Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bertolt Brecht As a Dramatist

There can be little doubt that Bertolt Brecht is one of the most significant writers of this century. German literature, unlike that of France, Italy, pre-revolutionary Russia, or Scandinavia, is on the whole so remote from the taste and aesthetic conventions of the English-speaking world that its influence does not often make itself felt. Yet occasionally an author writing in German imposes himself and leaves a lasting impression: Kafka was one of these, Brecht is another. His influence on the theatre may well prove as powerful as that of Kafka on the novel.

It is an influence which has already left its mark; it did so long before Brecht’s name itself was ever mentioned. Auden’s and Isherwood’s early plays, and a good many of the poems of their left-wing phase, clearly owe a debt to the early Brecht. In an entirely different sphere, that of the musical stage, the contemporary American musical with its blending of serious purpose in the book with popular tunes certainly derives to some extent from Brecht’s experiments in The Threepenny Opera.
This first, anonymous and unacknowledged, impact of Brecht’s ideas was followed, at an interval, by a second, more direct wave of his influence. This spread from Brecht’s own theatre at East Berlin which gave him an opportunity to demonstrate the full range of his powers. His fame as a reformer of the stage was carried to Western Europe by visitors to Berlin and led to triumphant appearances of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in Pairs and London. Brecht’s name became a household word, the daily coinage of dramatic critics. His theories were quoted in support of a multitude of contradictory causes. And his adherence to the East German Communist regime further confused the issue. Some argued that his greatness as a producer, backed by subsides received from a Communist government, proved the cultural superiority of the Eastern camp, while others condemned him on the ground that he was a Communist propagandist and therefore could not be a great artist.
But Brecht’s case defies such simplifications. It is far more complex and constitutes a curious paradox: Brecht was a Communist, he was also a great poet. But while the West liked his poetry and distrusted his Communism, the Communists exploited his political convictions while they regarded his artistic aims and achievements with suspicion. To understand this paradox it is necessary to examine not only Brecht’s professed opinions, his background and his works, but also to subject them to an objective, critical analysis.
This book attempts to put such a factual, yet critical, study of Brecht’s artistic personality before an English-speaking public. It is not primarily a biography, although its critical assessment of Brecht and its discussion of the more general problem of the politically committed poet of genius, takes an account of Brecht’s life as its starting point. There may be writers whose work can be discussed without reference to their life; it may even be possible to deal with Brecht’s œuvre in this way, if, that is, one were merely concerned with its aesthetic qualities. But this is not the concern of this book: Brecht was not only a political poet, he also claimed that his writings were weapons in a political struggle, that they were based on a correct assessment of the world around him, of society. Moreover he himself and his works have become the centre of a political and ideological debate: was Brecht’s aesthetic theory truly Marxist? Was his assessment of the social forces of his time as correct as he claimed? What was the social and psychological basis for his conversion to Marxism? All these and a host of other questions are relevant to a true assessment of Brecht’s impact and importance; and they cannot be answered without reference to the salient facts of his biography. After Brecht’s death his patrons elevated him into the position of a saint in the Byzantine pantheon of Communist hagiography – and in order to do so had to suppress or embellish some essential features of both his life and his work: it is they who have made it necessary to start out from a biographical basis in discussing him as an artist and a political figure.
Brecht’s importance, moreover, transcends his significance as a dramatist, poet, or amusing personality. He is above all an epitome of his times: most of the cross-currents and contradictions, moral andpoltical dilemmas, artistic and literary trends of our time are focused and exemplified in Brecht’s life and its vicissitudes. Through his commitment to a political cause, through his participation in the struggles of pre-Hitler Germany, his experience as an exiled writer in Europe and America, His plunge back into the drab but fascinating half-light of East Berlin, Brecht was more deeply involved in the conflicts of his age than most of his contemporaries. His experiences concentrate and distil its basic issues: the reaction of the generation of the First World War to the collapse of their entire civilization; the dilemmas facing a sensitive and passionate personality in an age of declining faith; the dangers that beset an artist whose indignation about the social evils of his society drives him into the arms of totalitarian forces; the theoretical and practical difficulties encountered by a writer of genius in a rigidly authoritarian society; the choice between lavishly subsidized but severely restricted working conditions in a Communist state  on the one hand, and the limitations on the artist imposed upon him by a free, but commercial society. Brecht’s experience exemplifies and sheds a light on all these problems.
The most intriguing question, however, posed – and largely answered – by Brecht’s experience is: how far is it possible for a great writer to adhere to a creed so rigidly dogmatic, so far divorced from the reality of human experience as our latter-day brand of Communism without doing violence to his talent?
An analysis of Brecht’s case will, I believe, put this problem into a new light by presenting the factual evidence of a concrete case of a committed major writer. It should help to explain the paradox why the most important Communist writer of his time was virtually banned within the Communist orbit, while, at the same time, being used to impress Western intellectuals with the achievements of Marxist culture.
And finally, although the main strength of Brecht’s poetic power derives from his highly individual use of the German language, an attempt can be made at a critical survey of his work: his theory of the ‘epic theatre’ which he himself expounded in a most confusing manner and which has since then been further confounded by commentators hypnotized by the intriguing technical terms he invented, can be summarized in simple language and its real content and significance assessed. The real themes of his writing, which lie behind the surface of commitment and social purpose, can be laid bare and traced through the bewildering changes of style and tone of Brecht’s Protean œuvre. This in turn will shed some further light on Brecht’s personality and will help to explain the motives which made him an anarchist, nihilist, and cynic on the one hand, and a fervent believer in the collective virtues of discipline embodies in Marxist Communism on the other.
To avoid the need of wearying the reader with lengthy summaries of plays, novels, short stories, and poems which would interrupt the argument if they had to be inserted into the critical assessment of Brecht’s work, a descriptive list of his writings is included in the reference section at the end of the book. This can be consulted as the need arises or studied separately at leisure. A short chronology of the main events of Brecht’s career is also provided.
References to books and articles in periodicals and newspapers quoted are given in the footnotes, burin some cases titles have been abbreviated: e.g. Ernst Schumacher’s massive study Die dramatischen Versuche Bertolt Brechts 1918-1933 is referred to as ‘Schumacher’. Full details of the more important sources used are given in the bibliography at the end of the book.
It is impossible to discuss a major writer without quoting frame his works. To have given the quotations in the original German only would have been both pedantic and discourteous to the general reader. Brecht’s poetry is peculiarly difficult to translate, but the quotations are nevertheless given in translated foam. The translations are my own throughout the book (even in some cases of titles of works, where the existing form does not fully convey the intended meaning). They make no pretence at giving more than a suggestion of the meaning and the mood of the passages in question. Readers who know German are referred to the original; exact references to the passages concerned are provided.
As the book was designed to be a critical study of Brecht, and an objective account of his political convictions and the resulting tangled relations with the Communist party and authorities in Eastern Germany, it was impossible to approach his .family and collaborators there without running the risk of later involving them in all hinds of embarrassments – and worse. Fortunately this was riot necessary, as the whore story can be told by studying the ample material contained in newspapers and publications originating in East Germany and presenting the story in irreproachable ‘official’ form. Where personal accounts of events have been used, they were never accepted without rigorous cross-checking against the published facts and other indepen­dent sources.
For personal reminiscences of Brecht I am greatly indebted to Prof. Alfred Kantorowicz, Mr Ernest Borneman, Mr R. A. Harrison, Mr Melvin J. Lasky, Dr F. Wendhousen, and many others. I am particularly grateful to Mr Eric Bentley for his help with information about Brecht’s stay in America.
Rare books, and other valuable material, were kindly put at my disposal by Frau M. Dobrozemsky of the National Library, Vienna; Mr Clemens Heller, Dr C. Brinitzer, Dr R. Weil, and others.
Miss A. Scherman helped me in finding my way through the East German Press, and I am most grateful to the Wiener Library, London, who gave me access to their files of newspaper cuttings, their collection of periodicals of the German emigration between 1933 and 1945, and also obtained for me material from Germany on microfilm.
I am grateful to Messrs Suhrkamp of Frankfurt on Main for permis­sion to include quotations from Max Frisch’s Tagebuch 1946-1949.

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