Each Scene for Itself

David Edgar

  • War Primer by Bertolt Brecht, edited by John Willett
    Libris, 170 pp, £35.00, February 1998, ISBN 1 870352 21 1
  • Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches by John Willett
    Methuen, 320 pp, £12.99, February 1998, ISBN 0 413 72310 0
  • Brecht and Method by Fredric Jameson
    Verso, 184 pp, £19.00, November 1998, ISBN 1 85984 809 5

The major contribution of the English theatre to last year’s Brecht centenary was Lee Hall’s dazzling version of Mr Puntila and His Man Matti, presented by the Right Size, a touring company led by the comic actors Sean Foley and Hamish McColl. Their prologue goes some way to explaining why the Anglophone response to the Brechtfest was so muted. Announcing that ‘Before we start/this evening’s art/we’d like to take you through a bit of theory,’ Foley and McColl went on to outline the origins of Marxism, the theory of surplus value and the essence of Brechtian dramaturgy in 16 doggerel lines.

The mock-pedagogical tone of the song (‘For here comes Brecht/and we expecht/ your essays to be handed in by Friday’) is both a joke on and an acknowledgment of the fact that the ideology which for Brecht was the future is for us in the past. Ironically, the tone of the Right Size’s Puntila was absolutely Brechtian: sly, cool, back-footed in manner but foregrounding both the actorliness of the actors and their considerable comic skills. These aspects of Brecht sit easily with the contemporary world. It’s ‘Brecht’ the construction, certainly Brecht the Marxist, that seem old-fashioned, out of place, even risible.

The centenary of Brecht’s birth (in Augsburg on 10 February 1898) was not completely ignored by British publishers. Libris have produced a handsome edition of War Primer, a series of short poems illustrated and inspired by war photographs Brecht clipped from newspapers (‘Look at the helmets of the vanquished! Yet/Surely the moment when we came undone/Was not when they were smitten from our heads/But when we first agreed to put them on’). As well as translating War Primer, John Willett, co-editor of the new Collected Works, has revised his volume of essays, Brecht in Context. Although hostile to John Fuegi’s argument, set out in The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht (1994), that Brecht’s working method was essentially plagiarism buttressed by sexual banditry, Willett confronts the issue of Brecht’s relations with his sources, collaborators and lovers (there is a new essay on Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht’s main collaborator in the Weimar period, and the author of the book of Happy End). He explores Brecht’s somewhat unexpected English literary favourites (Kipling, Wodehouse), his tempestuous dealings with the composers Weill, Eisler and Dessau, his sometimes craven opposition to ‘abstract formalism’ in the visual arts and his largely bootless attempts to break into movies and make it on Broadway. There are essays on his often turbulent relationship with Auden (who described Brecht as one of the three positively evil men he had met), and his intermittently stormy dealings with the director and producer Erwin Piscator (who listed his attitudes to Brecht in two parallel columns – ‘Pro: brother in spirit; Con: not always a good one; Pro: gave help nonetheless; Con: when I was unsuccessful’).

If Brecht is merely the sum of stolen parts, it’s a miracle he produced anything at all. Defending him against Fuegi’s charges, Willett points out that collective work was part of the spirit of his times: a point put more aggressively in Fredric Jameson’s Brecht and Method. For Jameson, Fuegi’s attack is essentially political – a case of market-led individualism desperate to deprecate the ‘truly revolutionary collective experience’ that reached its apogee in the Sixties.

It is possible to be too romantic about Sixties collectives, as anyone who was in one knows. But thinking about ‘Brecht’ as a patchwork at least rescues us from the sort of art-collapsed-into-life biography by which the English-speaking world is presently plagued. Instead, we can think about the method and purpose of the Brecht we still see on the stage and the bookshelf, a Brecht who may be more profitably confronted when the fiftieth anniversary of his death comes up in seven years’ time.

Of all the postwar moments that Brecht could have chosen to die, the summer of 1956 was probably the most piquant. In February Khrushchev had denounced Stalin, whose ‘usefulness’ Brecht had controversially acknowledged. The workers’ protests in Poznan in June echoed the East Berlin demonstrations three years before, to which Brecht had responded sufficiently ambiguously to win the Stalin Peace Prize. He died on 14 August, not knowing that Poznan would prove a dress rehearsal for the Hungarian Uprising in October, which itself took place within a month of the death rattle of that imperial mission of which Kipling was the bard, on the banks of the Suez Canal. This coincidence of Suez and the Hungarian Uprising made it clear that the Left still had work to do but that the Communist Party was not up to it – and this in turn led first to the reorganisation of the Left in Western Europe, and then to 1968 and the rise of the women’s movement, and from there down the long and winding road to multiculturalism, moral relativism and Post-Modernism.

If current Brechtology has a subject, it is Brecht’s relationship to that process. Elizabeth Wright’s Post-Modern Brecht (1989) sought simply to claim him as an embryonic Post-Modernist, on the superficially bizarre basis that the Marxist-Leninist playwright was ‘sceptical of what Lyotard called the great narrative, the great danger, the great hero, the great wrong, the great goal’. Jameson takes a much more elliptical view of Brecht’s contribution to a way of looking at the world which arose out of the collapse of most of what Brecht believed. ‘Is there not,’ he asks,

something itself profoundly un-Brechtian in the attempt to reinvent and revive some ‘Brecht for our times’, some ‘what is living and what is dead in Brecht’, some Post-Modern Brecht or Brecht for the future, a post-colonialist or even post-Marxist Brecht, the Brecht of queer theory or of identity politics, the Deleuzian or Derridean Brecht, or perhaps the Brecht of the market and globalisation, an American mass-culture Brecht, a finance-capital Brecht: why not?

Despite this, and while acknowledging that Brecht’s commitment to activity and change poses a considerable challenge to the current stasis brought about by globalisation, Jameson admits that his project is in part to welcome Brecht into Post-Modernity. Like Elizabeth Wright, he relies on the ‘decentred structure of Brecht’s theatrical writings’ which allows one ‘to wheel them around in various directions’, and as part of this wheeling and dealing he seeks to enlist both the early anarchic Brecht and the stern didactic Brecht of the so-called ‘teaching plays’ in a more profoundly disjunctive – and open – aesthetic than is admitted by conventional criticism (or conventional readings). And he employs a Brechtian binary paradox to argue that minimalism and excess are dialectically related, and that the fondness of the two great mid-century European playwrights for the fabular emphasis of the definite article – The Woman, The Tree, The Soldier, The Leaf, The King, The Rope – implies that Brecht and Beckett are in essence two sides of The Same Coin.

Jameson’s core argument requires even more dialectical agility. He is excellent on the East Asian plays, noting Brecht’s tendency to take his oppressors from the capitalist, rather than the landowning, classes, but his oppressed from the peasantry rather than the workers. In Post-Modernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Jameson argued that, culturally, Modernism is a tussle between the pre-modern, and thus the rural, and emergent modernity in the industrial cities, while Post-Modernism is the cultural condition of a time in which the connection between the modern and the pre-modern has finally been severed. On the surface, Brecht would seem to qualify as a Modernist in ideology (the ‘popular mechanics version of science and knowledge will necessarily be a modern one in Brecht’) and a pre-modern by inclination (‘this despite the immemorial peasantry that stands behind so much of his work and his language’) and so to have little to say to a world defined by its distrust of scientific rationalism and lack of connection with the land.

Jameson’s argument is that Brecht went back to the peasantry because only there could he find examples of change. It’s true peasant life is ‘immemorial’ and stagnant, but Brecht’s inclusion of peasant history ‘was necessary in order to recapture and represent the note of Hope it could alone afford’. What the peasant perspective on history offers is the great redemptive moment, ‘a vision of change as a kind of immense window, not unlike Bakhtin’s theorisation of Rabelais as a brief moment of freedom between a scholastic Middle Ages and a counter-revolutionary baroque’. The character who can most obviously be seen through this window is Azdak, the drunken ne’er-do-well who accidentally becomes the judge in the dispute over the ownership of the child at the centre of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and whose judgment is sensible and pragmatic but also magical in its revelation of ‘the paradox of a golden age that cannot last’. For Jameson, the last chorus of the Chalk Circle, speaking of a time that was ‘almost just’, represents a dialectical union of ‘fear and loss, permanency and celebration’, the ‘span of time and the utopian regret that tinges contemplation of a “golden age” that lasted but a season’.

In this, Jameson’s rhetoric appears to have captured Brecht not for Post-Modernism but for a pre-modern vision of utopia; his description of the garden of Azdak could apply, without changing a single word, to the forest of Arden. As Elizabeth Wright argues, Brecht was theoretically hostile to Lukács’s vision of a world that is potentially whole, and thus capable of inspiring ‘the revolutionary reader with utopian hope and faith’, and while Azdak is a kind of Merlin he is also a kind of Schweik, cutting the dialectical knot by cunning and quick-thinking rather than by recourse to unearthly powers.

If there is a Brecht for our times, it is not the utopian visionary, but the practical saboteur of the supposedly eternal. In this, he relates most clearly to a Modernism of which Post-Modernism is essentially a degeneration, Mannerism to Modernism’s High Renaissance, rococo to its baroque (or indeed glam rock to its Beatles). This is the Modernism which flew kites higher in the sky than had ever seemed possible, and the Post-Modernism which cut the strings. The elements which are prefiguratively Post-Modern in Brecht – the use of mosaic and mixed media techniques, intertextuality, indifference to the distinction between ‘high’ and popular art, and most of all his insistence on the malleability of the self – are those which Modernism provided in embryo. Whereas the bits of Brecht that are distinctly un-Post-Modern – usefulness, usedness, simplicity, weight – are precisely those elements of Modernism whose absence defines the difference.

Like Jameson, I welcome the retranslat ion of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt not as ‘alienation’ but as ‘estrangement’, the nearest possible equivalent to Shklovsky’s ostranenie. For Shklovsky, ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stoney,’ which is clearly close to Brecht’s definition of the Verfremdungseffekt as ‘a representation . . . which allows us to recognise its subject, but at the same time make it seem unfamiliar’. In this sense, the device doesn’t set out to make things clear, but to make them odd. But odd for a purpose: to make us want to find out how they work (one of Brecht’s examples has to do with driving a Model T Ford, and being reminded that a car essentially proceeds by explosion). Brecht broke things down in order to understand how they fitted into a pattern obscured by rhetoric, sentiment and familiarity. For Post-Modernism, the point of breaking things down is to find out that there isn’t a pattern at all.

That Brecht’s methods have been put to uses that can be very different from those for which they were intended is shown by his practical legacy in Britain – the country on whose theatre he has had the greatest influence (apart from his own). As Willett points out, it is hard to take Brecht’s favourite aphorism (‘the proof of the pudding lies in the eating’) entirely seriously: ‘nobody is all that much of an Anglo-Saxon empiricist whose theoretical writings can occupy six or seven volumes.’ On the other hand, Brecht’s contribution to British theatre has been immeasurable ever since the Berliner Ensemble’s propitious 1956 British debut.

As with Pinter, Brecht’s lasting impact has been dramaturgical. True, there is an important, consciously Marxist strand of British postwar playwriting – from John Arden and Edward Bond in the Fifties and Sixties to John McGrath and Howard Brenton in the Seventies and Eighties – which has sought to renew and develop the Brecht project as a whole. But just as there is hardly a line of dialogue in the post-Caretaker British theatre that does not owe some thing to Pinter, so Brecht’s major legacy is the transformation of the vocabulary of dramatic structure, encapsulated in the slogan ‘each scene for itself’.

Brecht confronted a theatrical aesthetic dominated by Ibsen’s legacy. The plays of Ibsen’s mature period strive above all else for a dramatic seamlessness that encourages emotional intensity. Although the ‘back story’ may reach back several decades, the stage action of a typical mature/late Ibsen play almost always takes place in a single location (sometimes a single room) over a couple of days. And while there are set-piece sequences built round a memorable metaphor, what we take away from an Ibsen play is the memory not of particular scenes but of an emotional confront ation between the characters which becomes more and more intense as they reveal and come to terms with the crimes of the past.

Brecht’s dramatic technique is precisely the reverse. As he put it in the Shorter Organum, the individual scenes of a play must ‘be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed. The episodes must not succeed one another indistinguishably but must give us a chance to interpose our judgment.’ So while Ibsen strives to make each scene seem part of the same gathering movement, Brecht tries to make each scene as different as possible from those which follow and precede it, to make it operate like a little play of its own. Furthermore, unlike Ibsen, Brecht shows events in the present, at the moment when the character could have behaved differently, rather than retrospectively, with the character trapped in an unalterable past.

It is this way of constructing plays from quasi-freestanding scenes which has had the greatest influence on Brecht’s Britsh successors, including both the Angry Young Men of the late Fifties and the generation of British playwrights who were formed by the student revolts of the following decade. Brecht’s challenge to the inevitable does not imply a denial of causality: his invitation to the audience is precisely to find the links between scenes separated in place and time; and his early British successors followed him in separating out the scenes of their plays in order to demonstrate more clearly how they connect. In the Eighties and Nineties, however, when Brecht’s politics began to lose their purchase with the Thatcher victory of 1979 and the fall of East European Communism ten years later, the connecting membrane between freestanding scenes was stretched to breaking point and on occasion beyond it.

The major event in the history of playwriting in Britain in the Eighties was the emergence of a generation of young women playwrights who sought to express meaning in the manipulation of chronology. In the same way that Brecht invites us to ask why the action in Galileo has moved to a ballroom, a marketplace or the Hall of the Collegium in Rome, so Charlotte Keatley’s meaning (in her play about four generations of women, My Mother Said I Never Should) is contained in the juxtaposition of scenes not only separated but reshuffled in time. Caryl Churchill in Top Girls also puts the scene which chronologically would have opened the play at the end, but she goes one further than Keatley: the first scene, a gathering of successful women from different periods in history, is essentially connected with the rest of the play by theme only.

This finding of meaning not within but between scenes is the common factor between two kinds of writing which have emerged in the Nineties. The first consists of plays by and about young men, which although radical and shocking in content, appear strikingly, though often deceptively, conservative in form. Kevin Elyot’s Aids play My Night with Reg looks like a conventional three-act drawing-room comedy, but is deliberately and cunningly off-centred, so that action which initially appears more or less continuous between the acts is in fact separated by months, during which the major events of the play have taken place offstage. Similarly, many of the scenes in Patrick Marber’s Closer are entirely taken up with setting out the changes which have occurred in the sexual configuration of the characters since we saw them last. In Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking an entire scene is a contest between readings of events which occurred – as it were – during the scene change.

In all these cases what appears to be a conventional narrative is thrown off centre by the writer’s decision to present the ‘wrong’ scenes, to show not events as such but the way they are made into narrative. Two other writers – one a woman, the other a slightly older man – have produced important plays in the Nineties in which this decentring is expressed in the play’s form as well as its plotting. Rebecca Prichard’s 1994 Essex Girls appears initially to be no more than two independent slices of life, the first in a schoolgirls’ toilet, the second in the high-rise flat of a young mother: the point of the play is to find the connection (placed, as it happens, in the future conditional) between them. This technique was given a further twist by Martin Crimp in his 1997 Royal Court play Attempts on Her Life, in which a series of apparently disconnected groups and individuals describe what we are invited to think of as one woman who has various mutually contradictory nationalities, histories and ages; who appears at one point to be a terrorist (of the left or the right), at another the drowned daughter of grieving parents, at another an artist and, at one point, a newly-launched car. Crimp’s purpose is not only to question whether we can truly know another human being, but whether we can regard other people as existing at all, independent of the models we construct. By inviting us to find connections between freestanding scenes he demonstrates that the project is doomed. Just as deconstruction employs the interpretative vocabulary of structuralism to question the possibility of interpretation, so writers like Crimp use the analytic vocabulary of Modernism to challenge the notion of causality.

Contrary to Elizabeth Wright’s hopes, the Nineties have not seen the end of mimesis in the theatre. What has taken place is an altogether more subtle recoding of the basic Brechtian unit, often for purposes contrary to Brecht’s own. As Jameson acknowledges, Brecht wanted theatre to expose the contradiction between personality and circumstance in the belief that this would enable us to change circumstances in such a way as to allow good people to act well. Crimp believes we have no personality beyond what is imposed – by equally suspect subjects – from outside. The fact that Crimp couldn’t have written Attempts on Her Life had Brecht not written The Mother is a contradiction; and also a challenge.