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.

Willett’s conclusion about the intensely committed and fascinating art of the Weimar period seems to me still unanswerable. ‘More than any others, people like Brecht, Grosz, Piscator have come to look like the artists of our age,’ but, brilliant though they were at devising new forms, they failed on the crucial political level: they probably didn’t convince anyone who didn’t already agree with them. Perhaps, he says, this is why those, such as Brecht, who survived without renouncing their left-wing views altogether chose not to return to the old militant methods. ‘For while the black-and-white, either-or approach to political art may have been artistically compelling, it proved ineffective and even dangerous with regard to politics itself.’ If the Left parties had been prepared to gloss over their differences they would have kept Hitler out.‘This is something that should not be forgotten when we admire the effects of polarised political tensions on the creative artists at that time ...’ A ‘learning piece’ like The Measures Taken of 1930, formally powerful and exciting, in the lessons it provides for the amateur actors (reform as a hindrance to revolution, the Party rather than the workers deciding what action to take) is very much part of this political climate which Brecht had painfully and critically to transcend. That he not only survived the strains of exile, which drove so many to despair or cynicism, but, helped by steadfast collaborators, worked on, without a theatre, to write his most widely-appealing plays, is an astonishing achievement.

Bertolt Brecht in America authoritatively brings together as much factual information as we are ever likely to need about Brecht as a refugee there from 1941 to 1947. Professor Lyon has drawn on letters, archives and the FBI’s 1,000-page file on Brecht, as well as interviewing scores of his contemporaries. The ins and outs of his quarrels with producers and managers about the staging (or more often non-staging) of his plays are now of interest mainly to specialists, but the material makes it possible to dismiss some of the wilder fantasies in other books. It emerges clearly, for instance, that Brecht never had any intention of making his home in America, and regarded with some contempt those exiles who did. Though privately concerned at repressive aspects of Stalin’s rule so far as he knew of them (as writings like Me-Ti and his working diary make abundantly clear), he deliberately never published on these lines, was known in the emigration as a strong defender of the Soviet Union, and was often regarded therefore as a ‘Stalinist’ pure and simple. His hatred of capitalism was confirmed by all he experienced of its workings in America. As he saw it, ‘free’ Hollywood controlled the most advanced medium and the most skilful writers to produce kitsch films to drug the public. He got little work, and only one of the films he worked on extensively was made. If in his youth he had shared in the ‘Golden Twenties’ cult of America as the new scientific culture, nothing of this survived his sojourn there. The last straw was his summons in 1947 before the Committee on Un-American Activities, where, as Lyon shows, his evasive but not unprincipled tactics were understood and endorsed by other accused Hollywood writers such as John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo. He left for Europe the next day.

The papers from the International Brecht Society’s 1976 conference, published as Bertolt Brecht: Political Theory and Literary Practice, are mainly by American and West German critics; they concentrate rather selectively on minor and largely non-dramatic works. As Frank Trommler says in a sceptical Afterword (to my mind, the most perceptive part of the book), these essays show ‘to what a large degree his work is used as a vehicle for contemporary concerns, to what extent he is cast as a guru for artistic intellectuals’. Like Trommler, I have ‘reservations; about what seems to me the exploitation of Brecht for the furtherance of one’s own ideas’.

The usefulness of Brecht as a classic is different today in different parts of the world. In the German Democratic Republic and Eastern Europe he is a catalyst for the discussion of the modern in art and for social criticism. There are interesting essays by Henry Glade on Soviet Brecht productions since 1956, and by R. J. Rundell, T. Fiedler and W. Koepke on his influence on East German poets such as Günter Kunert and Wolf Biermann who are critical of the regime. Meanwhile, as Trommler says, in Western countries, ‘Brecht challenges us to take a stand on Marxist criticism of prevailing conditions under capitalism.’ That challenge isn’t much in evidence in this collection, however.

The essay by the late Betty Nance Weber, arguing with scholastic ingenuity that Brecht’s Galileo is meant to represent Trotsky and his Pope Stalin, may seem to belong to the wilder Bacon-wrote-Shakespeare genre, and was apparently rather too way-out for her co-editor, Hubert Heinen. But this is only the most extreme of many recent attempts to re-read Brecht – which incidentally turn him into an acceptable Cold War classic – by softening his anti-capitalism and making a critique of communist bureaucracy and tyranny the main thrust of his writing. In this reading of Galileo, the threat of nuclear holocaust is reduced to a metaphor. Attention is diverted from the plainly-stated objects of Brecht’s anger and ridicule: the authorities anywhere who pervert science, which could liberate mankind, into mankind’s destroyer, and who in this play, as his footnote explicitly says,’should represent our present bankers and senators’. But does it matter now what the author intended? Yes, if ignoring this leads, however unintentionally, to a basic distortion of meaning which is very advantageous to the ruling circles he meant to attack.

Anti-Stalinist criticism is much more central in the writings of Karl Korsch, the Left-Communist philosopher whose friendly discussions with Brecht are examined in essays by D. Kellner and K. D. Müller. But it’s clear that while learning much from Korsch, particularly on Marxist dialectics and aesthetic theory, the playwright always refused to identify with his ‘Korschian version’ of Marxism (ultra-Left, anti-Lenin, anti-united-front as well as anti-Stalinist). Indeed, he criticised his ‘teacher’ (in a sharp little pen-portrait which is curiously not quoted here, though referred to) as a disappointed ‘all-or-nothing’ man, so concerned with preserving his own freedom and integrity that he had ceased to fight. Brecht himself remained to the end of his life a searing critic of bureaucracy, especially in the GDR, but he was always a fighter and a pragmatist, personally involved in the effort to defeat Fascism and to build a socialist society in post-Hitler Germany. If he had wanted to stay away from that difficult, contradictory, often frustrating enterprise, it would have been easy enough. His critical attitude to everything was essential, says his pupil Manfred Wekwerth, later director of the Berliner Ensemble: not negative, but ‘a politically productive stance which can be measured by its results ... in the factory and the theatre’.

Needle and Thomson’s book, designed as an introduction for students and theatre people who have to read their Brecht in English, is very good most of the way, though the introduction refers to unresolved (and unspecified) disagreements between the authors which may be responsible for a slightly schizophrenic effect at times. Thus the chapter on ‘Brecht and Politics’ tellingly refutes the still common view of Brecht’s Communist beliefs as psychopathology and his decision to work in East Berlin as opportunism or worse. Even today, they say, many can’t accept the simple notion that Brecht was a Marxist, a Communist sympathiser who hoped and believed that, given time, the creed he embraced would lead to better things, and that such an advancement was necessary. ‘Perhaps the problem is that in the “Free World’s” smug belief in the rightness of what is seen as a generally fair and liberal system ... there is not a sufficient feeling that anything is actually wrong.’ This is well said, and the primary concern of the book with analysing the plays in performance makes it lively and readable. However, in a later chapter on ‘Brecht’s Dramaturgy’ we’re back to what Raymond Williams would call English Brecht, whose politics need not worry us because ‘even the communists saw his plays as anti-revolutionary.’ (Some communists, no doubt, and some plays: obviously not all, since the Berliner Ensemble could never have come into existence without the support it obtained from the East German state.)

We are told that Brecht proclaimed Communism and direct appeal to the masses, but wrote ‘deeply ambiguous, politically “incorrect” and complex plays which could appeal only to people far more advanced politically than the proletariat of any land is likely to be in the conceivable future’. So we can regard Brecht, not as a dangerous political activist, but as a lovable character creating lovable characters. ‘Brecht believed in good, and one of his main and key failings as a political writer is his love of his characters. Azdak, Mother Courage, Galileo, Grusha: all the way back to Macheath he creates people who are not the functions but the creators of the anarchy that is society, that as a Marxist he is theoretically out to destroy. He is a despairing optimist who ought to hate his creations but loves them, who professes to believe in the necessity for, and the possibility of, a “better” sort of human being, but denies it with every major character he creates.’ This line of comment may be meant only to disarm prejudice against political drama as short-term propaganda, and even to protect the syllabuses from being purged of their Brecht texts in a climate of anti-détente. Nevertheless, it does pretty fundamentally miss the point. Keith Dickson’s excellent Towards Utopia[2] still offers a more helpful way-in for students.

All Brecht’s plays are, as Needle and Thomson put it elsewhere, ‘permeated with polities’, though in no narrow or dogmatic sense. There are great changes, certainly, from the relatively simple polarities and sharply didactic form of the Lehrstücke around 1930 to the far more complex representation of human and historical conflict in such later plays as Galileo and Mother Courage. But it’s a radical mistake, I think, to see a lessening commitment to a Marxist and socialist view of the world, ‘the fading of Brecht’s love-affair with Communism’, or ‘a massive and all-pervading ambiguity’. What these plays give us is the conscious representation of real, violent contradictions and paradoxes which can’t be reduced to harmony except, as Brecht put it, ‘by society itself and in long fearful struggles’. A contradictory, class-divided world is shown splitting individuals apart socially and morally. And such irreconcilable contradictions, not only between classes but within people, form the centre of his later drama, tragic in Courage or comic in Puntila. The ambiguity, the complexity, is in the world and the people represented. The view of historical development has become immensely more complicated, darker and – in political terms – more realistic: but not less Marxist.

Brecht does ‘believe in goodness’ – it’s one of the qualities that ally him with Shakespeare. But that in itself wouldn’t be enough to sustain optimism. Shen Teh, in The Good Person of Szechwan, commanded by the gods to be good and yet survive in a bad world, is literally ‘split like lightning into two people’, alternating golden-hearted prostitute with ruthless male capitalist. In Helene Weigel’s unsentimental performance as Mother Courage, Brecht wrote: ‘the trader-mother became a great living contradiction, and that was what disfigured and deformed her till she was unrecognisable.’ Writing this play in 1938, Brecht knew that by and large the German people were not, as the Left had expected, resisting Hitler’s drive to war. Many reasoned, like Courage, that war feeds people better than peace: the unemployed got jobs and provided for their children, making armaments that would ultimately destroy them. There’s nothing politically ‘ambiguous’ about this view, grim though it may be: don’t adjust your Marxism, the fault is in reality. So, too, in Galileo the will to discover, to learn and teach, contradicts the necessary desire to eat and enjoy. The focus isn’t on the inner psychological drives of the character but on the contradictory behaviour into which he is driven by the nature of his world. ‘In the end,’ says Brecht, ‘he indulges his science like a vice ... Confronted with such a situation, one can scarcely wish only to praise or only to condemn Galileo.’ But, for the world, the horrifying contradiction leads unambiguously to the atom-bomb, ‘the classical end-product of his contribution to science’. Even sympathetic critics, conditioned by theatrical tradition and the ways of seeing that it has made habitual, tend to focus almost exclusively on the ‘ambiguous’ judgment of Galileo (or Courage) as an individual – was he right or wrong, good or bad? But the play emphasises the social pressures on the scientist: why he behaved as he did, and, above all, the consequences of such action for ordinary people. The broad analogy with Einstein (and later with Oppenheimer) was perfectly clear to Brecht and his collaborators in staging the play. Brecht was, indeed, projecting an Einstein play at the end of his life, and Manfred Wekwerth later staged the Oppenheimer hearings with the Berliner Ensemble’s familiar Galileo set in the background and using Galileo’s great self-accusing tirade as a prologue.

In his method of characterisation Brecht deliberately looks to Shakespeare’s characters – not, as he thought Goethe or Hegel saw them, as great souls ‘cast in one block’, with consistent, immutable traits which determine their march to a tragic destiny, but as contradictory beings, shifting, unformed, changing according to their situation and able to surprise us. For him, this apparent inconsistency is what makes Shakespeare’s people alive and convincing. Thus in the Messingkauf Dialogues the Actor (taking the usual theatre viewpoint) would like to play consistent types: ‘If I show a man as relatively ambitious nobody’s likely to go along with it in the same way as if I showed him wholly and utterly ambitious.’ But, says the Philosopher, ‘in real life people are more often relatively ambitious than wholly and utterly ambitious, aren’t they?’ If you’re looking for effect, ‘you must achieve that with something that’s less unlikely to happen in real life.’

THE ACTOR: A nice Macbeth that would make: sometimes ambitious and sometimes not, and only relatively more ambitious than Duncan. And your Hamlet: very hesitant, but also very inclined to act hastily, no? ... Romeo: relatively in love.

THE DRAMATIST: Yes, more or less. You needn’t laugh.

So it is with the great Brechtian roles: a Mother Courage who’s relatively greedy and ruthless, but very inclined to human feeling; a Chaplain in the same play, relatively cowardly and hypocritical, but capable of genuine compassion; Galileo, sometimes heroic and sometimes not; Dogsborough, the Hindenburg figure in Arturo Ui, relatively corrupt yet moved by natural beauty and human decency. Even minor characters, says Brecht in the Messingkauf Dialogues, shouldn’t just be exemplifications of class behaviour, ‘unduly suitable and obliging types’. ‘If you think a peasant acts in a specific way in the given circumstances, then take a quite specific peasant, and not one who has been selected or fabricated for his willingness to act in precisely that way.’ Laws that apply to class are only broad averages – ‘they apply to the individual only insofar as he coincides with his class, i.e. not absolutely, for the concept of class is only arrived at by ignoring particular features of the individual. You’re not representing principles, but human beings.’ How Shakespearean all this is! (No wonder, since it’s based largely on Brecht’s study of Shakespeare.) The plebeians in Coriolanus, for example, are shown as a class yet strongly individualised (‘it’s better still if you can show the law of class applying differently to different peasants’). The countrymen lined up by Falstaff’s press-gang include three predictable skivers and Feeble the tailor, unpredictably brave. When dumb Kattrin beats the drum in the climactic scene of Mother Courage the different peasants react in different ways, hostile or helping – as do loyal sons of the Church in Galileo. This method of construction is neither unconscious (it’s obviously planned) nor un-Marxist. Brecht’s view of historical laws as merely ‘broad averages, summaries, guides’ is integral to any Marxism that is to be more than crude mechanical materialism.

This dialectical presentation of character and event as divided, contradictory (‘he did this but he could have done something else’) inevitably opens a rich field for different stresses and interpretations by critics and directors. The points which some critics see as ‘ambiguous’, ambivalent – Courage’s kindliness, Galileo’s cowardice – could easily have been put beyond any possibility of misinterpretation by Brecht, but only at the cost of simplifying and ‘harmonising’ character and action in the manner he regarded as deadly and typical of bourgeois theatre. His own reaction to Galileo’s recantation was strongly to condemn it, but, as he said, ‘the playwright didn’t wish to have the last word.’ You can’t devise a theatre to make people think for themselves, and then insist on doing all the thinking for them.

Raymond Williams, writing on ‘English Brecht’ in a recent issue of this journal,[3] criticises not merely bland English interpretations but the dramatist himself, ‘hard though he fought with the weapons of his time’, for a false Thirties populism which evades the real issues. He’s accused – in Galileo, for instance – of presenting ‘popular common sense’ as the agent to change the world – and ban the bomb. It won’t, says Williams, least of all in a consumerist society; neither will the conscience of scientists. In Brecht’s play ‘the major social and historical forces are given leave of absence’, or appear only as bureaucracy or well-meaning ignorance. If I understand him rightly, I think Williams has put his blind eye to the telescope here. With the Church dignitaries played, as Brecht instructed, to suggest not spiritual types but secular authorities, ‘our bankers and senators’; with the aristocrat Marsili angrily spelling out how Galileo’s new world-view threatens the landowners’ control of their beaten and starving peasants; with the ironfounder Vanni offering bourgeois support; with the townspeople in the carnival scene (cut in so many productions) joyfully insubordinate as they sing of the new discoveries, the major social forces are represented, even at the price of some historical anachronism. And if science alienated from popular control has today become dangerous and hateful to ordinary people (which is Brecht’s point), the ability of the scientist and intellectual to dispel secrecy and enlighten ‘popular common sense’ still alarms established authority – as witness recent experiences of Professors Edward Thompson and Michael Pentz with the BBC.

At no point does Brecht suggest that ‘popular common sense’ is enough by itself. What he does try to show – repeatedly and variously in different plays – is that ordinary people are capable of learning the workings of history and science, and that when they have learnt them they will be an irresistible power. Scenes with Vlassova in The Mother, the pupils Andrea and Federzoni in Galileo, Langevin and Genevieve in Days of the Commune, are all demonstrations ‘in praise of learning’. (‘You must be ready to take over,’ as the Brecht-Eisler song has it.) And one obligation of the intellectual, the political activist, and the theatre is to enable people to learn. The tragic helplessness of uninstructed ‘popular common sense’, with its racy idiom, its short-term shrewdness and flashes of insight, its larger blindness, is most brilliantly demonstrated in Mother Courage herself.

Reading these books in the middle of an economic and political crisis more dangerous than any since the Thirties, one sometimes feels it’s not so much Brecht who needs ‘contemporising’ as his critics. True, there are other, later contradictions that Brecht didn’t and couldn’t represent: the conflict between the USSR and China, both Socialist states, is an obvious example. It’s for a new generation of writers to work those out, without losing the commitment and sardonic insight that, like it or not, still give Brecht’s plays their unique impact.

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

[2] Oxford, 1978

[3] Vol. 3, No 13.