Issue 2019:1

Essays and Reflections:
Bertolt Brecht and the Art of Adaptation: Comments on the Practical Applicability for Artists Today (Anthony Squiers)

When Silence Speaks Louder than Words: Tracing moments of Verfremdung in Contemporary Political Protests (Gerlov van Engelenhoven and Hannes Kaufmann)

Interview with Karl-Heinz Schoeps, Professor of German (Emeritus) at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana – An Interview About the International Brecht Society (Paula Hanssen)

Performance Reviews:
“Musik quillt aus mir”: Baal zwischen Theater und Konzert (Anja Hartl)

„Zur Selbstverständigung“: Bertolt Brechts Der Untergang des Egoisten Johann Fatzer am Theater Augsburg (Anja Hartl)

„Welcome to Japan, IKEBUKURO“ – „LOVE“ – Giorgio Barberio Corsetti inszeniert die Dreigroschenoper auf der Straße (Thomas Schwarz)

Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at the University of Oregon, director Michael Malek Najjar (Lisa Hoeller)

Conference Reports:
Baustelle Brecht II / Working with Brecht II (Elena Pnevmonidou)

Brecht in Chicago / Brecht and Chicago – Directors’ Roundtable (Stephen Brockman)

German Art in SoCal in German Art Conference (Courtney Yamagiwa, Glen Gray, and Luke Beller)

Amparo (Eugenio Monclova)

Bertolt Brecht and the Art of Adaptation: Comments on the Practical Applicability for Artists Today

by Anthony Squiers


This essay reconstructs Bertolt Brecht’s critical approach to adapting classical works. Its intention is to evaluate the practical applicability of Brecht’s approach for artists today—particularly those who seek to make progressive and revolutionary works of art. It argues that Brecht’s approach can be useful for artists wanting to make philosophically important statements while working against a context of existing, sedimented, socio-historical inter-textual or inter-pictorial representations.


Although Brecht is primarily known as a playwright and poet, over the last years, scholars have begun to realize that he’s also an important Marxist philosopher in his own right. Much of my work on Brecht focuses on reconstructing his philosophical positions to see what practical applicability they may have for artists today—particularly for those who seek to make progressive and revolutionary works of art. I believe that the way he approached his theatrical adaptations can teach us something useful when adapting texts or, if you are a visual artist, when working against the context of existing, sedimented inter-pictorial representations. The critical, historicized (i.e. defined in historically relative terms) meta-awareness he brought to the table when undertaking an adaptation permitted him to engage in a particular type of dialog with the author of the source text. Through comparisons and contrasts between his adapted text and the source material, one can reconstruct Brechtian positions on certain issues. The other side of that coin – and what is probably more relevant to this readership – is that if one brings a similar critical meta-awareness to their own art, they have a means of articulating philosophical points in relation to existing positions within analytic philosophy or art history. This is what I hope to show by examining Brecht’s art of the adaptation.

The Fabel

Brecht is perhaps known as much for his adaptations such as The Threepenny Opera, The Mother, The Tutor, Antigone, and Coriolanus as he is for his more original pieces. In these adaptations, Brecht uses the original story as base material, a general framework and an operational foundation for telling his own story. His adaptations share similarities with the originals, but they always differ in at least two fundamental ways. First, there are the obvious structural changes to the source texts. This includes things like: variances in the unfolding of events (e.g. the addition and deletion of scenes, temporal re-organisation, etc.), changes in the dialog and alterations in the actions of characters. Second, and more importantly, there are fundamental differences between what Brecht’s accounts reveal about the social world and what is revealed by the original. Most of the structural changes Brecht made were done toward this end. They were designed to reveal something Brecht wanted exposed, discovered or laid bare about the structures of social interaction; what implications those structures have on the material conditions people live under (and vice-versa); and what impact those conditions have on the behavior of individuals. In short, structural alterations were done in order to shape what Brecht referred to as the story’s ‘Fabel.’

The Fabel is, as Barnett (2015) succinctly captures, “an interpreted version of events” which examines “fictional events though the lens of real social contradictions” (p. 86, p. 89).  According to Brecht, it is “the theatre’s great operation, the complete fitting together of all the gestic incidents” (Brecht & Willett, 1992, p. 200).  By ‘gestic incident’ Brecht is referring to the “particular attitudes adopted by [one person] toward other” people (Brecht, Rorrison & Willett, 1993, p. 104). For Brecht, these attitudes are a product of historically determined social relations. The attitudes reveal something about those relations and are divulged through one’s actions, physical movements and words. In sum, the Fabel is Brecht’s particular telling of a story, a telling which seeks to reveal the ‘truth’ (as he sees it) about social relations.

The Fabel and the Adaptation

In the development of his literary works, the shaping of a story’s Fabel was a matter of great concern for Brecht. In his words, “Everything hangs on the [Fabel]; it is the heart of the theatrical performance. For it is what happens between people that provides them with all the material that they can discuss, criticise, alter” (Brecht & Willett, 1992, p. 200). This is the case for both original and adapted works where the objective was to reveal something about social relations. For Brecht, this required a certain approach or attitude when adapting the works of others. In his words, one shouldn’t be “afraid of being accused of vandalism. Fear of vandalism turned people into philistines” (Brecht, et. al., 2003, p. 79). What was important was to treat the source material as a useful implement in the pursuit of telling a story that revealed the ‘truth’ about the social relations.

Adaptation and Estrangement Effects

Brecht spent considerable amounts of his intellectual energies figuring out ways to reveal sociological ‘truths.’ In order to be successful at this, however, he believed a sort of overcoming or end-around of the hegemonic (bourgeois) ideological order was required. What was needed, according to Brecht, was ‘de-familiarisation,’ something which would nudge the audience past the obfuscation of bourgeois ideology—an ideology which he believed had fully penetrated the theatre, turning the audience “into a cowed, credulous, hypnotized mass” (Brecht & Willett, 1992, p. 188). Brecht attempted to achieve de-familiarisation through his famous “estrangement effects.” These were techniques he hoped would produce a critical, cognitive detachment between the audience and what they were seeing represented. In short, the idea was to make the familiar world seem unfamiliar by turning the audience into self-reflective anthropologists who would ask themselves sociological and historical questions about the material conditions and social relations of their time. Ultimately, Brecht hoped that they would come to see these conditions and relations as mutable and that his work would awaken in his audience a revolutionary impulse to change them (Squiers, 2014).

“Estrangement effects” are often associated with developments Brecht made in the physical production of theatrical works (e.g. approaches to acting or the use of various props and lighting techniques). But elements within the text itself were also designed to estrange. This can be seen by looking at Brecht’s adaptations. For Brecht, there was a use-value in the literary heritage. He states, “[It] must teach us how to make something new…there is much to be learnt from [it]. The invention of socially significant stories, the art of narrating them dramatically, the creation of interesting persons, the care for language, the putting forward of great ideas and the support of all that leads to social progress” (Brecht & Willett, 1992, p. 251). These elements, according to Brecht “were philosophical, dynamic” (Brecht & Willett, 1992, p. 36).

But, the literary heritage also carried baggage. It was ‘culinary’ as he put it—by which he meant that it strove for no higher purpose than being consumed by the audience, in a passive and uncritical way. Furthermore, it also “had been smothered” by the dominant (i.e. bourgeois) theatrical aesthetic (Brecht & Willett, 1992, p. 39). So, there were things that needed to be overcome, if one wanted to use the literary heritage as a ‘weapon,’ as Brecht would say—a useful implement in a revolutionary aesthetic. This is where Brecht’s estrangement effects come into play. As he states, “From the start the classical repertoire supplied the basis… [but] The artistic means of [Estrangement] made possible a broad approach to the living works of dramatists of other periods” (Brecht & Willett, 1992, p. 134>). Brecht made changes to classic stories which were familiar and taken-for-granted in an effort to get his audience to see them anew and to allow something about social relations to be revealed. Effectively, these alterations served to estrange the audience from that with which they were familiar, forcing them to understand the story afresh, as if for the first time.

The Fabel and Philosophical Discourse

As was mention already, Brecht’s manipulation of classic texts had the primary purpose of revealing a certain Fabel. To do this, Brecht needed to be aware of the source text’s socio-historical context and that of his own when crafting his adaptations. We see this type of awareness in some primary sources, for example ‘Study of the First Scene of Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus,’’ which is a transcript of a conversation between Brecht and some of his actors which provides insights into the creative process undertaken during the making of that particular adaptation (Brecht & Willett, 1992, p. 252-265). In it, there are frequent references to the source text made by Brecht and others involved in the process. They analyze its signs from a socio-historical context, evaluate them, critique them and use their critique as the basis for changes to the source text that get realized as rearrangements and re-orientations of signs in Brecht’s adaptation.

In this adaptive process there is an engagement with the original text which, broadly speaking, looks to identify two things: 1) the ideas of value contained in the original (i.e. the gestic incidents—the divulged historically determined social relations through the articulation of the play’s signs e.g. actions, movements, words, objects) and 2) what the original had obscured or missed. The goal was to produce an adapted work which could bring out the gestic incidents of the original and clarify that which has been masked. In this way, the adapted work stands as a commentary on or critique of the source text. Simply put, it’s a statement on what the source text got right and what it got wrong about social relations.

In sum, in the formation of an adaptation’s Fabel, Brecht engages in a particular type of dialog with the author of the source text. The dialog exists in the comparison and contrast between the source text and the modified text. The Fabel is the product of an evaluative process concerned with accurately representing how the world really is. The familiar representation of the world offered in the original is critiqued by the adaptation’s Fabel and thus the adaptation is a type of counter-argument to the original. This dialog is philosophical because it is concerned with making true statements, and in attempting to do so, it argues against the ideas of others.


I will conclude by looking at how Brecht’s ideas have practical applicability for today’s artists, especially those engaged in revolutionary endeavors. To do this, we must first know a little about cognitive psychology. As Zerubavel (1985) points out, “[o]ne of the major contentions of cognitive psychology is that [humans] essentially [perceive] objects as some sort of ‘figures’ against some ‘ground’” (p. 19). In other words, objects like the signs or representations artists use are made sense of by contextualizing them, that is, by applying them to some frame of reference.

However, Garfinkel (1984) has shown that through social interaction and processes of socialization, these frames of reference become standard and normalized within a given social group. The normalized frames of understanding then reproduce “[c]ommon sense knowledge of the facts of social life for the members of the society” (p. 53). This means that a commonsense knowledge is established as customary or normal and also that it becomes routinized or more accurately serves as the basis of routinized meaning formation. In turn, these commonsense, taken-for-granted forms of knowledge rarely reach the level of critical reflection by individuals within the society. As Berger and Luckmann (1967) point out, “[c]ommonsense contains innumerable pre- and quasi-scientific interpretations about everyday reality, which it takes for granted” (p. 20). What all this means is that certain ways of seeing the world become entrenched in society and these entrenched ways of seeing the world stand as obstacles to progressive social change. They inhibit imaginary potential.  They resist it, are openly hostile to it. Here, then, we can see precisely what a revolutionary artist is up against—routinized ways of understanding the world.

From the perspective of the artist this phenomenon manifests in the repetition of signs in historically determined inter-textual or inter-pictorial contexts that seem natural to most people. The challenge is to be able to reproduce these signs in a way which draws attention not just to the sign but to the historically determined contexts within which the spectators are accustomed to encounter the sign. This is where Brecht’s ideas may be of use. By focusing on the association a sign has to current social relations—its standard socially determined meaning—the artist has a better chance of revealing those social relations to the spectator. This in turn could force them to re-evaluate the default ways of interpreting and knowing the image or story and shake them loose from the matter-of-fact, taken-for-granted ways they are accustomed to interpreting the various representations which have permeated, persisted and sedimented through the years in analytic philosophy and the history of art.

History is replete with examples of the types of social development which stem from these kinds of cognitive breaks. If an artist brings a critical socio-historical meta-awareness similar to the one Brecht offered to their own art, they have a means of articulating philosophical points and making original contributions to social thought—and maybe even changing the world.


Barnett, D. (2015). Brecht in practice: Theatre, theory and performance. New York: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1967). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Brecht, B., & Willett, J. (1992). Brecht on theatre: The development of an aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang.

Brecht, B., Kuhn, T., Giles, S., & Bradley, L. J. R. (2003). Brecht on art and politics. London: Methuen.

Brecht, B., Rorrison, H., & Willett, J. (1993). Journals: [1934-1955]. London: Methuen.

Garfinkel, H. (1984). Studies in ethnomethodology: Social and political theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Squiers, A. (2014). An introduction to the social and political philosophy of Bertolt Brecht: Revolution and aesthetics. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Zerubavel, E. (1985). Hidden rhythms: Schedules and calendars in social life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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When Silence Speaks Louder than Words: Tracing moments of Verfremdung in Contemporary Political Protests

by Gerlov van Engelenhoven and Hannes Kaufmann

International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture, Giessen

In a short part of a dialogue in Brecht’s Conversations in Exile, one of the protagonists, Kalle, states:

The passport is the most noble part of a human being. It is also not as easily created as a human being. Humans can be created anywhere, in the silliest ways and without a real reason, but never so a passport. That is why when it is good, it will be acknowledged, whereas a human being can strive to be as good as they can, and yet remain unrecognized.[1]

The second protagonist, Ziffel, responds: “One could say that the human being is the mechanical bearer of a passport.”[2]. This sounds strange to our ears, rather like an inversion of what we think and know – in German one could call it befremdlich. And the core of this term, fremd, is essential to understanding figures of Brechtian critique. It appears in various forms in Brecht’s dialectical conception of theatre, ranging from Entfremdung (alienation), as the Marxist stream of theory prominent in early 20th century, via the experience of being fremd (alien) or a Fremder (stranger) in exile, to Brecht’s formula of Verfremdung and the Verfremdungseffekt (sometimes translated as alienation, too, or A-effect, cf. Willet, 1974; sometimes translated as estrangement or defamiliarization, cf. Jameson, 1998). Those different terms, all stemming from the word fremd in one or another way should not be mixed up, although they should not be regarded as completely detached from each other either. As Brecht’s friend Ernst Bloch noted in a reflection on the V-effekt: “Alienation, estrangement: the terms are bound together by the alien, the external; yet in them evil and beneficent modes of experience can be distinguished in specific, very particular ways.”[3]

As Bloch puts it, there is a strong connection between alienation, estrangement and the alien. One perspective in this relation that could be drawn as a line between the alien (fremd) and alienation (Entfremdung), via estrangement or defamiliarization (Verfremdung), shall be drawn in this paper: those who are marked as alien can work against forms of exclusive alienation via means of defamiliarization. As we will point out, these Brechtian terms play a major role not just in theatre, but in political activism as well. So, we will unfold ways of Verfremdung in the sense of Bloch’s “beneficent modes of experience”[4] that lead strangers to a critique of alienation. However, our two case studies focus not directly on theatre, but rather feature groups of figures that approximate Brechtian protagonists, in that they are often constructed as strangers by their social surrounding.

The first case study concerns a group of Iranian refugees in Würzburg, who publicly sewed their mouths shut in 2012. This shocking form of self-silencing was a way to protest their lack of legal and political recognition. The second case study concerns a group of Dutch-Indonesian de-colonial activists, who have since 2016 raised awareness for the colonial glorification which they argue is present in Dutch society’s use of monuments. What sets this group apart from other activists is that they systematically refuse to speak to the press, claiming that speaking within these established discourses is like not speaking at all: i.e., such coverage would result in the silencing of their political voice because it would be filtered through the press’s predetermined stance on the topic at hand.

What both case studies have in common is a gesture of self-silencing: i.e. a dramatic withdrawal from the theatrical stage on which pre-determined dominant discourses act out political discussions, and where the voices of, respectively, refugees and postcolonial subjects, usually play no role. By interpreting these protests through Brechtian theory, we will explore (1) how a dramatic, self-silencing approach to protest can result in a sense of Verfremdung in society; (2) how this method of Verfremdung can function as a strategy for political empowerment; (3) what effects this method can have on usually unquestioned authority positions, such as that of the government and that of the national press.

Our focus on refugees and postcolonial citizens, i.e. subjects who often are, or feel like they are, considered to be “strangers”, parallels Brecht’s strategy of employing different types of strangers to develop his social critique. Kalle and Ziffel, from the above-mentioned Conversations in Exile, are strangers due to their fate as forced exiles. In the course of their discussion they argue: “Emigration is the best school of dialectics. Refugees are the sharpest dialecticians. They are refugees due to transformations and they study nothing but transformation.”[5] Before we turn to our groups of ‘sharpest dialecticians’, we will first outline our understanding of Brecht’s V-effekt.

The V-effekt in theatre and in everyday life

The V-effekt, and the term Verfremdung as such, are complicated concepts in Brecht’s theory of theatre, and transferring them to daily politics will make them by no means easier to grasp. These complex concepts concern certain aims such as provoking reflection in the audience, breaking its “perceptual numbness”[6], denaturalizing historical proceedings and pointing to their contingency: showing that society has not come to its current state in a natural process, but was formed by its subjects and thus can be changed by them as well. Those aims are to be reached by means such as breaking the fourth wall, over-acting, actors distancing themselves from their roles and techniques like speaking out stage directions.[7] In theatre, as well as in our daily lives, we experience such moments of Verfremdung; as Brecht states, he brings them from everyday life to theatre – they are “something utterly ordinary”. He continues:

The [V-effekt] consists in turning the object of which one is to be made aware, to which one’s attention is to be drawn, from something ordinary, familiar, immediately accessible, into something peculiar, striking and unexpected. What is obvious is in a certain sense made incomprehensible, but this is only in order that it may then be made all the easier to comprehend. Before familiarity can turn into awareness the familiar must be stripped of its inconspicuousness; we must give up assuming that the object in question needs no explanation.[8]

In what follows, we will apply these and similar considerations about Verfremdung to the everyday and political lives of refugees and migrants. However, by using theatrical techniques and theories for these real-life case studies, we do not aim to depict political protest as a form of theatre. Instead, we want to take the political side of the writer Brecht seriously and thus also the possibility of widening his dialectical theory to other areas of public life. Or in the words of Brecht’s Me-Ti:

It’s advantageous not just to think according to the Great Method but also to live according to the Great Method. Not being at one with yourself, forcing yourself into crisis, turning small changes into large ones and so forth, you cannot only observe all of this, you can also do it. You can live with more or fewer interventions in more or fewer contexts. You can achieve or aim for a lasting change of consciousness by changing your social existence. You can help to make the state institutions contradictory and capable of development.[9]

In our initial quote on the humans as “mechanical bearers of passports”, the V-effekt consists of ironically discussing the fetishistic relationship between the human being and his passport. The seemingly affirmative take on the absolute overturning of means and ends, culminating in the ascription of an independent life to the passport, which instrumentalizes its bearer, is meant to provoke the audience’s reflection on matters of social exclusion due to and through legal relations, and aims at making such “state institutions contradictory.”[10]

Unfamiliar activism: The Würzburg case

A real-life example that challenges this particular problem outside theatre could be observed in Würzburg in 2012 and on many other occasions, especially from 2015 onward. Here, refugees were placed into a special “community camp” (Gemeinschaftsunterkunft) until there would be a decision on their legal status, which in some cases took more than five years.[11] The living conditions there were characterized by a lack of privacy, paired with legal provisions such as forced residence, food packs instead of financial aid, insufficient support for German language courses, and a prohibition on working. This isolation, combined with the lack of progress in the processing of their applications for asylum, led to increasing protest.[12] After Mohammad Rahsepar, one of the refugees, committed suicide in January 2012, a group of Iranian refugees in the camp grew tired of waiting for the legal apparatus to do (or not do) its work, and decided to bring their protest to the streets.

They built up a tent in front of the town hall and went on a hunger strike. While there were different direct political aims, primarily the recognition of their applications for asylum, one core demand on a metapolitical level was to speak directly to the responsible officials, especially Christine Haderthauer, Minister of Social Affairs in Bavaria at the time (2008 – 2013). They interrupted their protest only after seventeen days of hunger strike, when they were invited to a conversation with several officials from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, from the Ministry of Social Affairs (notably not Haderthauer herself, but a delegate) and the local government.[13]

As the first conversations did not bring the intended improvements, the hunger strike was taken up again from end of April till mid-May, when four of the activists were recognized as political refugees.[14] Because the high-ranking officials (especially Haderthauer, who had the ability to bring broader changes to the overall situation) still refused to talk to the activists, they started a third phase of hunger strike and published a press release on the 4th of June 2012, stating that “everything has been said” and there was no reaction, so they would go one step further and sew their lips shut.[15]

By sewing their lips shut, this group of refugees did not only emphasize how serious they were about the hunger strike, they also added two more features to their protest: first, they actively inflicted harm upon themselves and therefore, in continuation of their hunger strike, turned their bodies even further into the stage – or rather, podium, as we will elaborate in the next section – of their protest. And second, taken together with the statement that “everything has been said,” they dramatically pointed out that they are systematically silenced or at least not listened to.

Coming back to Brechtian theory, one could understand those events as an instance of the production of Verfremdung, that is, pointing to a human-made and thus transformable situation, where legal documents decide on who is perceived as a legitimate actor and who is not. Because of having either no papers or the incorrect ones, the group of refugees was banished to the camp and forced to be passive spectators of their own destiny. In Brechtian terms, we could say that they turned the “theatrical” situation (in which the official politics work according to a script that disregards the unbearable circumstances of the refugees) into a “dramatic” intervention.[16] They dramatized the situation by interrupting the system of representation and pointing to their situation by acting out their forced silence: the sewing shut of their lips represents at once their lack of political voice, and the direct physical harm that it causes. In Brecht’s terms, the “natural” becomes the “startling” through use of the V-effekt.[17] While it was considered “natural” that asylum seekers were silent, to such an extent that most of the citizens did not even think about them at all, or perceived them as mere passive help-seekers. Their public display of being silenced startled the general public and changed the structure of the political stage by presenting the situation as something exceptional.

Acting on stage, action on the podium

In his first version of What is Epic Theatre? Walter Benjamin writes: “The point at issue in the theatre today can be more accurately defined in relation to the stage than to the play.”[18] For Benjamin, the crucial issue of Epic Theatre is that the stage is no longer separated from the audience. The spectators are not passively watching. The stage is turned into a political podium from which the audience is directly addressed and urged into the action. He emphasizes that in the didactic plays (Lehrstücke, or learning plays), the methods of Epic Theatre are more directly or openly applied,[19] which results in an interchangeability of actors and spectators. This is crucial for discussing and understanding the effects of political interventions in terms of Brechtian theatre theory.

Referring exactly to this opposition between stage and podium, Frans-Willem Korsten discusses two different concepts, namely “theatricality” and “dramatization”. While theatricality describes a fixed situation that is staged according to given directives and played out before an audience, “dramatization” means the active transformation of a stage into a podium, by involving the audience in the play. As such, Korsten’s use of the term “drama” differs from that of Brecht, in that the latter conceptualizes it as the opposite of Epic Theatre (i.e. Aristotelian theatre), whereas for Korsten, dramatization refers exactly to the turn from Aristotelian to Epic Theatre. Korsten bases this argumentative turn on the etymological root of the word, i.e. the ancient Greek word “drân” (δρᾶν), which means “action” or “acting”. Or as Benjamin has it: “One may regard epic theatre as more dramatic than the dialogue (it is not always): but epic theatre need not, for that reason, be any the less philosophical.”[20] So, as an opposite to theatricality, which is the staged representation of events, dramatization refers to the spontaneous action that includes the audience on the podium and combines drama with (philosophical) reflection. Subsequently, Korsten concretizes these those two abstract concepts by using them beyond the limits of theatre, in the realm of law and politics. In a text written together with Tessa de Zeeuw, he states the following:

Rather than the theatricality that structures a legal order – the staging of the power of the law in front of an audience for the sake of legitimation – dramatization implies a situational frame in which bodies act on their desire for becoming, their desire to subsist, in relation to one another, without the architectural organization that separates actors and audience.[21]

Theatricality, then, is a framework that is aimed at control. In Aristotelian theatre, which works with linear plot structures and attempts to control the audience’s reactions and avoid their active participation, one can see a representation of the status quo. It works towards the audience’s empathy and lets it accompany the protagonists passively, from a predetermined starting point through the scripted story towards a cathartic end. Although theatricality (in the sense used here) might represent dialectical proceedings, these are steered toward a given end-point, a fixed order. Epic Theatre instead works towards disrupting, dramatizing this order, cutting the plot into pieces, overacting and thus producing Verfremdung that offers space for reflection and intervention, it opens up dialectical thought instead of closing it.[22] Rather than empathy, it aims to address reason and provoke transformation. Still, this does not mean disregarding emotions. “It is the downright task of non-Aristotelian drama to prove wrong the assumption of vulgar aesthetics, stipulating that emotion cannot be provoked but by empathy.”[23]

The precarity of Verfremdung in political protest

Coming back to the case study of the refugee activists in Würzburg, one could say that the Brechtian strategies of producing Verfremdung, and thereby opening up the possibility of change, might be effective in the political realm as well. This case shows indeed that “silence might speak louder than words,” if it is successful in producing this shift from a theatrical administered experience to an empowering dramatization, if it can turn the divided stage into a shared podium, and turn those who are forced to be spectators into recognized, political actors. Of course, this recognition was just one of the original demands, but it was a first – and, we would say, important – step. Once the refugees had entered the discussion as recognized participants, claims about their circumstances could be adequately articulated and no longer be ignored – which did of course not automatically lead to change: the question of whether or not their passports would be recognized remained unresolved for some of the protesters.

But there is another side of the story as it continues. One year after the hunger strike, in 2013, Christine Haderthauer finally visited the camp, to demonstrate her “good intentions.” It looked like the goal of being recognized as equal political actors would be reached and the stage would completely turn into a podium, because – to take up the theatrical terms – the playwright and the previously passive spectators now came together. But what actually happened is that Haderthauer visited the camp without speaking to the refugee activists. She talked to the volunteers and the representatives of charities working there, but when some of the activists tried to speak to her as she attempted to leave, the situation took another turn. Instead of conversing with the activists, Haderthauer entered her car and refused to speak with them. When the activists then blocked the way, Haderthauer hid out in her car for ten minutes instead of responding to the claims directed towards her.[24]

In this way, as before, Haderthauer tried to control the story by refusing the complete transformation from stage to podium. She visited the camp in a signal to the readers of newspapers that she takes the refugees seriously, yet she refused to speak to them directly. Instead, she listened only to versions of their concerns filtered via the volunteers and charity organisations. The same thing happened the year before, when Haderthauer sent a delegate to Würzburg in April 2012. This could be seen as an attempt to keep the stage separated from the audience, knowing that the control over the (hi)story would be lost then. With the first action, i.e., the sewing of their lips, the activists were successful at least to some extent in challenging this order, as they dramatized their situation of being silenced, thus shifting from vocal protest to a form of gestural protest that was visible to a broad public. However, the second action, i.e., blocking the Minister’s car behind the fence of the camp, was not effective. Although, the incident was reported in the media and provoked debates in the Bavarian parliament about the “cold-heartedness” of Haderthauer,[25] the situational frame was gone, and the action just became one more point in the plot. The debate then turned to the question of a lack of empathy for the refugees seeking help, which passivized the activists again, turning them into people who are in need of empathy and representation.

What this case study implies, is that if vocal attempts to attain political recognition are all silenced and neutralized, a more productive strategy for being noticed might be to dramatize one’s unheard and unseen social position. Such dramatic gestures, like the refugees publicly sewing up their mouths, may interrupt the ordinary course of events, as a way to urge passive spectators of these events towards more active social participation. The two terms emphasized in the previous sentence, gesture and interruption, are derived from Walter Benjamin’s analyses of Brecht’s Epic Theatre and the Verfremdung it aims to provoke. Both terms will be elaborated further during the following case study analysis, which concerns public protests against glorification of the colonial era, in order to explore what effects Verfremdung can have on the authority of the national press.

The Depressing Age vs. The Golden Age

Since the early 2010s, the Netherlands has been facing what national newspapers, somewhat exaggeratedly, have referred to as ‘iconoclasm’: i.e., a gradual increase of instances of vandalism against colonial monuments. Several often-anonymous activist groups have started spray-painting slogans on statues and monuments that commemorate colonial figures and events, criticizing what they claim is a form of glorification of colonialism. The activist group known as De Grauwe Eeuw takes a leading position in this de-colonial movement. This Dutch name translates to something along the lines of “The Depressing Age,” and is a play on words referring to De Gouden Eeuw (“The Golden Age”).

The Golden Age is a particularly prosperous chapter in Dutch national history. The term refers to the seventeenth century, when the Dutch trading company voc (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, “United East-Indies Company”) effected a global monopoly on spices. This monopoly was established in a rather controversial way by the voc’s governor-general Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1587-1629). Coen knew that a potential power center for the global spice trade was located on the Banda islands, in the eastern part of what is currently known as Indonesia. The Banda islands were home to large amounts of spice plantations, and its population was known to trade with the highest bidder. In 1621, Coen arrived on Banda with a group of 2,000 Dutch soldiers, and over the next few months killed nearly all 15,000 of the region’s inhabitants. The less than 1,000 survivors were deported as slaves to Batavia (now known as the Indonesian capital city Jakarta). The Banda islands themselves were repopulated with slaves from other parts of the Dutch colonial empire, who were then forced to work on the spice plantations. This system was the way in which Coen established the spice monopoly that prompted the Golden Age.

As mentioned, the activist group De Grauwe Eeuw, “the depressing age,” are amongst those protesters who criticize the way in which this cruel history is remembered in Dutch collective memory, i.e. as a proud story of conquest and domination. This proud interpretation is maintained, among other ways, through public symbols such as statues and monuments honoring this history. Like many colonial leaders, Coen received a statue in honor of his legacy in the late nineteenth century, which still stands on the central square of Hoorn the town of his birth. On their Twitter account (@DeGrauwEeuw [sic]), the anonymous group profiles itself as “The counter-reaction to the glorification of the Golden Age.” As such, the group has claimed responsibility for a series of slogans that were spray-painted on several colonial monuments in the night of 24 October 2016. They painted “Get rid of colonial glorification” on a monument for Willem IJsbrantszoon Bontekoe, a contemporary and colleague of Coen. On Coen’s statue they had spray-painted the word “genocide”. A post on their Facebook page explained the motivation behind the actions by stating that “[c]olonial glorification leads to the normalization of genocide, as well as to the normalization of large-scale plundering of land and natural resources. This is one of many actions that will follow throughout the country.”[26] The group was active all throughout 2017 as well, protesting against a wide array of colonial references in Dutch society, including other monuments, street names, and racist elements in national and local festivals, often through similar forms of disrupting the public order.

Interrupting the status quo through gestural protest

This overview of the group’s actions over the last two years points towards a characteristic element of the De Grauwe Eeuw’s modus operandi: they never participate in public demonstrations and hardly ever reveal themselves. Instead, they work from a more invisible and sudden angle, destabilizing the daily order of things with an ongoing series of brief interruptions in the public space. Walter Benjamin identifies this strategy of interruption as a form of creating gestures. The gesture, to him, is “one of the principal concerns of epic theatre,”[27] because it is the most straightforward way towards Verfremdung: “This uncovering (making strange, or alienating) of conditions is brought about by processes of being interrupted.”[28] Such interruptions were meant to complicate the possibility for the audience to empathize with the actors or to identify with the action on stage, and as such make it impossible for the depicted events to come across to them as natural. This technique, argues Benjamin, “has an organizing function. It brings the action to a standstill in mid-course and thereby compels the spectator to take up a position towards the action […].”[29]

This theory provides several tools to analyze the political purpose of De Grauwe Eeuw’s approach to public protest. Colonial statues and monuments, with their constant and usually unquestioned presence in citizens’ daily lives, uphold a certain plot, in the Aristotelian sense, which naturalizes these citizens’ conditions. This plot and these conditions include, for instance, a filtered, euphemized understanding of the self, based on a fragmented knowledge of colonial history. Concerning this fragmented knowledge, postcolonial theorist Gloria Wekker writes the following:

There was until the last decade of the twentieth century, a stark juxtaposition between the Dutch imperial presence in the world, since the sixteenth century, and its almost total absence in the Dutch educational curriculum, in self-image and self-representations such as monuments, literature, and debates about Dutch identity […].[30]

Such selective self-representation has led to what Wekker has identified as a sustained illusion she calls “white innocence,” which according to her is “a dominant way in which the Dutch think of themselves, as being a small, but just, ethical nation; color-blind, thus free of racism; as being inherently on the moral and ethical high ground, thus a guiding light to other folks and nations.”[31]

The constant presence of colonial monuments in people’s daily lives contributes to upholding this sustained illusion of innocence, by naturalizing figures such as Coen or Bontekoe, both of whom, however, played pivotal roles in histories of oppression. Because De Grauwe Eeuw continuously interrupts this illusion through gestures of activism, what happens is that, in Benjamin’s words, “the false and deceptive totality called ‘audience’ begins to disintegrate and there is new space for the formation of separate parties within it.”[32] In other words, De Grauwe Eeuw’s strategy of protest interrupts the coherence of Dutch postcolonial identity, dividing the mass of society into different smaller groups. Through this fragmentation, portions of society are enabled to distance themselves from the naturalized understanding of national history as it is orchestrated through public symbols, and as such, they are enabled to actively work towards their own interpretations of history. Or in the words of Benjamin: “The interrupting of action always works against creating an illusion among the audience [and] does not reproduce conditions; rather, it discloses, it uncovers them.”[33]

Unmasking the theatrocratia of the press

In this situation, a special role is reserved for the national press. According to Benjamin, one of the things that Brecht’s gestural approach to theatre interrupts, is the usually unquestioned authority of critics, or the press in general. As agents of valuation, and as mediators between theatre and audience, their task corresponds to what Benjamin calls a “theatrocratia,” a term he defines as “the use of theatre to dominate the masses by manipulating their reflexes and sensations – the exact opposite of responsible collectives freely choosing their positions.”[34] Through Brechtian gestures, Epic Theatre therefore aims to uncover the silent authority of the critic. This happens, says Benjamin, by attempting to have the critic’s “nature as agent revealed and, at the same time, devalued.”[35] Brecht himself explained his animosity towards the press as follows:

Great apparati, like […] the press, […] impose their views as it were incognito, [which has] tremendous consequences [for writers] to which far too little attention is paid. For by imagining that they have got hold of an apparatus which in fact has got hold of them they are supporting an apparatus which is out of their control, which is no longer (as they believe) a means of furthering output but has become an obstacle to output, and specifically to their own output as soon as it follows a new and original course which the apparatus finds awkward or opposed to its own aims.[36]

In other words, according to Brecht, the press should not be seen as a channel through which writers can reach their audience, but as an obstacle to this aim: “Society absorbs via the apparatus whatever it needs in order to reproduce itself.”[37] It is such reproduction of naturalized conditions that Brecht’s gestures aim to interrupt.

Correspondingly, the activist group De Grauwe Eeuw seems to operate with a similar distrust towards the press, as they are known to systematically refuse to talk to national news media. In a blog post from 2017, they motivate this attitude in a way that to great extent reflects that of Brecht:

Because of our policy concerning mainstream white media […] we often get surprised or even indignant responses. Yes, there will undoubtedly be journalists who have good intentions […], but even those generally still work for white newsrooms […] that benefit from publishing news about racism as indifferently and inaccurately as possible. [These journalists] think that we need them, that we want their opinions and that, above all, we need the approval of white people. And yet, we do NOT [sic] need any of these things.[38]

This fragment indicates that the activist group shares with Benjamin the belief that “the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication is capable of assimilating, indeed of propagating, an astonishing amount of revolutionary themes without ever seriously putting into question its own continued existence or that of the class which owns it.”[39] Benjamin’s argument is directly addressed against the communication of revolutionary, socialist messages through channels that are owned by the enemies of these revolutionaries, i.e., the bourgeoisie. In the case of De Grauwe Eeuw, their messages are de-colonial, and the press is owned by those whom they argue are their respective enemies, i.e., the white, dominant part of Dutch society that benefits from the heritage of colonialism.

If the group’s actions take shape in the form of interruptive gestures that reveal and criticize some social conditions that are usually taken for granted, and if the national press is an apparatus that works towards the opposite purpose (i.e., to reproduce and naturalize those conditions): then for the group to accept a voice within this theatrocratia of the press, would be to lose its critical potential and to be re-neutralized as a passive spectator of society’s Aristotelian plot. This plot is written by journalists and other agents of normality, from which De Grauwe Eeuw tries to achieve a sense of Verfremdung. For this reason, the group prefers a position of self-inflicted silence (on that specific stage) to a situation in which they would have a voice that could be used against them.

One striking effect of De Grauwe Eeuw’s strategy of self-silencing is that the only option which journalists have if they wish to involve the group in their theatre of representation is to directly quote the group’s statements of refusal in their articles. For example, in a piece for national newspaper nrc, journalist Christiaan Weijts relates that “I would have been happy to start a conversation with them, but the anonymous group informed me via the internet that they refuse to talk to the press: ‘We are not looking for a dialogue; it is the task of white Europeans themselves to educate each other about their past.’”[40] As such, these episodic quotations further the group’s gestural approach to protest, in that they interrupt the possibility of an ongoing conversation that would be controlled by the press, because the group realizes that such a conversation would re-neutralize their critical potential in society. They would be tolerated and thereby implicitly be derived of their agency or political voice.

Moreover, by interrupting this process of neutralization, the press itself is uncovered as an incognito agent of self-reproduction that loses much of its initial authority when the actors on its stage refuse to comply with their pre-written parts, and instead start acting autonomously. In short, the media’s theatrical plot reproduces unproblematized self-identifications of Dutch innocence. De Grauwe Eeuw interrupts this process by refusing to take part on the media’s stage. Thereby, they turn that stage into a political podium, writing their own roles instead of accepting the ones granted to them, which urges Dutch citizens to actively develop their own, individual, critical interpretations towards their shared colonial past.


De Grauwe Eeuw’s and the Würzburg refugees’ approaches to protest might at first sight appear to be unproductive forms of self-silencing. However, understood as forms of, or attempts at, Verfremdung, these protests can instead also be interpreted as an autonomous form of societal participation, which protects these actors from having to compromise their political voice. At the same time, they reveal the press to be a manipulative, neutralizing and naturalizing apparatus. As such, and contradictory as it may sound, political voices sometimes speak loudest through strategies of selective silence. By acting in this way, the activists are taking a position, and exactly by these means, they uncover the alleged neutrality of the apparati as a dominant power position that has the agency to grant or take away the political voice of others. This can happen only from the margins of the stage, from the perspective of the aliens or strangers who point at the strangeness of social and political structures.

Having said this, however, the margins cannot exist without the center. Protest does not evolve out of nowhere, but from the contradictions between these two positions. Brecht’s dialectical conception of theatre cannot work without Aristotelian configurations, but rather functions exactly in reaction to them, i.e., by estranging them and uncovering their contingency, as Joseph Dial puts it.[41] The same goes for political protest: the political status quo, in which refugees lack political voice, or in which colonial history is glorified rather than critically assessed, has to be exposed to be recognised as clotted action, that, once dramatized, might start to flow again. As our case studies have shown, this struggle between the theatrical order and its attempt to keep control over the situation, opposed by dramatical interventions aiming at open contestation, introduces precarious situations. By refusing “only” to be tolerated, being assigned a certain role in the normalizing discourse in the case of De Grauwe Eeuw, and by acting out the “stage-directions,” namely being silent, in the case of the refugee activists – in short: by dramatizing the theatrical situation, the status quo is shaken, and space is opened for change.

Therefore, it might be necessary to take a closer look at the mutual dependency of forms of theatricality and dramatization, of stage and podium, of Verfremdung and status quo: can political interventions of the kind we have discussed completely overcome conditions of oppression?  Or, given their dependency upon the framework which they aim to shake, must such activism eventually lead to a permanent state of struggle? As a critical more than utopian thinker, Brecht seems to provide a pragmatic answer here:

Now it’s certain that what we have is disorder, and what we are planning is order, but the new arises out of the old and is its next stage. We are trying to bring about less, something quite different, to which there is no access, rather than taking the next step, that is to say, drawing the conclusion from what already exists. The new comes about by upheaving, continuing, developing the old.[42]

[Editors’ note: A review of the presentation from the conference “Baustelle Brecht II” by Elena Pnevmonidou appears in this issue]


[1] Brecht, Bertolt. “Flüchtlingsgespräche.” Gesammelte Werke in 20 Bänden, Volume 14. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968: 1383. Our translation; original: “Der Paß ist der edelste Teil eines Menschen. Er kommt auch nicht auf so einfache Weise zustand wie ein Mensch. Ein Mensch kann überall zustandkommen, auf die leichtsinnigste Art und ohne gescheiten Grund, aber ein Paß niemals. Dafür wird er auch anerkannt, wenn er gut ist, während ein Mensch noch so gut sein kann und doch nicht anerkannt wird.“

[2] (ibid.), original: “Man kann sagen, der Mensch ist nur der mechanische Halter eines Passes.”

[3] Bloch Ernst. “‘Entfremdung, Verfremdung‘: Alienation, Estrangement.” The Drama Review: TDR 15/1, 1970: 121. In the German original one can see the emphasis on the word fremd: “Entfremdung, Verfremdung: sie sind durch Fremdes Äußeres verbunden, und doch trennen sich darin, auf eigene, besonders erfahrbare Art ein schlechtes und helfendes Abheben.“ (Bloch, Ernst. “Entfremdung, Verfremdung.” Literarische Aufsätze. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984: 278)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brecht, supra note 1 at 1462. Our translation; original: “Die beste Schul für Dialektik ist die Emigration. Die schärfsten Dialektiker sind die Flüchtlinge. Sie sind Flüchtlinge infolge von Veränderungen und sie studieren nichts als Veränderungen.”

[6] Jameson, Fredric.  Brecht and Method, London/New York: Verso, 1998: 39.

[7] Cf. Brecht, Bertolt. “Short Description of a New Technique of Acting Which Produces an Alienation Effect.” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (ed. John Willett). London: Eyre Methuen, 1974: 136-40.

[8] Ibid. 143-44.

[9] Brecht, Bertolt. “Me-ti: Book of Interventions in the Flow of Things.” Brecht’s Me-ti: Book of Interventions in the Flow of Things (ed. Antony Tatlow). London: Bloomsbury, 2016: 149.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cf. Grünberg, Matthias. Iraner im Hungerstreik, Würzburg, 19.03.2012 bis 04.06.2012. Berlin: epubli, 2013: 13. In a petition to the German Parliament the activists mention a colleague who is waiting for more than 12 years already (cf. ibid. 239).

[12] Cf. “Open Letter to Christina Haderthauer”, ibid. 114-17.

[13] PR 7; ibid. 193-95. We refer to the Press releases of the activists according to their number and the pages where they can be found in Grünberg, supra note 11.

[14] “Iranische Flüchtlinge beenden Hungerstreik.“ Mainpost, 9 May 2012. Web.

[15] PR 23; Grünberg, supra note 11 at 228-30.

[16] We use the terms “theatricality” and “dramatization” here alluding to Brecht’s distinction of Aristotelian and Epic Theatre. As Frans-Willem Korsten points out, the Epic Theatre aims at interrupting the flow of a theatrical setting where the audience is detached from the happenings on stage. In “dramatic” moments the spectators are urged to judge instead of just passively consuming. These relations of “theatricality” and “dramatization” as well as the leveling of the stage will be further discussed in the following paragraphs. For Korsten’s use of the terms see Korsten, Frans-Willem. “Öffentlichkeit and Law’s Behind the Scenes. Theatrical and Dramatic Appearance in European and U.S. American Criminal Law.“ German Law Journal 18/2, 2017: 399-421 or Korsten, Frans-Willem, Tessa de Zeeuw. “Desire for Justice and Desire as Justice: Theatre and Drama in Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover.” Pólemos. Journal of Law, Literature and Culture 10/1, 2016: 249-266.

[17] Brecht, Bertolt. “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction.” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (ed. John Willett). London: Eyre Methuen, 1974: 71.

[18] Benjamin, Walter. “What is Epic Theatre? (First Version).” Understanding Brecht. London/New York: Verso, 1998: 1.

[19] Benjamin, Walter. „What is Epic Theatre? [Second Version].” Understanding Brecht. London/New York: Verso, 1998: 19.

[20] Benjamin, supra note 18 at 6.

[21] Korsten, Frans-Willem, Tessa de Zeeuw. “Desire for Justice and Desire as Justice: Theatre and Drama in Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover.” Pólemos. Journal of Law, Literature and Culture 10/1, 2016: 251.

[22] Dial, Joseph. “Brecht’s dialectical dramatics as political praxis.” clio 11/1, 1981: 11-12.

[23] Brecht Bertolt. “Kritik der Einfühlung.” Gesammelte Werke in 20 Bänden, Volume 15. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968: 242. Our translation; original: “Es ist geradezu eine Aufgabe der nichtaristotelischen Dramatik, nachzuweisen, daß die These der Vulgärästhetik, Emotionen könnten nur auf dem Weg der Einfühlung ausgelöst werden, falsch ist.“

[24] Mittler, Dietrich. “Eklat in Würzburg.“ Süddeutsche Zeitung, 16 March 2013.

[25] Bachmeier, Uli. “Hitziger Streit um soziale Kälte”, Augsburger Allgemeine, 21 March 2013.

[26] “Actiegroep De Grauwe Eeuw bekladt VOC-monumenten.” Blikopnieuws: 25 Oct. 2016. Web. Our translation; original: “Via deze koloniale verheerlijking worden roof van land, grootschalige roof van grondstoffen en genocide genormaliseerd. Dit is een van vele acties die door het gehele land zullen volgen.”

[27] Benjamin, supra note 18 at 3.

[28] Benjamin, supra note 19 at 18.

[29] Benjamin, Walter. “The Author as Producer.” Understanding Brecht. London/New York: Verso, 1998: 100.

[30] Wekker, Gloria. “Introduction.” White  Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Duke University Press, 2016: 13.

[31] Ibid. 2.

[32] Benjamin, supra note 18 at 10.

[33] Benjamin, supra note 29 at 99.

[34] Benjamin, supra note 18 at 10. In current times, as the critique of media seems to be monopolized by right-wing political movements, a note of distinction might be necessary. Unlike their self-proclaimed “protest” against “fake news” or “manipulation” by a mainstream discourse that allegedly is characterized by “left-mainstream” arguments, Brecht and Benjamin envisioned another type of media critique. Speaking of manipulation, they did not lament a direct and intentional program of their opponents but put emphasis on the preserving moments of media. Media that is owned and ran by the bourgeoisie is understood to reproduce the status quo – not because the writers intend to do so, but because they move in an ideological framework that they cannot exceed. In opposite to right-wing media critique that often comes close to conspiracy theories, Brecht and Benjamin focus on the ways of media production, as just one step in the overall processes of capitalist (re)production. They do not aim to overtake the discourse, but to democratize it, as can be seen for example in Brecht’s radio theory (cf. Brecht, Bertolt. “The Radio as an Apparatus for Communication” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (ed. John Willett). London: Eyre Methuen, 1974: 52).

[35] Ibid.

[36] Brecht, Bertolt. “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre.” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (ed. John Willett). London: Eyre Methuen, 1974: 34.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “Witte media… deel 1.” De Grauwe Eeuw, 25 Oct. 2017. Web. Our translation; original: Gezien ons beleid omtrent mainstream witte media […] krijgen wij vaak verbaasde of zelfs verontwaardigde journalisten. Ja er zal vast die ene tussen zitten die het wel goed bedoelt enz blabla. [sic] echter zijn zij allemaal journalisten voor een witte redactie die vaak eigendom is van een wit instituut wat er baat bij heeft om niews mbt [sic] zo lauw en onnauwkeurig mogelijk te brengen. […] [De witte media] denken dat wij hun nodig hebben, hun mening willen maar vooral goedkeuring van witte mensen nodig hebben. We hebben dat alles NIET [sic] nodig.

[39] Benjamin, supra note 29 at 94.

[40] Weijts, Christiaan. “Helden van De Grauwe Eeuw.” NRC, 27 Oct. 2016. Web. Our translation; original: “Ik was graag met hen in gesprek gegaan, maar via internet laat de anonieme groep me weten niet met de pers te praten. ‘Wij zijn niet uit op een dialoog; witte Europeanen hebben zelf de taak zich te onderwijzen in hun verleden.’”

[41] Dial, supra note 22 at 8-9.

[42] Brecht, supra note 9 at 125.

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Interview with Karl-Heinz Schoeps, Professor of German (Emeritus) at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana – An Interview About the International Brecht Society

by Paula Hanssen

schoeps photo

May 9, 2018

PH: Let’s talk about first encounters with Brecht, when did you first hear of Brecht?

KS: When I came to University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1967 I met Reinhold Grimm,[1] who had just arrived, as I had, and he gave a Brecht seminar.  As you know he was an eminent Brecht scholar and he was one of the first to write about Brecht. That was pretty courageous, since it was during the Cold War. He gave a Brecht seminar and I participated, and that was my first exposure to Brecht.

PH: That was the year you came to Madison?

KS: I don’t remember; I came in ‘67, it must have been ’68.

PH: You were a grad student, and was Reinhold Grimm the only professor interested in Brecht there?

KS: Jost Hermand was there.

PH: He had published in art history and then he went into German.

KS: Yes, he worked with Hamann[2] and they did several volumes on art, and Jost did the last volume on his own but gave Hamann all the credit, which I found very admirable. He may have taught Brecht there but I don’t know, Grimm was the Brecht scholar, internationally known, and that was when I was exposed to Brecht.

PH: And how did you get interested in your dissertation topic, Brecht and Shaw[3]?

KS: It was a result of that seminar. Before my ‘Staatsexamen’ in English from the University of Bonn I studied one year at King’s College, University of London and took a tutorial there with a Shaw scholar, a professor Geoffrey Bullough, in 1958, and for that tutorial I read all of Shaw’s works. I wanted to do something in comparative studies, and got to know Reinhold Grimm, [who was] also a comparatist.

So Grimm said to me, “why don’t you do something on Brecht and Shaw”? Shaw had been immensely popular in Berlin in the 1920’s. Max Reinhardt[4] and Brecht knew Shaw’s plays. And then I was almost at the end of my dissertation, when Klaus Berghahn told me that a scholar in Vienna had published a dissertation on my topic, Brecht and Shaw. I had to read that dissertation before I could go on and I was in a quandary then, not knowing what to do. Professor Peter Börner, a comparatist in Madison, said to me “why don’t you go sailing?” So I learned to sail on Lake Mendota; that helped me get over the shock. Another colleague in Madison in grad school, Willa Schmidt, was in Vienna, and she got that dissertation on microfilm for me: 900 pages long, and I thought, my God, he left nothing for me.

I still remember the name of this guy, his name was Scheswenter, and you can imagine what I called him. I read those 900 pages on the microfilm machine. What he wanted to do was completely different from my thesis. He wanted to describe the impact of plays by Brecht and Shaw on an audience, but he wrote that it would take too much time: “so I will simply tell you what was in the plays,” he wrote.

PH: Do you remember the first play you read?

KS: I don’t, but Grimm had us buy the Collected Works, Gesammelte Werke in 20 Bänden, plus 2 supplemental volumes on film, edited by Suhrkamp in 1967 in cooperation with Elisabeth Hauptmann – the entire collection. We didn’t have a lot of money but it turned out to be a good investment. That was my first text by Brecht.

PH: You published with Frederick Ungar 1977?

KS: That was an improved version of my dissertation.

PH: What about teaching a Brecht seminar at the University of Illinois?

KS: Oh yes, I gave at least two Brecht seminars at University of Illinois, and you were in one! You know the story about the Dreigroschenoper: that Ernst Josef Aufricht[5] asked Brecht for a play, and Brecht then asked Hauptmann who suggested her translation of the John Gay play, which was the beginning of the Threepenny Opera. She was very important. I always thought that Elisabeth Hauptmann deserved more credit for the work she did.

PH: Let’s talk about the early years. There was a Brecht seminar [at the MLA] in Denver in 1969.

KS: I didn’t participate because I was too involved in my graduate studies, and then I got a grant to study in Germany – but I knew all the Brecht scholars: John Fuegi, David Bathrick came to Madison as a young scholar, James Lyon, I remember John Willett and John Gorelik, he was a playwright; it was really interesting to meet all these people. And of course Betty Weber, who was a good friend of mine; she unfortunately died too early. I didn’t participate in the Brecht sessions at the MLA.

PH: And the one in Chicago on the Lehrstück, with Jost Hermand?

KS: I was in Berlin working in the Brecht Archives.  There wasn’t really a Brecht Archive, it was Brecht’s home and there were three working spaces; it was hard to get in. But I was alone there most of the time. I could see the cemetery, the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof where he is buried.

PH: I heard that the IBS was started through the seminars and meetings, but I think by the time they started you had finished with the dissertation and graduate school.

KS: Yes, I finished in 1971 and I had a number of interviews at the MLA conference in New York City with Dr. Phillip Mitchell and Dr. Stegemeier for University of Illinois [Urbana] Champaign. It was a strange interview, because they interviewed two candidates at the same time. I was quite relaxed at the interview because I didn’t want to come to Illinois; I had other possibilities. But then I talked to Grimm and he said, why don’t you go there, they have a great library.

PH: A good suggestion. I would not have researched Brecht’s coauthor Elisabeth Hauptmann if you hadn’t come. Do you remember about the leadership of the International Brecht Society?

KS: They were chosen by election – the group nominated people and they were elected by mail. I knew them of course, I knew all the officers.

PH: So you knew John Willet too, and Grace Allen, the Vice President?

KS: I remember John Willett and John Gorelik, a playwright; it was really interesting to meet all these people. I knew Kay Goodman, a fellow graduate student, and I met Walter Sokel at a conference in Madison, I knew Gisela Bahr, and Patty Parmalee.

PH: Do you remember the Diderot-Gesellschaft?

KS: I looked it up in Brecht’s letters, in the Aufbau edition 1983. In Briefe 316-17-18 Brecht talks about the “produzierende Leute,” and he mentions W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, people producing art and literature, those who were not principally scholars. The IBS was dominated by scholars, not so much by producers. I think by and large the IBS followed Brecht’s ideas for a Diderot Society. The young IBS was heavy on the scholarship and not on producers; that came later when people were staging the Brecht plays.

PH: And the tensions at the Brecht Symposium in Montreal?

KS: Yes, a little of that I do remember, I heard about a controversy about the “Germanisten” vs. practical theater people and the lack of political discussion in favor of scholarship and theory. The perception of German and Germans dominating at the sessions came up at an MLA general session on “What is ‘Germanistik?’” Reinhold Grimm and Prof. Fetcher got into an argument about the lack of political discussions in favor of scholarship and theory.

PH: There was a symposium in Austin that you took part in.

KS: That was a very interesting conference including theater productions.  I think Betty Weber organized this; there was a production of Keuner or Fatzer, and I remember that Martin Walser was there, at a panel, and he didn’t say anything! Someone asked him “Herr Walser, why don’t you say anything?” and he said “I have nothing to say.” I do remember a conference at the University of Delaware. It was organized by Dick Zipser, and there was a production of Mother Courage with the German director Heinz-Uwe Haus. John Fuegi was there and talked about his “bombshell” manuscript about Brecht and his women colleagues. That was the first time that Fuegi went public with his unpublished manuscript.

PH: How did people respond?

KS: With surprise. He read from his book, and people were taken aback, then the academic reaction to the book came later. Siegfried Mews[6] made a list of mistakes that was published in the Yearbook. John Fuegi was a founding member of the IBS, but then turned against Brecht. Quite curious.

PH: Did you go to the symposium in Hong Kong?

KS: That was the best conference ever, organized by Antony Tatlow. Several acting companies presented Brecht, and it was fascinating to hear Brecht presented in other languages. I knew Brecht, so I could concentrate on the production. There were several plays and I remember a long conversation with a colleague from Thailand about The Visions of Simone Machard. Antony did a super job organizing this conference. We had excursions; Herbert Knust und Siegfried Mews and I went to Macau. I knew Antony Tatlow quite well, he had stayed in our home once. He came to a Brecht conference at University of Illinois organized by the English department. They organized it and neither Herbert Knust nor I knew about it! It was very curious that there were 2 Brecht scholars in the German Department and neither were invited to present. I only knew because Tatlow called me in town and I said “what are you doing in Urbana?” and he said “Didn’t you know, there is a Brecht conference!”

PH: Let’s talk about your service, you were treasurer for the international Brecht Society for seven years.

KS: I was recruited by Betty Weber, who twisted my arm – a good friend from our time as graduate students in Madison who published a controversial book about the Caucasian Chalk Circle[7] and, as a result, was not allowed in the Brecht Archive because of her interpretation. And then Betty was politically active. [She] was in a TA strike at University of Texas, and got in trouble with the president of the University of Texas. Of course I collaborated with other officers. Marc Silberman was at University of Texas-San Antonio and I met him as treasurer, and he revamped Communications of the International Brecht Society; it was very good collaborating with him.

When I worked in the Brecht Archives in 1970 in that private apartment Brecht had, I worked closely together with Herta Ramthun. She helped tremendously in my research, she was one of the few people who could read Brecht’s handwriting. I enjoyed working there and the conversations with Frau Ramthun. When I came there was a big chest in the room, so I asked Frau Ramthun close to the end of my stay about what was in that chest. I imagined it had great treasures from Brecht – she motioned that we should go look, quietly, and what was in it? Coal! For the stove in the archive.

And in Berlin I met Elisabeth Hauptmann, who agreed to an interview at her apartment. I tried to find fresh flowers but I couldn’t in East Berlin. She was very cordial, she had made tea and we talked about Brecht and Shaw. I knew about her work with Brecht, but in the meantime,  I realized how important a role she played in Brecht’s life.

PH: Did you have the sense that she was reticent about speaking about Brecht?

KS: She didn’t complain about anything to me – she was very gracious, and she enjoyed talking about the 1920’s and the collaboration.  She told me about Brecht’s interest in Shaw and that Brecht went to all the Shaw rehearsals at the Max Reinhardt theater. My thesis in the book was that they were very engaged playwrights, but wrote in different times for different societies.

PH: What about Brecht’s family, and his son-in-law Ekkehard Schall?

KS: Yes, when I was researching in the archive in East Berlin I ate in the Kantine of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm every day, and went often to the Brecht theater and met the actors there – Schall was very agile and he did back flips as Arturo Ui on stage! I had to cross the border from West to East Berlin every day and exchange money. I had hoped that my work on Brecht would help me get a reprieve from the daily money exchange. I had a Brecht volume to show the border guards – that they almost confiscated! Then I met with Helene Weigel to ask about a letter so that I would not have to exchange money every day in order to cross the border. I went to the Volkspolizei, who sent me to the magistrate, and then the magistrate sent me back to the Volkspolizei, with no results. It was still an exciting time! I marched in a parade for the festivities of the first of May, Tag der Arbeit. When I crossed the border that day I asked the Volkspolizist where the parade was,  he said “that’s already passed by here, you have to get up earlier!” Then I tried to walk against the flow to find it and he said “can’t you see, we march in one direction!”  But then I went all the way around the crowd and marched with the Berliner Ensemble members, I have picture of that somewhere, marching with Helene Weigel and Ekkehard Schall. When it was over they put down their signs and left. It was like a duty they had to perform.

Later in the 1980’s I invited Ekkehard Schall and Barbara Brecht-Schall to come to University of Illinois on their tour of the US. That went into Communications too: Communications, vol. 18, 1989. They went to several places in the East Coast, and then came to Urbana. It was facilitated by Marianne Brun (“Manni”), who worked with Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble who had come to the US in exile, and then to Urbana with her husband, Professor Brun. She was the daughter of the actors Fritz Kortner and Johanna Hofer.  She married Herbert Brun, and on the campus of the University of Illinois she was she was the director of Unit 1.[8] I knew about her and invited her to come to my Brecht seminar. She mentioned to me that Barbara and Ekkehard were in the US and we should invite them. I made the arrangements and worked with the Center for Advanced Study at University of Illinois. Barbara was often spokesperson for Ekkehard and Karl-Heinz Nehring, his pianist and deputy music director of the Berliner Ensemble. She was very proud of her American accent that she had gained when the Brecht family lived in the US in exile. In Smith music hall they rehearsed. She would look at the stage to make sure he had what he needed, and if not she’d ask for more, for example she would demand more light.

Ekkehard Schall rehearsed for hours, as if he were preparing for a big city audience and not just Champaign/Urbana. We weren’t sure how many [people] would come and decided to print 400 programs, but 800 people came! It was filled to the rafters! Ekkehard Schall was easy going. He even said to me, “call me Ekke”.

It was one of my most successful events I organized at University of Illinois. At the end of the reception after the performance was a slight confrontation between east and west. I was connected with the Goethe Institute in Chicago, and invited the director of the Institute to meet Barbara and Ekkehard. Barbara Brecht said to him, “Sie müssen sich ja überall einmischen! [You’ve just got to stick your nose in everywhere!]”

I’m not that involved any more. I think the IBS is alive and well, looking at the future of Brecht studies. I think there seems to be a continued interest in Brecht, like the conference “Baustelle Brecht II: Working with Brecht” this summer in Berlin. I think particularly in times when political systems are swinging to the right we need Brecht. His poems are wonderful. Some of the plays may have lost their luster a little, but the topics still apply. But I wish someone would do Turandot with the theme of the “Kopflanger.” We’ve never left the age of “Kopflanger” – they lend their heads to anyone who can pay them.

PH: Thank you for the interview!


[1] Reinhold Grimm, 1931-2009; University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of California-Riverside

[2] Richard Hamann; Deutsche Kunst und Kultur von der Gründerzeit bis zum Expressionismus. 5 Bände

[3] George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) was an Irish playwright and political activist. His influence on Western theater extended from the 1880s and beyond with Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912), and St Joan (1923) incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

[4] Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) was a director and producer in Germany and Austria known for his powerful staging techniques, stage design, and choreography. From 1903 to 1905 he managed the Neues Theater (present-day Theater am Schiffbauerdamm,  which became Brecht’s theater) and in 1906 acquired the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.  From 1915 to 1918 Reinhardt was director of the Volksbühne theater and in 1919 re-opened the Großes Schauspielhaus  (which after World War II was renamed Friedrichstadt-Palast), where he had many interns, including Brecht. By 1930 he managed 11 stages in Berlin and, in addition, managed the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna from 1924 to 1933.

[5] Ernst Josph Aufricht (1898-1971) was a Berlin producer and director. Looking for a new play to open the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, in 1927, he asked Bertolt Brecht for a new play. Brecht showed Aufricht a translation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera by Elisabeth Hauptmann, which Aufricht approved, and which then became the world famous Threepenny Opera written by Brecht and Hauptmann, composed by Kurt Weill, which premiered in 1928.

[6] Professor Emeritus University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill; Vice President, International Brecht Society (1994-1998) and President, International Brecht Society (1998-2002)

[7] See Weber, Betty Nance, Brechts Kreidekreis: ein Revolutionsstück, pp. 108-109 (Suhrkamp, 1976)

[8] Unit One is a living-learning community at University of Illinois made up of all Allen Hall residents. The Unit One program provides residents of Allen Hall with a creative and intellectually stimulating atmosphere in a lively and engaging community. In a sense, Unit One provides a small-college atmosphere.

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“Musik quillt aus mir”: Baal zwischen Theater und Konzert

by Anja Hartl, Universität Konstanz

In Anlehnung an Brechts Gedichtzyklus „Aus dem Lesebuch für Städtebewohner“ stellt das dritte und zugleich letzte Augsburger Brechtfestival unter der Leitung von Patrick Wengenroth in gewisser Weise eine Hommage an die „Städtebewohner*innen“ Augsburgs dar, indem es die Stadt und ihre Bürger, insbesondere die zentralen gesellschaftlichen Herausforderungen, die sich ihnen stellen, in den Vordergrund rückt und sie in einen kreativen, zugleich immer auch politischen Dialog mit Brechts Werk zu bringen versucht. Der Beitrag des Staatstheater Augsburgs zum vielfältigen Programm, in dem konventionelles Schauspiel nur eine untergeordnete Rolle neben verschiedensten Formen von Performance, experimenteller und kollektiver Theaterarbeit, Poetry Slams, Musik und wissenschaftlichen Vorträgen spielt, birgt dabei ein besonders provokatives Potential, das unter Regisseurin Mareike Mikat zur vollen Entfaltung kommt.

Der fragmentarische Charakter dieses trotz seines zentralen Stellenwerts für Brechts gesamtes Oeuvre weitläufig als Teil seines ‚Frühwerks‘ eingestuften – und aus diesen Gründen auch oftmals abgetanen – Stücks sowie die zahlreichen Bearbeitungen, die Brecht im Laufe seiner Karriere vorgenommen hat, werfen für Theatermacher schwierige Fragen auf, wenn es darum geht, Baal auf die Bühne zu bringen – Herausforderungen, denen sich Mikat jedoch erfolgreich und auf innovative Art und Weise in Augsburg stellt. Dies gelingt der Inszenierung insbesondere dadurch, dass sie das Stück intensiv auf seine Bedeutung für den heutigen Kontext hinterfragt. Für diesen Zweck wählt die Regisseurin die ursprüngliche Fassung von 1918 als Basis für ihre kreative Bearbeitung, die es sich zum Ziel setzt, den Stoff in das 21. Jahrhundert zu transportieren. Dies schafft die Augsburger Produktion, indem sie die von Baal verkörperte anarchische, asoziale und exzessive Künstlerfigur nicht als Dichter, sondern als Rockstar verwirklicht und in eine Linie mit Persönlichkeiten wie Kurt Cobain oder Mick Jagger bringt. Dieser Lesart entsprechend treten Baal und seine Gefolgschaft als Rockband auf, wobei gesellschaftskritische Fragen im Vordergrund stehen – allen voran das Dilemma zwischen Rebellion und Mainstream, zwischen Kritik an und bewusster Distanzierung von der Gesellschaft bei gleichzeitiger Vereinnahmung durch sie (ein Vorwurf, dem sich nicht nur Baal oder die genannten Musiklegenden, sondern auch Brechts Theater selbst bis heute stellen müssen).

Dass dieser Ansatz überzeugen kann, liegt insbesondere an der zentralen Rolle, die der Musik in dieser Inszenierung zukommt. Dies zeigt sich zunächst in Bernd Schneiders raffiniertem Bühnenbild, das die Interpretation der Produktion bildlich umsetzt und zwar improvisiert und unfertig daherkommt, jedoch den Schauspielern umso größere Möglichkeiten eröffnet. Bestehend aus einer Bühne und, dahinter, einem Gerüst, das als Backstage-Bereich und Kammer dient, bewältigt die Kulisse die für Brecht zentrale Gratwanderung zwischen realistischer Darstellung eines Rockermilieus bestehend aus Probenraum, Konzerthalle und Tourbus einerseits und metatheatraler Durchbrechung der dramatischen Illusion durch Transparenz andererseits: Die Schauspieler sind während der gesamten Aufführungsdauer präsent. Auf dieser Bühne-auf-der-Bühne spielt die Schauspieler-Band ihre Instrumente selbst. Ihr Repertoire reicht von Beyoncé über Nick Cave hin zu Ton Steine Scherben und die Arrangements von Enik verleihen den Vertonungen durchaus gestischen Charakter im brechtschen Sinne, indem sie die Asozialität der Verhältnisse – Baals wie der ihn umgebenden Gesellschaft – unterstreichen und kritisch kommentieren. Auch wenn Brechts eigene Texte dadurch ein wenig in den Hintergrund geraten, ist für die Zuschauer durch das kreative Nebeneinander von Theater und Konzert, Dialog und Musik ein unterhaltsamer Abend entstanden, der von seiner kritischen Sprengkraft nichts eingebüßt hat – im Gegenteil.

Dies wird durch einen Griff in die (bisweilen verstaubte) Casting-Trickkiste bewerkstelligt: Baal wird von einer Frau gespielt, während alle anderen Charaktere von Männern übernommen werden. In der Augsburger Produktion wird dieses altbekannte Mittel des cross-gendering jedoch erfolgreich zum Einsatz gebracht – obwohl sich die parodistischen Gesten und die grotesken Bilder im Laufe des Abends sicher etwas abnutzen. Dass das Stück dennoch eine große Strahlkraft entfalten kann, gründet insbesondere auf der herausragenden schauspielerischen Leistung von Natalie Hünig als Baal, die die Zerrissenheit des Protagonisten zwischen rücksichtslosem Exzess und Moral, Asozialität und Einsamkeit, vor Energie strotzend und zutiefst verletzlich und unsicher eindrucksvoll verkörpert. Unterstützt wird sie dabei von fünf männlichen Schauspielern, die zu Zeugen, Kommentatoren und Zuschauern von Baals Leben und Niedergang werden: Baal erscheint dadurch als Produkt der ihn umgebenden Gesellschaft und ihrer asozialen Verhältnisse. Am Ende bleibt die zentrale Frage, die zu Beginn aufgeworfen und am Schluss nochmal aufgegriffen wird, jedoch unbeantwortet: „Was ist er eigentlich?“ Mikats Experiment verweigert eine eindeutige Antwort – ihr gelingt es jedoch, diese und andere an sie anschließende soziale und politische Fragen in ihrer Dringlichkeit darzustellen und ermöglicht damit einen neuen Blick nicht nur auf Brechts Baal, sondern auch auf die heutige Gesellschaft. Es bleibt, ganz in brechtscher Manier, dem Zuschauer überlassen, sich mit diesen Herausforderungen auseinanderzusetzen.

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„Zur Selbstverständigung“: Bertolt Brechts Der Untergang des Egoisten Johann Fatzer am Theater Augsburg

by Anja Hartl, Universität Konstanz

Unter der Leitung von Regisseur und Schauspieler Patrick Wengenroth beschäftigte sich das Augsburger Brecht-Festival im Jahr 2018 mit dem hochaktuellen Thema „Egoismus versus Solidarität“ und beleuchtete diese Leitfrage über die Dauer von zwei Wochen in unterschiedlichsten Kunstformen – von Lesungen und Liederabenden über Performances und Poetry Slams hin zu Workshops und Diskussionsrunden – und aus verschiedenen, von Brechts künstlerischem Schaffen und politischem Denken inspirierten Blickwinkeln. Einen zentralen Referenztext für dieses Motto stellt Brechts Der Untergang des Egoisten Johann Fatzer dar, dessen sich das Theater Augsburg in seinem diesjährigen Programmbeitrag angenommen hat und das damit den Stellenwert dieses nur selten zur Aufführung gebrachten Textes nicht nur für die Veranstaltung selbst, sondern auch für Brechts Schaffen insgesamt untermauerte. Unter Regisseur Christian von Treskow entstand dabei ein ambitioniertes und anspruchsvolles Projekt, das die Erwartungen des geneigten Brecht-Publikums durchbrechen dürfte und einen neuen Blick auf den umstrittenen Augsburger Sohn ermöglicht. Als umfangreiches Fragment birgt Brechts Fatzer große Herausforderungen für Theatermacher, eröffnet jedoch auch ein beträchtliches Potential für die Bühne, das diese Inszenierung auszuschöpfen weiß – auch deshalb, weil sich von Treskow nicht mit Heiner Müllers Bearbeitung des Materials von 1978 begnügte, sondern eine eigene Vorlage, auch unter Hinzunahme der Fatzer-Kommentare, entworfen hat.

Die zentrale Frage nach dem Verhältnis von Individuum und Gemeinschaft wird durch verschiedenste dramaturgische Mittel facettenreich dargestellt, wobei von Treskows Produktion insbesondere die Widersprüche und Spannungen zwischen diesen – letztlich unvereinbaren – Gegensätzen hervorhebt. Als Verkörperung des Kollektivs kommt dem Chor eine wichtige Rolle zu, da die Augsburger Version über weite Teile von liturgisch anmutendem und direkt an das Publikum gerichtetem chorischen Sprechen dominiert ist. Bezeichnend ist, dass sich Fatzer zu Beginn aus dem Chor herauslöst und seine Abweichung und Isolation damit auch bildlich zum Ausdruck kommen. Der dadurch initiierte Konflikt zwischen Egoismus und Solidarität setzt sich im Folgenden unter den Deserteuren fort. Fatzer, charismatisch und eindrucksvoll dargestellt von Kai Windhövel, ist dabei nicht nur destruktiver, egoistischer und rücksichtsloser Hedonist, sondern ringt zunehmend mit seinem Außenseitertum und seinem Bedürfnis nach Zugehörigkeit. Der Kampf innerhalb der Gruppe wird verbal, aber vor allem auch körperlich dargestellt, was die Explosivität und Zerrissenheit ihres Zusammenlebens versinnbildlicht.

Neben der schauspielerischen Leistung trägt besonders Oliver Kosteckas Bühnenbild dazu bei, die Ambivalenzen und Widersprüchlichkeiten des Konflikts zwischen ‚Ich‘ und ‚Wir‘ hervorzuheben. Als weitläufiger, karger und leerer Raum wirkt der Aufenthaltsort der Deserteure einerseits unwirtlich, andererseits aber auch undefiniert und wandelbar: Als Projektionsfläche dienen die weißen Wände nicht nur dazu, den Schauplatz zu evozieren, sondern auch die Ambitionen und Wünsche der Charaktere in gewisser Weise widerzuspiegeln. Durchbrochen wird die weiße Farbe einerseits durch den Kontrast mit dem schwarzen Background, andererseits durch große, rot leuchtende Buchstaben in der Mitte der Bühne, die das Wort ‚Revolution‘ rückwärts gelesen darstellen. Während der Aufführung leuchten unterschiedliche Kombinationen auf – teilweise entstehen dabei auch sinnstiftende Buchstabenfolgen wie ‚over‘ oder ‚no love‘ – zur Revolution kommt es jedoch nie. Das Bühnenbild entwirft somit einen dem Fragmentcharakter der Vorlage getreuen Zwischenort und wird zum Sinnbild für die vielen Leerstellen des Textes. Entgegen des visuellen Eindrucks ist die Kernfrage des Stücks dabei genau nicht als einfache Schwarz-Weiß-Malerei zu sehen, wie die Inszenierung betont. Zwar müssen in der Augsburger Version alle Deserteure sterben – eine Synthese stellt dieses radikale Ereignis jedoch nicht dar: Individuum und Gemeinschaft, Egoismus und Konformität stehen am Schluss unvermittelt nebeneinander.

Für Brecht war die Arbeit an Fatzer insbesondere ein ästhetisches, metatheatrales und selbstreflexives Experiment, wie Hans-Thies Lehmann schreibt: „Im Fatzer […] verständigte Brecht sich in solcher Radikalität über die eigenen politischen und theatralen Selbstwidersprüche, dass er an diesem Abgrund, zumal am Versuch, den Konflikt von ‚Ego‘ und Kollektiv überzeugend auszutragen, ‚scheiterte‘“ (180). An der Schnittstelle zwischen den frühen, ebenfalls von egozentrischen und asozialen Protagonisten geprägten Texten, den parallel zum Fatzer entstandenen Lehrstücken sowie den späteren Parabeln angesiedelt, greift es zentrale Motive, Themen und Strategien auf, die für Brechts Schaffen von erheblicher Bedeutung waren und stellt damit trotz oder gerade wegen seiner Unvollständigkeit eine essentielle Referenz für Brechts Gesamtwerk dar. Auch für das Augsburger Theater ist dieses Projekt in gewisser Weise zu einer „Selbstverständigung“ über seine Herangehensweise an Brechts Vorlage geworden: Die Unentschiedenheit des Stücks bezüglich der Kernthematik ist hier auch eine ästhetische. Oszillierend zwischen (womöglich ironisch gebrochenem und bewusst verfremdendem) stereotypem, plakativ-lehrhaftem Brecht-Ton einerseits – unterstrichen dadurch, dass die Figuren eher schreien als sprechen – und postdramatischen Tendenzen andererseits – beispielsweise durch die Verwendung von Wiederholungsstrukturen, chorischem Sprechen sowie durch die bevorzugte Ausschöpfung alternativerTheaterzeichen jenseits des Textes – hebt diese Produktion die Vielschichtigkeit und den großen Stellenwert des Fragments nicht nur für Brechts weitere Theaterarbeit, sondern auch als Vorläufer für zeitgenössische Tendenzen hervor, ohne ein abschließendes Urteil – weder zu Fatzer noch zu Brecht – zu fällen. Inszeniert, im Sinne der Lehrstücktheorie, als Versuchsanordnung zur Urteilsfindung, überlässt der Augsburger Fatzer dem durchweg unmittelbar angesprochenen und damit am Geschehen direkt beteiligten Publikum selbst die endgültige Entscheidung: In diesem Sinne wird die Auseinandersetzung mit dem Stück auch für die Zuschauer ein Anlass zur Selbstverständigung – über die eigene Haltung zu Fatzer und die durch ihn verkörperte Thematik, aber auch über die Produktion und, schlussendlich, Brecht selbst.


Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Brecht lesen. Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2016.

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„Welcome to Japan, IKEBUKURO“ – „LOVE“ – Giorgio Barberio Corsetti inszeniert die Dreigroschenoper auf der Straße

by Thomas Schwarz, University of Tokyo

Der Regisseur Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, der sich mit Dramatisierungen der Literatur Franz Kafkas einen Namen gemacht hat, konnte im Oktober 2018 in Tokyo Bertolt Brechts Dreigroschenoper inszenieren. Die Aufführung fand im Rahmen eines Festivalprogramms auf dem Platz vor dem Metropolitan Theatre im Stadtviertel Ikebukuro statt. Jun Ooka hat das Libretto neu ins Japanische übersetzt. Die Bestuhlung auf einer Zuschauertribüne für den Preis einer Münze (500 Yen / 3,70 € / 4,20 US $) war rasch ausverkauft. Das Besondere dieser Aufführung war, dass sie unter freiem Himmel kostenlosen Eintritt für eine größere Zuschauermenge bot, die es sich auf dem Straßenpflaster bequem machen konnte. Etwa 2400 Zuschauer konnten die insgesamt acht Vorstellungen sehen. Für Zaungäste standen entlang der Absperrung auch Stehplätze zur Verfügung.

Die Theaterbeleuchtung ging fließend über in die Leuchtreklamen des Einkaufsviertels, das die Bühne von drei Seiten umgab. Keiko Harada dirigierte das kleine Orchester mit Yumiko Meguri am Piano, Stefan Hussong am Akkordeon und Daiki Abe an den Keyboards. Mit der Musik von Kurt Weill kämpften sie tapfer gegen die Kakophonie aus den Lautsprechern von Bic Camera an. Die Elektrohandelskette lädt Ausländer in verschiedenen Sprachen offensiv zum zollfreien Einkauf ein.

Abbildung 1:
Abbildung 1_Bic Camera_Werbeposter

Werbung der japanischen Elektrohandelskette Bic Camera.

Im wirklichen Japan ist das Betteln verboten. Zum Auftakt der Oper jedoch ergriff das als Bettler verkleidete Ensemble Corsettis Besitz vom Theaterrund und sang im Chor die „Moritat von Mackie Messer“. Es ist eine Ironie der Geschichte, dass die Stadt von genau diesem Ort im Sommer 2018 die Obdachlosen verdrängt hat, die hier seit Jahren mit ihren Behausungen aus Kartons und blauen Plastikplanen zum Straßenbild gehörten. 2019 steht in Japan eine Kaiserkrönung an und im Jahr darauf wird Tokyo die Olympischen Spiele ausrichten. Vor diesem Hintergrund ergibt sich die Aktualität der Tokyoter Inszenierung. Denn auch für die Handlung der Dreigroschenoper bildet ein Großereignis, die Krönung der Königin von England, einen entscheidenden Dreh- und Angelpunkt. In beiden Welten legt die Obrigkeit größeren Wert auf ein sauberes Stadtbild und scheut die öffentliche Demonstration sozialen Elends. In einer Schlüsselszene der Aufführung ging die Polizei brutal mit Knüppeln gegen die Bettler vor.

In der Rolle des überdrehten Mafiabosses und Machos Macheath brauste Hideki Goto in einem roten Audi mit offenem Verdeck auf den Platz. Die Eltern seiner Braut Polly (Mitsunori Hirokawa als Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum und Fuyuko Moriyama als Celia) zuckelten dagegen mit einer Vespa herum. Der Unterschied zwischen dem asketischen Geschäftsmodell der Puritaner und der hedonistischen Einstellung des Macheath war so deutlich markiert. Der Kostümbildner Kazuhiro Sawataishi hatte den Gangster in einen purpurnen Kimono mit goldenem Rock gesteckt. Die das Geschehen auf der Bühne dominierende Schauspielerin war allerdings Maya Asaba als Polly Peachum, die auch in den Gesangspartien zu überzeugen vermochte. Sie heiratete Macheath in einem weißen Kimono mit rotem Überwurf. Furios schmetterte sie das Lied von der Seeräuber-Jenny. Zugleich war hinter ihr in einer Echtzeitübertragung auf dem Bildschirm die Einkaufsmeile zu sehen, die Konsumenten in Japans Ikebukuro willkommen heißt. Als die Artillerie des Piratenschiffs das Feuer auf das projizierte Ikebukuro eröffnete, ging der Straßenzug auf der Leinwand im Hohngelächter der Seeräuber-Jenny in Flammen auf.

Abbildung 2:
Abbildung 2_Polly_Lied_seeraeuberjenny.jpg

Polly Peachum (Maya Asaba) beschwört im Lied von der Seerüber-Jenny die Zerstörung Tokyos herauf. Macheaths Bande ist hingerissen.

In der Rolle des Polizeichefs Tiger Brown trat Yusuke Yanai mit glatt zurückgekämmtem Haar und einer schnittigen Uniform auf. Zusammen mit seinem Freund Macheath war er in der Kolonialarmee damit beschäftigt, andere „Rassen, ob braune oder blasse“, zu „Beefsteak Tartar“ zu verarbeiten. Als sie im Duett ihren Kanonensong intonierten, zeigte der Bildschirm dokumentarische Szenen aus dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. An Kaiser Hirohito paradierten japanische Soldaten vorbei. Der japanische Plan, eine „Großostasiatische Wohlstandssphäre“ zu errichten, ging bekanntlich nicht auf. Das Video wies darauf hin, indem es die Szene mit dem Truppenaufmarsch zurückspulte. Es ließ die Soldaten rückwärts marschieren. Auf der Leinwand ging dann auch Jennys Piratentraum in Erfüllung. Historisches Filmmaterial zeigte, wie die US-amerikanische Luftwaffe Tokyo bombardierte.

Macheath hatte sich inzwischen in Schale geworfen und trug jetzt einen purpurnen Samtanzug. Die Liste seiner Verbrechen ist bekannt: Einbruch, Brandstiftung, Mord, Sex mit Minderjährigen und Polygamie. In der Inszenierung schien er direkt der Glitzerwelt des Vergnügungsviertels von Ikebukuro zu entspringen. Dass die käufliche Liebe in einem Land, das die Prostitution 1956 verboten hat, so offenkundig blüht, wirft Fragen auf. Was geht in den zahllosen Zimmern der Love Hotels von Ikebukuro vor sich?

Für Corsettis Inszenierung ergab sich in dieser Umgebung die eher praktische Frage, in welchem Bett Macheath zu finden sei. In Brechts Stück treibt die sexuelle Hörigkeit den Mann auch nach der Hochzeit gewohnheitsmäßig ins Bordell. Pollys Mutter Celia Peachum erkennt in dieser Schwäche die Chance, den ungeliebten Schwiegersohn bei der Polizei ans Messer zu liefern. Um ihn zu fassen, muss Frau Peachum bei den Prostituierten eine Prämie für die Denunziation ausloben. Als schrill kostümierte Huren rundeten Yuumi Sakakibara, Takakiyo Katsura und Kazumi Shinohara das Ensemble Corsettis ab. Dass sie neben dem prall gefüllten Geldsack noch andere Gründe hatten, Macheath zu verraten, verdeutlichte wiederum ein Video. Es zeigte die von Macheath grün und blau geprügelten Gesichter der drei Prostituierten. Dass ihn ein Sondereinsatzkommando der Polizei zu stellen vermochte, verdankte er also in erster Linie seiner Gewalt gegen Frauen – und der Tatsache, dass ihm Celia Peachum noch ein Bein stellte, als er zu entkommen drohte.

Abbildung 3:
Abbildung 3_verhaftet

Die Polizei verhaftet Macheath (Hideki Goto). Zu seiner Rechten Celia Peachum (Fuyuko Moriyama) und die Triade der Prostituierten.

Im Gefängnis schmorte Macheath in einem engen Stahlkäfig. Dort stellte Tiger-Browns Tochter Lucy (Sawaka Minaguchi) den Verführer zur Rede. Sie war ganz in Türkis kostümiert, untenherum gab ein Hauch von knielanger Gaze ihre Beine preis. Der Bauch aber blieb bedeckt, und so auch das Kissen, das sie untergeschoben hatte, um Macheath moralisch unter Druck zu setzen, damit er sie nicht wegen Polly verlässt. Der Casanova ließ nicht ohne Erfolg seinen Charme spielen, aber retten konnte ihn das nicht. Die Prostituierten ließen sich die Chance auf ein letztes Selfie mit Macheath nicht entgehen. Nachdem Polly die meiste Zeit in aufreizendem Rot über die Bühne stolziert war, vergoss sie jetzt in Erwartung ihrer Witwenschaft im schwarzen Trauerkostüm Krokodilstränen unter ihrer Sonnenbrille. Selbstbewusst übernahm sie die Führung der Gangsterbande von Macheath.

Als Galgen rollte ein gelber Straßenbagger ins Rampenlicht. Das Spektakel der Hinrichtung von Macheath drohte noch attraktiver zu werden als die für denselben Tag angekündigten Krönungsfeierlichkeiten.

Reumütig schwor Macheath der Räuberei ab und bekannte sich zum Bankgeschäft, zur Spekulation mit Aktien und zur Ausnutzung der Arbeitskraft von Angestellten. Nachdem er vom Banditen zum Bürger konvertiert war, der sich auf die unter kapitalistischen Produktionsbedingungen legalen Methoden der Ausbeutung beschränkt, entfiel der wichtigste Hinrichtungsgrund. Doch da zog ihn der Bagger auch schon hoch. Bange Minuten lang hing er da und hatte schon aufgehört zu zappeln, als endlich Brown auf einem projizierten schwarzen Pferd mit der Begnadigung des Königs einher galoppierte.

Gegen Ende der Vorführung zeigte ein Video zu Fratzen verzerrte Gesichter von Angela Merkel über Donald Trump bis Kim Jong-un. In Japan ausländische Politiker und mit Elisabeth II. auch die Königin von England lächerlich zu machen, indem man sie in eine Reihe mit dem nordkoreanischen Diktator stellt, ist jedoch ein billiges Vergnügen. Es fehlte offenbar an Freimut, Premierminister Shinzo Abe, Kaiser Akihito und den designierten Thronfolger Naruhito in derselben Weise klar erkennbar bloßzustellen. Das hinterließ einen schalen Nachgeschmack, weil in diesem Moment die Kritik einem Populismus geopfert wurde, der für die gegenwärtige Misere unseres Planeten allein das Ausland verantwortlich macht. Damit geriet die Inszenierung in Widerspruch zu ihren eigenen Prämissen. Denn auf die Frage, wer zur Rechenschaft zu ziehen sei, hatte Maya Asaba als Piratin in ihrem Song eine eindeutige Antwort gegeben: „ 皆 “- minna, nicht weniger als alle!

Um Ausländern zu signalisieren, dass sie im Theater erwünscht sind, könnten die Organisatoren von Festivals auf der ganzen Welt eine Untertitelung finanzieren, die sich leicht projizieren lässt. Als Vorbild kann die Geschäftswelt von Ikebukuro dienen. Denn als die Theatergruppe Ende Oktober den Platz wieder räumte, prangte über der Szene auf der riesigen Fläche eines Werbeplakats noch immer der Schriftzug: „Welcome to Japan, IKEBUKURO“ – „LOVE“.

Abbildung 4:
Werbeposter im Einkaufsviertel Ikebukuro.
Abbildung 4_Poster_Welcome to Japan.JPG

Mit dem Auftritt der Seeräuber-Jenny bescherte Corsetti der Tokyoter Theaterszene eine Sternstunde. Die wichtigste Leistung des hinreißenden Ensembles war, dass sie Brechts Stück aus dem exklusiven Theatersaal auf die Straße brachte, wo es auch von seiner ganzen Anlage her hingehört. Corsettis Dreigroschenoper bot Straßentheater im besten Sinn des Wortes.

//photo/image credits//

Abbildung 2 und 3: Fotos von Kazuyuki Matsumoto / “The Threepenny Opera”, Tokyo Festival 2018.

Abbildung 1 und 4: Fotos von Thomas Schwarz.

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Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at the University of Oregon, director Michael Malek Najjar.

By Lisa Hoeller, University of Oregon

The Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Oregon performed Bertolt Brecht’s famous 1939 anti-war play Mother Courage and Her Children, translated by Tony Kushner. “Music lovers might want to come for the music, theater lovers might come for the theatricality of it all. […] It’s quite a big production that doesn’t get done very often,” the director Michael Malek Najjar is quoted in Campus News. The talented cast for the play included 14 current University of Oregon students and one alumna. Daniel Daly, a current Music PhD student at the University of Oregon, composed an intriguing contemporary score for the songs of the play “which is frequently upbeat, showy, and fun, does stand apart from the action in one sense: it counterbalances the violence and tragedy that marks much of the play” (Oregon Artswatch).

MC at UO 1

Mother Courage (played by Penta Swanson) and her children Kattrin (played by Madeline Williams), Eilif (played by Cobey Smith), and Swiss Cheese (played by Julian Steinberg) still traveling together. [photo credit: Pam Cressall]

The play is set in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). The countless ways of its interpretation are, however, in no way limited to the historical time of the play. “It’s about war in general, the human need for war, the fear of war, and yet the desire for war,” Najjar told me in a recent interview about his production. All these themes are exemplified in a war far removed in historical time, but no less relevant and urgent today. The characters in this play attempt to simply survive in a war-ridden society, profiting whenever possible from the competitive war-time economy. In the end, this precarious undertaking turns out to be impossible for many of the main characters, first and foremost the children as the most vulnerable to idealistic dreams and promises of heroism and a better future. Mother Courage – fabulously played by Penta Swanson – as the sole survivor of her family continues on, in this adaptation with a subtle divergence in the end.

While much of this production and its characters focused on the contradictory nature of the war and the people engaged in it, Najjar was intent on highlighting the role of the mute daughter Kattrin – played with sensitivity and gestural articulateness by Madeline Williams. She is the silent witness to everything on stage – Najjar directed her to be on stage in every scene, even if the stage directions did not call for her – and in the end the only real figure of hope. Her continuous presence throughout the play has the almost eerie effect that we, the audience, are watching “ourselves” as represented in Kattrin. We are silent witnesses to this performance just as she is. By mirroring the audience on stage in the character of Kattrin, the production held us accountable for her compassion and hope. Just like Kattrin eventually ends her complacency and breaks her silence by waking up the town with the drum, we will have to break out of our role as the silent audience and take action or we will betray life.

MC at UO 2
Kattrin drums and wakes the town. [photo credit: Pam Cressall]

When Najjar was considering the idea of war-time migration, he wondered, “Why should Mother Courage be different from any other refugee? She’s not special.” So he staged her final moment on stage in an unexpected way: While attempting to move on after the war, pulling her wagon, she falls. The last we see is her fallen body on stage. She has failed to protect her children, the war has taken everything from her, and in the end she is broken. She is a mother, a refugee trying to escape death, and just like any other she eventually has to face the reality that as a war migrant she will pay for the war much more than she could ever gain from it. Though Najjar’s ending seems sentimental and overly dramatic compared to Brecht’s original, understanding it in terms of the cost of migration during a war helped me view the change as accentuating a current problem: the migrant so frequently does not succeed in his search for a better life, but instead faces a journey that too often ends in death and despair.

This was the topic of a conference Writing Migration hosted by the Department of German and Scandinavian at the University of Oregon in May 2018. Selected scenes from the play were performed as part of a talk by Dorothee Ostmeier and Michael Malek Najjar called “Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage: Migration’s Alienations.” Reading Mother Courage as a drama of migration, Ostmeier and Najjar highlighted the migratory nature of Mother Courage’s harsh life and the dystopian impossibility of successful migration in times of war. There is no final moment of hope for Mother Courage; the migratory figure is hopeless and a migratory journey for a better life is bound to fail.

Many of the issues presented in Mother Courage are strikingly relevant today: war, migration, and profit-driven economies to name only a few. This is why Najjar chose this play. His larger thematic goal was to problematize the idea of war. Najjar explained that this play depicts what can be so frequently found today, namely that war is really often “militarism that’s driven by capitalism and then dressed up as nationalism.” Asked about his approach to adapting the play, Najjar said, “One of my goals has been to really keep it alive, keep it present, keep it contemporary, keep it something that means something to the actors, and not just doing a play for the play’s sake, because that’s more of museum theater.” While the set and costume designs took the audience back into the 17th century, Kushner’s contemporary translation of Brecht’s German original definitely added a layer of relatability for the audience that invited a more contemporary understanding and interpretation of the play.

MC at UO 3

17th century costumes and stage design. [photo credit: Pam Cressall]

Another way for Najjar to keep the production present and alive was to employ Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt in more subtle ways. Brechtian productions can be “very, very detached to the point […] that you feel more like you’re in a lecture than a play”, Najjar said. His shift to a more immersive style was evident in the play. He chose to omit the summarizing visual captions before each scene, integrated the revolving stage and the prompts to create an illusion of reality, and made use of dramatic sound effects. However, the play was by no means completely immersive. In order to achieve “the golden mean” that Najjar aimed for, lighting choices, live music from an onstage ensemble, and of course Brecht’s sometimes lengthy songs still encouraged the audience to step back and reflect critically.

I can understand the use of more subtle alienation effects in order to retreat from the instructive style of Brechtian Theater. To sell Brecht’s radically alienating theater productions in the U.S. is a challenging endeavor. However, it was also an opportunity missed to engage the willing spectator in a different experience of theater where a play is telling a more disintegrated, fragmented story that would certainly also resonate with our reality today. While the UO production of Mother Courage was surely a successful and inspiring production, I am, nonetheless, convinced it would have benefitted from a heavier dose of radicalism.

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Baustelle Brecht II / Working with Brecht II

by Elena Pnevmonidou


Following their first successful collaboration in 2017, the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus and the International Brecht Society (IBS) offered their second day-long workshop on June 26, 2018: Baustelle Brecht II / Working with Brecht II. The workshop was structured around the question of Brecht’s relevance today, which it approached from two perspectives. On the one hand, the workshop probed the extend to which the concerns that shape Brecht’s work are still relevant in the changing conditions of theatre, art, and society, and how to re-formulate a critical Brechtian discourse today. On the other hand, the workshop explored the radical proposition that we are actually experiencing a Brechtian moment and that the contemporary political and cultural situation worldwide urgently calls for artistic interventions informed by Brecht’s dramaturgy and methods. Accordingly, the presentations and ensuing discussions covered a range of topics from new readings of Brecht’s works to explorations of Brecht’s continued legacy in contemporary praxis, both in theatre productions on stage and in activist interventions in the streets.

The workshop began with a presentation by Asja Braune from the Bertolt-Brecht-Archiv about the role of Helene Weigel as the curator of Brecht’s estate (“Helene Weigel als Nachlassverwalterin Brechts”). Braune carefully traced the early phases of the Brecht-Archiv, founded only eight weeks after Brecht’s death, and highlighted the tensions between the GDR government and Helene Weigel. While the GDR government tried to gain control of Brecht’s estate and to manage his legacy, Helene Weigel wanted to preserve Brecht’s estate in a form that would enable it to speak for itself and to remain fully accessible to the world. Weigel clearly acted out of fierce loyalty as she tried to preserve absolutely everything: writings, correspondence and every scrap of paper that Brecht worked on. Yet in so doing, Weigel asserted her own political stance in the GDR by positioning her astute curatorial vision against the official image of Brecht and thus making it possible for the Brecht-Archiv to play a countercultural role in GDR society and beyond.

Following this detailed overview of the founding history of the Brecht-Archiv, the next three presentations focused on the use value of Brecht’s methods. In his talk, “Eingreifendes Träumen im Dreigroschenstoff,” Falk Strehlow examined the dream sequences in the Dreigroschenroman, which he read as the manifestation of the Brechtian method of estrangement in the novel. Whereas the dominant narrative voice takes the reader on a journey through the dehumanizing and demoralizing realities of criminal, predatory capitalism, the dream sequences disrupt the despair and open up spaces of truth, self-awareness and empowerment. The urgent relevance of Brecht’s methods today would thus lie in the relentlessly rigorous systemic analysis of our world coupled with dream-making, not for the escape dreams offer, but for the estrangement and disruption of our oppressive realities that they enable.

Hanife Schulte (“Theatre as Women’s Counter-Election Campaigns”) proposed that we use Brecht’s theatre practice a model for political intervention. Her case study was the 2016 US presidential election, and she focused in particular on the misogynist ideology that shaped much of the populist electioneering. She found a comparison in the 1932 election in Germany, where the Nazis constructed similar misogynist images of women and in particular of motherhood. Brecht’s Die Mutter was written and staged with the deliberate intention of mounting a counter-election campaign through the revolutionary depiction of womanhood. The result of the 2016 US election can to some extent be attributed to the lack of such a counter-campaign on the progressive side.

In their presentation, “Theatricality and Dramatization in Contemporary Brechtian Political Protests,” Gerlov van Engelenhoven and Hannes Kaufmann discussed two case studies of theatrical intervention in the context of political protest: the refugee protests in Würzburg in 2012/2013, and the protest practices of descendants of Indonesians formerly brought to Holland during its colonial era. The Würzburg protests began with the suicide of an Iranian refugee, which triggered widespread public debate about the living conditions in the communal refugee residences. Yet the refugees themselves had no active voice in this debate. In an effort to make themselves visible and to force public officials to approach them and to speak directly to them at their level, the refugees staged a series of hunger strikes in front of the town hall. Van Engelenhoven in turn discussed the theatrical interventions by descendants of former colonial Indonesians to bring about an acknowledgement of Holland’s colonial legacy, which in the case of Indonesia included slavery and genocide. As there is no official national effort to acknowledge Holland’s colonial past, the protests take the character of a dramatic self-silencing, which brings about a Brechtian estrangement of the official silencing of the past, which is the norm in Holland. In both instances, the protests clearly had an aesthetic style that aligned with role of the actor in epic theatre, as well as with Brechtian Gestus and estrangement. [Editors’ note: This appears as an expanded essay in this issue]

Whereas these three presentations focused on Brecht’s theatre methods and their applicability and usefulness in contemporary contexts, the next two presentations examined the continuation of Brecht’s legacy in works by writers who may be considered inheritors of Brecht, that is, Heiner Müller and Elfriede Jelinek. Noah Willumsen (“Brecht/Müller: Gespräche und Interviews”) talked about Müller’s relationship to Brecht as manifested in the history of his conversations and interviews.  Silke Felber in turn (“Elfriede Jelineks Tragödienfortschreibungen im Lichte Brechts“) examined the evolution of Brecht’s concept of tragedy in Elfriede Jelinek, with particular focus on the origins and development of gestic theatre and the stance of the actor within the framework of epic theatre.

The last two presentations shifted the focus to contemporary theatre practice on stage. Sabine Sörgel’s talk, “Brechts Vermächtnis im zeitgenössischen Tanztheater,” meditated on the interaction between perception, estrangement, and alterity, and explored the possibility of a phenomenology of the strange (Phänomenologie des Fremden), which she defined as the imagining and the staging of an “other” world. The dance theatre of Pina Bausch is one variant of this phenomenology of the strange in that it explores aesthetically what moves people instead of merely re-presenting how people move. Another case study was the dance theatre of the German-Ivorian duo Gintersdorfer/Klassen, which brings non-normative spheres of life to the stage and gesturally blends life strategies with the dancers’ subjective strategies and real-life forms of expression with aesthetic expression.

Jeanne Bindernagel and Michael v. zur Mühlen (“Reframing Brecht – für ein mit sich unzufriedenes Theater”) used a recent production of Mahagonny at the Opera Halle on which they worked as the basis on which to ponder the viability of staging Brecht today. Given what they called the “Mahagonnisierung der Wirklichkeit,” how can we expect a production of Mahagonny today to have the kind of impact Brecht achieved with the play in his own time? The Mahagonny production at the Opera Halle grappled with this issue self-consciously and explicitly. The directors based their staging concept on the following ideas, which they put forth as applications of quintessential Brechtian principles: Brecht needs to be submitted to the methods of his own critique; Brecht contradicts himself; the material needs to be reframed instead of merely updated; Brecht’s writings are historical material; Brecht’s theatre produces a kind of social sculpture; political theatre is inherently dissatisfied with itself; and Brecht’s material needs to be re-politicized. Based on these principles, the Opera Halle staged a production of Mahagonny as a funeral, casting the actors as mourners and situating their performance somewhere in the intersection or friction point between a celebration of life and a final laying to rest.

The workshop ended with a panel discussion titled “Truppen, Kampfformen und Interventionen – Brechts Theatervision ‘kleiner wendiger Truppen’ im Jahr 2018.” The panel was moderated by the dramaturge, Cornelius Puschke, and the participants were representatives of grassroots interventionist theatre groups: Alexander Karschnia (Andcompany & Co), Hilke Berger (HafenCity Universität Hamburg), and Jean Peters (Peng!-Kollektiv). The moderator started the panel off with a discussion of one of the very last texts penned by Brecht, a speech he held at the IV. Deutscher Schriftstellerkongress in 1956, advocating the notion of a small popular theatre that is capable of making targeted transformative interventions in everyday life. The moderator then asked the three panelists to comment on this idea in light of their own theatre practices. The three interventionist theatre groups have in common that they are action-focused (“Handlung statt Verhandlung”); that they intervene in controversial, but highly localized single issues and strive for immediate change concerning that single issue; that they use estrangement and irony as core aesthetic techniques; and that their political interventions also aim to raise awareness of the political character of art. The ensuing discussion was heated and to some extent controversial, with some workshop participants insisting on demarcating boundaries between Brechtian V-Effekt and other forms of performative irony and other participants affirming Brecht’s legacy in these forms of interventionist street-level theatre.

Overall though, there was widespread consensus that we are indeed experiencing a Brechtian moment, and that today’s social, political, and cultural landscape urgently calls for Brechtian interventions.

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Brecht in Chicago / Brecht and Chicago – Directors’ Roundtable

by Stephen Brockman, Carnegie Mellon

At the 2019 annual convention of the Modern Language Association, the International Brecht Society organized a special session on Brecht in Chicago/ Brecht and Chicago. The session, organized and moderated by Marc Silberman, occurred on Saturday, January 5 from 10:15-11:30 AM and featured four leading representatives of Chicago-area theaters: Stefan Brün of Prop Thtr, Zeljko Djukich of TUTA Theatre, Neil Blackadder of Knox College, and Max Truax of Red Tape Theatre. Susan Parenti of the School for Designing a Society in Urbana, IL had been scheduled to take part in the session as well, but unfortunately she had to cancel due to a scheduling conflict.

mla roundtable

In advance of the special session on Brecht in Chicago/ Brecht and Chicago, Marc Silberman circulated a series of questions to all the participants:

– How did you “discover” or first encounter Brecht?
– What have you learned from staging Brecht plays or adapting his theater style?
– What challenges have you faced in adapting Brecht to an American context or theater or teaching environment?
– How do actors and/or audiences react to Brecht?

In introducing the session on the morning of January 5, Silberman repeated these questions but gave participants free reign to respond or not respond to particular questions and to focus on what they viewed as most important. Although most participants responded in some way to one or more of Silberman’s questions, what emerged from the discussion was a fascinating cross-section of issues having to do with Brecht in connection to the city of Chicago—both Brecht’s own treatment of Chicago in his “Chicago” plays and also Chicago’s treatment of Brecht as a key force in twentieth and twenty-first century theater at some of the most experimental theater institutions in the city. The four directors spoke in order of seniority, from oldest to youngest.

Stefan Brün of Prop Thtr was particularly eloquent in his discussion of Brecht and Chicago, and he argued prior to the beginning of the session that Brecht was a fundamental force in making Chicago theater different from theater in other parts of the country. He noted that he had grown up around Brecht people, and that when he was a child it was as if “Brecht had just left the room.” In many ways, Brün suggested, Brecht almost seemed to still be around, and much of what surrounded him as he was growing up was a “cloud of reference” referring in various ways to Brecht. According to Brün, in many ways Brecht treated Chicago as a kind of Americanized Berlin in his plays: “Chicago is Berlin.” He also referred to Brecht’s theater as a “theater of strangers”—a clear nod to the topic of the upcoming sixteenth symposium of the International Brecht Society on the topic of “Brecht unter Fremden/ Brecht Among Strangers” (June 19-23, 2019). Brün claimed that the real Chicago did not particularly interest Brecht, although he did briefly stop there once on a car journey from New York City to California; for Brecht, however, it was Chicago’s mythic elements that were particularly fascinating. What Brecht found interesting as a young man were things like the Chicago Commodity Exchange, Chicago’s gangster culture, boxing, and sports. He was also fascinated by Charlie Chaplin films such as City Lights and The Kid. In many ways Brecht’s Chicago is a misunderstanding, Brün asserted—but a productive and positive one. In his view, Brecht pointed the way toward theater that is an anti-market, “non-business proposition” and a kind of “perturbation of the craft.” Brecht, Brün pointed out, worked on theater as a kind of transcultural project.

Zeljko Djukich, who works part of the time in Chicago at TUTA Theatre and part of the time in Belgrade, is also an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and he focused in particular on the way that American acting students are frequently confused by Brecht and his approach to theater. After all, American acting students study Method acting and Stanislavski, and they learn all about “becoming” the character they are playing. Brecht’s anti-psychological approach can therefore be baffling to them, and it challenges American drama students in their capabilities and conceptions. Djukich noted that one of the best ways he has found to deal with students’ consternation when confronted with Brecht is to ask them to sing; after all, when acting students break into song, it is difficult for them to pretend that they are not performing on a stage: singing forces them to be aware of the specific physical and social situation of the theater, an aspect that is particularly important to Brecht. Songs make students unafraid of direct communication with the audience, something that they otherwise tend to avoid—and are taught to avoid. Djukich suggested that studying Brecht is absolutely necessary for young American acting students—perhaps precisely as an antidote to their usual training.  He observed, moreover, that Brecht tends to structure his plays musically, and that musicalization is a way of structuring a literary work. Such musicalization can encourage both playfulness and engagement. The musical structuring of Brecht’s plays was something that came up in the audience discussion after the four directors had spoken.

Neil Blackadder, who teaches in the theater program at Knox College (in Galesburg, Illinois, about two hundred miles southwest of Chicago), has been a devotee of Brecht most of his professional life, and discussed an unfortunate situation that developed in Knox College’s theater program a little over a year ago, in the autumn of 2017, when a performance of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan had to be canceled due to virulent opposition from students.  (For more on this incident, see and Students argued that Brecht’s depiction of Asian women in the play was negative, and that Brecht did not provide enough positive Asian role models in the play. (Of course, Brecht’s plays were not generally intended to provide positive role models, but that seems to have been beside the point for the people protesting the play at Knox College, who felt that Brecht should provide positive role models.) The protesters even suggested that Brecht was a racist. At the same time, they complained that the Knox College theater program might be planning to cast non-Asian students in Asian roles and talked about “whitewashing” and “tokenization” as well as “problematic archetypes of Asian women.” Blackadder, who had been planning to direct the play, decided the college theater program was caught in a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” — i.e., that no matter who was cast in particular roles, there would be an outcry and complaints. This controversy actually made the national news—and was even picked up by the right-wing press, which defended the left-winger Brecht against angry students—, and ultimately there was even an open forum on Brecht’s play and plans to produce it at Knox College. Blackadder described the open forum as a disaster and noted that few participants were willing to listen to reasoned arguments in the course of it or to enter into a real exchange of views. At one point Blackadder considered doing The Good Person of Szechwan as a play about the possibility of performing The Good Person of Szechwan itself, i.e. as a play about the play itself (something that I suspect might have appealed to Brecht); but that too, Blackadder concluded, would be pointless. Indeed, he ultimately decided that trying to have a conversation about the controversy and its implications would be pointless, because there was no real possibility for open debate and discussion in the heated atmosphere that had developed in the fall of 2017. In the end, Blackadder and the Knox College theater program chose to cancel the production of The Good Person of Szechwan and instead to put on three learning plays by Brecht: He Who Says Yes, He Who Says No, and The Exception and the Rule (  Blackadder’s account was a sobering wake-up call about trying to perform the anti-realist, anti-essentialist Brecht in a time of political correctness, identity politics, and concepts of ethnic essentialism.

Max Truax, the youngest director in the bunch, did not come across Brecht until he happened upon In the Jungle of Cities as a student at Oberlin College in Ohio. Brecht’s play seemed different to him from anything else he had ever read, because it seemed to create a completely new, self-contained world rather than attempt to recreate the existing world in a humdrum, realistic way. Truax was attracted to Brecht the gamer and the player — In the Jungle of Cities seemed to him to create a game that could be played both by the characters in the play and the actors on stage in conjunction with the audience. “You create a world in theater-making,” Truax observed. He noted that he appreciates the collage aspects of Brecht and the possibility of using collage in order to create something new, something that did not exist before: using elements from something that came previously, but making something new out of it. Truax also likes Brecht’s awareness that a game is being played on stage in Brecht’s plays, and that the audience and actors are in on the game and part of it. Rather than creating theater in order to “suspend disbelief,” Truax suggested, Brecht creates theater in order to suspend belief itself. He teaches the audience that it is always being cheated. That is an aspect of Brecht’s theater that he appreciates.

After the four directors spoke, there was time—but not much!—for a number of questions and observations from the audience, some of which centered around questions of Brecht’s musicality, Brecht’s depictions of Chicago, and the question of realism vs. anti-realism. Based on the accounts given by these directors, it seems that Brecht is alive and well in Chicago and still contributing to Chicago’s unique theater scene.

Link to article on the roundtable from Third Coast Review:

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German Art in SoCal in German Art Conference

by Courtney Yamagiwa, Glen Gray, and Luke Beller

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On 14-16 November 2018, the German program at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) hosted a three-day conference on the works and legacies of exiled artists and thinkers active in Southern California, including Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958), and Thomas Mann (1875-1955). The conference title, “German Art in SoCal­-SoCal in German Art,” is a reflection of the fact that many artists, writers, and filmmakers worked, lived, sought refuge, or “did time” in Southern California. The conference focused especially on the period of Hitler-Fascism in Germany; a period described in detail in, among other sources, Ehrhard Bahr’s monograph Weimar on the Pacific. The conference was organized by CSULB students Natalie Martz, Luke Beller, Courtney Yamagiwa, and Glen Gray; professors Jeffrey L. High and Robert Blankenship; and a large number of students from the CSULB German program.

The first day of the conference began with a video created by CSULB German MA Alexandra Petrus, who combined video clips of past and present CSULB students with clips of the lives of German and Austrian Exiles, set to The Doors’ rendition of Brecht’s and Weill’s “Alabama Song.” The conference continued with a paper by Rick McCormick (University of Minnesota) on the representation of the United States by exiled filmmakers Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, followed by a film screening of Bertrand Sauzier’s short film A Good Example: Brecht and HUAC. Jack Davis (Truman State University) presented an eco-critical reading of Brecht’s Hollywood Elegien, followed by Wolf Kittler (University of California, Santa Barbara), who placed Arnold Schoenberg’s exile composition “Ode to Napoleon” in its wartime historical context. Willi Goetschel (University of Toronto) provided an analysis of the genesis of Adorno’s critical theory in Southern California.

In the following session, Robert Blankenship’s undergraduate and graduate students showed self-made film interpretations of Brecht’s poem “Lob des Kommunismus.” Glen Gray (California State University, Long Beach) directed musical programs that took place on Wednesday and Thursday featuring vocalists from Shigemi Matsumoto’s vocal studio at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music. Wednesday’s program featured exile compositions of Hanns Eisler, with texts by Brecht. The performance began with songs from Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch, then featured four soloists in the choral piece Gegen den Krieg, and finished with a sing-along of Brecht and Eisler’s “Einheitsfrontlied.”

The night ended with a theater production of The Visions of Simone Machard (Co-directors: Josephine Claus and Jeffrey L. High) featuring CSULB students. 2018 marks the third year in which the CSULB German program has put on a theatrical production. The conference theme provided the opportunity to present a rarely performed work that was developed in collaboration between three exiles: Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Hanns Eisler. Set in France in WWII, the performance featured several Brechtian alienation techniques. For example, the director gave a speech before the show, regretfully informing the audience of Leonardo DiCaprio’s cancellation, and the Southern-Californian actors were reminded of their French pronunciation by a French character throughout the performance.


The second day began with opening remarks from CSULB Provost and Senior Vice President Brian Jersky, after which dramatic readings set the stage for the day’s lectures. Readings included excerpts from Brecht’s journal entries, poetry, and prose work Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner. Markus Wessendorf (University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa) presented his paper “Brecht in Los Angeles­—in this mausoleum of easy going.” Johannes Endres (University of California, Riverside) examined Luis Trenker’s film Der Kaiser von Kalifornien as a seminal work in the tradition of the German western. Lisa Beesley (California State University, Long Beach) spoke about Stephan Peter Jungk’s novel Der König von Amerika, which featured intriguing discoveries regarding the relationship between Thomas Mann and Walt Disney, as well as Disney’s reception as a figurehead for all things American. Regina Range (University of Alabama) provided a talk regarding three German exile authors: Salka Viertel, Gina Kaus, and Vicki Baum. Her research offers insight on another perspective of exile life through the eyes of successful female writers. Robert Blankenship (California State University, Long Beach) held a talk exploring Los Angeles as the main character in Christa Wolf’s book Stadt der Engel oder The Overcoat of Dr. Freud. Carrie Collenberg-Gonzalez (Portland State University) delivered a paper on the chiastic representation between Germany and Hollywood and the anxiety of representation.

Thursday’s musical performance included works from Kurt Weill’s successful years as a Broadway composer. The touching duet “Remember that I Care” and the humorous “How Can You Tell an American?” were featured, and the concert ended with a sing-along rendition of the popular “September Song.” The night concluded with an outdoor film screening of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with an introduction by Los Angeles Goethe Institut Program Coordinator and CSULB alumnus Daniel Chaffey.

The final day of the conference was not your average conference day. Participants gathered into vans and visited several landmarks for exile studies in Southern-California. The first stop was the Lion Feuchtwanger Memorial Library at the University of Southern California (USC). Archive librarians Michaela Ullmann and Marje Schuetze-Coburn allowed conference guests to examine manuscripts and letters from Brecht, Mann, and Feuchtwanger, among others. Participants then visited the newly-opened Thomas Mann House and drove past Bertolt Brecht’s residence at 1063 26th St. in Santa Monica. Participants then travelled to Lion Feuchtwanger’s former house, the Villa Aurora, which provided an ideal setting for the final conference events. After talks by CSULB students Courtney Yamagiwa and Natalie Martz, James Schmidt (Boston University) described the reception of Faust stories in film culture. The conference concluded with a dramatic reading of Thomas Mann’s Deutsche Hörer! by the prominent German-born actor Eric Braeden.

We would like to thank all of the sponsors, ­foremost among many, the German Academic Exchange Commission (DAAD), ­as well as the many CSULB student volunteers for their help, and all the attendees who joined us in creating such a meaningful and memorable event.

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by Eugenio Monclova


(On the screen we see photos of the US Army war games in Puerto Rico in 1938 while we hear a voice narrate:)

Narrator (VO): In 1938, the US Army, in face of the upcoming war, intensifies its preparedness in its Caribbean territory, the Archipelago of Puerto Rico. Military exercises were the first item in the agenda. Hundreds of civilians were evicted to build air and naval bases.

1941: Japan attacks the US base of Pearl Harbor.

(We begin to hear “Remember Pearl Harbor” by Sammy Kaye.)

Narrator: Amparo, the proud owner of “The Oxcart Bar and Grill” narrates to her customers, in the 60’s, what life was like in Vieques in the 40’s.

Amparo: …And those share croppers …cause’ they did not have a property title … they didn’t get even a dollar from the Navy when they were evicted… Ha, ha… and I sang to those whiners:

If you want

to cry(bis)

you must go

to maternity ward

If you want to sleep

like a bear,

you must be in the

the Welfare.

I don’t like to sleep,

I rather work like a bee.

But nevertheless, after sometime the war reached us. One day we were minding our own business and taking care of a little bar when two recruiting officers came to visit us. And they thought that, ‘cause when we were young we were hot and fell in love easily and had a few adventures, they can treat me like a whore. Cause I get married. But not married, you know. Cause I said that getting married was a lot of trouble and as I used to say “I will not marry any man”. In place of marriage, I tied the knot, I cast my luck with three guys and to each of them I breed a baby. Are you asking me if we had contraceptive methods on those times? Of course. In the name of the father, of the son and the holy ghost. Ha, ha!

They were paid 50 bucks for each boy they enlist, and they promised them the Earth and the Moon: to fix their teeth, to give a purgative against their parasites, and to cure them of syphilis and gonorrhea. The syphilis was called the French disease. They thought that my second “husband,” Paul’s father, was French. His family name was French, but he was a local: Leguillou, from Vieques.

Everything started with my eldest, William Collins. When those two vultures asked his name I told them “Collins.” And one of them buzzards said: “So… All of them are Collins, good Americans, like his father?” Why all of them must be Collins? Hey! Don’t mess up things! Good American? Yes indeed. But white as milk? Nooo! Black as a pitch. His Pa was a well-endowed black guy from Brooklyn. My daughter’s? A German. Storde. And because the governor in that time, Lucky Leahy, said that he will finish with all German spies, maybe that’s why I never saw him again. I hope that’s the real reason that explain his disappearance, cause’ if that’s not the reason and he just eloped with another woman… Poor him if I ever lay my hands on him!!!

Well, at the beginning of the war they took for the army only those who knows English well. That’s why they left us without English teachers in the island for our kids. They took even Mrs. Charlemagne! But afterwards, they took the boys, even if what they know was a fourth grade’s English. That was the case of my son.

“Come with us! Come with us, and you’ll see the world. You will know another life!” Yes, I know! Another life… The afterlife!!! I thought my son was smarter. But he let them fool him as an asshole! What the fuck? The military service was obligatory, so why so much fuss about this? Yes, I know. 50 bucks for each recruit who went “voluntarily.” “And afterwards, when you’ll return from the war, you’ll get money for studies and to buy a house.” Yeah right. If they return…

(Teasingly) “Are you afraid?” the recruiter mocks him. That son of a bitch!!”-Sign! –” To ask a Puerto Rican macho if he is afraid! How clever are those recruiting officers! Temerity lost him. And there he went, my son William, with the army.

Not Paul. What lost Paul was honesty. I told him: “Don’t tell anybody that you are 18 years old three years ago already. Tell them that you are 17 years old.” Cause’ in those times nobody went to the demographic registry. No one wanted to pass by that extra work… Nobody knows exactly their birth date. Not even the government knows. But when they come and ask how old he was, he answered them: “21.” But you, stupid moron. Didn’t I tell you to tell them that you were yet 17 years old? “But mom, you taught me to be an honest man.” A honest man? Yes! But an asshole? No! And they took him off too. But that was later, during the Korean War.

At least I have the girl. She was dumb, and that was something.

That happened the night that they burned up our house. They gave us a day to leave the house where I lived my whole life with my children. The Navy needed our little plot of land. So, that night, because we haven’t left yet, they put up a fire around the house. The girl, being the younger one, being a little kid, did run to the bushes, flying from the fire, and it seems they mouth rape her. But it doesn’t matter. If you want to cry, go to the maternity ward. With the few bucks we get from the “buying” of the land by the Navy, I bought this little stall that, with a lot of work and effort, and thanks to God and to the fact that the sailors drink a lot, I transformed it into “The Oxcart Bar and Grill.

One of the recruiters ask me: “Is it true that you are called Mother Balls because you love to su…?” Hey! Watch out you smarty! It is true that they call me Mother Balls, why? I had a cow that my late father left to me, before our house was burned down. And once when the firing practices had already begun, the ships were firing, firing against targets in the firing range. And the fucking cow went into the firing range and I get in after her and kept calling, “Margarita! Margarita go home now!” To get her out of the firing range. Do you think I would left her there to the bombs? The only inheritance my father left me and the milk of my three children? Of course not! That’s why they call me Mother Balls, not because I love to suck them. But, coming back to your question that’s not my real name. My name is Amparo.

But to that officer, the one which recruited my eldest in ’43, that was a captain. I decided to read him his future with the cards. “I usually charge for this, but since I like you, I will read your fortune for free.” Ace of Spades! CERTAIN DEATH!

“I will not be killed! I work recruiting home, in the “rearguard!” I will not be sent to the front!” “It’s never too late for that! You never know! The Lord works in mysterious ways!” That guy becomes white as a sheet! “You made that up!” No sir! I will not joke with that! And the other one said: “This man is pale as a ghost! Everybody is impressed! Of course! We are talking about Death! Make us two drinks! And one for you and one for your son too. We’ll pay!” And while I was in that, preparing four Rum and Coca Cola, the pale one, took my William away!



(A very famous song of farewell to the troops is heard “I came to say farewell to the boys.”)

When the war against Japan, things were really bad. The only food we got from the States to eat, was that long grain rice from Louisiana that we used to call dagger rice. Christ! Nobody can eat that stuff! Sailors had all the food they needed canned. But if they wanted to eat something fresh, they were all fucked up because people didn’t have enough food to spare, and because they have fucked so much the civilian population, that they wouldn’t get nothing. Not even a kernel of corn!

So, when a cook from the base, the personal cook of a colonel, came looking for a chicken to buy, he had a tough time with me. I told him: “Two dollars.” And he answered: “1.50? I better give him canned chicken. We have a lot of that in the base.” Yeah! Do it! Give him that and you will be send to the dungeon: three days on bread and water!” “Don’t worry I will think of something! Are you kidding? $1.75 for that chicken with rickets?” “She have no rickets! And its price it’s not $1.75, it’s $2.25! And with that canned chicken that you were talking about, a lot of soldiers got poisoned! So many that the federal government is investigating suppliers.” “Two dollars? Does this chicken talk?” “No, she does not, but she sings! And not any song. Patriotic ones! Do you remember that song they use to teach the children in the school? ‘I never told a lie, because I want to be like George Washington, that was the greatest hero…’ Do you remember? Well this chicken sings it all. Of course, without the lyrics. (She sings the melody with chicken voice: ‘Papapapapapapa…’”) “But why she doesn’t sings it herself now?” “Cause’ she’s very shy and she doesn’t know you… I will be very sad parting with her… But I need those $2.25 badly.”

He accepted! “O.K. But for that price, please behead her cause I fill pity for her. And pluck her cause I find that disgusting.” “And this are the soldiers in Uncle Sam’s Army? Hahaha!” “I’m doing this, just for the sake of that damned Kentucky’s colonel so that he can have his fried chicken with mashed potato. For him and for his guest.” “Does he have a guest to dinner?” “Yes. A Puerto Rican soldier that has killed a lot of Japanese peasants and he is going to be decorated today.” And I that beheaded my poor dear chicken, and was plucking her for that captain and his guest, when I heard the voice of the Puerto Rican soldier narrating the feat for which he won the medal. It was William, my son! Shit! What a coincidence! I recognize his voice immediately!

Well, what happened was that that good-for-nothing of my son was sent with his comrades in patrol duty in one of those Pacific Islands.  Once they were so tired that all of them fell asleep and suddenly came a group of Japanese peasants, rounded them up and take off their guns. But then my son made them believe that he wanted to buy one of theirs cows and when they were distracted with the dealing, he caught them off guard. He took back his gun, and ‘ta, ta, ta, ta!!!’ He killed a lot of those Chinese! What? Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese. They are all the same shit! Small, yellow, and with slanted eyes. The thing was that he took the cow with him and that night, his comrades ate fresh meat and not that canned shit the army gave them.

And then my son, William, maybe a little bit dizzy because of the whiskeys, he feels nostalgic for his mother and regretting she wasn’t invited to the ceremony that would let her know that he became an important man he began to sing. How horrible he sings! He began to sing a song that I used to sing to them to wake them up, so that they don’t want to become soldiers. One of his verses says: “A little old lady with very white hair, she was left alone with five medals that for five heroes the Motherland decorated her.” But I used to sing it a little bit different and I sing in the part of the five heroes that for five assholes was awarded by the Motherland. Then I enter into the dining room where my son was with the colonel from Kentucky and began to sing with him. And when we reached to the part that talks about the five heroes and the five medals I slapped my son. And he told me: “But Ma! You just came from the kitchen! You don’t hear what I was telling? You didn’t hear that your son is a hero?” “Did I ask you for a hero, or to take care of yourself? You could’ve been killed by those Japanese. That’s why I slapped you! You asshole! Come and give a big hug to your mother!”


And this was true. In those times there were not any food left in the island. The only meat we the poor can get, was pig’s tails and ears. And anybody would think that this was happening ‘cause the USA was sending a lot of food and arms and troops to Europe and to the Pacific, and that because of this, there were not any ships that can come to Puerto Rico with food and stuff. But that was not the real reason. Mr. Félix, the retired history teacher, who passed the whole day hearing the world news in the radio explain what was really going on. What was really happening was that when Germany invaded France, she split it in two. One part then, belongs to Germany, but the other continue being France but a smaller version with a very close relation with Germany. That’s what everybody knows.

But then somebody told Mr. Félix what was really happening. We here in the island did never, never know what was happening, but our people in the Hispanic neighborhood in New York did. The Americans were sending ships with food to Martinica and Guadalupe, which belongs to France, to court her and have her in good terms. And even when maybe those islands were being used by the Germans submarines that where circling us like a wolf pack. $1 million worth of merchandise was send to this two island each month from American seaports. And what about Puerto Ricans, the American citizens of Puerto Rico? Fuck’em! But when the Puerto Ricans longshoremen of New York knew of all this they went on strike, and the people in the neighborhood rioted, and this way the ships with food to Puerto Rico reappeared. Thanks to those Puerto Ricans of New York. If it’s not for their help we would have eaten dirt… Died of starvation!


(In the screen we see photos of the Puerto Rican regiment of the US Army the 65th regiment of Infantry, the Borinqueneers and hear the regiment hymn Nuestro Regimiento.)

When that foxtrot of World War II ended, we thought that was the last one. But luckily, the Navy didn’t left Vieques. Then the Korean War broke out! All went wrong for the Americans in that war. I read that they got two generals killed. Then my friend, the chaplain of the base, corrected me and told me that the Koreans have only killed one American General that the other was killed in a car accident. “That is the worst! A very bad general he have to be, ‘cause the first thing that a general have to do, is to see into the heart of his men. And if the general can’t foresee that his chauffeur was capable of hit a tree with his jeep and kill the general and himself, he has to be the worst of the generals!”

So, during the Korean War, my second son was old enough to be in the army. I always told him to say that he was younger than what he really was, and because he’s was so small and had a baby face, that helped him. But that time, they didn’t believe him. He was arrested and after a monkey trial in the base, he was sent to the basic training. But thanks God corruption exists, and if you have the money you can get the things done, because if not, if corruption doesn’t exist how can the poor have a little bit of Justice? Money makes the world

I was informed that there was a MD that for a lot of money, was ready to put in his papers that Paul was “unfit for duty.” But where can I found that amount of money? Would I have to sell my stall? No way José! Well I have some money inside my mattress ‘n if that is not enough then I would need to sell. But who would have in this island enough money to buy me “The Oxcart Bar and Grill”, in case I decide to sell it?

Yvonne! My friend Yvonne! Yvonne the whore! Yvonne was a young girl from Aguadilla, that when the air base of Ramey Fields was under construction – the one who is born a loser, dies a loser–, fell in love with a guy, an asshole from Cayey, a hillbilly that told her that he was a draughtsman but what he really was a laborer, that worked laying bricks and putting tar in the air field. But because he used military uniform she fell in love and he deflowered her. And of course, she didn’t know even his second name. All what she knew was that he was called Cigar’s Luis Pasqual because he didn’t take the cigar out of his mouth, not even when he was fucking one of his whores.

She didn’t have no other choice but to throw herself into the gutter and becomes a whore. Who’s going to marry her after she was deflowered? So, she becomes a whore and left her hometown of Aguadilla and she came to this other island of Vieques where there a lot of men in uniforms too. Of course! But after sometime in Vieques, practicing the oldest profession of the world, she took advantage of a captain from Arkansas, and led him by the nose. Sure! She was the only white whore around. The slinky bitch! Forgive me my Lord! I shall not speak of her like that! She was my friend! The captain fell in “love” with her, and asked her to marry him. Yvonne said that the old man had a lot of money in the bank and that he was ready to retire. I offered her to sell “The Oxcart Bar and Grill”, with the hope of winning the jackpot in the underground Lottery, and buying it back from her. I offered to the MD part of the money I had inside my mattress. I send him a message with Yvonne, that then thought “I am better than thou” cause’ she was then a married woman, a captain’s wife. She that have seen more balls than a pool table! And before that, she always “let us know,” that she was in a higher level than the rest of us cause her name was a French one. But what was France? A place with a lot of whores and a lot of churches. Big deal! The same as Vieques. A place with a lot of churches and a lot of bars, thanks to the sailors and their unquenchable thirst. God be praised!

Well, two or three times I send Yvonne to see the MD and talk with him. Each time I send her with more money in her hands. But he wanted more. At the end I took a decision: I will sell “The Oxcart Bar and Grill.” Too late.

They sent him from Vieques to the base of Roosevelt Roads. From Roosevelt Roads to San Juan Naval Station. From there to the Panama Canal Zone, Hawaii, Japan, Korea.  Paul was killed in Korea in a hill where 700 Boricuas where sent to battle and only 100 returned alive. My God! Paul wasn’t between those who returned alive. But what do you wanted me to do? I couldn’t sell “The Oxcart Bar and Grill.” I had to look after my girl! If I had sell my stall, the other day I would be kicked like a mangy dog. Thank God I didn’t sell. My eldest went lucky… He wasn’t killed in the war. Hey! Watch out with the glasses! That cost me money. Pay for it and go back to your mother you son of a bitch. Go back to your wife you drunken bum! Holy shit!


(We hear the Salomon Song, sung in English by Lotte Lenja. The music fades out.)

One day, some time after the cease of fire, I was talking with my friend Luis P., the cook of the base. He’d been almost ten years after me. After my ass I mean. Everything was going well. As long as there were sailors in Vieques, rivers of rum and beer would be running. Praised the Lord! As I use to sang:

To every good sailor

Beer and rum I sell

To empty his pocket

And fuck up his head

And from time to time a sailor, on the sly, “pawns” to me a box of canned meat, or other goods from the base. And in that way, I made an extra money…

And when someone complains that the money I paid them for the merchandise they pawn wasn’t much I told them: “But what the hell are you talking about? Don’t you know that I’m buying from you stolen good from the NAVY’S warehouse? Don’t you know that that is a federal felony? That if the feds catch me in its possession I would be sent to Atlanta? So what do you think now? Come on and get out of here! Now!

And that day, I send my girl to town to buy some pickled sausage, and some dill wholes and that kind of salty stuff that you give to your costumers for free to make them thirsty… I told her: Don’t let anyone to take you that merchandise away ‘cause that cost us money! And when we were alone, Luis P, the cook, who was always smoking a stinking cigar, declare me his love. Well in his own special way. He told me that for many years he has been sending money to his mother who lived all those years in N.Y., and with that money she bought a little grocery store in the neighborhood. He asked me if I wanted to go with him. I told him that I had to think about it. That it was so sudden, the proposal I mean. I couldn’t leave my bar… And I have to ask Maria, my daughter, if she wants to come. I know she will love the idea but nevertheless I had to ask her.

In that moment, my cook, strangely, stayed quiet. After an awkward silence, he said: “I wasn’t talking about taking Maria with us. You know the saying: two can eat from the same one dish? Well, that’s not true. Our little grocery store is a small one, enough for my mom, you, and me to make a living out of it. But that’s all.

Once a friend of mine who lives in N.Y. and works there as a journalist, invited me to see a play in Broadway. The title of the play was The Three Penny Opera, and there they sang a song where one of the characters said that in this society intelligence, honesty, charity and even science where worthless. And in the program were the lyrics of the songs of the play and because I love poetry and now English, and because I like it a lot and was very impressed with it, I translated a stanza of this song.

“The good old saint called Saint Marteen

Met in his way a beggar.

And then in two he ripped his robe

So that none of them would suffer of


That, his good intention was.

When the sun rise up

What a sad sight we saw!

They were frozen, the both of them

Each one in a different step

Charity didn’t work!

The beggar was really dead,

and the saint… Was gone!”

And suddenly, my daughter arrived, without the pickled sausage, and with blood running down her face!” Who did this to you my baby?” “The sailors” “Oh, I forgot that the ships that were supposed to come today were coming in the morning. I shouldn’t have told her not to let anyone to take the merchandise away from her. I will never forgive myself.” They tried to rape her, and to take the merchandise off her hands! And because she didn’t let them, they cut her face!

My friend said: “Dumb and now a with a scar in her face? Now, no man will marry her! Nobody will carry with that bundle! Not here, not there!” I told him back: You can take your grocery store and stick it up your ass! Fuck you, and your mother too!

And I told my daughter: No, my love, I am not staying because of you, It is because of “The Oxcart Bar and Grill”. I can’t leave and let my business alone. And I swear to God that this is the last man I let into my life! I don’t need a man for nothing.

William, my eldest, returned alive from the Pacific in ‘46. But he returned a looney. He came apart like a dollar watch. He began to live together with a fucked crazy woman of the island, Laura. And one day, that fucking bitch told to my son that the neighbor’s cow was hers. And William went there and asked the neighbor for the returning of the cow. The neighbor said that the cow belongs to him, and that he wouldn’t give it to my son. So, William took his walking stick that he had to use after he came from the war, to help him walk, and broke the neighbor’s skull.

When he was arrested he went crying: “But I killed those Japanese! I snatched them their cows. I got a medal for that” He got sentenced to 30 years. All that, was that bitch of Laura’s fault. Some women make men go mad.


And one night in a brawl some sailors wrecked my bar. Glasses, chairs… Tables! Not one rest unbroken. Brawls broke out very often between the drunken sailors. But that time…they overdid it! Because of this, I went to the base’s community relations office. To claim what’s mine. They would have to pay me! No, no, no! I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut. No way!

When I got to that office, a married couple was already there, and the guy was “giving a speech.” “Shit! They will pay me for that cow they killed, as my name’s Walter Vázquez!”

“Take it easy Walter, take it easy!” told him his wife.

“Leave me alone Alejita! This is an injustice! They killed that cow, and they will pay for it! I can’t stand this much longer!”

“How much longer you can’t stand this? A minute? An hour?”

“No! With me they can’t!”

“A week? A month? A year!”

“I tell you that…!”

“Do you see? Not even yourself know, how much longer you can’t stand it!”

“Call me your captain of I will…”

“Silence!” shouted a corporal that worked in the reception. “If you don’ t keep quiet I will call the MPS, and I’ll have you arrested! And Sit down!” And that “warrior,” seated down, ipso facto, and stayed quiet and meek like a lamb. And I told him: Keep shouting! Why don’ t you yell now? What happens is that, the one who shout the loudest is not always the bravest! And they know it. “Seat down!” they say and he do as he is order to. Hahahaha!!!!

And then the corporal in charge of the office said: “And you! What brings you here today, Madam? Are you seeking some kind of redress? What are you complaining about?” Me? I have no complains my boy! No complains!


And that day I told my daughter, -No! No way! -“For the baby, mom, for the baby”- Get away from that cash register! Are you deaf?” – “Mom, for the baby”-  I wouldn’t give a penny to my own mother! The Navy would pay them the burial! And even if they have to wait ten years, at the end, the NAVY will give them a lot of money. And to me, who gives me nothing? Nobody! But I’m the greedy! I’m the cheap if I don’t help them! But what about them? Father and son in horseback, inside the firing range with unexploded bombs. Why they were there? What for? To catch a dozen of land crabs to sell. And how can we call that? Greed!!! One of the Seven deadly sins.

Nay. Nobody can scold them. But I have to give the widow some money for the burial. And nobody gives anything to me. And then Maria took Taso’s widow baby and held him between her arms. The kid was crying, so she made him funny faces, so that he would stop doing it. And the boy began to laugh! Since she was a kid, she loves babies! And she was an animal lover too! OK my darling. You can take whatever money you need. Sorry Ma’am. OK, darling, now you can give back the baby to his mother. For Christ sake, are you deaf?  Give back the fucking baby to his mother. Now!

Pride lost William. Paul was too honest. For Maria it was going to be her compassion. In that time I only had the girl. And watching her while she held the baby in her arms, I told her: May the Lord be with you, my darling!


(On the screen are images of the protests in Vieques an Culebra in the 70’s. We hear a salsa song that says, “If you’re black and without a nickel in your pocket you are cannon fodder.”)

In the sixties, so many sailors came to town! 2,000 at the same time when they were given passes in the base, that they arrived by the hour. The buses left a group and pick up another. We were doing great. In those days we were even selling lunches and I needed all the help Maria could gave me. But that day she disappeared. “Missing in action.” And I didn’t have the time to be looking for her… There was a lot of work to do, I had a lot of costumers to serve…

And that fateful day, they were looking for me, and when they found me and told me what had happened, I almost went crazy. First was the rage.

What? That she was in front of the gates of the base? What was she doing there? She went there to what? To protest? To shout? She? The dumb? And why she had to protest? Cause the Navy evicted some of us off their land? But we were paid for them. And some of us could start again. Some of us were evicted and some not, because that depended on what places they want. And that was it. And that didn’t lasted long. They came and tell you “you have a day to leave” and that was it. And they gave you a pittance for the land – next to nothing. Cause to my father they paid 300 lousy dollars, for five acres. But it was that the land was almost worthless.

Let me tell you something. When the NAVY first came here, everybody was a share cropper. Nobody owns nothing. You ask permission to build a little hut in a corner. Those rich people let their workers a little piece of land to build their houses. You know? Cause they have a lot they can leave their workers a lump. Cause they owned everything. Everything was theirs! As the old saying goes: The land is Vieques land, but it never belonged to the people of Vieques. It belonged to the rich owner that throw you out of his land if you stopped working for him. The land never belonged to the poor. Always his owner was a rich. The land belongs to the one who owns the money.

And why people did not protest more? ‘Cause first they were evicted from their lands by the Benítez and the Rexach families so that their cows could have more grazing grounds and they could plant more sugar cane. And those weren’t Americans. They were from Vieques like ourselves.

Money- little money in fact-, began to flow to the island when the NAVY came here. They were firsts ones that payed that kind of salaries. People here had to go on strike to get that kind of money. True! But at the end they pay it. And that was in the forties. At the beginning they hired a lot of people, truth being said. They gave a lot of jobs. True. And truth must be said cause’ truth is God’s best friend. And now we have a General Electric Factory, thanks to the NAVY, where they manufactured appliances and rifles. Of course honey! Rifles! It was the NAVY who brought it. Good salaries, they payed overtime and two weeks paid vacation. Here the General. In Martineau Beach.

It is true that when sailors began arriving in Vieques, they had their little brawls. At the bagging. But that was when the NAVY hadn’t bought Vieques yet.

And our people is a bad people. They don’t deserve that we do nothing in their behalf. In the last century a Spanish priest went to the countryside, so that he could marry the unmarried peasants that already lived together. And one night, he fell in a well and drowned. ‘Cause that well had “swallowed” the poor priest, the people should named it Devil’s Well. But no! They named it Holy Well. But not for honoring the poor’s man memory but because that well get rid of the priest that was pestering them with that horseshit of marriage. The people here do not deserve that anything be made for them. And… if it wasn’t for the Navy, what would I be doing instead of selling rum to the sailors? Lurching down the road with my children. In the gutter!

And she was protesting to save the turtles and the pelicans! What a bunch of assholes! And let me tell you something about how Americans are. My cousin José, went to the island of Saint Croix to work as a mason. When he collected his first weekly wage, he tried to return it, cause’ he thought they made a mistake. It was to much. In a five days week, he, working for the “americano,” earned 5 times more money than what he earned in Vieques in the sugarcane field in a 6 days week working for the Benitez family. “This is not Vieques,” told him his American boss.

They told her that the little creatures were suffering. And there she went to protest! She, the dumb! They didn’t know that something bad could happen to her? What? That she was wounded? How badly! What? That you think she is dead? So, she was very badly wounded!! Let’s go! Wait let me take some money with me.

Agggghh! But why they told her that the little creatures were being mistreated, that the little creatures were suffering? She would not tolerate that anyone can harm the little creatures. And there she goes, to shout in front of the base. She, the dumb. And I that had decided to stay with her in her singleness!

First, they let her dumb and now… She loved her brothers so much. She a so hard-working girl, so generous… In this country, generosity is a luxury that we, poor people, can’t afford to have.

And then I went there and identified her body, and when we returned to The Oxcart, I told Junior, the boy that came to my bar to give me the bad news: -Junior, take this money so you can pay the funeral home for the wake and burial of my dear Maria, “the dumb”. No! She goes without a mass. That represents more expenses and it is useless. Maybe I will go, later if something more is necessary. I can’t go now! I have a business to run! I have to sell beer and rum!

Do you ask me if I cried? In those days, a lot. But keep whining? No. I cried what I needed to already. If you need to cry you must go to the maternity ward.

(She begins to cry and to sing the song she sang at the beginning of the play.) If you want to cry…

The End

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