English Brecht

Raymond Williams

Bert Brecht, the Communist poet and playwright, has become a cultural monument. Is it then not time, he might ask, to consider blowing him up?

One of the problems is this kind of tough talk. A certain recklessness of language, a down-to-earth bluntness, has been widely received as his most valuable legacy. It is what makes him, some say, an essentially popular writer. But that difficult term takes us back to his period, which is essentially that of the Twenties and Thirties. ‘Popular’, then, was an apparently unproblematic defining term of the Left. There was also tough straight talk from the Fascists, but both were beyond the received intellectual consensus, with its end less qualifications and balancings.

In fact, this was only true, even then, of the most literate levels of the culture. Since the invention of wide-distribution capitalist journalism, in the second half of the 19th century, all positions, including the most orthodox and deferential, had made use of at least a simulacrum of popular talk. In our own world, a version of down-to-earth, colloquial, knockabout and name-calling talk can be found every day in the tabloid papers, some of which once held the middle ground but all of which are now hard for power and wealth and the status quo. It is depressing to trace some of the tones and devices of Cobbett, a genuine radical and popular journalist, to many of his stylistic successors who are now evidently and proudly part of the Great Wen, of the Thing. It is just as depressing to pick up so many echo of that ‘Brechtian’ talk – both hard and coarse, anti-sentimental and cynical, angry and merely irritable – in a contemporary dramatic argot. Some of it, certainly, is still in the minority radical theatre, but just as much of it is associated with that essentially conformist tendency – ‘shit to beliefs’ – which is one of the forms of cultural adaptation to power. In fact, as the history shows, that style, after the confusion of the Twenties in Germany, went as readily into Fascism as into any radical cause.

Style, that is to say, in its usual formalist version, is often the enemy of history. This is the problem, now, about the image of Brecht. For there is what we can call an English Brecht, just as there has been an English Chekhov. That mocking analyst of the historical failure and inertia of his own class was turned, in the English theatre, into a charming chronicler of whimsicality and eccentricity. This analytic and teaching dramatist is detached from his specific intelligence and viewpoint, and is then all tough talk and open stagecraft. In one influential version he is even further reduced. For he becomes, in that most persuasive of English recommendations, uncertain, and therefore interesting. Thus he is all human heart but Marxist head. He belongs to Western culture, yet (as it was recently put) has an Eastern ideology. In either version, that anti-sentimental talk, that general diffusion of doubt, that Modernist exposure of the mechanics of action, are profoundly acceptable, but only as a style. In the most reduced version, he is a vital force in the theatre, but what you can expect to see, past it all, is that engaging old muddle of the mysterious, messy human condition.

So wasn’t Mother Courage, in spite of everything, a tough old bird, going on with the war? And wasn’t Galileo, again in spite of everything, deliciously earthy, fond of his goose, bowing to the inevitable and giving his authority to a lie, but still, like a real professional, getting on with his work? As for the villains of the Threepenny Opera, aren’t they a damn sight more vital, more human (like our own dramatic Cockney cops and robbers), than most of the solid citizens you see creeping around nowadays, and Christ! don’t they just vibrate in the theatre?

It is almost useless to quote Brecht himself against any of these readings. English Brecht, like other English orthodoxies in field after field, has taken care of that. Of course he wanted to think differently, but his heart, his guts, wouldn’t let him. He knew what we are all really like, after the talk stops: trade, adaptation, entertainment; the war, the goose, the lively and stylish crimes and frauds. Of course we all want to live differently, we all want a better world, but what Brecht shows us, again and again, is how it all goes wrong, how easily we deceive yourselves, and yet, after all, how human life keeps bobbing up.

This reading is persuasive because it corresponds, in exact detail, to the dominant structure of feeling of the last thirty years. It is the Orwell version, but now more habitual and resigned. And this explains what would otherwise be the puzzling fact that the two major in fluences on English theatre in the last twenty five years have been those polar opposite, apparently – Brecht and Beckett. Beckett’s icy clarity leaves no room for doubt. The human enterprise is doomed; we play games while we wait for the end. When Brecht encountered Waiting for Godot he wanted to write a play in reply to it: the wish came too late.

But then a different process took over. Beckett’s perspective was wholly desperate, but in the theatre, skilfully played, it had its own entertaining vitality. And this was evidently a game that many could play: black despair, entire self-deception, an inevitable violence waiting in the wings: but still, a stylish and entertaining evening at the theatre. It was what Brecht had noticed and raged against in the German theatre of the Twenties, and he would probabably not have been surprised to find his own work absorbed into the new dominant structure. His central intention was always to explain why things had gone wrong, and thus to provoke us into thinking how to avoid the same old mistakes. But shift that emphasis just a little, involve us with the errors, humanise and naturalise them, and the trick is turned. Of course we all want to live differently the trouble is that we haven’t yet found out how. The errors could have been avoided, but they were not. Endgame.

English Chekhov was never mere fantasy. It was a matter of playing up certain tones, playing down others. English Brecht is a similar case. The last scene of Galileo, in which the manuscript of the Discorsi triumphantly crosses the frontier, but in a closed coach, while the boys whom Galileo might have enlightened are still talking about witches, has only to be omitted, as has often happened in production, to tilt the play towards a quite different meaning.

Yet the problem may be deeper than that. Brecht looked for historical instances and for parables as a way of teaching us lessons, not only about history, but about the contem porary world. The method quickly engages us, but in the case of Galileo, for example, the problem now is to find anybody who doubts that the Earth moves round the Sun, or who thinks that it is socially or morally disturbing to say so. He is thus available to everyone as, in spite of everything, an intellectual hero and indeed an all-purpose liberal. Brecht’s underlying argument is of course more complex. The highest value is not knowledge, or even, in that limited sense, truth. The central question is what the knowledge is used for, and Galileo’s deepest betrayal, in Brecht’s version, is to cut the links between knowledge and the education and welfare of the people. From this betrayal came the indifference and irresponsibility that allowed scientific research to present politicians and generals with an atomic bomb. Conclusion: Galileo was wrong, though in the immediate and local argument, about the Earth and the Sun, he is not only shown, but we know him already, to be right.

It is then necessary to distinguish between two kinds of cultural effect. English Brecht is a relatively obvious incorporation. The dialectic has been reduced to a method of open staging: as he put it himself, ‘the theatre can stage anything, it theatres it all down’ But in Brecht himself there is a more difficult problem. Like most of the Left in his period, he believed in popular common sense. Yet this went along, as in orthodox Leninism, with the not readily compatible belief that intellectuals had a duty to bring the truth to the people, and to resist, in this use, all the powers of church and state. Galileo appears to fit the model exactly: he discovered the truth but he failed to resist the authorities. But where then is popular common sense? Still talking about witches

The difficulty lies in the initial rhetoric. It is true, as Brecht so often insisted, that real knowledge is gained by practice, and that working men, seen as merely ignorant by princes and prelates, have their own basic knowledge of the material world in which they work. But this is very different from saying that there is any comparably adequate under standing either of the material world in which they do not work and learn by observation and handling, or of the political and economic world which organises and disposes of their labour. The gap that keeps people from the first kind of knowledge can be bridged by science and education: that is the Galileo model, and in Brecht’s version the measure of his failure. The gap that keeps them from the second kind of knowledge is evidently different, to be bridged only (as in Leninism and more generally in the socialist movement) by political organisation and education. Brecht’s image of Galileo, in which the two kinds of gap are connected and could have been bridged in the same operation, is entirely characteristic of the socialist thought of his period, in which natural science was seen as the leading edge of a more general enlightenment and emancipation. The historical version of Galileo as scientist stays relatively close to the record. The version of Galileo as failed general emancipator is not historical, but is a projection from the later form of thought.

The screw was then turned. Fascism, not only a very brutal but a very old political philosophy, was using advanced technology. Ignorance and demonology were being diffused by powerful modern means. At the same time, natural science was reaching what could be taken as its triumphant climax: learning to control the most inward secrets of matter; splitting the atom and discovering the technology of atomic power and the atomic bomb. And meanwhile where was popular common sense? Was it a force against these new destructive powers? If it was not, there must have been a betrayal, and there he was again, Galileo, the founding figure of the default.

It is significant that Brecht turned so often to the past for what were intended to be contemporary lessons. In his own time, the intellectual Right turned regularly to identify the Renaissance and the Reformation as the beginning of the decline into modern barbarism. He did not support this, but in Galileo he went to the same historical period and drew what was apparently the opposite conclusion: it was the check of those movements, the failure to carry them through, that gave barbarism its new chance. It was a generous response, and his popular sympathies were never in doubt. But the element of projection is very obvious, and it delayed the facing of any of the harder questions.

It produced, in its way, a new demonology. There has been a very deep shift, on the left, in attitudes to natural science. From the leading edge of emancipation it has become, in some influential propaganda, at best a mixed force, at worst, as with nuclear weapons, a destroyer. To watch a production of Galileo in which, over the final scenes, there are projections of the images of Bikini Atoll and Hiroshima is a dreadful test of nerve. It is much better, of course, than the naturalised image of this engagingly greedy old man who had discovered, in spite of those silly old priests, that the Earth goes round the Sun. That is simple indulgence: the easy heroics of retrospective radicalism; the even easier conceits of retrospective truth. But from Galileo to Hiroshima is also an indulgence: an ignorant if well-meant evasion of difficulties and responsibilities. It would be much better, if we want to face the problems, to look at the dramatisations of Oppenheimer and of Sakharov, but even then we would be displacing. It is what happens when, in conceit or revulsion, any intellectual is set centre-stage. Praise or blame can be heaped on him, but while we are twisting and turning about his private conscience, the major social and historical forces are given leave of absence, or are introduced only in the convenient forms of stupid bureaucracy and generous if ignorant – or let us not quite say that, let us say ‘ill-informed’ – people.

Brecht fought very hard, with the weapons of his time. He remains a quite different figure from orthodox or incorporated Brechtianism. Instead of using theatre to reconcile us to failures and errors, he worked untiringly to expose error and to show that the action could be restarted, at any time, and played differently. That is still his challenge, and the only good way of responding to it is to judge everything, including his own work, in these hard and open terms. We have then to say that in his most historical plays, like Galileo, the challenge is weakened. It is only in the wildest voluntarism that we can see that action being replayed: and the false conclusion that is then waiting, in the dominant structure of feeling, is that the weight of inherited failure is just too appallingly heavy. The Brechtian exposure of error, stopped at that point, becomes a coarse acquiescence, with the talk getting rougher, for its own sake, as the sense of hopelessness settles in. An insolated colloquial vigour is then beside the point. It finds all to easy a congruence, under its label as ‘popular’, with the hard-pressed, resentful, cursing and cynical language of subordination. We all know what the world’s like but with any luck, keeping our heads down, we’ll get the occasional goose.

‘Eats first, morals after.’ But that savage summary of what is at once bourgeois ideology and a version of popular common sense has been stood on its head, under the polite name of the ‘consumer’, now the agreed point of orthodox social reference. An entire social order is organised to define this version of human destiny, and to protect its existing supplies and privileges. The morals, as indeed always, come with the eats. But then imagine a scientist who tells us untraditional truths about the limits on resources, about hunger and population, about the pollution in so much of our production and consumption. Imagine a political scientist who tells us the uncomfortable truth that these processes are locked into a social and economic order, and that this is protected by a vast system of propaganda and of weapons. Do the princes and prelates, the electoral bandwagons, listen? Does common sense listen?

Brecht defined the new drama as one in which the spectator can sit at his ease and listen – critically, of course. It is now time to shift this relationship, to move beyond this version of critical consumption, to start to see ourselves where we have always in fact been – on the stage and in the action, responsible for how it comes out.