Performing Arts

'The Brig': A Revival with Modern Themes

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Gene Ardor as The Warden i

Gene Ardor plays The Warden in The Brig. Geoff Smith hide caption

toggle caption Geoff Smith
Gene Ardor as The Warden

Gene Ardor plays The Warden in The Brig.

Geoff Smith

The Brig, a play about Marines abusing Marines in prison, is now being performed in New York for first time since 1963. The Kenneth H. Brown play is running at The Living Theatre.


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

A brutal play that focuses on military torture reopened last night at New York's Living Theater, "The Brig," first produced 44 years ago. Back then it shocked audiences with the tough portrayal of daily life and abuse in a Marine jail. Independent producer Lu Olkowski has the story.

(Soundbite of play "The Brig")

Mr. GENE ARDOR (Actor): (As Warden) See that white line maggot?

Mr. ISAAC SCRANTON (Actor): (As Prisoner Number Nine) Yes, sir.

Mr. ARDOR: (As Warden) Just to make sure, you get on your knees. Put your nose on it.

LU OLKOWSKI: It's one of the final rehearsals before the opening night of "The Brig." When it originally opened in 1963, the New York Times called it, a painful evening in the theater.

(Soundbite of play "The Brig")

Mr. ARDOR: (As Warden) Then you will sound off.

Mr. SCRANTON: (As Prisoner Number Nine) Sir, prisoner number…

Mr. ARDOR: (As Warden) Whatever number you are, get in. Request permission to cross the white line, sir. Is that clear?

Mr. SCRANTON: (As Prisoner Number Nine) Yes, sir.

OLKOWSKI: The Times went on to say that if the play was accurate, the commander in chief should investigate the abuse. After recent graphic photos of torture at Abu Ghraib and the alleged abuses at Guantanamo, "The Brig" seems tame.

Judith Malina, the director.

Ms. JUDITH MALINA (Director, "The Brig"): It's nearly the daily routine of a Marine Corps prison. Nothing particularly happens…

OLKOWSKI: Which is not to say it's calm.

(Soundbite of play "The Brig")

Mr. ARDOR: (As Warden) (unintelligible) All prisoners, draw the (unintelligible).

OLKOWSKI: The play is almost two hours of constant marching, running and shouting, broken up by an occasional punch.

(Soundbite of play "The Brig")

Mr. ARDOR: (As Warden) Is that (unintelligible)?

Mr. SCRANTON: (As Prisoner Number Nine) Sir, no, sir.

Ms. MALINA: It's a play about torture, the torture consists of living by the numbers or by the book and doing everything in an exact way.

(Soundbite of play "The Brig")

Mr. SCRANTON: (As Prisoner Number Nine) Sir, prisoner number nine requests permission to cross the white line, sir.

Mr. ARDOR: (As Warden) Move.

OLKOWSKI: In "The Brig," none of the guards ever lose control. There was a sense that nothing in the Marine Corps brig is left to chance. Kenneth Brown wrote the play after he spent time as a prisoner in the brig. He explains that Marine prisoners become willing participants.

Mr. KENNETH BROWN (Writer, "The Brig"): When you get it all down then you become an invisible prisoner because you don't do anything wrong. There's a wonderful sense of satisfaction about that. Nobody is beating you up anymore.

OLKOWSKI: And there is a macho vibe on the set. Gene Ardor who plays the warden says the role gets stuck in his head. Like recently when he was biking in the park with his family.

Mr. ARDOR: My son actually went ahead and cut out in front of some bike traffic, and I said - I screamed, you failed to obey a direct order. You endangered yourself and others, you know. And my wife just - her jaw dropped opened and said, what are you doing? Afterwards, I apologized and said, look, I'm just used to getting my way. And that's what scary. You see, I could not override the training in that moment.

OLKOWSKI: One reason it's easy to get carried away is that the production is indoctrinating the actors into "The Brig," much like Marines do in boot camp. Many of the actors are not only rebuilding the theater, but they're also sleeping there. And to get in the right frame of mind, the actors drill before rehearsal everyday.

Mr. ARDOR: If you listen to the guards when they give the prisoners orders and when they scream at them, it's all the cadence of the marching. The prisoners get up in the morning - Good morning, kitties. This will be another glorious day in the history of the United States. It's the cadence, marching. (Unintelligible), the whole thing is about that. Once you get that, you can do it.

OLKOWSKI: Any of the actors will tell you that the exhaustion from constantly marching and the repetitive cadence eventually puts them in a zone. Isaac Scranton plays Prisoner Number 9.

Mr. SCRANTON: When I'm in The Brig, when I'm in that cage, I stop thinking. I stop being a person. It's tough. It breaks a person down to just machinery.

OLKOWSKI: Ken Brown thinks that the Marine Corps is a weapon - a group of men and women trained to kill. For most people involved in this production, that answers the question, how could Abu Ghraib happened?

Mr. BROWN: In a Marine Corps brig situation, the guards are disciplining their own. So you take this procedure and you transpose it to a real enemy, all holds are off. You know, it's like, wait a minute. We had all these restrictions because we were dealing with our own people. Now we're dealing with the enemy, so why shouldn't we do all these terrible things to them.

(Soundbite of marching)

OLKOWSKI: For NPR News, I'm Lu Olkowski in New York.

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