Modern Brecht

Margot Heinemann

  • Bertolt Brecht in America by James Lyon
    Princeton, 408 pp, £11.00, January 1981, ISBN 0 691 06443 1
  • Bertolt Brecht: Political Theory and Literary Practice edited by Betty Webber and Hubert Heinen
    Manchester, 208 pp, £15.00, February 1981, ISBN 0 7190 0806 9
  • Brecht by Jan Needle and Peter Thomson
    Blackwell, 235 pp, £9.00, February 1981, ISBN 0 631 19610 2

‘Sacrilege sanctifies.’ Under this heading Brecht cheerfully sums up what happens to plays, like Shakespeare’s, that outlast their own time – and what may now be happening to his own:

What keeps the classical plays alive is the use made of them, even if it’s misuse. In the schoolroom morals are squeezed out of them: in the theatre they provide the vehicles for self-seeking actors, ambitious Lord Chamberlains and profiteers out to make money from evening entertainments. They’re plundered and castrated; so they survive ... A rigid cult would be dangerous, like the ceremonial which forbade Byzantine courtiers to touch the persons of the nobility, so that when the latter fell in noble intoxication into a pond they got no help. So as not to die themselves, the courtiers let the nobles die.

Brecht himself, now accepted as a classic, is certainly in no danger of dying from an excess of reverence. Books and theses continue to pour out, some of them providing valuable new information and insights, many of them ‘plundering and castrating’ in the interest of views very unlike the writer’s own. New Brecht productions may present anything as anything: Galileo becomes Trotsky, The Measures Taken is moved from starving China to the Committee on Un-American Activities, and every character from Baal and Mackie to Schweik and Azdak becomes a speaking likeness of Brecht himself. We have now a Stalinist Brecht, a Trotskyist Brecht, and a Brecht so ‘ambivalent’ that he can safely be regarded as timeless, non-political English. At least all this testifies to the interest among new generations in his work. The problem isn’t of a ‘rigid cult’, but, rather, that the mass of commentary – moral, academic and political-will overwhelm the great plays altogether, so that even where Brecht’s central meaning is clearly stated it’s treated as irrelevant or unfashionable.

Every generation wants to read Brecht afresh for itself. And some would agree with Henry Glade who writes in Bertolt Brecht: Political Theory and Literary Practice: ‘to be effective, Brecht’s plays have to be treated as classical texts, rigidly subjected to a contemporising process, in the manner demonstrated for Shakespeare by Jan Kott.’ But although Brecht was in favour of adapting and reworking classical texts to make them clearer and more instructive for a modern audience, he had little use for ‘contemporisation’ in the sense of arbitrary updating. If we simply ‘annihilate distance, gloss over the differences’, as he complained the bourgeois theatres did when they played Shakespeare, we make our own historical situation seem eternal and unalterable: whereas the central aim of Brecht’s drama is to ‘show society – on the stage – as alterable by society – in the audience’. The director, in his view, needs to bring out the historical and social circumstances, especially when these have changed since the play was written. (Since Brecht did not die as long ago as Shakespeare, many of them, unfortunately, have changed very little.)

Brecht, like Shakespeare, and unlike many modern ‘Brechtian’ critics and directors, was intensely interested in history, as providing both direct ‘sensuous’ enjoyment and the central means to political understanding and intervention. Peter Brook once said he himself had no sense of history as a reality: ‘History to me is a way of looking at things, and-not one that interests me very much’; the artist’s vision is concerned with the present. This view, whatever may be said for it, is very unBrechtian. Faced by so much innovation and ‘ruthless contemporising’, one is reminded of Brecht’s remark that ‘the most conspicuous innovations are not always the most useful’– a comment originally made about Hamlet in a dinner jacket and Caesar in Wilhelmine uniform, but even more applicable to Galileoas-Trotsky or Fatzer as an analysis of disputes in the German Communist Party. The plays work better, do more, if they’re set not too far from the tragic or grotesque historical context out of which they come.

For the English reader who wants to understand Brecht’s work in its setting (sacrilege can come later), the starting-point still has to be John Willett’s The New Sobriety 1917-33: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period.[1] This marvellously illustrated book takes us through all the bitter political and cultural history, from the aborted revolt of the returning soldiers in 1918, the killing of Liebknecht and Luxemburg by military murder-squads, through inflation, semi-starvation and brief boom to the slump and the Nazi counterrevolution of 1933.

I came to the cities in the dark times,
When hunger ruled.

In the early Thirties, with 40 per cent unemployed, economic bankruptcy, disillusion with successive social-democratic governments and Communist votes rising to almost six million, the Left (and Brecht) were confident that the workers would rise and make a revolution, conceived in the image of October in Russia. They underestimated the drift of the regime to the right and the deep appeal of the Nazis to despair and national feeling. The left-wing cultural, theatrical and sporting movements, the huge working-class participation in audiences and choirs and agit-prop, blinded revolutionary writers and artists to the growth of Hitlerism elsewhere, and to the danger of the divisions on the Left which allowed the Nazis finally to come to power.

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[1] Thames and Hudson, 272 pp., £4. 95, 1979, 0 500 27172 0.

[2] Oxford, 1978

[3] Vol. 3, No 13.