Issue 2018:1

Edited by Jack Davis and Kristopher Imbrigotta; HTML, layout and editorial assistance by Karis Chapman, Truman State University.

Mother Courage 2

Greer DuBois as Mother Courage in Fermat’s Last Theater’s production of Mother Courage in Madison, Wisconsin [Photo: Hans Adler]

Gisela E. Bahr – The Founding Mother of the International Brecht Society


Interview with Samantha Van Der Merwe: The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Shaking the Tree Theater in Portland, Oregon (Margaret Setje-Eilers)

Essays and Reflections:
Urgency and Duration: Brecht’s ‘Unbesiegliche Inschrift’ (Benjamin Robinson)

Bertolt Brecht und die Literaturwissenschaft (Jost Hermand)

Brecht, Moreno and the Role-Playing Game (Evan Torner)

A Review of David Barnett’s Brecht in Practice Website (Bill Gelber)

Fatzer’s Failure: Individuality as Resistance (André Fischer)

Performance Reviews:
Beyond Baden-Baden: Part-Time Performers Explain Themselves – Korean Premier of Brecht’s Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis by Ensemble Theaterraum (Jan Creutzenberg)

The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Shaking the Tree Theater in Portland, Oregon (Margaret Setje-Eilers)

„Nur wer im Wohlstand lebt, lebt angenehm!“ – Bertolt Brechts Dreigroschenoper am Schauspielhaus Zürich (Anja Hartl)

War and/as Business: Mother Courage and Her Children in the Age of Terrorism and Globalisation at London’s Southwark Playhouse (Anja Hartl)

Agreement and Disagreement: The Decision at Augsburg’s Brecht Festival 2017 (Anja Hartl)

Mother Courage Alone at Fermat’s Last Theater in Madison (Brandy E. Wilcox)

Ladies’ Night in Bloomington: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, & Contemporary Dance at Well-Metz Theatre (Michael Bryant)

Conference and Workshop Reports:
22nd Annual Focus on German Studies Conference at the University of Cincinnati – “The ‘Epic’ Bertolt Brecht” (Ellen C. Chew and Seth Rodden)

Gisela E. Bahr – The Founding Mother of the International Brecht Society!

Gisela Bahr

From left to right: Gisela Bahr, Helen Fehervary, Walfriede Schmitt (1986)

Marc Silberman and Helen Fehervary

Gisela Elise Bahr was one of the founding forces behind the International Brecht Society, the only woman among the “founding fathers,” and the cement that held the organization together, especially during its first decade. She launched the society’s newsletter “Communications from the International Brecht Society” in December 1971 (vol. 1, no. 1) as “a useful tool for the exchange of ideas and information pertinent to our ‘common cause,’” which she stated in her introductory editorial. She remained the editor, producing three issues each year, until May 1977 (vol. 6, no. 3), when she was elected IBS president and Henry J. Schmidt (Ohio State University) took over as editor. In his first editorial, he thanked Gisela for her “years of hard work devoted to maintaining and expanding the Society’s activities.” As IBS President, Bahr served for five years until 1982. Among her notable achievements were: representing the society at the opening of the Brecht-Zentrum der DDR on the occasion of Brecht’s 80th birthday (Brecht-Dialog 1978); maintaining contact with Gerhard Seidel at the Brecht-Archiv in Berlin; meeting in Summer 1981 with the GDR’s Deputy Minister of Culture, Klaus Höpke, to discuss cooperation with IBS; helping negotiate the new publishing contract with Wayne State University Press for the Brecht Yearbook in the early 1980s after Suhrkamp Verlag cancelled the publication with vol. 10; and initiating the project to obtain non-profit status for the organization. Bahr was at the center of the organization during these years and was largely responsible for the stability of its membership numbers.

Gisela Bahr was born in 1923 in Landsberg an der Warthe, then in Brandenburg and today in Poland, known now as Gorzów Wielkopolski (also the birthplace of Christa Wolf). She completed her PhD at New York University under the supervision of Volkmar Sander in 1966 with a dissertation on Brecht’s Im Dickicht der Städte, which led to her close friendship with Elisabeth Hauptmann while researching the background material at the Brecht-Archiv. This won her first prize for the best NYU dissertation of 1966. After completing her studies, she went on to teach at Rutgers University before joining the faculty in 1972 at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. There she chaired the Department of German, Russian, and East Asian Languages and finished her academic career as emerita professor of German in 1987.

As researcher/writer, Bahr produced important and excellent scholarship on Brecht, including three critical editions of Brecht plays with commentary and background material for Suhrkamp Verlag: Im Dickicht der Städte (1968), Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (1971), and Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe (1979). She also was a member of the editorial board of the IBS yearbook from 1972 until 1979 while it was published by Suhrkamp Verlag (vols. 2-9) and was one of the Brecht Yearbook editors under the imprint of Wayne State University Press (vols. 11-13). Here it should be noted that Bahr authored a book review in almost every one of the yearbook volumes, and she was the driving force behind the thematic volume on “Brecht, Women, and Politics” (BY 12/1985). As organizer and activist, she collaborated with her colleagues Claude Hill and Ralph Ley at Rutgers University to “stage” the second IBS congress there in April 1971. Among the featured guests she invited were John Willett from London, Eric Bentley, Erika Munk, Andrzej Wirth, and Carl Weber. And in 1986 at Miami University she hosted Walfriede Schmitt as artist-in-residence, a well-known theater and film actress from East Berlin who both directed and played the lead role in the Miami University theater department production of Brecht’s The Good Woman of Sezuan.

Gisela Bahr’s intellectual curiosity and energy took her beyond Brecht and the International Brecht Society. She was among the founding members of the Women in German organization and was responsible for its third conference in September 1978 at Miami University. She also published articles in the Women in German Yearbook and National Women’s Studies Association Journal. She traveled frequently to the GDR and then to the “Neue Bundesländer” where she cultivated her circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances. She produced short super-8 films of her experiences, and conducted interviews and wrote about the changes in Germany. In her hometown of Oxford, Ohio, Bahr was a political activist both before and after she retired, involved in grass-roots initiatives focusing on peace and justice and the environment. Today, she still resides in Oxford and continues to enjoy reading the Brecht Yearbook, Communications from the IBS, and Brecht literature.

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Interview with Samantha Van Der Merwe: The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Shaking the Tree Theater in Portland, Oregon (October 6-November 4, 2017)

by Margaret Setje-Eilers

[See below for Margaret Setje-Eilers’ Review of The Caucasian Chalk Circle]

Margaret Setje-Eilers: Thank you for agreeing to meet with me today, Samantha. I’m so glad you produced Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle in Portland. It was tremendous fun and your staging had lots of surprises. How do you feel about this production?

Samantha Van Der Merwe: (laughs) It’s been a wild ride. The play feels like it had three parts that had to come together in the end: the movement, the singing, and the story. It was an interesting process. I followed my intuition about how to piece those three elements together, and I think we went about it in the right way.

MSE: How did you go about it?

SVDM: We focused on the singing first because the singing feels like the glue that holds the whole story together. I felt like I wanted the actors to be really sure about where they were musically, and it was always something that we could build on if we established it first. And also, it’s a large part of the narrative, so it guides you to where you’re going. And then the movement for me was huge. I am a lover of movement in theater, so the fact that we were doing it in a circle felt like we were creating shapes in space with the actors. I wanted the audience to feel that movement around them and in front of them, and then I felt that it was really important for the actors to know where their bodies were in space first, kind of like a dance, like you would learn the steps to a dance.

MSE: I’m glad you said that. My first thoughts were that it was like a ballet with song and text.

SVDM: (laughs) And I think the question was: were we deepening enough into character, were we understanding the scenes as they happened in these little pockets between all the movement? But I think as a natural consequence of repetition and coming back to the scenes each time, the characters settled. The impulse was to go over the top with character, which is always unsettling for actors and directors because you want actors to be truthful, but it seemed like Brecht demanded of us that we push over the top.

MSE: You brought out the extremely comic situations very well. That was fun for everybody.

SVDM: It’s fun for everybody because it is a big story. He’s making you tackle – and I think it can feel overwhelming – he’s making you tackle this epic world event. It feels like a world event, even though it is concentrated down to a certain country or a certain city. He is making us tackle so many ideas politically that if we don’t allow ourselves to enjoy these moments of comedy, I think it would be too overwhelming.

MSE: Certainly then, it would not be easy to sit for three hours without the humor and the playfulness, but as it was, the time went so quickly. I think no one wanted it to end. And anyway, Brecht wanted to entertain the audience and to make people think critically, so he worked in both directions. Congratulations on achieving that combination. How did you get into what I would call a theater aesthetic of dance? I read that you were first a visual artist. How did that happen? How did you get from painting to this extreme sense of motion and space?

SVDM: Well, I think it started in my childhood. My mom had been a ballet dancer and she took me to the ballet all the time. And her mom before her had been a ballet dancer. Actually, my grandmother was from Latvia and had moved to South Africa just before the Iron Curtain came down in Russia. She had wanted my mom to be a professional ballet dancer, and my mom chose to be a graphic designer. So, I think that this tradition of taking ballet classes as a child was kind of instilled into me. I took ballet classes from the age of six to thirteen. When I was thirteen my teacher said to me, I think you should try drama, because I was very dramatic. I always got the character parts. I wasn’t going to be a dancer. I just don’t have a dancer’s body, I’m not skinny and long. That is when I shifted from dance to theater. I think I have always appreciated dance. I actually studied theater all through high school, privately, and I wrote and directed my own plays in high school. So, it was always there. I think that after I left high school is when I felt that I had to make a choice between visual art and theater. For a while I chose visual art, but theater always kept pulling at me.

MSE: The visual art, that was a question I had right away because you just had four chalkboards around the large circle of chairs. There was little visual artwork in the sense of a painted set, other than the titles of the acts the actors wrote on the boards. That made me realize it had the classical five-act dramatic structure. I am not sure I noticed that in the production I saw in Berlin. You didn’t use visual art as painted sets, but you did use a lot of moving visual art.

SVDM: I think that’s it. I think for me usually an idea comes really strong and clear when I read a play. And for this one, it felt like the visual for me was the actors and their bodies, creating worlds in space. I really love the challenge set down, the gauntlet set down by Brecht: Let’s not pretend; let’s not be seduced by the illusion; let’s know that we are in a theater having a story told to us because then it breaks it down into the elemental building blocks of storytelling. It is a huge challenge of how to create a world in space with nothing other than a few sticks.

MSE: And just a couple pieces of fabric, some brown and some bright, to take us into these worlds. I noticed of course right away that there were two actors playing the child – if you count the baby in the basket as an actor.

SVDM: Did you know that the baby was a loaf of bread? In a talk-back with a group of students, the teacher said she loved that the baby was a loaf of bread because of its symbolism as an essence of nourishment, and that bread smells good like a baby does.

MSE: (laughs) A loaf of bread? I couldn’t exactly see into the basket, and I knew it wasn’t a real live baby, but that is most wonderful to hear. Theoretically then, the baby and the boy, that is the situation that Brecht was eager to create, the actor looking at himself playing the part. So, that’s what you did with the baby and this adorable boy who remained quite aloof and objective. Can you tell me more about that?

SVDM: Yes, when I read it, I had known that some companies had used a puppet as the child or I think used a really young child, because he is obviously younger, and I wanted to explore this idea of having the child as witness. Because the question that Brecht lays down to us is so powerful, about the question of possession, ownership. And if we always have a child on the outskirts as witness then we are held even more accountable to be objective in our decision as audience about who should be the rightful owner. Also, just this innocence of a child observing the action, when we talk about the land and the precious world that we fight over so often, he is just so symbolic for me of the future. To have a child in the audience is a very powerful symbol for us, to always know that he is watching and taking very seriously who will be his guardian.


Samie Pfeifer as Grusha, Will Sievertsen as Michael with baby basket, Clifton Holznagel as Singer [Photo: Gary Norman]

MSE: It’s also his story that is told throughout the whole play. It revolves around him. If you think about him in the future, he is watching and learning his own history.

SVDM: Yes. And the interesting thing is that it came to me as an impulse, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, so I had about a three- or four-hour workshop with the actors. And I said to them, we are going to test out this idea of whether we can use an eleven-year old boy. The minute we started playing in the room and added the child in to the scene – we worked on the scene when Grusha at first found him and decided to come back and look at the child – I knew, just seeing him there and the way it made me feel, I knew that it was going to work. It was quite a delightful discovery.

MSE: He remained so poker-faced and aloof, I think Brecht would have loved to watch that. He was so intensely and objectively watching and observing, and not participating. How did you get that to happen?

SVDM: I’ve worked with Will Sievertsen before, so I know what he is capable of. With this play in general, I feel that a lot of the actors needed a very light touch direction-wise. I really just wanted to bring out the natural qualities of their personalities. It is a very natural state of being for Will. If you think of his experience as a young actor in the room, just watching older actors play like that, it’s probably very true to the experience he is having. And then he is a good representative of the audience. He gets to representat our thoughts and feelings in a way. He joins us in that. Also, this lovely framing device of the family. I really imagined that the goat farmers, the Rosa Luxemburg collective, were a family with the traditional head of household and then the other ones were this younger group, the Galinsk, these young cooperative farmers who wanted to have a commune together. I loved the conflict and the opposite feel of those two groups. So, if you just look at him as the youngest of this very traditional patriarchal family that is going to change, that will not do the same as has been done before him, then he is also a great character. If you just look at his prologue character observing the story and what he will do in the future and how he will change, it’s also a good angle to look at it from.


Will Sievertsen as Michael [Photo: Gary Norman]

MSE: I’m so glad you said that because the play is all about change, what do we need to observe as an audience to realize that we can bring about change. In the story inside the frame there is a coup, an actual revolution that ends up with a redistribution of ownership, and a playground that will be built.

SVDM: It is a playground for children, for the future. He says I’ll turn it into a playground and I will call it Azdak’s Garden, which to me feels like two things. It is very like the Garden of Eden, right? He is trying to create this utopia. Brecht is posing the idea of utopia to us at the beginning and how it could be easy enough for two groups to talk thoughtfully about a piece of land, rather than fight over it. And then we obviously see the battle over this child take place, and then we see it come to the utopian ideal of this Garden of Eden idea. It also reminds me a lot of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, where he won’t let the children in and then eventually he has this experience where he feels empathy for one child, the Christ Child, which Brecht would have hated – I love how he is always subverting religion – but in the end the selfish giant opens up his garden to the children. It’s got the same sort of quality.

MSE: It comes down to who is beneficial for what, what kind of relationship is good for both sides, how can something be used beneficially. It ends with the land going to the people who want the irrigated fruit trees. That brings me to ask you about the name of your theater, “Shaking the Tree Theater.” Where did that come from? Not from this play, I imagine, but it fits there.

SVDM: (laughs) In my very early days of dreaming about what I would do with my future, I was in my painting phase and I had a flea-market stall. I envisioned a shop that I would possibly call The Bohdi Tree, and it would have a large wooden tree in the center. So, I guess the original vision was a clue of what would come to be, and I guess there is an imaginary tree in the center. I found “Shaking the Tree” from a German fairy tale, Mother Holle. She lives in the underworld and she makes snow when she shakes out her bed. [In the story,] [o]ne of the tasks that the young girl has to do when she falls down the well is to shake the tree with the golden apples, she has to milk the cows, and she has to pull the bread out of the oven. And after doing his work on a daily basis and helping Mother Holle in the world below, she is rewarded with this beautiful golden dress, so the story goes. For me, that work is your deep soul work, your artistic work. If you do it diligently, you are rewarded with these golden apples. I just love that idea that the tree is always laden with fruit. All you have to do is listen to the impulses from your soul, do the work that really matters, and the bounty will follow.

MSE: What a surprising and lovely answer. It also works so well with the prologue, the conflict about the goat herders and the fruit tree farmers.

SVDM: That’s true! (laughs)

MSE: I also thought about the act of shaking something up, in a critical way. A critical stance.

SVDM: It’s a very active word, a very active phrase, to shake something.

MSE: Would you say your theater has a critical objective?

SVDM: Yes, as a woman I am always interested in taking a classical work and putting it out there in my perspective, which is not going to look the same as it has looked before, hopefully. And I am also interested in the work of women playwrights. So, I don’t know if that is very revolutionary, but certainly there is this idea of doing something my way, despite the society I live in, despite the many restrictions that are sometimes put on women, to create my own utopian little corner of the world, where I get to do things the way that feels most right for me and also brings people along for the journey.

MSE: You have so many very young actors. In Brecht’s theater, the Berlin Ensemble, and all over Germany, theater is very heavily subsidized. Most of the actors are under contracts that are renewed if they do good work. Your ensemble for this play is so integrated, in sync, like one body moving with many different appendices on this circular stage. It breaks my heart to think that this group is not going to be together again.

SVDM: (laughs) Well, I’ve pondered this idea a lot. Should I have a permanent ensemble or should I work with a bunch of different people? Each play has its own personality and has its own needs, and for this play in particular, I found a whole group of people that I hadn’t worked with. It just shows you what’s possible when you focus on building an ensemble and what it takes to make them bond with each other. I usually have a six-week rehearsal period with a seventh week for tech. I felt for this show I would have loved an even longer one because, if this is what they accomplished under this time constraint, can you imagine what we could have done with a few more weeks?

MSE: I was happy. I didn’t need a few more weeks, but maybe the director did.

SVDM: Well, I’m very interested right now in how to build ensembles with strangers, with people who haven’t worked together. I feel like it is the strength of a piece like this. What do I need to do as a director to generate that work between them and to build that trust? Obviously, our process had its ups and downs and it was crazy in all the ways that a process could be.

MSE: I guess this is the right moment to ask what went wrong, if anything did.

SVDM: (laughs) Well, we lost an actor a week before the show opened who couldn’t appreciate my style of directing and didn’t trust that we were doing right by Brecht. It was clear that if we were going to continue to go down that path we were not going to have a successful show. It was something that hasn’t happened to me before as a director and it was very challenging, extremely challenging. And you know what? It was meant to happen. I always say to myself when I am in a production that I would rather go all-out and put on a huge failure than play it safe and put on a mediocre piece of theater. So, I had to reassure the actors that I wasn’t giving up, that I didn’t know what was going to happen in the next twenty-four hours, but that I was going to figure it out and I wanted them to know that I believed in them, and I believed in the piece. Miraculously, we found an actor to take on all his bit parts in the first act: Heath Koerschgen, who was the old man, the Governor. And then Clifton Holznagel, the Singer, took on the role of Azdak. Clifton was meant to be Azdak. Clifton said to me when he sat down that morning to start studying the script, he felt the presence of Brecht really strongly. I did too that day. Oh, we have unlocked a gate here, where Brecht finally approves of the direction we are going in, and he is being benevolent with us. (laughs) And I understood something about what he was trying to say. He did not want Azdak to be what I imagined a judge to be. He wanted him to be the antithesis, the mischievous coyote-like character that Clifton so beautifully portrays. What I needed was Clifton’s willingness just to jump in and fail big.

MSE: That’s just what Beckett says: “Fail better.” But he didn’t fail at all. Clifton was already in the show? He was marvelous as Azdak.


Clifton Holznagel as Azdak [Photo: Gary Norman]

SVDM: Yes, as the Singer, Arkadi.

MSE: You mean as the narrator? But he was not the narrator-singer all the time, was he? Some lines that belonged to that role were delivered by other characters.

SVDM: Yes, especially when it came to singing some of the intros to some of the acts. Some actors like Briana Ratterman Trevithick would step in with the accordion. It happened musically, when we realized, oh these voices would be lovely, we added them to help Arkadi tell the story.

MSE: When Samie Pfeifer (Grusha) was leaving the theater, she told me that she and the actors had written the music. What part of the music did she write? It was exquisite and quite varied. The style is not at all like Paul Dessau’s music. How did it come to be?

SVDM: It was the most beautiful, organic process I have ever experienced. I haven’t ever done a musical before and I didn’t want to call this a musical because if I did, I think I wouldn’t have done it.

MSE: You could have called it a musical. Anyway, that’s what some audience members near me were saying.

SVDM: (laughs) We could, yes, absolutely. We took our first five rehearsals – we read through an act per rehearsal – and we sat and we shared the songs. And ahead of time, Clifton had been thinking about the narrator, the Singer’s songs, and Samie had been thinking about Grusha’s songs. Briana had been thinking about a few of the songs with her accordion. It was so wonderful because when we sat down and got to a song, it was very tentative at first, and someone said I’ve prepared something, would you like to hear this? We all said: “Sure!” Then they’d sing it and we would be blown away by it. And someone else would say, I’ve actually been thinking about this one, and then Jess, Jessica Tidd, who was the Corporal, had thought about a few of the songs too. It really was a group effort. Joellen Sweeney, who was our music director, listened to them, brought more voices in, and added harmony. She orchestrated it. It was just a beautiful process of a very cooperative effort.

MSE: That sounds like a thoroughly Brechtian way of working. The structure of his rehearsals was experimental: “Let’s just try it out.” You must have had his spirit floating around, saying, “Yes.”

SVDM: I think so. I was so happy to read that about him when we had our crisis – I am a director who says don’t ask me too much, just let me see it, and I will tell you if it doesn’t work. Let’s just do it. Get your brain out of the way. I know it doesn’t make any sense to be in a rotating house made of sticks. But just do it so I can see.


Rotating Hut [Photo: Gary Norman]

MSE: You were working as if you had a revolving stage.

SVDM: Everything is supposed to come to Grusha, right? All these events come to her. If we had had a million-dollar budget, we would have had a rotating stage.

MSE: I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen, at least in my theater experience in Berlin. If you are sitting behind an actor and you can’t see the action for a while, “tough luck.” You miss it. I guess it was always the element of surprise and ingenuity, which brings me to ask you more about the set. The current production of the play directed by Michael Thalheimer at the Berlin Ensemble has no set, and you practically had no set at all, but you created everything you needed with the bare minimum of bamboo poles, fabric, a couple of tables, a marvelous chair on wheels, and a little table on wheels. You took us to all sorts of places. And the bridge suddenly evolved before our eyes. How did you make that work?

SVDM: I think for me, and this is throughout my work, the audience is a huge partner in the imaginative realm. If I can suggest something and then have your imagination do the rest, it is better than anything I can create because we just know how to go there with our imagination. I don’t know what you are seeing, but it is much richer than any set I could paint. That’s the first thing. The second thing is the bridge. We had played with all sorts of materials in our initial workshop. I brought out sticks, I brought out fabric. I wanted to know what are the building blocks of these worlds that we want to create. The actors grabbed the fabric and we were testing it out in all sorts of ways. I remembered one thing they did from the workshop is that they had hooked the fabric over each other to make a net. When it came to rehearsing the bridge, I said, “Remember what we did with the fabric? I’ve got these pieces, let’s see what happens.” And they started playing with the fabric and they started bouncing off it. One actor would run at it and would bounce back. I basically just said to them, “Find out everything that this fabric can do when you hook it into a net like that. I want to know all its capabilities.” And in the playing and wondering about what its possibilities were, we came up with these wonderful moments and then we started having Samie walk across it and asked what if this happens, what if she falls through it. I wasn’t interested in a realistic interpretation of the bridge. I wanted to capture the essence of what it feels like to be teetering above a chasm. How does the audience come with us in feeling that precariousness?


Bridge with Samie Pfeifer as Grusha [Photo: Gary Norman]

MSE: It was a dance across the bridge, the way she moved her feet. It was marvelous.

SVDM: I think the bridge’s strength is in the time that the group took to explore it. We did it as a warmup for a whole number of rehearsals, and in the warmup and in their play, they discovered their boundaries within that structure. That’s the beauty of ensemble, getting a group together, not worrying about perfection, not worrying about [whether or not] this [is] a realistic bridge, not thinking ahead to product, just living in the play.

MSE: You know there is a history of critique of Brecht’s so-called “formalism” in the early years of the German Democratic Republic, particularly concerning his opera with Paul Dessau, “The Trial of Lucullus.” He supposedly swayed from the agenda of socialist realism and had moments that were more creative (and subversive) than the Ministry of Culture wanted.

SVDM: We have an inner culture ministry sometimes in the arts, where we believe it’s too silly or too childlike or not real enough. We have all these parameters that we set and I am just not interested in that at all because if we never burst through that thinking, we never realize what is on the other side and we just get to see mediocrity.

MSE: When you talk about going beyond parameters, a special moment comes to mind now with the marvelous actress who played the peasant woman in the trial about the cow and the ham (Luisa Sermol). How did you come up with the dance between Azdak and the peasant woman? Azdak follows the woman in a circle, trying to position his chair on wheels so that she will sit on it. But she leans on her table, wheeling it in the same direction and at the same speed as Azdak moves, so nothing happens. She does not sit down. Then one of the Kulak farmers shouts, “This is a three-hour show, get on with it!”

SVDM: (laughs) That is just a moment of theatrical beauty. In the spirit of clowning, we had to go to the clowning place, especially in act four. It feels to me like a lot of deep clown work. Clifton and Luisa discovered that, obviously, because she moved so slowly. I don’t know how it came up in the room, but it was something that we knew would work immediately, and it has become longer and longer (laughs). Actually, in the performance yesterday it went even longer, and it is just a beautiful moment because we are near to the end of the play, and we acknowledge that it is a long play, but yet we revel in this glorious clowning moment of trying to get Granny to sit.

MSE: You have such a knack for Brecht, [both] the instructional and the entertain[ing] [aspects]. Would you consider doing another of his plays? One that comes to mind with a lot of music and potential for movement and clowning is “The Threepenny Opera.” Your warehouse location would be an ideal setting. You could even do part of it outside as street theater and some inside your theater. And Luisa and Heath would make a great Peachum couple, the capitalist organizers of the beggars in London’s Soho district. It would be a very big challenge. It is really a musical and it would involve getting the rights to the music. Maybe there is a grant for that? You have the singing, acting, and comic material. I would like to see you do more Brecht.

SVDM: (laughs) You are throwing down the gauntlet? Brecht has been a great teacher for me. I always pick material that frightens me to death, that I am fifty percent sure that I can’t do. Then I do it. And I feel like I learned so much from him. Now that I understand what I am dealing with, it would be really interesting to take on another Brecht piece, knowing what I know and capitalizing on it and seeing how I can listen to his voice and express his thoughts even more. There is a reason why he is one of the greats in theater. He makes us think, he wakes us up, he presents us with raw theatricality. He really brings us down to the essence and the bones of storytelling, and at my heart, no matter how I am going to express myself in my life, I am a storyteller. I get him. I understand him, but I also feel like I am at the very tip of the iceberg. I will be a lifelong student of Brecht.

MSE: Excellent. Do you know the German word “Verfremdung?” “Estrangement,” and the German words “Verfremdung” or “Verfremdungseffekt” are now the accepted terms.

SVDM: Yes, because it is misleading to say alienation.

MSE: [It means ] [m]aking something seem unsettlingly unfamiliar, but taking you into a story that seems like something you don’t know, and bringing you out again into something that is very familiar. We as the audience realize that we can make changes in our familiar world, as unchangeable as it seems to us, just as the unfamiliar situation in the play has been changed, estranged. In your play, the concept of ownership changes into something else, a relationship of nurturing. You bring this across in so many ways in your production. Your actors also constantly break the fourth wall and establish ties with the audience. The groom’s mother (Luisa Sermol) passed a tray with wedding-funeral cakes and admonished the person next to me, “No more cakes for you!” Brecht has influenced so much of how theater is made that it is not immediately evident as Brechtian when a member of the audience becomes involved in some way. And the doubling of the baby and the young boy is a prime instance of estrangement. You are doing this so well.

SVDM: That’s why it felt so great to keep the actors on stage during the whole first act, just to have them retreat to the corners.

MSE: Some of the action also happened in the corners, at the table of the peasant couple. Every inch of space was used. Comments from the cast and music came from the corners and the edges, also the marvelous long bed appears from nowhere. You brought much more comedy into the play than I had expected. The Governor briefly seems to be Trump when he says he is draining the swamp, but you didn’t belabor or dwell on that. What kept you from making your production into an allegory of American politics today?

SVDM: A lot of directors want to set the play in a particular time and really drive home that we are dealing with a historical or current political situation. Certainly, in the prologue they like to tell us exactly where we are in place and time. I felt like I didn’t want to do that. As I told you after the show, Carlos is from Venezuela, and he related to the play because of what is happening in his country right now (Carlos Adrian Manzano as Fat Prince, Peasant Man, Dying Peasant, Lawyer). Many other cast members related in different ways, like Carla Hillier, who played Natella Abashwili, the Governor’s wife. Her family is from Estonia, so, from talking with her older family members, she is very familiar  about the troubles that have happened in that small pocket of land. I’m from South Africa. And we are in troubled times right now in the United States. Most of us know what it feels like to have an unstable government. We can understand the universal nature of civil war or strife or corrupt politicians, no matter where we set the play. It feels nice to have a hodge-podge of people. I love that Heath invoked Trump because of course he is the “perfect” Governor, but he could be any governor throughout time. We could have picked from hundreds of different people in history. And as I said, my grandmother was from Latvia. She and my grandfather became atheists right after the Holocaust. So, it’s been our history, it is in our DNA, we understand it. I love that the place that Brecht picked was a real place, but it was also an imaginary place. And that to me – as a storyteller and lover of folk tales and fairy tales – is where he really hooked me.

MSE: I’m just remembering – I think it was the only time – that you invoked three different levels that gave a mountainous feeling. The violin music playing from the top of the wall structure around the stage and Grusha was up on a stand or pedestal before the bridge scene below. Your design situated us easily and abstractly into an imaginary location.

SVDM: And there is always this fear, especially because we are a small company, there is this fear, is it enough? The word “enough” always comes up. Are we doing enough to show place and time? The beautiful thing about Brecht is that he lets you off the hook a little bit because he wants you to embrace the bones of the place that you are in. He wants the audience to see everything. Usually I am trying to hide the stage manager away, so that the audience can’t see. But I loved that you could see the shadow of Natasha Stockem, the Stage Manager, up there working the lights, because I think that that is what he wanted. It is a wonderful invitation to use the space. With other actors in other shows, I am always talking about the warehouse. Let’s just embrace that we are in a warehouse, and the world of the play exists within the outer world of the warehouse. Let’s not try to hide the fact that we are making theater in a warehouse. Brecht really allowed me to do that, without apology. He wanted me to do that.

MSE: Exactly. You also worked with such simple things, like the long piece of blue fabric. First I thought it was a metaphor for the passage of time, or a symbol of time, as the actors carried across the stage in a bold diagonal. And suddenly this expanse of blue became the stream. It was marvelous. Was I wrong?

SVDM: No. It’s three things. It’s the passage of time made by these daily tasks that Grusha has to do in order to stay married to this awful peasant. It is the linen, and it is the stream. It is three things. And they are singing [that] as time went by, he faded. She could not see his image so clearly in the water.

MSE: That is really stunning, to see one piece of cloth serve so many purposes so close together. Right, and then she seemed to be washing the cloth, as the linen. That was remarkable. I think that might be your trademark.

SVDM: (laughs) Yes, I do love that. It’s my jam.

MSE: There was no time for any major costume changes. That was another layer of “Verfremdung” for me, because I had to figure out what role Clifton was playing when he wasn’t Azdak. That transported me to a different context. You used very subdued lighting, practically no make-up, and the costumes were muted browns and black. The few spots of color were all the more memorable because they stood out so intensely. The blue cloth of the stream and also the big blue-green bed. And of course, the bright dresses.

SVDM: That’s where I think my painting, my visual brain comes in, because I love color. And there are only some times in some plays, there are few places where you can make that statement. If you choose wisely, it can really pop and stand out in the audience’s mind. If you have too much of it, if it is everywhere, then that blue stream would have meant nothing to you. Originally, the fabric came out from under the bed (which is a beautiful turquoise color), and I wanted it to match the bed exactly, but once we decided to move the bed, which was a great decision, I realized the fabric had to come from somewhere else. It’s the same thing with the dresses, the scene with the dresses hooked my visual brain and I imagined all this colorful fabric and Natella being in a maze of fabric, and that for me, those little hooks are where I sign on visually, and then I have to get the rest of me on board.

MSE: Even in the dress scene, the women are sitting in a circle. And at other times some of the lines are delivered by actors walking around the circle, when they could have stood in one place or moved back and forth in the middle of the stage. This metaphor of circularity, and I guess inclusion, or even captivity, was so strong in what I have to call your dance, your production as an intricate ballet. Every moment where something could have been static, you had the actors move. Maybe not every moment, but almost always, and that made it a dance.

SVDM: That’s lovely. We talked about that idea. You know it’s hard to do theater in the round because someone is always going to get your back, so you have to change your position quite a bit. But also, if you look at the idea of shapes and patterns, making shapes within a circle, to me, this is a lot of what the play is about. Old wars that have come before us, the displacement of people. We are just moving in patterns. What I love about the chalk board is that we’ve written these chapters so many times now, and it feels to me, to see these old markings of the chapters, like it’s happened before and it will happen again, unless we make a conscious decision to be smarter about how we talk about the land and who has rightful ownership to it.


Chalkboard [Photo: Gary Norman]

MSE: You see the chalkboards like a palimpsest? Right. That is an incredible observation.

SVDM: It feels like the inner workings of a clock in a way. Time is always moving. Do we repeat those patterns, or do we change?

MSE: Yes, how do we get out? There are dotted lines on the circle on your program, and the diagonals suggest that there is escape, there are paths out. Not in the circle that we saw drawn on the stage, though. Did you design the geometrical program cover?

SVDM: No, I shared images with the designer and told her what I was thinking and she came up with the image. We are tasked with listening to our intuition as artists. We are presented with an idea and we must intuit how we are going to express it. Everyone brings a piece of that full intuitive vision into life. And it would be different, depending on who the key players are.

MSE: Everything worked together, the circle of being trapped and the challenge to break out. Of course, someone eventually did pull the child out of the circle, but it was the unsuitable person, the biological mother. I want to ask just a couple more questions about the ensemble. Did your actors know about Brecht? How did you present him and what questions did they have?

SVDM: We had a lot of questions. A lot of people had learned about Brecht in college or have seen a production or been part of a production of Brecht when they were in college, so it is a distant memory and understanding. There are certain Brechtian ideas in the theater that we know about, but in a very general sense.

MSE: What, for example?

SVDM: Well, they knew about the alienation effect, which now has a new name, estrangement, about deconstructing everything, about breaking the fourth wall. There are a few basic ideas that people had. And probably, I am questioning, now looking back, I should have had a dramaturge. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. When I want to learn a lot about it myself I do the dramaturgical work. I put pertinent information on a google document, and I shared it with the actors. It included important ideas about his background, and about the way Brecht wanted to make theater. We talked about the setting. I also would bring in material to read to them, when I felt like we had hit a block and we didn’t quite understand what we were dealing with, especially in acts four and five. It became very political with Azdak and we needed to understand the context of what was happening and what world events Brecht might have been referring to. Because he was a Marxist, I wondered if he was talking about the Russian Revolution. A lot of it was guesswork and some of it was, “Oh my gosh, I found this piece; here’s what I think he is talking about.” I feel like we were at a cursory level of understanding Brecht, doing our best to pull these very large political ideas into our story and understand the world we were working in. I hope that I gave the actors enough grounding. I hope I gave them enough understanding because the thing about The Caucasian Chalk Circle for me is that it’s a very simple story. On one hand you’ve got this lovely, simple folk tale, and so that part of my brain says, “Oh, I’ve got this.” I know how folk tales work. I read fairy tales all the time, I teach them, I know how this works. And then on the other hand, you have political corruption that feels more historically “real.” I am not a predominantly political person. My politics are personal politics. I hope we did it enough justice in our understanding of the world of the play.

MSE: It is a curious idea and a wonderful irony that Azdak, as the epitome of corruption in the court system, is actually on the side of the peasants and the poor, so that ends up being called the golden age of something almost like justice.

SVDM: I loved reading about Brecht, that he was anti-religion, that Azdak was his subversion of Christ. Brecht is always subverting things for us. To understand those layers, we had to dig deeper, and it happened quite late in the process for us, too. It didn’t all come at the beginning. We didn’t say, “Let’s learn everything we need to know at the start,” because it is such a huge endeavor. We had to tackle the play in layers. We had to work on the songs and the movement and then try to infuse knowledge into our brains so that we could deal with the scenes as honestly as possible.

MSE: You included practically every word. Here, in the program I just gave you of the production at the Berlin Ensemble directed by Manfred Karge, you can see that he did not do all the scenes. That makes your accomplishment even more remarkable. Your production is very true to the text. You know, you chose one of the very big Brechtian plays. He wrote many that are more compact.

SVDM: I know, I don’t know what I was thinking. I think I got hooked by Grusha’s story, and then I realized how much I had taken on after that.

MSE: I think it is possibly the only Brecht play with a happy ending. It’s dangerous to generalize, of course. Maybe that can be challenged, depending on what you call a happy ending. His plays usually don’t end that way, or they are cautiously optimistic.

SVDM: Yes, I have read that.

MSE: The main figure – often a woman – is often criticized for not “getting it,” but the audience is supposed to. Mother Courage, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, Arturo Ui. It is win-win for Grusha.

SVDM: And she is a sucker. She is the one who would normally be taken advantage of.

MSE: So, you chose an unusual play by Brecht. If I may, I also want to ask you who influenced you along the way. Which visual artists and people in theater would you not want to miss?

SVDM: Oh, now I am going to have to plumb my brain. I am trying to think of who I loved first and then go from there, as a young artist. Tennessee Williams was one of my first loves, and Sam Shepard. I love Frida Kahlo with all my heart. I love Caryl Churchill. Naomi Wallace, I discovered, is a very political writer. I must be more political than I let on. Who else? I love any abstract artist, like Picasso, just looking at Picasso and his journey. And Matisse. I have always loved Matisse. And then I love any great classic writers in literature, like Lewis Carroll. I love children’s stories. I love Clarissa Pinkola Estes who wrote Women Who Run with the Wolves. She’s a Jungian therapist who writes about myth and fairy tale from a very deep place. And Jung. I’m very influenced by Jung. And then theater-wise, it always has to be a strong story for me. Athol Fugard, a great South African playwright. William Kentridge – he is an amazing South African artist. He is one of the great theatrical/visual artists of our time.

MSE: What about what I call your “theater of choreography?” You have a style I haven’t seen before.

SVDM: I love Dario Fo; I love his work. It’s a very physical theater. I don’t follow dance groups as much as I could. I look at lots of images of dancers. I don’t know Martha Graham’s work enough to say that she is a person who influences me, but I admire her philosophy.

MSE: Your truly unusual style seems to come from your personal background with ballet and art. I would dare to say there were no pauses in the production. There were no breaks where we could have been sitting and waiting for something to happen. The action, the songs, and all the transitions and entrances worked. It was magical.

SVDM: The more I do it, the more I realize that I love to work with actors who can move well. I like to choreograph. I think I am choreographing.

MSE: Oh, you definitely are.

SVDM: Physicality is a very important piece of storytelling for me. But I think I am still on a journey of discovery about it. I know I ask a lot of the actors. It is a marathon every time they perform. They are constantly moving. It’s not for the faint of heart. The actors must be strong. But the presence of physicality throughout the story adds a life to the piece that I don’t think you can achieve otherwise. Without it, you would have what Peter Brook would call “deadly theater.” He is another huge influence. A master storyteller!

MSE: What you have achieved it is new for me and astounding. What would your dream be? How do you want to develop?

SVDM: I am in a phase of reimagining myself and what I want to do. I have always thought of the warehouse as my space, as a vehicle to do the plays that I want, in the way that I want to do them, with the people that I want to do them with. It affords me a great luxury of deciding what those things will be, rather than waiting for someone to hire me at a specific theater. I think my goal is to keep doing work that scares me, to keep working with material by great artists because they teach me so much about how to make theater. It is something that I could not learn in a lecture. I have to learn by doing. I have always learned by doing. And to just keep pushing what those boundaries of theater are, because I think we keep having to learn how to tell stories. You know we have this traditional theater model that we are trying to break all the time. We will always have it. I mean we will always have a proscenium stage. We will always have the actors on one side and the audience on the other. But for me, I want it to feel like an event. When I go to see a play, I want to be surrounded by it and immersed in it. I want it to harness my imagination and I want to feel something. Because it really is the soul of our society to be able to share stories and thoughts with each other, artistically. I don’t know if I want more than that. I would love to work all over the place, in different countries, but right now Portland is a fertile place to be working.

MSE: Or as a resident guest director at a university? Could you envision that? Although I wouldn’t want you to leave.

SVDM: That would be wonderful.

MSE: I want to mention that blocking in German is often called “Choreografie” and “Arrangement.” That fits well with your aesthetic, finding the essence of movement on stage.

SVDM: Well, I think some people are very auditory learners. They can hear words and it can invoke a whole bunch of images and thoughts within them. But I am not like that. For me, the picture that is made when two characters are speaking to each other is so important, where someone is in that dynamic says so much about the power structure between the two of them. It says so much about what is truly going on. And it supports the words so much. So, it has to be thought about, and once you have said it, it does become like the steps of a dance that need to be repeated because it is a big part of the storytelling. I might have just gone around in circles there (laughs).

MSE: Not at all. You are all about getting out of the comfort zone.

SVDM: It is scary doing pieces that have been done before and that people know because they always have something to compare it to, or they have an idea in their head of how it should be. So, there is always this fear that you will put it out there, and it will be wrong. I think we’ve got to let go of this idea of “wrong” because I don’t think there are rules in artmaking. And when we try to stick to rules, we get ourselves into trouble, in my mind.

MSE: Then the circle would have no dotted lines. Thank you so much and all the best for your next work, “Macbeth,” which I will be sure to see (February 16-March 17, 2018).

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Urgency and Duration: Brecht’s ‘Unbesiegliche Inschrift’

by Benjamin Robinson, Indiana University

[Presented on the panel “Turning Points and Their Axes: Change and Resistance in Brecht and Company,” sponsored by the International Brecht Society at the 41st Annual Conference of the German Studies Association in Atlanta, Georgia, October 2017.]

How do singular statements about events negotiate the problem of time? Consider the sentence, “wow, look at that”—whatever it might do, it hardly qualifies as interesting. For it to give you information besides that of its formal semantics, you’d need to be in some perceptual relationship with its circumstance of initial utterance. There is nothing in its “that” which you could look up at your leisure—rather, you need to be right there, in proximity to the exclamation in order to perceive what it intends. And the whole problem with unique contexts is that the event that would give “that” meaning is an evanescent moment, a surprise, something unintelligible in light of normal expectations—in short, the context that would make the singular expression meaningful is itself lost to any perceptual fixation.

On the face of it, then, a lonely snowflake falling in summer, and the helpless cry pointing to it, would just as soon disappear from our minds as contribute to our meaning-making. Why not leave it at that? The answer is that we need the singular to survive—as much as I may know in general about traffic rules, I have to be able to respond to a unique car moving where it is not supposed to be, even if my response is only a context-dependent cry, “watch out!” Whether the event at stake is one of unique delicacy like the summer snow flake or mortal danger like the careening auto, I can’t do without attention to the singular event.

So, let me come back to my opening question: how does a cry like “wow!” negotiate the problem of time? Is it only an expedient cry, a singularity that becomes worthless the moment it extends along the arrow of time? Is there any place in art for trying to preserve such vulnerable singular statements? Brecht makes an especially interesting case since he is known for uniting his art with punctual intervention into the politics of his times. But his times aren’t ours. For the politics that his art engaged in to remain relevant, either his interventions would have to have been non-singular—i.e., to have been general, doctrinal—or his singular interventions would have to have been lent enduring expression. I think that we can agree that both are the case, but what strikes me is not the historical ascription of general political meaning to his themes and person—i.e., what is most interesting is not the description of the historical facts of his politics—but how his work still produces singular effects. This question, the one I find interesting, is an old one, and surprisingly hard to get a hold on. In book X of the Republic, Plato imagines asking Homer, “if you are not […] merely that creator of phantoms whom we defined as the imitator, but […] were capable of knowing what pursuits make men better or worse in private or public life, tell us what city was better governed owing to you?”[1] The force of his question is to doubt whether a mimetic art, like poetry or drama, is capable of having the effects that philosophical truth might have on our actions. Art, by contrast, has ahistorical formal merits, or it has fleeting merits, but to the skeptical mind it has no enduring civic value.

Such philosophical curiosity can tempt one “großes Geheimnis zu wittern / Tiefe Metaphysik zu entwickeln,” so let me turn to a brief poem by Brecht, “Die unbesiegliche Inschrift,” to make things more concrete.

Die unbesiegliche Inschrift
2          Zur Zeit des Weltkriegs
3          In einer Zelle des italienischen Gefängnisses San Carlo
4          Voll von verhafteten Soldaten, Betrunkenen und Dieben
5          Kratzte ein sozialistischer Soldat mit Kopierstift in die Wand:
6          Hoch Lenin!
7          Ganz oben, in der halbdunklen Zelle, kaum sichtbar, aber
8          Mit ungeheuren Buchstaben geschrieben.
9          Als die Wärter es sahen, schickten sie einen Maler mit einem Eimer Kalk
10        Und mit einem langstieligen Pinsel übertünchte er die drohende Inschrift.
11        Da er aber mit seinem Kalk nur die Schriftzüge nachfuhr
12        Stand oben in der Zelle nun in Kalk:
13        Hoch Lenin!
14        Erst ein zweiter Maler überstrich das Ganze mit breitem Pinsel
15        So daß es für Stunden weg war, aber gegen Morgen
16        Als der Kalk trocknete, trat darunter die Inschrift wieder hervor:
17        Hoch Lenin!
18        Da schickten die Wärter einen Maurer mit einem Messer gegen die Inschrift vor
19        Und er kratzte Buchstabe für Buchstabe aus, eine Stunde lang
20        Und als er fertig war, stand oben in der Zelle, nun farblos
21        Aber tief in die Mauer geritzt die unbesiegliche Inschrift:
22        Hoch Lenin!
23        Jetzt entfernt die Mauer! sagte der Soldat.

The puzzle of Brecht’s poem lies in what it shares with its unpuzzling hero, the graffiti, “Hoch Lenin!” The phrase in question “Hoch Lenin!” hardly qualifies as a work of art. Like my example of a singular expression, “wow, look at that,” the inscription the poem glorifies seems at first glance to be exhausted by its time-and-place-bound function to exhort. So, the poem’s puzzle might also be put this way: what did Brecht do here to give that undistinguished and obsolete slogan durability and continuing relevance for us? In manuscript draft, Brecht entitled the poem “Propaganda,” and that alternative pair, “Propaganda” and “Invincible Inscription,” only heightens our question about the relationship between momentary urgency and enduring invincibility.

I propose to get at this question by regarding the interpolation of the graffiti into its lyrical context as analogous to the way Brecht sees his actors participating in the epic dramatic context. Essential to Brecht’s conception of epic drama is the disjunction between the time of the play’s setting (with all the urgency of its narrative events) and the time of the play’s performance (with a distinct urgency of contemporaneous events that the production is addressing). The gap, however, allows for something less urgent: a deliberative stance. As Brecht urges “those born later”: “gedenkt unsrer/mit Nachsicht,”[2] where forebearance marks the empirical opposite of an agent-actor’s boldness, which “is ill in counsel, good in execution; so that the right use of bold persons is, that they never command in chief, but be seconds, and under the direction of others” (Francis Bacon).[3] In the Kleines Organon, whose title, as is well known, apostrophizes Bacon’s Novum Organon Scientiarum, Brecht uses the 1947 Charles Laughton version of the Life of Galileo to illustrate his dramatic instrument. It is important that “der zeigende Laughton nicht verschwindet in dem gezeigten Galilei […] dass der wirkliche, der profane Vorgang nicht mehr verschleiert wird” (538). An actor shouldn’t pretend to be immersed in the distant singularity of egos and events, producing the fiction that they are happening again just as they once did, but should open up the distance of time by simultaneously assuming the role of agent and observer of the events. “Steht doch auf der Bühne tatsächlich Laughton und zeigt, wie er sich den Galilei denkt […], das »Jetzt« wie das »Hier« nicht als eine Fiktion […] setzend, sondern es trennend vom Gestern und dem andern Ort” (538-9).

I want to emphasize how this focus on the actor’s schizophrenic displacement of his “jetzt” and his “hier” can be transposed into the lyrical context. In the poem, it is not an actor who splits into the double role of evental agent and critical observer, but the readers of the ringing line, “Hoch Lenin!” The key is to grasp the graffiti as simultaneously a proposition (a bold meaning) and an inscription (a cool token). The meaning, then, can be seen to change with each token of its inscription. But how? How is that difference between a ‘now’ and a ‘yesterday,’ a ‘here’ and an ‘other place,’ brought to bear in a text that isn’t performed? To answer that, we need to posit a reception aesthetics. We can identify a poem whose unity is given by its text, but whose interpretation depends on token acts of reading that fill in what Ingarden called its “Unbestimmtheitstellen.” At these unsaturated spots, the reader is called upon to investigate the relevant predications, or as Brecht says in the Organon, to make “die Verknüpfung der Begebnisse sichtbar” (539). We are the split subjects, receiving the invincible inscription in its objectivity, but instead of submitting to its propaganda, we assume a Baconian spirit and subject its bold meaning to our pragmatic direction. “So gebaut sein muß/Das Werk für die Dauer wie/Die Maschine voll der Mängel.”[4]

If we want to make the flawed inscription “Hoch Lenin” speak to our current affairs, we don’t have complete license. After all, the unity of the poetic text is well stewarded in text-critical editions. So how do we procede? The process is, in fact, the topic of the poem itself. Let’s see how it works by following the graffiti step-by-step, turning to the strange story of its inscription before we turn again to its changing meanings. The soldier first scrawls the lines high up in his dark cell where they can hardly be seen. When the defacement is nonetheless spotted, the guards call a painter to cover it. A process then begins whereby instead of erasing the lines, they are highlighted in a progressively more enduring fashion, from pencil script to painted white wash, to letters carved in the wall. Each repetition is thus an intensification, ending in a quite literal engraving in stone. As Brecht comments elsewhere about monumental writing, “das in den Stein getriebene Wort muß sorgfältig gewählt sein, es wird lange gelesen werden und immer von vielen zugliech” (GBA 22: 141, cited in Thielking, 59).[5] The process by which the offending letters have been reproduced can be seen not only as an intensification, but a depersonalization and dissemination. From the soldier’s colored copy-editor pencil, they now stand there “farblos” but “tief geritzt,” no longer speaking with the subjectivity of his hand, but the objectivity of “das in den Stein getrieben Wort.” Now comes the strangest part. As the pencil-scrawl graduates in the penipenultimate line to “unbesiegliche Inschrift,” the poem’s closing line, a direct quotation of the soldier, demands that the inscribed wall come down. What are we to make of this unexpected end proposed for the inscription?

Although the two words, “hoch Lenin!” seem to do quite well on their own, we need to consider what they might mean. If we were to hear the slogan in some context other than that of the poem, how would we respond? First of all, the slogan follows a formula—a directional adverb plus a noun, like “Vorwärts ___!” “Nieder mit ___!” “Auf, auf___!” or even “Heim ins___!” Because it is an elliptical construction, we can only divine its verbal quality, for example, whether it is an imperative, or, since the missing verb might be “leben” as in “hoch lebe,” a subjunctive. We are told that the date is around the Russian Revolution, so we must read it in context as a wish with an anticipatory aspect, “may the cause of Lenin come to prevail!” At the same time, it is hard to imagine it persuading anyone, as we would assume it was supposed to do if it were meant as a political slogan, since it is barely visible in the cell. Which leads one to think that it is meant more in the way the WWII GI graffiti “Kilroy was here” was intended. As Charles Panati observed about Kilroy, “the outrageousness of the graffiti was not so much what it said, but where it turned up.”[6] It is less to realize a particular aim, than defiantly to assert an objective presence over and against one’s enemies. I remember visiting the old jail in Park City, Utah with chiseled Wobbly slogans still recording defiance after one hundred years. Such graffiti asserts in equal parts the resistant objectivity of the physical mark (which endures even in Kilroy’s past tense, “was here”), and the persistent, anticipatory subjectivity of defiance (“I’m here, unbroken, still hoping for Lenin’s triumph”). Whether one understands it with emphasis on the objective mark or the subjective act, the issue, as we have seen, is settled with its subsequent reinscriptions by the painters and the mason. The physically objective “here”—the San Carlo Prison in Turin—has been emphatically picked out by the increasingly visible inscription. And, with that prominence, what began as only ironically “drohende” pencil scrawling has been transformed into a collective Schlachtruf, an index that serves to orient a battalion of soldiers in the space and time of their charge. In one and the same graffiti, a local “was here” in a San Carlos prison confronts a collective “we” everywhere thronging to the battle cry. That double indexicality sets up the final Witz of the poem.

Brecht’s last line fits more nearly Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious than Lenin’s “All Power to the Soviets!” In a joke, accumulated psychic tension is released by exchanging a distressing symbolic meaning for a surface token. So, for example, in the joke, “What comes between fear and sex?—Fünf!” the effect results from the discrepancy between deep symbolic meaning in English and its perfectly banal German phonic equalivents (“vier” and “sechs”), the superficial “fünf” discharging the tension of whatever terrible associations are triggered by fear and sex. Here, the threatening words “hoch Lenin!” can be seen on the surface just to instantiate what they declare: “Lenin” is written “ganz oben,” so, in point of fact, Lenin is “hoch.” The poem’s joke, “now remove the wall!” relieves us suddenly of the ideological burden of that terrible anticipation in the apocalyptic year 1917 when the Russian Revolution might have signaled a new world. The soldier’s quoted “now,” indexes the punchline to the soldier’s diegetic context, rather than our reader-context. Rather than the vague subjunctive call to world revolution, “Hoch Lenin!” we have a precise imperative: not the invincible inscription, which like all stone in Brecht’s oeuvre sucumbs inevitably to time. Rather, what resounds is the punctual command to destroy the inscription along with its imprisoning wall. A gesture of revolt, not revolution.

It is a consummately Brechtian move in two respects. Brecht’s Baconian spirit of induction made him attentive to the singular detail and practical experiment. “Es ist nur nötig,” Brecht writes in the Organon, “—dies aber unbedingt—, daß im großen und ganzen so etwas wie Experimentierbedingungen geschaffen werden, d. h. daß jeweils ein Gegenexperiment denkbar ist.” As Max Weber knew, such a Baconian ideal demands a stiff upper lip in regard to the lifespan of one’s work. “Jeder von uns […] in der Wissenschaft weiß, daß das, was er gearbeitet hat, in 10, 20, 50 Jahren veraltet ist. […] Wissenschaftlich aber überholt zu werden, ist […] nicht nur unser aller Schicksal, sondern unser aller Zweck.”[7] Brecht’s sentiment that “der Wunsch, Werke von langer Dauer zu machen Ist nicht immer zu begrüßen,” was expressed repeatedly in his own work.[8] In “Der Schuh von Empedocles,” his philosopher, rather than being apotheosized in divine nature, as in Hölderlin’s drama, leaves behind his shoe, so that his students, “beschäftigt, großes Geheimnis zu wittern,” suddenly find themselves holding “den Schuh des Lehrers in Händen, den greifbaren/Abgetragenen, den aus Leder, den irdischen.” The thrust of both Weber’s and Brecht’s reflections on the modern condition opposes the prophetic certainty of revelation; what the times demand is essentially tactical, attentive to the inevitable tensions of singular historical experience.

Which takes me to the other respect in which the contradictory wit of the poem’s dialectic of invincibility and immediacy announces its consummately Brechtian attitude. At the end of the Fluchtlingsgespräche, the exiled proletarian Kalle defines socialism in terms that recall the instant after a joke, when all the tension—or contradiction—of revolutionary engagement is fleetingly aufgehoben. Socialism, he says to the cramped intellectual Ziffel, is “wo ein solcher Zustand herrscht, daß solche anstrengenden Tugenden wie Vaterlandsliebe, Freiheitsdurst, Güte, Selbstlosigkeit so wenig nötig sind wie ein Scheißen auf die Heimat, Knechtseligkeit, Roheit und Egoismus.”[9] And that is the key to “Die unbesiegliche Inschrift”: 100 years after “hoch Lenin” was engraved on the wall in San Carlo prison, 100 years after the Russian Revolution, 28 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we get the joke—it is the List der Vernunft! We saw it before, in 1794, in Büchner’s Dantons Tod, as Desmoulins is guillotined by the Committee of Public Safety, his wife Lucile cries out to the Jacobins: “long live the king!” “Es ist das Gegenwort, es ist das Wort, das dem ‘Draht’ zerreißt,” observes Paul Celan flabbergasted by what the slogan could possibly mean.[10] And there, too, for the length of a “now,” our failed connections are visible—and what’s so funny is “die Gegenwart des Menschlichen zeugenden Majestät des Absurden” (Celan): “als mache sie, was sie macht, als ein Experiment” (Brecht, see above).


[1] Plato, 599d, Book 10, Republic. Web. 13 October 2017:

[2] “An die Nachgeborenen” Gedichte 1, vol. 3, Ausgewählte Werke in sechs Bänden (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997):  349-351.

[3] See, Francis Bacon, “On Boldness,” The Essays. Web. 13 October 2017: “This is well to be weighed; that boldness is ever blind; for it seeth not danger, and inconveniences. Therefore it is ill in counsel, good in execution; so that the right use of bold persons is, that they never command in chief, but be seconds, and under the direction of others. For in counsel, it is good to see dangers; and in execution, not to see them, except they be very great.”

[4] Brecht, “Über die Bauart langdauernder Werke,” Gedichte 2, vol. 4, Ausgewählte Werke in sechs Bänden (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997):  151-153, 152.

[5] Thielking, Sigrid, “L’homme statue”?: Brechts Inschriften im Kontext von Denkmalsdiskurs und Erinnerungspolitik, in Brecht 100 2000, ed. Maarten van Dijk (1999): 53-67.

[6] Wikipedia contributors. “Kilroy was here.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Sep. 2017. Web. 30 Sep. 2017

[7] Max Weber, “Wissenschaft als Beruf.” Web. 13 October 2017:

[8] See Jochen Vogt, “Damnatio memorieae und ‘Werke von langer Daer’, Zwei ästhetische Gernzewerte in Brechts Exillyrik,” in Ästhetiken des Exils, ed. Helga Schreckenberger (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), 301-318, 305-6.

[9] Brecht, “Flüchtlingsgespräche,” Prosa, vol. 5, Ausgewählte Werke in sechs Bänden (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997): 9-117, 116.

[10] Paul Celan, “Der Meridian,” Der Meridian und andere Prosa (Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamkp, 1983) 40-62, 43.

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Bertolt Brecht und die Literaturwissenschaft

by Jost Hermand

[Presented on the panel “The Brechtian Turn” sponsored by the International Brecht Society at the 40th Annual Conference of the German Studies Association in San Diego, California, October 2016.]



Angesichts der inzwischen ins Uferlose angeschwollenen Brecht ­Literatur etwas Sinnvolles zum Thema „Brecht und die Literaturwissenschaft“ zu sagen ist ein geradezu herkulisches Unterfangen. Um mich dabei nicht auf das rein Aufzählende zu beschränken, was die Kenner notwendig langweilen und die mit diesen Schriften weniger Vertrauten eher abschrecken würde, verfahre ich deshalb im Folgenden – im Hinblick auf die verschiedenen Phasen dieser Forschungsrichtung – lieber argumentativ, indem ich sie vorwiegend auf ihren ideologischen Stellenwert befrage. Ja, nicht nur das: um dem Ganzen einen gesellschaftspolitischen Fokus zu geben, fasse ich dabei – wohl oder übel – lediglich die innerdeutsche Entwicklung dieser Forschungsrichtung ins Auge und gehe auf die außerdeutsche Brecht-Literatur nur dann ein, wo sie auf die Brecht-Forschung oder den Streit um Brecht in der DDR, der ehemaligen BRD und der heutigen sogenannten Berliner Republik eingewirkt hat. Und selbst dabei übergehe ich die geradezu unübersehbare Fülle an journalistischen Beiträgen und Theaterkritiken und erwähne nur das, worin die wichtigsten Literatur- und Theaterwissenschaftler dieser drei Staaten die Bedeutsamkeit von Brecht gesehen haben. Doch im Rahmen eines abrissartigen Vorworts wird selbst das etwas kursorisch ausfallen.


Eine spezifisch literaturwissenschaftliche Auseinandersetzung mit Brechts Oeuvre und seinen darin vertretenen gesellschaftspolitischen Anschauungen begann – nach 15 Jahren einer relativen Nichtbeachtung im skandinavischen und US-amerikanischen Exil – erst, als Brecht in der Anfangsphase des Kalten Krieges 1948 im sowjetzonalen Ostberlin Fuß zu fassen versuchte. Wie sehr man dort diese Entscheidung begrüßte, beweist schon ein im Jahr 1949 von Peter Huchel herausgegebenes Sonderheft von Sinn und Form, das ausschließlich seinem Werk gewidmet war. Allerdings verhinderte die zum gleichen Zeitpunkt in der SBZ einsetzende Formalismus-Debatte (in der, wie wir wissen, einige einflussreiche SED-Kulturfunktionäre Brecht Verstöße gegen die alleingültige Doktrin der Sozialistischen Realismus vorwarfen) erst einmal ein genaueres Eingehen auf die Grundprinzipien seiner literarischen Schreibweise.

Erst nach dem zwischen 1952 und 1954 einsetzenden Ruhm seines Berliner Ensembles setzte daher in der inzwischen gegründeten DDR eine parteipolitische und literaturwissenschaftliche Würdigung seiner Werke ein. Dafür sprechen nicht nur die Gedenkreden, die Walter Ulbricht, Johannes R. Becher, Paul Wandel und Georg Lukács nach seinem Tod im August 1956 unter dem Motto „Du verließest uns viel zu früh“ an seinem Grabe oder im Berliner Ensemble hielten, sondern auch die ersten über ihn erscheinenden literaturwissenschaftlichen Studien, allen voran Ernst Schumacher mit seinem Buch Die dramatischen Versuche Bertolt Brechts 1918-1933 (1955), mit dem er kurz zuvor bei Hans Mayer in Leipzig promoviert hatte. Darauf erschienen in der DDR in schneller Folge weitere Brecht-Studien von Hans Joachim Bunge, Käthe Rülicke-Weiler, Gerhard Zwerenz, sowie das 2. Brecht-Sonderheft von Sinn und Form, in denen es vor allem darum ging, die Entwicklung Brechts von seiner anarchistischen Jugendphase zu seinen späteren marxistisch orientierten Positionen herauszustellen. Damit waren die wichtigsten Voraussetzungen geschaffen, auf denen sich in den frühen sechziger Jahren eine breitgefächerte Brecht-Forschung in der DDR entfalten konnte, zu deren Hauptvertretern zwischen 1960 und 1965 vor allem Werner Hecht, Hans Kaufmann, Klaus Schuhmann und besonders Werner Mittenzwei gehörten, die sich inzwischen weitgehend aus den Fesseln der Formalismus-Debatte gelöst hatten und neben Brechts marxistischer Grundhaltung auch die Bedeutung seiner Verfremdungstechnik sowie seiner Materialwerttheorie akzentuierten, statt ihm weiterhin auf erpenbeckmesser’sche Weise den Vorwurf zu machen, sich nicht an die maßstabsetzenden Lehren Konstantin Stanislawskis gehalten zu haben.


Wie zu erwarten, vollzog sich in der BRD die politische und literaturwissenschaftliche Auseinandersetzung mit Brecht während der fünfziger und frühen sechziger Jahre unter völlig anderen ideologischen Vorbedingungen. Hier schwieg man sich, ob nun auf konservativer oder neoliberaler Ebene – aufgrund der herrschenden antikommunistischen Propagandawellen – über ihn, wie auch über andere links­ orientierte Exilautoren, entweder aus, oder man trat jenen Theaterregisseuren, die es dennoch wagten, einige seiner Stücke zu inszenieren, vor allem in den spannungsreichen Jahren 1953 (17. Juni), 1956 (Ungarnaufstand) und 1961 (Mauerbau), mit massiven Boykottdrohungen entgegen. Und auch die mit der Adenauersehen Restaurationspolitik konformgehende bundesrepublikanische Germanistik, die sich fast ausschließlich mit goethezeitlichen oder romantischen Dichtungen beziehungsweise der biedermeierlichen Literatur der Metternichschen Restaurationsperiode beschäftigte,  ging – wegen der faschistischen Vergangenheit vieler ihrer maßgeblichen Vertreter – aus begreiflicher Berührungsangst aller als „politisch“ geltender Literatur von vornherein aus dem Wege. Dafür nur ein Beispiel. Als ich 1957, nach einem längeren Aufenthalt in Ostberlin, vor Marburger  Studenten einen Vortrag über „Brecht und das Berliner Ensemble“ hielt, sagte einer der führenden westdeutschen Neugermanisten dieser Jahre, bei dem ich 1955 – auf sein Drängen hin – mit einer Dissertation über „Die literarische Formenwelt des Biedermeier“ promoviert hatte, anschließend ironisch lächelnd zu mir: „Ja, aber wer ist denn dieser Herr Brecht?“

Was damals in der westdeutschen Germanistik – unter völliger Nichtbeachtung irgendwelcher gesellschaftskritischen Aspekte – als positiv galt, waren lediglich die sogenannten literarischen Bauformen, aber nicht der ideologische Aussagewert von Dichtungen. Wer sich deshalb in diesem Staat überhaupt literaturwissenschaftlich mit Brecht beschäftigte, stellte daher, wie Franz Herbert Crumbach, Otto Mann oder Jürgen Rühle, Brechts Weltanschauung von vornherein als „verfehlt“ hin oder bezichtigte ihn im Jargon des Kalten Kriegs, lediglich ein literarischer Handlanger jenes „Schinderregimes“ jenseits des Eisernen Vorhangs gewesen zu sein, in dem man jede freiheitlich­individuelle Regung rücksichtslos unterdrückt habe.

Die ersten, welche dieser Haltung in der frühen BRD auf germanistischer Seite widersprachen, waren zwischen 1957 und 1959 Reinhold Grimm, Walter Hinck, Marianne Kesting, Volker Klotz und Klaus Völker, die sich in Anlehnung an Peter Szondis Theorien über offene und geschlossene Bauformen des Dramas, wenn auch unter Weglassung aller von Brecht geforderten Grundprinzipien des dialektischen Materialismus marxistischer Prägung, vornehmlich mit der Herausstellung bestimmter dramaturgischer Techniken, durch Komik erzielter Verfremdungseffekte sowie ähnlich gearteter Themenstellungen beschäftigten, sich also bei ihren Rechtfertigungsstrategien vor allem auf formale Kriterien stützten. Falls dabei überhaupt ideologische Aspekte ins Spiel kamen, wichen sie wie Marianne Kesting zumeist ins Journalistisch-Unverbindliche aus, indem sie Brecht als eine „geheimnisvolle Widerstandsfigur“ charakterisierten, der es vornehmlich um die Durchsetzung seiner Form des Theaters, aber nicht um irgendwelche gesellschaftskritische oder gar weltverändernde Absichten gegangen sei.


Eine Politisierung des Brechtschen Oeuvre trat in der ehemaligen BRD erst ein, als in den frühen sechziger Jahren unter einigen westdeutschen Intellektuellen, wie Jürgen Habermas, Alexander Mitscherlich, Georg Picht, Hans Werner Richter und Martin Walser – aus Sympathie mit dem gegen die Adenauersche Kalte-Kriegs-Politik auftretenden SPD-Kanzlerkandidaten Willy Brandt – eine Wendung ins Linksliberale einsetzte, was schließlich einen Verleger wie Siegfried Unseld bewegte, 1967 im Suhrkamp Verlag jene sechzehnbändige Taschenbuchausgabe der Sämtlichen Werke Brechts herauszubringen, die sich über Nacht als ein durchschlagender Erfolg erwies.

Danach war plötzlich auch in der neugermanistischen Literaturwissenschaft der BRD – trotz der antagonistischen Haltung mancher älteren Ordinarien – überall von Brecht die Rede, wofür beispielweise die in diesem Zeitraum erscheinenden Brecht-Studien von Klaus-Detlef Müller, Henning Rischbieter und Dieter Schmidt sprechen, die neben formalen Aspekten auch auf die ideologischen Grundvoraussetzungen des Brechtschen Schaffens eingingen und dabei selbst die Werke ostdeutscher Brecht-Forscher wie Werner Hecht, Hans Mayer, Werner Mittenzwei und Käthe Rülicke-Weiler, die zwischen 1961 und 1966 erschienen waren, keineswegs unberücksichtigt ließen.

Einen weiteren Anstoß erlebte die westdeutsche Brecht-Forschung selbstverständlich durch jene aufmüpfige Achtundsechziger Bewegung, deren studentische Vertreter zum Teil mit der 1968 gegründeten Deutschen Kommunistischen Partei (DKP) sympathisierten, eine verschärfte Vergangenheitsbewältigung anstrebten, sich mit der antifaschistischen Exilliteratur auseinandersetzten und dabei Brecht zu einem ihrer politischen Kronzeugen, wenn nicht gar zum wichtigsten Vorbild einer dem sogenannten „Spätkapitalismus“ entgegentretenden ideologischen Haltung erhoben. Das bekannteste Beispiel dafür ist die 1969 an der Kieler Universität angenommene Dissertation von Rüdiger Steinweg über Das Lehrstück. Brechts Theorie einer polit-ästhetischen Erziehung, die kurz darauf in der Edition Suhrkamp erschien und vor allem die Rotzeg-Gruppen sowie die Anhänger des Marxistischen Studentenbunds Spartakus (MSB) zu Revolutionshoffnungen gegen das herrschende „Establishment“ beflügelte.

Doch diese von Brecht angefeuerte Euphorie nahm schnell weit über die außenparlamentarische Gesinnung der westdeutschen Studentenbewegung (APO) gehende Formen an. Überall fanden in der Folgezeit plötzlich Brecht-Kongresse statt, wurden Brecht-Seminare abgehalten, ja einige seiner Werke sogar in westdeutschen Oberschulen unterrichtet, worauf der Suhrkamp Verlag allein von Brechts Drama Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder fast eine Million Exemplare absetzen konnte.

Ja, der inzwischen von Frankfurt an die University of Wisconsin in Madison berufene Reinhold Grimm gründete im Jahr 1970 mit Ulrich Weisstein, Gisela Bahr, John Fuegi und mir die Internationale Brecht-Gesellschaft und gab danach ab 1971, ebenfalls mit mir, erst bei Athenäum und dann bei Suhrkamp das Brecht-Jahrbuch heraus. Doch auch sonst schwoll die Brecht-Literatur zu diesem Zeitpunkt so schnell an, dass Grimm in der 3. Auflage seines 1971 bei Metzler erscheinenden Materialienbuchs zu Brecht für die inzwischen erschienenen Beiträge zu Brecht bereits 30 petitgedruckte Seiten benötigte, in denen dieser Autor immer stärker als der bedeutendste Dramatiker des 20. Jahrhunderts herausgestellt worden war. Doch dieser ins Maßlose ausufernde innerdeutsche Brecht-Enthusiasmus wähnte, wie die Achtundsechziger Bewegung nur wenige Jahre, da die von manchen ihrer Anführer erhofften „Wirkungen in der Praxis“ ausblieben und ihnen die westdeutsche sozialliberale Koalition zudem nach 1972/73 mit antilinken Radikalen erlassen und Berufsverboten entgegentrat.

Eins der aufschlussreichsten Dokumente der darauf einsetzenden ideologischen Ernüchterung ist jener 1974 von Jan Knopf herausgebrachte Forschungsbericht, den er im Untertitel „Fragwürdiges in der Brecht-Forschung“ nannte und in dem er sich sowohl von den marxistisch-engagierten als auch den bürgerlich-formalistischen Brecht-Interpretationen absetzte, die beide lediglich Symptome „affirmativer Gesellschaften“ seien, die den auf das Prinzip der „Negation“ eingeschworenen Brecht zeit seines Lebens angewidert hätten. Dem hielt Knopf entgegen, bei der Interpretation Brechtscher Texte sich lieber der hegelianischen Dialektik zu bedienen, mit der Brecht ständig auf die „Widersprüche“ innerhalb aller gesellschaftlichen Ordnungen hingewiesen habe. Doch davon ließen sich eine Reihe an den „eingreifenden“ Tendenzen in Brechts Werken interessierter Theater- oder Literaturwissenschaftler weder in der BRD oder gar in der DDR beirren.

Hierfür sprechen im Westen vor allem die Schriften von Wolfgang Fritz Haug und seiner Argument-Gruppe sowie im Osten die weiterhin erscheinenden Brecht-Studien von Hans Joachim Bunge, Werner Hecht, Werner Mittenzwei und Ernst Schumacher, die nach wie vor an ihrem Konzept der konsequenten antikapitalistischen Haltung des mittleren und späten Brecht festhielten. Die besten Beispiele dafür wären vor allem Mittenzweis Buch Der Realismus-Streit um Brecht. Grundriß der Brecht-Rezeption in der DDR, 1945-1975 (1978) sowie seine 1979 in Ostberlin arrangierte Akademie-Tagung „Avantgarde und Exil“, auf der auch die formalen Neuerungen Brechts als durchaus marxistisch herausgestellt wurden.

In der BRD flaute dagegen in den späten siebziger Jahren – im Zuge der einsetzenden Subjektivitätswelle sowie einer mit feministischen Furore gegen Brechts angeblich infame Ausnutzung weiblicher Mitarbeiterinnen argumentierenden Forschungsrichtung – das Interesse an den linkskritischen Anschauungen so stark ab, dass sich der Suhrkamp Verlag schließlich gezwungen sah, das Brecht-Jahrbuch im Jahr 1980 einzustellen. Doch davon ließen sich einige weiterhin an solidaritätsstiftenden Konzepten festhaltende Brecht-Forscher keineswegs entmutigen. Vor allem in der DDR hörte man nach wie vor nicht auf, Brecht anlässlich der alljährlich stattfindenden Brecht-Tagungen im Brecht-Haus in der Chauseestraße als ein einen der „ihren“ zu feiern, ja ihn fast zum Staatsklassiker zu erheben. Eine Änderung in dieser Hinsicht setzte dort erst im Gefolge der Honeckerschen Enttabuisierung des subjektiven Faktors ein, das heißt des steigenden Interesses an „Eigensinn“ und „persönlicher Handschrift“, was selbst Werner Mittenzwei dazu bewegte, nach seinen fünf vorausgegangenen literaturtheoretischen Büchern über Brecht, jetzt endlich eine umfassende zweibändige Brecht-Biographie zu schreiben, die 1986 unter dem Titel Das Leben des Bertolt Brecht oder der Umgang mit den Welträtseln beim Aufbau Verlag herauskam, in der er allerdings weiterhin an seiner Grundüberzeugung festhielt, die Brüche und Spannungen in Brechts Anschauungen als dialektische Widersprüche hinzustellen, denen stets das Bemühen nach sozialbetonten „Lösungen“ zugrunde gelegen habe.


Doch diesem – gesellschaftspolitisch gesehen – wohl bedeutendsten Buch der älteren Brecht-Forschung blieb die in ihm angestrebte Wirkung versagt. Schon drei Jahre später wandte sich die Mehrheit der ostdeutschen Bevölkerung gegen eine Weiterführung sozialistischer Hoffnungen. Und so wurde in der folgenden Kohl-Ära der neunziger Jahre im wiedervereinigten Deutschland erneut die Kalte­ Kriegs-Mentalität zur alleinbestimmenden Ideologie. Im Bereich der Brecht-Forschung äußerte sich diese Tendenzwende am eklatantesten, als John Fuegis Buch Brecht and Company (1994) kurz darauf auch in deutscher Übersetzung erschien, dem sogar die Bild-Zeitung, die sonst keine Bücher rezensiert, wegen der in diesem Buch vorherrschenden Kommunismus-Kritik, der angeblich weiberverbrauchenden Lebenshaltung Brechts sowie seiner Geldgier eine überschwängliche Besprechung widmete.

Zu ähnlichen Verunglimpfungen Brechts kam es, als sich 1998 anlässlich seines 100. Geburtstags, als in vielen systemimmanenten Zeitungen der BRD Brecht als ein mit der DDR untergegangener Autor abgekanzelt wurde, dessen banale Sentenzen „man endlich satt habe“. Doch so leicht ließ sich Brecht, der letztlich bedeutendste Dramatiker des 20. Jahrhunderts, nicht einfach beerdigen. Bei anderen ehemals linken Autoren, ob nun Peter Weiss, Friedrich Wolf oder Arnold Zweig, wirkten sich solche Attacken geradezu tödlich aus. Nicht so bei Brecht. Er blieb trotz alledem, und zwar durch die Aktivitäten der Internationalen Brecht-Gesellschaft, das neue Brecht-Jahrbuch, seine weltweite Wirkung sowie auch durch viele seiner in Deutschland aufgeführten Stücke am Leben.

Schließlich haben die Krisen des von ihm attackierten sogenannten Spätkapitalismus keineswegs aufgehört. Manche von Brechts Anschauungen, ob nun die beißende Kritik an der marktwirtschaftlichen Wettbewerbsgesellschaft in die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe oder die ebenso gnadenlose Satire auf die kapitalistische Freizeitwelt in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, warten auch heute noch auf Geschichte, wie Ernst Schumacher bereits in den neunziger Jahren in der Berliner Zeitung schrieb. Und so sind trotz der allgewaltigen „Theodizee des Kapitalismus“, wie Joseph Vogl unsere heutige Gesellschaft jüngst charakterisierte, selbst in den letzten 10 bis 15 Jahren sich zu Brecht bekennende Stimmen keineswegs verstummt. So konnte etwa die 1988 begonnene Kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe seiner Werke bis zum Jahr 2000 abgeschlossen werden und auch das neu konzipierte Brecht Handbuch blieb nicht unbeachtet.

Ja, die Bremer Germanistin Wendula Dahle brachte im Jahr 2007 sogar ein Buch unter dem Titel Die Geschäfte mit dem armen B. B. Vom geschmähten Kommunisten Dichter der „deutschen Spitzenklasse“ heraus, in dem sie sich scharf dagegen verwahrte, Brecht lediglich als einen zwar bedeutenden, aber veralteten literarischen Klassiker zu betrachten, sondern ihn – angesichts der heutigen Weltlage – zugleich als einen auf eine Veränderung der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse drängenden Autor zu würdigen. Und das sollten nicht nur die Gesellschaftswissenschaftler, sondern auch all jene Neugermanisten beherzigen, die sich weiterhin mit Brecht beschäftigen und ihre Ansichten auch über die engen Grenzen ihrer Zunft zu verbreiten suchen, statt sich lediglich in den Dienst des gegenwärtigen Infotainments zu stellen oder nur irrelevante, lediglich ihrer Karriere dienliche Bücher zu schreiben.

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Brecht, Moreno and the Role-Playing Game

by Evan Torner, University of Cincinnati

[Presented at “Baustelle Brecht,” Brecht-Forum, Berlin, June 2017]

This paper brings together two contrasting interlocutors: white German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who galvanized 20th-Century political-modernist drama, and Jewish Romanian-American psychiatrist and psychodramatist Jacob Levy Moreno (1889-1974), who coined the term “role-playing” and whose methods of quantitative social network analysis are still deployed by sociologists today. This is all to examine a seemingly trivial subject, namely tabletop (TRPGs) and live-action role-playing games (larps). Yet at the center of this discussion lies a decidedly non-trivial question: How can a medium such as the role-playing game – which encourages strong, immersive identification with a character – also draw on an aesthetic of alienation, political modernism, and media self-reflexivity? How can role-playing games activate political registers on a formal level, as well as in their content? To answer these questions, I build on the theories of Brecht and Moreno, my prior research on self-reflexivity in TRPGs as well as recent discourse in the Nordic larp community on political activism.[1] Games of interest include the TRPGs Bestial Acts (1993) by Greg Costikyan and Dog Eat Dog (2013) by Liam Burke and the larps 10 Bad Larps (2005) by Alleged Entertainment and Tor Kjetil Edland’s freeform scenario Things that Happen to Other People (2015). Given productive connections between Brecht and Moreno’s aesthetic theories, Things that Happen to Other People in particular demonstrates the Brechtian potential within Moreno-inspired role-play, such that this folk performance art may engage in political self-reflexivity.

Peter Brooker helpfully points out that Brechtian theory is no static quantity. He writes: “The most damaging yet most common error in discussions of Brecht’s theory has been to see it as fixed and unchanging, and to view it therefore as either dogmatic, communist-inspired abstraction or revered holy writ. … [His ideas belong] with clusters of related terms and concepts in what was a developing self-critical aesthetic and theatre practice.”[2] To this end, Brooker defines several concepts in performance theory nevertheless associated with Brecht’s theoretical corpus. Dialectics concerns theater coming from theories that are then tested in praxis, which helps revise the theory, and so forth. Epic theater is Brecht’s “theatre for the scientific age” informed by history and sociological theory, rather than illusionistic and individualistic ideology and representational strategies. Verfremdung or alienation constitutes a Viktor Shklovsky-inspired strategy of defamiliarizing capitalist reality as well as the illusionism of the stage through specific techniques to break audience-character identification. Gestus has actors moving in such a way so as to reveal social status and presence, rather than psychological reality “mentally switching off the motive forces of our society or by substituting others for them: a process which leads real conduct to acquire an element of ‘unnaturalness,’ thus allowing the real motive forces to be shorn of their naturalness and become capable of manipulation.”[3] Together, these elements form a larger conceptual framework: performers and directors make characters citational of larger sociological realities, they disrupt the medium itself to allow the audience to intellectualize its content, and they adhere to a socially-critical-but-scientific view of both social reality and performance.

Yet Brecht’s framework has not been translated into the game studies context with much precision. Specifically, scholars and designers tend to see it either in terms of critical medium self-reflexivity or an opportunity for socio-politically critical analysis, rather than as a combination of the two. In video game studies, Chaz Evans asserts that Brechtian Verfremdungseffekte in video games disrupt “verisimilitude” of specific simulated elements, consisting of “interruptions and inconsistencies on all three levels of the performative space of software: hardware elements … display elements … and interface elements.”[4] The goal, according to Evans, is to “astonish” the player rather than elicit identification and sympathy. He then goes on to argue why Grand Theft Auto 4 (2008) is Brechtian, given its play with elements such as player perspective and objects. While Evans’ approach suffices for a technical reading, however, it does not remotely approach the questions of political economy and social criticism: how social reality is cited and analyzed through these disruptions. Stefano Gualeni takes a similarly apolitical stance when he states that self-reflexive games have “no winning conditions, … [are] roughly executed, short-lived and deliberately annoying.”[5] On the other end of the spectrum is a forthcoming chapter on Performance Studies and RPGs in the Routledge Companion to Role-Playing Game Studies by Sarah Hoover, David Simkins, et al. that calls Brecht’s contribution to performance theory “Critical realism” which seeks to “shift the passive consumer of Realist theater into an ‘active producer of meaning’ who would recognize that oppressive behaviors and structures found in the world and re-performed on stage are just as contingent as a theatric performance, and therefore change them.”[6] The chapter departs entirely from Brecht’s own theory, cites no game-mechanical or procedural means of achieving this ‘active producer’ status, and even suggests that Brechtian and postdramatic theater involve the re-creation of oppressive conditions for emotional effect (i.e., bullying on-stage can be no different from real bullying), contradicting Brecht’s own formulation of Verfremdung.

Even in the early 1990s, game studies theorists such as Greg Costikyan used Brecht, only to then depart from Brechtian distanciation. Costikyan’s game Bestial Acts (1993) –– called “A Roleplaying Game, A Drama,” published for free on a webpage, and specifically dedicated to Brecht –– concerns a terrorist blowing up a plane and then players taking on the roles of survivors who then cannibalize each other while freezing to death in the snow. One can play this game at home or in a theater. A gamemaster and narrator preside over the theatrical version, and forcibly drag members of the audience up to the stage to then role-play out the grisly scenario Costikyan envisions. Interestingly enough, illusionist special effects – such as the terrorist’s bomb vest setting off mini-flashbang fireworks – are included in the game script. The game was written at a time when TRPGs were still considered an explicitly “commercial” medium, incapable of expressing anything artistic, and thus Costikyan’s interpretation of Brecht consists of (A) making a game that’s not commercially viable, (B) breaking the fourth wall and highlighting RPGs as performance, and (C) ambushing players with revolting content that is likely to produce negative emotion. Brechtian theory is translated from a meditation on socio-economic positioning and the media’s role in maintaining class relations to a loud, ironic drama that makes no money and forces those involved to feel bad. In a theater climate after Heiner Müller and Peter Handke, of course, Costikyan’s postdramatic piece strikes a nerve, with the goal being to prove the cleverness of the creator while pissing off and frustrating the audience. But directionless negative affect coupled with special effects and a disdain for personal boundaries still does not align the piece with Brechtian theory: epic theater, gestus, or the notion of a self-reflexive, scientific gaze toward the performers are missing in the game’s mechanics. To game studies scholars and avant-garde game artists, being “Brechtian” means citing social ills or self-reflexively disrupting the medium, but rarely doing both.

On the other hand, Brecht’s disciples and scholars have done little to no proper consideration of role-playing games, for which Moreno serves as a helpful intermediary theorist. As with the long-term legacies of jazz and Shakespeare, the legacy of Brecht has now become intertwined with what we call “high culture.” Brecht was a bourgeois German who used bourgeois entertainment media to interrogate bourgeois-ness, earning his work a long-term position in the (aspirational) bourgeois canon. To be able to appreciate and understand Brecht is to distinguish oneself in the Pierre Bourdieu sociological sense: to show one has the taste befitting a certain social position.[7] As Rey Chow has argued, the self-reflexivity inherent in Brecht & Co. and their successors has become “porn” and is likewise fetishized in its recognition and consumption by a certain cultural elite.[8] Works such as Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) can willfully play with an audience’s search for self-reflexivity to poke fun even at the educated elite who read between the lines, with Banksy using supposedly stolen footage from a graffiti fan and poser to deconstruct the self-reflexive documentary film genre itself. Self-reflexivity is easily incorporated into pop culture such as The Simpsons, South Park, Guardians of the Galaxy, and other major corporate franchises. One reaction to self-reflexivity’s easy cooptation in a visual-media-saturated environment is to create a new, closed eco-system of presumably Brechtian works: the films of Straub / Huillet, Haneke, or von Trier, the theater of David Hare, the dance of Pina Bausch. Another reaction is to turn the Brechtian lens outward once more to subcultures around the world (as I recommend) to discover how political modernism might be identified and promoted in other artistic spheres.

Whereas Brecht is portrayed as the harbinger of the anti-theater, a theater of the mind that “shows the knots” of a performance to the audience, Moreno invented psychodrama, a form of group therapy that lets patients rehearse specific psychologically troubling situations to help them deal with them when they arise in reality. Eirik Fatland claims that this small-group theater has been far more influential on modern role-playing than Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s wargame mold found in Dungeons and Dragons.[9] Moreno was interested in not only the psychological immersion of a patient into reality, but rather how these psychological situations continued to be heavily influenced by social hierarchies, networks, and inequalities.[10] He, too, sought a “scientific theater” that would transcend what he saw as “Man’s limitations and unreadiness for using instruments and methods to master his biological, social, and cultural challenges.”[11] The solution he proposed was role-playing: a theater of spontaneity that would help two or more individuals improvise and co-create a fictional reality that would then serve as a model for how to solve a real-world psychological problem such as confidence at a job interview or overcoming a past trauma. But he was also participating in larger debates in sociology in the 1940s and 1950s about the relationship of agency to structure in society. As with “symbolic interactionist” contemporaries and successors such as George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer, and Erving Goffman, Moreno championed the agency of the individual to move between networks of social meaning, with Goffman later offering the caveat that there is no Self. In fact, 1956 –– the year Brecht passed away –– was also the publication year of Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,[12] which uses theater metaphors to argue that we only exist through social frameworks of reference.[13] Moreno’s influential concept of psychodrama analyzes society on socio-psychological terms, and then therapeutically intervenes. Brecht’s epic theater analyzes capitalist society in terms of its socio-political problems, and then asks its audience to politically intervene. The goal in both cases is not “empathy,” but rather a greater understanding of the multiplicity of Selves we adopt, all grounded in social reality: whether it be me as a father, consumer, fictive warrior-mage, or academic giving a talk, my social maneuvering merges with my fantasy projections about how a social situation “ought to be” and then those fantasies confront (and produce) brute realities and social consequences. In this capacity, Brecht’s “scientific Marxism” is aligned with sociology, and Moreno, too, wishes the first-person audience of the role-player to grapple with the social effects of one’s actions.[14]

In the rest of this talk, I will take a look at a few examples of RPGs that both edge toward self-reflexivity of the RPG’s small-group and first-person audiences and that carry political weight. Alleged Entertainment’s 10 Bad Larps, for example, meditates on the medium of live-action role-play by way of satire. Through 10 tasteless mini-games that each last around 10 minutes, the game reflects on how the medium plays with the social fabric of human lives by staging some thoroughly tasteless situations. This group of Jewish-American larp creators revel in putting players on the spot, from having them play Ann Coulter and others at a KKK press conference, to suddenly playing football, to taking on the role of larpers looking for a larp. The self-reflexivity on role-playing game creation is obvious –– we stage situations and see how human spontaneity injects narrative pleasure into them –– but the political content surrounding the George W. Bush administration and other far-right individuals seems to appear at random throughout the games. Does this game suggest the right wing is largely a performance of cynically held beliefs? Or that larpwrights are tyrants who stage their participants in silly and ultimately irrelevant material, regardless of how political the content? Those familiar with the video game Necessary Evil (2013) can spot a similar lampooning of standard role-playing tropes through hyperbole and reversed perspective. But it is unclear if the joint sociological vision of Brecht and Moreno is carried to a satisfying conclusion amidst the chaos: there are too many roles adopted in too short of a time to perform much alienated analysis of the content.

Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog (2013) is a political TRPG that thematizes postcolonial power relations – and those of role-playing games – while stopping just short of a modernist moment of self-reflexivity. Players take on the role of a nation being colonized by an occupying colonial empire, played by the gamemaster. In a brutal, asymmetrical set of power relations, the Natives watch as the Occupation toys with and ultimately shifts their sacred values and material resources through cooptation, coercion, and violent suppression. Native players find themselves metaphorically backed into a corner, with much of their lives out of their control, and clinging to what small shred of resistance they can muster. Burke meant for the game to be this way, and notes in the book that the game builds on the core loop of Dungeons & Dragons –– in which players tell gamemasters what they want their characters to do and then the gamemaster must arbitrate it –– but “there’s no implicit assumption that [the gamemasters] have everyone’s best interests at heart.”[15] He openly states it is a “critique of traditional roleplaying game assumptions … [but] it’s just playing to the strengths of the medium by adapting a system people are familiar with to a subject with which they may have less comfort.”[16] Not only the subject matter –– colonial assimilation and domination –– lies at the center of the game, but also the hegemonic authority of the gamemaster as one player over the others. One can see the social system of colonialism that is then meta-fictionally experienced through the lens of a particular character being beaten by that system. And one may begin to see the TRPG itself as an instrument of suppression, assimilation, and subjugation of precisely the spontaneity that Moreno discusses.

Queer Norwegian game designer Tor Kjetil Edland is not a Brechtian game designer per se, but some of his work approaches the political self-reflexivity we identify in Brooker’s analysis of Brechtian techniques. His games have accessibly simple rules, but which put players into emotionally difficult territory from which they must suddenly distance themselves to see the larger social network. His larp with Hanne Grasmo Just a Little Lovin’ (2011) does exactly this: player-characters in the early 1980s watch as their social groups crumble and re-configure with the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, very much in alignment with Moreno’s social network theory. Edland’s game Things That Happen to Other People, a freeform game designed for the 2015 Danish role-playing convention Fastaval, combines Moreno’s spontaneity and perception of other Selves within social networks and Brecht’s self-reflexive, critical consciousness of the medium itself and awareness of power relations under capitalism. Freeform hybridizes TRPGs and larp, using body and movement as the latter, but eschewing costumes and embracing storytelling as the former.

The Michael Haneke-style scenario follows the arc of a middle-class family suddenly caught in the middle of a civil war that transforms them into refugees and puts them in morally compromising situations as they make their way to relative safety. It also combines Brechtian alienation techniques as well as those of Moreno-style psychodrama. The Moreno element comes to the fore in the construction of the characters, who all have psychological fantasies that impede their spontaneity: Anneke wants to maintain control even when she has none, Elsie tries to escape from danger, Andre does not want to reveal how dependent he is on everyone, and Henrik is ambivalent about the whole situation. In other words, players are as much imprisoned by the characters’ socio-psychological shortcomings as their predicament. But then the Brechtian critique of the medium enters: at the beginning of Act II, the players drop their previous characters for a scene and play the non-profit organization tasked with raising money for the refugees. Through emergent play, it becomes obvious that just talking about the refugees around a table (i.e., playing a TRPG about their plight) does not help them, and that the upper-middle-class corporate values of the non-profit workers are of no benefit to the beleaguered former middle-class citizens of a war-torn country. There are two other alienating moments in the second Act. One is Scene 8: the players acting as if they were a group of friends enjoying their time up at a ski lodge, drinking wine, when a brief news segment about the refugees’ plight flashes on the television. The scene has no prescribed reaction, and indeed player-characters often ignore this information as a mere blip on their radar. Another, Scene 10, involves the gamemaster playing the journalist on a cramped boat, interviewing the refugees after their humiliating adventure. The journalist character is encouraged to rub salt into their wounds by asking general questions about their experiences, with the gamemaster knowing full well that the player-characters have just been through hell. At this point, we see tensions between the players and characters in their past and present roles, as they try to distance themselves from a harrowing experience that won’t let them come far. But just as Brecht would argue against the illusionism of this pretense which “tragedy” players have experienced, so too does the game mock them and their feelings at precisely the wrong moment. Their multiplicity of Selves meets brute social realities, as well as the lies we tell ourselves to nevertheless keep going.

Today’s talk exists to raise Brecht scholars’ awareness of innovations within the role-playing game community that draw on comparable principles of political modernism to those Brecht espoused: signifying social class, alienating the audience, giving the work political bite. But Moreno corrects the notion that a player deeply inhabiting a character cannot also be distanced from their role through game structures and mechanics that place them within an uncomfortable, asymmetrical social network that also reflects on RPGs as ultimately a social medium. Brecht may not have envisioned players improvising material around a table as a politically charged medium, but thematizing the distance of player-characters to their real-life counterparts and explicitly invoking unequal power relations within the fabric of the game brings these works closer to Brecht’s vision than, perhaps, those games that merely question the interface and tropes of a game. Moreno’s (and Goffman’s) frames of Self and meta-fictionality run most RPGs.[17] Brecht’s theories continue to inspire how one might break and re-formulate those frames to politically question one’s role in a larger social matrix of oppression.


[1] Torner, Evan. “The Self-Reflexive Tabletop Role-Playing Game.” G|A|M|E: The Italian Journal of Game Studies 5.1 (2016)

[2] Brooker, Peter. “Key Words in Brecht’s theory and practice of theatre.” The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. eds. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1994: 185-200, here p. 185

[3] Brecht, Bertolt. John Willett, trans. The Messingkauf Dialogues. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1965. pg. 191.

[4] Evans, Chaz. “The Brechtian, Absurdist, and Poor Video Game.” Journal of Games Criticism (2014).

[5] Gualeni, Stefano. Self-Reflexive Video Games as Playable Critical Thought. Gamasutra (29 October 2013). VIDEO_GAMES_AS_PLAYABLE_CRITICAL_THOUGHT.php

[6] Hoover, Sarah, David Simkins, Sebastian Deterding, David Meldman and Amanda Brown. “Performance Studies and Role-Playing Games.” Routledge Companion to Role-Playing Game Studies. eds. Sebastian Deterding and José Zagal. (forthcoming 2018).

[7] Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[8] Chow, Rey. “When Reflexivity Becomes Porn: Mutations of a Modernist Theoretical Practice.” Theory after ‘Theory.’ eds. Derek Attridge and Jane Elliott. New York: Routledge, 2011: 135-148.


[10] Hutter, Christoph and Helmut Schwehm, hrsg. J.L. Morenos Werk in Schlüsselbegriffen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS Verlag, 2012, pp. 308-311.

[11] Moreno, JL. The Theatre of Spontaneity. New York: Beacon Press, 1947, p. 10.

[12] Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.

[13] Goffman’s work influenced not only Berger & Luckmann’s work Social Construction of Reality and Giddens’ Constitution of Society –– on how social structure is both a medium and an outcome of social action –– but also many future role-playing game studies scholars.

[14] Sandberg, Christopher. “Genesi: Larp Art, Basic Theories.” Beyond Role and Play. eds. Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros. Helsinki: Ropecon, 2004, pp. 265-288.

[15] Burke, Liam. Dog Eat Dog. Oakland, CA: Liwanag Press, 2013, p. 34.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Montola, Markus. “The Invisible Rules of Role-playing: The Social Framework of Role-playing Process.” International Journal of Role-playing 1 (2008): 22-36.

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A Review of David Barnett’s Brecht in Practice Website

by Bill Gelber

Brecht in Practice: Theatre, Theory and Performance is inspiring for its careful unpacking of what it means to work with Brecht—as the author David Barnett puts it—to make “theatre politically” rather than political theatre. Now David Barnett has created a website as a companion to this volume: It is an excellent resource not only for those who have read his book, but for those who want a lucid introduction to Brecht and his theatrical ideas.

On the website, Barnett defines all of the pertinent Brechtian terms in precise but not overwhelming detail, so that a casual reader may dip into various parts of Brecht’s theories as they apply to the stage. He provides a blog as an open forum for those who would like to discuss all things Brecht, and within it he continues to reconsider some of his definitions.

Of particular interest is his use of the site as a model for how shows may be documented. While he describes a possible Brechtian approach to contemporary plays in his book (see his discussion of Closer by Patrick Marber in Chapter 8), Barnett has since applied his ideas onstage with actors and a production team. Barnett has put into practice Brecht’s ways of working by directing Closer at the University of York in October 2016. The website serves as a model book of that production, complete with a scene-by-scene guide and a discussion of the various aspects of theatre making, including an analysis of the play’s Figures (explicitly not characters) the treatment of stage directions, discussions with the actors, the use of music, and the politics that informed the play itself. Barnett also includes a series of photographic tableaux much like those used in the Berliner Ensemble’s archival footage, and links them to the play’s Fabel. This is accomplished electronically, allowing Barnett to add layers over the digital images to more easily connect theory to content.

The visitor can click on any of the play’s twelve scenes for detailed explanations. Within each photograph, Barnett has placed the title of the scene and written comments on what each Figure is revealing sociologically, as well as an analysis of the overall intent of the staging. For example, Barnett gives each moment of Scene 2 captions and explanations. The first moment’s title is “The scene opens in Anna’s photographic studio. Dan is having his photo taken for the inside cover of a novel he’s written.” With a click of an arrow beneath the photo, the presentation of this scene progresses, and captions appear next to each Figure. Anna’s caption reads, “Anna is authoritative and professional.” Dan’s states that he “is unaccustomed to a photo shoot” and is “initially nervous and unsure of how to pose.” The Fabel then appears, explaining that Dan “has a confidence, born of his middle-class background…” But there is a contradiction here as “he shows his unfamiliarity with the setting through awkward postures and how he should sit for the camera.”  Barnett sees this as Brechtian “surprise” for the audience, who expect Dan to reveal an assurance based on his economic background rather than an uncertainty based on new surroundings. Scene 2 contains 22 moments, each with a corresponding photograph and a translation into Fabel form, as well as the director’s reasoning behind the choices that are made. It’s a fascinating way to examine process and to explore how this is realized in product. The project resembles a film director’s audio commentary for a DVD, but also gives the viewer control over the amount of written information he or she wants to study and at what pace. (In future, I wonder if Barnett might also provide film and audio examples.)

All of the website’s links are clearly marked and navigation is intuitive. Barnett also offers a Download section that contains possible exercises for working in a Brechtian fashion. I believe that Bertolt Brecht himself would have found value in this online approach to theatre productions and the new insights it might have afforded him. It seems to provide one answer to the question: what would Brecht have made of today’s technology? I appreciate the care Barnett has taken to give us a useful tool for Brechtian studies and his intent to continue to update it. It is well worth visiting again and again, especially if one is interested in the documentation which explains process, as Brecht intended with his original model books.

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Fatzer’s Failure: Individuality as Resistance

[Presented on the panel “Turning Points and Their Axes: Change and Resistance in Brecht and Company,” sponsored by the International Brecht Society at the 41st Annual Conference of the German Studies Association in Atlanta, Georgia, October 2017.]

by André Fischer (Auburn University)

On November 4th, 1989, Heiner Müller spoke at the Alexanderplatz-Demonstration in Berlin, in his pocket the final lines of Brecht’s text FATZER KOMM.

Du bist fertig, Staatsmann.
Der Staat ist nicht fertig.
Gestatte, daß wir ihn verändern
Nach den Bedingungen unseres Lebens
Gestatte, daß wir Staatsmänner sind, Staatsmann.
Unter deinen Gesetzen steht dein Name.
Vergiß den Namen
Achte deine Gesetze, Gesetzgeber.
Laß dir die Ordnung gefallen, Ordner.
Der Staat braucht Dich nicht mehr,
Gib ihn heraus.[1]

Müller decided not to read the quote. To him, it would have seemed a pompous gesture, superfluous at a moment when the state was so clearly on the brink of collapse. The crowd in front of him, about a million people, may not have even wanted to hear this message. Uncertain of what the next few weeks would bring, their interests were more concrete. Instead of the arduous work of transforming a state in shambles and adapting it to the conditions of their collective lives, the masses eventually opted to fulfill their individual desires.

Müller was probably aware of the masses’ desires and may have hesitated for this very reason. In his favorite Brecht-Text, the Fatzer-fragment, which works through the relation between the individual and the collective, the revolution fails to gain traction on a very basic level. It collapses before it begins, because the individuals cannot identify themselves with the greater cause, the transformation of the state.

In this essay, I want to reevaluate the notion of the individual in Brecht’s Fatzer-Fragments as a political category. I suggest that Brecht’s text performs individual resistance to subsumption under collective identities, while at the same time subverting notions of bourgeois individualism. I will show this first on the level of the ideological dynamics of the fragment, and in a second step, I will look at the so-called “Fatzervers” and its subversive function in the text. Ultimately, it is my goal to show how Brecht’s first dramatic response to Lenin’s revolution remains much more ambivalent than the subsequent Lehrstücke and offers instead a perspective on individual resistance to the moral consequentialism of the revolution.

In the face of the current conservative revolutions, I want to subscribe to the following motto:

„Die Erkenntnis kann an einem andern Ort gebraucht werden, als wo sie gefunden wurde.“[2]

The conflict between individual and collective is already present in Brecht’s early works, where vitalist characters resist the collective moral code. The struggles of Baal, Kragler, and Garga are about self-assertion against the limiting demands of society. Through these characters, Brecht develops a notion of individuality that is both self-sufficient as well as interchangeable, which he probes in Mann ist Mann. In the case of Galy Gay, the individual essence becomes a structure that can be “remodeled like a car” and the conflict between individual and society is resolved by relinquishing the former.

In Fatzer however, Brecht stages the conflict anew. This time in the context of the First World War and the Russian revolution. In the third year of the war, four soldiers on the western front decide they have had enough of the war and walk homewards, where they hide in a small apartment, trying to survive as they wait for the state to collapse and the revolution to begin. Their leader is Johann Fatzer, who has realized in a sudden epiphany that he is fighting for the wrong cause. Although the others are tired of fighting as well, it is only Fatzer who has come to the radical conclusion to desert, and he must convince Koch, Büsching, and Kaumann to leave the battlefield behind.

Was ist heut für ein Tag?
So, dann ist es ein Mittwoch, an
Dem wir genug haben.“[3]

The four arrive in Mühlheim an der Ruhr and, instead of separating, they stick together, moving into Kaumann’s apartment. On behalf of the clandestine group, Fatzer is supposed to provide food for all of them. They trust him and his individual abilities:

Aber wohin, Fatzer?
Rechts ist alles rot
Und im Rücken brennt auch alles
Und vorn ist es still
Was am schlimmsten ist.
Links ist es am ruhigsten”[4]

Throughout their journey, Fatzer sees the deprivation occurring on the home front, but he realizes that “the people are stupid!” and that “the war can never end this way.”

Especially in the earlier fragments, Fatzer is the rational consciousness of the group, who observes and detects the contradictions that perpetuate a war fought under for the wrong reasons. The others in the group rely on his agency and only begin to question decisions once they stop working to their benefit. Fatzer, on the other hand, acts on his own behalf, instead of on the group’s behalf. He is sometimes erratic, sometimes egoistic, sometimes indifferent. Yet, solidarity is only a virtue they demand from Fatzer, not from themselves. He gets beaten up by some butchers, because he wanted more meat than allowed, while his fellow deserters keep back and deny knowing him.

As Fatzer continues to disappoint them in his duty to provide food, killing time on his aimless strolls through Mühlheim and looking for trouble in the wrong places, the group decides to incarcerate him at home. Fatzer is tied up at Kaumann’s apartment; however, this does not stop his hedonistic drive. He convinces Kaumann’s wife to untie him before seducing and impregnating her. Consequently, the group members debate the question of private property and decide to offer Kaumann’s wife to proletarian clients in order to politically agitate them. In another episode, the three entrust Fatzer with their passports and all their money to test if they can still trust him. They should have known already that they cannot because Fatzer spends the money and throws their passports away. Finally, the three decide to execute him, but they ask him for his consent first which he obstinately refuses. Moments later an explosion kills all of them.

In the basic structure of the four, Brecht stages variations of false consciousness, or rather the lack of stance. He identifies Koch with justice, Büsching with indifference, Kaumann with subjectivity, and Fatzer with hedonism. On the scale of Leninist critique, Fatzer is the anarchist whereas the others represent a spectrum of revisionist ideologies. Although these schematic attributions shift as Brecht probes them in different situations, they represent modes of collective and individual failure. Unconscious of their positions, they need to realize what there is to be done, and the chorus informs them about this:

“Verwandelt den Krieg der Völker in
Den Krieg der Klassen und
Den Weltkrieg in den
Bürgerkrieg, also bleibet beisammen und tragt
Den Krieg in euer eigenes Land, denn vor
Ihr euer Bürgertum nicht vertilgt habt, werden
Kriege nicht aufhören.”[5]

Obviously, this message comes too late and finds them already locked into a pattern of behavior and disconnected from the social conflicts they want to fuel. With the help of the chorus, the rehearsal of their practical contradictions shall lead to unity through consent. As Brecht accumulated more and more scattered notes and drafts of the Fatzer text, he gradually resolved the dilemma of political commitment and individualism by deciding for the former.

„Es kommt nur darauf an, ob man das Glück zerschneiden will. Man sollte es nicht. Und es läßt sich auch nicht. Es würde verschwinden wie Schnee, wenn man ihn anlangt. Laßt euch nichts einreden: 100 000 Mark sind viel, aber 5 mal 20 000, das ist nicht viel. Sollen sie in ihren frischgestrichenen Einheitshütten hocken zwischen Grammophonen und Hackfleischbüchsen und neben fix gekauften Weibern und vor Einheitspfeifen? Es ist kein Glück, denn es fehlt die Chance und das Risiko. Chance und Risiko, das Größte und Sittlichste, was es gibt. Was ist Zufriedenheit? Kein Grund zum Klagen, das ist ein Grund zu wenig, nichts sonst! Und das Leben ohne Härte ist dummes Zeug.“[6]

Brecht’s previous doubts that socialism could divide happiness by eliminating risk and opportunity have given way to a new attitude. Fatzer is now considered more negatively as the egoist, while the figure of Koch is renamed Keuner and becomes a strict Leninist, persuading workers to join by reading the Communist Manifesto to them.

In the juxtaposition of community and individual there are two dimensions in this text. The group of soldiers is a potential community, but only if they manage to connect with the masses and eventually manage to lead them. Before a socialist community can be formed, the social potential needs to be activated. The spirit of the political “avant-garde” is necessary to initiate this social transformation, and Brecht sees the asocial as a productive force in this process. In his practical critique of social norms, Fatzer marks and reveals why and where the revolution fails. However, instead of subordinating his critical ability to the needs of the group, Fatzer remains the free-floating asocial intellectual, who indicates room for improvement, or even perfection, in his opposition to the socialist community.

“Desgleichen wird befürwortet
In die Fabriken
Militär zu werfen
Die Zeitungen eifriger als bisher
Durchzuwaschen, daß nicht hilflose Augen
Dinge lesen, die schaden.
Außerdem einen Mann namens Uljanow, genannt L e n i n
Wohnhaft zu Zürich im Exil
Sozialist und Volksaufwiegler, ein zerstörendes Element
Auf sein Gesuch hin durchzulassen durch unser Gebiet
In einem plombierten Waggon, damit er im Osten
So wie ein Spaltpilz
Zersetzt den unförmigen Körper unseres östlichen Feinds.
So, unwissend unser Geschäft besorgend”[7]

Fatzer acts against the injustice he sees and takes the goods that are distributed unequally. His actions are immediate and follow a clear strategy: undoing inequality to make ends meet by corrupting a corrupt system.

In this proto-learning play, Fatzer’s gang is supposed to learn from his erratic behavior about the doctrine of consent. Koch, Büsching, and Kaumann lack Fatzer’s instinct, but they know how to stay out of trouble. Instead they send Fatzer out into the world to try his luck under hostile conditions. They become aware that the only way to change these conditions is to consent to them.

“Aber gerade die Darstellung des Asozialen durch den werdenden Bürger des Staates ist dem Staate sehr nützlich, besonders wenn sie nach genauen und großartigen Mustern ausgeführt wird. Der Staat kann die asozialen Triebe der Menschen am besten dadurch verbessern, daß er sie, die von der Furcht und der Unkenntnis kommen, in einer möglichst vollendeten und dem Einzelnen selbständig beinah unerreichbaren Form von jedem erzwingt.”[8]

Accordingly, the chorus gives the following advice:

„- Wir aber raten euch: seid
einverstanden. Denn so geschieht es
wie ihr hier saht, und nicht anders.
Flüchtet nicht. Wer
Gegen den Strom schwimmt, dem
Fließt das Wasser ins Maul und
Erstickt ihn“[9]

Fatzer resists the cognitive act of Einverständnis. Instead, he counteracts the logic of capitalism by sabotage, desperately attempting to destroy its foundation: the commodity. Beyond consumption, he wants to spoil the scarce goods of food and water, while also rebelling against the use of his own labor force.

Ich bin gegen eure mechanische Art
Denn der Mensch ist kein Hebel.
Auch habe ich starke Unlust, einzig zu tun
Von vielen Taten die, welche mir nützlich. Aber Lust
Zu vergraben das gute Fleisch und zu spucken
In das trinkbare Wasser.
Dies ist nicht einfach.
Ihr aber rechnet auf den Bruchteil aus</span
Was mir zu tun bleibt, und setzt’s in die Rechnung.
Aber ich tu’s nicht! Rechnet!
Rechnet mit Fatzer’s Zehngroschen-Ausdauer
Und Fatzer’s täglichem Einfall!
Schätzt ab meinen Abgrund
Setzt für Unvorhergesehenes fünf
Behaltet von allem, was an mir ist
Nur das Nützliche.
Der Rest ist Fatzer.“[10]

Fatzer’s resistance is precarious and his destructive drive works against him. He questions private property, especially the machine of distribution and redistribution. Against the instrumental reason that turns him into a tool of either imperialism or Bolshevism, Fatzer becomes the spanner in the works. Where Keuner may calculate the costs and benefits of the revolution, Fatzer remains the incommensurable residue.

As the byproduct of the process that led to the learning plays, Brecht’s Fatzer fragment holds on to a form of political resistance that refuses to consent to the way things are. His failure carries two promises of socialism that are lost in Keuner’s logic of real existing socialism: freedom and utopia.

Years after leaving the text unfinished and declaring it “unperformable,” Brecht notes in his journal that Fatzer still represents the “highest technical standard.” Both verdicts are grounded in the fragmentary character of the work, which does not only refer to the text being unfinished or unpolished, but rather follows a fragmentary aesthetic in which constellations emerge and collapse between the lines.

The various constellations of failed solidarity that Brecht probes in the plot are realized on the formal level in the so-called “Fatzervers.” Its characteristics are the belated line skips that leave thoughts half-finished and perpetuate the verse unevenly, stumbling into the next line looking for signification, before ending abruptly. After the subsequent half-finished sentence, the verse continues in another direction, piling on new meaning that often contradicts the previous line. The effect is a surplus and a congestion of meaning as well as a breathless reader, who always feels the need to catch up with the rumbling verse. The traditional device of the enjambment is revived and employed as a broken rhythm instead of a dynamization.

Denkt der Mensch, er steht
In der Welt unveränderlich. Die Luft kann
Einmal voll Feuer sein, den Boden
Hat er gesehn, wie er wankte. Er stand
Ohne Änderung der nämliche und neben sich
War er gewohnt, zu sehn
Den Menschen ganz unverändert. Falsch</span
Boden blieb Boden bald
Luft blieb Luft, aber der Mensch
Schrumpfte hinweg vor Furcht und dehnte
Sich vor Torheit aus”[11]

The text itself comes to subvert the speech and disorient the speaker. Qui parle? is the question, as observations, analyses, catchy slogans, and calls for action, often interchangeable in their ideological content, are uttered by opposing figures. This unassigned speech contemplates the emergence of the “Massenmensch” who is at once dependent on nature yet disconnected from it. Unable to comprehend its relation to nature, he sees change where there is permanence and immutability where there is transformation. Dwarfed, yet expanding, this new man becomes the passive majority that is ever-present and unidentifiable.

Also, the chorus, the collective voice per se, changes its roles and names, from being pluralized and numbered to the antagonism of chorus and antichorus to Fatzer Chor and the eventual question:

Vor dem Schluß
Aber auch er ist doch
Ein Mensch wie ihr!
Unbestimmt von Ausdruck
Frühzeitig verhärtet, vieles
Äußerte er viel:
Haltet ihn doch
Nicht bei dem, was er sagte, bald
Ändert er’s…
Nichts Endgültiges saht ihr und alles
Änderte sich, vor es einging
Nehmt ihr i h n beim Wort?
Wen ihr beim Wort nähmet, der
Ist’s, der euch enttäuscht!”[12]

In its performative contradiction, this anti-chorus urges the audience to disregard its advice and, by extension, the advice of Fatzer and Koch/Keuner. Positions, identities, and ideologies change and are not to be trusted, which undermines any call for consistency and a clear, political marching order. The dissociation of speech from the dramatic actors, as well as the presence of various choruses, leaves blocks of text next to each other, either in contradiction or ideologically aligned, depending on the reading. Instead of arbitrariness, I suggest that the Fatzer-verse effectively performs the ideological resistance of the Fatzer figure on the textual level, subverting what is taught and learned. On this level, the fragment proves to be productive in raising the question of collective and individual anew, reaching beyond the historic context of the plot.

It is important to note that the subversion of the Leninist discourse does not lead to a plurality of voices that express themselves freely and are equally heard. Instead, the text suggests a need for objection and contradiction from which nothing necessarily needs to follow. Fatzer objects vehemently without offering any clear ideological alternative.

I suggest that the alleged “highest technical standard” of the Fatzertext consists of this transformation of figurative speech into a monologic discourse that performs contradiction and subverts its proclamations. The Fatzer-fragment is, therefore, not only a point of departure for postdramatic theater, but it is also a model of performative critique. Lenin’s revolution served Brecht as a historic case study for this model, but its practical value is not limited to the question of a proletarian revolution. It might also be applied to intervene in the political discourse, wherever it identifies and collectivizes.  As a fragment, Fatzer is the result of the necessary failure of subsuming the particular under a whole, to the same degree as the individual Fatzer resists subsumption under the collectives of warfare and revolution.

Instead of asking, as Heiner Müller did, where to locate Fatzer and his fellows today, I propose to use the text as a tentative model for subversive speech that undermines the binaries of political discourse. While Brecht used the Fatzer case to study the pedagogy of the revolution and eventually consented with its Leninist logic, Müller identified himself with the dissident Fatzer who resisted the frozen state of socialism, while also alluding to the RAF as his present western model case. As important as Müller’s conjecture was, it is time to transpose the Fatzer complex into current political debates, where calls for revolutions, movements, and collective identities, necessitate individual resistance. In its unfinished structure, the text holds open a potential for resistance against false consensus.

Since Müller spoke on the Alexanderplatz, Lenin’s short 20th century has ended and socialism has lost its prerogative of revolution. If something is to be learned from the Fatzer plot today, it goes in two directions, in both of which we need new models of critique. The first regards the disposition of the Koch/Büsching/Kaumann faction. Their consent to intolerable conditions led them to passively wait for someone else, namely Fatzer, to make a move. As they settled in their isolation, awaiting his failure from a secure distance, their call for solidarity and community remained ineffective. Koch’s eventual hope to face the class enemy “in heavy marching order,” evoking Lenin’s “self-acting armed organization of the people” or Jünger’s “total mobilization,” offers nothing but the depressing prospect of endless civil war.

The second lesson is much simpler: anarchic individualism as performed by Fatzer carries a potential of resistance against imagined communities that is needed wherever the political discourse is reduced to unacceptable oppositions.


[1] Brecht, Bertolt: Fatzer. In: Werke: Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, ed. by Werner Hecht, Jan Knopf, Werner Mittenzwei, Klaus-Detlef Müller, vol. 10, Berlin: Aufbau, 1997, p. 513.

[2] Ibid. p. 521.

[3] Ibid., p. 404.

[4] Ibid., p. 395.

[5] Ibid., p. 478.

[6] Brecht, Bertolt: Über den Sozialismus. In: Werke: Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, ed. by Werner Hecht, Jan Knopf, Werner Mittenzwei, Klaus-Detlef Müller, vol. 21, Berlin: Aufbau, 1997, p. 140f.

[7] Brecht: BFA 10.1, p. 483.

[8] Ibid., p. 525.

[9] Ibid., p. 498.

[10] Ibid, p. 495.

[11] Ibid., p. 399.

[12] Ibid., p. 439f.

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Beyond Baden-Baden: Part-Time Performers Explain Themselves – Korean Premier of Brecht’s Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis by Ensemble Theaterraum

2 Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis © Ensemble Theaterraum, photo by Yoon-jeong Choi

Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis © Ensemble Theaterraum [Photo: Yoon-jeong Choi]

by Jan Creutzenberg, Ewha Womans University

The 1929 premiere of Brecht’s Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis (Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent) was a scandal. One scene in particular caused outrage among the audience: Herr Schmitt, a giant clown, is depressed for whatever reason. Instead of comforting him, two other clowns amputate his body parts, one by one, apparently with his approval. As the now headless Schmitt continues to ask for help, one of them finally replies that he “just can’t have it all.” Eighty years later in Korea, the scene – unchanged in dialogue – remains grotesque and brutal. Even without fake blood, the possible interpretations of this consensual destruction have multiplied: Is it a metaphor for the lack of agency the young generation faces? A stylized form of suicide that offers a chance for social escape without losing one’s face? Or just the fever dream of an overworked part-time waiter? Even without resulting in public outrage, Ensemble Theaterraum’s production of the Badener Lehrstück brought up some timely questions.

But let’s start at the beginning, in the here and now: Music, news, and commercials blare from a radio in the middle of the dark stage. Five young actors enter and address the audience. In five languages – Korean, English, German, French, and Japanese – they explain the rules for the evening concerning cellphones (“Ausschalten, bitte!”) food (forbidden) and leaving before the end of the performance (also forbidden, even if you are bored). So far nothing unusual in Korean theatre culture, although the code of conduct is usually played over speakers rather than proclaimed in person.

While these announcements effectively introduce the cast and figuratively invite the whole world, the audio-visual montage which follows is more confrontational. Historical footage of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight is projected on the walls and accompanied by live musicians on keyboards. This is a nod to Brecht’s Ozeanflug (Flight Across the Ocean, 1929), which is briefly quoted in the beginning of the piece. Soon however, the scenes of success turn into a fast-paced history of violence: Nazi rallies leading to Auschwitz. Then the images switch to color and more recent local scenes appear, from the Korean war to the subsequent authoritarian regimes in the South, including the Gwangju massacre of 1980. Although a bit rough in its associative cutting, this multimedia opening effectively establishes a contemporary frame of reference for the fall from grace, an analysis of technical and moral failure.

Brecht’s critical views on modernist progress have a particular meaning in Korea, where rapid economic development has legitimated decades of authoritarian rule in the second half of the 20th century. This “compressed modernity” (Kyung-Sup Chang) has resulted in what many consider an uprooted society which is traditionally structured yet dominated by free-wheeling neoliberalism, class-conscious competition, and a generational divide. The members of Ensemble Theaterraum, young actors in their early twenties, born after democratization, embody a new spirit of opposition that is limited only by dire economic outlooks.

Casual, anti-illusionistic acting characterizes the whole performance. First, one of the actors, now lined up with the others at the back of the stage, approaches the audience. She introduces herself as Bo-hyeon Park and begins to chit-chat about her current “Arbeit.” This Korean loanword, borrowed from the German via Japanese, refers to a part-time job necessary to make a living (in this case at a coffee store, which does not leave much time for rehearsals). Questions directed at individual spectators follow, mostly unanswered: “Why did you come to this theatre? Too much time? Too much money?” After the onslaught of delusions of grandeur from the Brechtian past, current neo-capitalist reality sweeps in through this performance of self, which is followed by similar confessional monologues by the other actors.

Bo-hyeon Park continues to take the lead in the unfolding performance, enacting what might be Lindbergh’s flight over the stormy Atlantic: Starting from the runway, marked by LED-lights on the floor, she twists and bends her body in almost impossible ways. Or is she depicting her own struggle between underpaid work and unpaid acting? After this impressive feat of physical theatre, the performance takes a more discursive turn, with scenes taken directly from Brecht’s Badener Lehrstück. The discussions among construction workers, chorus members, and clowns, all played by the cast of five now dressed in boiler suits, are connected by Bo-hyeon Park in her recurring role as a “historian,” as the pamphlet notes (or rather a history teacher?). With a jump into the air, suggesting a stroke of genius, she calls the class – us? – to order whenever things get out of hand. Ultimately, all scientific breakthroughs lead to failure, the pilot is lost at sea, and the promised progress stagnates.

1 Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis © Ensemble Theaterraum, photo by Yoon-jeong Choi

Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis © Ensemble Theaterraum [Photo: Yoon-jeong Choi]

The fast series of sketches, connected by or contrasted with music numbers and more videos, makes the performance a revue about “fatigue society” (Müdigkeitsgesellschaft), as indicated by the subtitle: “What makes you so tired?” This recalls the work of Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han; although he is not referenced in the program. The “solitary tiredness” and “psychic infarctions” that he diagnoses as the flipside of neoliberal mantras of achievement, self-enhancement, and excessive positivity echo through the black box. Concrete examples of everyday exploitation, taken (as far as I can tell) from the life of the actors themselves, ground the production decidedly in contemporary Korea. They contrast with the rather abstract debates of Brecht’s Lehrstück, adding some realism to the experimental set-up.

Everything boils down to a zombie-like dance, with all actors singing the “Ballad of Mack the Knife” in Korean. An odd choice, although the cynical song dates from around the same time as the Lehrstück. An intruder disturbs the atmosphere of the final scene, though. It is the sixth actor, the only male member of the ensemble, who has decided to remain off-stage throughout the performance in order to conduct a social experiment. Posing as a beggar in front of the building, he made some extra money – on that day 4,000 Korean Won, the equivalent of three or four dollars. Once again, the real encroaches into the darkness of the theatre. Yet this is not the final word.

3 Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis © Ensemble Theaterraum, photo by Yoon-jeong Choi

Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis © Ensemble Theaterraum [Photo: Yoon-jeong Choi]

Unwilling to offer closure, Bo-hyeon Park returns onto the empty stage and announces that the actors have decided to forego the conventional curtain call. Still, it seems fair to ask the audience for their opinion – “Do you agree?” We did not, so the actors returned for their well-earned applause. It remains clear, nevertheless, that they are not here to entertain us, but to challenge our perceptions and provoke reactions. Brecht’s “learning plays” aim at the actors’ self-education, making them experience the social predicaments of the different roles they play, free from professional conventions of emotionally coherent representation. Whether performers succeeded in this regard remains an open question, but their self-awareness when switching between performing “themselves” and performing the abstract Brechtian clowns renders the discrepancies between abstract doctrine and lived experience visible.

This creative adaptation of an early Lehrstück shows that Brecht can still act as a charismatic muse for new generations of theatre makers. Using his abstract setting as a starting point, the production embraces documentary, participatory, and site-specific methods of addressing the audience in more relatable ways while still remaining decidedly “alien.” As a spatial and temporal cross-over work that uses dramatic texts from last-century Europe to address contemporary Korean realities, the performance offers an occasion for experimentation for both the actors and the audience. The result is stimulating food for thought, or, as Brecht might have said, “today’s beef,” Korean style.

The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent – What Makes You so Tired? (Das Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis – Warum bist du so müde? / 동의에 관한 바덴의 학습극 – 무엇이 당신을 소진시키는가), by Ensemble Theaterraum, Aug. 11–21, 2016, at Hyehwa-dang, Seoul; written by Bertolt Brecht, translated, adapted, and directed by Hyoungjin Im, stage design: Il-jin Im, with Bo-hyeon Park, Da-ae Oh, Ju-hyeong Lee, Ji-won Kim, Da-mi Kim, Ja-yeong Heo, Se-won Kim, Jae-hui Park, Su-jeong Cheon.

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Shaking the Tree Theater in Portland, Oregon (October 6-November 4, 2017)

by Margaret Setje-Eilers

[See above for Margaret Setje-Eilers’ Interview with Samantha Van Der Merwe]

Brecht’s grotesque comedy and political irony are alive and thriving in Samantha Van Der Merwe’s new production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Shaking the Tree Theater in Portland, Oregon. Since 2003, Van Der Merwe has been developing her own style as the theater’s founder and artistic director. With enormous innovative creativity, she tells Brecht’s story about a child custody dispute that is ultimately settled through a contest between the child’s biological mother and the young woman who saved and cared for the abandoned child during a time of political upheaval.

Van Der Merwe’s aesthetic foregrounds music and movement. Circles and circular motion become a consistent metaphor for moving bodies which come together in a choreographed musical theater reminiscent of ballet. The boundaries of these circles are at times defined and at other times dotted. Props such as bamboo poles and a stunning expanse of narrow bright blue fabric suggest geometries of escape, diagonal ways out. So there are circles upon circles, not just in the storyline of the play itself, where Azdak as judge famously challenges each of the two women to pull the child out of a circle drawn with chalk. Audience members in the warehouse space also sit in a single large circle around a round stage area in four groups of twelve. Every seat is taken.

Throughout the production (and even before the action begins), young actors perform music and do stretching exercises on the stage. In the center, two long and narrow pieces of wood set at right angles from each other form the edges of a roomlike space for small bags, suitcases, and baskets. We see some larger items, a table and a bed in the corners behind the chairs. Every available inch of space – on the round stage area, outside the circle of chairs, and in the corners of the warehouse – is purposefully allocated either for stage action, to store props, or for singing and music-making. A circle of small lights high over the circle of audience chairs reminds us that theater takes place in three-dimensional space. The actors frequently perform as if they were on a revolving stage, moving their bodies in a circle, so that everyone in the audience can see the faces of the actors. At one point, the actors even rotate a “hut” that they have formed using bamboo poles and their bodies as props. Typically in theaters-in-the-round, some audience members simply have to deal with seeing the action from behind. But not here, thanks to the great stamina of Van Der Merwe’s ensemble in Portland, a city of never-tiring cyclists, runners, and hikers.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle draws on the Judgment of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible as well as an ancient Chinese play. In both stories, two mothers argue over one child, and the love of the biological mother for her child causes her to refuse to harm it. In the Biblical narrative, Solomon decrees that the mothers cut the child in half, so each mother can have an equal part. The biological mother reveals herself by refusing, and Solomon gives her the whole and unharmed child. In the Chinese play, the biological mother is not willing to hurt her child by pulling it out of a chalk circle. Brecht’s adaptation changes the outcome of both tales. His version asks which relationship will benefit the child the most, (biological) nature or nurture?

As early as 1932, Brecht raised the related the question of ownership in his film with Slatan Dudow, Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World, a story about unemployment in the Weimar Republic, eviction, and a utopian tent community. Who should own what? Is inherited ownership outdated, or is it obsolete? What is possession good for? Should anyone “own” anything?

Although the play poses sobering questions concerning biological motherhood vs. nurture and the ownership of people and land, Van Der Merwe’s staging revels in comic situations, demonstrating that grotesque, oppressive politics can be changed and overthrown. Even briefly, a golden age of quasi-justice, if not fairness, can prevail. Brecht’s familiar message is delivered here by a multitalented and mostly very young cast that plays, sings, dances, moves, and reacts spontaneously. The audience delights in all the bizarrely comic moments that Brecht provides, especially in the wedding-funeral scene.

The performance begins when four actors write “Prologue” on four large chalkboards arranged at the edges of the theater in the round. Productions often omit the prologue, and this is unfortunate, since it is essential for understanding the reason for the ensuing play-within-a-play, which is a parable meant to shed light on a land dispute in post-Nazi Georgia. While the old goat herders insist on reclaiming ancestral – and inhospitable – pasture land, the opposing, young, fruit-tree farmers counter with a detailed irrigation plan for greater productivity. In an attempt to resolve the conflict through entertainment, the Singer invites both groups to hear a tale set in Nukha, a city in Georgia (now Shaki in Azerbaijan) at the edge of the Caucasus mountains near the Black Sea.

Nukha is at war with Persia and corruption has led to a coup and civil war. Workers rebel amidst the instability. In a rush to choose and pack dresses, the Governor’s wife leaves behind her infant son, who is eventually saved by a palace kitchen maid named Grusha Vachnadze (Samie Pfeifer). Two stories are told separately, the second as a flashback. Thus, Grusha’s escape story takes place simultaneously with the story of Azdak (Clifton Holznagel), a scribe who turns into a kind of outrageous Robin Hood judge who sits on the book of law statutes and enjoys red wine, bribes, and helping the poor. Both narrative strands merge at the end of the play-within-a-play. Along the way, another nested play-within-a-play addresses questions of war and profit, when Azdak agrees to play the role of the defendant, the Grand Duke, in a mock trial. The almost constant stage activity by no means overshadows the text.

Grusha sacrifices her happiness in marriage to a draft-dodging swindler (with emphasis on the swindler, not the draft-dodging) to nurture the child she calls her own, while Azdak (who is first appointed as judge first by the Ironshirts, then the Grand Duke) perpetuates the corruption that preceded him. But more importantly, he helps the poor, fines the wealthy, collects bribes from both the accusers and defendants, and proclaims what appear to be mostly random verdicts. So far, so good. The two simultaneous storylines follow familiar Brechtian patterns. However knowledgeable audience members may be about the play, Brecht’s famed epic theater, and the concept of estrangement or Verfremdungseffekt, spectators not familiar with Van Der Merwe’s style are probably not prepared for the musically choreographed flow of the next three hours. Robert Wilson, master of moving bodies in time and space, comes to mind although he works with an admittedly different aesthetic. Yet Van Der Merwe directs this play as if her cast were inside a kaleidoscope with moving parts synchronized around the central circular stage. Transitions take place unnoticed, smoothly elegant (thanks to stage manager Natasha Stockem). The production is true to Bentley’s 1948 translation of Brecht’s text and includes all but one short scene. At times, the narrator’s lines are spoken by several actors, deepening the Verfremdungeffekt. Because the cast consists of only twelve actors, everyone except for Grusha and Michael has to take on a number of roles.

These casting choices and the costumes, designed by Alanna Hylton in many muted hues, add another layer of estrangement. There are virtually no costume changes, so each actor’s role in a particular scene is clarified through context. The music also developed in a way that Brecht would have applauded, had Paul Dessau not been his composer. Members of the ensemble spontaneously collaborated in writing the music for the songs during rehearsals, which were orchestrated by musical director Joellen Sweeney in a great variety of styles, as choral pieces, rounds, military chants, folk songs and acapella songs to Brecht’s lyrics, played by the cast on accordion, guitar, violin, clarinet, and tambourine.

Van Der Merwe’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which counts among Brecht’s major works, is no small achievement. Its three separate storylines present a challenge for any theater. It has been staged by the most renowned directors, including Brecht himself, and has its own history in the United States. Written in collaboration with Ruth Berlau in 1944/45 in Santa Monica, it premiered in Eric Bentley’s English translation at the Nourse Little Theater at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota in 1948. It was one of the first productions at Brecht’s new Theater am Schiffbauerdamm after it opened in 1954 Berlin under the artistic management of Helene Weigel, who played the Governor’s wife Natella Abaschwili. Son-in-law Ekkehard Schall appeared as the Adjutant, Wolf Kaiser as the Fat Prince, Ernst Busch as the Arkadi, the Singer, and Angelika Hurwicz as Grusha. Brecht’s daughter Barbara Berg even had the small role of Assja. Manfred Karge took on the play in 2010 at the Berlin Ensemble under Claus Peymann, and most recently in fall 2017, only weeks before Van Der Merwe’s staging in Portland, it was among the opening productions in at the Berlin Ensemble under Oliver Reese, the new artistic director. That production, by director Michael Thalheimer,  had absolutely no set.

In a similar vein, Van Der Merwe’s theater in the round, surrounded by chalk boards for the titles of acts, also dispenses with a fixed set, relying mostly on dynamic props repurposed to the demands of a certain scene. It is ingenuity and breathtaking simplicity at its best. For example, when Grusha leaves the baby basket at the peasants’ door, actors hold bamboo poles to form the walls and the pointed roof of a hut. Inside the hut, a peasant couple eats at a table.


Clara Hillier as Peasant Woman, Carlos Adrian Manzano as Peasant Man [Photo: Gary Norman]

Later, Van Der Merwe uses fabric in unforgettable ways. Is it possible for an expanse of fabric to become an actor? Is it a prop? Part of the set? As Grusha flees from the Ironshirt soldiers, six actors twist brown fabric together like a cat’s cradle and a bridge suddenly emerges. Portland’s audiences can easily imagine this dangerous bridge over a chasm, given the city’s twelve bridges and the steep slopes of the grandiose landscapes that surround it. Grusha descends from a high stand as violin music plays from yet a higher part of the mountain. Cautiously, she dances across the bridge in slow, unsteady steps. The bridge writhes like a captive animal, low, high, tilting back and forth, trying to wrest itself free. Grusha persists, climbing onto the legs of the last actors holding the bridge and jumps to safety outside the circle of audience chairs. The diagonal shape of the bridge counters the circular, often tense preceding action, and Grusha’s journey is a high point of suspense. A while later, when Michael is abducted by the soldiers and returned to the capital, they pass the child over their shoulders out of the circle, standing in another diagonal formation.


Will Sievertsen as Michael [Photo: Gary Norman]

The theatrical geometry has been consistently thought through, and the conflict of diagonal lines and circular choreography are not the only points of discord on the round stage. Splashes of bright color punctuate the subdued color palette of the costumes, the bridge, and the low-key lighting. Color explodes in the center of the stage when the governor’s wife hectically chooses which dresses to take on her flight from the city, and her attendants search through and toss around masses of bright colored fabrics. Bright color also bursts into the second storyline about justice, a flashback to the beheading of the Governor, the Grand Duke’s escape and return to power, and the appointment of Azdak as judge. When Grusha meets her former fiancé Simon after the war is over and they converse across a stream, the stream dazzles. It is a long banner of bright blue silky fabric, that only seconds ago stood for the passing of time, carried high in a diagonal across the stage. Finally, it even becomes the linen being washed in the stream. To embody three metaphors in a single stretch of fabric is theater magic.


Blue Fabric [Photo: Gary Norman]

Similarly, a simple doubling of the child creates Brechtian estrangement in the best way. From the beginning up until Grusha’s passage over the mountains, we see both baby Michael in the basket that Grusha carries “like a thief” and a real child (eleven-year-old Will Sievertsen) who is present for most of the play as serious onlooker, poker-faced and aloof, the epic theater actor and observer at once. Michael the child speaks the lines of the baby: “Woman, help me.” (The short-lived child born to Brecht and Ruth Berlau was named Michael after the child in the play.) Several times, the baby’s basket is given to various members of the audience to hold. The fortunate people in the audience that get to hold the basket for a few seconds discover that the baby is a small, fragrant loaf of bread. In the history of Brecht productions, this has got to be a first: opening night for a loaf of bread. How Brecht would have enjoyed that. The imaginative wit necessary to envision this metaphor of nurture and productivity is a typical Van Der Merwe trademark.

Politically, the storyline offers ample opportunities for American audiences to anchor it in a Trumpian world, yet the staging does not fall into a transparent and simple political allegory. Once, the Governor (Heath Koerschgen), whose head is soon to be severed, announces he is “draining the swamp as we speak” and the Ironshirt soldiers march in an American military cadence called by the corporal (Jessica Tidd). But nothing more coherent evolves, and Van Der Merwe wisely prefers to leave reference to suppressive political structures open to many contexts.

In five-act classical drama, the fourth act is typically reserved for falling action. Brecht subverts this notion, and instead introduces a dizzyingly complicated and rambunctious study of corruption and justice (including the prologue, Brecht’s script has 6 acts; act 5 in Brecht’s play is 4 in Van Der Merwe’s production because she does not count the prologue as act 1). Before the Grand Duke regains power and appoints Azdak, the Fat Prince wants his own nephew to serve as judge (the last one was hanged in the coup). They decide to test the nephew’s skills. He plays judge and Azdak takes the role of the Grand Duke, who reveals that the soldiers have been the tools of the greedy princes in the war with Persia. The angry Ironshirts then appoint Azdak to serve as judge. He agrees, and  takes bribes from all parties impartially. In a case between a peasant woman and wealthy Kulak farmers, paper money bribes go to the audience and to Azdak. Here, Van Der Merwe shows she can combine comedy and suspense. In this jewel of a scene, the peasant woman (Luisa Sermol) wheels a small table, as if it were a walker,  around the edge of the circle to her place on stage. In a squeaky voice she slowly tells about the Bandito who has been helping her. The bearded Bandito appears at the edge of the circle with an oversized wooden axe. The scene gains slapstick energy. Thanks to him, she now has a cow, and a ham that flew through her window, and she does not have to pay a Kulak farmer for the use of a field. This is all in Brecht’s text. In true Brechtian style, the high point of hilarity was created spontaneously by actors experimenting in a rehearsal.

After his judgment in favor of the woman, Azdak asks her to sit and they both move very slowly in the same direction in the center of the stage, Azdak moving his wheeled chair and the woman pushing her table on wheels. He tries to position her on the chair, but she leans forward on her table and they both circle in the same direction. This goes on and on; neither one stops, the peasant woman still does not sit. Neither one can escape the circle. Does her social class stop her from sitting, or is she simply crafty? The longer she moves, the longer Azdak tries to position the chair. Finally, one of the Kulak farmers complains: “This is a three-hour play. One of you has got to stop.”


Luisa Sermol as Granny [Photo: Gary Norman]

The last act, “The Chalk Circle”, brings closure to the three storylines. The Grand Duke regains power and officially appoints Azdak as judge. The Governor’s wife returns to the city and puts in her claim for the child, and it becomes known that the real issue is money, (the ownership of the governor’s estates) not the child. Judge Azdak recognizes this mention of estates and greed as evidence of her human feelings, admittedly the most cynical moment of the play. In a loop back to the prologue, the Singer announces that whatever is under dispute should rightly go to those who care well for it: Michael to his caretaker Grusha, the estates to a playground for children called “Azdak’s Garden,” and the fruit tree territory to those who will irrigate and nurture it. And in the ensuing happy confusion, Grusha ends up divorced and free to marry Simon. The production closes with a variety of high-energy dances that eventually merge into a circle dance (why not?). With her first production of Brecht, Van Der Merwe’s sense of stage choreography, musical design, and Brechtian Verfremdungseffekte prove her a most capable, daring, and poetic caretaker in her own right.

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„Nur wer im Wohlstand lebt, lebt angenehm!“ – Bertolt Brechts Dreigroschenoper am Schauspielhaus Zürich

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by Anja Hartl, Universität Konstanz

Zürich nimmt in Brechts Biographie, insbesondere in der Nachkriegszeit, einen zentralen, geradezu schicksalhaften Stellenwert ein. Das Verhältnis zwischen dem deutschen Stückeschreiber und der Schweizer Stadt war jedoch von Anfang an – in gänzlich Brechtscher Manier – spannungsvoll. Während Brecht in Zürich zunächst nach seiner Flucht aus den USA ein Zuhause finden und seine Theaterarbeit, die während seines Exils dort einem europäischen Publikum zugänglich gemacht wurde, fortsetzen konnte, so war es ihm auch in der Schweiz nicht möglich, den Fängen der politischen Propaganda und Vereinnahmung – ob nun amerikanischer oder deutscher Natur – dauerhaft zu entkommen. Die große Bedeutung, die Zürich und sein weltberühmtes Schauspielhaus für Brechts Leben und Werk eingenommen haben, ist bis heute spürbar: In der Spielzeit 2015/16 griff René Pollesch in Bühne frei für Mick Levčik! Brechts in Zürich entstandenes Antigonemodell 1948 auf, um es in ein für seine Arbeit typisches Beispiel des Diskurstheaters zu verwandeln, und im vergangenen Jahr inszenierte das Schauspielhaus das im selben Jahr dort uraufgeführte Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti. Dass das Theaterjahr 2017/18 mit Brechts Dreigroschenoper, die bereits zum fünften Mal im Pfauen aufgeführt wird, eröffnet wird, zeigt, dass Brecht einen festen Platz im Zürcher Theaterprogramm innehat.

Als Erfolgsgarant und Markenzeichen Brechts stellt die Anti-Oper jedoch eine besondere Herausforderung für zeitgenössische Interpretationen dar: Brecht selbst musste einräumen, dass es ihm nicht gelungen war, die sozialkritische, revolutionäre Wirkung der 1928 in Berlin uraufgeführten Dreigroschenoper angesichts ihrer weltweiten Popularität zu verteidigen. In der Tat stellt sich heute die Frage, welche Wirkkraft das Stück überhaupt noch entfalten kann und stellt Regisseure vor die (oft als unlösbar wahrgenommene) Aufgabe, die Oper von ihrem Image als Klassiker der Unterhaltung zu befreien und eine kritische Perspektive auf die dem Korsett des Urheberrechts unterworfene Vorlage einzunehmen. Angesichts der Parallelen, die zwischen der von Brecht in der Dreigroschenoper satirisch überzeichneten Gesellschaft und den Verhältnissen, die wir im 21. Jahrhundert vorfinden, hergestellt werden können, scheint Brechts Text jedoch von größter Aktualität: Im Kern kritisiert Brechts Oper für Bettler soziale Missstände, Ungerechtigkeit, ökonomische Ausbeutung und Korruption – Themen, mit denen auch wir in Zeiten der Globalisierung und des Neoliberalismus täglich konfrontiert – schlimmer noch, in die wir unausweichlich verstrickt sind. Gerade im bürgerlichen und reichen Zürcher Umfeld dürfte Brechts Text somit genügend Zündstoff bieten. Umso bedauerlicher ist es, dass die Inszenierung des Schauspielhauses in der Regie von Tina Lanik am Versuch, das politische Potential der Dreigroschenoper für die heutige Zeit fruchtbar zu machen, scheitert. Selbst dem eigenen Anspruch, den Zuschauern statt eines nachdenklichen oder gar sozialkritischen einen ‚kulinarischen‘ und ‚vergnüglichen‘ Abend zu bereiten, wie es den Teilnehmern der Einführung durch die Dramaturgin Gwendolyne Melchinger gewünscht wird, kann diese Version nicht gerecht werden.

Lanik wirft in ihrer Arbeit einen frischen Blick auf die Dreigroschenoper, indem sie sie aus der Perspektive Polly Peachums erzählt und die Rolle der Frauenfiguren generell aufwertet. Während Polly (dargestellt von Elisa Plüss, die Schwierigkeiten hat, die Ambivalenz der Figur zwischen Naivität, Laszivität und Emanzipation darzustellen) wortwörtlich die Fäden in der Hand hält, weil sie den transparenten Bühnenvorhang aus Kunststoff-Lamellen spielerisch öffnet und schließt, scheinbar Orchester (deren Leitung, Polina Lapkovskaja, als Spiegelbild Pollys gekleidet ist) und Publikum dirigiert und fast durchgehend als Erzählerfigur und Zeugin auf der Bühne präsent ist, so führt dieser interessante Zugriff dennoch dazu, die Geschichte auf die Liebesbeziehung und die Frage nach dem Liebesglück und -leid Pollys sowie nach einem potentiellen Happy End für das Paar zu verkürzen. Durch diesen Fokus auf die weiblichen Figuren erfährt der Protagonist Mackie Messer eine Abwertung, die dem Charakter seine Strahlkraft und seine Funktion als Dreh- und Angelpunkt der Kritik des Stücks raubt. Jirka Zetts Macheath wirkt unmotiviert, distanziert und geradezu teilnahmslos – er kann seiner Figur weder ihre schockierende und erbarmungslose Asozialität als Anführer der Gangsterbande noch ihren für die weiblichen Charaktere unwiderstehlichen Sexappeal überzeugend verleihen. Dies ist für die schauspielerische Leistung des Ensembles symptomatisch: Verschiedenste Stile – wie Isabelle Menkes exzentrisch-hysterische Darstellung der Frau Peachum und der leidenschaftslose, nüchterne Jonathan Peachum Klaus Brömmelmeiers – treffen unvermittelt aufeinander, wodurch ein inkohärenter, erratischer Gesamteindruck von der Aufführung entsteht.

Herzstück der Dreigroschenoper sind die Songs; sie haben dem Stück nicht nur zu seinem Weltruhm verholfen, sondern stellen insbesondere hinsichtlich seiner kritischen, und politischen Stoßrichtung den Kern der Anti-Oper dar. Wie Nikolaus Müller-Schöll im Programmheft schreibt, handelt es sich um „Unterbrechungen, die es erlauben, ein Anderes zu denken, dessen Ausgestaltung sich Brecht allerdings kategorisch verbietet“. Der musikalischen Gestaltung kommt somit eine entscheidende Rolle bei der kritischen Positionierung der Inszenierung zu. Während das Ensemble um Polina Lapkovskaja hervorragende Interpretationen von Kurt Weills Kompositionen vorlegt, die dem Abend einen Hauch der Zwanziger Jahre verleihen, so leidet die Aufführung massiv unter der stimmlichen Schwäche der Darsteller, die den musikalischen Einlagen ihre eigentliche Wirkkraft und sogar jegliche Kulinarik rauben und die Musiker zu zurückhaltendem Spiel zwingen, um die Schauspieler auf der Bühne nicht in den Schatten zu stellen. Lediglich die chorischen Passagen, in denen die stimmlichen Schwierigkeiten durch gemeinsame Anstrengung ausgeglichen werden können und sich die Musiker künstlerisch zur Gänze entfalten können, lassen einen Einblick in die akustische und metaphorische Kraft zu, zu der die Musik dem Stück verhelfen könnte.

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Während die Inszenierung schauspielerisch, musikalisch sowie in ihrem eigentlichen Anliegen nicht überzeugen mag, ist das intelligente Bühnenbild von Bettina Meyer, die die Pfauenbühne minimalistisch mit einer ins Nichts ragenden Rolltreppe ausstattet, umso mehr hervorzuheben. Die Grenze zwischen bürgerlicher Ordnung und Streben auf der Treppe sowie räuberischer Welt unterhalb verschwimmt dabei von Beginn an, was durch das gekonnte, spielerische Hin-und-Her und Auf-und-Ab der Charaktere eindrucksvoll versinnbildlicht wird. Die Bühne wird von den Farben Schwarz (für die Räuber), Weiß (für die ‚Brecht-Gardine‘ und die unschuldige Braut Polly) und, allen voran, Gold (für die ‚Showtreppe‘ sowie die kapitalistischen Interessen der Peachums) dominiert. Wie die Farben dienen auch die schrillen und direkten Kostüme (kreiert von Heide Kastler) dazu, die Charaktere plakativ zu kategorisieren, wodurch in gewisser Weise die Ambivalenz ihres Daseins als Bürger und Räuber, Räuber und Bürger unterminiert wird. Das Stück läuft dadurch Gefahr, sein anarchisches, asoziales und aufrührerisches Potential einzubüßen: Macheaths Auftritt in Pollys Hochzeitsrock bei den Huren gerät dabei ebenso zur billigen Parodie wie die Kostüme der Huren von Turnbridge. Anstatt den Witz in ein spannungsvolles Verhältnis mit der ernsthaften Thematik des Stücks zu bringen, scheint die Inszenierung eher an einer Parodie auf Brechts Gesellschaftssatire interessiert, durch die die Sprengkraft der Vorlage verloren geht: Am Ende ist es vor allem die Frage nach der Ungerechtigkeit in Pollys Liebesleben – nicht die der sozialen Verhältnisse –, für die sich das Publikum, im Sinne von Brechts Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, selbst einen ‚guten Schluss‘ suchen soll.

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War and/as Business: Mother Courage and Her Children in the Age of Terrorism and Globalisation at London’s Southwark Playhouse

by Anja Hartl, Universität Konstanz

Life in the twenty-first century has been crucially shaped by the experience of a seemingly never-ending, all-encompassing and boundless ‘war on terror.’ Strongly furthered by global economic interests, the difference between war and peace has been increasingly eroded and fundamental social and political mechanisms have been instrumentalised in the post-9/11 context of a ‘state of exception’ in an effort to supposedly counter, resist and prevent acts of terrorism. In light of this diagnosis regarding our contemporary circumstances, the parallels with Bertolt Brecht’s historical parable Mother Courage and Her Children could not be more obvious. Indeed, Southwark Playhouse’s inventive and powerful version of one of Brecht’s most popular plays provides a timely exploration of war, its impact on our life, its challenges for society and, most crucially, our entanglement in it. This intelligent production took place at one of London’s most exciting fringe theatre venues, situated in proximity to the vibrant area of Borough Market. Uncomfortably, it invites us to confront our own role in contemporary warfare, to critically interrogate who we identify and treat as the enemy ‘Other,’ and to judge the characters’ decisions precisely not from a cool distance, but as directly affected by and involved in the action ourselves. It is this immediate, visceral approach to the material which turns director Hannah Chissick’s otherwise timeless, historically unspecific production of the 1941 play (which responds to the ongoing rise of fascism in Brecht’s time through the lens of the Thirty Years’ War) into a highly pertinent intervention in and commentary on the 21st-century context.

For this purpose, set designer Barney George has transformed the small, intimate performance space into an army or, indeed, a refugee camp, which is rendered almost claustrophobic by the enclosing fences. Before the play begins, these fences are closed, and the piercing sounds of battle accompany the spectators on their way into the theatre. The seating arrangement creates an immersive environment in which auditorium and stage coalesce: throughout the production the audience is right in the middle of the action, which takes place not only in front of us, but also amongst, behind and above us. We are implicitly cast as addressees, witnesses, judges or complicit participants in the events. Distance is no longer possible – and, as Chissick explains in the programme notes, no longer even desirable as a means of fostering engagement with the material. Consciously choosing a confrontational set-up, the show creates an experience of discomfort and vulnerability through which the spectators are forced to interrogate their involvement in and reactions to the performance. This critical enquiry is spurred by the extent to which the specific arrangement of stage and auditorium facilitates an essentially dialectical approach to the play. The juxtaposition of left vs. right, front vs. back, up vs. down helps introduce perspective, highlights the fundamental tensions shaping the play and its characters and thereby creates a complex, thought-provoking theatrical event for the members of the audience.

Based on Tony Kushner’s daring 2009 translation, the play truly comes to life through the superb and passionate acting of an astonishing cast which brings together comedians (such as Laura Checkley, who plays a beguiling Yvette), musicians and actors. In a Brechtian vein, it is the actors’ bodies which represent the central site of struggle in the scenarios depicted. While playing the roles with urgency and wit, the cast nevertheless excellently manages to strike a fine balance between emotion and distance, pleasure and critique by reinforcing the disruptive nature of the performance. Thus, the staging pursues a strongly episodic strategy, focussing on the characters’ choices rather than the development of the plot. The performance is framed by the appearance of a male youth playing at war at the beginning of each half – both a means of countering the set-up’s strong immediacy and of suggesting the omnipresence of war in our everyday life. The play’s gestic dimension is underscored when Mother Courage puts on a necklace made out of coins and when she trades her products in a shadow play behind a canvas, which encourages close scrutiny and critical investigation. Finally, the undeniable moments of emotional intensity characteristic of Mother Courage are immediately interrupted and contrasted with commentary by the actors themselves, who suddenly step out of character, for example to announce and summarise the next scene, thereby precluding any potential superficial sentimentalism. In this version of Mother Courage, it is the female figures who especially stand out, torn, as they all are, between survival, resistance and complicity. Foremost among these is the protagonist herself, exquisitely played in gypsy-style by the popular actress and comedian Josie Lawrence, who brings Anna Fierling’s contradictions palpably to the fore. Her performance is particularly breath-taking and persuasive during the songs, when her resonant voice passionately betrays her inner struggles. Indeed, the music (the superb arrangement created by Duke Special for Deborah Warner’s production at the National Theatre in 2009) represents a powerful means of expression in this staging, and the cast’s strong voices effectively underscore the emotional and political power of the songs.

After Kattrin’s (expressively played by Phoebe Vigor) desperate attempt at resistance in what has to be considered this performance’s most daring and most visceral moment, the audience’s shock increases as they watch a disorientated but still ruthlessly determined Mother Courage follow the apparition of a soldier back into the battlefield – and, hence, into the market: “I have to get back in business” are the protagonist’s final, excruciating words, on which the performance powerfully, but also bleakly ends, leaving the audience exposed to the contradictions of life in times of war.

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Agreement and Disagreement: The Decision at Augsburg’s Brecht Festival 2017

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[Photo: Nik Schölzel]

by Anja Hartl, Universität Konstanz

This year’s Brecht festival, organised in Brecht’s hometown Augsburg from 3 to 12 March 2017 and curated for the first time by director and actor Patrick Wengenroth, breaks new thematic and aesthetic ground. Dedicated to the question of the contemporary relevance of Brecht’s oeuvre, the festival’s heterogeneous program offers fresh artistic and academic perspectives on Brecht’s work as a poet and playwright, which are presented, in the wake of the sudden closure of Augsburg’s municipal theatre, in various alternative locations and exciting new spaces throughout the city. It is in this spirit that the production of Brecht’s Lehrstück The Decision (Die Maßnahme), which opened the festival in Augsburg’s ancient gas works on 3 March 2017 and which inspired this year’s motto, “Ändere die Welt, sie braucht es,” sets the tone for a thought-provoking and promising confrontation between Brecht’s political and aesthetic ideas and the contemporary context of the 2017 festival.

Directed by opera singer, filmmaker and author Selçuk Cara, this production of Brecht’s arguably most controversial play suggests that the Lehrstücke are far from obsolete or inadequate in the light of twenty-first century politics and society. Initiating a dialogue between the play’s interrogation of Communist ideology on the one hand and current political and social challenges (notably the refugee crisis) on the other, Cara’s production successfully sheds new light on the parable and loses none of its provocative quality. This 2017 version of The Decision departs from Brecht, who clearly emphasised the necessity of agreement and self-sacrifice for the common good of Communist revolution, by problematising the consensual submission to (party) ideology depicted by the play and instead exploring the value of empathy and the potential for individual resistance and disagreement.

This is achieved by juxtaposing Brecht’s original with other literary, artistic and political material, which successfully opens the performance up to new perspectives. At the beginning, the spectators are kept waiting for more than half an hour in an experiential and immersive setting – first in a tent outside, where we are handed postcards with photographs by Kevin McElvaney of refugees saved from drowning, and then in a hall into which we are gradually admitted and equipped with torches. It is extremely cold, dark and increasingly claustrophobic in this first room and some spectators use their torches, which produce an uncanny, howling sound, to explore the space. Behind fences, we are confronted with an installation in which young actors embody migrants stranded in their rubber boat on a dirty beach, whispering, then shouting at us in an echo of Brecht’s The Decision: “What is a man? Are you a man?” Contextualising this scene by appropriating the harsh words used by Germany’s former Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière, for defending the refugee deal with Turkey, this first part of the performance contrasts Brecht’s text with a twenty-first century perspective and offers a powerful critical comment on the EU’s politics of consensus and our own implication in them.

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[Photo: Nik Schölzel]

The second room, in which the stage and the auditorium for The Decision are arranged flexibly in-between old machines used at the gas works, inviting spectators to move around freely during the performance, further develops this critical angle: We are welcomed by a narrator reading extracts from Fyodor Dostoyevski’s The Grand Inquisitor  and the atmosphere, with church pews and incense to match the sacral dimension of the Lehrstück’s score and text, seems to expand the production’s criticism of institutional politics. The ensuing performance of Brecht’s material is impressive and features an orchestra and a choir which provide an excellent rendering of Hanns Eisler’s composition. In line with Cara’s interpretation of The Decision, this production develops an altogether more sympathetic attitude towards the Young Comrade. In this spirit, the actors compellingly mix the detached and cool acting style traditionally associated with Brecht’s Lehrstücke with intensely passionate and physically expressive moments to convey how much they are torn in-between party ideology and individual desires, agreement and disagreement.

This innovative, large-scale production of The Decision creates a productive dialogue between Brecht’s original and the contemporary context by raising urgent questions about the political and social challenges we face today and encourages us, by means of its experiential approach, to reconsider our own attitudes. By provoking us, by requiring our investment in the performance and by allowing us to empathise, Cara’s production unfolds its dialectical impetus by making use, in Brechtian fashion, of its audience and by forcing us to agree or, indeed, disagree.

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Mother Courage Alone at Fermat’s Last Theater in Madison

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Greer DuBois as Mother Courage in Fermat’s Last Theater’s production of Mother Courage in Madison, Wisconsin [Photo: Hans Adler]

by Brandy E. Wilcox

In these times of political disturbance, war, and massive numbers of displaced peoples searching for a way to live, Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children becomes particularly poised to comment on the plight of those who must migrate due to factors they cannot control. Fermat’s Last Theater, a free public theater, aims to thematize issues of social justice in all of their staged works. Their workshop, titled Mother Courage Alone, portrayed the injustice brought upon the “small fry of the world,” echoing the Mother Courage’s comment that “victory and defeat don’t mean the same thing to the big wheels up top as the small fry,” shortly before her younger son is executed. In the game of war, wins and losses mean nothing to the generals who stay at the back of the regiment away from the action. The majority fulfills the whim of the minority, and the deaths of the common soldiers mean little to their superiors. Today, the movement of refugees continues to grow, and with it the amount of “small fry,” those with no power over their situation, those who are moved and housed like livestock and whose deaths seemingly mean just as little to those in charge as the deaths of soldiers meant to the generals in Mother Courage. The production raised awareness for this issue by benefitting the Madison organization “Open Doors for Refugees” and by including a leaflet in each program with charts from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. These charts displayed information on the worldwide refugee situation, with data from June of 2017. In his notes on the Fermat’s Last Theater webpage, David Simmons states:

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 66 million people are refugees from armed conflict around the globe, more than at any other time in recorded history. […] We have taken a play that runs for more than three hours and has twenty-six roles and condensed it to ~50 minutes while trying to preserve the message, humor and horror of the original Mother Courage and Her Children. The success of this effort is for you, the audience, to judge.

And a success it was. In addition to a condensed runtime, there were only three performers: Greer DuBois as Mother Courage; Steffen Silvis as an omniscient narrator; and Diana Wheeler as a jack-of-all-trades musician. After each performance, the actors, director, and one of the consultants from the UW-Madison German Program (Professors Hans Adler, Sabine Gross, and Marc Silberman) held a panel discussion about the production, Brecht, and the issues raised in the play regarding the fate of those caught up in a seemingly never-ending war. The production ran for three performances at The Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison and one night on campus at the UW Memorial Union-Fredric March Play Circle.

Brianna Lynn Hernandez Baurichter’s installation Psychological Landscapes provided aptly moving imagery for the stage design, which set an unsettling and ominous tone for those three nights. Entering the performance space took you from the stage end of a long, narrow room and down the aisle to find a seat between walls shrouded with looping charcoal landscapes that twisted and turned to emerge as new vistas further down the wall.


Steffen Silvis and Greer DuBois in front of the Psychological Landscapes art installation [Photo: Marie Schulte]

The charcoal landscapes had a disconcerting effect that caught the eye even as the play was running. Between the artwork and the music emanating from a separate room behind the audience, the Arts + Literature Laboratory provided a very Brechtian feel to the performance, drawing the attendee in and out of the performance itself as the music and art reminded you where you were.

The one night performance at the Play Circle on the UW Madison campus provided an entirely different experience. Instead of a long, narrow, corridor-like room, the Play Circle provides seating that looks down on the players from above and on a very wide stage.  A few changes were made for the single performance in this theater – the staging area was widened slightly and Diana Wheeler played to stage right of Steffen Silvis and Greer DuBois – but the most important of these was the projection of works by Hieronymus Bosch between scenes. The narrator also carried and read through a book of Bosch’s art between narrations. The dark, otherworldly nature of the art shown during Silvis’ narration conveyed the same twisting effect as Baurichter’s Psychological Landscapes, though the charcoal drawings were less disturbingly uncanny than the projected paintings. The decision to show the paintings only between scenes provided spectators with visual jolts of discomfort and emotion without taking away from their concentration and involvement in Mother Courage’s story.

Mother Courage Alone begins in 1636 after Courage has lost all of her children. Alone with her wagon, she provides an explanation for her actions during the course of the play, namely that she has a family to support. She still doesn’t know the fate of her eldest, Eilif, to which the narrator reacts with his first commentary of the piece, “You might begin by looking in the cemeteries.” Simmons’ process of adaptation focused primarily on getting to the most poignant, outstanding moments of Brecht’s work, a process that took almost a year and required the addition of a narrator to play the parts of a raconteur, a commentator, and the voices of other characters. With a fifty-minute run-time and scenes averaging less than five minutes each, Mother Courage Alone still conveys the story of Anna Fierling and her children while providing a critique of the endlessness of war and the vulnerability of those with no power to change their situations. After the narrator’s dour advice to look in the cemeteries, Courage begins recounting her version of how she came to be sitting alone on the side of the road outside of Halle. She warns the audience that the story is complicated and that her memory is not as good as it once was. The narrator then explains that the context of Mother Courage’s story is 1624, quoting almost directly from the scene directions. In this scene, Courage makes a deal, while the recruiter walks off with Eilif. When she realizes what has happened, Courage reflects on the incident, “I was busy making a sale and they took my boy for the war, faster than a fart out of a goose.”

The scene that follows this one is also condensed into a description of her memory: dancing capon, a year-dead cow, and Eilif’s brave deed are all included, along with a remark on the necessity of brave soldiers: “If he knew how to plan a proper campaign he wouldn’t need men of courage – ordinary ones would do!”

In the third scene, for the first and only time, Courage takes on the mantle of another character, Yvette, to sing a very condensed version of “The Fraternization Song.” Following the song and a discussion of the start of the war, Courage loses her son, Swiss Cheese, when the Catholics attack and she has to send Yvette to bribe them. While she is bargaining, Swiss Cheese is shot and thrown in the dump. This is one of the few times in the production where Mother Courage puts down her mask of fierceness that made her the “hyena of the battlefield,” her face showing extreme pain before the stage goes dark. Before singing “The Song of the Great Capitulation,” Courage lectures a soldier on the necessity of putting up with injustice, and then gives up her own complaint about the damage that was done to her wagon.

The storyline continues with Kattrin and the Chaplain stealing shirts from Mother Courage to use as bandages, Kattrin being assaulted on the road to buy supplies, and Mother Courage lauding the benefits of war as a better provider than peace. For a brief moment “peace has broken out,” but doesn’t last long. The narrator explains to the audience that Courage’s son Eilif has accomplished another brave deed, killing a dozen peasants hiding supplies from the soldiers. He didn’t know that it was peace time, though, and was thus executed for what was, according to the narrator’s explanation, “a heroic deed in war time [but] a serious crime in peace – just a few days difference!” Courage then almost loses Kattrin when the cook offers to reopen his mother’s cabin in Utrecht with her, and Kattrin starts walking away. True to character, she tells Kattrin that she won’t go without her, but blames it on not being able to leave the wagon behind. They listen at a cottage window to a song that mirrors the song found for scene ten but which has been rewritten. Many of the songs follow this format: they have been rewritten and their rhyme schemes normalized, but are of similar length and meter to the versions found in  the English translation upon which Simmons based his adaptation.

In Brecht’s version of the second to last scene, Mother Courage has no part to play in the actions surrounding Kattrin’s death. When Kattrin climbs up the roof and beats the drum to warn the city, there are only soldiers and peasants onstage. Because Mother Courage Alone is told from Courage’s perspective, in her description of Kattrin’s death she has to mention her absence and that she only learned what happened later. Accompanied only by percussion, Greer DuBois’ Mother Courage describes Kattrin’s death in a distanced, emotionless tone, recounting the events but very clearly not feeling them. This scene leads directly into the next morning, with Courage cradling a blanket meant to be Kattrin’s body and singing her a lullaby, before the peasants whose family Kattrin had saved force her to leave.


Mother Courage holds her dead daughter in her arms. “I’m glad she’s sleeping now.” [Photo: Marie Schulte]

Much of the success of the small format came from Marc Silberman’s suggestion to incorporate a narrator. Truly a brilliant addition, Steffen Silvis as the narrator brought distance and a wry comedy to balance the tragedy of Mother Courage. Silvis boldly broke the fourth wall when delivering his commentary, inviting the audience into the conversation and critique he directed at DuBois’ Mother Courage. The commentary and dialog incorporated into his role allowed the audience to maintain their trust in Mother Courage’s character and motivations. Silvis’ narrator provided limited dialog for characters besides Mother Courage, which helped to prevent her monologues from becoming monotonous. The effect of this was slightly distracting at the onset, yet at the same time served as a reminder to the audience that they were observers of a play and that the two people on stage were acting and taking on these roles. While the narrator wore many hats in his character changes in a figurative sense, Mother Courage physically donned a red hat to become Yvette and sing.


Greer DuBois wears a red hat and a demure expression signaling her transformation from Mother Courage to Yvette [Photo: Marie Schulte]

This was the one weakness in the production for me, as the physical change in character is at odds with the consistency of Courage throughout the rest of the piece. While the narrator was able to change his role, becoming informative in one scene and bitingly critical in the next as he voiced the various characters, Mother Courage always projected a steadfast, strong-willed persona on the stage. Silvis’ shifting narrator provided a contrastive element that became muddled when Courage took on the persona of Yvette. For the sake of Yvette’s song and the introduction of her fallible character, the inclusion was unavoidable, yet more distance between her and Mother Courage would have maintained the strength of Mother Courage’s character.


Steffen Silvis as the narrator gives the audience a withering stare

Courage herself became an even more shrewd and deal-oriented character under David Simmons’ guidance. Determined to make her money and close her deals, she represented an even stronger metaphor for those who can’t look past their own well-being in search of capitalistic gains. War is good only for those with power, and only those who find in it their own fortune survive. “The stay-at-homes are the first to get it,” Mother Courage claims at the height of her business career. War provides, and she will capitalize – even at the expense of her children’s lives. Only Eilif escapes the fate determined by his mother’s greed, and yet his own greed for power and glory is his undoing.

Greer DuBois portrayed a dynamic, strong Mother Courage. Despite her youth, DuBois was believable as a cunning mother of three out to survive a war. In fact, her youthful appearance added to the reminders that the audience was watching theater and not participating in real life.

One of the surprising points of Mother Courage Alone was the talent and innovation brought to the performance by Diana Wheeler’s musical performance. The musical additions to the text created a third set of voices on the stage in addition to DuBois and Silvis. To prepare, Wheeler said, she researched music from the time period of the play and composed music with tones and chord structures that evoked the music of the 17th century. Additionally, she studied the score written for the Berliner Ensemble by Paul Dessau while punctuating words and emotions brought out by the characters on stage. The effect of her approach made for an enjoyable soundscape that was relevant to the narrative and that emphasized, but did not exaggerate, the actions that occurred in Mother Courage’s memories. Wheeler was especially in tune with Greer DuBois’ performance, punctuating Courage’s emotions. Greer, in turn, reacted to the emotional manipulation provided by Wheeler’s music. At her most emotionally vulnerable state, when Mother Courage has to claim not to recognize her own son, Swiss Cheese, after he is executed, the violin let out a discordant, drawn-out whine in time with Courage’s tense, emotionally-charged look of pain. In this moment, the music brings out what the audience can feel and empathize is going on in Mother Courage’s mind, and the violin is a substitute for the sob that she cannot let out.


Mother Courage takes up the burden of her wagon and continues on her way [Photo: Marie Schulte]

Though it is titled Mother Courage Alone and Mother Courage spends her time on stage alone, literally dragging her baggage behind her in the wagon she used to share with her children as she explains how she lost them, the interaction of the three performers in this play highlights the importance of cooperation. For people in situations such as that of Mother Courage, cooperation and community are vital for survival. But this is something she never learns. As an allusion to the situation of displaced peoples, this cooperation that Courage never learns and yet is practiced by the performers, makes a direct statement on the importance of such collaboration and teamwork among all players in the situation of refugees and forced migrants around the world.

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Ladies’ Night in Bloomington: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, & Contemporary Dance at Well-Metz Theatre, December 1 – 9, 2017

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The ensemble of the Indiana University Theatre production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, with Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz in the title role. [Photo: Amy Osajima]

by Michael Bryant, Department of Germanic Studies, Indiana University

The directly personal impact of the real-life events that inspired The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, one could argue, is slowly fading from our collective memory.  This is to say that the immediate power bound up in the names Al Capone and Adolf Hitler is gradually becoming neutralized by the passage of time (in the case of Hilter to a lesser degree than Capone, and rightfully so).  These despots, as well as those preceding them, are steadily being recast as historical archetypes to which we compare nearly any similarly behaving miscreant who bursts onto the scene.  Because of the natural human predisposition to only retrospectively be aware of the conditions that produce figures like Capone and Hitler, the underlying aim of Brecht’s play to show this mechanism in its developing stages is still exceedingly relevant, if not absolutely necessary. Indeed, the editors of a 1981 commentary on Arturo Ui assert that “it can still offer us a shock – the realization that our own society’s violence might one day be paralleled by a rebirth of Fascism on the grand scale.”[1]  What, then, is the violence of our own society, and how does Arturo Ui manage to pull back the curtain to reveal the machinery behind the madness?

After having read multiple reviews of recent productions of Arturo Ui that played down Brecht’s analogy between Ui and Hitler in favor of drawing quite transparent comparisons to more contemporary authoritarian leaders (i.e., Robert Mugabe and Donald Trump), I fully expected to see a full-frontal attack on the current state of political affairs in the United States at this Indiana University Theatre production.  I anticipated that, instead of seeing Brecht’s title cards in their customary form, they would be stylized to look like facsimiles of Donald Trump’s tweets.  In his production notes, however, Director Liam Castellan denies any explicit connection between his staging and the current administration, remarking that “this is one of those plays where its relevance to the present moment depends a lot on where you stand politically,” noting also that he had pitched this play last season before candidate Trump was being taken seriously.  The only reference to President Trump – and it is an indirect (perhaps even unconscious) reference, at most – was that Castellan’s Ui (the versatile and frighteningly likeable Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz) is the only female-actor-in-a-male-role who does not have her hair pinned up, instead wearing her long blond hair in a pony tail that rests just below the collar of her suit jacket and is reminiscent of Trump’s own longish coiffure.  In fact, the final lines of Brecht’s Epilogue mark the only departure from the rigid gangster/Hitler coupling that indicates that this production should be read as a commentary on current events: That was the thing that had us mastered / So let’s not drop our guard too quickly then. / Although the world stood up to the bastard / The bitch that bore him is in heat again.

If we choose to take Brecht’s words at face value and believe that authoritarian agents of democracy’s dismantling are constantly gearing up for another go, then it’s worthwhile to position our own observations – subjective as they may be – within the constellation of these lines and the aforementioned warnings of a developing synergy between whatever “our own society’s violence” might be and the return of fascism.  Castellan’s initial disavowal of Trump as a motivating factor for this production serves, in my mind, as a bob-and-weave maneuver meant as a momentary distraction from his clever one-two combination of casting and blocking.  By mentioning that this is decidedly not a production about Donald Trump but nevertheless casting women in every primary role except for one (Giri, played by the intimidatingly fierce Nathanial Kohlmeier), Castellan confronts the 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which Trump (in)famously boasted about his indulgent and assaultive behavior toward women in highly offensive terms.  Castellan’s capable cast, sporting classic 1930s-era gangster garb and possessing a swagger that mirrors the brute force with which their characters exploit the cauliflower merchants of Chicago and Cicero, demand that women be taken seriously as political movers and shakers, and it undermines the hyper-masculine self-branding of the Chicago mobsters and the National Socialists.  Installing women in the roles that are only thinly veiled allusions to Hitler’s most powerful henchmen is a powerful dramaturgical choice that effectively neuters the customary tactical posturing of authoritarian factions.

In its basic formal elements, this production engages in the fairly standard double alienation associated with Arturo Ui: the dialogue and thematic elements simultaneously elevate the play’s lowly gangsters to the level of true power players and drag the political/social elite they aspire to imitate down to the level of the profane.  Alienation is also at work in the production’s staging due to the theater’s lack of a raised stage and the performance space being surrounded on three sides by stadium-style seating.  Despite the intimate setting, audience participation was never overtly encouraged during the performance I attended. However, the rectangular room allows for interesting forms of diagonal blocking that, at times, turns some spectators into de facto members of a scene for others sitting opposite them.  Qi’er Luo’s heavy use of floor-level lighting makes this all the more dramatic by allowing light to fall on cross-stage audience members in ways to which they’re not accustomed, highlighting the fact that they are virtually drawn into the performance taking place mere inches from them. Enhancing the success of these dramaturgical elements that, on their own, would result in a successful production of Arturo Ui, is the (almost) entirely female cast, which provides the show’s most provocative and effective form of education through alienation vis-à-vis Brecht’s original intent.

Cast member Mia Siffin’s portrayal of The Actor and the nameless Wounded Woman who is shot and left for dead embodies the thematic pivot points of this production, even though she appears in only minor roles.  The kind of regime depicted parabolically by Brecht depends on the creation of a public image that distorts underlying truths and enables the empowerment of a deceptive and imposturous bunch of sycophants.  This façade is informed by impressions created by past regimes whose rulers had themselves learned from the posturing of earlier poseur dictators.  Theatricality, then, is a crucial element in, first, the construction and, second, the perpetual development of the political figure.  In her scene-stealing role as The Actor, Siffin, with a comical paintbrush of a mustache and hiked-up pants, fills the space with her long limbs as she takes great pains to teach Kunkel-Ruiz’s Ui the finer points of presenting a stylized, refined version of himself to the public.  With her wildly undulating voice and her ability to stretch cartoonishly across the performance space, she underscores the artificiality and, ultimately, the shortcomings inherent in this kind of social grooming.  Far more sinister than such leaders basing their public personas on caricatures of extremists, however, is the ever-present shadow of violence and death they cast on the societies they lead.  The Cauliflower Trust is the long-term target of Ui and his cronies’ aggressions, and this tension is palpable throughout the performance; literal death, as well as the figurative death of freedom of expression and dissent, drive the play, after all.  Siffin, this time as the Wounded Woman, again anchors these ephemeral notions in an embodied reality.

During the production’s intermission, a title card projection gives the tongue-in-cheek directive to “Indulge in Capitalism (Buy Some Snacks).”  The consequence of this indulgence is thrust upon the audience immediately at the beginning of Scene 9 as the Wounded Woman, alone and illuminated by a spotlight on an otherwise dark stage, curses Ui for orchestrating violence under the guise of respectable capitalistic endeavors, and then falls, shot dead, to the ground.  Scene 10 begins, and Siffin remains motionless as the other actors move onto the stage, most notably Dogsborough (Athena Kopulos), whose wheelchair, symbolic of his fading power and used to great dramatic effect on a couple of occasions, navigates around the woman’s lifeless body. The audience is forced to reckon with the human price of capitalism, because our joyful consumerism just prior to this scene (and in our earlier decision to buy tickets for the theater in the first place) makes us unwitting accomplices in this crime.  This is as close as the performance gets to requiring audience participation, and it produces a series of open-ended questions for the audience to reflect on:  Are we complicit in the woman’s death?  Are we supposed to come to her aid? Will she lie on stage for the remainder of the play if we don’t?  Are we supposed to interrupt Dogsborough’s narration of his will and testament because we know the historical outcome of Hindenburg’s retreat from power and are aware of the play’s title, which invites us to view the rise of fascism as “resistible?”  As it turns out, Siffin leaves the stage at the end of Scene 10, but her prolonged stay on stage after her death is a stark and lasting reminder of the specter of political violence that haunts every aspect of public and private life under this kind of regime.

Distilling the two thematic elements of Arturo Ui represented by The Actor and the Wounded Woman compels us to seek an analog in our own society – someone who has worked tirelessly to hone his public image through the deliberate use of television and print media and who (in)directly promotes violence in a variety of forms: the vilification of the freedom of expression, threats of physical violence against enemies, tacit approval of racist demonstrations, and a proclivity for turning a deaf ear to accusations of sexual assault against him or anyone he’s chosen to support.  Widespread accusations of sexual assault against both entertainment icons and political figures, as well as the recent threats to roll back women’s reproductive rights, are among the more prominent forms of violence in our society at the beginning of 2018.  The selection of a predominately female cast challenges the prevailing mentality seemingly held by the tycoons-cum-politicians in office today who skew heavily toward the male demographic, revealing the theatrical farcicality of the foundation on which the entire system rests, yet also warning of the very real consequences of ignoring and failing to impede their constant moves to amass ever more power.  The pairing of female agency with Arturo Ui’s cautionary tale performs the double maneuver of revealing the machinations of authoritarian figures and relocating power to the people.  The cast of this Indiana University Theatre production has shown that while the proverbial bitch might be in heat again, her hypnotizing effects are not only transparent, but are indeed resistible.

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Mia Siffin as The Actor and Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz as Arturo Ui in the Indiana University Theatre production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. [Photo: Kevin O. Mooney]


[1] Brecht, Bertolt; Ralph Manheim and John Willett (eds.). The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. London: Methuen, 1981.

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22nd Annual Focus on German Studies Conference at the University of Cincinnati – “The ‘Epic’ Bertolt Brecht”

by Ellen C. Chew and Seth Rodden

On 23 September 2017, the German Graduate Student Association of the University of Cincinnati hosted the 22nd Annual Focus on German Studies Conference, “The ‘Epic’ Bertolt Brecht,” coordinated by Ellen C. Chew. The conference highlighted the legacy of Brecht’s epic style in an interdisciplinary setting of music, theatre, film, and game studies. The conference was held in the University of Cincinnati’s Max Kade Center, from 9 a.m. to 5:15, followed by a recital given by Reilly Nelson, mezzo-soprano and Stephen Variames, piano.

The graduate student presenters included Drew Lichtenberg, Dramaturg at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. and Doctor of Fine Arts candidate in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism, Yale University; Ellen Chew, PhD Student, German Studies, University of Cincinnati; Brenda Lamboy, PhD Student, German Studies, University of Cincinnati; recent CCM Musicology graduate Dr. Alexandre Bádue, University of Cincinnati; and Dr. Evan Torner, Assistant Professor of German Studies, University of Cincinnati. The keynote speaker was Dr. Joy Calico, Professor of Musicology, Vanderbilt University.

Below in conference order, is a summary of each of the presentations:

Drew Lichtenberg’s talk focused on commonalities and divergences between Piscator’s and Brecht’s notions of epic theatre and their influence on contemporary avant-garde performance. It was a comprehensive overview of an often-overlooked man who shaped Brecht and the epic style.

Ellen C. Chew spoke about Brecht and Weill’s Die Sieben Todsünden and its unusual form, claiming that it could be a Brechtian-Wagnerian hybrid, or an “epic” Gesamtkunstwerk. The talk included engaging audio/visual clips of the scenes “Stolz” and “Zorn” from the Opéra National de Lyon’s 1993 production starring Teresa Stratas as Anna I and Nora Kimball as Anna II.

Dr. Joy Calico’s keynote centered on the legacy of the epic style in Regieoper, and the instrumental role of the director in challenging the audience to think about the text, rather than allowing it to be swayed by the beauty of the music. She used audio/visual clips from the Wiener Philharmoniker’s 1987 production of Don Giovanni directed by Peter Sellars as examples.

Brenda Lamboy spoke about the convergence of epic and Hollywood film styles in Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht’s Hangmen Also Die! She showed the opening scene of the film and asked the audience to what extent the epic style could be seen in a Hollywood film.

Dr. Evan Torner gave a talk on the legacy of the epic style through live action role playing games. He also gave this talk at the Baustelle Brecht conference in Berlin in June 2017. [See above for Evan Torner’s “Brecht, Moreno and the Role-Playing Game”]

Dr. Alexandre Bádue spoke about the influence of Brecht’s epic style in modern-day musical theater, focusing on Tony Kushner’s and Jeanine Tesori’s musical, Caroline, or Change. He spoke about the different alienation techniques which render the audience unable to empathize with Caroline.

Reilly Nelson and Stephen Variames concluded the program with a recital featuring selections of Brecht and Weill’s music from their collaborations. Nelson’s German diction was impeccable, and she was charismatic and theatrical in her delivery. The recital was a fitting and entertaining close to the day.

The conference was an edifying blend of interdisciplinary talks which fostered relationships between scholars who, despite their common work on Bertolt Brecht and the epic style, may not have otherwise come into dialogue.

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