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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Conscience of the King of Playwrights

Back in 1998, I sold this article about the 100th anniversary of Bertolt Brecht's birth to The Peak. I'm still pretty happy with it.

This year, Germans and lovers of the theatre all over the world are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bertolt Brecht, author of Galileo, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Threepenny Opera (origin of “Mack the Knife), and a score of other plays. Born 10 February 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, Brecht went on to become one of the most celebrated and controversial of the modern dramatists, earning the monikers “the German Shakespeare”  and “the poet of the Communist revolution,” this last nickname being applied to him because of his fervently Marxist outlook. In fact, so identified was he with the Communist cause that his plays were not performed in capitalist West Germany until after his death in 1956. His exposure in North America has been limited even today; the internationally renowned theatre company he formed in East Berlin, the Berliner Ensemble, did not perform on that continent until a 1986 performance in Toronto.

Indeed, Brecht was always something of an exile. He wrote in Germany during World War I, later fled the Nazis to work in Scandinavia, spent time in Hollywood writing screenplays (only to be forced to testify before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee), and finished his life in East Germany. Along the way, he fathered three children by three different women and made a good deal of devoted friends and bitter enemies. His was not a life of moderation.

The Communist East appreciated the devotion of a famous and influential figure to their cause, but were uncomfortable with his unflinching devotion to art and to his own version of the truth. Plays like The Measures Taken (1926), in which an evangelical Communist shows her loyalty to the Party by meekly submitting to an unjust execution, even though the young Comrade knows herself to be in the right, anticipated the Stalinist fervor that would make life in the Soviet Union such a nightmare for hundreds of millions of its citizens. This kind of criticism made Soviet authorities distinctly uncomfortable; Brecht was never popular in the USSR, though Communist Party propagandists made much use of Brecht’s celebrity status. And while Brecht was profoundly influential in the West, affecting the careers of important English directors like Peter Brook and playwrights like John Arden and John Osborne, his politics were often thought to interfere with his art, making his plays just a little less effective than they could have been. Indeed, at the close of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1945), the conclusion is so obviously a not-too-subtle rephrasing of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to his needs” that even the least astute reader feels like he’s been somewhat beaten over the head with the point. But then, Brecht was convinced that the theatre had to be a way to promote social change; he would not apologize for appearing to belabour his points. 

Brecht’s mode of storytelling, what has been termed “epic theatre,” has had more impact on drama than the plays themselves. Brecht took pains to point out that his method was really a rebellion against the relatively new phenomenon of the naturalistic theatre, wherein the audience is made to feel that they are merely eavesdropping on real events. He felt that the relatively new naturalist method of direction encouraged audiences to leave the theatre entertained and sated, but uninstructed in any way. It was too easy to enjoy; the audience was not required to think. In contrast, epic theatre uses older dramatic traditions like the aside, the monologue, or the chorus, devices that make a play less “realistic” but more intellectually engaging. In any play using the Brechtian mode, the audience cannot help but realize that they are watching a play - they cannot for one second believe that they are simply peering into a realistic world. For example, Brecht once painted the faces of a group of soldiers chalk-white to symbolize their fear of charging into battle - much more likely to provoke thought than a simple expression of fear on an actor’s face.  

In the early 20th century, most plays used the naturalist method; it was almost like watching a movie. Today, more and more stage plays are using the traditional devices that Brecht brought back into the spotlight. Brecht’s influence can be seen in the works of Canadian playwright and director Brad Fraser, author of Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love and Poor Superman. In Poor Superman, the stage is very much an artifice; surreal forms take the place of furniture and the walls are made into a slideshow of rampaging comic-book characters. Critic Martin Esslin called epic theatre “a production naively sophisticated yet highly stylized.” Na├»ve, perhaps, but the evidence of Brecht’s impact is all around us.

To celebrate the centenary of Brecht’s death, a number of special events are happening all over the world through 1998. His childhood home in Augsburg was renovated and turned into a German national monument on February 10; a Brecht postage stamp was also produced. Several television specials on his life have already aired, and no less than three different CD packages have been released featuring Brecht’s songs and readings of his works. The Korean Brecht Society will be holding a conference in Seoul to celebrate the centenary during the final week of September this year, on the theme “Brecht in the Post-Socialist, Post-Modernist World.” Four films on Brecht’s life and work are currently in production. Canadian pop singer Jane Siberry participated in a celebration in Toronto in April. Perhaps most exciting is the planned publication of Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, a controversial look at the Cold War that was originally released in 1955. Consisting of Brecht’s thoughts on the madness and futility of war, it was too frank for Cold War audiences on either side of the Iron Curtain to take; the 90s may be a more receptive era for this important, eloquent testimonial. The works of Bertolt Brecht may not have received the attention that they have deserved in recent decades, but it looks as though the long Brecht-fast is over at last.


King T said...

All that for a pun? Maybe you should take a brecht.

"Patterns Of Jeff" said...

How did I know Earl would end his piece in a vile pun? A little Bertolt me.