IBS Symposium Israel 2022

Conference Reports:

Stephen Brockmann, IBS President

Anthony Squiers

Florian Vaßen

Jean Maurer

Essays and Creative Work from the Symposium:

The Resistible Rise of Dis-Estrangement (Aurélien Bellucci)

UnRuhe: A Lehrformance (Alexandra Marinho de Oliveira with Luiza Maldonado)

Ruth Kanner Theater Group, opening performance in Tel Aviv

Stephen Brockmann

Reflections on the Seventeenth IBS Symposium

In my experience, any symposium of the International Brecht Society is bound to generate intensity and discussion.  How could it possibly be otherwise when one is surrounded by dozens of other people who are passionately interested in Brecht, political theater around the world, current and past events, and the interrelationship between literature, politics, and ethics?

And yet the seventeenth IBS symposium in Israel, “Bertolt Brecht in Dark Times: Racism, Political Oppression, and Dictatorship,” which occurred in mid-December 2022, was even more intense than most IBS symposia.

I recall that the fifteenth IBS symposium, “Recycling Becht,” started in Oxford only a day or two after the Brexit referendum and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement that he would step down from office.  I also remember dozens of British scholars and intellectuals walking around Oxford during that symposium dazed and upset at what had just happened in their country.  Discussions of Brecht and political theater took on a new urgency under those circumstances, especially when it became clear that many of the young people at the symposium viewed the Brexit referendum as a direct assault on their future.

The circumstances at the sixteenth IBS symposium “Brecht Among Strangers” in Leipzig in June of 2019 were not quite as dramatic, but nevertheless questions of “strangeness,” globalization, mobility, and transnational theater struck a resonant chord in a world racked by new forms of dogmatism, nationalism, identity politics, and fundamentalism in the third year of the Trump presidency, which divided Europe and the U.S. as nothing else, even the Vietnam War, had during the entirety of post-World War Two history.

Even in Leipzig it was already clear that the proposed IBS symposium in Israel would be controversial, because a number of IBS members strongly and eloquently supported the idea of an academic boycott of Israel—although others, just as eloquently, opposed a boycott.  In spite of that debate, however, in the summer and fall of 2019, when we were discussing the idea of having a symposium in Israel, we had no idea of what would be coming in the not-too-distant future.  In March of 2020 much of the world shut down because of the Covid pandemic, and in January of 2021 Donald Trump tried to stage a coup d’état in the U.S. after he lost the November 2020 presidential election.  Because of Covid, the Israeli symposium was postponed to December rather than June of 2022, and it became one of the first major, international humanities symposia to take place in Israel after the onset of the Covid pandemic.  Meanwhile, in February of 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, launching the worst war in Europe since 1945 and causing a massive refugee crisis—topics that inevitably came up during the Israeli symposium and were broached, among others, by Konstantin Uchitel and Yana Meerzon.  Only a few days before the Israeli symposium began, German police fanned out across the country and arrested 25 people whom they charged with plotting a right-wing coup and even planning to murder the Federal Chancellor.  And to top it all off, in early November of 2022 the Israeli parliamentary election made it possible for an extremist right-wing government under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu to take power in December, not much more than a week after the symposium on “Bertolt Brecht in Dark Times: Racism, Political Oppression, and Dictatorship” had officially ended.

The timing was remarkable.

As Ofer Ashkenazi, Vice-Dean for Teaching Affairs at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, told symposium attendees on December 15 in his welcoming address, if they were looking for dark times that featured racism and political oppression, then they had “come to the right place at the right time.”  He offered his congratulations.  An audible gasp went up among listeners when Ashkenazi referred to a law being prepared in the Knesset to limit the power of the Israeli Supreme Court as an “Ermächtigungsgesetz” (Enabling Law—a reference to German history after the burning of the Reichstag in 1933—but also Ashkenazi’s translation of the Hebrew name for the law under discussion in the Knesset).  I and no doubt others in the audience wondered whether we had actually just heard what we thought we had heard.  Indeed, we truly had heard what we thought we had heard, as Ashkenazi made clear to me in no uncertain terms later on.  His provocation was entirely intentional.

What follows are my own idiosyncratic, selective impressions from the symposium.  They cannot hope to capture the multiplicity of what actually happened at the symposium, partly because most days featured parallel sessions that forced participants to make difficult choices about which sessions to attend—and, by implication, which not to attend.  Inevitably, there was alot I—and, of necessity, everyone else—missed.  And I cannot hope even to summarize everything I experienced and learned at the symposium or even the events to which I myself directly contributed.  Instead, I focus on my own dramatic learning process having to do with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the situation of Israeli academics in the current crisis, and the red thread of “shame” that ran through the entire symposium, whose motto was the same one Brecht chose for his 1933 poem “O Germany, Pale Mother”: “Let others speak of their shame, I will speak of my own.”  That is precisely what many of the Israeli intellectuals and theater people with whom I interacted at the symposium did, again and again.

Every day of the seventeenth IBS symposium featured, among other things, Israeli—and not only Jewish Israeli—intellectuals, academics, and theater people who were deeply concerned about what was going on in their country.  The festive opening included the symposium’s first keynote address, “Dark Times—A Local Tale,” by Moshe Zuckermann on December 12 in Tel Aviv.  It was a grim account of the current situation and how we got to it.  In his view Zionism inherited the same traits as most European nationalisms, and from the beginning it failed to account for the validity of Palestinians’ claims to territory and respect.  As he saw it, the constantly growing number of Israeli settlements—which he characterized as apartheid—in the West Bank, including many right-wing, die-hard settlers whom he believes will refuse to leave under any circumstances—even in the unlikely event that a future Israeli government decides to stop supporting them—, only makes the situation even worse and more insoluble.  Performances directed by Ruth Kanner and staged by a talented group of actors from Tel Aviv University underscored the problem of shame and darkness.

Moshe Zuckermann

Zuckermann’s views did not go unchallenged, however, as Janine Ludwig, president of the International Heiner Müller Society, argued from the audience, that there were additional reasons beyond those mentioned by Zuckermann for the difficult situation in Israel and the West Bank today, and that one of the most significant was Arab refusal to accept the reality and legitimacy of the Jewish state.  At the reception after Zuckermann’s lecture many participants talked about it and the controversy that it had generated, not least because of Ludwig’s unscripted intervention.

The following day was no less intense, not least because it began a series of parallel sessions that forced participants to make difficult choices.  The day culminated in a trip to the Arab-Hebrew Theatre in Yaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, featuring a performance of Einat Weizman’s and Issa Amro’s documentary play How to Make a Revolution—detailing Palestinian Issa Amro’s arrest by Israeli forces and trial in the Ofer Military Court.  Essentially the play depicted the military court as deeply unfair and rigged to produce guilty verdicts for Palestinians.  Einat Weizman, a non-Zionist, Jewish Israeli playwright and activist who works with  Palestinians, created the play together with Issa Amro and also directed and acted in it.  After the performance she fielded questions from the audience, which consisted mostly of IBS symposium attendees.  One of the first questions that she was asked was whether or not she supports the idea of a boycott of Israel.  Her response was sphynx-like.  She announced that she is not allowed to say that she supports a boycott of Israel because she would then lose government funding for the theater and that she therefore will not say that she supports a boycott.  I and no doubt many others in the audience interpreted this statement to mean that Weizman actually does support a boycott but cannot say so directly.

However the question about whether or not Weizman supports a boycott also involved another question: Would it have been possible for IBS members to be exposed to this powerful dramatic performance by Palestinian and Israeli actors if the IBS had chosen to boycott the very state in which the performance was being put on?  The answer to that question was obviously negative.  This was an example of what I hope is a productive tension and contradiction in the manner of Brecht’s declaration (in his essay “The Threepenny Lawsuit”) that “Contradictions are our hope!”

Arab-Hebrew Theater Jaffa

Arab-Hebrew Theater Jaffa

The following day the symposium traveled to Haifa, where Gad Kaynar-Kissinger, one of the key symposium organizers, gave an account of what he called the “culinarisation” of Brecht’s theater in Israel, a process, he argued, that de-estranges “strangeness,” making Brecht palatable and also less political for Israeli theater audiences.  In Haifa, Dorit Yerushalmi gave a keynote address on what she labeled the “post-dramatic Gestus” of Palestinian playwright Bashar Murkus’s theatrical work, as well as Murkus’s work in Europe with diasporic Palestinians and also Palestinians from the West Bank and Israel.  Unfortunately a repeat of that work in Israel proved impossible, because many of the Palestinians who had been able to get to Europe were not allowed into the country.  At a visit to Haifa’s Beit Ha’gefen Cultural Center symposium participants were once again confronted with the reality of exile and the displacement of Palestinians.  The Cultural Center strives to bring together Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel.  The show we saw brought together eight artists who, in response to the May 2021 outbreak of violence in Israeli cities, met and worked together every month for over a year to share their experiences, discuss their art, and ultimately create the eight installations that we viewed.

On December 14, the symposium was back for one more day in Tel Aviv with parallel sessions, student presentations and performances.  The day started in keeping with the topic of “Shame” and featured a filmed performance directed by Gil Hoz-Klemme about Gustaf Gründgens and the shame of his collaboration with the Nazi dictatorship as well as the secret shame associated with his homosexuality.  The performance by Max Böttcher and Lisa Heinrici restaged in a fascinating way a 1963 television interview between Gründgens and the journalist Günter Gaus.  The day also featured an entire session devoted to the subject of “Brecht through Palestinian and Arab Perspectives.”  Dror Harari, Karma Zua’bi, and Afif Shlewet all concluded that Brecht’s influence on Palestinian theater is significant and long-lasting.  At the next session, on Brecht and poetry, participants were treated to a beautiful Lehrformance by Alexandra Marinho de Oliveira and Luiza Maldonado [see their contribution in this issue] about Brecht’s Danish exile, and Martin Revermann—to whose new book Brecht and Tragedy an entire session had been devoted the previous day in Haifa—gave a typically eloquent and sensitive talk about Brecht’s theater poems.  To top off the session, Riki Ophir gave a heart-rending account of “Brecht’s Poetry Inside Out, Israel-Palestine Upside Down: ‘Die unbesiegliche Inschrift’ and David Avidan’s Blood-Stained Lyric.”  She argued that violence against Palestinians is the “unbesiegliche Inschrift” (indelible inscription) on the birth of Israeli poetic and political culture.

This day concluded with poems, songs, and performances directed by Gad Kaynar-Kissinger and starring his talented students at the University of Tel Aviv; and then with Tom Kuhn’s keynote address about “Brecht on Race, Shame, and Human Kindness,” which touched specifically on many of the themes of the symposium and included painful photo clippings cut out by Brecht from Life magazine and dealing with issues of race, shame, defeat, and human kindness in his own day.  As someone who well remembers the extensive racial unrest in the U.S. in the 1960s, I found Brecht’s clipping from a race riot in Detroit in 1943, in the middle of World War Two, to be particularly painful.

“Messingkauf” Slam in Jerusalem

By the following day, when the “traveling symposium” went on to Jerusalem, the city considered to be a holy site by all three major monotheistic religions, a number of symposium participants were ready for a break from the hard realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of internal Israeli politics, and chose to attend a panel on “The Q-Effekt—Modern Drag Performance as Queer Epic Theatre” put on by three talented students from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.  The panel involved, among other things, B. J. McNeill putting on a drag show, Jack Aldisert shaving off his beard and painting on a fake one, and Fernando Solis grooming himself onstage in various ways.  The lively discussion with the audience took a deep dive into the cultural politics of drag, including the approach not just of drag queens but also of drag kings.  It is safe to say that I have never experienced an academic “talk” quite like this one.

Nikolaus Müller-Schöll

The final keynote, by Nikolaus Müller-Schöll, explored Brecht’s play Life of Galileo as a work of shame and compromise that, precisely by showing the shame and compromise on which it is based, achieves greatness.  Müller-Schöll believes that Brecht painted himself and his own situation, in the midst of Stalinist repression, into the figure of Galileo and his recantation.

The symposium’s farewell party took place at the Fringe Restaurant, appropriately located inside the Jerusalem Theatre.  At the farewell party we thanked our three hosts and the primary on-site symposium organizers, Freddie Rokem, Gad Kaynar-Kissinger, and Ira Avneri, as well as the indispensable Shimrit Ron, who graciously and efficiently took care of the symposium’s challenging day-to-day logistics.  It is hard enough to stage a symposium even when it stays in one place—but organizing a traveling symposium with locations in three different cities is a first for the IBS, and the whole process went remarkably smoothly, thanks to the organizers and Shimrit Ron.

Farewell Dinner at Fringe in Jerusalem

Farewell dinner at Fringe in Jerusalem

And yet even after the farewell dinner, the symposium was not really over, because on the next day, December 16, about thirty participants took an in-depth geopolitical bus tour of East Jerusalem put on by the Israeli pro-peace group Ir Amim.  That tour was sobering, as participants witnessed the encroachment of settlements even within Arab East Jerusalem, and our tour guide, a former Israeli soldier with significant combat experience, talked about his experiences during the Second Intifada in a tank stationed between a Jewish section of East Jerusalem and the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.  It was partly because of his experiences as a soldier in that war, he told us, that he had chosen to become a peace activist.

On the next day, December 17, some symposium participants had hoped to go to the West Bank and meet with intellectuals and theater people in Ramallah.  That meeting proved impossible because of the reality of the boycott, but nevertheless a number of symposium participants decided to go to the West Bank on their own and talk with whoever was willing to meet with them.  I found myself on a tour of the West Bank with IBS member Anthony Squiers.  This tour did take us to Ramallah, where we visited the tomb of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and also to Bethlehem, where we had an up-close inspection of the separation barrier between the West Bank and Israel.  That wall, with its colorful graffiti, reminded me in an uncanny way of the long-gone Berlin Wall that I had experienced from both sides during my student years in the 1980s—except that it is even higher and often topped with barbed wire.

Although a number of IBS members had supported the idea of boycotting Israel, in the end the overwhelming majority decided to support the IBS symposium there.  It is hard to imagine that if we had gone elsewhere, or simply sat on our hands, we would have had the critical and eye-opening experience we actually did have.  The fact is that everywhere we went in Israel we met Israelis who were deeply concerned, in some cases even despairing, about the political situation there.  Very few of the non-Israelis we spoke to at the symposium were as critical as many of the Israelis themselves.

I know that I will be thinking about and reflecting on this symposium and what I learned—about Brecht, about racism, about oppression, and of course also about many of the problems of our own times and past ones—for many weeks, months, and probably years to come.

The IBS owes a huge debt of gratitude to the organizers, who managed, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, to pull off an eye-opening and exciting symposium, and who did not shy away from the most difficult, painful topics.  Above all, and in spite of all obstacles, they managed to create moments of excitement, astonishment, and conviviality even in the midst of the “dark times” and the “shame.” 

We can only hope that there will be less shame and more joy to speak of at the next IBS symposium on “Brecht and the Anthropocene” in Victoria, British Columbia in June 2025.


Anthony Squiers

Reflections on the 17th IBS Symposium




Tel Aviv, zuerst zu treffen
to speak in dark times
about dark times, 
finstere Zeiten sprechen,
racism, oppression, 
cruelty, credulity, repression.

And we stayed at the beach,
rubbing our hands in the sands,
every morning, on the way
to deliver our papers.
In panels we held them out,
stigmatic for each other to see,
“Work makes my hands dirty.”

Then off to dinner, seafood am Strand
plunging hands in washing
waters under attack
so no silica grains worked their way
under fingernails, into ass-cracks.


Art and anger, evidence and anguish,
In Haifa atop high the hill
where Elijah belittled Baal:
“Well, you see, this and that,
And what a great writer
Und so weiter, und so weiter.
And isn’t this situation a pity,
Ja und yes and all the rest
Schade, Schade, pity and shame.”


Lastly in Jerusalem,
angel dust wurde geraucht.
Ancient incense, frankincense, 
the holy fumes, aufbrausen,
es gibt keine Atempausen.

Under the not so simple shadow
of callous concrete walls,
will they stand or should they fall?
Heard from the Mount of Olives
nach oben, above,
“Do you know the Rabbi?
Tell me you love.” 



Florian Vaßen

Bertolt Brecht, Israel und unsere Welt in „finsteren Zeiten“

Beim Schreiben dieses kurzen Textes stellte ich mir die Frage, was bei dem 17. IBS-Symposium „Brecht in finsteren Zeiten: Rassismus – politische Unterdrückung – Diktatur“ vom 11.-15. Dezember 2023 in Tel Aviv, Haifa und Jerusalem für mich besonders wichtig war, was die Leser*innen vermutlich besonders interessiert und in welchem gesellschaftlichen Kontext diese Tagung stattfand.


Mein Verhältnis zum Judentum und zu Israel ist im Laufe meines Lebens durchaus widersprüchlich. Meine Eltern und ein Teil meiner Familie hielten deutliche Distanz zum Nationalsozialismus, sodass ich mich relativ „unbelastet“ schon recht früh für die jüdische Geschichte interessierte. Zu Beginn meines Studiums trat ich dann 1963 in die Deutsch-Israelische Studentengemeinde ein, war begeistert von den sozialistischen Experimenten der Kibbuzim und hatte jüdische Freund*innen in Frankfurt am Main auch außerhalb der Universität. Diese Studentenorganisation setzte sich für Israel und vor allem für dessen Anerkennung durch die Bundesregierung ein, die damals vermutlich aus Angst davor zögerte, dass die arabischen Staaten dann die DDR anerkennen würden. In der Studentenbewegung nur wenige Jahre später galt mein Interesse dann allerdings vor allem Palästina, und ich sympathisierte – wie viele linke Studierende – mit der Fatah.

Seit ich vor einigen Jahren zum ersten Mal in Palästina war und einen guten Kontakt zu palästinensischen Kultureinrichtungen und Theatern bekam, informiere ich mich regelmäßig über den israelisch-palästinensischen Konflikt und beobachte sehr genau die komplexe Diskussion über Antisemitismus gerade auch in Deutschland. Die Kritik an der israelischen Regierung und ihrer Politik wird ja oft voreilig mit dem Etikett Antisemitismus versehen, was zur Folge hat, dass bei entsprechenden Veranstaltungen interveniert wird, keine Räume zur Verfügung gestellt werden, bis hin zu Zensur ähnlichen Maßnahmen. In Hannover haben wir allerdings die in Deutschland nicht sehr häufige Situation, dass etwa die „Palästina Initiative“ auch bei Israel kritischen Themen problemlos städtische Veranstaltungsräume bekommt.

Israel kannte ich bisher nur flüchtig, wollte aber nach zwei Besuchen in Auschwitz auf jeden Fall noch Yad Vashem besuchen. Die Gedenkstätte hat mich sehr beeindruckt, auch wenn ich die Kritik von antizionistischen jüdischen Israelis nachvollziehen kann, dass dort die Shoa im Sinne einer Zielgerichtetheit auf die Gründung Israels funktionalisiert werde. Und nun war ich zum ersten Mal länger in Israel, konfrontiert mit dem Kontrast von Tel Aviv, Haifa und Jerusalem und zur Zeit der Bildung einer konservativ-rechtsradikalen israelischen Regierung, und musste feststellen: Israel ist nicht nur wegen Palästina ein zerrissenes Land.


86 Personen aus 12 Ländern, vor allem aus den USA, Deutschland und Israel, standen auf der Teilnehmer*innenliste des Symposiums und nahmen in etwa 20 Sektionen aktiv an dem IBS-Symposium teil – aber anwesend waren natürlich auch Gäste und Interessierte. Gleich nach der Begrüßung wurden wir Zuhörer*innen mit der ersten der vier Keynote Lectures, Moshe Zuckermanns und Ruth Kanners “Dark Times – A Local Tale“, mit einer sehr kritischen und für einige Anwesende sicherlich auch provokativen Bestandsaufnahme der heutigen Situation in Israel/Palästina, geprägt von Unterdrückung und Apartheid, konfrontiert, ergänzt um eine sehr eindringliche Performance. Auch die anderen Plenarvorträge, vor allem Tom Kuhns Analyse „Brecht on Race, Shame, and Human Kindness“ mit einem besonderen Blick auf die Kriegsfibel und Nikolaus Müller-Schölls Untersuchung von Brechts Ästhetik, speziell deren „Rückschritt“ im Galilei, waren grundlegend für das Symposium. Während ich die drei Performances, „Gustaf Gründgens / Shame! Shame! Shame“, „Messingkauf SLAM“ und „Visuelle Dialoge mit Brecht und Co.“—die vierte Performance „Staging IG Farben Building“ habe ich leider nicht gesehen—, sehr gut und produktiv fand, fand ich die beiden Book Round Tables nicht so interessant.

Da in der Regel drei Sektionen parallel angeordnet waren, konnte ich nur an etwa einem Drittel teilnehmen. Sie verliefen zumeist sehr gut, und auch mit meinem Panel „Acting, Text, Context“ war ich sehr zufrieden. Mein Vortrag mit dem Titel „Der gewöhnliche Ausgang aller Appelle der Schwachen“, in dem ich über „Lernprozesse des Widerstands mit Bertolt Brechts Lehrstückfragment Der böse Baal der asoziale“ sprach, passte gut zu Ralf Räukers aus Perth (Australien) per Zoom eingespielte Präsentation „Baal becomes The God of Happiness“; der dritte Vortrag war leider kurzfristig ausgefallen. Das Panel „Artistic, Political, and Ideological Conflicts Between the Wars“ mit Vorträgen u.a. zu Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar und zum Brotladen-Fragment von Ibs, Braun und Weise beinhaltete ebenso innovative Fragestellungen wie das Panel „Heroism in Dark Times“ mit Vorträgen von Rovit, Lucchesi und Friedrichs zu Günther Weisenborn, Arnold Zweig und Barbara Brecht. Davis‘, Cohens und Klüseners Analysen zu Brecht und Schlingensief, Brecht und Wilson sowie Brechts Radio- und Lehrstück-Theorie in dem Panel „Models of Brechtian Tradition“ gaben vor allem wichtige Anregungen zu Brechts Positionierung heute. In dem Panel, das ich selbst geleitet habe, ging es um „Brechtian Approaches, Totalitarian Contexts“, d.h. um Vorträge aus einer spanischen und polnischen Perspektive sowie um eine sehr differenzierte Auseinandersetzung mit dem Aspekt Affirmativität im Kontext von „komischen Verfahren“ und Brechts Theorem vom „Einverständnis“. Die Thesen der Vorträge von Meerzon, Zhang und Squiers in dem Panel „Activating Protagonists and Spectators“ wurden recht kontrovers diskutiert.

Besonders intensiv und produktiv verlief aus meiner Sicht das Gruppen-Panel „Facing Brecht after the Future“ zu Brechts Fatzer vor allem wegen der intensiv diskutierten Aspekte Gender, Sexualität und Begehren, die in einer scharfen Kritik an Brechts Text und der bisherigen Forschungsliteratur seitens einer der Referentinnen gipfelte. Bedauerlich fand ich allerdings, dass ich an dem parallel liegenden Panel zum queeren epischen Theater nicht teilnehmen konnte.

Insgesamt war die Struktur des Symposiums überzeugend, auch wenn es sinnvoll gewesen wäre, das eine oder andere Panel anders zusammenzusetzen und die zeitliche Parallelität an einigen Stellen anders zu organisieren. Vermisst habe ich eine Abschlusssitzung oder eine Art von Verabschiedung der Teilnehmer*innen, und bedauerlich war es auch, dass die engagierten und aktiv teilnehmenden Studierenden an dem Abschiedsessen wegen des hohen Preises nicht teilnehmen konnten. Sehr positiv ist dagegen zu vermerken, dass eine gute Verbindung von künstlerischen Performances und wissenschaftlichem Diskurs stattfand, sowohl was den theatralen Teil des Eröffnungsabends und die musikalische Präsentation von Brecht-Gedichten „Will there be singing?“ betrifft als auch die Theateraufführung „How to make a Revolution“ im Jaffa Theater, die Installationen im Beit Ha’gefen Cultural Center und die Ausstellung “Biography of a Double”.

Die Brecht-Forschung wird durch dieses Symposium bzw. die Veröffentlichung ausgewählter Vorträge im Brecht-Jahrbuch 2024 sicherlich einen weiteren Entwicklungsschritt machen, Aspekte der Brauchbarkeit von Brecht in der heutigen Situation in Israel, Palästina und anderswo werden erneut diskutiert werden, und Eigensinn und Widerstand in seinen Texten werden weiterhin ebenso überprüft werden wie die Produktivität seiner ästhetischen Modelle.


Besonders wichtig für mich waren letztlich—wie so oft auf Tagungen—die persönlichen Gespräche und privaten Kontakte, die ja gar nicht so privat sind, wie sie scheinen, sondern durchaus wissenschaftliche und sogar politische Relevanz haben: Das Gesellige im Sinne Brechts ist immer auch gesellschaftlich. Meine Gespräche mit den israelischen Kolleg*innen, insbesondere mit Gad Kaynar-Kissinger und Ira Avneri, Keren Cohen und Jan Kühne, waren gerade auch wegen der neuen religiösen, rechtspopulistischen und rechtsradikalen Regierung, der sehr komplexen und schwierigen Situation innerhalb Israels und in dem sich weiter verschlechternden Verhältnis zwischen Israel und Palästina für mich besonders wichtig.

Dieser gesellschaftliche Kontext führte schon bei der Planung des Symposiums zu kontroversen Diskussionen bis hin zu Absagen. Für mich gab es verschiedene Gründe, warum ich an dem IBS-Symposium in Israel teilgenommen habe: Da ist zunächst der kritische Autor Brecht, der mit seiner „Lebenskunst“ in spezifischer Weise die Marx’sche Theorie fortsetzt und ästhetisch konkretisiert. Es sind weiterhin die „finsteren Zeiten“, zu seiner Zeit mit Faschismus und Exil, aber auch mit Stalinismus und autoritärem Kommunismus, und es sind unsere „finsteren“ Zeiten mit Kriegen in vielen Erdteilen, mit einem Ukrainekrieg in Europa, mit Unterdrückung und Ausgrenzung, Hunger und Elend, Vertreibung und Flucht in vielen Teilen der Welt, mit der Zunahme von Rassismus, Sexismus und Klassismus auch in Europa und der Zeit des Anthropozäns mit einer durch den Menschen verursachten Klimakatastrophe. Aber die Metapher „finstere Zeiten“ trifft für mich auch und in besonderem Maße auf Israel selbst zu mit den ungelösten Fragen: Wie passen Demokratie und Theokratie als Gesellschaftsform zusammen? Wie wollen ultraorthodoxe und säkulare Juden zusammenleben? (Es gibt jüdische Israelis, die in diesem Zusammenhang bereits von einer Aufteilung Israels in Kantone wie in der Schweiz sprechen.) Wie wird Apartheid gegenüber den israelischen Palästinensern, aber auch den Drusen und Christen in einem jüdischen Staat verhindert?

Wenn ich zurzeit erlebe, dass jeden Samstag riesige Demonstrationen gegen die Regierung von Netanyahu stattfinden, dann habe ich immerhin die Hoffnung, dass eine politische Umkehr gelingen könnte, dass die derzeitige Regierung mit ihrer an Notverordnungen erinnernden Bedrohung der Gewaltenteilung und ihrer geplanten Zerschlagung der öffentlichen Rundfunk- und Fernsehanstalten, mit Vorschlägen, Frauen und Männer sollten in Bussen getrennt sitzen oder—eigentlich unvorstellbar—alle Palästinenser sollten in die umliegenden arabischen Länder vertrieben werden, auf ihrem Weg in eine illiberale Demokratie à la Ungarn oder der Türkei scheitert. Die Zeitung „Haaretz“ zitiert in ihrem „Daily Brief“ vom 10. Februar irritiert und widerständig zugleich den Holocaust-Historiker Daniel Blatman mit den Worten: „Israel’s government has Neo-nazi ministers. It really does recall Germany 1933“ und am 12. Februar spricht sie von einem „battle over democracy“. Für die jüdischen Israelis scheinen aktuell die inneren Konflikte bedrohlicher als die äußeren, sprich Siedlungsbau in und militärische Besatzung von Palästina, eine Situation, die sich allerdings durch die Handlungen und Provokationen rechtsradikaler Minister ebenfalls verschärfen wird.

In diesem Kontext ist auch die bedauerliche Absage palästinensischer Kulturschaffender und Theaterleute zu sehen, sich mit uns nach dem Symposium zu treffen. Etwa 30 Kolleg*innen des Symposiums waren an einem Treffen, das vermutlich in Ramallah stattgefunden hätte, interessiert. Diese Zusammenkunft kam jedoch nicht zustande, weil die palästinensischen Kulturschaffenden den Kontakt zu israelischen staatlichen Institutionen, etwa zur Universität Tel Aviv, an der auch Militärforschung betrieben wird, verweigern und die Gruppe als Teil des Symposiums an den drei israelischen Universitäten sahen.[1] Diese Ablehnung eines Dialogs ist nicht einfach zu verstehen, sie zeigt aber, wie die Palästinenser aktuell auf die jahrelange und sich immer weiter verschärfende Unterdrückung durch Israel reagieren. Ein privates Treffen von mir mit einer Theaterleiterin aus Ramallah war dagegen überhaupt kein Problem. Die mehr als 20 palästinensischen Theater in der Westbank, Ost-Jerusalem und Gaza[2] sind sehr an Kontakten und Kooperationen interessiert, Brecht ist für sie ein wichtiger politischer Theaterautor. Im letzten Jahr hat z.B. das ASTHAR Theater aus Ramallah mit Jugendlichen The Brains Washers Conference aufgeführt, eine Bearbeitung von Brechts Turandot oder Der Kongress der Weißwäscher.[3]

Gerade wegen der „finsteren Zeiten“ möchte ich zum Schluss den israelischen Kolleg*innen danken für die gute Organisation und produktive inhaltliche Gestaltung des Brecht-Symposiums und dabei vor allem ihre Gastfreundschaft hervorheben.

[1]   Siehe hierzu [https://e-cibs.org/issue-20221/].

[2]   Siehe Acting Out. Voices from the Theatre in Palestine. Fotos und Interviews von Jonathan Daitch. Jerusalem/London/Paris: The Educational Bookshop/Nomad Publishing/Riveneuve Editions 2021 [ISBN 978-1-914325-01-4].

[3]   Siehe auch das ASHTAR Youth Theatre Festival vom 3.-8. Juli 2022, [https://www.ashtar-youth-festival.com/performances-1].



Jean Maurer

Brecht at Dusk


The seventeenth Symposium of the International Brecht Society in Israel began for me a week prior to the actual event. As one of the students, who were kindly invited to the conference, I was given the opportunity to participate in two seminars, one theoretical and one practical, along with the other students from Germany and Israel. I should add that “Germany and Israel” doesn’t quite cover the group’s diversity since it included persons from many different countries, persons with more than one home, or maybe none at all. Also, “students” isn’t the proper noun either since many participants were already working for a long time on their own artistic questions, putting up shows, or writing their next script, essay, or novel. But still, since we were all sitting in this cold room at 10 a.m. listening to Marc Silberman, discussing Brechtian terms and reading Brecht all night long, one could say we were all students in one way or another. And Marc Silberman was the ideal teacher for such a group. He provided great access to Brecht’s writings and ideas and allowed us to discuss those topics in our group. For every question, we posed, he might not have given an answer but a suitable quote by Brecht to keep the discussion going. It was a very dense and thought-provoking time.

After Marc’s seminar, Dedi Baron’s workshop came as a surprise for me. We were not applying Brechtian techniques in the orthodox sense, we were not rehearsing Mother Courage or trying to figure out how actually to make a “Verfremdungseffekt.” Instead, in the first session, each of us just got one word and then went out on the streets for one and a half hours to write something, be it a poem, a short story, or just one word. During the following sessions, we started working in groups on the topic “utopia,” but again without using Brecht directly. Rather, we started using the Brechtian ideas we learned in Marc’s seminar but in a way that suited our interests and artistic research. Furthermore, it created a “Gruppengefühl,” we became a group in those hours.

Panel presenting the history of the IG Farben Buildng that houses the theater program at the Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main

“Brecht in Dark Times, Racism, Political Oppression and Dictatorship” was the title of the symposium that took place in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Looking at the events that preceded and followed the symposium, it is apparent these are indeed dark times. Be it in such large-scale political events as the ongoing war in Ukraine, the insurrection in Brazil, the newly elected governments in Sweden and Italy or the dismantling of democracy in Israel. The latter was, of course, the looming shadow above the entire conference. It became apparent as a certain anger or hopelessness, especially in the seminars, in the keynote by Moshe Zuckerman, the performance at Jaffa Theater and in the performance by students of the Tel Aviv University and the Ruth Kanner Theatre Group. Besides those large-scale events, there were small-scale conflicts that may not be so small after all. I am thinking about the murder of Tyre Nichols or the ending of the sit-in in Lützerath, which occurred while I was writing this. All these events gave the symposium a sense of urgency, even in the aftermath of the actual conference: to turn or return to Brecht and his discussions about artistic work in the face of hardening political conditions seems more than necessary.

Despite those grim times, the symposium was as rich as it was challenging. The schedule was full of intriguing panels that unfortunately happened simultaneously. It was almost impossible to decide. The panels brought together people from very different points of their academic careers. Some of them were long-time Brecht scholars and others had just begun their reading of Brecht. Especially the younger generation was of interest to me since they extended the frame of references to incorporate feminist theories, contemporary artists and Schizoanalysis. Beyond this, the Brecht Society introduced me to a Brecht that exceeds the one taught in German schools or the one played in theatres. Be it Tom Kuhn’s stirring account of Brecht’s “Kriegsfibel” or the many inputs on Brecht’s journals and fragments, they all widened my scope of the many different layers of Brecht’s work and its actuality. I was surprised to see how much of Brecht’s most interesting thoughts lie underneath the surface of the official Brecht. And the discussions and lectures also made me understand that to read this Brecht also means to read what was never written. To fill in the gaps, to research the political events of his time, since he was like a seismograph that takes notice of every tiny turbulence. But also to read Brecht against Brecht, showing what he didn’t write, maybe because he was not allowed to, perhaps because he overlooked it or because he deliberately left it vague and opaque. If I took one thing from this symposium besides everything already mentioned above, then it is to read Brecht. Maybe more than once.


Aurélien Bellucci

The Resistible Rise of Dis-Estrangement


In Bertolt Brecht’s parable play, The Good Person of Szechwan (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan),[1] the foreign setting subjects European spectators to a Verfremdung effect, or estrangement effect. This fantasized China is arguably the play’s most salient epic feature. It helps the audience to take distance from the good person’s edifying story. Seeing the action take place in a foreign setting helps spectators to step back and “discuss, criticize, alter”[2] what happens on stage. Therefore, Brecht’s modern play enlivens twice the didactic function of the ancient parables it is based on—the Biblical story of “Sodom and Gomorrah” and the Ovidian metamorphosis of “Baucis and Philemon”—by both providing spectators with an exemplum on hospitality and teaching them to question it. The setting is as strange as the moral sounds familiar for a European audience.

What happens in our global world, however, when the play is produced in China? Is the setting still a foreign one for the Chinese audience? Both in China and other places where the play was produced recently, the foreign setting actually tends to vanish, as a variety of “foreign” things tend to do which today, in real life, become familiar through globalization. At the same time, it appears that contemporary adaptations of Brecht’s parable play are also still conducive to addressing burning issues of our dark times: environmental disasters, migrant crises, or racist policies. The question is whether or not it is useful to address these issues in a familiar setting, devoid of the original play’s geographic estrangement. Does a play that raises such an issue without questioning it count as political theater at all? Is it not rather merely echoing the media?

Even before they attend a performance of The Good Person of Szechwan, the play’s title implies to spectators that they will see a play that is taking place in China, or in Asia, or else in a foreign setting, depending on their knowing or not about the Chinese province of Szechwan, Sezuan, or “Sichuan” as the official romanization system goes in China. As a matter of fact, it seems that Brecht himself did not know that Sichuan was a Chinese province since a first version of the play was supposed to take place in the “half-westernized city of Setzuan,”[3] which in later versions became, more precisely, the “capital of Szechwan.” After all, Brecht never went to China. It was a foreign place to him as it was for the Zurich audience of the play’s première in 1943. The German playwright probably chose this toponym because it sounded particularly strange to his ears.

The exact place admittedly does not matter so much, but the foreign setting does. It should create some distance between spectators in the room and actors on stage, some geographical distance at least, and it should be constitutive of a general estrangement effect that makes The Good Person of Szechwan an emblematic piece of epic theater. Whether or not the Chinese setting was a reason why the play was attractive to numerous Chinese directors, one may still wonder what kind of setting should be adopted in a Chinese production of the play. Should it be a Chinese city, as the text goes, or a foreign setting, as epic theater demands in this case, a Swiss city, for example? In an article on Brecht and East Asia, Antony Tatlow remembers that a production of the play in Beijing from 1958 was “distanced into the old Chinese society.”[4] The setting was no longer a foreign one but, as an epic compromise, it was not in the present but in the past. Yet the more recent production of the play by Li Liuyi into a Sichuan opera—Li Liuyi was himself from Chengdu, by the way, the actual capital city of Sichuan—left behind altogether the distanced setting: it adhered to the play’s text more than its epic dimension. This phenomenon in the reception of Brecht in Asia was neither isolated nor, apparently, the most surprising one.

The Indian translator of the play, Amitabh Srivastava, turned The Good Person of Szechwan into Ramkali Aurat Bhali (औरत भली – रामकली), that is, Ramkali the Good Woman which took place not in Sichuan but in Kanpur, an industrial city of the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh. In Amal Allana’s production from 1984, the good person was not called Shen Teh anymore but Ramkali, she wore a sari, owned a pan shop instead of a tobacco shop and made transactions not in silver dollars but in Indian rupees.[5] Not only did the foreign setting vanish, as in Li Liuyi’s Sichuan opera, but it also adapted to a completely new place that did not have any link to Sichuan or China. As a comparison, Giorgio Strehler’s Italian production from 1980 which, as John Willett writes, dropped the Chinese setting in favor of “an Italian shanty town” was still entitled The Good Soul of Sezuan (La buona anima del Sezuan). At the very least the title implied some geographical distance. Thus, one critique praised both “Brecht’s Chinese Fable and Strehler’s Magic Direction” (“La favola cinese di Brecht e la magica regia di Strehler”), and another even abbreviated the play’s title to the Chinese province’s name: “The New ‘Sezuan’ in Milan under Enthusiastic Applauds” (“La Nuova ‘Sezuan’ a Milano tra gli applause entusiasti”).[6]

Ramkali the Good Woman

In contemporary Indian productions of the play, this phenomenon of “dis-estrangement” goes even one step further with Arvind Gaur’s production of the play in Delhi from 2019. It was then entitled Dilli ki Aurat Bhali – Ramkali (दिलली की औरत भली – रामकली), that is, The Good Woman of Delhi – Ramkali: the city where the scene took place was not only an Indian city but the actual city where spectators attended the performance, not Kanpur anymore but Delhi. In fact, Arvind Gaur somehow even went two steps further since his first production of the play, ten years earlier, in 2009, in Ahmedabad, was then entitled Ahmedabad ki Aurat Bhali – Ramkali (अहमदाबाद की औरत भली – रामकली), The Good Woman of Ahmedabad – Ramkali): it seems that the scene always takes place in the production’s very city with, in addition, actors that can speak the local idiom and know about the local situation, such as the renowned actress from Ahmedabad, Mallika Sarabhai, as Ramkali in her home city.

This process of dis-estrangement does not necessarily result in a complete loss of Brecht’s epic dimension. And this kind of local setting may still be suitable for a political theater or “thaëter” for our dark times, as the Messingkauf dialogue’s philosopher wanted it: “It is meant only for our own day: which admittedly isn’t a cheerful one.”[7] In one of the most expressive moments of Arvind Gaur’s production from 2009, all characters but Ramkali pray to the worthless gods of the play after they just told her to be good and left her alone, helpless, which takes on a new meaning in the context of growing Hindu-nationalism in contemporary India. This was particularly relevant in Ahmedabad, which was hit by gruesome anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002. In the 2019 production of RamkaliThe Good Woman of Delhi, furthermore, Arvind Gaur inserted a direct reference to current events. At a time of massive protests all over India against a series of discriminatory bills targeting Muslims, the scroungers surrounding Ramkali asked an old Muslim couple for their birth certificate to enter the pan shop. Here the question is whether such a direct reference may lead spectators to step back from the performance and reflect on the political situation or, instead, have the reverse effect, make them fall into theater’s mimetic illusion and eventually imply that the situation is just banal, irrepressible, normal.

Even though this process of dis-estrangement is observable in multiple recent productions, it is not always as local, of course, as Arvind Gaur’s productions. Yet the play is still conducive to address a variety of political issues in other contexts. Jean Bellorini’s Good Soul of Se-Tchouan (Bonne Âme du Se-Tchouan), for instance, produced in 2013 in Paris, tackled the European migrant crisis to remind French spectators that they were not more hospitable than the play’s godless villagers. Although the play kept its title, the reference to Sichuan and the characters’ Asian-sounding names, the production had nothing Chinese about it and, again, as in Arvind Gaur’s Indian production, it dealt with a political issue with which the audience was familiar.

La Bonne Âme du Se-Tchouan

After an intermission, the French production’s second part started with a radio voice-over letting the audience know that, “in fifteen days, close to 500 migrants have drowned after the sinking of their boat between Libya and the Lampedusa Island.”[8] These toponyms were familiar to the French audience too, they had heard them on the radio countless times. Fifteen minutes later in the performance, as Shen Té saw a child going through the trash to find food, she addressed the audience directly: “And you? Someone here needs a roof. A man of tomorrow needs you today. He could live in Mister Shu Fu’s buildings. I may have to go there myself. I am expecting a child. A child. […] He’s hungry. He’s going through the trash. Oh, my son! […] How do you treat your fellow human beings? Have you no compassion for yourselves, no pity for the fruit of your loins?”[9] This aside to the audience was certainly a pertinent reading of The Good Person of Szechwan, which is after all a parable play about hospitality based on Ovid’s metamorphosis “Baucis and Philemon.” In Bellorini’s production, the good soul taught a moral lesson to the audience. She addressed them directly. And she asked a series of questions, which remained rhetorical questions, but the fourth wall was still broken down. Yet did it make the audience think differently about the migrant crisis at all? The lack of geographic estrangement may have prevented this kind of realization from happening. Moreover, it may have contributed to make spectators feel even more powerless. They may just have felt, in a theater room, that there was nothing they could do about it.

The same went, it seems, for Meng Jinghui’s 2014 production in Shanghai and Melbourne. In one of the most memorable moments of Brecht’s play, the three gods tell Wang, the water-seller, that they did not play any part in the flood that devastated the neighboring province of Kwan in a particularly down-to-earth line: they simply “neglected the dam,” say the gods. In Meng Jinghui’s version, Kwan inhabitants didn’t neglect the dam but they “cut down all their forests,”[10] which refers quite openly to the massive deforestation that has been taking place in China over the years, as do other Chinese plays, by the way, such as Gao Xingjian’s Wildman (野人) which has the vanishing Sichuan forest as a backdrop. Here, again, spectators are familiar with this political issue, they may even have seen other performances dealing with it.

The question of deforestation—and environmental concerns in general—is certainly more far-reaching than the national issue addressed in Arvind Gaur’s Indian production and, arguably, more so than the continental issue addressed in Jean Bellorini’s French production too. As a matter of fact, Meng Jinghui’s production is an international one, and it does not have a Chinese setting: only the title of the play refers to the Chinese province, Sichuan Haoren (四川好人), that is, The Good Person of Szechuan.

The Good Person of Szechuan

Can one speak about a re-estrangement of the setting at all? It is not the case for the audience in Melbourne that does not see anything “strange” on stage, apart from the Mandarin surtitles maybe… And it is not the case for the Chinese audience either because the setting has become a global one. The production deals with a global issue and, to this extent, it is similar to Bellorini’s French production which has neither a foreign (Chinese) setting nor a local (French) one, but also deals with an international issue with which the audience is familiar.

In our dark times, The Good Person of Szechwan goes through a process of dis-estrangement in several ways. Either the setting becomes a local one, or it becomes a global one, which in both cases audiences are familiar with. In both cases, it is also conducive to addressing the political issues of “our own days,” be they a national issue in Gaur’s production, a continental one in Bellorini’s production, or a global one in Meng’s production. In a familiar setting, however, these issues seem to belong to the audience’s reality, they are normal. If this is the case, these productions have lost the epic dimension of the original play. They may be political in content but not so much in form. There are certainly other epic features to the play that recent productions may use to compensate for the absence of a foreign setting, such as the play’s “final call-to-arms,”[11] in the words of Charlotte Ryland, that is, the epilogue in which a narrator opens the play instead of closing it and asks the audience to find a happy end.

Nevertheless, in Bellorini and Meng’s productions, this call-to-arms completely disappears, as if there was no way the audience could find a happy end to the play, as if the migrant crisis or environmental issues were out of reach. Only Arvind Gaur’s production keeps the epilogue, and it usually ends with a dialogue between stage and audience so that, by speaking publicly about it, spectators may take the lead and tackle Hindu-nationalist policies, not only in the theater but also outside, as citizens. Yet this production is still happening in a local setting, the epic realization may not happen at all, and the final dialogue may end up being a sterile one. Another recent production, in New York, by Lear deBessonnet in 2013, provides a global setting and keeps the epilogue, but does not leave the floor to spectators; no debate ensues. If it did, however, would spectators take enough distance to find a solution to the play’s dilemma? Nothing is less sure, which may prompt us to wonder if estrangement, in a global yet ever darker world, is still possible at all.

In a world where everything looks familiar and normal, such a process of dis-estrangement as the one Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan has gone through seems unavoidable. Creating a foreign setting is difficult for a variety of reasons, because information circulates, people move, the world is smaller, but also because theater makers today may have second thoughts about creating a foreign setting in a place they do not know about, or where they have never been to, or else a place they are simply not coming from, for they may fear the label of cultural appropriation. As a matter of fact, making a production of a Good Person of the World, with a global setting, may be the only way directors find in most places to deal with global problems such as environmental issues, migrant crises, or racist policies. Yet, conversely, making the play as local as could be, as Arvind Gaur does in India, may itself be a formal solution to a major issue of our time: the general homogenization brought about by globalization which prevents estrangement effects. Isn’t it strange enough and rare enough today for citizens of the world to be both engaged by local issues and involved in local politics? There must be a way to resist the fall of estrangement, or the rise of dis-estrangement, “there must, must, must,”[12] as the epilogue of The Good Person of Szechwan goes.


[1] Bertolt Brecht, The Good Person of Szechwan: A parable play, trans. John Willett, in John Willett and Ralph Manheim, Brecht Collected Plays: 6 (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 1998).

[2] Bertolt Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre” in John Willett, Brecht on Theatre (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), entry 65, 200.

[3] Bertolt Brecht, Two Plays by Bertolt Brecht: The Good Woman of Setzuan; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, trans. Eric Bentley (New York: Meridian Classic, 1983).

[4] Antony Tatlow, “Brecht’s East Asia: A Conspectus,” Brecht Yearbook 36 (2011), 362.

[5] Aurat Bhali Ramkali, National School of Drama (Second Year Students Production), Production Booklet, 1984, “Synopsis,” 12.

[6] Piccolo Teatro di Milano-Teatro d’Europa, “Rassegna Stampa” (“Press Review”), online archives (https://archivio.piccoloteatro.org/eurolab/index.php?ini=48#a).

[7] Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, trans. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1965), 99.

[8] Bertolt Brecht, La Bonne Âme du Se-Tchouan (Direction: Jean Bellorini; Translation: Camille de la Guillonnière and Jean Bellorini; Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, 2013), 1 hour 42 min. 15 sec. to 1 hour 42 min. 45 sec.: “Toujours les drames de l’immigration clandestine, près de 130 migrants ont été sauvés en pleine Méditerranée, cela s’est passé hier soir, la mer était forte, un navire de la marine américaine est allé leur porter secours alors que leur embarcation dérivait, elle avait été repérée par un avion maltais. En quinze jours près de 500 migrants se sont noyés après le naufrage de leur bateau entre la Libye et l’île de Lampedusa.” (Trans. from French: A.B.)

[9] Ibid., 1 hour 58 min. 30 sec. to 2 hours 01 min. 55 sec.: “Et vous ? Il y a quelqu’un qui a besoin d’un toit. Un homme de demain vous réclame un aujourd’hui. Il peut très bien vivre dans les immeubles de Monsieur Shu Fu, moi aussi je vais peut-être y aller. J’attends un enfant. Un enfant. […] Il a faim. Il fouille dans les poubelles. Oh mon fils. […] Et regardez ce petit visage tout gris là ! Comment traitez-vous vos semblables ? Vous n’avez donc pas la moindre compassion pour vous-mêmes, aucune pitié pour le fruit de vos entrailles ?

[10] Bertolt Brecht, “The Good Person of Szechuan (四川好人), Full Show Archival Copy” (Direction: Meng Jinghui; New Translation: Tom Wright; Melbourne: Malthouse Theater, 2014), 5 minutes, 25 seconds: “就是因为他们砍伐森林” (“because they cut down all their forests”). (Trans. from Mandarin: A.B.)

[11] Bertolt Brecht, The Good Person of Szechwan, trans. Tony Kushner (London: Methuen, 2012), iii.

[12] Bertolt Brecht, The Good Person of Szechwan: A parable play, trans. John Willett, in John Willett and Ralph Manheim, Brecht Collected Plays: 6 (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 1998), 111.


Alexandra Marinho de Oliveira with Luiza Maldonado

UnRuhe: A Lehrformance


UnRuhe is an audiovisual production inspired by Svendborger Gedichte. There are several possibilities to present it to the public: as an installation in an exhibition space, as a film, or as a lecture performance. In Tel Aviv, at the Symposium of the 17th International Brecht Society, we presented the work as a lecture performance. On this occasion, we had the opportunity to draw parallels with the political reality of Brazil, and to talk about the project with an attentive audience who were crucial to the construction of our thoughts about the work. UnRuhe deals, first and foremost with the friendship of two artists, two women who met in art, two immigrant actresses who met during the covid pandemic and who decide to discuss poetry and friendship in dark times through a feminine glance, a glance above all interested in reflecting on the role of women in our culture. Alexandra and Luiza were witnesses to the horrors of fascism in their home country, Brazil from 2018 to 2022. From this encounter, emerged UnRuhe, during the pandemic period, just as great hopes arise in difficult times. UnRuhe is the portrait of a friendship.

The performance held in Tel Aviv in December 2022 presented excerpts from a video made during an artist residency in the house where Weigel and Brecht lived in exile in Svendborg (Denmark) from 1933 to 1939 with their children and the continuous presence of collaborators and friends. While watching the videos both actresses make comments and expose reflections, related to their background.

In 2013, when I started the research for my PhD (completed in 2019 at the University of Frankfurt on the role of photography in Brechtian work), I developed a great interest in the moment when photography started to be part of Brecht’s creative process. That moment certainly occurred in Svendborg, upon meeting Ruth Berlau, who would become Brecht’s photographer for over two decades. Although it was not the first time I would go to the house nor the first time I would try to dialogue with Brecht’s poems (see the two articles by Marinho de Oliveira e_cibs [2017:2]), this time my artistic gaze would prevail over the academic gaze, alongside Luiza Maldonado, with whom I carried out this artistic project. Our interest is in thinking about issues related to women’s participation in the construction of the poems in the “Svendborger Gedichte” collection. To achieve this, we went to Karin Michaëlis’s house in Thuro, a Danish feminist writer and friend of Helene Weigel, who made it possible for the family to escape from and settle in Svendborg. Through the poems Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten (1937) and Aber aus dem Montag (1934), we recognize Karin’s importance to the lives of dozens of refugees and their families.

Helene Weigel appears as a central character in the performance lecture since we are interested in reflecting on the (non)-theatrical making of a great actress in exile. We created a very special dressing room for her, because in the 1930s the house did not have this space for the actress. Luiza and I were also away from the stage and dressing rooms, and UnRuhe brought us back to acting. With many references to her theatrical career, we selected two poems—Selbstgespräch einer Schauspielerin beim Schminken (1938) and Schminke (1937)—that Brecht wrote praising the qualities of the actress who lived with him for so many years and continued his legacy after his death, managing the Berliner Ensemble.

Ruth Berlau was Danish and was an essential collaborator during the years of exile in Svendborg. She brought photography as a tool for Brecht’s creative work and created with him one of the most extensive theatrical photographic archives of his time. She photographed, developed, selected, edited, and was responsible for the creation of the Modellbücher, which eternalized many of Brecht’s plays through photography. It is no wonder that photography was so important in Brecht’s life and work during his exile, when the visual register became necessary. The complexity of having multiple languages could not fully account for Brecht’s artistic production. Thus, we also opted to make the video in three languages: Portuguese, our mother tongue; German, the original language of the poems; and English, since we were at an international event. Many other female presences appear in the house’s trajectory, such as Margarete Steffin, an essential collaborator in the Brechtian work; Barbara Brecht, daughter of the couple who lived in the house in exile with her family, friends and neighbors, all the way to dear Kirsten, a current Board Member who preserves the house with enormous care and competence, welcoming new residents to give life to Weigel and Brecht’s House.

In 2017, in a previous contribution to e-cibs [2017:2], I close the text about Weigel-Brecht’s House in Svendborg with some questions “The house still has “vier Türen, daraus zu fliehen”, but who are we running away from? What are our reasons?”. Unfortunately, the Brazilian political situation of the last few years has shown us very clearly the face of fascism, and what are our reasons for being terrified. Fear appears here thought collectively, in a society that suffers from enormous social inequality and recently faces hunger and misery. Coincidentally, in the same year, in second article in the same issue of e-cibs [2017:2], I refer to Brecht’s book of poems, my first book by Brecht and one of the main “characters” in the video. From this book of poems come the words with which we started UnRuhe in Tel Aviv, creating new meanings for Brecht’s poetry.

Ich, der ich nichts mehr liebe
Als die Unzufriedenheit mit dem Änderbaren
Hasse auch nichts mehr als
Die Unzufriedenheit mit dem Unveränderlichen.        



Beach in Tel Aviv