusion of a consumer society. This writing approach was also used in creating Metropolis (1927), an iconic film of Expressionist cinema. The German director Fritz Lang demonstrated the exploitation of a working-class world by the ruling class in a futuristic and troubling megalopolis, made up of a high city—a paradise reserved for the idle elite—and a low city—an industrial hell reserved for the workers. Fritz Lang came up with this pessimistic vision of cities of the future during a trip to the United States in 1924: “While visiting New York, I thought it was a melting pot of diverse, chaotic, blind human forces, shoving each other with the irresistible desire to exploit one another, and thus living in perpetual stress. I spent the entire day walking through the streets. The buildings looked like a very thin, shimmering, vertical veil, a luxurious backdrop suspended from the dark sky to dazzle, distract and mesmerize. At night, the city did not just appear to be alive: it was alive, just as illusions are alive. I knew I had to make a film from these impressions.” The idea of illusion on which Metropolis was based is the very essence of Mahagonny. The two cities seemingly have nothing in common—one is libertarian, the other totalitarian—but they express the same rejection of a society that is seen as unfair, in which happiness is impossible. The founders of Mahagonny admit it themselves before the opera’s final chorus: “This entire city of Mahagonny exists only because everything is so bad.” That bitter lesson could very well be a warning against the dangerous illusions of any system proclaimed to be “ideal.”

Louis Geisler

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