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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Deep Reading

Originally published in The Peak, Volume 14, Number 9
September, 1998

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.

Why People Believe Weird Things
Michael Shermer

If you’re not in the mood for theatre, there are plenty of good books to feed your craving for intellectual stimulation. One of these is Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine. An examination of the alarming rise of superstition and adherence to pseudoscience in today’s world, Why People Believe Weird Things is a valuable examination of why people choose to believe things that are, under any kind of scrutiny, ludicrous. Unflinchingly, Shermer tackles the alien abduction phenomenon, faith healers, psychics, Holocaust deniers, Afrocentrists, and even Objectivists, the right-wing cult formed by American Ayn Rand. Some targets - psychics, alien abductees - are easy to debunk. Others, like the Afrocentrists and Objectivists, are more controversial subjects to place under close scrutiny. Shermer takes each belief quite seriously, however, never stooping to name-calling or condescension. In fact, he takes pains to assure readers that he is not calling into question the intelligence of anyone who holds what he calls a weird belief; he merely points out that they are not thinking carefully about issues, that they are choosing what they want to believe over the evidence that reality presents. I especially recommend this work for the chapter on Holocaust deniers. Whatever your faith, it’s important to read this examination of how political ideology can pervert and distort history, and how this is dangerous for all of us.

Girlfriend in a Coma
Douglas Coupland
Harper Collins

Canadian Douglas Coupland, the man who named a generation with his novel Generation X, is back with a new book, Girlfriend in a Coma. It’s part Microserfs, an earlier Coupland novel, and part It’s a Wonderful Life, the famous Frank Capra film. In brief: the year is 1979. A group of Vancouver teenagers are traumatized when one of their number, Jared, dies, and another, Karen, falls into a coma. As the years pass, they heal, go to college, get jobs, and eventually wind up working as technicians on an unnamed television show that is clearly meant to be The X-Files. Then, in 1997, Karen wakes up. She is predictably shocked and amazed by the advances in technology and the changes in the world (the rise of AIDS, the collapse of the USSR, etc.), but more importantly, she is profoundly disturbed by how busy and meaningless life seems to have become. She observes her friends, working twelve hour days, six days a week, accumulating material wealth but losing their identities and sense of purpose. This is the most effective section of the book; Coupland asks hard questions about where our society is heading, questions that will hit anyone between the ages of twenty and forty very, very hard. What are we filling our lives with? Why is the bottom line the most important thing in the West? Who are we becoming? The book does falter somewhat in its closing act, becoming a sort of science-fiction story without any real foreshadowing of an apocalyptic event that stuns the reader. Despite this misstep, the novel remains deeply affecting and I have no reservations about recommending it.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the New World Order
Samuel P. Huntington
Simon & Schuster

If you missed the hardcover release of Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, it’s now out in a trade paperback edition. Huntington, a prominent political scientist recognized by Henry Kissinger himself, examines the new structure of global politics in the wake of the collapse of Soviet Communism. This collapse, he argues, was not the final obstacle to Western hegemony over the Earth; rather, it signals the beginning of a multipolar world made up of seven or eight key civilizations: The West, Latin America, Japan, Islam, Orthodoxy, Buddhist states, Hinduism, Sinic states, and Africa. Huntington foresees a world of increasing conflict between these civilizations, with fewer conflicts within civilizations. While tensions in Ireland may ease, for example, those in Cyprus can be expected to increase. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are, in Huntington’s view, both part of one civilization; that is more important than petty regional differences. Cyprus, on the other hand, is divided between Islamic Turks and Orthodox Greeks; he feels that reconciliation is less likely between peoples of different civilizations. Huntington describes religion as the key component of civilizational identification; he feels that it is the most important facet of international relations in our current world. The evidence he uses to back up his claims is impressive, but I feel that he doesn’t give enough credit to the mitigating effects of increased travel and communication between civilizations; he discounts the notion that peoples of different religions can get along in any meaningful way, an assertion that I find profoundly disturbing. Still, in the end, I found it hard to dispute many of Huntington’s conclusions. If you’re looking for an intellectual workout, pick this book up.

1 comment:

Earl J. Woods said...

Not that being endorsed by Kissinger is necessarily the kind of recommendation *I'd like, but Huntington probably appreciated it. Were I to read the book again today, I'll bet I'd be able to refute way more of it, too.