Issue 2017:1


Articles and Essays:

Tribute to Carl Weber (Antony Tatlow)

My Brecht: A Look from 2016 (Darko Suvin)

The Brecht Wall in Havana, Cuba (R.G. Davis)

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: Brecht’s refugee experience and the Syrian Refugee crisis (Gudrun Tabbert-Jones)

Experimenting with Brecht: Producing Mother Courage in Higher Education as a Test of His Methodology (Bill Gelber)

Performance reviews:

Fatzer at the Deutsches Theater (Ellie Keel)

A Healthy Dose of Brecht at TheatreLAB (Caroline Weist)

Mother Courage and Her Children at Quintessence Theater (Jim Grilli)

The Flight of the Lindbergh (Paula Hanssen)

Recycling The Threepenny Opera (Anja Hartl)

Conference report:

Drive-By Theatre Double Feature: Brecht+60/Kleist+205

Carl Weber (1925-2016)

by Antony Tatlow

Stanford University’s The Book Haven contains an account of Carl Weber’s life and achievements, including a short video in which he describes Brecht in rehearsal. As one of his assistant directors, he had, literally, special insight into an original practice, always open to modifications as it was realized, counteracting reams of textual scholarship so often fixated by abstract assumptions. Though certainly driven by a purpose, it depended, as an aesthetic and social practice, on what works best, on experience, not to be supplanted, either dramatically or politically, by what Brecht called pre-established ‘judgments.’

Carl has left us with our memories of his accomplishments, which I cannot enumerate adequately. Hans-Thiess Lehmann has also written a fine account for Theater Heute. I would rather try to convey my sense of being together with him and share my experience of his personality and exceptional gift of observation which I so admired in his writing. Carl and Marianne stayed with us when in Hong Kong and Dublin and I with them in Peter Coutts Circle when in Stanford though, regrettably, never joining them in Courcerault, which would have been time better spent than whatever current project seemed to prevent it. Our contacts mostly involved participation in International Brecht Society publications and events, so mine are not just private reminiscences.

We first met in 1982 at the 6th IBS Symposium in Portland, Oregon, and in Lewis and Clarke College, among the blue jays, humming birds, and the ubiquitous and supposedly hallucinogenic rhododendrons, properties that maybe affected our deliberations. I had glided down past the crater of Mount St Helens, which exploded two years earlier, a reminder how undetected physical and social forces can suddenly erupt and change the fabric of our lives.

On the steps beside the rhododendrons stood Chairman Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA), praising Jiang Qing (aka Chiang Ch’ing), the architect of the eight model revolutionary operas, the only permitted theatre in China during The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, technically under sentence of death, and opposing Deng Xiaoping, who jailed her. The Seattle Times of 25th May carried a headline, BRITISH DOWN 7 ARGENTINE JETS, and a story about a Grand Jury investigating car-bombings, sabotage and arson on the campus of California State University at Long Beach, related to a feud among part-time and tenured faculty fighting for their jobs amid heavy budget cuts during which research files were also set on fire. It seems another era, but who knows what lies ahead?

My contribution to the immediate proceedings was a somewhat off-message account of what I called ‘stage fright’ in Brecht’s and Jacobean drama, rejecting a recent view that he had steeled himself in the poem, The Doubter, as a quasi-Nietzschean Stalinist, to accept the infelicities of ‘everything that was happening’ in the late 1930ies. I never forgot Carl’s response. He said: ‘From my days with the Berliner Ensemble in the fifties I was familiar with the tremendous emotional impact Brecht’s productions could and did achieve, and I saw how very cleverly he managed to calibrate shock-effects, and used them to prod the audiences’ thinking mind.’

That helped: first, by listening, not always assured among the vanities and certainties of academic conferences; next, by saying, contrary to the critical clichés, that, not fixated by rational demonstration, Brecht judiciously conveyed understated but powerful emotional effects; then, by bringing what was suggested back to what mattered most: the lasting, not passing, effect on a spectator or reader.

Carl was then working in the Tisch School for the Arts in New York, and later that year, in their I. M. Pei designed Bleecker St. NYU apartment whose blue curtains they could not change, I was struck by Carl’s deep and caring relationship with Marianne. She was exceptionally sensitive and often withdrawn, yet observant and an uncannily perceptive judge of character and behaviour. From what I saw, he seemed devoted to someone who needed support and unusual affection. I also remember how he enjoyed driving his large convertible, the fabric top retracted, along the avenues for his European friend, who leant his neck back on the seat and gazed at the sky and the cement canyons slipping past.

A conference that summer, held in the New York University School of Law’s Vanderbilt Hall on Washington Square, showed us something else. The presentation in question, an account of Dario Fo’s We won’t pay, we can’t pay, asked an unexceptional if respectable question about the status of the dramatic text, dwelling on the problems encountered in translation. However, the situation then took over, demonstrating the difference between Carl’s view of theatre and so much academic activity.

The lecture room was on the second floor. The outside of the house was being repainted. It was the vacation. The lawyers were out of town. It began to rain heavily and suddenly grew quite dark. As the disquisition carefully measured the play’s mode of existence, there was a clap of thunder. That was followed by an even louder crash, which really interrupted the proceedings. Everyone jumped and swivelled round. Behind us the lower half of the central window had fallen into the room. Only it hadn’t fallen, it had been pushed, and in clambered the material force, two dripping figures in white overalls. The painters’ hoist had apparently stuck. As the learned discourse resumed, the culprits hammered the window back into place. The room stirred, tongues clicked in disapproval. Then, paint splashing from their tins, they squelched down the steps of the central aisle towards the speaker and made for the door. As they reached it, someone in the front row sent them on their way with a loudly hissed comment: ‘You have chosen a very bad time to do this.’ One of them shrugged off the reprimand and they passed beyond our portals.

What struck us was that no one else laughed. Though they understood the speaker, I wondered could they ever understand the play and this happening as social gesture, or the painters as messengers from the gods, they even stepped out of the sky, an angry sky, or see themselves as participants in an encounter, and the professional lecture as a play within a play? History has a nasty habit of re-writing roles and showing that live performances are really only stories within stories for players, who haven’t been shown the script. The immediacy of performance can obscure its context, unless anticipated and somehow situated, as Brecht tried to do and Carl wanted to clarify.

The IBS 7th Symposium in Hong Kong, the only Symposium so far in Asia, was characterized, above all, by the quality and range of eleven performances from several Asian countries. The Brecht Yearbook XIV was devoted to the proceedings. Carl was one of the editors, but had no part in preparing it, for which the Managing Editor was responsible, and publications were falling behind. Concerned about the delays, I had asked, as President, to see this volume before distribution, only to discover it was riddled with errors. I immediately contacted Carl and others, equally horrified at the prospect of publishing a text that would have seriously impacted on our society’s reputation. We agreed, it might well finish us. Discovering literally blank pages and hundreds of mistakes, far too serious for an errata list, it became obvious that the whole volume had to be redone.

Carl’s support in determining this outcome and his assistance in making it possible was critical. He contributed a fourteen-page description of all the performances, a highlight of the volume and the best ever such account in any Brecht Yearbook. Compared with the often condescending reports of Western critics when dealing with Asian productions widely considered by them as inferior reproductions of a Brecht, whose current reputation was in their opinion in decline, or at best fairy tale creations for societies which had yet to achieve the degree of economic development that rendered Brecht less relevant for European culture, Carl produced detailed and lively, also critical, observations of what he had seen, not only on its own terms and relative to the particular style and cultural practice but connecting it with new ways of seeing how a socially critical theatre was enhanced by the innovative aesthetic styles, pointing out much that would have delighted Brecht.

Consider these excerpts from accounts of three performances. First, Senda Korea’s Haiyuza Theatre from Tokyo:

He who says Yes was enacted by men… Crossing the mountain was represented by climbing up and down metal ladders and traversing two steel wires stretched between them, a dangerous looking and exquisitely performed manoeuvre… The Chorus was seated upstage and to the side as in the Noh theatre…and recited its verses with totally unaffected sincerity. The performance had the intense concentration and sincerity of Noh theatre.

He who says No, in contrast, was played by young women… Their crossing of the mountain was done on simple folding step-ladders, with a lot of exaggerated exertion; the debate about what should be done with the sick boy/girl was a heated free-for-all discussion, the final refusal and its impact on the shocked group was presented in a truly comic gestus which created a refreshing, liberated – and liberating – effect.

The juxtaposition of the two texts in two strikingly different performance modes, within an otherwise rigidly structured ‘frame’ of the overall staging, achieved everything one should expect in Brecht’s theatre: emotional involvement which is immediately distanced, the joy of play, the artistry of skilled performers, and the pleasurable provocation that makes us critically aware of the events we have watched and, consequently, of the world we live in.

Secondly, an excerpt from his description of Pingtan which he called ‘the most amazing performances from China’ and of its ‘gestic acting – in Brecht’s understanding of it – as convincing and pure as I have ever seen it’ by ‘the incomparable Jiang Yunxiang,’ who told two stories including a special version of the Chinese Chalk Circle narrative:

The performer is at once actor, storyteller, singer and instrumentalist. He/she narrates the text, often breaks into singing, plays all the characters during extensive dialogue sections while assuming the appropriate voice and facial ‘mask’ for each character, comments on the story and its characters, and accompanies the text by the occasional plucking of a long-necked string instrument, or the banging of a small hand drum, while other sound is created with the human voice or a wooden gavel slapped on top of the small table behind which the performer is sitting. The audience is always directly addressed – no ‘fourth wall’ here – and frequently encouraged to form opinions or draw conclusions from the story. Often the ending is told first, so the spectators’ attention is directed towards the progress of the plot rather than its outcome…

The dialectics and the delight of Pingtan create a V-Effect which Brecht could not have improved upon, and in the frequent interweaving of various storylines, in the rambling diversions from the main fable, and in the serialization of stories Pingtan even anticipated certain aspects of a post-Brechtian, non-linear Western dramaturgy…

Again the performer’s ability to create convincing characterizations of the two mothers, the judge, the servants, the dying husband and father, and many others, was remarkable in its combining of mimesis and distancing. The switch from speech to singing, from acting to narrating, from involvement to commenting, was done with such ease and humor that the sheer execution itself provided constant entertainment. And it was especially fascinating to watch how certain codified gestures, like the raising of a folding fan (a threat of great weight), the spreading of a handkerchief (presentation of a letter), a lifted palm facing up (serving a meal on a plate), supported the delicate balance between quasi realistic vocal and facial expression of characters, often emphatic delivery of the narration, and distanced, evaluating comment.

As Li Jiayao pointed out, if Brecht had seen a Pingtan performance, he might have discovered a theatrical model that was even closer to his own ideas of an epic-dialectic theatre than Mei Lanfang’s demonstration of Peking Opera which he saw in 1935 and embraced so warmly in his essay on Chinese theatre.

Then, this account of the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts production of Brecht’s and Feuchtwanger’s The Visions of Simone Machard, originally intended for Broadway, directed by Fredric Mao, who trained in classical Chinese theatre and also performed leading roles on Broadway:

In Mao’s adaptation the story happens during Japan’s invasion of China in the late 1930s. Consequently, the girl does not envision herself as St. Joan but as the young heroine Yeung Pai-fung from the legend of the Yeung warriors in the Sung dynasty; Brecht’s dream interludes…become episodes as we know them from the iconography of the Beijing Opera, and in the surprisingly skilled, athletic performance of the young second-year students these dream scenes were not only a delight to watch but contrasted with the realistic scenes of the play more convincingly and tellingly than I have seen in any Western production. This adaptation made Brecht’s fable also more accessible and meaningful to contemporary Chinese audiences.

This power of sympathetic observation, of recall and of stimulating description, was also evident during the Brecht and Beckett Symposium, a confrontation of compatibilities in Dublin, accessible in Yearbook XXVII, especially in the discussion between Carl and Walter Asmus, who had worked closely with Beckett in Berlin. Carl set out an extensive check list of similarities in what he called their ‘scenic writing,’ as a form of ‘anti-theatre’ compared with contemporary conventions. When rehearsing Beckett would not discuss his ‘philosophy,’ nor Brecht his ‘theory.’ The meaning had to be visible in movement and gesture. Both were meticulous about how this should be done and preoccupied with precision. They discussed which of them was more precise. Carl mentioned that Brecht wanted a Disney Studio designer to make story book sketches for Laughton’s 1947 Galileo to ensure the right blocking, and that when a rehearsal performance of Mother Courage went three minutes over the intended three hours, Brecht had a stopwatch check of the scenes to find out where the fault lay. As for Hamm’s chair being in exactly the right place, Carl described how Brecht once spent hours trying out the right kind of chair in a scene and when he eventually found one, he sawed two centimetres off the legs to achieve the exact position he needed. Apart from Brecht’s occasional yelling at people, which Carl described as part of the culture of theatre directing at that time, what he retained most of all in their work was a sense of playfulness and fun.

Carl’s ability to transmit his knowledge and his interest in what others were doing, which stemmed from his generous nature, made him so likeable and helpful. He possessed an unusual combination of qualities that often preclude each other: a genuinely open disposition and a firm grasp of the preferences and practices that mattered. He was irreplaceable. We will miss him.

Antony Tatlow

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My Brecht: A Look from 2016

by Darko Suvin

(Introduction to Brecht’s Creation and the Horizon of Communism)[1]

I can only write this Introduction in the first person singular. It pretends also to a certain general validity.

1. Introductory remarks

My first essay on Bertolt Brecht in a Zagreb periodical in 1961, for the fifth anniversary of his death, was titled “Bert Brecht, the First Dramatist of the 21st Century” (see [27] in the appended Bibliography of my writings on Brecht). This grand claim was not only my own – I think it stemmed from Lion Feuchtwanger – but one widely shared by his fans, the Brechtians, however critical, of which I was one. However, I do not propose here to defend my title, but instead to explain it today, without explaining it away.

First of all, and constitutive of my horizon, this manifesto-like encapsulation was part of my generation’s belief in the eventual international triumph of socialism and communism. Of course, we knew it was one of three extant possibilities (capitalism, Stalinism, and the libertarian communism that we believed was coming about in SFR Yugoslavia), but we only vaguely if at all realised our choice was a kind of optimistic version of the Pascalian wager. My title was a historiosophic position.

Second, the title does not claim for Brecht exclusivity but it does claim a pioneering, formally and orientationally bahnbrechend und wegweisend (groundbreaking and pioneering) status, like to the admiral ship of an icebreaker flotilla. I would today say that, within modernism itself, there would be another possible pioneer with his own progeny, Anton Chekhov (understood as a dialectical playwright of deep unease as well as sympathies, and not as a Stanislavskian pseudo-realist). And at the horizon, but not visible for me until a few years later, was another patriarch: Beckett, probably sounding the knell of self-confident modernism. (Brecht knew of Godot and was attracted by it, hoping to perform it in the Berliner Ensemble slyly redone along socio-critical lines; I’m sure not even he realised in those last years of his life how radical a break this dramaturgy represented.)

Uniting objections to both of these points would be the breakdown of modernism as well as socialism — to my mind, Siamese twins — as a critical and ideological dominant in the mid-70s, and the advent of so-called postmodernism, which I however consider a world-historical aberration and shall not be discussing here. In theatre it was only possible at the price of destroying the cognitive conduit of living drama theatre: to me, too high a price.

Third, Brecht was of course not only a dramatist. He was first of all a poet, and as I wrote in the essay on Fredric Jameson’s great book about Brecht, had he not been a great poet, one of the perhaps dozen greatest of his time of great poets (say 1918-56), he would have been nothing. All that he wrote had a clearly poetical horizon in its unexpected creative viewing of the rich but confusing and finally bloody reality of human relationships in his — and my — epoch, an epistemological stance that he encapsulated theoretically as “the effect or technique of estrangement.” He called it Verfremdungs-Effekt or V-Effekt in his hardboiled technospeak of the Leninist 1920s, and to my mind it is a way in which the artwork’s form makes you look freshly, closely, and soberly at your world. It partakes in a staunch utopian hope, looking backward at our dark times from the imagined stances of a classless society.

Not least, Brecht was also a considerable prose writer. He was a quite major essayist, so that I would put, say, his Five Difficulties in Writing Truth into any anthology of great 20th century essays, alongside Woolf’s Three Guineas. All of his life he was a writer of very interesting prose, in short and long forms. In the short form I wish to stress the shortest ones, Stories of Mr Keuner and Me-Ti, inexhaustibly rich mines for understanding people within the existential politics of his time. Again, a few of them, like “If Sharks Were Men,” I would put into any anthology of short-short prose for modern times. The long form includes the great Threepenny Novel, which has gone unrecognised in spite of its satirical sophistication, not only worthy of Swift but also to be re-exhumed today that capitalism has thrown us back into the squalor and misery of the 18th century (which is the novel’s milieu, with its dastardly ultra-rich and beggarly masses) — but without the promise of Enlightenment, born of our historical 18th century and defeated 200 years later, still beckoning, not least in Brecht, as our only lighthouse above the shipwreck.

2. On the SFRY Milieu for Introducing Brecht

In SFRY, I can see that retrospectively, there was a chasm between us young communists and the opinion-makers in the Communist Party. On the one hand, in the 1950s and right up to the late 60s, the climate in SFR Yugoslavia was generally open to all kinds of neo-Marxism. We young ones were at that time calling it an “open Marxism.” I theorised the openness in theatre by means of Brecht’s “open forms” (also a synonym of Eco’s first theoretical book Opera aperta, which I used in my dissertation). Yugoslav socialism seemed at the time a sturdy tree on which you could graft many new things — the Soviet selectionist genetician Michurin was very popular, also the American Burbank.

On the other hand, the problems of the Communist Party leadership were different; they had their hands full with economy and foreign policy. Culturally speaking, the Party was very provincial in Yugoslavia: they just didn’t know what was happening in the world; the great Soviet and Weimar 1920s were erased and tabooed by Stalinism. For example, I was a kind of protégé of Marijan Matković, a prominent middle-generation dramatist who was editor of the prestigious Yugoslav Academy of Sciences’ periodical Forum in Zagreb, a “krležijanac” (disciple of Krleža), as were we all on the Left. He was formally rather a pre-Modernist realist, and an extremely loyal fellow-traveller of socialism. I proposed to him some writings about Brecht, and he made a grimace and exclaimed, “Darko, Brecht in Yugoslavia!?!?” This was ambiguous; maybe we weren’t yet up to Brecht, maybe he was too severe for us, but at any rate Brecht was asynchronous to us (in Matković’s opinion; I disagreed).

Matković, a former head of the National Theatre, was of course, in a way, right: he knew very well that there was an awful lot of resistance against Brecht, even visceral hatred, among the staid bourgeois theatre people (and I must say he finally published a long essay of mine on Brecht in 1965). Regardless of whether they were or were not Party members, the theatre people felt that Brecht endangered their whole way of relating to audiences, the whole edifice of what theatre was for. Many of them were either simple routiniers or at best more or less Stanislavskians – that is, interested in the psychology of the stage characters, even when those dealt with politics (as Matković’s for example did, in admirable antifascist ways).

After Brecht became famous in Paris in 1954, a few of his plays, usually indifferently translated and badly directed (of course without any inkling of his directorial practice and views), followed the previously-performed Señora Carrar’s Rifles from 1955 on, without much echo. A few younger directors, under the aegis of the old lion Gavella, went in for Ionesco or Beckett and equated dealing with supra-individual determinants of people’s behaviour simply with Stalinist brainwashing, which wasn’t true even for the best pieces of Socialist Realism.

Of course supra- or even non-individualist approaches are not new in theatre, and I would argue most theatre up to the epochal break in the middle of Shakespeare was such, and in some strange and fertile ways allegorical. However, Yugoslav theatre was created in and deeply shaped by the German and French arch-bourgeois – that is, individualistic and illusionistic – 19th century. And in truth, economics is notoriously difficult to deal with in the theatre. Even Brecht managed to do so only at some of his heights, such as St. Joan of the Stockyards – which I therefore analyse at length in this book – and the “plays for learning”: as he wrote when still young, oil and the stock-market (their political role and economic ups and downs) cannot be accommodated within the pseudo-Aristotelian five-act scheme based on individualist psychology. In other words, the performers would have to deal with episodic situations offered for the audience’s understanding and critique, rather than with an ideologically pre-ordained arch of tension through 3 or 5 acts, released in happy or unhappy catharsis.

In sum, since the pre-1950 Zhdanovian accusations of formalism didn’t wash any more in the SFRY, our Ibsenian “solid majority” now accused Brecht of insufficient formalism or of “sociologising” (mostly in bad faith, compounded with ignorance: a deadly brew). And the Party heads were still inept in dealing with plebeian autonomy from below. The first autonomous periodicals were forbidden in the early and mid-fifties; I remember one at the Zagreb Faculty of Arts and one in Slovenia. Even though at that time first attempts at self-management were made in factory organizations, these were also strongly steered and limited from above, while similar cultural attempts were thought of, wrongly, as a bit dangerous. What you don’t understand seems menacing; thus you cling to violent power and ossify. At their very best, my elders and betters implied that first we have to do the job of the Enlightenment, which they interpreted as getting “progressive” – mainly bourgeois – culture to the masses, and maybe after one generation we can get to the Brechtian, that is truly communist, agenda. I disagreed. I thought both agendas overlapped: as communicating vessels, or maybe the DNA double helix.[2]

3. Brecht through European Student Theatre

In this situation, how did I manage to get to Brecht, who in the fifties was still practically unknown in Yugoslavia, except among some Germanists (which I wasn’t, but my parents had gone to Austrian K.u.K. schools) and the surviving elder Leftists who remembered singing his songs with Eisler’s tunes in prewar workers’ choirs? Indeed, after my 1970 book on him I got a letter from a woman worker with such memories; on my brief visit to Zagreb the next summer I tried to contact her but didn’t manage, she had no telephone (one of the prices any expatriation, however gilded, exacts).

So, how could Brecht become my intellectual and artistic horizon in the Yugoslav 1950s? Simple: through the European student theatre movement.

I was deeply engaged in student theatre, which was one of the democratic forms of collective self-expression in socialist Yugoslavia. First I was involved in starting the Zagreb Youth Cultural Society Ivan Goran Kovačić in 1951, which had its own theatre troupe. Later on that became the famous SEK (Studentsko eksperimentalno kazalište [Student Experimental Theatre]), whose main for a while director was my friend Bogdan Jerković.[3] I was a kind of dramaturge (art director) of SEK (neither nominated from above nor elected from below; it was just that there was nobody else to do it, so I did it). We were part of an international body of totally self-managing Western and Central European student theatres which formed an incubating space for the ‘68 youth and student movements: these didn’t just come out of nowhere, they had been incubating since the 50s. So we had four festivals each year: at Easter time in Parma, Italy; in middle of May in Zagreb, and in June in Erlangen, West Germany. The fourth was in October, at first in Istanbul. The Turkish police didn’t like that, so we shifted it to Nancy, France (the head of the student theatre and festival in Nancy, Jack Lang, later on became a famous Socialist Party minister of culture). It was called UITU (Union Internationale des Théâtres Universitaires), and many prominent theatre, cinema, and TV shapers of my generation in Europe came together there. In the “Preface” to my book To Brecht and Beyond, I characterised the central attitudes or stances arising out of these formative experiences as follows:

…the sense that the world is radically wrong and must be changed [this of course was Brecht and Marx, D.S. 2016], and thus the acute sense of interaction between dramaturgy and existential or salvational politics, the sense of historical and inter-European heritage, the refusal to separate text and stage, the willingness de prendre son bien où on le trouve, be it Aeschylus, Lenin, Brecht, Marivaux, Kropotkin, Stuart Mill, Meyerhold or the Mysteries, the joyous internationalism of the intellectual eros, the deep sense of scale analogies between world and stage (i.e. of stage as world model)….

And I concluded about the essays in that book (from which chapters 1-3 of this book are taken) that any particular dramaturgy, by which I meant the shaping principles of both the play text and its performance, was

explainable by the historical constellation which permeated [it]. Not that I have any ideological commitment to History. Often, I felt like exclaiming with Joyce that history is a nightmare from which I would dearly like to awaken, Simply, … a generation of intellectuals [between 1945 and 1968], hacking with pain and effort its way through the jungle of cities, in running battles both with capitalism and Stalinism, realised in its most intimate structure of feelings that it had been moulded by historical forces colliding in its flesh. With cool passion, we understood what generations of slower times and places might have disregarded: that history was, like it or not, our destiny.

Beginning with the fifties there was a big Brecht renaissance in two student theatres of West Germany, Frankfurt and Hamburg; this was the time of the maverick SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, people who were later demonstrating). They also produced some very interesting discussions, and were led by personalities in Germany such as Karlheinz Braun or Claus Peymann (who much later became head of some famous theatres, the latest of which is Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble), and in France such as the Théâtre populaire journal people or Patrice Chéreau, who went on to become a famous director, also of movies and operas. They were focusing mostly on the supposedly peripheral Brecht: not Galileo, not Mother Courage, but his 1929-34 “plays for learning” (Lehrstücke), Der Tag des großen Gelehrten Wu, one of his workshop’s adaptation in the early 1950s from Chinese, and much of the early, anarchist Brecht. It was a hothouse of creative anarcho-communism: I well remember the shocked embarrassment caused in the staid petty bourgeoisie of Zagreb when the director Fritz Schuster (at whose home in Munich I usually stayed) inserted a character pissing in a corner during the failed revolution into the early Drums in the Night. A much huger scandal erupted in Erlangen when Brecht’s son-in-law, the great actor Ekkehard Schall, came to recite some of Brecht’s most communist poems in 1961, just after the Berlin Wall had been erected; right-wing students in the audience booed him with livid hate. It was a real theatre scandal in a nice 19th-century theatre. After I saw these plays, I started reading Brecht.

I was vice-president of, and a kind of kingmaker in UITU, an organization consisting mainly of Western Europe countries and Yugoslavia. The Russians were outside that organization; Polish student theatres would come to UITU events only occasionally. Therefore, the Union of Students of Yugoslavia, whose representative I was, forbade me to be president. They were afraid of Russian disapproval; it was part of Tito’s balancing policy. Thus, I encountered Brecht in Germany, Italy or France. Brecht’s greatest worldwide success was with Mother Courage in 1954 in Paris, when Roland Barthes and a whole group of intellectuals became Brechtians. After that I started collecting books and publications related to Brecht. I was spending my per diems of 25 DM buying books while going to the UITU meetings abroad. Debates were a prominent feature of the four festivals. I was the organiser of the debate programme at the Zagreb May IFSK meeting (Internacionalni festival studentskog kazališta), with a publication designed by Mihajlo Arsovski (today a famous graphic designer) and I edited the IFSK Bulletin which included these debates, heavily influenced by Brecht.

For us, Brecht was anti-Stalinist and anti-capitalist, that is to say, totally analogous to socialist Yugoslavia. I was then very naïvely of the (quite wrong) opinion that the revolution had happened, we had solved all antagonistic problems, and we were left only with material difficulties, cultural backwardness, and remnants of the past that would be solved through science, our wise leadership, and all that. OK, we’ve all had to mature – becoming, as Coleridge put it, sadder and wiser. But I do think Brecht was identical to the furthest plebeian horizons of the Yugoslav revolution, that is to say a radical refusal of alienation (as discussed at length in Samo jednom se ljubi).[4] Verfremdung actually is an epistemological method of denouncing and refusing Entfremdung – a technique of cognitive perception through which estrangement reveals and potentially counteracts alienation.[5]

In the student theatre there was a very interesting struggle between formalists and nihilists, that is to say, between the Brecht wing and the Grotowski wing. Creatively and communicatively, Grotowski was soundly beaten in the 60s. Then he went to New York and became world-famous from the 70s on (amid the defeat of the ’68 movements and the historical change from Fordism to Post-Fordism) as a guru for hip US theatre people such as Schechner. And he beat Brecht worldwide based on American ideological export during the dismantlement of the Welfare State. Of course Grotowski has some interesting things about him, he is a great director of actors, he knew quite a bit about Asian theatres, and his kind of Catholic existentialist background has its own strengths. But I didn’t like that much, all that revelling in Christ’s passion – blood, sweat, shit, and snot, no women allowed except as mourners.

4. On What Is Inside and Outside This Book

Why is the present volume not a monograph on Brecht? I did this once in my life, as a pedagogical introduction to him for young Yugoslavs ([2] in the Bibliography), but I tend to use Brecht’s “episodic” construction in my own work too (I did so before I knew him, and was thrilled to find a master more modern than Shakespeare or Lope de Vega authorising it).

To my mind the essays/chapters in this book fall into maybe five groups: A) no. 1, my initial stocktaking for a general approach to Brecht and his significance in “The Mirror and the Dynamo” (the title is a nod to my favourite nostalgic autobiographer, Henry Adams); B) nos. 2-4, three essays on what I felt were his most urgent single plays (Mother Courage and Her Children would be a fourth such play, and I wrote a little on it in [15] and [3] of the Bibliography, The Good Person of Setzuan a fifth, but I didn’t manage, and anyway I thought much good stuff had already been written about them); C) nos. 5-6, two transversal essays about the concept and practice of stance or bearing (the not fully translatable Haltung) and the most enlightening use of emotions in Brecht; D) no. 7, a second overview, a third of century later, sparked by the magisterial book by Jameson; E) nos. 8 and 9, dealing with the two supremely important themes of Brecht’s life and (whether we acknowledge it or not) all our lives: communism, as well as the relation (of a male) to women.

Chronologically, the fundamental essay no. 1 marks the thunderclap of Brecht’s entry into my generation’s delighted consciousness in the 1950s-60s, group B probes into particular plays during my teaching of dramaturgy in the 1970s and ‘80s, the transversal group C searches for points of support and encouragement in the increasingly dark decade of the ‘90s, attempting to learn from and incorporate the welcome “corporeal turn” of cultural studies. Cognition in general, I have argued in several essays, means a melding of conceptual work with topological work centered largely on emotions, where body and mind meld. The review article on Jameson at the end of the century as well as of hundredth anniversary of Brecht’s birth is also an excuse to write at least brief suggestions, in lieu of a new book of mine, incorporating what I learned in the meantime, in the new mean times. The last group E is asymmetrical for reasons independent of my will: I haven’t managed to write an encompassing essay or even sufficient probes into the theme of “Brecht and Women” (in his work and his life), but I thought one example is better than nothing at a time when reactionary falsifications of this theme have had some impact on the public perception of Brecht. Thus, this book proceeds as a series of particular probes plus general sweeps, much as an explorer vessel maps the ocean ground not visible to the naked eye.

Of course, this grouping of mine mainly relies on chronology, which then follows the shifts dictated by our collective histories impinging on me. Any reader is welcome to rearrange this grouping in his mind and (I hope) her rereading according to her interests and the new collective history.

What do I regret has not been included here — either because I haven’t managed to write it or because even the generous limits accorded to me by the proposal of Mestno gledališče Ljubljana and the kind editor Dr. Milohnič are, necessarily, limiting? And what do I therefore hope the really interested readers might look up in my work?

I have remarked above on my failure to work much further on Brecht and women (though see Bibliography [24]). The same holds true for work I did on Brecht’s and Engel’s early silent movie Die Mysterien eines Friseurladen (The Mysteries of a Hairdressing Saloon), which anyway made it into a lecture held in Germany and USA under the title “A Mute Inglorious Chaplin?” And finally, I had a major project of inquiring into Brecht’s collaborations on the model of painters’ botteghe (workshops) between Giotto and the Romantics, for which I gathered a lot of materials in Firenze and Berlin, but that got scuppered by the NATO war against Yugoslavia. Following it in Berlin, I decided esthetics would henceforth be a luxury for the likes of me and went on to write about political epistemology and ex-Yugoslavia.

One work I did finish was a double-barreled interpretation of Brecht’s Coriolan adaptation from the very early 1950s and the Berliner Ensemble performance of it in the 1970s. I see the first as having a horizon of self-managing Leninism, with Coriolanus as Stalin (not quite adequate from what we know today). But I see the much later performance – based on what I saw (with Weigel as the mother) and the stills in a black-and-white movie extant – as a fall into mythical estrangement (Bibliography [18] and [29]). This double essay, however interesting in its trajectory, was just too complex and too long for this volume.

5. A Vanishing Point, as Initial Prospect and Collective Hope

But what about a look forward? What can Brecht tell the readers for their future rather than about my past?

Well, beside and more than the above points, I regret mostly not having worked more on two consubstantial matters: Brecht and communism, and the Lehrstücke, which were his idea of plays for an (at least incipiently and tendentially) communist cognitive audience. I have voluminous notes on the “plays for learning” that await the day when I might perhaps find time to go into them – basing myself on Reiner Steinweg’s insight that they are not merely an interesting and poetic pseudo-radical aberration of Brecht’s (as I myself at the beginning believed but had come to disbelieve much before my 1993 retractation – both in essay 1 here).

It is important to record that due to the Brecht Heirs’ refusal to allow performance of the Die Maßnahme – usually, but dubiously, translated as The Measures Taken – until 1997, nobody could have understood the full intent of this most ambitious Lehrstück before that date: a wonderful example of synergy between anti-communist and “really existing socialist” censorship.[6] The interest and poetry of the “learning plays” lies in their being an independent and (only by reason of force majeure combining Hitlerism, Stalinism, and exile) not fully-developed path and method of dramaturgy and performance that deserves our utmost attention today, possibly in ways both found and not found in Brecht. I have written quite a bit only on the first pair of Jasager/ Neinsager (The Yea-Sayer and The Nay-Sayer), especially since I have studied the Noh plays and performances – as much as a benighted foreigner who has not learned Japanese in elementary school can – and in particular the source play which through Waley’s adaptation and Elisabeth Hauptmann came to Brecht. This is a major essay (at least in length), which proved recalcitrant to this book’s limits, although I’m rather proud of it and encourage the reader to look it up. It is identified in the Bibliography [4] and [32], and exists only in those venues (two Canadian and one Japanese), and so far as I’m aware has sunk without trace in both Japanology and Brechtology (a price paid for one of my transgressions of professional boundaries). I believe it throws much light on intercultural transmission and especially on Brecht’s use of sources and his uncanny understanding of deep structures in areas quite unknown to him (see also my article on Hauptmann, no. 9 in this book). Furthermore, it speaks volumes about Brecht’s concept of right or correct consenting (surely a key for understanding politics in the last hundred years or more) and about dying well in feedback with living well (surely a key to our individual existences).

I much hope the interested reader might supplement the selection found in this book with some of these essays, and thus in a small way counteract, in this perfectly sinful age of ours, its (and, alas, our) form of Destiny: capitalist finances.

As to the direct links between Brecht and communist politics, it is well known that both Brecht and Benjamin thought hard about becoming members of the communist party, but in the end they decided not to formally join a party already rather ossified by 1928/29. Nonetheless, ideologically Brecht considered himself a communist; or, as one of his friends described him in the USA in 1941-1947: “a party consisting of one person, closely allied with the communists”— the best political definition about him that I know. As the early feminists talked about a failed marriage of Marxism and Feminism, his troubles in GDR testify to a failed marriage between Marxist avant-garde and artistic avant-garde. This generally had to do with arrogance on both sides: but in this case mostly with politicians who didn’t have sufficiently sensitive antennas to understand positions like Brecht’s, or who considered themselves threatened by his propensity towards self-management; I argue in essay 7 of this book that the Berliner Ensemble was a Luxemburgian Rat – council, Soviet –amid Stalinist oligarchic power (see more also in Bibliography [26]).

Last not least: Brecht’s transposition of Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party into verse is to me immensely fascinating. To begin with, if you believe in form plus stance (Haltung) being meaning, as I do, the two manifestoes are different animals, though obviously of the same family: a direct filial descent, yet with a new, shall we say motherly genome added (which is mainly about communism at the time of World Wars – that’s what Brecht even begins with!). Second, it raises the huge question of the relation between poetry and socio-political history, as I write there: “the history of relationships among people, in different social formations, in the struggles of classes differently shaping each formation.” And moreover, for me, significant poets were cognisers, the followers of a doctrine who reshaped it:

Brecht’s voice is one of a teacher, no doubt, but of a peculiar one: a Socratic pedagogic facilitator, whose overriding maxim was that the learner is more important than the lesson. In other words: the Law is here for Humanity, not vice versa…. Marx’s substance is transmuted in Brecht, as Brecht’s ought to be in the reader facing any new situation – keeping however unchanged and constant the central and determining horizon of class liberation, and the vector of desire toward it.

All of Brecht’s work, and his stance – most clearly in the estrangement device – participates in such stubborn utopian desire, coextensive with his cognitive horizons of a refurbished communism as creativity (i.e., production) to make life easier for people.

Hence the title of this book: Brecht’s Creativity and the Horizon of Communism.

This is also where a fertile future for Brecht studies and for all of us lies. We can take comfort from two magisterial overviews at the end of the past century, Haug’s and Jameson’s, but much remains to be said, and above all, done.[7] What this work can do (I hope) is to show, always implicitly and sometimes explicitly, a possible future in the past. Go thou, my reader, say it and do it!

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[1] This article is the introduction to a book of my essays on Brecht, edited by Aldo Milohnič and published in September 2016 in a book series by the Ljubljana Civic Theatre (Mestno gledališče), title: Brechtovo ustvarjanje in horizont komunizma (Ljubljana: MLG, 2016).Here are the chapter titles (in the English original) referred to in the article:

»The Mirror and the Dynamo: On Brecht’s Anthropological Stance (1967)« + »Note 1993«
»Salvation Now, for All Flesh!: Structures of a Slaughterhouse World in Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses (1974)«
»The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Marxist Figuralism: Open Dramaturgy as Open History (1976)«
»Life of Galileo: The Parable of Heavenly Food Denied (1986-90)«
»On Brecht’s Bearings or Stance (Haulting) (1989-98)«
»Emotion, Brecht, Empathy vs. Sympathy (1995-2008)«
»On Brecht’s The Manifesto and on Poetry vs. Doctrine (1998)« Bertolt Brecht: The Manifesto (translation in verse). On Brecht’s Manifesto and on Poetry vs. Doctrine (2001–2003)
»Centennial Politics: On Jameson on Brecht on Method (2001)«
Appendix: »On Brecht and a Female Co-Worker – E. Hauptmann (1998)«

I wish to thank the series editor Ms. Petra Pogorevc, the translator Ms. Seta Knop, and especially the book’s editor Professor Milohnič for their excellent cooperation.

[2] Much of section 2 (and a part of 3) is adapted from “Communicating Vessels: Forms, Politics, History” — Interview with Darko Suvin by Sezgin Boynik. Rab-Rab {Helsinki] no. 2 Vol. B (2015): 5-37. Much more about the SFRY cultural climate can be found there, then in my Memoirs of a Young Communist 2, “Poslijeratni Zagreb: Cuvier i suhe kosti.” Gordogan [Zagreb] no. 19-22 (2010): 127-94, and 3, “Poslijeratni Zagreb, književnost, Savez studenata: plodne doline.” Gordogan no. 27-28 (2012/13): 111-57. I wish to stress that such sections, dealing with memories, are inevitably coloured by personal and political stances both from the times discussed and from the time of the retrospect. I have written about this in my Memoirs, part 4 (“Uokolo Memoara.” Gordogan no. 31-32 [2015]: 202-19) and assume that all such reminiscences are written under the sign of a hypothetical imperative, valid — at best — only so far as their premises are. There is a whole literature on this, of which the peaks are perhaps Maurice Halbwachs’s Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire and E. J. Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger eds., The Invention of Tradition; of newer writings see the excellent Todor Kuljić, Kultura sećanja, Beograd: Čigoj, 2006 (who is also thanked) and Frida Bertolini, Gli inganni della memoria, Milano: Mimesis, 2016.My thanks go to the critique of Nenad Jovanović which made me change the ending from retrospect to (a very initial) prospect, and to some additional information about Brecht in F.R. Croatia by Branko Matan, who wrote about this in the special Brecht issue of Prolog no. 35 (1978): 91-130. He found out that a Left theatre group planned to perform Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities (Im Dickicht der Stadte) in 1935 but the group was forbidden and in part jailed by the monarchist police.

[3] See my thoughts on student theatre and the general horizon within which it evolved my writings at the time, and retrospectively: Suvin, “Einige Überlegungen samt zwei Arbeitshypothesen über den Horizont des europäischen Studententhea­ters, 1956‑67,” in Liber Amicorum de Dragan Nedeljković, ed. M. Joković, Beograd‑Nancy: n.p., 1993, 06‑13; and on the theatre horizon in SFRY: Suvin, “O Bogdanu, o sjećanju, o teatru kao utopijskoj radosti,” Gordogan [Zagreb] no. 15-18 (2008-09): 197-203;

[4] Samo jednom se ljubi: Radiografija SFR Jugoslavije 1945.-72., uz hipoteze o početku, kraju i suštini…, translation by M. Mrčela and DS, 2. edn. 2014, available at; the original but augmented version: Splendour, Misery, and Potentialities: An X-ray of Socialist Yugoslavia is now available from Brill publishers.

[5] This is magisterially discussed by Ernst Bloch in “Entfremdung /Verfremdung: Alienation, Estrangement,” translated by Anne Halley and Darko Suvin, TDR/The Drama Review 15.1 (1970): 120-25, and reprinted in Erika Munk ed., Brecht, New York: Bantam, 1972, 3-11. I have been writing quite a bit in these last 15 or so years on epistemology, which I think is where Brecht’s Verfremdung belongs. Further see Suvin, “On the Horizons of Epistemology and Science.” Critical Quarterly 52.1 (2010): 68-101; “Epistemological Meditations On Science, Poetry, and Politics.” Rab-Rab [Helsinki] no. 2 Vol. B (2015): 39-53; and a number of essays on my site

[6] This four-decades-long Verbot was joined by Eisler’s interdict on using his music for this play, the score of which is still not publicly accessible! Die Maßnahme was practically co-written line by line by Brecht and Eisler in 1930. It is a very particular “learning play,” intended for the workers’ organisations of a future self-governing communist State. From the discussion of these last years, see at least Joachim Lucchesi, “Klangraum, Partizipation und Hör-Erfahrung: Die Massnahme,” Das Brecht Jahrbuch no. 29. Madison: IBS – U of Wisconsin P, 2014,112-24, and the works of Calico and Gellert-Koch-Wassen eds. cited in it.

[7] Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Philosophieren mit Brecht und Gramsci. Hamburg: Argument V, 1996 (rpt. 2006); Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method, London: Verso, 1998 (rpt. 2010).

Darko Suvin, Bibliography of Writings on Brecht:

My records are not complete, especially for articles before 1985. I have been unable to fully collate the various variations, rewrites, reprints, and translations, but the cited publications should be correct, with some repetition between periodicals and books indicated. Titles of translations are indicated for Croatoserbian and for some variants.

For my essays not directly dealing with Brecht but generally with epistemology, emotion, and cognate matters touched upon in this Introduction, see my vita at and the papers on the site identified in Note 4.

Books or in Books

Volumes Authored:

[1] Dva vida dramaturgije (Two Aspects of Dramaturgy), essays on theatre. Zagreb: razlog, 1964 (on Brecht in essays: “Jedan pokušaj pučkog teatra” p. 147; #27 below, pp. 164-67).

[2] Uvod u Brechta (An Introduction to Brecht). Zagreb: Školska knjiga, 1970 (contains my texts and the translations of 49 poems, Life of Galileo [with S. Goldstein], Yeasayer-Naysayer, and Little Organon for the Theatre; Yeasayer-Naysayer rpt. as “Onaj koji govori dq i Onaj koji govori ne,” in Bertolt Brecht, Dramski tekstovi II. Zagreb: Prolog, 1982, 171-89)

[3] To Brecht and Beyond: Soundings in Modern Dramaturgy. Brighton: Harvester P, and Totowa NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1984, available at (contains 5 essays on Brecht, including variants of ##13, 15, and 17-18).

[4] Lessons of Japan: Assayings of Some Intercultural Stances. Montréal: Ciadest, 1996 (“The Use Value of Dying: Magical vs. Cognitive Utopian Desire in the >Learning Plays< of Pseudo-Zenchiku, Waley, and Brecht (1993),” 177-216).

[5] Darko Suvin: A Life in Letters. Ed. Ph.E. Wegner. Vashon Island WA 98070: Paradoxa, 2011 (contains “Brecht’s Life of Galileo: Scientistic Extrapolation or Analogy of the Knower? (1988-90),” “Brecht and Subjectivity: Stance, Emotion as Sympathy (1989-2006) ,” and “Centennial Politics: On Jameson on Brecht on Method (1998).”

[6] In Leviathan’s Belly: Essays for a Counter-Revolutionary Time. Baltimore MD: Wildside P for Borgo P, 2012 (also as e-book; contains essays “On Stance, Agency, and Emotions in Brecht (1989-2000),” “Brecht’s The Manifesto and Us: A Diptych (2000-01),” and “Brecht and Communism: Reflections…” (2008).

Volumes Edited:

[7] Bertolt Brecht, Dijalektika u teatru (Dialectics in the Theatre) ‑‑ selected, edited, and translated with notes and Preface. Beograd: Nolit, 1966. 298p.; 2nd augmented edn. 1980. 340p.

[8] Bertolt Brecht: St. Joan of the Slaughterhouses, programme booklet ‑‑ selected, partly written, and edited. Montréal: McGill Univ., 1973. 40p.

[9] Co‑editor (with M.D. Bristol) of A Production Notebook to Brecht’s “St. Joan of the Stockyards.” Montreal: McGill Univ., 1973. 250p. (includes one essay of mine, “Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses: Assumptions, Exchanges, Seesaws, and Lessons of a Drama Module,” 227-50).

[10] Brecht’s Koriolane, programme booklet ‑‑ selected and edited. Montreal: McGill Univ., 1976. 40p.

In Books By Various Hands:

[11] “Brecht, Život Galilejev” (introduction and transl. of fragments), in Antun Šoljan ed., 100 najvećih djela svjetske književnosti. Zagreb: Svjetlost, 1962, 661-63.

[12] “Praksa i teorija [Bertolta] Brechta,” intro to #2 (rpt. in Tea Benčić ed., Čuvari književnog nasljeđa 1. Zagreb: Tipex, 1999, 420-38).

[13] “The Mirror and the Dynamo,” in Erika Munk ed., Brecht. New York: Bantam, 1972, 80-98 (original in The Drama R.12.1 [1967]: 56-67; Croatian as “O Brechtovom estetskom stanovištu.” Scena 4.2 [1968]: 155-70: rpt. in Lee Baxandall ed., Radical Perspectives in the Arts. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972, 68-88).

[14] “Brecht – An Essay at a Dramaturgic Bibliography,” in E. Munk ed. (see #13), 229-40.

[15] “Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle as Marxist Figuralism: Open Dramaturgy as Open History.” Clio (1974): data lacking (rpt. in Norman Rudich ed., Weapons of Criticism, Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1976; Croatian as “Brechtov Kavkaski krug kredom kao marksistički figuralizam,” Praxis no. 5 [1971]: 733-43; German in Die Pestsäule [Wien] no. 2 [1972]: 120-34).

[16] Dramaturgy and Communication: The Closed and Open-Ended Models. McGill University: Working Papers in Communication, 1982 [from a lecture in 1972, rewritten as “Brecht vs. Ibsen: Breaking Open the Individualist or Closed Dramaturgy,” in #3, 56-79; Croatian as “Otvorena i zatvorena dramaturgija i komunikacija.” Republika 29.10 [1983]: 29-41.].

[17] “Salvation Now, For All Flesh!: Structures of a Slaughterhouse World (Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses),” in Siegfried Mews and Herbert Knust eds., Essays on Brecht. Chapel Hill: U N. Carolina P, 1974 and 1979 (Croatian as “Sv. Ivana Klaonička.” Književna smotra no. 89-90 [1993]: 3-15).

[18] “Brecht’s Coriolan, or Leninism as a Utopian Horizon: The City, the Hero, the City That Does Not Need a Hero,” in Henrik Birnbaum and Thomas Eekman eds., Fiction and Drama in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Columbus: U Ohio P, 1980, pages lacking (rpt. in #3).

[19] “Brecht’s Parable of Heavenly Food: Life of Galileo.” Essays on Brecht. Brecht Yearbook 15 (1990): 187‑214.

[20] “Heavenly Food Denied: Life of Galileo,” in Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks eds., The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994, 139‑52 (Greek transl. in N. Valavani ed., Bertolt Brecht: Kritikes prosengiseis. Athens: Stachi Publ., 2002, 341-68, rpt. by Polytropos Publ., 2004).

[21] “Sabine Kebir, Ich fragte nicht nach meinem Anteil” (review). Brecht Yearbook 24 (1999): 386‑96; shortened German transl. “Űber Frauen und Brecht.” Weimarer Beiträge no. 3 [1999]: 449-58).

[22] “Haltung (Bearing) and Emotions: Brecht’s Refunctioning of Conservative Metaphors for Agency,” in T. Jung ed., Zweifel ‑ Fragen ‑ Vorschläge: Bertolt Brecht anlässlich des Einhundertsten. Osloer Beiträge zur Germanistik 23. Frankfurt a.M.: Lang V, 1999, 43‑58.

[23] “Haltung,” entry in Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, Vol. 5. Hamburg: Argument, 2002, col. 1134-42 (sparked by, but not only about, Brecht).

[24] “Sabine Kebir. Mein Herz liegt neben der Schreibmaschine” (review). Brecht Yearbook 32 (2007): 420-24.

[25] “Emotion, Brecht, Empathy vs. Sympathy,” The Brecht Yearbook 33 (2008): 53–67 (rpt. in Frakcija no. 58-59 [2011]: 27-39; Croatian transl. “Emocije, Brecht, empatija naspram simpatije.” Frakcija no. 58-59 [2011]: 14-26).

[26] “Reflections on and at a Tangent from >Bertolt Brecht und der Kommunismus<.” Brecht Yearbook 34 (2009): 267-73 (rpt. in #6; different German version as “Bertolt Brecht und der Kommunismus” [editor’s title], Das Argument no. 293 [2011]: 539-45).

Articles in Periodicals

[27] “Bert Brecht, prvi dramatičar 21. stoljeća.” Književnik no. 27 (1961): 330-32 (with my translations: “Bert Brecht: 4 pjesme,” ibid. 333-35, and “Bert Brecht: Iz Malog organona za teatar,” ibid. 336-42).

[28] “Paradoks o čovjeku na pozornici svijeta (praksa i teorija Berta Brechta).” Forum no. 7-8 (1965): (rpt. in #7).

[29] “Brechtian or Pseudo‑Brechtian: Mythical Estrangement in the Berliner Ensemble Adaptation of Corio­lanus.” Assaph (Theatre Studies) no. 3 (1986): 135‑58.

[30] “Brecht’s Life of Galileo: Scientistic Extrapolation or Analogy of the Knower?” Forum Modernes Theater 5.2 (1990): 119‑38 (rpt. in #5).

[31] “Brecht: Bearing, Pedagogy, Productivity.” Gestos 5.10 (1990): 11‑28 (Croatian as “Brecht: držanje, pedagogija, produktivnost.” Frakcija no. 6/7 [1997]: 98-109).

[32] “The Use‑Value of Dying: Magical vs. Cognitive Utopian Desire in the ‘Learning Plays’ of Pseudo‑Zenchiku, Waley, and Brecht.” Brock R. 3.2 (1994): 95‑126 (rpt. in #4; somewhat different Japanese version in “Shinu koto no shiyô kachi: Gi‑Zenchiku to Burehito no ‘kyôiku geki’ ni okeru majutsuteki/ ninchiteki ûtopia ganbo (Weirii o zero opushon toshite).” Hihyô kûkan [Critical Space] no. 10 [1993]: 110‑33).

[33] “On Haltung, Agency, and Emotions in Brecht: Prolegomena.” Communications from the Int’l Brecht Society 24.1 (1995): 65‑77 (rpt. in #6 and in Frakcija no. 8 [1998]: 116‑20; Croatian as “O držanju, djelovanju i osjećajima kod Brechta: prolegomena.” Frakcija no. 8 [1998]: 92-97).

[34] “Centennial Politics: On Jameson on Brecht on Method.” New Left R. no. 234 (March‑Apr. 1999): 127‑40, available on (rpt. in #5 and in Kamen’ [Italy] no. 17 [2001]: 91-109; German transl. in Dreigroschenheft [1999] and shortened in Das Argument no. 232 [1999]; Croatian transl. “Stoljetna politika: o Jamesonu o Brechtu o metodi.” Republika no.5-6 [1999]: 173-86; Slovene transl. Primerjalna književnost no. 1 [2006]).

[35-36] “Bertolt Brecht: The Manifesto” (transl.) and “On Brecht’s The Manifesto: Comments for Readers in English.” Socialism and Democracy 16.1 (2002): 1-31, and (rpt. in #6; second item in different German version as “Brechts Gedichtfassung des Kommunistischen Manifests.” Das Argument no. 282 [2009]: 607-15).

[37] “Brecht’s Philosophy of Practical Living: The Haltungen (Bearings) of Learning, Producing, Love.” (lecture; shortened version transl. into Greek in He epokhe [Athens] Jan. 11, 2009, p. 33).

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The Brecht Wall in Havana, Cuba

by R.G. Davis


[Photo: R.G. Davis]

Ronald Guy Davis was the founder (in 1962) and artistic director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. In the 1970s, he established Epic West, a center for the study of Bertolt Brecht in Berkeley, California. He is now an environmental activist living in California.

The “Brecht Wall” [see photos 1 and 2] is located in a garden next to Teatro Mella in Havana, Cuba. One day in May 2016, another member of a tour group and I visited the theatre to see if it was open, and we discovered that the current 1400-seat Teatro Mella is now dedicated to dance performances and home to the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba y el Ballet de Lisa Alfonso. In the 60s and 70s the theatre staged plays — apparently a number of Brecht’s plays among them.

During a previous tour in April 2015, I had seen a dance spectacle at this theatre. The performance was in three sections: first, mixed ballet, modern, and social dancing; second, an energetic mass social dance jamming; and finally, an obligatory folk costume event with lots of blue skirts and dull choreography. No Brecht, no epic theatre, no evidence of choreographic skill either, but many well-trained, flexible dancers. After that pleasant but light performance we didn’t go into the Jardine. Only on my third tour did I discover the wall mural in Jardines del Mella.

I first thought that the mural must have been put up in the boom days of Brechtiana, but the painter’s name and date at the bottom right, is “William (H?) 04” (not quite visible on the photo). I was curious why this mural on the wall was linked to Teatro Mella. Marc Silberman answered a query of mine, pointing out that GDR theater people had visited Cuba, and Cubans had also gone to the GDR, but he suggested that Argentina might actually have been the main trajectory both for translations into Spanish and for theater talent that introduced Brecht to Cuba. He also pointed me to Herwig Weber’s 2002 book Bertolt Brecht auf Spanisch: Die Rezeption Brechts in Argentinien, Mexiko, Kuba und Spanien, which has an entire chapter devoted to Brecht in Cuba that focuses primarily on the 1960s and 1970s (80-110). There I read that Teatro Mella was built in 1952 and originally called Cine Teatro Rodi, but after the July 26 Revolution it was renamed after Julio Antonio Mella in 1961, one of the founders of the Cuban communist party (Trotsky section). On September 16, 1961, Caucasian Chalk Circle was presented at the Mella, directed by Uruguayan playwright Ugo Ulive who had been sponsored by Teatro Estudio. The Cuban Teatro Estudio in turn was founded by Vincent Revuelta and family, who came to Havana from New York City in 1957-58. Since then, US influence in the theatre has been a constant – with the 2016 head of the Cuban National Theatre trained in Spain and at the Strasberg Center NYC.

During the decade after their successful revolution, the Cubans were sifting through their colonial past, looking for Cuban culture – searching backward and forward for indigenous national writers and plays. The cinema had always been influential in Cuba, while theatre emerged in the 1960s and offered direct engagement. The whole country was involved in direct engagement, e.g., the literacy campaign (Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización) was a year-long effort in 1961 to abolish illiteracy in Cuba. It sent youngsters from the cities to the rural areas to teach people how to read and write their names! It was also a massive intermingling of urbanites with rural campesinos.

There is no explanation yet (perhaps to be found in Herwig Weber’s book?) that describes the interpretation, style, and form of presentation of the plays by Brecht presented in Havana – Mother Courage, Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Sezuan, and even Galileo in the 1960s and 1970s. Was there a replay of the Theatre Union debacle of 1935 in New York City? Were Brecht’s plays adapted and distorted like many American directors and writers of alternative US theatres have done? There are at least three ways that Brecht’s plays and epic theatre practice have been realized:

  1. As close to the details as possible in the model books and replicas by Berliner Ensemble directors or Argentinian directors;
  2. In opposition to epic theatre with emotional appeals and distorted heroic events in the form of agit-prop;
  3. As influences on Cuban writers and directors who absorbed the theory of epic theater and invented their own permutations, for example, Enrique Buenaventura’s work in Columbia and later in Cuba with the Nuevo Teatro movement.

In Havana in the late 1960s there was a break away movement from established theatres. Groups of younger folks in 1968 discovered Brecht, Augusto Boal, and other influences and began to make theatre in factories located in urban and rural areas. Teatro Escambray, for example, went to those eponymous mountains where old conservative forces were still entrenched to “guerrillerize” that section of Cuba. Director Sergio Carrieri turned a play by Albio Paz, La Vitrina, into a model of audience participatory theatre.

One would have to consider the peculiar status of Brecht and epic theatre being transported to Cuba by the East Germans or the Soviets, or the younger Cuban poets and artists who sorted through material in search of a Marxist point of view. We must remember that the Soviets provided major economic assistance to Cuba for 30 years (1960-1990). They were not enthusiastic about epic theatre, and most likely suggested authors in the mold of Socialist Realism. And then there were the DDR officials who might have offered plays quietly, but not favoring Brecht over Stanislavsky or other Soviet suggestions. Meanwhile the Cubans, as most rebels and revolutionaries, found Brecht useful in their search for cogent Marxist poetic and literary insight.

Did Brecht’s works or his epic theater exert a significant influence? Or was this influence subsumed into Cuban theatre and the arts, or did it dissolve along with the Soviet Bloc of socialist countries?

The wall mural is a collection of figures from Brecht’s plays, from right to left:

Man on ladder: Galileo

Women dragging cart: Mother Courage

On the cart a framed statement: Final Epilogue from The Exception and the Rule

Empty mirror frame: Arturo Ui (teaching Hitler how to speak)

Women with flag: The Mother

Women with baby: The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Man with pick ax: (your guess?)

Man with rifle: Rifles of Señora Carrar

Man with hoe: (Prologue to Caucasian Chalk Circle or Katzgraben [ed.: as realized by Brecht in his 1953 Berliner Ensemble production of the piece by Erwin Strittmatter])

Spanish epilogue from The Exception and the Rule:

Habeis visto y oido
Habeis visto un hefcho ordinario
un hecho como los que se producen a diario
y a pesar de todo os rogamos,
que bajo lo familiar, descubrais lo insolito
bajo lo contidiano, adivinad lo inexplicable,
ojala las cosas llamadas habituales os inquieten.
En la regla descubrid el abuso,
y en todo lugar en que aparezca el abuso
encontrad el remedio.

[So ends
The story of a journey
You have heard and now have seen
You have seen what is common, what continually occurs.
But we ask you:
Even if it’s not very strange, find it estranging!
Even if it is usual, find it hard to explain!
What here is common should astonish you.
What is here the rule, recognize as an abuse
And where you have recognized an abuse
Provide a remedy!


I think the following refers to the Centro Cultural “Bertolt Brecht”:

Independent & American Theatre: On Christmas Eve, 2014, “a Nederlander new production of Rent [with Cuban cast] – the smash hit, Pulitzer and Tony award-winning musical about drag queens, homelessness, homosexuality and Aids in Alphabet City, New York opened at the Bertolt Brecht Theatre in Havana for a three-month run.” Robert Nederlander Jr. told the Miami Herald: “After several years in the making, we’re thrilled to bring this authentic Broadway production to the people of Cuba, and hope to continue working with the Cuban National Council of Performing Arts for years to come.”

In the photo of Centro Cultural Bertolt Brecht [see photo 3] there is a banner with the current play in May 2016, obviously the famous Beckett play Waiting for Godot – and one can only expect the Cubans to have read Brecht closely and interpreted the characters Didi and Gogo as “unemployed workers.”

Texts consulted:

Erisman, Michael (2000). Cuba’s Foreign Relations in a Post-Soviet World.

Gordon-Nesbitt, Rebecca (2015). To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture.

Leal, Rine (1980). Breve Historia del Teatro Cubano.

Léger, Marc James (2016). Review of Gordon-Nesbitt’s To Defend the Revolution, in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books (March 2016). Web.

Loss, Jacqueline, J.M. Prieto, eds. (2012). Caviar with Rum.

Prizant, Yael (2014). Cuba Inside Out: Revolution and Contemporaary Theatre.

Rudakoff, Judith. “R/Evolutionary Theatre in Cuba: Grupo Teatro Escambray,” TDR 40.1 (Spring 1996): 77-97.

Sanchez, Yoani (2009). Havana Real, trans. by M. Porter.

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“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: Brecht’s refugee experience and the Syrian Refugee crisis

by Gudrun Tabbert-Jones, Santa Clara University

History seems to repeat itself. In the period between 1933 to 1938, 500,000 German and Austrian citizens escaped from Nazi persecution. Many of them desperately sought but were denied asylum in countries such as the United States, England, Switzerland. Shamed by the experience of Jews who failed to find refuge, Western Nations drafted and signed the United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees in Geneva in 1951. The convention spelled out minimum standards for treatment of refugees. They include access to courts, primary education, work, and provisions of documentation/passports, in case the individual does not have any identification papers. These entitlements set refugees with valid asylum claims apart from normal immigrants. The 1951 Geneva Convention was intended for European refugees. Their numbers were relatively small. The Convention covered many issues Brecht raised in his written work and in poems, he wrote during his exile years.

Today’s arrivals have been escaping for similar reasons. They are seeking refuge from civil war and terror in their homelands. The difference between then and now is the huge numbers! They dwarf the numbers of refugees who fled Nazi persecution. Bound to follow the Geneva Conventions, Germany has been faced with accommodating more than 1,000,000 refugees in 2015 alone.

Difficult decisions have to be made. Whether or not grant or deny asylum depends on the refugee status of individuals. Possession of a “good” passport or any other kind of documentation is crucial. However, many asylum seekers don’t have passports or documentation of any kind and are hard to identify. Yet, according to the Geneva Convention, a host country is required to provide refugee documentation in passport form. Brecht’s comments on passports seem timely.

The huge numbers of refugees has made it very difficult to follow the mandates of the Geneva Convention.  The refugee crisis has been dominating European news, for quite some time! Politicians, refugee organizations, and human rights advocates have appealed to the public, on a continuous basis. Not surprisingly, Brecht’s name has come up frequently during those many endless national and international debates. Brecht, a refugee himself from Nazi persecution, and his descriptions of a whole range of typical concrete and emotional experiences of refugees have been used to solicit support.

According to Tom Kuhn (“Brecht’s Poetry of Political Exile,” Cambridge Studies in German, June 2010, p. 52) the poems Brecht wrote during his exile years, particularly the Svendborg poems, establish the perspective of exile. A session on: “Politische Podiumsdiskussion zur aktuellen Lage von Flüchtlingen // Fremde Heimat: Lesereihe mit Exilschriftstellern”, at the Brecht Festival in Augsburg 2015, was introduced as follows:

Siebzig Jahre nach dem zweiten Weltkrieg stehen wir vor der bisher größten Flüchtlingskatastrophe unseres Jahrhunderts. …Brecht flüchtete 1933 vor den Nationalsozialisten und ließ seine Heimat hinter sich. Heute ist Deutschland und Europa für viele Menschen aus Krisenregionen ihre einzige Hoffnung auf eine bessere Zukunft. Brecht sah genau hin und zögerte nicht, die Missstände und Ungerechtigkeit in der Welt anzusprechen und zu thematisieren – deshalb legt diese Reihe den Fokus auf das Exil heute und beschäftigt sich sowohl mit der aktuellen Flüchtlingsdebatte wie auch dem Leben der Künstler im Exil.

What makes Brecht relevant in today’s context?  What sets Brecht’s poetry apart from that of other writers who, like Brecht, escaped from Nazi terror?

The Svendborg poems, and Flüchtlingsgespräche are based on Brecht’s own observations and thoughts about refugee life. However, in his poems, he does not use the first person, but the third person, a lyrical subject, as a means to depersonalize his experiences and thoughts. The lyrical subject introduces the reader to a whole range of emotional responses to specific difficulties encountered by people seeking refuge, in general. In Flüchtlingsgespräche, Brecht uses another fictive identity: Ziffel discussing the many uncertainties that are part of refugee life.

As Tom Kuhn points out, what seems to be very personal is, in fact, a description of non-personal conditions (Kuhn, 54), which allows to draw comparisons between dark periods in history. The results of forced displacement, in 2014, 15, and 16, are similar or the same as those experienced in the 1930s and 40s:  Traumatizing experiences such as homelessness, destitution, disillusionment, identity problems, yearning to belong, despair, and hope are typical.

“Emigrant’s Lament (Klage des Emigranten),” written in 1939, is one of the poems that has been cited most often during debates of the current refugee crisis.  It was used in the session on: “Displacement, Asylum, Migration”, organized by the “Global Commission on International Migration”, at the Refugee Studies Center, here at Oxford. The lyrical subject cast himself in the role of the Jewish emigrant escaping Nazi persecution.

The Emigrant’s Lament

I earned my bread and ate it just like you
I am a doctor; or at least I was.
The color of my hair, shape of my nose
Cost me my home, my bread and butter too.

She who for seven years had slept with me
My hand upon her lap, her face against my face
Took me to court.  The cause of my disgrace:
My hair was black.  So she got rid of me.

But I escaped at night through a wood
(For reasons of my mother’s ancestry)
To find a country that would be my host.

Yet when I asked for work it was no good
You are impertinent, they said to me.
I’m not impertinent, I said: I’m lost.

(transl. Edith Rosevann, Anthology of Poetry, Faber and Faber: London, 2002)

The experiences the lyrical subject describes here are obviously not Brecht’s own. Brecht was not a doctor in his homeland. He was not Jewish and he did not “get rid” of his Jewish wife. He did not escape through the woods, at night, alone and he was never reduced to literally standing in line humbly waiting his turn to be granted asylum, and during all that time, Brecht was never alone and felt lost!

So the poem is about the ordeals of the typical refugee whose enumeration of specific hardships endured during his journey evoke a sense of loss. The experiences of the Jewish refugee who escaped persecution and today’s refugee who escaped religious fanaticism, political strife, and war are similar. Losing one’s home, one’s proper place in society, struggling to survive under dismal conditions, desperately searching for a country “that would be a host” only to discover that refugees are not welcome, the plea for work, being considered “impertinent” or “shameless,” and finally being reduced to depend on the sufferance of others is just as traumatizing today as it was 70 years ago!

According to Karen Leeder, these generalizations about exile and the applicability to events regardless of time and place, explain the longevity of Brecht’s poems. Close readings of the poems Brecht wrote in Scandinavian countries and the US reveal changing attitudes of the speaker. In “Gedanken über die Dauer des Exils (Thoughts about the Duration of Exile)” the speaker seems optimistic that exile may be temporary, and therefore, one would have no need for making any long-term arrangements!

Don’t knock a nail in the wall
Throw your coat over the chair!
Why set up for four days?
You’re going back tomorrow.

Leave the little tree without water!
Why plant a tree at all?
Before it’s as high as the doorstep
You’ll be leaving here, happy!

Pull your cap over your face when people come by!
Why turn the pages of that foreign grammar?
The news that calls you home
Will be in a familiar tongue.

Just as the lime peels from the timbers
(Don’t trouble yourself with that!)
So that barrier of violence will crumble to dust
Erected at the border
Against justice.

(Transl. Tom Kuhn and reproduced here by permission of the translator, from Bertolt Brecht: Collected Poems, forthcoming:  Norton-Liveright, 2018)

Realizing that chances of returning are dim and that exile may become permanent he tries to come to terms with his refugee status.

One of the poems that has been cited at various occasions is “On the Label Emigrant (Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten, BFA 12, 81)”. The speaker complains about the name he is given in the host country because of what it implies.

I always thought the name false they gave us was wrong: emigrants.
BB: “Immer fand ich den Namen falsch, den man uns gab: Emigranten”
That means people who leave.  But we
Did not emigrate, leaving one’s country of our own free will and
Choosing another.  Nor did we immigrate
To Some other country in order to stay, possibly forever.
No, we fled.  We are the persecuted, the banished.
And the land that received us will be no home, but an exile.
Restlessly we sit, as near as we can to the borders.
Awaiting the day of our return, watching every smallest change
Across the border, eagerly questioning
Every Newcomer, forgetting nothing, relinquishing nothing
And forgiving none of what happened, forgiving nothing.
Oh the tranquility of the sound cannot deceive us!  Even here
We can hear the screams from their camps.  After all, we ourselves
Are almost like rumors of crimes that have slipped out<
Over the border.  Every one of us
Walking in tattered shoes through the crowds
Bear witness to the shame that stains our nation.
But not one of us
Will settle here.  The last word
Has not yet been spoken.

(Transl. Tom Kuhn, Bertolt Brecht: Collected Poems, forthcoming)

The speaker wants to make his hosts aware of his special status. He considers himself as an “expellee,” an “exile,” a person who was “banished” from his country, and not an “emigrant,” a name which implies that he left “on his own free will.” Interestingly, the Geneva Convention distinguishes between “emigrants” and “refugees”. Only the latter qualify for special privileges and rights. Emigrants do not.

Hannah Arendt, another refugee, offered the following definition of the term. She declared her readiness to stay and envisioned a future in the host country. “In the first place, we don’t like to be called ‘refugees’.  We ourselves call each other ‘newcomers’ or ‘immigrants.’”  This reveals her readiness and willingness to stay, not ignoring the many hardships and hurdles that had to be overcome. She agrees with Brecht who considers a refugee to be “A messenger of ill tidings (Ein Bote des Unglücks)”.

While “Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten” is representative of attitudes of those who want to maintain a separateness in their host country, the narrator in “Early on I Learned (Frühzeitig schon lernte ich, BFA 15, 20)” has a more positive view. In his opinion it is best to integrate into host communities and embrace the prospect of making a new life for oneself. What are the “Do’s and Don’ts”?

Early on I Learned

From early on I have learned to make quick changes
The soil on which I walked, the air I breathed,
I do it lightly, but still I see,
Others who want to take along too much.
Keep your ship light, keep things light,
Leave your ship lightly, when you are told
To go inland

(Transl. Gudrun Tabbert-Jones)

The narrator urges those who wish to stay in the new country to let go of the past, to “unburden” oneself, to get rid of emotional baggage. Only then will it be possible to make it inroads into a foreign land and its culture. This is certainly good advice for recent refugees as well. In the current political landscape, a refugee who shows willingness to adjust, to adapt to the laws of the land, to learn the language, will be able to work. Authorities will consider him “integrationsfähig,” a requirement for finding a place in society.

“Ziffel’s Song (Ziffels Lied)” makes similar points.  Brecht wrote it while working on “Flüchtlingsgespräche”.  The speaker addresses friends who stayed behind. Rather than dwelling on fond memories he reminds them of the dangers he was lucky to get away from.

Ziffel’s Song

Listen up, you friends who stayed
I’m out! And so, it seems, at last in safety
You, whom barbed wire fences now restrain
Look on me with envy and not pity.
Partly banished and part refugee
I wander through the world, cap in hand
From the land of heroes and of giants
Searching for a happy pygmy land.

In the second verse, the narrator warns that the new path is not without its own set of problems:

Granted, this world also has its fences
Arbitrary orders, rules, decrees:
Clouds, they ask, where are your transit visas
Show us your leave to remain, you trees.
There’s a scarcity of worlds to hide in
Regretfully our own is overfull
Crammed with hunger artists and with heroes
Quaking when the new dictators snarl.

(Transl. Tom Kuhn, Bertolt Brecht: Collected Poems, forthcoming)

The passport issue is one of the central points in Talks of Refugees (Flüchtlingsgespräche). Brecht’s cynical remarks about this particular piece of paper have been quoted many times.

Haras Yaron uses the Brecht quote as an introduction to his article: “‘Your Papers or Your life’: The Significance of Documents in the Life Experiences of African Refugees in Israel.”  According to Yaron, the following statement is as valid today as it was then:   “The passport is the noblest part of a person.  It is not created in such a simple manner as a person.  A person can be created anywhere, and in the most careless manner, and without purpose, but this is never the case with a passport. This is why a passport is accepted when it is a good one – while the person could be excellent and still not be accepted.” Why are passports needed? Here is Brecht’s answer:  “Passports are essential for keeping order.  It [order] is an absolute necessity in times such as these. Let’s assume you and I were running around without any kind of documentation about who we are, so that they cannot find you when they want to deport you, that would not be order.”  (German:  BFA 18, 197)

Brecht’s claim that the passport “supersedes” the person, is more valuable than the human being it represents rings true to those who try to cross borders without it. In his reflections about the situation of African refugees in Israel Yaron uses Brecht’s comments as a reference: “ID documents serve nation-states in surveillance and the “maintenance” of their borders and populations.”  (10) Passports make it possible for authorities to classify people, to grant or deny asylum depending on the refugee’s identity and country of origin. And, as Brecht predicted, chaos would result if masses of “undocumented” individuals crossed borders, which, in fact, has been happening, in the past two years. Not surprisingly, Flüchtlingsgespräche have been adapted and rewritten for stage performances, not only in Germany but in Arab states, as well.

Performances at the 2008 Damascus Theatre Festival organized by the Syrian Ministry of Culture focused on Emigration. One of the plays, Taoufik Jebali’s  Dinosaur Diaries, was an adaptation of  Brecht’s Flüchtlingsgespräche.  According to one reviewer, Jebali’s adaptation of Brecht’s text made it “timely and relevant to the contemporary Arab experience”.  The passport issue, in particular, felt “disturbingly current”,  (Theatre Journal, 61, 2009, 617-645). While times and specific circumstances have changed, the importance of documents of identification at borders have remained the same, regardless of time and place. What has changed since the 1930s when Brecht and many others fled and sought asylum in foreign countries, is the staggering number of asylum seekers today. It is not the principle; it is the number of asylum seekers many of whom do not carry any identity documents that make the difference!  According to Wall Street Journal the numbers themselves are “unmanageable” and seem to threaten the Unity of Europe.

While Brecht has been quoted to appeal to moral consciousness of the international community his concerns about good intentions, the willingness to help others in dark times have been overlooked. What do you do when the numbers of asylum seekers exceed one’s capacity to help?

In his article “A New World of Refugee Ethics” that appeared in the Denver Post (May 15, 2015 UPDATED April 24, 2016), Richard D. Lamm refers to the thirteenth century story of Martin of Tours to demonstrate that helping one man is not the same as trying to help masses of people. “On a cold windy night, Martin of Tours was riding outside the city gates when came across a starving beggar shivering in the cold.  In a gesture that was to get him sainted 400 years later, Martin divided his cloak and his dinner in half and gave it to the desperate man.”  This act of compassion encapsulating Christian ethics was possible because there was only one poor soul. “In one of his plays, Bertolt Brecht raises the issue: What if instead of one cold and starving beggar, there were 100? What does the ethical traveler do now? Traditional moral reasoning is inadequate to the magnitude of the problem.” (Lamm seems to be referring to Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.) This writer predicts that climate change, poverty, civil war, civil strife, draughts, and a myriad of other causes may trigger massive movements of people. How can any nation take in all these dislocated people without ruining its own economies and social fabric?

Another example is the Good Woman of Sezuan. Shen Te turns with a similar question to the Gods who had rewarded her with a small fortune after she housed and fed them during their visit to Earth. Instructed by them to be “good” she wants to share her fortune with the needy and poor.  But they take advantage of her generosity. She discovers quickly that if she yielded to all their demands she would destitute, and no longer in a position to help anyone, including herself and her unborn child. In other words, she would become a victim of her own “goodness”.  She therefore decides on what we would call “tough love.” Shui Ta, her hard-nosed alter ego, steps in to take measures needed to preserve Shen Te’s livelihood. The Gods return to check on their “Good Woman.” She feels she has failed them arguing that in the real world one cannot afford to be good all the time:

To be good to others
And to myself, at the same time, was impossible
To help others and myself was too difficult
The hand reaching out to the destitute
will be torn out.
He who helps a person who is lost
Will be lost.

(Transl. Gudrun Tabbert-Jones)

The Gods do not have an answer. They simply instruct her to be “good”: “You can do it.  Be good and everything will be fine.” This reminds me of Angela Merkel’s famous words: “Wir schaffen das”, leaving it up to the citizens to deal with the thousands and thousands of refugees claiming asylum in Germany on a daily basis. Richard D. Lamm calls for a new dialogue: “Traditional ethics assume an infinite world. They have been set in the domain of abstract thought, a product of the thought world, not the real world.  We must recognize that in the new world of ethics, quantities and numbers matter (…) We need new ways of thinking about these realities.” (Denver Post, 2/26/2016)

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Experimenting with Brecht: Producing Mother Courage in Higher Education as a Test of His Methodology

Bill Gelber, Texas Tech University

While searching for new forms of theatrical production, the students of Texas Tech University’s School of Theatre and Dance found, in an old master, a unique way of making theatre. The Texas Tech production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, in a translation by Tony Kushner, was an educational experiment, inspired by several recently published studies.[1] In particular, David Barnett’s book, Brecht in Practice, with its clear and thorough explanations of Brecht’s methodologies, became a guide to preparing, rehearsing, and producing the play. The Modelbook notes in both the new edition of Brecht on Performance edited by Tom Kuhn,[2] Steven Giles, and Marc Silberman and in Brecht: Collected Plays 5, edited by John Willet and Ralph Manheim,[3] were also invaluable. In the Spring of 2015, the university company had a number of responsibilities: to create the Fabel, to “make the Fabel flesh” through Arrangement with actors in rehearsal, to create Figures rather than characters, to look for contradiction, and to create a frame in which the events could be highlighted.[4]

Taking my cue from the descriptions of script analyses by the Berliner Ensemble under Brecht’s guidance, I led the production team through the process of creating a Fabel, the events of the play from a sociological/historical/political perspective. We listed the important plot events as Brecht himself had outlined them in Couragemodellbuch 1949, and we then converted them into events for the Fabel. In the Modelbook, Brecht identified such incidents as “Mother Courage sells provisions at exorbitant prices in the Swedish camp” and “The Swedish General invites a young soldier into his tent…”[5]  Our company, following the Berliner Ensemble’s example, mined these moments for sociological rather than psychological emphases since, as Barnett noted, “…Brecht looks at how to open a dialogue between human beings and their social and historical contexts on stage in order to show how they might influence each other.”[6] This was unusual for an American university team operating under a Stanislavsky tradition, used to creating a beat structure to examine the psychological motives of each character. Instead, we considered the larger picture: how characters were limited in their reactions to each other by their environment. In the final analysis, we wanted the spectator to draw conclusions about how the world of the play affected events.

Over and over, we noted the contradictions that arose as Brecht’s characters exploited the war for their own monetary gains because their survival depended on a wartime economy. For example, in Scene 3, as the Quartermaster sold regimental bullets in order to buy liquor for the officers’ victory celebration, he placed the common soldiers in danger by depleting their ammunition. Meanwhile, Courage taking advantage of his duplicity, could offer him a far lower price because as the buyer she was taking the greatest risk. In Scene 2, one of the more telling events for us was one that we added: “As the General drinks with Eilif, he belittles the Chaplain.” As our Fabel pointed out, “Though this is a holy war, the General treats the man of the church with contempt and reveals the true stakes of the war.” The regiment required a chaplain, but the position was superfluous in the grander scheme.

While the production team was putting the Fabel together, Prof. Barnett was kind enough to serve as an informal consultant: we sent our initial thoughts to him for comment, which he then critiqued for us. Barnett pointed out where we had “a good dialectal formulation,” (in an email to me on February 24), or where we might reconsider our analysis. For example, in an email to him on February 5, 2015. I wrote, “My initial thought is that I should look at each episode as something that is caused by outside sociological forces (conditioning) which prevents the Figures from acting in certain ways and leads them to act in others.” He replied on February 6, 2015, “Beware determinism…it’s probably better to think in terms of social influence rather than cause, simply because if we follow the ‘if x, then y’ model, society would be utterly predictable and controllable. Instead, Kattrin isn’t ‘forced’ to act, but chooses to. Her decision is predicated on material conditions for sure, but the scene clearly shows that she commits to the idea despite all manner of threats.”

As Barnett pointed out throughout his book, the actions of persons in a play were revealed as a series of contradictions. They made choices based on the constructed world they inhabited: “Characters can no longer exist as if they were in some way wholly natural and independent, but betray their debt to their relationships with society.”[7]  As we looked for those moments that seemed to contradict each other, Barnett reminded us that it was up to the audience to make those connections during the performance. Scene 3 was full of contradictions; for example, as Courage warned Kattrin about the life of a prostitute, her daughter compared her own hard work to that of Yvette, who lounged about drinking brandy in the mornings. When the Catholics attacked, though they were on the opposing side, the Figures onstage noted that an enemy’s victory might actually be better for business. (Scene 1 showed the opposite: soldiers from the “friendly” side became enemies to Anna Fierling because they might take her sons from her by recruiting them.) When Courage told Kattrin her life would improve when the war ended, her mother’s actions contradicted this sentiment, as she followed the war wherever the battles took her and suffered when cease fires were announced.

From the Fabel we turned to the concept of Arrangement, the way in which the characters would be placed in relation to each other within the frame. The actors of the Berliner Ensemble tested the Fabel by re-enacting the positioning of Figures drawn into the sketches by the designers, particularly Caspar Neher. Our production timeline forced us by necessity to invent a different solution. For the first week of rehearsal, we attempted a live variation on this theme: the actors identified the significant moments in each scene and then staged them as a series of frozen pictures or tableaux. On the fly, they assumed particular positions with specific attitudes in order to connote the meanings suggested by the production team’s analysis. The other members of the company, serving as the first spectators, then studied these living pictures. The stage managers, dramaturg, assistant director, and visitors—anyone who attended rehearsals—had the opportunity to examine the various sign systems, the stances, facial expressions, spacing, rehearsal props, and even some early suggested costuming. We then added detail to the actors’ tableaux in order to clarify each moment.

Once we had adjusted those pictures to our initial satisfaction, we photographed them and gave them titles that helped us to remember them. (For example, when Kattrin modeled Yvette’s shoes and hat, imagining a different life for herself, the title read, “Dream Kattrin.”) This allowed us to document the tableaux so that later, when the actors ran through the play, adding the dialogue, they could move from picture to picture in story order, filling in the gaps between these highlighted moments. As the actors ran through the scenes, we established what we called a “Brecht rule”: movement for its own sake was discouraged, because extraneous choices lessened the impact of the carefully selected and telling positions, levels, etc. As Brecht suggests in “Constructing a Role: Laughton’s Galileo”: “Frequent changes of position, whereby the characters make insignificant movements, must be avoided.”[8] Even the smallest adjustments, such as the turning of a palm upward or downward, could change meaning, suggesting, for example, an offer versus a command.

We stressed the need for constant documentation and reflection. Since the scenes were rehearsed out of order to maximize the use of the actors’ time, at the end of the first week, we made a PowerPoint presentation of the work for easy reference. This also became part of the Modelbook we later created for the production, where we juxtaposed the rehearsal photos with the production photos and noted how the latter so often corresponded with the former.

Though Barnett stressed that the means of Brechtian theatre, such as the half curtain, had often been adopted by modern practitioners as a style rather than a strategy, we also decided to foreground the events by imitating traditional Verfremdung effects; in terms of the play’s design, we created a museum environment, with the scenes serving as a series of installations.  The performers’ attitudes were similar to those of reenactors, prefacing each scene by assuming the initial positons in tableaux, and then coming to life as the scenes “began.” As characters they ignored the mis-en-scène and treated the space as it were the original environment of the Thirty Years War.  Between Brecht’s scenes extras rearranged the installations to suggest changes in location. The extras were dressed in tie-back suits and served as “archivists” who facilitated the action in order to model the idea of “studying the past,” while the “realistic” costumes and props worn and used by the characters continued to suggest the historical setting. The “archivists” began each scene with the announcement of its title, as suggested by Brecht, spoken into a microphone. The scenes would end with an alarm bell, much like the sound used to signal the end of filming on an old movie set, and an archivist would announce, “Next Set-up,” to signal the scene change in full view of the audience. Using this “museum” setting as inspiration, the scene designer added works of art in the space: sculptures and paintings of violence which commented on the action. For example, he re-created famous photographs and paintings, such as Goya’s “The Third of May 1808,” on large sheets of plastic, which were dropped in from the flies to signal the death of each child. In various scenes, he also placed sculptures of bodies ravaged by violence. (Though notable to the audience, all “art works” were ignored by the Figures onstage.)

For Brecht’s play, we had to decide which score we would use, whether Paul Dessau’s or a more contemporary choice. We listened to a recording of Duke Special’s compositions for the first National Theatre production of Kushner’s translation and to a selection of songs Jeanine Tesori had created for the New York Shakespeare production starring Meryl Streep included in the documentary film Theatre of War. Since the two scores had been tailored for particular theatres/performers, Dr. Christopher Smith, Professor of Ethnomusicology at Texas Tech and a friend of our school who had collaborated with us on previous productions, offered to do the same: create a new version for our actors. Over the winter break of 2014, he wrote the music for all of the pieces, closely following what he felt were the rhythms suggested by Brecht’s/Kushner’s lyrics. He also chose and conducted a live band who played onstage throughout the performance. During the show, when the characters were required to sing, the archivists from our museum setting handed them microphones, signaling that the performers, rather than the characters, were to “give” the songs to the audience. At the conclusion of each song, the actors relinquished this amplification, clearly marking the difference in attitude between a performance of the song and embodying a Figure in the story.

Most of actors were not trained singers, and the juxtaposition of actor and difficult music also created a Verfremdung effects.  As a part of the rehearsal process, Dr. Smith arranged for the actors to present selections in a cabaret setting at a local bar in order to experience an attitude of “performing.” The flavor of this style of presentation was retained for the production and labeled “The Junkyard Cabaret.”  We made a further choice to delineate between character and actor/singer by assigning a piece to the actress playing Kattrin: the Figure who could not speak sang the “Song of Home” in Scene 10. (We also took advantage of the fact that she was the strongest singer in the cast.) The band had the added role of providing such live sound effects as cannon fire, music for the funeral procession in Scene 6, and the drum roll for the firing squad in Scene 3, while other live sound was created by the actors as archivists, using a Foley effects table down stage right, where they created wind for the cold terrain of Scene 9, the church bells announcing peace in Scene 8, and the gunshot that killed Kattrin in Scene 11.  All sound was thus mechanically manufactured during the performance rather than produced by the elements of a realistic environment.

After the initial Arrangement of the Fabel, we spent the remaining rehearsals doing very detailed, moment-by-moment work on each event as well as the transitions between scenes. We eschewed the standard Stanislavski approach to character development and stressed Brecht’s examination of each part, by referring to the latter as “Figures.”[9] This allowed us to make a distinction between the actor’s internal work of a psychological nature—identification with the character—and the observation of behavior from external stimuli such as sociological pressures. In this way, the given circumstances limited the Figures’ choices based on their environment. Throughout the play, with the Fabel as their guide, the actors questioned their first assumptions, imagining different motives for their actions. We wanted the spectators to question why a Figure made one choice and not another (the Not…But), and what that said about the world in which the Figure lived. For example, in Scene 12, why did Courage blame the farmers rather than herself for Kattrin’s death? Primarily we wanted to emphasize how each Figure was not limited to one form of behavior, but would make contradictory choices based on new situations.  For example, in Scene 3, Courage could reluctantly donate a cloak to the Chaplain to disguise himself, while in Scene 5, she denied him any officer’s shirts for bandages for the wounded.  In Scene 2, she could be proud of Eilif’s exploits in one moment, and then slap him angrily for risking his life in the next.

Another important concept to us was Haltung, Brecht’s word for a particular attitude or stance that a Figure presents to other Figures.[10] I realized that this idea of Haltung mirrored specific Status exercises created by the British theatre teacher and director Keith Johnstone and outlined in his book Impro.[11] Johnstone had noted the tendency for people to adjust their attitudes according to their place in a particular behavioral hierarchy.  These learned responses allowed them to interact with each other in order to avoid conflict: if a more submissive personality approached a more dominant personality, the “lower status” person would defer to the “higher status” person. [12]

Johnstone’s work was easy to grasp and implement. It not only quickly exposed a character’s Haltung as Brecht might have imagined it, but presented the actors with a series of behaviors that would reveal that Haltung to an audience. More importantly, studying Status allowed us to quickly identify Haltung changes, those moments when a Figure adjusted his/her status according to new stimuli, again revealing contradiction. Johnstone referred to the range of possibilities from very high to very low by number. With the highest possible Figure as a 10, and the lowest as a 1, actors would show greater specificity in identifying their own natural statuses, then adjust these numbers according to what the Figure’s actions and words suggested. (Status was used as part of the tableaux in the Arrangement exercise.) The actors also learned to alter status when the given circumstances changed, revealing Haltung changes. For example, when the farmer and his wife were set upon by enemy soldiers in Scene 11, we assumed that they perpetually displayed a low status attitude. But once the soldiers had persuaded the farmer’s son to show them the way to Halle and departed, the farmer and his wife raised their status, revealing that they had adopted an initial posture of groveling because it was expected of them. This also showed the audience that the farmers were not stereotypical poor folk who were constantly bowed under their lot in life, but complex human beings who adjusted to their various circumstances. In Scene 3, Swiss Cheese, when dragged in by the soldiers to be identified by his mother, found a clever way to distance himself from her and the family—using the high status Haltung of a dissatisfied customer. This “role-playing” was something Courage and her son both instinctively knew how to do, whereas the Chaplain, chiming in, was a terrible improviser and had to be discouraged from “performing” by Courage—as a naturally low status character he couldn’t assume the new attitude. Courage, though she had been able to distance herself from her emotions in this dangerous situation, with the affronted Haltung of high status, then almost gave herself away, and lowered her status, when she asked the soldiers not to hurt Swiss Cheese as they dragged him off for further questioning. Her self-preservation and her motherly instincts were in contradiction and these led to a Haltung change.

Though I had examined Brecht’s Modelbook for Mother Courage, I didn’t copy his Fabel or his staging solutions, but used the material as a way to define the problems to be solved, to find our own solutions. Throughout the rehearsal period we made some interesting discoveries about Brecht/Kushner’s text.  For example, we noted the sight gag at the beginning of Scene 3, when a cannon is discovered covered with drying laundry—a 20th century equivalent might be a German Panzer used in the same fashion on a battlefield in WWII. Or in the siege of Magdeburg in Scene 5, when Courage refuses to help the wounded as her business will suffer, it was important to remember that Magdeburg was one of the worst slaughters in the history of the Thirty Years War, and Courage’s recalcitrance could resemble the refusal of a vendor near the Twin Towers during 9-11 to offer water to people fleeing the buildings.

We also stressed the idea of Historicization: the actors constantly had to question their own 21st-century attitude towards the events, when the reactions of the Figures would not be similar to their own because of historical context.[13] For example, though the soldiers in Scene 1 were hardened by war, in the same way that modern soldiers are, one of them was superstitious and was genuinely affected by Courage’s fortune-telling. The actor had to accept that his skepticism was superficial, and that he was actually frightened by her forecast of his fate. In Scene 8, when Eilif was condemned to die for his actions because of the sudden peace, he was now the superior of those who guarded him, and he seemed to be leading them to Courage’s camp, though they were the ones holding weapons and his hands were tied. Since religion was not the primary driving force of any of the characters in this so-called “religious” war, Eilif rejected the Chaplain’s offer of solace on his journey towards death. In Scene 2, when the General offered the glass of wine to Eilif, he thought he was impressing the poor soldier with  high-quality wines under the mistaken assumption that anyone would know what those were and recognize their value. The difference in the economic class of the two men was thus made clear. When Mother Courage identified each of her family members for the soldiers in Scene 1, it would have been natural to introduce the children to the audience in a theatrical way, highlighting their importance in the action as titular characters. Instead Courage quickly glossed over Kattrin because she did not want to call undue attention to a young girl who might be preyed upon by the military men. When Mother Courage applied soot to her daughter’s face in Scene 3, so that the soldiers would not find her attractive, she admired her own work because it was effective: she was not concerned about what it did to her daughter’s self-esteem, already fragile. This was juxtaposed with Kattrin’s previous actions, when she began to “blossom” while wearing Yvette’s shoes and hat. In Scene 11, when the farmers kneeled to pray, Kattrin was incredulous, as this was not a solution to their predicament, but when the farmer’s wife then mentioned the children of Halle, this got Kattrin’s attention, and she came up with the practical plan that would lead to her being shot on the roof of the hut.

The actors and rehearsal spectators were key to our final interpretation of the Fabel, which we tested and adjusted again and again. Many of our most important discoveries occurred during rehearsals, and we were flexible enough to rethink our initial plan and rewrite some aspects of the Fabel. Ultimately we were surprised at how frequently our initial staging still found its way into the final version of the play as performed.

Finally, we collected the evidence of our process for the Modelbook, a series of PowerPoint files that juxtaposed the rehearsal tableaux and final production photos, with notes on interpretation and the Fabel for each section. We discussed the creation of the music, and noted the way that different art forms were displayed within the frame. We took individual photographs of the actors in costume. We documented our entire process so that we could continue to learn from it. Most importantly, we noted the spectator response to the production, since we had stressed that the focus was on their reception of the piece.

Though many of the performances, especially that of Kelsey Fisher as Courage, were effective, the audience members told us that they had begun to look at the play’s events more objectively. For example, they found Fisher’s Figure to be constantly contradictory and, at many points, unsympathetic. As we had hoped, they were disturbed by the actions of the Figures and questioned why those choices were made. They claimed to find much of the play clear, and they spoke of the events just as we had determined them in the Fabel. They followed the story but also avoided catharsis. The actress playing Courage had a harder time doing so: was asked not to cry when singing the lullaby to the dead Kattrin in Scene 12, because Courage at that point was blaming the farmers, rather than her own absence, for her daughter’s death. Unfortunately, the moment was too much for the actress and her natural empathy took over.

One indication of the spectators’ view of the proceedings was their reaction immediately following the close. The play ended on a loud note, as the band crashed through a dissonant rock style piece for the finish, and the plastic front curtain descended abruptly, hiding the stage. When the curtain rose again on the entire cast, staring at the audience in tableau, there was silence, followed by applause. I asked select audience members about this, and they told me that they were still considering the implications of all that had transpired before vociferously acknowledging the performers. Unsolicited, they also enumerated a number of important points that we had wanted to make based on our Fabel.

By working through the rehearsal and production methods of the Berliner Ensemble, we were able to deeply explore the material and reveal many of its nuances to our spectators. The team as a whole felt that their contributions were essential to its realization. Such was the actors’ enjoyment in collaborating on the staging for Mother Courage, I used the same practice for our next production, when I directed Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: by creating tableaux of the moments from that play, I sought clarity above and beyond Stoppard’s dense thought and language. (Though we could have looked at the sociological implications of the hierarchical structure in these two periods of British history, we also stressed the psychological underpinnings hidden by each character’s facility for expression.)

While experimenting with Brecht’s methodologies with the Mother Courage production, students responded to this work as an important process and felt, ultimately, that Brecht’s ideas remained timely, especially when creating “theatre politically.”[14] The messages they wished to express could be conveyed to the spectator through a Brecht approach. At the same time, such working arrangements were enjoyable as well as collaborative, giving them a sense of ownership about the message to be presented. They saw Brecht not as a relic but as a modern and relevant collaborator in their own process, which was entertaining as well as productive.


[1] Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, trans. Tony Kushner (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2009).

[2} Tom Kuhn, Steve Giles, and Marc Silberman, ed. Brecht on Performance: Messingkauf and Modelbooks (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

[3] John Willett and Ralph Manheim, Brecht: Collected Plays 5 (London: Methuen, 2006).

[4] David Barnett, Brecht in Practice: Theatre, Theory and Performance (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 90.

[5] Willett, Brecht: Collected Plays 5, 289-290.

[6] Barnett, Brecht in Practice, 57.

[7] Barnett, Brecht in Practice, 36.

[8] Kuhn, Brecht on Performance, 158.

[9] Barnett, Brecht in Practice, 58-64.

[10] Barnett, Brecht in Practice, 97-100.

[11] Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, (New York: Routledge, 1987).

[12] Johnstone, Impro, 33-74.

[13] Barnett, Brecht in Practice, 74-79.

[14] Barnett, Brecht in Practice, 31.

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Fatzer at the Deutsches Theater

directed by Tom Kühnel and Jürgen Kuttner


[Photo: Arno Declair. Pictured: Edgar Eckert, Andreas Döhler, Alexander Khuon. Deutsches Theater Berlin Mediathek.]

by Ellie Keel

This production of Fatzer: Downfall of an Egoist (directed by Tom Kühnel and Jürgen Kuttner) begins with a warning: the kind that lets you know you’re in for a good time. ‘When you see that the audience is on the stage,’ teases Kuttner, ‘You know it’s a bad sign. A really bad sign.’ His remark is greeted with nervous laughter from the fifty or so people gathered on the set. At another event, Kuttner’s own ebullient presence on stage for the first fifteen minutes of the evening might be even more ominous. What kind of play needs an extensive introduction by its director? The answer is, of course, this one: a show that is at least as much Kuttner and Kühnel’s as it is Brecht’s, and all the richer for it.

Fatzer is a famously fragmentary text, and this single fact sets the tone of the production. Even the audience is fragmented: while half of the spectators are safely relegated to raked seating in an end-on arrangement, the remainder is dispersed around a large set divided into distinct regions, each of which is dominated by a unique structure. These structures mostly seem to refer – sometimes obliquely – to different parts of Brecht’s life and work. There’s Mother Courage’s wagon, adapted into a bar (called ‘Fatzer’); a huge pagoda that could be from The Good Person of Szechwan; a kitchen that looks a lot like Helene Weigel’s. There’s also a noose and gallows (The Threepenny Opera), a double bed, a lounge, and a large, anachronistic smoking pod. During his opening address, Kuttner talks about Brecht’s philosophy of the theatre, and mentions his belief that the audience should be able to smoke throughout plays – ‘but that’s not allowed in theatres these days.’ So they’ve built a smoking pod: authentic apart from the fact that it’s on castors so it can be moved to centre stage. Like most of the other structures that comprise Jo Schramm’s set, the pod is obviously extradiagetic, but still made heavy use of. Each scene is situated either in whole or in large part in one discrete region of the stage, and this sense of firmly separate locations – combined with the deliberately incongruous nature of the structures – seems to emphasise the fragmentary nature of the work that is played out upon and around them.

Kuttner augments this impression with his decision that, of the nine scenes that make up this part of the Fatzer-Material, eight will be played in a random order determined by the drawing of lots. Brecht’s final scene, he says, is always played as such. At the end of his opening gambit, he asks members of the audience to select the order of scenes, which they duly do: we’ve already been reminded of Brecht’s theory that it’s the responsibility of each audience member to mitarbeiten, and there’s an atmosphere of curious, good-natured collaboration (or obedience) in the theatre. This is just as well, because our collective role isn’t limited to deciding the order of play. We – the audience – are destined to join the action and become Brecht’s chorus, and Kuttner conducts a brisk rehearsal in which our lines are projected onto screens at either end of the auditorium. It is significant that it’s not only the words that appear, but also – by means of highlighting – the speed at which they should be spoken. This attention to detail means that the large audience speaks truly in unison, and this in turn engenders a rather stirring sense of cohesion and commitment. But without explicitly saying so, Kuttner is careful to differentiate between the audience’s role within the play as the Chorus and our role as intelligent, responsive observers. As such, we’re actively encouraged not to think and speak as a unified group, but rather to yell out our ideas, applaud, boo, hiss. He has us practise that, too.

If this induction makes the audience feel prepared for what is to come, the remainder of the production sets about undermining any notion of a predictable course of events. Everything about this show is dynamic and multi-sensual, not to mention multi-media, and the random order of the scenes imbues the whole thing with a sense of recklessness. And yet, beneath a sometimes frantic exterior, the foundations of Kühnel and Kuttner’s interpretation of the text are wonderfully clear, and yield a production which is far more moving than Brecht presumably intended. Our fourth scene is the one in which Therese Kaumann laments the absence of her soldier husband. It could be so bawdy, and has been played that way in other renderings of the text: as a woman who explicitly misses the sex, and says as much; who complains that even the animals on the farm are getting some, while she craves satisfaction. Natali Seelig’s Therese Kaumann is different. Her expression of lust takes the form of a sweetly melodic aria, sung through a microphone from a standing position on the double bed which forms one area of the set. It’s been moved to centre stage by the actors, who quietly ask the audience members who were sitting on it to move ‘just for a few moments.’ Seelig arches her back as she sings; she crouches; she’s a rock star in slow motion. It’s not quite a dance, but rather a beautiful tableau: one which evokes all the tenderness beneath her desperation. In this way, Kuttner brings out the truth in Therese’s last lines in this almost-soliloquy: ‘it’s not the sex/ it’s the having someone next to you in the morning/ washing himself.’ When she’s joined by the deserters, among them her husband, they creep towards her bed in an attitude of supplication. They’re humble, even child-like as they curl up around her. This scene is important as a contrast with many others in which the soldiers are portrayed as brutish and casually violent, concerned only with the procurement of ‘meat’ and the next cigarette. But to make the soldiers one-dimensional, primevally motivated beings would be to undermine Brecht’s desire for the audience to be thoughtful, interactive observers. We see these characters in all their colours, and if we are moved by this then it is emotion engendered only to aid the journey to greater understanding.


[Photo: Arno Declair. Pictured: Andreas Döhler. Deutsches Theater Berlin Mediathek.]

It’s not only through creating higher emotional stakes that Kuttner seeks to make his audience more intelligent onlookers. All the production values are geared towards facilitating close observation and understanding, starting from the placement of the audience on the set, where we are inescapably among and part of the action. With his innovative use of multi-media, Kuttner goes even further than this, emphasising the significance of watchfulness within the text itself. Fatzer is a play about hunters and the hunted: from the moment the soldiers emerge from the tank, they’re constantly questing for food, shelter, sex, safety. But just as these things are their prey, they themselves are being hunted, a fact that becomes particularly clear in the scene in which Fatzer is being pursued by an anonymous assailant (the fifth scene on this evening). In this production, the scene is rendered by means of a recorded video of Andreas Doehler’s Fatzer stumbling around outside Warschauer Strasse S-Bahn station, gibbering in his paranoia as the faces of passers-by loom curiously out of the darkness. He’s wearing the same silver jumpsuit that constitutes the costume for every cast member, which only serves to increase his incongruity. It’s funny, but fundamentally disquieting. In another scene, the soldiers attempt to identify the person who has betrayed them. In almost total darkness, they use a hand-held video camera to film the faces of one row of the audience, while the sequence is live-projected onto a screen at one end of the auditorium. They scan eight or so faces in a prolonged interlude which lasts perhaps ten minutes. The projection is incredibly vivid and detailed: each face is magnified considerably in infra-red luminosity, and lingered upon as the soldiers quietly discuss its potential. We observe as the face being filmed watches itself on the screen. As these audience members are drawn into the play-world, the rest of us remain onlookers, with our sense of observation sharpened by the loss of some of our number to the action unfolding in front of us. In these moments, we become almost as paranoid as Fatzer himself.

Not all of the technology exploited by this production is used to such good effect. There’s a rather awkward scene in which the deserters are filmed in mirror-image against a green screen on the floor, which is live-projected against another live projection of the kitchen area on the stage. The actors’ alignment with the furniture doesn’t quite work, and one actor appears to be floating three inches above the table on which he’s supposed to be sprawled. Another one leans comically against thin air. Whether or not this is accidental is unclear, but the effect is unhelpfully disorientating: too much of our mental energy absorbed in fathoming the technology, and too little in taking in the content of the scene itself. The same is sometimes true of the production soundscape. A live band accompanies the show. There are moments – such as Therese Kaumann’s solo – which enhance the text, but others, such as a baffling series of raps by the soldiers, which just render Brecht’s words unintelligible (not the case with Kuttner’s frequent inter-scene reappearances as ringmaster, which can be heard loud and clear). It becomes clear that Kuttner’s directorial emphasis really is on the visual. Indeed, every scene seems to be constructed around one highly memorable image or tableau, whether this is Fatzer and Therese sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table as their desire for each other grows, or – as in the last scene – Fatzer bound in clingfilm to a narrow upright table, which swings with him from the ceiling, pushed gently back and forth by two of Fatzer’s former comrades. This final image is the production at its simplest and best. Far from being a gimmick, this human pendulum is a haunting evocation of Fatzer’s downfall, and a visual metaphor which genuinely aids the audience’s understanding of what has transpired.

In his opening address, Kuttner references Brecht’s edict that you have to break a play to pieces in order to find it. In some ways, Kuttner and Kühnel are faithful to this. Their randomization of the order of the scenes may occasionally seem frustratingly arbitrary, but actually these scenes only form the loosest of plots even when they’re in one of the ‘correct’ orders, and their freshly disrupted sequencing serves to shine a clearer light on each one. Ultimately, however, there is nothing whatsoever ‘random’ about this show. Kühnel and Kuttner’s directorial hand is evident in every facet of the production, carefully engendering a cohesive aesthetic which works hard to make the audience as attentive and as intelligently critical as possible. Their work, and that of a consummately skilled cast and production team, has made an intelligible whole from an immensely complex set of parts: an achievement which makes the Kuttner’s appearances on the stage more than justified.

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A Healthy Dose of Brecht at TheatreLAB in Richmond Virginia

by Caroline Weist

For its 2016-17 season, TheatreLAB took a risk. And then it doubled down. Not only does the entire season, titled “Women at War,” consist of works both featuring and directed by women, but the season began with a story of women and war that is not exactly easy to swallow: Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Despite tackling one of the giants of German theatre, TheatreLAB’s production resisted pulling on the kid gloves that can make Brecht plays into historical reenactments. Instead, the company used their unique, basement-level venue to stage the play in a way that was both suitably Brechtian and palatable for a young American theater audience. By taking the bitter taste of the show’s overtly Verfremdung-inducing elements and folding it into an intensely immersive production, TheatreLAB created a more accessible, but still effective Brechtian aesthetic, one that preserves a hard center of critical distance within a theatrical experience of proximity and identification.

That ambivalent structure was established (under the direction of Keri Wormald) from the moment the spectators crossed the threshold into TheatreLAB’s performance space. Entering a narrow, rectangular room hung with hand-painted banners displaying statistics on the cost of war, both financial and human, they found no stage. Instead, they were greeted by set pieces scattered just outside a taped-off area along the back wall, which was filled with a seemingly random assortment of folding chairs. Before the entering spectators had time to parse the arrangement, the usher handed each one their own personal chair with a placard taped to the back, proclaiming “You’re in the army now!” and implicating them in the war that frames the action of the play.

Provided in lieu of a traditional printed program (a digital version of which is available online), the placard did not contain text about the production or the actors, but spoke directly to the audience, e.g. “Your cues to move will be when you hear commands like: ‘Right Face,’ ‘Left Face,’ ‘About Face,’ etc.” and “You will be given a 15-minute furlough after your first tour (Act One).” In their simultaneous deployment of theatrical and militaristic language – cues combined with marching commands and furloughs paired with acts – the instruction cards managed to cast the spectators as soldiers themselves, while also highlighting their dual function as actors and viewers within the performance event. The play was then punctuated by the scrape of chairs on the cement floor, as the audience members adjusted their seats to follow the action moving through the playing area that surrounded them on three sides. Echoing the function of the placards, this collective rearranging served both to synchronize the movements of the seated soldiers with those of the on-stage soldiers and also to remind the seated players of their spectatorial station.

All of the Regieeinfälle in the world cannot, however, create a powerful theatrical experience. For that, actors are required, and TheatreLAB’s production had no shortage of talented performers. Front and center was, of course, Boomie Pedersen as Mother Courage. Her honest emotion and gifts for comedy and song were perfectly suited to the material, and the endearing, queer chemistry she shared with Kelsey Cordrey’s Cook was truly refreshing. Pedersen embodied the ambivalence of immersive distance most notably during the intermission, when she entered the audience’s “Green Zone” in character to sell her wares (and benefit the non-profit Carry the Future). Alternately charming and insulting her customers, Pedersen nimbly improvised as she sold refreshments to the furloughed sixteenth-century soldiers, who paid in twentieth-century dollars.

weist mother courage

Photo courtesy of TheareLAB

That conspicuous, deliberate layering of time periods also characterized a highlight of the play’s memorable, and well-sung musical offerings, “The Song of the Woman and the Soldier,” which composer and musical director Savannah Hatcher chose to render as a rap. Performed masterfully by Jahred King (Eilif), who was joined later by Pedersen, the song’s hypnotic, yet quick rhythms generated suspense and interest in the dramatic moment, while the stark and sudden switch into song lighting that preceded it (design by Erin Barclay) marked its self-conscious theatricality. That dramatic song lighting, both severe and saturated with lurid color, was often provided by another cast member, who would conspicuously flip off a wall switch and then pick up an instrument to light the singer from a low, forward angle.

By repeating elements of that distancing process for each piece of music, the song lighting wove a unifying visual thread into the play that paid off in an unexpected way towards the end of Act II. When Hatcher’s Kattrin climbed onto the roof with her drum, her face was lit from below, just as the singers’ had been, yet the mute woman did not sing as they had about abstracted war and capitalism. Instead she drummed, violently and at great risk to her own life, to warn of a very real attack. The wry, disconnected song that should have filled that light was replaced by the most genuinely emotional sequence in the entire play, and the production was transformed. Perhaps it was the recent presidential election, or the skillful staging, or maybe just Brecht’s metaphor, shown in the right light – a woman who has been robbed of her own voice, finding a way to resist the system that took it from her before it ultimately robs her of her life. Whatever the reason, the production crystallized in that moment, using distanced song lighting to place empathic emotion in the same frame as reasoned judgment and thereby calling into question the valuing of one over the other, both as theatrical and as social tools. The moment came to an abrupt end when actor-soldiers fired at the drumming woman across the playing space. As their shots erupted just above the spectators’ heads, TheatreLAB’s production reminded its audience that even silent onlookers cannot remain untouched by the violence of the system in which they live. A bitter, Brechtian pill to swallow indeed, but one much-needed in these times.

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Mother Courage and Her Children at Quintessence Theater in Philadelphia

by Jim Grilli

The Quintessence Theater Group’s rendition of Bertolt Brecht’s canonical antiwar play Mother Courage and Her Children under the directorship of Alexander Burns is a lengthy yet satisfyingly episodic meditation on the perils of wartime profiteering.


Photo courtesy of Quintessence Theatre

Brecht produced Mother Courage in 1939 as a reaction to the beginnings of World War II with the Nazi invasion of Poland, but it was not staged in his home country of Germany until 1949.  A period piece taking place during the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, clearly it was meant to be both a historical examination and a message to the people of Europe during the writer’s own time about the connection between war and capital.  The aptitude with which this linkage is maintained by the ensemble in The Quintessence performance is what makes the project such a much-needed success in our own time of sprawling and unchecked imperialism.  Brecht was drawing a connection between Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the Swedish Protestant invasion of Catholic Poland in 1621, a fruitful association for a contemporary American viewer aware of today’s conflicts waged around the globe by the United States and its allies to ostensibly combat a religious enemy run amok.  While there is no direct reference made by Burns or the cast to a specific current war, I propose to show throughout this review that the parting sentiment of the play is the affirmation of the continued relevance of Brecht’s broad labeling of war as “a continuation of business by other means”.  In order to understand this message conveyed piecemeal in an elegantly haphazard configuration of stories and asides, it is necessary to start at the beginning.

Mother Courage, the lead role delivered marvelously by Janis Dardaris, is a smalltime peddler of wares from brandy to shirts intent on making as much money as she can from the needy soldiers Catholic and Protestant alike.  From the beginning of the play until the very end the actress conveys a roughly sober awareness of the atrocities that accompany the war overshadowed by her desire to cash in on the scarcity it produces.  With the conclusion of the first scene she loses her eldest son Eilif, played by Daniel Miller, to Swedish recruiters despite her oracular prediction of the deaths of her three children if they fail to remain uninvolved in the conflict.  Throughout his performance Miller competently makes the audience aware of the inherent complexity of Eilif’s character as he ascends to the status of heroic soldier before being put to death for the very behavior that made him a valued pillager for the Swedish army.  Miller’s song in the second scene during which he dances as he frighteningly yet elegantly brandishes his gleaming sword to the melodies of composer Michael Friedman is a highlight of the play for its retroactive tragedy when the formerly promising and handsome young combatant is put to death in the eighth scene just after intermission for the violence of his misguided heroism.  He is brought at the point of a spear beyond the flowing white drapes that conceal the sound effects of war backstage.


Photo courtesy of Quintessence Theatre

As mentioned above, it is not only Eilif that meets his demise for attempting to use his strengths to advance the war effort.  In scenes three and eleven respectively, Mother Courage loses both her endearingly honest son Swiss Cheese played by Tom Carman and her mute yet passionately emotive daughter Kattrin played by Leigha Kato.  Both perish for doing what their intuitions lead them to believe is virtuous as the longevity of the war forces them to confront seemingly eternal questions of morality and self-sacrifice in an environment that renders “doing the right thing” moot at best or fatal at worst.  In any case, both Carman and Kato masterfully embody the very conundrum of the entire play: in times of incredible depravity and desperation one cannot altruistically escape the financial logic of war as it is lived out in the interpersonal realm of loyalty and hardship.  After the brutal execution of Swiss Cheese and the resultant retention of her beloved cart that holds her many saleable items Mother Courage breaks infamously into “The Song of Great Capitulation”, one of many opportunities for the audience to see Dardaris at her best as she continuously shifts from adherent to bourgeois values of callous monetary accumulation to self-conscious bard, epic didactic poet carefully placed to inform the audience of the provenance of her disposition.

As the war rages on Mother Courage and her rickety cart traverse its expanded terrain while her children get vanquished one by one.  The Chaplain played by Gregory Isaac seems to be her only consistent companion as he mourns the loss of a receptive ear for his sermons, languishes in his unrequited love for Courage, and drunkenly recites a short but powerful monologue on the nourishing and stultifying monotony of a war that cannot end. For him war is a self-perpetuating lull of carnage, the endgame, the gruesome totality that nevertheless provides a job for all those continuously displaced by its vicissitudes or born into its culture of banal terror as the entrance and exits wounds perforating humanity’s collective consciousness under the skirmish’s fired artillery cauterize instantaneously to eclipse the diminishing glow of a distant peacetime.  Isaac’s wobbly placement just to the right of center stage, his forlorn wandering gaze, the shear outlandishness of his doom and gloom pronouncements are at once chilling and comic.  Here, of course, the audience is faced with a question: is the hermetically sealed scenario outlined by the Chaplain politically useful or debilitating?  How can humanity be so damned if Mother Courage is doing so well?  The more the war becomes entrenched the more costumers there are for the precarious cart which she will eventually have to pull on her own.  The war is functioning as intended as it dangles the carrot of subsistence before Courage’s face.

In fact, in the eighth scene Courage decries the coming of peace because her stock of supplies will go without buyers.  The Cook, a fascinatingly layered character played with unsurpassed excellence by Forrest McClendon, labels the short recess of peace as “a non-starter” before the news of continued combat boosts Courage’s morale. McClendon’s performance is the most memorable of the entire production with a flawless delivery of “The Song of the Great Souls of the Earth” in which he begs the audience for food in a wonderfully ironic, devastating and hilarious display of vulnerability, theatrical craftsmanship, and brilliantly distilled despair.  On stage he is accompanied by a crew of soldiers who kick and dance as they add a layer of welcomed confusion to McClendon’s agility.  Their movements combine perfectly with The Cook’s unhinged ballad to make the whole ordeal seem completely distant from anything that could be considered rational as the war rages on leaving the characters of the play marooned in the lonely coldness of winter.


Photo courtesy of Quintessence Theatre

Once the acrobatics cease, once the songs have been sung and the few fragments of stage props have been cleared, Mother Courage is alone with her cart heading beyond the white curtain that conceals the unquenchable battle.  When she reemerges from the void she is dressed in contemporary business attire and flanked by the entire cast dressed in camouflaged fatigues and chanting, “Sell! Sell! Sell!” before the theater goes black.  This is one of two anachronistic gestures used in David Hare’s translated script that seem intended to make the story appeal to a public steeped in the ideology of neoliberal corporatism and spectacle-obsessed entertainment.  The other is the profanity that glides awkwardly from the lips of the actors donned in seventeenth century garb.  I found the latter detail gave the production an air of amateurishness as it seemed a contrived attempt to lend the project a superfluous edginess.  In any case, presenting Mother Courage as a polished businesswoman when she was clad in peasant rags only several seconds before highlights the profound objective of the play to make the case that today’s wars are fought in the interest of the corporate elite in air conditioned boardrooms in skyscrapers faraway from the explosions and scorched earth.  This subtle, non-specific and momentary farewell, literally lasting only a few moments, is enough to impress upon the audience that while the Thirty Years’ War is now a subject of historical interest, Brecht’s agitating theatrics are more relevant than ever in our own time of ceaseless war, fear, and uncertainty.  Despite its dark message, this version of Mother Courage and Her Children endures as an optimistic reminder of what is at stake for theatergoers and practitioners who are interested in using the stage as a podium for much needed critical discourse integral to any creative practice of consequence.

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The Flight of the Lindbergh, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

by Paula Hanssen

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s 137th September 2016 opening weekend featured Brecht’s and Weill’s radio play about Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Der Lindberghflug, or The Flight of Lindbergh. As was most of the world, Weill and Brecht were fascinated by Lindbergh’s achievement, as well as his book, We, that referenced Lindbergh and his plane. Brecht was working on theater for the radio, considering the possibilities for using radio that included audience participation. They had worked in radio since at least 1925; Weill had written several scores and his greatest in this genre was probably the 1928 “Berliner Requiem” based on Brecht’s poems and included soloist, choir and orchestra.

St. Louis had supported Lindbergh in 1928 in his quest to win the Orteig Prize for the first successful transatlantic flight; his backers included members of a brokerage firm, a local bank, and the publisher of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper—after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch turned Lindbergh down. (“To fly across the Atlantic Ocean with one pilot and a single-engine plane! We have our reputation to consider,” one editor told him.)

The September St. Louis performance was organized like an old-fashioned radio broadcast, with local KMOX radio host, Charlie Brennan, behind an old radio microphone as announcer-narrator. The piece is written for three male soloists, mixed chorus and small orchestra. This declarative text tells the story from Lindbergh’s point of view with input from the chorus in the roles of “Sleep,” a “Storm,” and various bystanders; the “Pilot” speaks with the plane. Echoes of Weill’s cabaret music come through, and they included a duet for Lindbergh and his airplane, its engine portrayed by the bass drum. The tenor Clark Sturdevan portrayed the pilot, singing from a tablet device instead of a conventional score. Bass-baritone Jeffrey Heyl and bass Mark Freiman sang multiple small roles well, as did the chorus.  The audience gave the performers a standing ovation.

The original radio play was commissioned for a 1929 “Deutsches Kammermusikfest Baden-Baden”, organized by Paul Hindemith, with the theme of collaborative compositions and music composed for radio. Elisabeth Hauptmann’s and Weill’s and Brecht’s 1928 opera Happy End was included in this festival, and they were also commissioned to write about Lindbergh’s flight. Hindemith helped with the Lindberghflug score; that version had premiered in the 1929 broadcast of the “Südwestrundfunk Donaueschinger Musiktage,” performed by the Southwest German Radio Orchestra. Weill, however, did not consider the joint score definitive, and so composed new music for the Hindemith sections for the Baden-Baden Festival. Weill and Brecht then sent a presentation copy of the score to Lindbergh “with great admiration.”

The piece was performed in Baden-Baden on a divided stage, one side for the orchestra and voices, the other for the pilot. Brecht’s text includes “double-takes” for the listener – lots of repetitions of short phrases, for example, so that if you missed something the first time, you’d get it the second or third. To avoid identification with the pilot, instead of a traditional chorus describing the “arming of the hero,” there is a chorus of praise to the airplane. One typically Brechtian paradox is that the greatest danger to the pilot comes not from the ocean, but from sleep – seductive and sentimental.  And isn’t resisting a force of arms easier than resisting comfort?

Brecht and Weill aimed to democratize radio, so that the audience would learn as well as instruct others. The radio play was a venue for working out Brecht’s concept of the didactic play or Lehrstück, and he honed his ideas in several versions:  The first version was the Lindberghflug, the version that the St. Louis Symphony used in September. The second version had some edits and a new title, Der Flug des Lindberghs, and the last version after 1945 was Der Ozeanflug, omitting the name Lindbergh and substituting ‘Pilot’ for his lines to de-emphasize Lindbergh, who had made anti-war and anti-Semitic speeches and received a medal from Hermann Goering. “[Ozeanflug] ist ein Lehrgegenstand…Der andere pädagogische Teil (der Fliegerpart) ist der Text für die Übung: Der Übende ist Hörer des einen Textteiles und Sprecher des anderen [Piloten-]Teiles.” The audience was encouraged to listen to the choral parts, and sing or speak the pilot’s parts. He hoped to create a venue for a learning experience through technology, one that fomented critical thinking rather than identification. Unfortunately, Brecht made the changes without consulting Weill; consequently it became one of several of their works burdened by counter-contracts and litigation.

When Lindbergh returned and flew to St. Louis, he was the most celebrated man in the world—the first world celebrity. Approximately 5,000 people waited in the rain to greet him at St. Louis’ Lambert Field. He had changed the world by diminishing space and time, finishing the journey across the ocean in 33-and-a-half hours. The expanse of the planet was suddenly smaller, and would be made smaller still by radio technology.

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Recycling The Threepenny Opera: Simon Stephens’s New Translation at London’s National Theatre

by Anja Hartl

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During the prologue: George Ikediashi (Balladeer) and Rory Kinnear (Macheath)

After Sam Wanamaker’s first English production of Brecht’s popular (anti-)opera at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956 – the year which also saw the Berliner Ensemble’s first visit to the British capital –, followed by a series of other stagings in London over the past decades, The Threepenny Opera is back at the National Theatre in 2016 with a daring new version of Brecht’s classic. The translation was produced by playwright Simon Stephens, who is well-known for plays like Motortown or Pornography, which investigate urgent political issues such as terrorism and global warfare, as well as his stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Along with Mark Ravenhill, David Harrower, and Tanika Gupta, Stephens is one of many contemporary dramatists creatively engaging with Brecht’s plays, which attests to the continued influence of Brechtian Epic Theatre on British theatre practitioners. Stephens’s translation is rough, explicit, and straightforward – recycling, updating, and refreshing Brecht’s original for the cultural and social context of the twenty-first century without forsaking Brecht’s critical edge. It is in this spirit that director Rufus Norris brings Stephens’s text to the stage, producing a vibrant, dynamic spectacle that succeeds both in entertaining the audience and in engaging them critically.

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Reversed hierarchy: Mrs. Peachum and Mr. Peachum

Indeed, politics is not lost in Stephens’s and Norris’s adaptation, despite heavy cuts to the original and despite efforts to make the sequence of events more plausible, for example by allowing the women characters, above all Mrs. Peachum (Haydn Gwynne, who perfectly embodies the reinforced revengeful and lecherous side of Mrs. Peachum), more psychological depth and agency. Even though an explicit reference to the contemporary context is not forced upon the production, resonance with current political and social conditions remains strong throughout. Watching the play on 23 June 2016, the day after the UK’s EU referendum, The Threepenny Opera’s take on politics, corruption and economic misery represented a timely intervention. This effect is particularly underscored by Stephens’s and Norris’s choice to consciously set the play in the heart of London, advertised in the prologue as “a City that has gone beyond morality,” by including various direct and critical references to the British capital in the text and on stage that engage the spectators right from the outset – thereby leaving Brecht’s more fictitious and historicized London, which he only knew from books and which served above all as a symbol of Berlin, behind. In this vein, Macheath’s (Rory Kinnear) spontaneous greeting of the London audience, who “could have left, but decided to remain,” after the interval at the first post-referendum show added to the playful seriousness of the whole production.

It is this emphasis on fun and enjoyment – along with politics and criticism – that most characterises this 2016 version of The Threepenny Opera, creating a heightened, irresolvable tension between the “culinary” and the political. Stephens’s translation carves out the vulgarity, sexuality and anarchy inherent in the original and Norris translates this intensified sexual innuendo and playfulness to the stage by using elements of pantomime and comic as well as by introducing strong and luscious women characters, who seem diametrically opposed to the heavily feminised Peachum (Nick Holder, who easily wins over the audience with his charismatic stage presence). While the Balladeer (George Ikediashi) welcomes the audience by ironically stressing that, in this “glorious dirty ditch of a theatre,” “there will be no moralising,” it is precisely the tension between the appeal to enjoy the “a-moral” performance, this seeming lack of “moralising” on the one hand and the clearly implied political impetus on the other which draws the audience’s attention to the politics of the play. It is, in truly Brechtian spirit, a socially critical laughter and fun that results from this clash between pleasure, entertainment and politics.

The stage design plays perhaps the most important role in embodying this clash and in conveying the political essence of Stephens’s and Norris’s opera for the twenty-first century. Consisting of a range of wooden stage flats covered with thin paper, Vicki Mortimer’s set is characterised both by its transparency and provisionality and its Brechtian-inspired amateur-style that sharply contrasts with the professionalism of the performance at one of Britain’s key theatre institutions. The various cardboard elements are flexibly moved around throughout the show and characters often burst through the walls to mark their entrance, which creates highly playful moments of surprise and interruption. As the play develops, the stage flats, which serve to create an open, arena-like space at the beginning of the play, become gradually intertwined, with the musicians and the actors more and more caught up in the stage set. Therefore, what this design seems to foreground is the impossibility of drawing clear spatial and, by implication, social distinctions: in the case of The Threepenny Opera between the allegedly moral, correct bourgeoisie and the a-moral, corrupt beggary. Indeed, it reveals to what degree these supposedly distinct realms are enmeshed with each other – as Brecht has it, the bourgeois is a robber, and vice versa.

Hence, Stephens’s and Norris’s production does indeed successfully take on Brecht’s “suggestions,” as Brecht himself wished for his legacy – while also self-reflexively foregrounding the urgent question of their usefulness and relevance for the contemporary context. By emphasizing the ambiguous distinctions between fun and politics, between play and morality at the heart of The Threepenny Opera, this 2016 version reflects the political relativism, doubt and uncertainty characteristic of our times. It thereby provocatively and productively interrogates not only politics, but also the theatre’s relation to and place within society, and the role Brechtian epic theatre may come to play in the theatrical context of the twenty-first century.

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Drive-By Theatre Double Feature: Brecht+60/Kleist+205

by Madeline Foss and Rebecca Stewart

On 28–29 September 2016, the German program at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) hosted a two-day conference on the lives, works, and lasting legacies of Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) and Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811). The conference title, Drive-By Theatre Double Feature: Brecht+60/Kleist+205, referenced the presence of many participants of the Fortieth Annual German Studies Association (GSA) Conference that took place in San Diego on the weekend directly following Brecht+60/Kleist+205. Unlike a traditional “drive by,” no scholars were harmed in the organization of the CSULB conference. Instead, the CSULB co-organizers, graduate student Madeline Foss, lecturer Rebecca Stewart, Professor Jeffrey L. High, and the CSULB German program, invited some scholars already travelling to the GSA conference to present a few days earlier at Brecht+60/Kleist+205.

Scholars, musicians, and actors offered not only analyses and interpretations of Brecht’s and Kleist’s work, but also original artistic contributions inspired by the life and writing of both authors. On 28 September, Fareed Majari (Director of the Goethe Institut in Los Angeles) opened the first half of the conference, “Feature 1: Brecht.” Mr. Majari was followed by scholarly papers by keynote speaker Wolf Kittler (University of California, Santa Barbara), Jack Davis (Truman State University), Carrie Collenberg-Gonzalez (Portland State University), Matthew Straus (University of Washington), Jeffrey L. High (CSULB), and Madeline Foss (CSULB).

The second day of the conference, 29 September, was dedicated to the second author in the “double feature”: Kleist. Brian Jerksy (Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at CSULB) and Nele Hempel-Lamer (Interim Associate Vice President for Undergraduate Studies) opened this day of the conference. Their remarks were followed by scholarly papers by keynote speaker Bernd Fischer (Ohio State University), Matthew Feminella (University of Alabama), Robert Blankenship (CSULB), Seán Allan (University of St. Andrews), Rebecca Stewart (CSULB), and Rick McCormick (University of Minnesota). [See program for full details].

Sometimes it feels like the panels and papers will never end at academic conferences. We all know that feeling. At “Brecht+60/Kleist+205,” the organizers did not miss a beat in presenting a varied and engaging schedule, which included musical and theatrical performances. On 28 September, Hugh O’Gorman (Head of Acting at CSULB) lead an actor’s workshop on Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle featuring Theatre Arts graduate students Thomas Trudgeon (as Simon) and April Sigman-Marx (as Grusha). Following this, former and current CSULB students premiered an original musical theater production Outlaw Brecht (Author/Director: Elaine Chen, Musical Director: Rebecca Stewart), which explored (in dialogue with Brecht’s Three Penny Opera) the meaning of the “outlaw” figure in his literature.

On 29 September, German students presented dramatic readings from Kleist’s oeuvre and current and former CSULB students Glen Gray and Zaq Kenefick presented and performed original compositions on the life and literature of Kleist, featuring Rebecca Stewart (Soprano). Composer Hauke Berheide and librettist and director Amy Stebbins spoke about their recently premiered opera, Mauerschau (2016), which draws largely from Kleist’s Penthesilea and received the Opera Festival Prize in Munich. The presentation included performances of two selections from the opera—a song in the style of Brecht & Kurt Weill, “The Iron Man,” and an operatic aria, “Nun o Unsterblichkeit bist du ganz mein,” performed by Amber Alarcon (Mezzo-Soprano) and Ryan King (Baritone). Dorothy Robbins accompanied the singers with a piano reduction of the original orchestral score. Each conference day was concluded with a film screening: on day one The Jack Bull (Kleist and Dick Cusack, 1999) and on day two Hangmen Also Die! (Brecht and Fritz Lang, 1943).

Over the course of the two-day conference, participants and students brought the works, lives, and legacies of two authors, separated historically by over a century, into interaction in twenty-first century Long Beach. Their works were confronted in a way that was accessible to all attendees. The organizers hope that this not only entertained, but also taught. We would like to thank all student co-organizers for their work and all participants for joining us in beautiful, sunny, capitalist California for our “Drive-By Theatre Double Feature.”

[Photos by Tegan White-Nesbitt]

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