- 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. 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.
 Thames and Hudson, 272 pp., £4. 95, 1979, 0 500 27172 0.
 Oxford, 1978
 Vol. 3, No 13.
Vol. 4 No. 16 · 2 September 1982
SIR: Your readers may find it useful to note that Bertolt Brecht in America by James Lyon, reviewed in the 5-18 August issue, will be published by Methuen on 14 October and is no longer available in this country from Princeton University Press.
Methuen, London EC4
Vol. 4 No. 17 · 16 September 1982
SIR: Discussing Bertolt Brecht and Karl Korsch (LRB, 5 August), Margot Heinemann remarks that Brecht refused to identify with the ‘Korschian version’ of Marxism. Yet when Brecht made his hasty departure from the United States, he took with him the revised manuscript of Korsch’s Karl Marx, first published in pre-war Britain, and tried without success to find a Swiss publisher. So even in the late Forties Brecht had a certain sympathy with Korsch’s ideas. Or else he put friendship ahead of the ideological purity that Miss Heinemann credits him with. She goes on to speak dismissively of Korsch as Brecht’s ‘ “teacher” ’ and refers to Brecht’s ‘sharp little pen-portrait’ of Korsch as a drop-out from the class struggle. That is one point of view. Another is that of Paul Mattick, the ex-Spartacist émigré who published Korsch in the magazine Living Marxism. In a tribute written after Korsch’s death, and reprinted in Anti-Bolshevik Communism (Merlin Press, 1978), Mattick said: ‘As in Germany, so in America, his main influence was that of the educator, of the Lehrer, as he was respectfully considered by his friends… The quality of his mind and his moral integrity set him apart, and excluded him from the opportunistic hustle for positions and prominence characteristic of both the academic world and the official labour movement.’
Margot Heinemann writes: I’m sorry to have annoyed Geoffrey Minish by saying that Brecht, while learning much from Karl Korsch, always refused to identify with his ‘Korschian version’ of Marxism (the phrase, as perhaps I should have noted, is not mine but Douglas Kellner’s). This was not an attempt to credit Brecht with ‘ideological purity’, which would indeed be difficult, but a statement of fact. To ‘identify’ means, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, to ‘associate oneself inseperably with (party, policy, etc)’. And this Brecht could not do with Korsch’s Marxism as a whole, though he sympathised with some of his ideas and argued over others at length in the unpublished Me-Ti and in the ‘friendly discussions’ I referred to. As Klaus-Detlef Müller’s essay on Me-Ti in the volume under review (Bertolt Brecht: Political Theory and Literary Practice) demonstrates, the two continued to disagree on crucial aspects – notably about the Soviet Union, about Leninism and Lenin’s view of ‘Left-wing Communism’, and about the attitude to be taken towards Stalin, on which Müller says: ‘Brecht defended him because the alternative to Stalinism in the given circumstances was not a better socialism but the counter-revolution.’ With respect, the question at issue is not what Geoffrey Minish, Paul Mattick or I think now about Korsch and his views (which remain of interest), but what Brecht thought and why. For this the short text ‘On My Teacher’ is highly relevant, though not the only source. Since it is not as far as I know available in English, it may be useful to give a translation of it:
My teacher is a disappointed man. The things he took part in did not turn out according to his ideas. For this he does not blame his ideas, but the things that turned out differently. Indeed he has become very mistrustful. Everywhere he sees with a sharp eye the seeds of future disappointing developments.
He believes firmly in what’s new. So he loves the youth, who for me are merely immature. But he sees them as still full of possibilities. So, too, he believes in the proletariat. Sometimes it seems to me that he would feel it his duty to do more if he believed in it less.
My teacher serves the cause of freedom. He has freed himself pretty well from all kinds of disagreeable responsibilities. Sometimes it seems to me that if he insisted less on his own freedom, he could do more for the cause of freedom.
His help with my work is invaluable. He discovers every weakness. And immediately he makes suggestions. He knows a lot. It is difficult to listen to him. His sentences are very long. So he teaches me patience.
He has lots of plans, which he seldom carries out. A passionate desire to give something perfect usually deters him from giving at all.
He does not like telling how he arrives at his often surprising conclusions. It may be that he does not know himself; but it may also be that he is indulging in the deeply-rooted vice of all teachers, to make himself indispensable.
He is very much in favour of the struggle, but he himself does not actually struggle. He says it is not the right time for that. He is for the revolution, but he himself is actually rather developing what evolves.
He has difficulty in taking decisions about his personal life. He always keeps the greatest possible freedom for himself. If something gets lost as a result, even something important, he is not unhappy.
I think he is fearless. But what he is afraid of is getting involved in movements that run up against difficulties. He lays too much stress on his own integrity, I think.
With the proletariat too he would only be a visitor. One never knows when he will take off. His trunks are always standing ready packed.
My teacher is very impatient. He wants everything or nothing. I often think: to this challenge the world has a way of replying: ‘Nothing.’
Brecht looked to Marxism not as a dogma of ‘ideological purity’, but as a method of analysis and a source of ideas that would work in the bitter fight to change the real world of the ‘dark times’. In the practical struggle for socialism he was prepared to see as inevitable compromises, imperfections, wrong turns, even harshness, to a degree for which he has often been attacked since.