Wherever life has not died out, it staggers to its feet again – Mother Courage
Two huge, black-and-white posters dominated the wall of my room at Lancaster Uni in 1975.
One was a musician. Born Seattle 1942, died London 1970. Beethoven of the electric guitar. Jimi Hendrix.
The other was a playwright. Born Bavaria 1898, died Berlin 1956. Bertolt Brecht.
Though prolific (43 plays to Shakespeare’s 37), playwright doesn’t do Brecht full justice. Nor was it the main reason that he became one of my heroes. His attraction was as originator of a different kind of drama: epic theatre. We studied, and were heavily influenced by, Brecht’s verfremsdung – alienation – effect.
The old idea was that audiences identify, and empathise, with characters and situations. But for Brecht, spectators aren’t fobbed off with an invitation to feel. Instead, they’re enabled to see the why and how of what happens on stage. He wanted people to think critically about the meaning, not suspend their disbelief, of what they were watching.
In practical terms on stage, this means techniques that break the fourth wall. Performers talking straight to the audience; acting in the third person – presenting, not being, a character; interruptions – music, songs, narration and slogans. And bright, non-atmospheric, lighting; symbolic scenery; grotesque masks; puppets and surreal costumes.
Things that have, by now, become commonplace in countless productions.
Brecht wanted a people’s theatre. In terms of the continuing international popularity of his works, he got it. At the Citizens’, Glasgow, Brecht meant box office: Jungle of the Cities, Happy End, St. Joan of the Stockyards, 7 Deadly Sins, Fears & Miseries of the 3rd Reich (not exactly a title to draw the crowds, but it did!), Caucasian Chalk Circle, Puntila and his man Matti, and Mother Courage, with Glenda Jackson – all had strong attendance figures.
The most recent Citz Brecht, produced with the Lyceum, Edinburgh, is Denise Mina’s adaptation of Puntila and her Man Matti (Bertolt would have loved the idea), with Elaine C Smith. Sadly, due to the current crisis, it never got the chance to do well, as it had to be pulled after just a few performances.
Brecht’s rejection of Aristotle’s notion – that human nature doesn’t change – was rooted in politics. When I read Marx, he wrote, I understood my plays. A communist who never joined the party, he was red hot keen to present capitalism, warts and all, on stage. Brecht wanted theatre to change the world:
What is usual, let it astonish you!
What seems the rule, recognise it as abuse.
And where you’ve recognised abuse,
Put things right!
BB’s theories were grounded in his practice as a writer, producer and director in 1920’s Germany. He worked on every aspect of his early plays like Baal, Drums in the Night and A Man’s a Man (Peter Lorre starred in the Berlin version).
Brecht instinctively collaborated and constantly revised. He was a magpie. Nothing was a solo effort, nothing was ever finished and very little was original. Anyone can be creative. Rewriting others’ work is the real challenge.
In 1928, Brecht and Kurt Weill staged The Threepenny Opera. Despite chaotic rehearsals – hilariously captured in Morag Fullarton’s recent show, Mack the Knife – it became a huge hit in Berlin, Paris and New York.
As well as Mack the Knife, other classic songs from this time include Alabama Song, Pirate Jenny, Bilbao Song and Surabaya Johnny.
This fertile period came to an abrupt end with the rise of Hitler. From 1933, Brecht moved to Switzerland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and, finally, the U.S.
Though deprived of a theatre, he wrote some of his most enduring plays in exile: Puntila, Mother Courage, Arturo Ui, Good Person of Szechwan and Caucasian Chalk Circle. He co-directed the Los Angeles production of Life of Galileo, with Charles Laughton as Galileo, in 1947.
An inveterate Bolshevik, Brecht tended to fall foul of the system. He was called before the Un-American Activities Committee. His testimony is a hoot – a catalogue of evasions and jokes. Shifty but sly, he quibbled over translations of his work, claiming he didn’t write the words because his version was in German and more beautiful!
He returned to Europe: Zurich, then Berlin. Though he kept his passport Austrian and his bank account Swiss, Brecht chose East, not West, Germany. With his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, he set up the Berliner Ensemble.
The new company was devoted to his works and adaptations of the classics. He wrote few new plays, but kept cutting, rewriting, inventing new scenes and characters. None of his past work was sacrosanct. And he had a fresh theatre mill to refashion his output.
The company settled in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm (= Shipbuilder’s bank, on the river Spree). Its emblem, still displayed on the front curtain, is Picasso’s Dove of Peace. The huge revolve runs on 32 wheels of a Russian tank, which Weigel procured from Soviet troops.
The Berliner Ensemble tour to Paris, in the early fifties, with Mother Courage, Helene Weigel in the title role, was a great success. After Brecht died, she carried on as the company’s director until her death in 1971.
In his final years, Brecht wrote mostly poetry. He adapted to the strictures of the East German regime. Like Galileo, Brecht, the chameleon, was keen to get on with his own ideas, paying lip-service to the powers-that-be.
The Solution was more explicit in his opposition to the GDR state. The poem – unpublished then, obviously – is a timeless diatribe against authoritarian, top-down government. I think of it every time a Tory minister talks down to Scotland.
The first verse says that the people, by uprising, have forfeited the government’s confidence. Then it ends:
Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Back to student days. For my finals in Theatre Studies, I directed The Life of Galileo. It’s a long time ago and no record remains of the production. Just as well. Suffice to say that I chucked in everything but the Brechtian sink – a chorus, a narrator, musical interludes, announcements on slides, placards with dates, places and events. Between every one of the fifteen scenes in the play.
It was probably one of the most cumbersome, certainly one of the longest, versions of the piece. Quite a few people, including my own tutor, left at the interval.
I think I achieved the wrong kind of alienation effect!
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, March 2020.
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