Jackie, Blondi, and the Mooncats
Mac Wellman’s The Offending Gesture

One of the many wonderful things about Mac Wellman’s work is that there are no boundaries to where he takes us. Sure, we can be on earth sometimes, but he’d rather not stay anywhere too recognizable for very long, and he would much prefer to be in space or on a different planet (often one of his own creation). Who can blame him? Earth is pretty awful. You know what/who else is awful? Hitler. 

Everyone Googles a little differently; some people wake up to Amazon Prime confirmation orders, and some people, specifically Mac Wellman, stumble upon golden-nugget stories tucked away in the dark corners of the internet. We’ll never know exactly what his other key words were when he was admittedly Googling “Hitler,” but we do know he found one very important Finnish dog, Jackie, who in 1941 had been expertly trained to givethe Nazi party salute at the mention of a “Heil Hitler.”  Jackie’s owner, Tor Borg, had taught him “the offending gesture”which would go on to create strained tensions between then-allies Finland and Germany.

Wellman wasn’t interested in writing a Hitler send-up—that sort of buffooning has been done so often. And to further make sure there wasn’t a chance, the script calls for eight women in the cast, including for the role of Herr Führer. Wellman was drawn to the fact that Hitler also had a dog, Blondi—what if there was a world in which Blondi and Jackie became friends and tried their hardest to understand what the political tensio ns around them were coming to?

The Offending Gesture is also a poetic indictment of American foreign policy in Iraq. During this time (1941), Iraq was high on Hitler’s agenda—he actually helped initiate the Anglo-Iraqi war, by backing a military coup which led to Iraq’s new leader cutting off the British oil pipeline to the Mediterranean; Hitler’s contribution was nominal, and Winston Churchill won. But the incident and territory are ripe for comparison and resonance with our current political landscape.

“When we demonize characters like Hitler and deify figures like Winston Churchill, I think it is a missed opportunity to learn from history and make changes in the way we respond to the present,” says director and frequent Wellman collaborator Meghan Finn. “It is more useful to look at the ways historical heroes were villainous and villains were human beings making monstrous decisions. The kind of self-interest that we’re all capable of.” 

Ultimately, in Wellman’s world, the actions of these two dogs, Jackie and Blondi, lead Noble Wolf (the English translation of Adolf) to begin World War II. But it’s their journey that is the focus. And central to that is the chorus of Mooncats, the dogs’ otherworldly advisors, who sing their wisdom as Jackie and Blondi battle the complications swirling around them. Here’s but a small fraction of their epic ballad:

We mooncats are the cat’s meow
Hurrah for mooncatocracy
Hurrah for mooncats ah yi ah yi.

Hurrah for mooncatocracy!
Bonk we in bonk we out ah yi.
Down there arf dogs arf dogs crazee.

We mooncats are the cat’s meow
Hurrah for mooncatocracy
Hurrah for mooncats ah yi ah yi.

Bonk we in bonk we out ah yi.
All is bonk all is bonk ah yi ah yi.
We move our paws our paws move free.

For Wellman, the music is the emotional center of the play, and he calls on Polish composer Henryk Górecki as his muse—specifically, the 1981 piece Miserere, which Górecki wrote as a protest to government interventions against the Polish Solidarity trade union. The fact that it was written as a protest piece was of specific interest to Wellman, and the haunting choral sounds became the inspiration for the production’s composer, Alaina Ferris. Finn and Ferris conceptualize this chorus to ground the play in a deeper, timeless, ethereal energy providing a bedding for the emotional response and making room for, as Finn puts it, “abstract thinking and to open the viewer into more complex ideas about the subject matter.”

“The majority of our practice is spent listening to each other’s tone and shaping our voices to become one voice,” explains Ferris as she talks about her process. “This gives the music a very powerful, otherworldly quality which helps to ground the comedy of the play into a more serious place.”

In the play, there is a fluidness between the earth and moon, and the dogs travel between them very simply, a casual stage direction their only rocket. The idea being, they seek the Mooncats to help them understand—the cats have perspective from their lunar perch, and the dogs need their wisdom to become their true selves. Ideas of approval and self worth, of loyalty, are discussed and the dogs take what knowledge they partake back to earth. 

Wellman’s not interested in diminishing the horror of what Hitler did, just in looking at him as a human, differently. “It’s so easy to say Hitler’s a monster,” Wellman says, “and mostly when we talk about people like that we want to distance ourselves from them. I think it’s important to realize we’re not so different.”

Near the end of the play, Blondi is upset that he is not also able to perform the salute (and not for any lack of trying). Wellman shows the soft humanity of Noble Wolf as she comforts him:

But Blondi, that is why I love you, because you are the complete expression of yourself, and there is no more of you left over, and no more of yourself when you are done, in the miracle of a moment, a gestural moment, being yourself and after all is said and done and the matter is closed once and for all, once and for all, once and for all, my dear Blondi, so come let me stroke your head.

“And Doggies!” Wellman explains. “The dog probably loved Hitler. It gave me a whole new way of viewing Noble Wolf.”



The Offending Gesture,by Mac Wellman, runs January 6 – 23, 2016, at The Connelly Theater, produced by The Tank as part of Flint & Tinder in association with 3-Legged Dog. Directed by Meghan Finn, original music by Alaina Ferris, designed by Christopher and Justin Swader, Brian Aldous and Emily Blumenauer. The cast is helmed by Layla Khoshnoudi as Noble Wolf and Abby Rosebrock as Blondi; they are backed up by vocalists including Alaina Ferris, Kristine Haruna Lee, Catherine Brookman, Starr Busby, Julia Sirna-Frest, and Lacy Rose. For tickets and further information, visit www.connellytheater.org.

 

 

 

 

Excerpt: From The Offending Gesture, by Mac Wellman

 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Helsinki. Two FINNISH Officials and one GERMAN, formally attired. Two SS Officers and one FINNISH officer are in uniform.

GERMAN1: Now what is the dog, the dog in question, doing?

FINN3: [In consternation: (What means “dog”?)]

FINN1: This is what dogs do, in other words as a dog does, scratching, lolling her tongue, gazing up at master, presumably the master, with the unconditional affection and respect that it is in the nature of the dog to exhibit. In all this the dog seems to be performing, in a perfectly natural fashion, all the traits one would expect to find in such a beast, canis familiaris.

I have an uncle in the North who raises a splendid sub-species of dog, and has interbred them with the wolf that is native to that snowy realm, and the result is a most remarkable animal, various in skills and utterly beautiful to gaze upon, and unutterably soft to the touch.

[The FINN strokes something he has in his trouser pocket, presumably something of an unutterable softness. He does this for some time becoming apparently lost in reminiscence.  All the others watch this as though almost hypnotized.]

GERMAN2: This dog belongs to a citizen of Finland, one Tor Borg, a manufacturer of pharmaceutical products.

FINN2: That may well be the case. It can be determined* easily.

GERMAN3: We have discovered the animal’s domicile and it is the house of one Tor Borg....

GERMAN2: A manufacturer of pharmaceuticals here in Helsinki. That is a fact.

GERMAN3: The name of the dog is said to be “Jackie”, pronounced “Yakkee”.

FINN3: (What means “Yakkee”?)

FINN1: Jackie?

GERMAN2: No, Jackie, pronounced in the German way. It is “Yakkee”.

FINN2: But the dog is not a German dog.

GERMAN1: The dog is not a German dog but we have ascertained that it is called “Yakkee” by the owner one Tor Borg who resides in Finland. Helsinki to be precise.

[The two FINNISH officials hold a little session in private to discuss the implications of this revelation. The GERMANS wait patiently for them to be done.]

[Silence. Silence. Pause.]

[The FINNS look up coldly.]

GERMAN1: We wish to lodge an official protest.

GERMAN2: We wish to lodge an official protest on behalf of the Third Reich, and we demand an explanation of this matter.

[Silence. Icy pause. Silence.]

 FINN1: What matter are we talking about?

GERMAN2: The matter of the offending gesture.  This dog.* The dog of one Tor Borg, a citizen of Finland, and a manufacturer of pharmaceutical products.

German1: This man, Tor Borg, has apparently trained his dog....

FINN1: Jackie...

GERMAN3: A dog by the name of Yakkee, spelled J-A-C-K-I-E, to imitate in a mocking and suggestive manner the salute of loyalty of the Third Reich.

[The GERMANS demonstrate the salute.]

GERMAN3: This we find outrageous.

GERMAN2: We demand an immediate cessation of this behavior.

GERMAN1: The behavior of the offending gesture.

[The FINNS hold a brief and private confabulation.]

[Pause. Silence. Pause.]

FINN1: There is nothing offensive about the behavior in these photos.

FINN2: She is merely raising a forepaw...

GERMAN1: She is merely raising a forepaw yes, but.

GERMAN2: The rumor we have heard is that she only does this offensive behavior at the command of Tor Borg himself who it is said has only to utter the phrase “Heil Hitler” and the dog responds in this way, making a laughing stock of all concerned.

FINN1: The dog does not appear to be making fun of anyone.

FINN2: All she is doing is raising one forepaw.

GERMAN3: The intent is offensive hence the gesture is offensive.

GERMAN1: We want it to stop.

GERMAN2: The relations between Finland and Germany, we might add, are at stake.

 

Contributor

Trish Harnetiaux

TRISH HARNETIAUX is a Brooklyn based playwright. Some plays include How To Get Into Buildings, If You Can Get to Buffalo, and Weren’t You In My Science Class?.

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