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?

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