Issue 2017:2

Edited by Jack Davis and Kristopher Imbrigotta. Editorial assistance provided by Karis Chapman (Truman State University).

The Early Years of the IBS (1969-1980): An Interview with Jost Hermand (Marc Silberman and Kris Imbrigotta)

Interviews with Actor Laurent Stocker and Director Katharina Thalbach: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Comédie française (Florence Vatan)

Essays and Reflections:
“The Brechtian Turn” in der Filmwissenschaft (Marc Silberman)

Meine Geschichten vom Herrn K. oder: Aus den Lesebüchern für DDR-Bewohner (Kerstin Hensel)

Trading Brass with Brecht: Towards an Ecorealist Theatre (Sam Williams)

Skovsbostrand 8 (Alexandra Marinho de Oliveira)

Brecht before the Law: Features of the Kafkaesque in Sean Mitchell’s Wittness 11 (Temitope Abisoye Noah)

Performance Reviews:
Gentle, directed by Zeliko Diukic at the Den Theatre, Chicago, IL (Anthony Squiers)

A Lesson in Manipulation and an Exercise in Resistance: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at London’s Donmar Warehouse (Anja Hartl)

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Comédie française (Florence Vatan)

“There’s Happiness in Doubting” – Brecht’s Life of Galileo at London’s Young Vic Theatre (Anja Hartl)

Conference Reports:
Brecht and Collaboration: New Directions, New Discussions (Katherine Hollander)

Theater nach Brecht: Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus: June, 2017 (Alexandra Marinho de Oliveira)

Working with Brecht – Baustelle Brecht (José de Ipanema)

The Early Years of the IBS (1969-1980): An Interview with Jost Hermand

by Marc Silberman and Kristopher Imbrigotta


Jost Hermand

Click below to listen to the interview


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Interview with actor Laurent Stocker: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Comédie française, April 1-June 30, 2017 

by Florence Vatan

FV: Éric Ruf, the current administrative director, is opening the doors of the Comédie française to foreign guest directors. Has “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” as staged by Katharina Thalbach been innovative and different from what you were accustomed to at the Comédie française?

LS: It is extremely important and interesting to work with foreign directors, and it is innovative to discover new codes and conventions. I happened to have worked with German directors in the past: Peter Stein who staged Eugène Labiche’s play Le Prix Martin at the Odéon theater [in 2013] or Lukas Hemleb who staged An Absolute Turkey (Le Dindon) by Georges Feydeau at the Comédie française [in 2003]. German directors bring a theatrical vision of their own. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is very much reminiscent of German expressionism. Katharina Thalbach is the daughter of Benno Besson who liked to use masks in his plays. Many people in the audience wonder whether we are wearing masks. We are not wearing masks, but make-up, very heavy, like masks.

FV: Éric Ruf also mentioned his desire to free Brecht from the theoretical legacy that surrounds him, and to “go back to the source via the stage and the actors, rather than theory.” Does it mirror the spirit in which this play has been staged?

LS: Certainly. The famous estrangement (Verfremdungseffekt) discussed by theoreticians does not mean much for actors. Of course, we know that it is linked to the epic theater which itself owes a lot to Shakespeare. The signs, both large and small, that recount history and that put historical events into context, create estrangement. During rehearsals, however, Katharina did not want to hear about it. That said, theory remains important for me. I am not an actor who relies solely on instinct. I read a lot before I start performing. The theoretical part helps me put my acting into practice.

FV: How did you prepare for this role?

LS: I know Brecht’s theater quite well. I already played in adaptations of A Respectable Wedding (Die Kleinbürgerhochzeit) and Saint Joan of the Stockyards (Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe), both staged by Alain Milianti at the city of the Havre and the Odéon Theater [in 1999]. This is, therefore, my fourth play by Brecht. I have read all his plays and I am particularly fond of his Short Organon for the Theatre (Kleines Organon für das Theater), a key text for actors and the theater in general. One can read, and reflect on, these aphorisms any time of the day: I call them the Brechtian haikus. I have watched many documentaries on Hitler and it is important for me to learn about the author and the historical context. In this particular adaptation, the key element was to foster the comical theatricality and the characteristics of Grand-Guignol. These are colorful characters who unfortunately did exist, and it is only through their clownish dimension that we can grasp them. Approaching them through the lens of psychology would not be very interesting: we would quickly run into a wall. Whereas a focus on their clownish dimension is the only way to approach them for an actor, even if what they did was terrible. I thought of Chaplin who interpreted Hitler through this particular lens in The Great Dictator: he talked about serious matters with the help of humor and slapstick comedy. I also thought of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse by Fritz Lang. It is at once funny and cruel, unconscious and conscious. One needs to maintain a fragile balance between the funny side and the horrible side. As a matter of fact, Hitler’s discourses are very expressionist: if you switch off the sound, they are extremely funny; it you turn it back on, it is appalling. Givola and Roma are clowns. Roma himself mentions the laughter of his friend “Gori the clown.” The characters are like disarticulated puppets. It is reminiscent of fairgrounds and medieval theater where Gautier-Garguille or Gros-Guillaume used to play. We are more at the “Foire du trône” [an iconic fair in Paris] than in a bourgeois salon. The Berliner Ensemble atmosphere is a self-conscious choice in Katharina’s adaptation. Everything is accentuated. The music is circus music.

FV: In addition to the legacy of German expressionism, there are also previous stage adaptations: Jean Vilar and Georges Wilson’s adaptation in 1960 at the Théâtre National Populaire, and, in particular, the adaptation at the Berliner Ensemble by Peter Palitzsch and Manfred Wekwerth in 1959 with Brecht’s son-in-law, Ekkehard Schall, as Arturo—an adaptation which Katharina Thalbach saw as a child—, and Heiner Müller’s adaptation in 1995 with Martin Wuttke as Arturo. Did Katharina Thalbach bring this legacy to the Comédie française?

LS: Definitely. When we started rehearsing, she explained that she would borrow a few things from this legacy. It was a way for her to pay homage to this tradition. She wanted to recreate this particular feel, this particular color with the actors from the Comédie française.

FV: Did the fact that Katharina Thalbach is also an actress influence her directing style? What degree of freedom did she grant you?

LS: We did have a lot of freedom as actors, but it is true that Katharina, as an actress, is able to show us what she wants with great ease. When she performs on stage, it is hard to push her aside. She has a feel for play and a comical side. She is great at directing actors and providing guidelines: everything is meticulously planned and she is very precise when she explains how she wants us to inhabit the characters.

FV: Was language a hurdle?

LS: Katharina speaks only a little French and we had an interpreter. The language hurdle was more tiring for her than for us. The need to translate interrupted the movement of her thoughts. Sometimes, when she gave directions, we understood very well what she meant without any translation.

FV: Brecht mentions the “grand style” and has written his text in iambs. The French translation does not employ the same rhythmical pattern.

LS: When we started to perform the text with a kind of Brechtian versification, it did not work. It became very hard to understand, although—as Katharina told us—Brecht’s language has a striking simplicity. The translation was in verse and we were unable to say the text. We had to revise the translation a lot, almost at each rehearsal. We kept some passages in verse, for instance in the scene between Mrs. and Mr. Dullfeet, Arturo, and Givola. These are alexandrines that we retranslated ourselves. The translation published by L’Arche is not suited to the stage. We needed to change words, sentences, and expressions that were too abstract and not intelligible to the ear.

FV: You mention a difference between French and German actors. In what sense?

LS: Katharina kept telling us: “We don’t understand what you are saying. Your acting style is too quiet. In Germany, we are not afraid of screaming, of shouting.” We made this acting style our own without screaming from beginning to end. This is not something we usually do in France. The prevailing tradition is naturalistic or symbolic, which is very different from the expressionist tradition.

FV: One striking scene is when Arturo makes a pitch on the importance of faith. You utter the word faith in a very peculiar way, as if you were throwing up.

LS: In other stage adaptations, this passage has often been performed as if Arturo were embracing “Faith” with a capital F. In Katharina’s view, it was more interesting to create a scene that does not elicit a feeling of greatness, but on the contrary, of disgust. She wanted to depict it as an atheist faith that does not have any appeal, a faith that makes us feel nauseous. Katharina is right in pointing out that Arturo’s understanding of faith is quite repulsive. It is the opposite of what one usually imagines under the word “faith.”

FV: A kind of anti-mystical faith…

LS: Yes. When Arturo says “I am a Christian. That will have to do” or when Betty Dullfeet tells him “But the Ten Commandments, where do they come in?” and he answers “In daily life, they don’t, I’d say,” one can see how little Hitler cares about religion. He made the people believe that he had faith, but he was profoundly atheist.

FV: Your playing style mirrors the ambivalence of the character very well. Hitler does not care about faith, but at the same time, he believes in himself. He fully adheres to the persona he created for himself.

LS: Such monstrous characters do not doubt that they will succeed no matter the means. At the beginning, Arturo stresses that he does not want to be ignored and viewed as a “fly-by-night adventurer.” This is the reason why he is determined to protect the  cauliflower trust against abuses, by force if necessary. His motto is safety and violence. We all know where it leads.

FV: Is there a scene or an aspect of the character that you found particularly challenging or exhilarating?

LS: Oddly enough, the performance is at once exhilarating and very challenging. It is physically and vocally exhausting. At the end, I need to cleanse myself of the monster I have impersonated for two hours. I am soaked in sweat. I need to cleanse myself figuratively: I empty my mind; I stretch out, and only afterwards do I take a shower. We have about four performances a week and I am glad that I am not currently performing in another play. The energy it requires is such that I need a full day to recover.

FV: The audience feels this energy. How do you physically prepare yourself for this part?

LS: I do a lot of stretching and vocal exercises. I rehearse the whole text in my dressing room even if I have performed the day before. It takes me one hour. I do what we call an “Italian run through” before each performance. I play tonight at 8:30pm and I am already preparing myself psychologically for it since this morning. The stage fright starts rising.

FV: Isn’t stage fright part of each performance?

LS: I am someone who always experiences stage fright, but it is even worse with this particular play. It starts early in the day when I know that I will perform in the evening. It might vary depending on the day, and on some days, I feel more at ease than on others. Sometimes I think that I performed better but people tell me the opposite. My inner feelings are very different from what the audience experiences.

FV: You recently played the part of Néron in “Britannicus” by Racine under the direction of Stéphane Braunschweig at the Comédie française (May 7-July 23, 2016). Is Arturo one of the most challenging characters you ever interpreted?

LS: Néron was a cold and quiet monster. The part was psychologically tiring, but not physically. Néron is an immature mama’s boy. He makes awful decisions for Rome and for his court. He is not someone who loses his nerve. He seals the fate of hundreds, or even thousands, of people without the slightest remorse, without a second thought. He is a Néro-Putin whereas Arturo-Hitler is always excessive, over the top: he blurts out, he sweats, he loses his nerve. These monsters are completely different and do require a different approach. The members of the audience who have seen both plays are struck by the differences: although both are tyrants, they are interpreted in a radically different fashion.


FV: How does it feel to play on an unusually steep raked stage?

LS: It is exhausting. One needs to do warm-up exercises for the thighs and the back. Many actors experience back pain. It has not happened to me yet. The stage designer, Ezio Toffoluti, would not take us seriously when we told him that it was very hard. And then, when he greeted the audience at the end of the opening night, he fell on the floor. He did not realize that it was so tiring. This is a 40% slope. At the Comédie française, we already have a 5% or 6% slope, which makes it the steepest Italian theater in Paris. The usual slope is 3%. And then you add 40%. This said, it is very good for the audience. Those who sit upstairs in the third balcony see us much better. Thanks to the stage design, they can better appreciate the performance. They see our faces instead of the top of our heads. In addition to the raked stage, one needs to take into account the spider web, the gunshots. This is a demanding show for us and for the audience who may feel, in the end, as if they had been punched in the face.

FV: It is also perhaps linked to the fast pace of the play. Are you happy with this stage adaptation? If you had to start from scratch again, would you change anything?

LS: My only regrets have to do with the translation. Other than that, working with Katharina has been great. We achieved a wonderful osmosis and cohesion among actors. Everybody was on the same page.

FV: How long did it take to stage the play?

LS: About 8 weeks. It was a rather short timeframe, all the more so because we never rehearsed more than 5 or 6 hours a day. We put the play together quite fast because Katharina knew exactly what she wanted.

FV: Will the play be shown again?

LS: Yes, from February to June 2018. We will give close to 100 performances, which is remarkable for a play by Brecht in France. The play has elicited many positive reactions.

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Interview with director Katharina Thalbach
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Comédie Française

by Florence Vatan

FV: What made you decide to stage this particular play by Brecht? Was it a request from the Comédie française or was it your own idea?

KT: This was a request from the Comédie Française. The directors Éric Ruf and Léonidas Strapatsakis had seen two stage adaptations by me at the Berliner Ensemble. They asked me initially whether I would be willing to stage a relatively unknown play by Georges Feydeau. I declined and I told them that I would feel more comfortable staging a play by Brecht, whom I know very well. Then the directors suggested Arturo Ui. Of course, when they asked me a year and a half or two years ago, they were already thinking of the upcoming French presidential election [in May 2017]. There is no doubt about it. I was very pleased, because staging Arturo Ui in French was a beautiful challenge. I would not have dared to stage this play in Berlin because of the already existing famous stage adaptations.

FV: There are indeed famous stage adaptations of this play: the adaptation by Peter Palitzsch and Manfred Wekwerth in 1959 with Ekkehard Schall as Arturo (1959)—which you saw as a child—, and the adaptation by Heiner Müller with Martin Wuttke as Arturo (1995). Were they important influences for you?

KT: This is certainly the case with the 1959 adaptation. I saw the play as a child because my mother [Sabine Thalbach] played in it [as Dockdaisy]. Heiner Müller’s adaptation had much less influence on my work. I am a great admirer of Wuttke, who gave an outstanding performance. But I found Müller’s adaptation much harder to understand. It did not have an influence on my own work.

FV: Why would you not dare to stage Arturo Ui in Berlin?

KT: It is always very difficult when you already have two incredibly legendary stage adaptations in a city, one being still in the repertoire. It would be silly to try to compete against them. That’s why staging Arturo Ui in Paris was such a wonderful opportunity. Now, I’d be very happy to give guest performances of the French stage adaptation in Berlin. That would be great. I’d be thrilled.

FV: Were there other important influences for your work as a director?

KT: Since I started to work as a stage director, the main authors I have been dealing with were always Shakespeare and Brecht. I was lucky enough to see great stage adaptations from plays by these authors in the GDR, including adaptations by my own father, Benno Besson, who had a huge influence on me and who could tell me a lot about Brecht because he had known him personally and because he had worked with him. What strikes me the most in Brecht’s plays is not only Brecht’s intelligence and his mastery of language, but also his great humor. The humor has often been lost in the West-German theater tradition. Brecht is often portrayed as a dry and didactic playwright. One brandishes the specter of the theory of estrangement. Although some have declared him dead, I believe, however, that Brecht is more relevant than ever.

FV: Indeed, the play has an uncanny relevance, also in the United States. With blond hair, Laurent Stocker could easily impersonate another political figure.

KT: He does occasionally remind us of him, indeed. There were frequent jokes about it during rehearsals.

FV: How would you describe your relationship with the Berliner Ensemble? Do you view yourself as heiress of this tradition? Can this legacy also become a burden?

KT: I never perceived this legacy as a burden. Of course, it is closely related to my own biography. My mother had been hired by Brecht and Helene Weigel. As a child, as early as I can recall, I remember sitting next to the stage and watching the evening performances. I have been exposed to this tradition right from the cradle, so to say. I was trained as an actor by Helene Weigel, who had a great influence on me. It also impacted my later work as a director. One should not forget, however, that the Berliner Ensemble consists of many different people and traditions. It has experienced very different developments. For instance, the 1960s tradition is very different from the 1970s tradition.

FV: Your adaptation follows Brecht’s recommendation of a “presentation which goes at top speed and is composed of clearly defined groupings like those favored by historical tableaux at fairs.” It also remains true to his emphasis on the grotesque and to his insight that “the comic element must not preclude horror.”

KT: We need to expose certain things to ridicule in order not to be overwhelmed by them and in order not to feel a misplaced reverence for them. In my view, this is what Brecht had in mind. Everything I know about his style of performance, for instance the old film sequences I saw from his adaptation of the Caucasian Chalk Circle, confirm that he valued the grotesque. I cannot imagine that all his stage directions are pure coincidence.

FV: I found Laurent Stocker’s interpretation of Arturo Ui very effective, especially his combination of puppet-like behavior and total lack of control, of narcissism and thirst for power, and of weakness and brutality. In the scene in which Arturo is visited by the ghost of Ernesto Roma, he calls out “Mommy”. This is not in Brecht’s text.

KT: It is not in Brecht’s text, indeed. We took the artistic liberty of making this addition. This particular scene elicited a lot of discussion. It was not even included in Palitzsch’s adaptation. They feared that it would grant too much sentimentality to a figure like Ernesto Roma. Some also found that it would be dangerous to have Hitler experience a dream like in a play by Shakespeare. I like this scene a lot and so did the actors. I liked this combination of Brecht and Shakespeare. One calls out “mommy” when one has a nightmare or experiences fear, even someone like Hitler. In this particular scene he is portrayed as a child. Even this monster has some innocence.

FV: Did you make other additions to the play?

KT: I added two musical pieces that belong to the German UFA film tradition: the song “Ein Freund, ein guter Freud“ and “Das gibt’s nur einmal, das kommt nicht wieder”, which comes from the famous UFA movie “The Congress Dances” (1931). Since the film industry had some responsibility in what happened in Germany, I found it fitting to quote an UFA movie. At the end, I also used Damia’s 1939 song “Tout fout l’camp” (“Everything is falling apart”), which of course is not in Brecht’s play. I came across Damia by coincidence in Paris and I was surprised that many French people no longer know her. Damia sang this song during the German occupation of Paris, and it ended up being forbidden. I had suddenly the feeling that it was a sign, something that allowed me to bring Brecht and the Comédie française together at the end of the play, and Damia’s voice clearly wins against Hitler’s voice.

FV: How important was the fact that the play was performed in France. Would you have staged the play in the same way in Germany?

KT: I don’t think that I would have changed anything. I don’t know the French audience well enough to adjust my work to its expectations. Perhaps I would have not included Damia.

FV: How did the work with the actors come along? Did you have specific expectations or did you give actors a lot of freedom?

KT: I noticed that during rehearsals it was difficult for most of the ensemble to understand the language and also what I was up to. The way I dealt with the text was foreign to them at the beginning, even irritating. I could clearly feel it. They did not see the point of such a powerful style of play that has nothing to do with naturalism. But the nice thing is that they remained intrigued and they gave it a try. They were full of curiosity and eager to experiment without any value judgment to see what comes out of it, and they ended up enjoying it. I was impressed with their dedication. It was a wonderful collaboration that was based a lot on trust. As time went by, the sense of reciprocity also grew. I can only rave about these actors. Their skills and mastery are incredible. I can see why they are such a highly acclaimed theater company.

FV: Was language an issue at all?

KT: Yes, of course, for all of us. My assistant needed to translate a lot and it delayed things. One needs to concentrate even more when one does not understand everything, but I could also show them a lot of things in German and they enjoyed it. I like to demonstrate a lot, I do it also with German actors. Still, it is easier when one masters a language well.

FV: The stage setting includes a spider web and a raked stage. Why did you have actors perform on a steep stage?

KT: A steep stage offers a completely different perspective. It requires other forms of movement that are not necessarily natural. We also wanted to make visible the city map of downtown Chicago, which the spider web covers and entraps. The steep stage makes it possible. It also makes it possible to see how actors enter the stage from below. It would not have been as poetic with a flat stage.

FV: The Comédie française views the invitation of foreign directors as an enriching experience. Was this work as stage director in France also enriching for you?

KT: Yes, immensely. It was a hugely happy time for me. Working in a different language implies that one critically reflects on what one does. One also needs to expand one’s horizon. Realizing that the tools I like also worked in France and were accepted by the actors, the other people involved, and also the audience, made me extremely happy.

FV: If you had the opportunity to start over from scratch, would you change anything?

KT: Certainly. One is never done. In each play I stage, I never feel that I am done.

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Marc Silberman and Stephen Brockmann (IBS President) at GSA 2016, San Diego [Photo: Paula Hanssen]

“The Brechtian Turn” in der Filmwissenschaft

Rede gehalten in einer Sitzung der International Brecht Society auf der Tagung der German Studies Association in San Diego, California, Oktober 2016

by Marc Silberman, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Gab es überhaupt einen “Brechtian turn” in der Filmwissenschaft? Die Antwort müsste “ja” sein, aber bei näherer Betrachtung entstehen eine Reihe von Fragen: Wann ereignete sich diese Wende? Was bedeutet überhaupt ein “Turn” in der Filmwissenschaft? Und welche Filmwissenschaft meine ich?

Beginnen wir mit der berühmt-berüchtigten Aussage von Brecht selber vor dem House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), wo er über seine Kontakte zu Hollywood befragt wurde: “I am not aware of any influence which I could have exercised in the movie industry whether political or artistic.” Das war im Oktober 1947 und stimmte damals natürlich, sowohl für Hollywood als auch für Deutschland. Brechts nicht zu unterschätzendes Interesse für den Film und generell für die in der Weimarer Republik neu aufgekommenen technologischen Medien ist inzwischen gut dokumentiert. Aber sein eigener, sowieso nur gelegentlicher Einsatz ergibt nichts, was als “Turn” bezeichnet werden könnte. Man denkt an seine Mitarbeit an dem richtungsweisenden Film Kuhle Wampe (1932), der aber durch die Machtergreifung der Nazis jäh in Vergessenheit geriet. Trotz mehrfacher Versuche im zwölfjährigen Exil diverse Filmideen und -exposés v. a. bei den Studios in Hollywood unterzubringen, gelang es nur mit dem United Artists-Film Hangman Also Die (1943) von Fritz Lang, an dessen Drehbuch Brecht maßgeblich mitarbeitete. Auch in der DDR gab es unterschiedliche Initiativen bei der DEFA, die aber alle zu nichts führten. Filmhistorisch gesehen, kann man also kaum behaupten, dass Brechts Arbeit am Film etwas Nennenswertes bewirkte. Getrieben von Einsichten, die er im Laufe der zwanziger Jahre im Theater sammelte, wollte Brecht zeit seines Lebens die Institution und den “Apparat” Film für das Publikum zeitgemäß gestalten. Das gelang ihm nicht.

Nichtsdestotrotz sehe ich einen “Brechtian Turn” in der Filmwissenschaft, d. h. eine Wende oder eine Verschiebung, die eine neue Phase in der Fachrichtung markiert und zwar in einer veränderten Haltung zum Verhältnis zwischen Kultur und Politik in den visuellen Medien. Seit den 60er Jahren spricht man unentwegt von “turns”: “linguistic turn, visual turn, cultural turn, spatial turn, digital turn, transnational turn.” Man kann bezweifeln, dass es noch Platz für einen “Brechtian turn” gibt, aber in jedem Fall ist dies eine Gelegenheit darüber nachzudenken, wie Brecht in die Filmwissenschaft eingetreten ist.

Die Filmwissenschaft ist eine ziemlich neue akademische Disziplin, zaghaft entstanden in den 60er und 70er Jahren in den USA und Westeuropa. Deutschland hätte eine führende Rolle spielen können, aber das stand nach der Niederlage im 2. Weltkrieg nicht auf der Tagesordnung. Schon in der Weimarer Republik gab es wichtige Ansätze in der Filmkritik (man denke an Herbert Iherings intelligente Filmbesprechungen), in der Filmästhetik (mit wichtigen Beiträgen von Rudolf Arnheim und Georg Lukács), in der Philosophie des Films (mit Studien von Bela Bálàzs und Siegfried Kracauer) und zu Fragen der Filmproduktion (mit Polemiken von Oskar Kalbus und Brecht selber). Während des Dritten Reiches wurde dann auch das erste Filmarchiv überhaupt und eine Filmbibliothek aus den UFA-Beständen begründet, die dann in das Filmarchiv der DDR und die Babelsberger Filmhochschule übergingen. Doch die Filmwissenschaft in Deutschland trat im heutigen Sinne erst im Laufe der 80er Jahre hervor. In der BRD war die Filmwissenschaft eher in der Publizistik mit Schwerpunkt auf Film als Lehr- und Propagandamittel oder in der Kunstgeschichte mit Schwerpunkt auf die Ästhetik des Avantgarde-Films beheimatet. In der DDR lokalisierte sich die Filmwissenschaft in der Babelsberger Filmhochschule und konzentrierte sich hauptsächlich auf archivarische Arbeit zu sozialistischer und proletarischer Filmgeschichte.

Wenn überhaupt, kann man von einer Brechtschen Wende – einem “Brechtian turn” – in der deutschen Filmwissenschaft erst ab 1970 sprechen, nachdem Wolfgang Gersch und Werner Hecht (wohlgemerkt zwei DDR-Wissenschaftler) im Jahre 1969 die zwei Supplementbände zu Brechts Gesammelten Werken herausgaben, die die Filmdrehbücher, -szenarien und -exposés enthielten, sowie das Bändchen mit Materialien zu Kuhle Wampe. Dies hatte in der DDR jedoch weniger Gewicht für die Filmwissenschaft als für die Literaturwissenschaft. Da Brecht nach seinem Tod 1956 allmählich zu einer offiziellen Ikone der DDR-Kulturpolitik avancierte, konnten seine neu entdeckten Essays zum Rundfunk, zu Kuhle Wampe und zum soziologischen “Versuch” Der Dreigroschenprozess als Waffe in den Auseinandersetzungen um Realismuskonzepte und den sozialistischen Realismus schlechthin eingesetzt werden, was unter der Leitung v. a. vom Brecht-Wissenschaftler Werner Mittenzwei an der Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR und vom Philosophen Wolfgang Heise an der Humboldt Universität gelang. Hier ging es jedoch weniger um Mediendiskurse als um die Ausgrabung und Bewertung der sogenannten Realismus-Debatte der 30er Jahre, die bis dahin in der DDR-Literaturwissenschaft tabuisiert war. Auch die Dissertation von Gersch (1973), die unter dem Titel Film bei Brecht zwei Jahre später im Osten sowie im Westen erschien, konnte diese Wende in der DDR nicht einleiten, obwohl sie entscheidende Argumente aus Brechts Filmästhetik gegen den orthodoxen sozialistischen Realismus und auch gegen die DEFA ins Feld führte.

In der Bundesrepublik sah die Situation etwas anders aus. Nach den Polemiken um Brecht im frühen kalten Krieg (sogar mit Boykott seiner Theaterstücke), nach dem Seufzer über die Brecht-Müdigkeit Anfang der 60er Jahre und nach der Kritik von Horkheimer und Adorno, die Brecht als schematischen Marxisten und sogar Stalinisten brandmarkten, weckten seine Gesammelten Werke in der schönen, grauen 20-bändigen Suhrkamp Ausgabe von 1967 großes Interesse, vor allem vor dem Hintergrund der Studentenbewegung. Zwar wurde Kuhle Wampe in der DDR schon 1958 wiederentdeckt, in der BRD wurde der Film aber erst 10 Jahre später zum ersten Mal gezeigt. Die schon erwähnten Supplementbände mit den Filmschriften Brechts führten auch zu den ersten wissenschaftlichen Beiträgen, z.B. von Walter Hinck im allerersten Brecht-Jahrbuch (1971) und von Karsten Witte im ersten Brecht-Sonderband der Reihe Text & Kritik (1972). Das Programmkino Arsenal in Westberlin organisierte 1973 die erste bedeutende Retrospektive um das Thema Brecht und das Kino, aus der auch ein nützlicher Katalog hervorging, der sich hauptsächlich mit den Verfilmungen von Brechts Stücken beschäftigte. Insofern folgte die Filmwissenschaft der Welle bzw. dem “Brechtian turn” in der Literaturwissenschaft.

Diese Entwicklung im Zuge der 68er-Bewegung griff auf Erfahrungen der 20er und 30er Jahre in Deutschland zurück, als die politische Funktion der Kunst und der Kultur im Kampf gegen die Auswüchse des Kapitalismus im Vordergrund stand. Der Appell des anti-aristotelischen, epischen Theaters war ein Versuch, die Avantgarde-Tradition wiederzubeleben, wofür Brecht und Benjamin standen: die Einheit von Theorie und Praxis in einem Moment der historischen Opposition und des Bruchs. Wie sich aber herausstellen sollte, war nicht ganz klar, wie die anti-illusionistische Darstellungsweise des epischen Theaters im Medium Film zu verwirklichen war. Wie sollte Brechts anti-mimetischer Realismus medial umgesetzt werden, wenn es um das Kino geht? Kann die epische Spielweise auf der Bühne in das Medium Film übertragen werden, angesichts dessen einzigartiger Fähigkeit die Illusion der Wirklichkeit zu projizieren und angesichts des global herrschenden Hollywood-Musters der empathischen Wahrnehmung? Hier sind formale Entscheidungen zu berücksichtigen, die Raum-Zeit-Verhältnisse, Kulissen, Beleuchtung, Bildgestaltung, Ton, Montage und Spiel beinhalten. Dies sind auch theoretische Fragen, die die Filmtheorie maßgeblich beeinflussten. Zuerst aber ein zeitlicher Schritt zurück und über die Grenze nach Frankreich.

Durch die gefeierten Gastspiele des Berliner Ensembles 1954 und 1956 in Paris, entdeckten federführende französische Intellektuelle wie Roland Barthes und Louis Althusser Brechts Modell des epischen Theaters als willkommene Alternative zum kulturellen Traditionalismus der Gaullisten und dem von der Parti Communist Français propagierten sozialistischen Realismus. Was als antibürgerliches Theater erkannt wurde, bot eine anregende Perspektive für den entstehenden Strukturalismus marxistischer Prägung. Die Filmzeitschrift Cahiers du cinéma leitete die Auseinandersetzung ein. Das Heft 114 (1960) war Brecht gewidmet, darunter fanden sich ein Leitartikel über Brecht und das Kino, Auszüge aus Brechts Filmschriften und Beiträge von Zeitzeugen und Kritikern. Die Ausrichtung orientierte sich an den Möglichkeiten formaler Elemente in Brechts Theaterpraxis für das Kino: Selbstreflexivität, Verfremdung, episodische Struktur mit offenem Ausgang, Ablehnung der Zuschaueridentifikation usw. Genau diese Möglichkeiten setzten Jean-Luc Godards frühe Filme ein, z. B. Vivre sa vie (1962) über eine Prostituierte, der Antikriegsfilm Les Carabiniers (1963) und Alphaville (1965). Noch direkter erschien Brecht in Godards satirischem Film Le Mépris (1963), wo der alternde Fritz Lang in einer zentralen Szene eine der Hollywood Elegien vorliest, und in dem lehrstückhaften Film La Chinoise (1967) über Gewalt als Waffe im politischen Kampf, wo Brecht sowie Marx und Mao ausgiebig zitiert werden.

Die eigentliche Wende kam jedoch 1968, als die Cahiers du cinéma sich explizit dem Marxismus-Leninismus zuwandten, und als Godard und Jean-Pierre Gorin das Filmkollektiv Groupe Dziga Vertov gründeten. Jetzt wurde Brecht zum Katalysator für theoretische und praktische Überlegungen, wie der Film – auch der politische Film – als Ware im Kapitalismus zu verstehen sei. In den darauffolgenden zwei Jahren widmeten die Cahiers mehrere Hefte den Filmen von Sergei Eisenstein und dem sowjetischen Kino der 20er Jahre, und Mitte der 70er Jahre veröffentlichte die Zeitschrift lange Auszüge aus Brechts Arbeitsjournalen, die seine Hollywood-Erfahrungen kommentierten. Zwischen 1969 und 1972 produzierte die Groupe Dziga Vertov neun Filme unter der Parole von Godard: “il ne s’agit pas de faire des films politiques mais de faire des films politiquement” [es geht nicht darum, politische Filme zu machen, sondern politisch Filme zu machen]. Das hat er vielleicht am überzeugendsten in dem Film Tout va bien (1972) realisiert, einem Film über streikende Fabrikarbeiter, der mit Brecht-Zitaten aus Me-ti und aus den “Anmerkungen” zu seiner Oper Mahagonny unterlegt ist. Jetzt ging es nicht mehr um formale Elemente, sondern um die Politik der Form. Godard wollte grundsätzlich das etablierte Kino hinterfragen, indem er die gängigen Genres und die verführerische Macht der Bilder kritisch analysierte. Die Filme aus dieser Phase boten mehr oder weniger didaktische Diskurse über das Wesen der filmischen Darstellung an; es war ein Gegenkino des Unvergnügens und des Anti-Illusionismus, das sogar die Sinnproduktion der visuellen Medien in Frage stellte und das bloße Zuschauen im Kino nicht mehr akzeptieren wollte. Inspiriert von Brecht, ging Godard am weitesten und am konsequentesten diesen Weg der Ablehnung, der Negation und des Antagonismus, um die Mechanismen des Mediums zu entlarven. Dabei scheint er aber vollkommen außer Acht zu lassen, was Brecht am wichtigsten war: der Realismus.

Diese Entwicklungen in Frankreich hatten große Wellen in Großbritannien und Nordamerika geschlagen. Die britische Zeitschrift Screen, die sich immer stärker an Cahiers du cinéma orientierte, organisierte im Sommer 1975 eine Reihe von Filmvorführungen und -gesprächen beim Edinburgh Film Festival um das Thema “Brecht and Cinema / Film and Politics” und dokumentierte die Diskussionen mit einem Sonderheft im Winter 1975/76 (16.4), nachdem schon ein Jahr zuvor ein Heft (15.2 / 1974) sich mit Brechts Relevanz für das Kino auseinandersetzte. Parallel zu den Cahiers berief sich die Zeitschrift auf Brechts Programm der Verfremdung des Zuschauers und der epischen Erzählweise. Brecht spielte also für Screen und für die britische Filmwissenschaft eine zentrale Rolle in der Wende zu einer “materialistischen” Filmästhetik. Wie auch in Frankreich setzte man jedoch diesen Materialismus mit Anti-Realismus gleich, denn die Theorie besagte, dass das, was das Kino als Realität zeigte, nichts anderes als die herrschende Ideologie wiedergab. Meines Erachtens lag hier ein Missverständnis zugrunde: für Brecht war der Realismus eine politische, keine dramaturgische Kategorie. Das müsste heißen, dass der Realismus des Kinos nicht in der reproduzierenden Qualität der Kamera, sondern in seiner produzierenden Funktion liegt. Die Kamera zeigt, sie erzählt nicht, und dieses Zeigen kann analytische Reaktionen im Zuschauer hervorrufen und die Aufmerksamkeit auf die gesellschaftlichen Prozesse hinter den gezeigten Ereignissen lenken.

Die antirealistische Haltung entstand nicht zuletzt aus der strukturalistischen und poststrukturalistischen Tradition der Semiotik, die die empirische Abbildästhetik ablehnte, weil sie eine Verbindung zwischen Zeichen und Signifikant (sign and signifier) behauptet und daher a priori anfällig für ideologische Manipulation sei. In der Tat führte diese Haltung in Richtung des Zuschauers, zu seinem Ort im Prozess der Subjektkonstitution durch Identifikation. Hier spielte zunehmend die Lacansche Psychoanalyse die Hauptrolle, deren “imaginiertes Subjekt” immer weniger mit Brechts historisch und gesellschaftlich funktionierendem Apparat zu tun hatte.

Zurück in die Bundesrepublik der 70er Jahre. Hier vermittelte die Zeitschrift Filmkritik die Entwicklungen in Frankreich für die deutschsprachige Filmwissenschaft, aber es entstanden keine selbständigen, erwähnenswerten filmtheoretischen Beiträge. Die Diskussionen folgten bis in die 80er Jahre weitgehend denen in Frankreich und in der anglophonen Welt. Das hing sowohl mit der soziologischen Ausrichtung der frühen Filmwissenschaft in der BRD, die sich eng an Siegfried Kracauers Realismus-Begriff orientierte, als auch mit dem Anspruch der Literaturwissenschaft zusammen, die allmählich den Gegenstand der Verfilmungen von literarischen Texten – wie z. B. Brechts Theaterstücken und Geschichten – kolonisierte. Insofern entwickelte sich die Filmwissenschaft in Westdeutschland im Windschatten der Filmemacher, die Brecht für sich entdeckt hatten, und wie überall war es eher seine Theatertheorie und -praxis, manchmal auch seine politische Haltung und kollektive Arbeitsweise, die die Filmemacher beeinflusste, nicht seine Filme und Filmschriften.

Unter den Filmemachern entstanden unterschiedliche Gewichtungen und Richtungen in der Folge des Oberhausener Manifests aus dem Jahre 1962, das ein neues deutsches Kino einforderte. Wohl nicht unberührt von Godard, debütierte Alexander Kluge 1966 mit Abschied von gestern (1966), gefolgt 1968 von Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratlos. Beiden Filmen diente als Vorbild Brechts antimimetischer Realismus: episodische Erzählweise, Unterbrechungen durch Off-Stimmen und Einblendungen, kommentierende Musikeinlagen, selbstreflexive Dramaturgie, Zitate aus unterschiedlichen Quellen und eine didaktisch-eingreifende Haltung. Ähnlich gerieten die ersten Filme von Volker Schlöndorff, z. B. seine Baal-Verfilmung von 1969 mit Rainer Werner Fassbinder in der Hauptrolle und das didaktische, parabelhafte Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach (1971). Die frühen Filme von Fassbinder selber entstanden direkt aus seiner Theaterarbeit und versuchten Brechtsche Methoden v. a. in Schauspielen umzusetzen: der studierte Gestus des Kleinbürgers in Katzelmacher (1969), die ausdruckslose Sprechweise in Götter der Pest (1969) und die ausgesprochene Künstlichkeit in Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (1972). Hans-Jürgen Syberberg versuchte in seinen langen Filmen wie Ludwig (1972) und Karl May (1974) Brecht mit Wagner zu verschmelzen; und Herbert Achternbusch erbte wohl Brechts bayerischen Humor.

Eine andere “Brechtsche” Richtung schlug das Team Jean-Marie Straub und Danièle Huillet durch sein gezieltes “Gegen-Kino” ein, das filmische Konventionen aushöhlte und Verfremdungsstrategien für politische Effekte radikal einsetzte. Sein erster Langfilm von 1965, Nicht versöhnt, zitiert Brechts Heilige Johanna im Untertitel: Es hilft nur Gewalt, wo Gewalt herrscht. Und Geschichtsunterricht (1972) geht auf Brechts Cäsar-Roman zurück. Straub, der in den 50ern während des Algerienkriegs aus Frankreich nach Deutschland floh, und Huillet stellten eine Art Verbindung mit den Filmentwicklungen in Frankreich dar (sie wurden oft in führenden Filmzeitschriften wie Cahiers du Cinéma und Cinéthique porträtiert) und spielten auch eine wichtige Rolle in den Filmgesprächen um Brecht auf dem schon erwähnten Edinburgh Film Festival 1975. Zu dieser eher asketischen Kinoform gehört auch Harun Farocki, der 1966 als einer der ersten Studenten der neueröffneten Deutschen Film- und Fernsehakademie in Westberlin aufgenommen wurde und später dort sowie in den 90er Jahren an der University of California in Berkeley Dozent wurde. Seine vielen Dokumentar- und Essay-Filme bilden eine Art Guerilla-Kino in der Tradition von Brechts Lehrstückmodell.

Schließlich gibt es eine dritte, an Brecht angelehnte Richtung, die ich eher als einen “soft Brechtian turn” bezeichnen würde. In diese Kategorie fallen die vielen Filme und Filmemacher, die davon ausgingen, dass die Zuschauer lernfähig seien und die Welt zu ändern sei. Hier denke ich in erster Linie an die Frauen, viele von ihnen an der Berliner Filmakademie politisiert und ausgebildet, die die Kamera in die Hand nahmen und im Sinne des Feminismus Strategien für den politischen Kampf um das Produktionsmittel Film entwickelten. Ausschlaggebend für sie waren die dokumentarische Qualität des Filmbildes und die Einsicht, dass die gesellschaftlichen Funktionen hinter dem Bild nicht verborgen bleiben durften. Ich denke aber auch an inhaltliche Anlehnungen, so die Kattrin-Figur aus Mutter Courage in Margarethe von Trottas Christa Klages-Film (1978) oder das Titelzitat von Helma Sanders-Brahms Deutschland bleiche Mutter (1980). In jedem Fall entstanden im Laufe der 70er Jahre viele Filme, die sich an Zielgruppen orientierten – seien es Frauen als Opfer von Gewalt, streikende Arbeiter oder diskriminierte Behinderte – und gesellschaftliche Themen aufnahmen, meistens aber ohne die formalen Gegenstrategien im Sinne von Kluge oder Straub und Huillet.

Es ist allgemein bekannt, dass das “New German Cinema” zuerst im anglophonen Ausland und zwar von germanistischen Literaturwissenschaftlern “entdeckt” wurde, bevor es als Re-Import in der BRD zur Kenntnis genommen wurde. Ironie der Geschichte: die International Brecht Society wurde 1970 in Nordamerika (Wisconsin) gegründet, und z. T. die gleichen Wissenschaftler unterstützten ab Mitte der 70er Jahre die Einführung des Films als legitimen Gegenstand in die amerikanische Germanistik. Was war da los? Für eine jüngere Generation (meine Generation!) stand “Brecht” für die Möglichkeit, wie man die Praxis der politischen Avantgarde, alternatives Kino und anspruchsvolle Theorie gegen die herrschenden Diskurse der Literaturwissenschaft anbringen konnte. Damit ereignete sich ein “turn”, vielleicht sogar ein “Brechtian turn”, auch in Amerika – in genau dem Fach, das wir German Studies nennen. And the rest is history.

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Meine Geschichten vom Herrn K.
oder: Aus den Lesebüchern für DDR-Bewohner

Rede gehalten in einer Sitzung der International Brecht Society auf der Tagung der German Studies Association in San Diego, California, Oktober 2016

by Kerstin Hensel

Es ist eine Lust unseres Zeitalters…alles so zu begreifen, daß wir eingreifen können. (b.b.)

Hensel1     Hensel2


Nach dem 9. November 1989 fanden die Dramen live und in Farbe statt. Vor unserer Haustür. Die das Volk aus den Angeln gehoben hatte, weil vor seinen Augen durch die Mauer der Blick nicht freigegeben war für das Große und Ganze draußen in der Welt. Wir sahen das, was ein knappes halbes Jahrhundert in der DDR als Drohkulisse brauchbar schien für unsere Geschichtslehrbücher: Armut, Reichtum, Existenzangst, Wirtschaftsverbrechen, Zuhälter, Dealer, riesige Räusche, Waffenhandel, Teuerungen, Faschismus und den Gottseibeiuns. Flirrungen und Wirrungen, die meine Nachkriegskindergeneration aus der Realität nicht kannte. Genüsse und Generalnöte, die sie durch die sozialistische Lehre aus ihrer Lebenszeit  herausexperimentiert glaubte. Plötzlich fanden wir uns mitten in gegenwärtig gewordener Vergangenheit. Chicago, London, Mahagonny oder Sezuan waren keine Brecht’schen Parabelorte mehr, in denen die Horrorrevuen eines fernen Systems abliefen, welches man uns als historisch „überwunden“ paraphrasiert hatte.


Ab 1967 besuchte ich die Zehnklassenschule in einer sächsischen Industriestadt, die den Namen Karl Marx trug. Ich war ein Arbeiterkind. Wie fast alle meine Klassenkameraden. Keine unserer in Vollzeit berufstätigen Väter und Mütter hatten studiert oder waren mit Kunst und Literatur näher vertraut. Schon deren Ahnen stammten aus Verhältnissen, in denen Maloche, Pflichtgehorsam, Angst, Sprachlosigkeit und Prüderie jede Abweichung in andere Lebens- und Denkwelten untersagte. Nach dem Krieg (fast jede Familie hatte Opfer zu beklagen) hatten sich unsere Eltern in gemäßigtem DDR-Wohlstand eingerichtet, nannten sich unpolitisch und guckten Richtung Westen wie ins gelobte Land. Sozialistische Rituale wurden im Arbeitskollektiv mit mürrischem Opportunismus befolgt, am heimischen Küchentisch hingegen ging es anders zu. Viele Mütter und Väter waren Kinder von Nazi-Mitläufern, hatten 1945 die sowjetische Besatzungsmacht erlebt und standen den Parolen der „neuen Zeit“ meistens skeptisch gegenüber. Hinter vorgehaltener Hand bezeichneten sie alles, was propagandistisch tönte, als „roter Mist“ (erzgebirgisch: ruuter Rotz): Die DDR-Fernsehnachrichten, Sowjetfilme, Partei, Pioniere, FDJ, Maidemonstrationen, das Fach Staatsbürgerkunde. Ebenfalls auf der Schmähliste standen die sozialismuser– oder verklärenden Texte aus den Schullesebüchern: Johannes R. Becher, Willi Bredel, Otto Gotsche, Kuba, Anna Seghers, Erich Weinert und Bertolt Brecht.



Mein Deutschlehrer, der als Zweitfach Astrologie unterrichtete, hieß Herr Jonack. Er war ein dicklicher graubärtiger Mensch um die Vierzig, der lustlos den Lehrplan abarbeitete. Ohne literarischen, aber auch ohne ideologischen Eifer. Er gähnte oft im Unterricht. Die Himmelssterne waren ihm näher als der Sowjetstern.

Mein Zeichenlehrer, der als Zweitfach Musik unterrichtete, hieß Herr Kappler. Er war ein schlanker schnauzbärtiger Mensch um die Vierzig, der es liebte, seine Schüler zu verblüffen. Im Kunstunterricht zeigte er, wie man selbst Farben herstellt: aus Beeren, Blättern, Gewürzen und Erden. Einmal spielte er uns im Musikunterricht Schlager und Märsche vor, analysierte Text und Rhythmus, zeigte die Gefahr von Verführung und Verdummung, die darin steckt. Am Ende gab Herr K. eine selbst verfasste Lach-Arie als Parodie zum Besten. Ein paar Schüler und ich stimmten begeistert ein, trugen das Lachen durch Schulflure, Appellplatz, nach Hause, zurück in die Schule, in den Deutschunterricht:


Im Lehrplan stand: „Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar“ von Bertolt Brecht.

Auf der Tafel stand:

Folgen Sie in der Interpretation den Maßgaben des 10. Plenums der SED, 1952:
Beweis der Aggressivität des Imperialismus!!
Nachweis des „untrennbaren Zusammenhangs zwischen  dem bewaffneten Schutz der Arbeiter- und Bauernmacht und dem sozialistischen Aufbau“!!
Widerlegung von pazifistischen Auffassungen!!

Herr Jonack stand, mit der Kreide in der Hand, ans Lehrerpult gelehnt und blickte finster in die Runde. Ich lachte noch immer. Da schwang Herr J. die Peitsche: „Klasse 8 A! Aufstehn! Setzen! Ruhe im Stall! Kerstin –  Verwarnung! / Hefte raus! / Stifte raus! / Leistungskontrolle! / Carrar – Seite 1 bis Ende! / Lesen! / Klappe halten! / Der Autor heißt Brecht, mit B wie Bemme! / Meyer, du sollst nicht abschreiben! / Fräuleinchen, träum nicht! / Zeit um! / Hefte her! / Sauklaue! / Schlafmützen! / Keine 1! / 10 mal 5 minus! / Hoffnungslos, ihr! / Flegel! / Was gibt‘s da zu lachen??!!


In Deutsch gab es an meiner Schule eigentlich nichts zu lachen. „Carrar“, „Die Mutter“: Werke, die von etwas handelten, wovor mir seit früher Kindheit grauste: Krieg, Kampf, Waffen, Befehle. Die richtige Entscheidung treffen / auf der richtigen Seite stehen – was sollte das uns, die wir nichts zu entscheiden hatten? Oder das?: „O großer Oktober der Arbeiterklasse!“, Brechts Gedicht zum 20. Jahrestag der Oktoberrevolution. Phrasen Phrasen Phrasen. Oder: „Die Teppichweber von Kujan-Bulak“ – Oftmals wurde geehrt und ausgiebig / Der Genosse Lenin… Das Wort Genosse mochte keiner hören, geschweige denn Lenin. Lenins Lob war Aufsatzthema in der 9. Klasse. Wir kratzten auswendig gelernte Floskeln aufs Papier. Herr Jonack machte seine Häkchen dahinter. Und gähnte.  „Aufbaulied“, „Lob des Kommunismus“, „Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters“ – das war Brecht zum Abgewöhnen. Diese Texte, wie sämtliche ideologisch durchheizte Lesebuchliteratur, gingen uns, die Arbeiter-Jugendlichen, einfach nichts an. Sie waren pathetisch, belehrend, langweilig, humorlos, fern unseres Lebens.




Herr K. war bei seinen Schülern beliebt. Er unterrichtete selten nach Lehrplan, ging stattdessen mit ihnen in Museen, Galerien, Jazz- und Klassikkonzerte, Schriftstellerlesungen und in die Natur. Herr K. lehrte seine Schüler sehen, hören, lesen, zeichnen, nach freiem Willen schaffen. Er stellte die Resultate ihrer Arbeit in der Aula der Schule aus. Als Herrn K.s Kollegen die Galerie der Bilder abgeschritten, die Aufsätze gelesen, die Lieder vernommen hatten, resümierte Herr J. mit spitzer Zunge: „Es ist erstaunlich, was die Rabauken alles bei dir lernen.“ Herr K. lächelte und sagte: „Nicht was sie lernen, ist erstaunlich, sondern wie sie es tun.


Als sich viele Mitschüler über Verwandte aus dem Westen die Jugendzeitschrift „Bravo“ besorgten, lud mich eines Tages meine Freundin Christiane zu sich nach Hause. Sie war die einzige meiner Klasse, die die Christenlehre besuchte, einen Ingenieur zum Vater hatte und Klavier spielte. Christiane kündigte eine Überraschung an, indem sie mir ein abgegriffenes Büchlein präsentierte: Gedichte von Bertolt Brecht. Ich war enttäuscht, verwundert und dachte: kein Mensch beschäftigt sich freiwillig mit dem „roten Mist“! Christiane raunte mir verschwörerisch zu: „Die hat mir Kappler gegeben. Aus seinem Bücherregal!“ Ich spürte einen eifersüchtigen Stich, doch dann las Christiane vor: etwas, das zart, gleichsam ungehorsam wild klang; von Marie A. und Klettern in Bäumen, vom Schnapstrinken und fleischfarbenen Monden, vom Radwechsel und großen, vertanen Zeiten. – Ich war baff. Das war ein vollkommen anderer Brecht, als der, den ich aus den Lesebüchern kannte. Während sich unsere Mitschüler über westliche Popmusik und Pubertätserotik informierten, kamen wir zur Einsicht: Den Brecht nehmen wir uns vor! Und wir müssen Jonack von unserer Entdeckung in Kenntnis setzen! Am Tag, als wir Herrn Jonack baten, Brechtgedichte, die nicht im Lehrplan stünden, vorstellen zu dürfen, verdrehte er die Augen, stöhnte: „Gedichte!“, überließ uns jedoch gnädig seinen Platz. Christiane und ich rezitierten die saftigsten Verse. Schon nach wenigen Minuten trafen uns aus den Reihen der Mitschüler Buh-Rufe und Drahtkrampen. Herr Jonack beorderte uns auf unsere Plätze, grinste und sagte: „Was zu beweisen war.“

Von Brecht, an dem ich im Lesebuch verzweifelt bin, lernte ich von Stund an das Zweifeln.



Als Herr K. aufgrund „jugendgefährdenden Verhaltens“ plötzlich aus dem Schuldienst entlassen und als Staplerfahrer in die Spinnmaschinenfabrik gesteckt wurde, traf er auf seinem letzten Gang durch den Schulflur Kollegen J. „Ich wünsche Ihnen das Beste“, sagte dieser scheinheilig. „Nicht nötig“, erwiderte Herr K., „Das Beste habe ich bereits.“ Herr J. blickte sich verwundert um: „Ich sehe nichts.“ Herr K. sprach: „Ich habe es an meine Schüler weiter gegeben.“ Idiot! dachte Herr J. und schlug sich mit der flachen Hand gegen den Kopf.


Christiane durfte kein Abitur machen, weil sie nicht in der FDJ war. Ich machte kein Abitur, weil meine Eltern meinen Wunsch Dramaturgie zu studieren für übergeschnappt hielten. Mit 16 Jahren begann ich eine Ausbildung zur Krankenschwester und setzte mein Lehrlingsgeld in Bücher, Schallplatten und Theaterbesuche um. Ich sah Brechts „Kreidekreis“ am Städtischen Theater, war begeistert, verliebte mich in Schauspieler, schrieb meine ersten Stücke/Gedichte und fand zum Wir einer Gruppe hochgestimmter Kunst-, Theater- und Literaturenthusiasten. Jenseits der Schulbuchlektüre evolvierten wir ein aufregendes Brecht’sches Gefühl: die Möglichkeit der Prüfbarkeit und Veränderbarkeit der Welt. Diese Prüfbarkeit begann damit, dass wir schnapstrinkend, auf offener Straße, Hits aus der „Dreigroschenoper“ grölten, Fleischerhemden und Studentenkutten trugen, ekelhafte Zigarren pafften und uns unheimlich revolutionär vorkamen. Die Revolution bestand zunächst darin, uns die poetischen und antibürgerlichen Flegelein des „sozialistischen Dichters“ anzueignen. Wir verkumpelten uns mit Bert und füllten unsere Köpfe mit Zitaten an. Dr Mensch is gar nich gut / drum hautn offn Hut! wurde in der sächsischen Industriestadt zum Fanal gegen Flachhirne von Funktionären und Spießern. Auch gegen Eltern, Ausbilder, Vorgesetzte. Wir lasen und kopierten Brecht, um etwas von der Welt zu begreifen, die über die DDR-Staatsgrenze und über unser nickelbebrilltes Aufmüpfen hinausging. Wir fanden sie im Lesen, Schreiben, Malen, Theaterspielen. In dieser Zeit lernte ich lebende Poeten kennen, deren Literatur nicht (oder nicht mehr) in den Schulbüchern vorkam. Sie führten den brecht’schen Ton auf eigene Weise weiter, waren uns Katalysator für  Eigenmut und Weltöffnung: Volker Braun, Peter Hacks, Günter Kunert, Karl Mickel, Wolf Biermann, Heiner Müller. Mit Anti-Mädchen-Attitüden und Brechtparolen auf den Lippen stolperte ich aus piefiger Provinz ins Dickicht der Städte Leipzig und Ostberlin. Ich sortierte mir meinen Brecht: den guten ins Köpfchen, den schlechten ins Kröpfchen.

Ich hatte etwas aufzuholen und lernte. Schnell, lustvoll, brechtprächtig gestimmt → Den Mechanismus der Gesellschaft erfassen und zeigen! Dialektik als Beschreibung der Wirklichkeit in Widersprüchen! Um unsere Wirklichkeit zu hinterfragen und sie zu ändern. Das passte. Obwohl oder gerade weil verknöcherte Propagandisten noch Mitte der 80er ungebrochen vom „Sieg des neuen Menschen im Sozialismus“ trommelten. Brechts Überdruss an bestehenden Verhältnissen war unser Überdruss. Seine Kritik – unser Alibi. Seine Sprache, logisch, poetisch, klar. Sie hatte etwas Strenges wie Heiteres und war, richtig intoniert, ganz rauschlos in Zeiten machtpathetischen Sprachmulms.

ABER: Wenn aus Dialektik Didaktik wurde; wenn Kampfgeist gefordert war, wo meiner Meinung nach Geist genügte, oder die Wahrheit allzu offensichtlich von der Bühne schallte, ging es mit mir und Brecht nicht weiter. Mit Parolen und Doktrinen war keine Kunst zu machen, auch nicht mit der schönen Logik des Einmaleins. Bachmann, Benn, Grass, Jandl, Kafka, Mandelstam hießen meine neuen Verbündeten. Ich las und liebte sie nicht weniger als Brecht.



2016 habe ich ca. 80 ehemalige (literaturaffine!) DDR-Oberschüler und Abiturienten nach ihren Erinnerungen an Brecht im Literaturunterricht befragt. Prozentuales Auszählergebnis: Bei 45% war Brecht auf völlige Ablehnung gestoßen, bei 30% war das Gegenteil der Fall, 18% war er gleichgültig gewesen, 7% hatten keine Erinnerung.

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…“Die Erziehung der Hirse“! – das hat uns den Brecht sofort vergrault! In unserer Dorfschule waren lauter Bauernkinder, die haben gesagt: so ein Quatsch! Das geht alles gar nicht, das ist unrealistisch! … (Christian S., Jg. 1937)

…“Die Erziehung der Hirse“ – entsetzlich! Da wurde uns etwas aufgedrückt, das wir toll finden sollten… es war die Zeit, wo wir auf die Dörfer geschickt wurden, um die Bauern von der LPG zu überzeugen, und das sollte uns anhand dieses Gedichtes klargemacht werden… Träume! Goldenes Wenn! – davon war in Wirklichkeit nichts zu spüren. (Gudrun S., Jg. 1938)

…Wir wohnten in Weimar, und unser Nachbar war Louis Fürnberg, den ich verehrte. Es muß 1954 gewesen sein, ich war 15, da bat er mich, ihn zu besuchen. Ich war schrecklich aufgeregt. Zu meiner Überraschung fragte er mich nach Bertolt Brecht. (wie ich später erfuhr, war er in einer Kommission damit beschäftigt, über die Vermittlung des Dichters Brecht im Schulunterricht zu beraten). Ich stöhnte auf und erzählte, dass wir im Unterricht gerade mit seinem Poem „Die Erziehung der Hirse“ geplagt werden, dass ich Brecht von zu Hause kenne, wir lasen abends gern seine Gedichte und sangen seine Lieder, aber dieser Tschaganak Bersijew war unmöglich! Fürnberg hatte mir aufmerksam zugehört und machte eine lange Pause, ehe er sagte: „Aber. Hören Sie doch, wie schön diese Verse sind.“ Und zitierte: Träume! Goldenes Wenn! / Sieh die schöne Flut der Ähren steigen! Säer, nenn / Was du morgen schaffst, schon heut dein Eigen! – Die Gründung der Kolchosen, die Bewässerung der Wüste – kühne Projekte, die mich damals begeistert haben, von denen wir heute wissen, dass sie nicht gelungen sind… Brecht beschreibt die dialektische Widersprüchlichkeit unserer Hoffnungen beim Aufbau des Sozialismus: säen, träumen, die Aneignung der Utopie, bevor die Saat aufgeht. Ich habe das damals sicher nicht alles verstanden, aber diese Zeilen sind mir unvergesslich, haben mein Weltbild mitgeprägt. Louis Fürnberg ging an seine riesige Bücherwand, drückte mir „Das Leben des Galilei“ in die Hand und sagte: „Hier, lesen Sie Brecht.“ (Doris T., Jg.1939)

…Kinder, ich bin am Ende! – das ließ sich so schön ausrufen. Ich habe Futterringe für die Vögel vor dem Fenster angebracht. Nur: Besten Dank für die Arbeit! Kam mir komisch vor. … Bei der „Kinderhymne“ habe ich nicht gewusst, was Anmut ist, und habe immer Armut verstanden… (Ralph G., Jg. 1951)

…BB war für mich als Schülerin ein moderner, berühmter zeitgenössischer Autor…  ausgesprochen anziehend, aufrecht, authentisch, auch attraktiv – wie von einem anderen Stern! Er atmete für mich ein Stück Welt… (Maria S., Jg. 1951)

…Ich war als Schüler immer 100%ig mit allem einverstanden… Brecht war für mich ein Vorbild. Als ich als Jugendlicher erfahren habe, dass er so viele Frauengeschichten hatte, habe ich mich  von ihm abgewendet, bis heute. (Rolf J., Jg. 1951)

…Highlight: Theaterzug von Bitterfeld nach Berlin. Mutter Courage mit der Weigel. Einmal war die Weigel zum Gespräch an unserer EOS. Fortan war ich Brecht-Fan. (Ingrid G., Jg. 1952)

…Das epische Theater der Verfremdung wurde in der Oberstufe behandelt. Das hat mich interessiert: das Denken in den Mittelpunkt zu stellen. Begeisternd, wie Brecht das gedacht und begründet hat…  Als Lehrerin habe ich versucht, im Unterricht die Vorgaben kreativ umzusetzen… habe in Bulgarien an einem Fremdsprachengymnasium Deutsch unterrichtet, auch Brecht. Der war dort nicht gerne gesehen, war zu oppositionell. Da ich aus der DDR kam, hatte ich unsere Ansicht als Maßstab, und konnte sogar vor offiziellen Parteileuten Brechtprogramme aufführen. (Annette P., Jg. 1952)

…Mein Vater, ein hoher Parteifunktionär, wollte mir abnötigen, die Tonfolge von „Du musst die Führung übernehmen“ auf der Geige zu intonieren. Ich sagte ihm, es ist unspielbar. Er sagte, das wird aber gesungen und kommt im DDR-Kultursender als Sendezeichen! …in der Schule tat ich mich mit Sprüchen aus Brechts Kinderfibel als Klassenkasper hervor. Die Reime von Lehrer Huber fand ich wegen der Anti-Lehrer-Tendenz für brauchbar… Brecht war gegen Vater und Lehrer gleichermaßen Waffe wie Sicherheit. (Hans S., Jg. 1955)

…Brecht: einer von uns! Einer aus Berlin (natürlich aus unserem Berlin), Kommunist, jedenfalls ein „Roter“, ganz sicher Antifaschist… er war sozialistischer Mainstream. Ich habe sie damals alle in den Topf der Angepassten geworfen: Brecht, Eisler… dennoch war Brecht eine Marke, so etwas wie unser Goethe. Schon in der Schulzeit wusste ich: er hatte viele Frauen und hat sich nicht gewaschen, d.h.: er stank! … (Kathrin A., Jg. 1957)

…mein Vater war Jazzfan und spielte mir als Kind die Platte vor:  „Seeräuberballade“, gesungen von Lotte Lenya… ich dachte damals, Brecht wäre ein deutscher Seeräuber-Schriftsteller wie Stevenson oder Jack London… später im Lesebuch Szenen aus „Die Mutter“, aber die konnten mir  Brecht nicht mehr verleiden. Ich dachte, das wären solche Sachen, die man in der DDR schreiben musste… (Holger T., Jg. 1958)

…Im Bücherschrank meiner Eltern stand eine Ausgabe der „Hundert Gedichte“ … Auf die letzte, nicht bedruckte Seite hatte meine Mutter oder mein Vater… zwei Gedichte hinzugefügt, die nicht im Band enthalten waren: „Als ich in meinem Krankenzimmer der Charité“ und „Die Lösung“… den handschriftlichen Hinzufügungen wuchs die Funktion eines Kassibers zu, es enthielt eine Geheimbotschaft. Das Eigentliche, so schien es mir, war ungedruckt geblieben, vermutlich also zensiert… Nun hörte ich hin, wenn Brecht vorkam in der Schule, wo die realsozialistische Pädagogik das übliche Programm abspulte, um sich den sozialistischen Klassiker dienstbar zu machen… Unsere Deutschlehrerin unterrichtete auch Staatsbürgerkunde – beide Fächer mit unnachahmlicher Primitivität … (Erdmut W., Jg. 1958)

…die alte Geschichte vom Oktroyieren und sich dagegen wehren… die Lehrstücke von Brecht – fürchterlich! … später war es mir ein Vergnügen, die linientreue Lehrerin mit den „Buckower Elegien“ (vor allem natürlich „Der Lösung“) zu verunsichern. Dafür hatte sie nicht das probate Antwortkonzept, das freute den Pubertierenden! (Torsten S., Jg. 1959)

…Brecht von der Platte war die erste dumpfe Erschütterung eines geradlinigen Lebens, mein erster V-Effekt, der Blick in den strahlenden metaphysischen Abgrund der Kunst…  In der Schulzeit schienen Gut und Böse klar getrennt. Brecht gehörte zu den Guten, galt aber in der Schule als schwierig. Die vorgesetzte Kost war die von ihm als „Silberschmiedekunst“ ins Pädagogische geschmuggelte Kinderlyrik… (Thomas M., Jg. 1961)

…Brecht war ein Autor der Agitation… „Courage“, „Carrar“, Dramen, die aber immer weiter ins Geweid griffen, als bedacht… gelernt habe ich von Brecht über Umwege, von Dichtern, die er beeinflusste, Braun, Mickel, Leising etc… (André S., Jg. 1972)

…Ich habe Brecht vor der Schule getroffen… früheste Erinnerung: Lob des Kommunismus… Berliner Ensemble: Carrar. bb war jemand, den ich für offiziell hielt. Was ihn mir nicht gerade empfahl. Meine Mutter deutete vorsichtig an: du wirst einen anderen Brecht entdecken. Dann: Heiner Müllers Fatzer… Ich kam auf subkulturelle Abwege, da wurde bb plötzlich interessant… (Robert M., Jg. 1973)

…Brecht war einer, den man gut finden konnte, ohne sich mit den DDR-Lehrern Schwierigkeiten einzuhandeln – Konsensgefühl wie bei den antifaschistischen Widerstandskämpfern… (Kristin S. Jg. 1975)

…“Bitten der Kinder“ – da wurde in Dresden immer die Bombardierung am 13. Februar 1945 mitgedacht… die Lehrerin hat äußerst aggressiv agitiert. Es waren für mich finstere, angsteinflößende Momente. Das Gedicht hatte für mich nichts Tröstendes, sondern Bedrohliches… die platten Botschaften, das löste Misstrauen in mir aus… diese Schule, diese schlimme Lehrerin, hat mich, den Pfarrerssohn, schlecht behandelt und benutzte dazu auch Brecht. …Auf Fotos, die ich als Kind sah, wirkte er immer irgendwie arm und kränklich, ein schmächtiger Intellektueller – nichts, was ein Kind interessiert. (Renatus D., Jg. 1977)



Die DDR-Schule behandelte Brecht unter dem Vorwand von Literatur, als illustrierte Ideologie, als das vorläufig letzte Wort zur zeitgenössischen Umgebung, mit großem Patent und Siegel der Staatsmacht. (Uwe Johnson)

Die Ergebnisse meiner kleinen Feldforschung, die ich im Bekanntenkreis betrieben habe, reichen gerade für ein paar thesenhafte Bemerkungen.

Von 1949, also seit Gründung der DDR, bis 1989 enthielt jedes „Lesebuch für DDR-Bewohner“ Brecht-Texte: Klasse 1 bis Klasse 2 jeweils ein Gedicht; Klasse 3 bis 8 jeweils 3 Gedichte; Klasse 9 bis 12: mehr als 20 dramatische, prosaische und lyrische Texte. Kein Jahrgang ohne Brecht! lautete die stolze Forderung des Ministeriums für Volksbildung.

Dabei galt Brecht in der DDR als problematisch. Er war Sozialist. Einige Kulturfunktionäre und Leute des Machtapparates begegneten ihm jedoch mit Mißtrauen und schalten ihn als politisch unzuverlässig/wankelmütig → Brecht war österreichischer Staatsbürger, kein SED-Mitglied, Intellektueller, Ironiker, Bürgerlicher und Bürgerschreck. Auch Brechts Auffassung von Kunst und Literatur war für die Fraglosen fragwürdig: Brecht sprach für den Kommunismus und lehrte das Zweifeln. Er verteidigte den „Sozialistischen Realismus“ und forderte das Spiel mit Widersprüchen. Die Weisheit des Volkes sah er nicht in der Folgsamkeit, sondern im denkenden Menschen. Funktionäre, die stolz waren auf ihre eisenharten Standpunkt legten Brecht Steine in den Weg, wo immer sie konnten. Gleichwohl bemächtigten sie sich seines Ruhmes, benutzten seine (oft aus dem Kontext gerissenen) Texte für dünnblütige Propaganda und modelten ihn sich als „Staatsdichter“ zurecht.

Bis Mitte der 1980er Jahre dominierten Brechts Lehrgedichte und -stücke die Lesebücher. In den „Unterrichtshilfen“ fanden Lehrer Anweisungen, wie sie die Texte ihren Schülern beibringen, welche Fragen sie stellen sollten. Die Antworten wurden gleich mitgegeben. Sinnlich-literarische oder gar subversive Vermittlung war nicht angestrebt; noch das unverfänglichste Kinder-, Natur- oder Liebesgedicht wurde mit einer ideologischen Interpretationsmaske behaftet.

Es kam nun auf den Lehrer an, wie er seinen Beruf verstand. Es gab, zumindest in der späteren Phase der DDR, genügend Möglichkeiten, in sog. Zusatzstunden Literatur, die nicht im Lehrplan vorgesehen war, mit den Schülern frei zu behandeln; nach eigener Wahl Theater zu besuchen oder selbst Theater zu spielen. Einige Lehrer taten dies. Viele Lehrer taten dies nicht. Erwies sich der Pädagoge, wie Herr Jonack, als für die Literatur unentflammbar oder Parolenanbeter, wurde Brecht für die Schüler todsicher zum Kotzbrocken. Hatte man das Glück, einem Lehrer wie Herrn Kappler zu begegnen, lernte man fürs Leben und das mit Leidenschaft. Ob ein Schüler Brecht (Literatur überhaupt) liebte oder hasste, war auch abhängig vom politischen und kulturellen Bildungsstand des  Elternhauses.

Im Redaktionskollektiv des Verlages „Volk und Wissen“, das die Lesebuchtexte auswählte, gab es kluge und engagierte Leute, deren Vorschläge zur „Versinnlichung“ des literarischen Schulbuchangebotes sich allerdings oft nur schwer umsetzen ließen. Margot Honecker, seit 1954 im Bereich der Lehrerbildung der DDR tätig, von 1963-1989 Ministerin für Volksbildung, kontrollierte jede noch so kleine Veränderung und stellte sich meistens dagegen. Unmut von Lehrern, Pädagogikstudenten, Schülern und Eltern wurde laut. 1984 machten Studenten der pädagogischen Hochschule Güstrow eine empirische Analyse über den Umgang mit Brecht in den Abiturklassen der DDR. Das Resultat war Ernüchterung: mehr als die Hälfte lehnten Brecht kategorisch ab. Die Fähigkeit, sich mit Texten selbstständig auseinander zu setzen, war kaum vorhanden. Die Folge: Krisensitzung im Ministerium. 1987 wurde der Literaturlehrplan bereinigt, d.h. man befreite die Lesebücher von einigen Lob-, Lehr- und Kampftexten. Das Ziel hieß: den Lehrplan zu literarisieren und andere Wege des Lesens/der Interpretation aufzuzeigen.

Doch nach wie vor fanden die wirklichen Begegnungen mit Brecht nicht in, sondern vor der Schule statt. Besonders das Theater fungierte als Türöffner zum Verständnis. Bei einer guten Inszenierung begannen die Figuren auf der Bühne zu leben, wurden das Komplexe, die vertrackten Widersprüche der Gesellschaft sichtbar – poetisch, raffiniert, spröde, subversiv, humorvoll, erotisch. Leben und Lernen in der DDR habe ich nicht als Experiment verstanden, sondern als realen, ständigen Prozess von Auseinandersetzungen auf allen Ebenen. Da passte Brecht gut ’rein. Er war – im Lichte des Verstandes gesehen – weder Hohltöner noch Starrkopf. Brecht hat Bewegung verursacht. Die Schule allerdings war mehr Bremsklotz als Motor. Letztendlich hat sich ein Großteil der Brechtliteratur der Ausnutzung von Kulturtölpeln, Spießern, Ideologen und geisteslahmen Lehrern widersetzt. Er hat Wirkung gezeigt.


Als er siebzig war und war gebrechlich
Drängte es den Lehrer doch nach Ruh –


Herr K., durchs Alter hinfällig geworden, wurde am Ende seines Lebens in einem Pflegeheim betreut. Zufällig hatte man Herrn J. in derselben Einrichtung untergebracht. Zum alljährlichen Sommerfest wurden beide ehemaligen Lehrer im Rollstuhl zu den anderen Heimbewohnern in den Garten geschoben. Dort war eine Bühne aufgebaut. Die Heimleitung hatte einen abgetakelten Schlagerstar, sowie die Blaskapelle der Bezirksfeuerwehr, die lustige Märsche spielte, engagiert. Als Herr K. von einer Pflegerin gefragt wurde, ob ihm die Musik gefalle, rief er: „Warum quälen Sie mich!“ – „Unsere Bewohner wünschen sich so etwas“, antwortete die Pflegerin, „Sie haben die Musik in ihrer Jugend gehört und fühlen sich wohl dabei.“ – „Wer sagt das?“ wollte Herr K. zornig wissen. „Alle“, sagte die Pflegerin zeigte auf Herrn J., der blind, taub und stumm im Rollstuhl saß.

Berlin, 2016

[back to top]

Trading Brass with Brecht: Towards an Ecorealist Theatre

by Sam Williams

“If we don’t want to go around in circles for ever, making ‘progress’ so small as to be almost negligible, we must make a fresh start with deep foundations.”
– Francis Bacon, The New Scientific Organon (1620)

We stand on the brink of a new aeon. A new geological age defined by human activity is on the verge of official recognition. The term proposed is ‘Anthropocene’. There is disagreement over when it began, but even in Brecht’s lifetime, visionary Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky wrote of scientific thought and the human mind as a geological or planetary force.[1] Brecht – in Stanley Michael’s phrase – “thought in millennia, geologically, of new dark and ice ages”,[2] Like his associate Walter Benjamin, Brecht saw the storm called progress blowing in from Paradise.[3] Working with Brecht, therefore – rather than working merely ‘on’ or ‘after’ him – behoves a similar commitment to epochal thinking.

Working as an art writer in Berlin between 2008 and 2011, I observed that progressive visual and performance artists were often working in, with or towards a theatrical idiom.[4] Visual art has landed on theatre as a means of exploring new forms of representation. In this sense it is indebted to Brecht. If we want to ask of theatre today the kind of questions posed in Brecht’s Messingkauf – questions going to its origins and purpose – taking account of other art forms is imperative. That is why I am developing an adaptation of the Messingkauf that brings together visual and performance art on stage within a theatre production, invoking perspectives from visual and performance art for a theatre for the twenty-first century as Brecht invoked the dramaturg, actor and actress for the twentieth.


Dialoge aus dem Messingkauf is Brecht’s magnum opus which was worked on throughout his life, yet never fully realized. The ur-text of ‘A Short Organon for the Theatre’[5]  (the fullest statement of epic theatre and a nod to Bacon) the Messingkauf is Brecht’s blueprint for a theatre of the scientific age. Unlike the Organon, the Messingkauf is designed to take place as performance and, as such, shares the ritual quality associated with performance art. Indeed, Brecht’s Messingkauf might be described as an abortive ritual for the installation of a new age through theatre.

The approach is consistent with Brecht’s source-text. Francis Bacon’s New Scientific Organon is the second volume of a six-volume project. Titled Instauratio Magna – The Great Renewal – it recalled the alchemical ‘great work’ or magnum opus in which the tradition of science was birthed.[6] Doubling down on the gambit of forging science out of mysticism, the structure invoked the six days of divine creation.  It was intended to bring a new world into being. It did.

Richly coded, Bacon’s frontispiece is a sigil for the scientific age that he summons into being. Titled with the inscription, ‘many shall travel and science (knowledge) shall be increased’ – multi pertransibunt et augebitur Scientia – it depicts a trade ship, heading out from the Mediterranean straits of Gibraltar, represented by the Pillars of Hercules that in Antiquity marked the edge of the known world. Piercing the symbolic unknown, the ship’s prow points toward the New World like a compass needle. Empire and Science are one; the conquest of nature by human reason and land by technology are inextricable. The rendering of the pillars appears to prophesy the smokestacks of industrial capital. Small plants growing in the earth at the foot of the pillars are dwarfed by their upward thrust.

Frontispiece, New Scientific Organon (1620)

Frontispiece, New Scientific Organon (1620)

As William Leiss has written, ‘Bacon provided the formula, whereby the idea of mastery of nature became widely acceptable’, a formula he presented to Queen Elizabeth in a stage-play as a young man.[7] For Descartes too, science could ‘make us masters and possessors of nature’. Bacon’s Organon and Descartes Discourses formed the founding pillars of a scientific age, which located the ontological ground as the interface between subject and object and science as the tool of the former to master the latter. It was a model of the universe that held man as its centre. Unlike heliocentrism which the scientific age would dispel, anthropocentrism was its founding architecture.

As Carolyn Merchant has shown, this anthropocentrism proceeds out of a patriarchal impetus to master a nature construed as feminine. Quoted by Brecht in the Messingkauf, the scientific method works by using technology – ‘art’ – to harass, bind, torture and probe an objectified nature into revealing her secrets. Other metaphors allude to rape and torture. Merchant observes that the mechanics of Bacon’s metaphor derive from his professional involvement in the witch trials, which subjected female bodies to violent interrogation, particularly women displaying an affinity with nature’s mysterious powers of healing. ‘Nature’ is construed as the female body writ large to be conquered by male force and cunning and made to deliver a ’masculine birth of time’.[8]

Barrow Hematite and Steel Works (1870)

Barrow Hematite and Steel Works (1870)

Towards the end of his life, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Brecht’s revisions of Galileo show his attitude toward Science (capital ’s’) as an agent of history had begun to wobble. Illuminated by the reality of climate change, the root of the cultural crisis registered by 20th century avant-gardes becomes clear: the credo of scientific mastery over nature, which had sublimated and replaced religion as the guiding ideology of European culture, has run its course.


On first reading the Messingkauf in 2014, I wrote, without knowing really what it meant: ‘the point now, is not to master reality, but to create it.’ My work since has attempted to unravel that insight. The ambition of this project is to bring together works of visual and performance art in a staging of Messingkauf as rewritten in workshops with actors, curators and visual and performance artists.  Although this will involve substantially reworking the Messingkauf, substituting Brecht’s theatre for the scientific age with a theatre for an age defined by ecological crisis, it is consistent with Brecht in seeking to articulate a theatre for the age in performance.

New materialisms, posthumanisms, and speculative and other new realisms make philosophical sense of a new physics in which universes are contingent and multiple, and the scientific methodology of cutting things into ever smaller pieces to compel nature to ‘reveal’ herself  (vivisecting them along Baconian lines) instead reveals its own limits. As Marcus Gabriel, has pointed out, not only does a gluon tell you very little about the nature of the carbon atom of which it is a component; the notion of a carbon atom itself is a scientific abstraction that never appears in isolate, but only as a component of a larger object – whether a human body, a lump of coal or a Big Mac.[9]

The term ‘Anthropocene’ used to describe the present age – what we might call a post-scientific age – focuses attention on a unique geological era shaped by human tampering with the processes of nature — to catastrophic effect. However, it evidences a continued anthropocentric bias and a failure to recognize that it is not human activity as such, but the activity of a culture, class and ideology that has ruthlessly pursued global dominance.

There are other approaches. Donna Haraway rejects such ‘speciesism’ suggesting a collapse of the human/animal divide. Using the term ‘Chthulucene’, Harraway refocuses optics of understanding on the oppressed, and their interconnected earth forms.[10] Andreas Malm[11] and Jason Moore[12] prefer the term ‘Capitalocene,’ pinning the responsibility for climate change on the resource-guzzling accelerationism of progress-model economics and its instrumentalization of nature as a raw material for the propagation of capitalism.

These lines of thought, which can be loosely termed ‘posthuman’ question the technocratic fantasies of transhumanism, which envisions a world of enhanced bodies, robotic life and artificial intelligence as solutions for current crises. Posthumanisms instead offer alternative models of thinking which go beyond a focus on human life and are rooted in ecology.

This reconfiguration of the essentialized, sovereign, rational Enlightenment subject forces changes in how we see and understand. Our entanglement with “hyperobjects”, phenomena – like climate change –  so vast and complex they elude the grasp of the epistemological toolkit, must fundamentally change how we, as humans, execute being and the modes of representation we adopt – the performances and artworks we make, and what we describe as such.

New forms of thinking subjectivity, agency and, indeed, thought itself, challenge anthropocentric universalism and focus the need for an ontological shift. The subject is to be pried out of the shell-being it has inhabited since the division of nature and culture. Alternative, process-driven subjectivities are favoured instead, genders are queered, subjects fractured and alliances formed with non-humans. These nomadic lives[13] have found their way into performance and curation and artists and curators have informed such thinking.

Such an analysis ungrounds the Baconian premise on which Brecht’s theatre for a scientific age is built. The view of the world as a ‘web of life that human relations develop through’ instead of a set of objects that it acts upon requires that Brecht’s injunction to create representations of ‘people living together’ become a theatre of ‘living together’ based on the understanding that humans’ place is not to master nature but to live within its matrix, developing social and representational relations with more than humans.


What begins with a joke unfolds as a ritual. A philosopher walks into a theatre. He has heard that the theatre people have been engaged in a project to create a theatre for the scientific age. But science hasn’t gained much. And theatre has suffered losses on all sides. Like Socrates, Brecht’s philosopher is a trickster or prankster, come to the theatre to induce in its practitioners a state of aporia, and the Messingkauf opens onto a Symposium, masquerading as the backstage business of a theatre.

Libations are poured. Discourse is begun. Meanwhile, the set — ‘dieser ganze Apparat’ of theatrical conventionis disassembled by a figure intended to represent the new audience so that something new maybe tried. The ritual is performed — as rituals generally are — to remedy a social ill. Just as in Brecht’s Messingkauf, the naturalistic theatre’s experiments have yielded no great characters capable of dethroning the old; the anthropocentric theatre predicated on a unified human subject has proven insufficient to wreak the social transformation Brecht envisioned and, indeed, turns out to be derived from the signal ontological error that wreaked the ecological catastrophe we now confront. If theatre is about finding new representations of “living together” in the age of the Anthropocene, its task is not to master reality (following Bacon) as does Brecht’s thaëter. Indeed, this impulse turns out to be the signal error that installed the missteps Brecht diagnoses. We must now seek a theatre that creates reality, reuniting nature with culture and object with subject, restoring theatre to matrixial reality from the regime of the purely aesthetic in which it has languished since modernity’s Great Divides.

Ritual or ceremonial functions mark out a space of reverence for non-human objects among human bodies. It accords mystery, invites silence, opens up a space for understanding causes and processes concurrent in multiple temporalities and invokes hierophanies of eternal return. Until now, this realization has remained within the tendentially object-oriented territories of visual art.

An ecorealist theatre insists that human bodies –even characters – may express more-than-human relations and objects may enjoy territories of being that were hitherto occupied by humans. For artists and audience alike, these processes of collective making and interpretation of work liberate intuitive and thanaterotic impulses in healthful directions. These new forms begin the work of re-knitting culture with nature-as-ecology and collapsing distinction between subject and object, human and more-than-human. It opens the possibility of a truly sceptical theatre, predicated on a radical uncertainty, collapsing hierarchies into black holes that are horizontal in their spread and infinite in depth.[14]

Brecht’s project for a theatre for a new age is more urgent than ever. But the age we are in is no longer defined so much by scientific discovery[15] as by ecological response – rising sea levels, tsunamis, freak climactic events, and sinkholes opening up beneath sites of concentrated human activity – as if the earth were to swallow us whole. If, therefore, we are to comply with Brecht’s injunction to create a theatre for a new age, we must relieve the progressive project of its dualist, ecocidal fantasies of mastery, while retaining the optimistic epochal thinking of both Brecht and Bacon.

Finding the forms that grapple with the overwhelming concurrency of current and past events will be a responsive as well as a generative process. It will require us to go beyond psychological narrative, foregrounding techniques such as repetition, concurrency and duration. Loops and webs cede the plunging infinities of the ‘black hole’, womb or matrix, collapse the habitus of linear causation and recover ritual as the site of practical participation in a more-than-human ontology. The vision of redemptive political revolution is no longer enough.


In seeking new points of entry to the Messingkauf, the Actress emerges as priestess of the threshold. She stands between the old theatre and the new, between philosopher and theatre folk, between theatre and society, illusion and reality.  She is a liminal figure, a vessel, a woman who stands to mediate the community of men. It is she who has brought the philosopher to the theatre, she who is committed to a theatre for a social function. And yet she is all but silent, speaking a mere handful of (single) lines– a position echoed in the worker, who represents the audience that thaëter is meant to empower.

Archetypally, the actress’s presence at this theatrical symposium constitutes her as hetaera. As high-ranking courtesan, the hetaera was the only class of woman – an extra-marital sexual and intellectual companion – permitted to attend a symposium of men.[16] The presence of heterae at a symposium constitutes it as ‘a place apart from the normal rules of society… [and] conventionally opposed to those within the polis as a whole’.[17] The symposium constitutes an ‘anti-city’ to the agora, just as Brecht constitutes the stage of the Messingkauf as an anti-theatre or thaëter. But there is more to hetaerae than this.  As Leslie Kurke states: ‘the presence of sexually available women infused the sympotic space with generalized eroticism… As such the women functioned as so much sympotic furniture like the couches and pillows – objects to serve the needs of the male symposiasts and create a certain atmosphere.’ I would go further. The erotic energy of the hetaerae is the sine qua non of generative thought, the oxygen without which the flame of debate cannot burn. It is notable that the word for prostitute and prophetess coincide in many languages, finding commonality in their reference to holes, caves, graves and portals of other kinds: abysses and openings into other worlds, as befits the matrixial leanings of object-oriented philosophy.[18]

In the absence of active participation of the actress, conversation between men onstage is aerated with references to brothels and peep shows. The place next-door where the women ‘bare their asses on demand’ constitutes the agora and its pornē, which was subject to economies of exchange, unlike the elite sympotic space constituted by the hetaera, and represented in Brecht’s incipient thaëter by the actress, which operates a gift economy.[19]

Yet there is a truth to Brecht’s actress. Women in theatre and other arts often find themselves put in the shade by male colleagues and lovers. ‘But, of course!’ one female artist told me cheerfully, without resentment. ‘That’s what men do. They steal from women.’ I want to push this deeper and in the development of the script in the weeks to come by probing relations between sexuality and nature as well as subject-object relations. The philosopher might be turned into a woman for the adaptation and agency extended to the actress. Or actress and actor might be collapsed into a single character. It may, however, be more interesting to inhabit that tension, rather than chasing comforting resolutions in the crude politics of representation.


‘PHILOSOPHER: The person wants to be made as uncertain as in fact he is.’

I would like to propose a theatre in which, as Ian Hamilton Grant writes, ‘[t]here is no “primal layer of the world”, no “ultimate substrate” or substance on which everything ultimately rests,’ in human consciousness or elsewhere; and in which ‘lines of serial dependency […] do not rest on anything at all, but are the records of actions antecedent in the production of consequents.’[20]

Discovering what such theatre might look like began with translation as a site of communion with Brecht. As unfocusing the eye and gazing on a scrying mirror flashes up divinatory images on a dark surface, insight into a Messingkauf for today appears where Brecht’s original was most obscure, dated or even offensive. These areas of friction – science and nature, the nature of reality and representation in the twenty-first century, the problem of the actress, and the need for a return from the separation of reality and aesthetics that have characterized modernity. I have sought to frame those insights through research, but the project proceeds intuitively and responsively.

In its dramaturgical iteration, Brecht’s ‘not x but y’ principle stipulates that any dramatic choice is played in the context of all other possible choices.  Just as what Ian Bogost terms a ‘unity’ yields the fathomlessness of its own being, portals into possible futures yield passage in Brecht through the exercise of human agency. However, while Brecht remains beholden to a unified ‘true’ reality, albeit filled with many passages and pathways, an eco-realist theatre enables collaborations with objects, ideas, and energies. This modification realizes and radicalizes Brecht’s principle that ‘the person needs to be made as uncertain as in fact he is.’ It is also – paradoxically – a more humble approach.

In preparing the characters for this adaptation of the Messingkauf I have been working with randomising cards, including tarot cards, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies and card decks from role-playing games. These tools have been useful in constructing ‘characters’ as interpretive vectors, rather than constructions of psychological realism or constructions that are coded with concepts. In combination with research these techniques permit us to draw on the archetypal energies, and responsive processes that humans share with plants, animals and other objects, foregoing the temptation to stamp characters with our own identities, and enabling matrixed collaboration. In workshops forthcoming this fall, I will work with actors to finalize the script. The next stage will be to run further workshops involving a performance artist and a curator to explore new kinds of representation.

Similar experiments have already begun to take place elsewhere. Within the main selection of Theatertreffen 17 several shows used techniques of sampling and looping (The Borderline Procession, dir. Kay Voges, Schauspiel Dortmund or Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic). In the masked faces and disembodied voices that populate Susanne Kennedy’s work, we find ourselves further away in a landscape where human bodies appear to have been ventriloquized by extra terrestrial or subatomic forces, algorithms and interfaces. Projects with Stückemarkt pitch a segment of Theatertreffen16 – the posthuman condition, black holes, audience-contingent process, and the performer as a channelling body for processing information – all rooted themselves more or less firmly beneath the Cartesian ground.

The ecorealist stage is fitted to helping us come to terms with a reality in which human agency is increasingly subject to hidden forces, whether rising ocean levels, complex financial instruments, or our own behaviours, scripted by algorithms that have taught us to accomplish their ends.  This new stage takes seriously the injunction of object-oriented ontologists and political activists[21] for art to open a space for utopian futures. We rediscover the lessons of indigenous cultures: that we may collaborate with ecologies, be taught by them, and in so doing take our part in an enchanted reality banished from the magic circle drawn around the empiricist subject. In every object to which being is granted, we discover the infinity that once belonged solely to the white, male, rational human subject.  He is in turn relieved of the lonely pressure that accompanies man’s position as lone agent in a universe arranged around him. We now know that we cannot master reality, but in participating in its matrix, we recover a more authentic human agency that accomplishes a “living together” of human and more than human beings, onstage and off.


Sam Williams is a theatremaker and writer. She is currently a visiting lecturer in theatre criticism and dramaturgy at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. This paper is based on a presentation delivered with Annegret Märten at the International Brecht Society’s Baustelle Brecht workshop at the Brecht Haus in Berlin on June 23 2017.

Twitter: @jaynescarlett



[1] Vladimir Vernadsky, Scientific Thought as Planetary Phenomenon (1997) transl. Starostin.

[2] Mitchell, Stanley, introducing Benjamin, Walter, Understanding Brecht (2003), p.xii

[3] Walter Benjamin, ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte’, transl. as ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ by Harry Zohn in Illuminations (1968)

[4] Indeed, the distinction between avant-garde art and theatre has become difficult to sustain, although absorption of theatrical avant-gardes into art has been more significant than its obverse.

[5] Diary note, quoted in Willet, Brecht on Theatre (1964)

[6] Most infamous among alchemists was Bacon’s contemporary and countryman Dr John Dee who, as well as forging the maps, navigational tools and networks that would open the Northwest Passage, sought with associate Edward Kelley, to converse with angels. Dee may be one of the few 17th Century alchemists who, by contributing to the technological and navigational developments that facilitated the conquest of the ‘New World’, may legitimately claim to have successfully claim to have transmuted lead into gold.

[7] William Leiss, Domination of Nature (1994) p.49

[8] See e.g. Carolyn Merchant ‘Scientific Revolution and the Death of Nature’

[9] Marcus Gabriel, lecture at the 2 Symposium, Speculations on Anonymous Materials Friedercianum, Kassel, 2 January 2014:

[10]Donna Harraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016)

[11] Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (2016)

[12] Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (2015)

[13] Braidotti, Rosi, Nomadic Theory the Portable Rosi Braidotti (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[14] Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenologies, (2012) “the black hole density on the one side of being expands into infinite arrangements on the other side.”

[15] Journalist John Horgan prophesied ‘The End of Science’ in 1996.

[16] Kurke, Leslie (1997). “Inventing the “Hetaira”: Sex, Politics, and Discursive Conflict in Archaic Greece”. Classical Antiquity. 16 (1): 107–108.

[17] Oswyn Murray (1990) ‘Sympotic History’ in Sympotica: A Symposium on the Symposium, 3-13, Oxford.

[18] See e.g. Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman; Barbara Walker Dictionary of Women’s Myths and Secrets on the zonah, meaning both priestess and prostitute; hor, meaning cave, (both in Hebrew) and puta from Latin for ‘well’ and possible co-etymology with puticuli meaning ‘grave’ and ‘womb of rebirth’

[19] Kurke (1997), see above.

[20] Iain Hamilton Grant, ‘Mining Conditions’ in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, eds. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (Melbourne:, 2010), 41-46), as quoted in Ben Woodard, On an Ungrounded Earth – Towards a New Geophilosophy

[21] See eg. Naomi Klein (2017) speaking at the Bristol Festival of ideas:

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Skovsbostrand 8

by Alexandra Marinho de Oliveira

Island of Funen, Denmark, Summer 2017

At the time, I should have been concentrating on writing “Bertolt Brecht and Theater Photography: aesthetic and political involvement”, a PhD dissertation about the relation between Brecht and Photography. But the time I spent in Skovsbostrand made me feel like I was part of the photographs that I have been researching in books and archives. Some of my questions were answered and new questions arose. I spent a few weeks in Svendborg developing my writing in Brecht’s House, which has been a residence for artists and writers since 1990.

Much has been written about the Brechtian exile, but for me it was different because I longed for my own personal experience. Skovsbostrand is known as an inspiring and peaceful place. Brecht lived on the island during one of the most productive periods of his life. Between 1933 and 1939 he wrote his last Learning Play, The Horatians and the Curiations; the collection The Svendborg Poems; and the well-known plays The Good Person of Szechwan, Mother Courage and her Children, Mrs Carrar’s Rifles, and Life of Galileo. In addition, he began writing his Journals. He travelled to several countries, met friends and collaborators and started collecting material from newspapers and magazines for his controversial Kriegsfibel.

The weather was lovely in Svendborg. It was sunny, sometimes windy. But most significantly, there was something on that island that I had waited a long time to find: inspiration.

Nature plays a central role in Svendborg’s way of life.  It has the most powerful energy: the wind blew strongly against the trees, seagulls squawked vigorously day and night, and the sound of the sea soothed the onlookers. In the Svendborg Poems, Brecht immortalized chestnut trees, plum trees and pear trees. Also in Carrar’s Rifles, the description of the environment in the fisherman houses reflects the island’s seaside atmosphere, where sad stories about the struggle between man and nature are common.

The house, which was bought with royalties from Threepenny Opera, has not changed much. I pictured Weigel’s traditional dinners for her exiled friends; the post which cametwice a day (nowadays, it only comes twice a week) and brought Brecht news about those dark times; chess games under the plum tree, the astonishing view of the sea and the ferries seen from Brecht´s office, and the oar that used to hold down the thatched roof of the house.

There was interesting information about the place where the guests lived, sometimes for months, in the books in the house’s library (such as Sommertage bei Bertolt Brecht, by Schwarberg) and from stories told by friendly neighbours. How did they deal with the lack of rooms? The house was not big: there were only two bedrooms. Bertolt and Helene were living there with their children Barbara and Stefan. Guests – such as Margarete Steffin, Walter Benjamin, Hanns Eisler, Karl Korsch and Elisabeth Hauptmann – were given the option to stay in a nearby hotel, the Stella Maris; in neighbours’ available rooms or even in Karin Michaellis’ house in Thuro. For Helene’s private space, which she usually had in every house they lived in, I was told she probably inhabited the mysterious attic.

There remained a few final questions: What has really changed after 80 years? The house still has “vier Türen, daus zu fliehen”, but who are we running away from? What are our reasons? The experience of a deliberate exile brought me the inspiration I was searching for, but some questions remain unanswered. Nevertheless, they are not so important now.

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Brecht before the Law: Features of the Kafkaesque in Sean Mitchell’s Wittness 11

Temitope Abisoye Noah, New York University

On July 21, 1941, Bertolt Brecht arrived on the shores of the United States, having been pursued by German authorities through Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. He settled in California, where he allied with several other German expatriates who had become Hollywood personalities, including screenwriter Fritz Lang and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger. Not long after his arrival, Brecht caught the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). HUAC was a committee of the United States House of Representatives that investigated and prosecuted private citizens and organizations alleged to have Communist ties. Brecht was summoned to appear before a HUAC panel for a round of questioning concerning his collaborative projects in Hollywood. Brecht was the 11th person of interest to appear before the panelists on October 30, 1947. Sean Mitchell’s short film Witness 11 (2012) reconstructs this encounter between Brecht and HUAC. In Mitchell’s film, Brecht’s ordeal is nothing short of Kafkaesque; yet, unlike the characters in Kafka’s novels, Brecht manages to maintain more agency, disorienting his opponents in the same way they attempt to discombobulate him.

Mitchell is an American filmmaker, screenwriter, producer, and cinematographer who has been in the film industry for over 20 years. Witness 11 was his directorial debut. He received the inspiration for the film from a documentary, Theater of War (2006), in which Brecht’s cross-examination by HUAC was briefly featured. To Mitchell, Brecht’s ingenious reactions to the HUAC’s questions were like something out of Brecht’s Life of Galileo, and the playwright’s performance left Mitchell deeply fascinated: “I was hooked,” he has said.[1] With a thumbs-up from his wife Helen Jang Mitchell, who became his co-producer, Mitchell set out to make a short film about this historical moment. They decided to focus on “the dramatic events in [Brecht’s] testimony” that demonstrate “how Brecht turned the tables on the Committee.”[2] Witness 11 is not an exact reproduction of the events of the hearing, but a dramatization.

Witness 11 debuted in 2012 and was screened at numerous film festivals, including the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival and the Mt. Hood Independent Film Festival in Oregon. It starred actors such as Oleg Lipstin, as Brecht; Tatjana Dzambazova, as his wife Helene Weigel; Matt Shelton, as novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo; and Paul Guadarrama, as HUAC permanent secretary Robert E. Stripling. The distinguished late theater professor Carl Weber of Stanford University, a former assistant director to Brecht, served as an advisor on the film. Although mostly self-financed, the film was additionally supported by the Berkeley Film Foundation and a Kickstarter campaign. Mitchell says that the film demonstrates the resounding truth that “creativity can overcome tyranny.” It is in the struggle between these two elements that the Kafkaesque comes through.

The term Kafkaesque means “nightmarishly complex;”[3] and it derives from the works of Franz Kafka, which feature protagonists who are met with a cacophony of impressions, customs, and circumstances that shake the foundation of what they think they understand about their world. Of these protagonists, three are most well-known for the horror of their experience: Gregor Samsa, in The Metamorphosis (1915), who wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into a monstrous creature and the reduced object of society’s contempt; Georg Bendemann, in The Judgment (1912), whose father repeatedly writes him off as delusional, insisting that a longtime friend of Georg’s with whom Georg has been corresponding does not exist in reality; and Josef K., in The Trial (1925), who is arrested and accused of a crime the nature of which is hidden from him, along with the rules of the court before which he stands. These protagonists struggle to regain a foothold following the maelstrom of confusion that befalls them. For this reason, “Kafkaesque” is conventionally deployed to encapsulate any “bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening.”[4]

Such a “bizarre and impersonal administrative situation” is unmistakably present in Witness 11, and can even be considered the leitmotif of the entire film. The film begins with a dispute in the HUAC interrogation hall. Hollywood screenwriters Herbert Biberman, John Howard Lawson, and Dalton Trumbo (witnesses 8, 9, and 10 respectively) are protesting HUAC’s line of questioning concerning their Communist Party activities. Biberman vehemently “defend[s his] right” to be discreet and to “not incriminate [his] friends,” Lawson indignantly gripes about having to “teach this Committee the basic principles of Americanism,” and Trumbo denounces the Committee hearings as “the beginning of an American concentration camp for writers.” The witnesses remonstrate, not merely because of the unconstitutionality of the proceedings, but because they find themselves frustratingly caught between ethics and the legal system. If they admit being affiliated with the Communist Party, they must inevitably implicate their comrades. All three witnesses choose ethics over legality and are swiftly imprisoned.

Biberman, Lawson, and Trumbo’s righteous indignation in the early part of Witness 11 and their frustration at their predicament strongly recall that of Josef K. in Kafka’s The Trial. In the novella, Josef K. becomes highly incensed when a group of men arbitrarily arrest him on the morning of his 30th birthday. In the yearlong ordeal that ensues, he struggles to prove his innocence before a mysterious court, and to bring the court to its knees for its own wrongdoings. All of K.’s efforts prove futile, however, as, in the first instance, he cannot effectively defend himself against the accusation of an unidentified crime. After a series of bizarre events and deceptive maneuvers by the crooked court, and numerous horrifying visits to the uncanny, disorienting space of the courtroom, K. gives up his fight. He is hauled off by his antagonists and executed, butchered “like a dog.”[5]

In Mitchell’s film, Trumbo and his comrades’ insistence on upholding their ethical values in the face of their crooked opponents’ efforts similarly leads to their imprisonment. Of course, their fate is less gruesome than that of their literary counterpart; but nonetheless, their gross suffering at the hands of the Committee is undeniable. This is where Brecht deviates from the group. Unlike Trumbo et al., and unlike K., Brecht does not fall victim to his accusers, a feat made possible by his pragmatism. Realizing he cannot sway HUAC, Brecht gives up all effort to do so, and instead develops an alternative plan. Resolving to “not let my daughter go fatherless because of politics,” Brecht gears up for his cross-examination merely by altering his appearance. He sheds his green button-down shirt, which “[makes him] look like a peasant,” as his wife remarks, and wears a business suit, “the costume of your interrogator.” This gesture, however subtle, is richly symbolic. It will prove potent over the course of his cross-examination.

Upon entering the interrogation hall, Brecht gazes with an air of astonishment around the room; unlike K. who felt oppressed by the atmosphere of the courtroom he stood in, Brecht delightedly drinks in the sights around him and exclaims, “Das ist keine Befragung. Das ist ein Theater.[6] The camera then cuts to Brecht’s view; and indeed, the interrogation hall is strikingly reminiscent of a theater hall, complete with a stage, stage lights, and stage curtains. The seats in the room are also partitioned into sections by a central aisle, mimicking the seating scheme of a theater hall. The restless audience, the flashing of cameras, and the mob of nearby reporters make Brecht feel right at home. Barely repressing his sudden surge of excitement, Brecht begins to approach the panel of interrogators.

As Brecht steps out before them, the Committee members bellow out a medley of declarations, including an outright denunciation of the previous 10 witnesses: “By unanimous vote, the Committee recommends that Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, [Herbert] Biberman, John Howard Lawson, and Dalton Trumbo be cited for contempt of Congress.” As these words reverberate through the hall, the camera cuts to the anticommunist placards wielded by members of the audience. The effect is that the lettering on the placards appears to underscore the words of the Committee members—what the Committee really means is: “COMMUNISTS NOT WELCOME HERE. GET OUT”; “BETTER DEAD THAN RED”; and “FIGHT THE COMMUNIST TAKEOVER.” Such signposts reveal the horrible truth: the Committee members are crazed by their thorough rancor for communism. Not unlike the corrupt court in The Trial, they are not truly motivated by a quest to uphold the law as they profess to be.

Narrated to K. by a priest shortly before K.’s death, “Before the Law” is a parable that encapsulates the scorn with which the shadowy court treats K. The parable centers around a man who has approached a door called “Law,” seeking to cross through it. “The Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter.”[7] However, the doorkeeper refuses to yield to the man; even when the man tries to bribe him, the doorkeeper only accepts the bribe in poor faith. The man continues to wait at the door for days and then years, until finally he dies. In Witness 11, the Committee members are exemplars of the shrewd doorkeeper who deploys deception to bend the man in the parable to his will. Yet, unlike the man in “Before the Law,” Brecht does not wait for the door of justice to be opened to him. Instead, he seizes justice where he is offered none.

When Brecht is questioned by the Committee, he flatly denies being a member of the Communist Party. The representatives nonetheless detain Brecht and continue to interrogate him. Just like the unyielding doorkeeper in “Before the Law,” the Committee must at all costs dominate Brecht. Brecht’s earlier apprehension that he is completely powerless, since he is “not a lawyer or expert in interrogation and they are,” rings true; and upon this realization, Brecht undergoes a behavioral transformation. He becomes a trickster. When Committee member John Parnell Thomas arrogantly picks up his cigar, Brecht mirrors this act, only with added panache. He meticulously retrieves a cigar cutter from his suit pocket, cuts the cigar’s end off, lights it up, and takes in a stream of smoke. By the time he exhales, he has become a completely different person.

With a look of unalloyed confidence, Brecht leans into his microphone and begins to address his interrogators. To the repeated question of whether he was ever invited to a Communist Party meeting, Brecht avows: “No, I do not think so;” “I do not think so, I am certain I think;” “I do not think so, no;” “I think I am certain.” This discourse continues until Brecht’s persistent wordplay so confounds the Committee that its members begin to lose their composure over their lack of understanding. Brecht, who was not versed in the law and was a complete novice to interrogations, is now somehow able to beat the Committee members at their own game, and effortlessly so. “Wear[ing] the costume of your interrogator” now appears to take on its true meaning. Brecht is not wearing a business suit in order to endear himself to the Committee; he is wearing it to become them, to assimilate their knack for deception and, in so doing, outsmart them. As Brecht continues to taunt the HUAC members, the audience in the room becomes increasingly aware of Brecht’s sudden and unexpected position of power over the hearing, and the Committee members’ sudden confusion. They promptly erupt in laughter, pandemonium breaks out, and the Committee head frantically calls for order in the room.

In 1991, Kafka biographer Frederick Karl offered a formula for how to identify the “Kafkaesque.” In an interview with The New York Times, he stated: “What I’m against is someone going to catch a bus and finding that all the buses have stopped running and saying that’s Kafkaesque.” The real meaning of “Kafkaesque,” he explains, is “when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces. . . . What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don’t stand a chance. That’s Kafkaesque.”[8]

If the Kafkaesque necessarily denotes (in part) an enduring state of helplessness in spite of one’s best efforts, by the end of Witness 11, it is the Committee that is afflicted by the Kafkaesque, and not Brecht. Over the second half of the film, the representatives become not only frustrated by Brecht’s recalcitrance of them but also disoriented by his imitations of them. Brecht mocks their lack of command of English grammar, advising them to consult their German translator to help them assess the English translations of his writings. At one point Brecht discomposes the Committee’s chief investigator, Robert Stripling, so much that, in his confusion, Stripling performs a recital of Brecht’s composition “Forward, We’ve Not Forgotten,” on which members of the audience eagerly take notes, as if to soak in Brecht’s rebellious spirit. Unlike the man in “Before the Law,” who dies waiting for the door of Law to be opened to him, Brecht’s takeover of the interrogation hall culminates in a victorious finale. The Committee closes the cross-examination by prompting Brecht for a statement that will give them cause to release him rather than detain him: Instead of asking Brecht if anyone asked him to join the Communist Party, they now ask him, “You don’t recall anyone asking you to join the Communist Party in the United States?” (emphasis added). In this definitive moment, Brecht has finally eluded their tyranny.

Sean Mitchell’s Witness 11 recreates a significant moment in history, and one that has been interpreted in various ways. Some have viewed Brecht’s evasiveness during the HUAC hearings as a betrayal of his fellow Hollywood screenwriters who had decided to unite in defiance of the Committee. Others assert that Brecht’s evasiveness was more indicative of his ingenuity rather than disloyalty. This film seems to take the latter view. When Brecht enters the interrogation hall, he identifies the Committee’s hearings as a farce, an affair fit for the theater stage rather than an authentic and evenhanded proceeding. This is reflected in the way he approaches the interrogations as such, adapting himself to the farce in order to dismantle it. In the end, Brecht’s strategy pays off: it is the Committee who must contend with Brecht’s Kafkaesque system; it is not Brecht who folds before their law, but they before his.


[1] Mitchell, Sean, “Witness 11,” Communications from the International Brecht Society, Vol. 42 (2013), 22.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Kessel, and James P. Kelly, Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka (San Francisco, CA: Tachyon Publications, 2011), 10.

[4] Merriam-Webster. Accessed December 20, 2016.

[5] Franz Kafka, The Trial: A New Translation Based on the Restored Text, (New York: Schocken, 1999), 231.

[6] “This is not an interrogation. This is theatre.”

[7] Kafka, The Trial, 216.

[8] Ivana Edwards, “The Essence of ‘Kafkaesque,’” The New York Times, December 28, 1991.

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Gentle, directed by Zeljko Djukic at the Den Theatre, Chicago, IL (March 17th)

by Anthony Squiers, Phd, Habil.


Gentle is TUTA Theatre Company founder and director, Zeljko Djukic’s world premiere adaptation of Dostoevsky’s short story, “The Meek One.” It opened at the Den Theatre in Chicago, IL on February, 23rd 2017. It relates the story of an impoverished girl (played by Dani Tucker) who, after being orphaned, is relegated to the care of her abusive and exploitative aunts. The aunts conspire to marry her off for their own benefit to a much older, physically repulsive neighbor. As her only means of escaping this cruel future, the girl reluctantly accepts a marriage offer from a manipulative and psychologically abuse pawnbroker (played by Tom Dacey) with whom she had previous interactions.

Although the pawnbroker tends toward manipulative and egocentric tendencies, he also exhibits authentically human contradictions, revealing for example compassion to the girl by offering her more for the goods she pawned than market value and proposing marriage to her after hearing about her situation with the aunts and neighbor. Contradictions like these demonstrate nicely the psychological complexity typical of a Dostoevsky character and establish a humanistic side to the pawnbroker which serves as a basis of redemptive potential in him.


Initially, it seems as if the girl may find meaning in a life with the pawnbroker. For example, she begins to find fulfillment and a sense of purpose in helping to run the pawn business. However, when her new husband discovers her exhibiting the same type of compassion toward customers he once showed toward her, he forbids her from working in the pawnshop any longer. Now, lacking a means of developing a sense of self-worth, she seeks recognition through intellectual conversation with a male companion. However, after finding out about this, the pawnbroker begins to keep her prisoner in the house, effectively denying her any means of forming her own identity. This imprisonment precipitates the downward trajectory of the girl’s emotional state until she ultimately commits suicide by means of auto-defenestration. This act is obviously an escape from the house which represents her physical captivity. But, simultaneously and more profoundly, it is an escape from a confining social structure and her husband who has capitalized on his position relative to hers within that social structure in order  to dominate her. In short, these things have worked to leave her with virtually no agency, subject to forces outside of her control. They leave her unrecognized, incapable of defining herself. Suicide is her only chance at a self-directed, albeit truncated future. It is the only choice that can be truly her own.


This lack of recognition haunts the play as a lurking brutality which hangs in the air, in some ways more menacing than the threat of physical violence which lies in the subtext. For example, the young lady is never mentioned by name in the play, denied even this minimal amount of recognition. She also has few lines to reveal herself and this relative silence looms large and uneasy on stage. In an interview after the show, TUTA Dramaturg Evan Hill, who also writes and acts for Chicago based troupe Theatre Y, described Tucker’s character as “a ghostly presence which is denied articulation” who “suffers silently” as a symbol of “the repressed subjectivity of the feminine.” Indeed, Tucker’s performance as the girl was significant; her presence, puissant. In this silence, she created a character who somehow maintains a youthful optimism, playfulness, even coquettishness which agonizingly erodes under the persistent wind of the fate which has fallen upon her.

Although, there are clearly deep psychological questions raised by this play especially in regards to the pawnbroker’s actions, Djukic has also done a noteworthy job, in this production, revealing how social structure and economic factors condition the actions of the characters. This is particularly true of the girl who finds herself positioned (through no fault of her own) in a situation which gives the external appearance of available choices but upon closer inspection presents only the illusion of choice. She can either be abused and exploited by her aunts, the neighbor or the pawnbroker. Any ‘choice’ she makes leads to the same devastating conclusion.


Laying bare the grim reality of social structures which deny agency to women is as timely today as it was in Dostoevsky’s time. Real world examples abound still, in our time: from women still being locked in somewhere along what Emma Goldman described as a spectrum of marriage and prostitution, to groups of men conspiring in the backrooms of Washington and state capitals to deprive women of the ability to decide what happens with their own uteri. Djukic’s very Brechtian focus on how social structure and economic variables condition the actions of the characters may be rooted in his formal education at the University of Maryland where he studied under Brecht scholar John Fuegi. In fact, there are other decidedly Brechtian elements in this production as well. For example, Djukic employs some Brecht-esque estrangement effects, most notably abrupt changes in the narrative voice of the characters. The voices, at times move from that of first person characters actively engaged in playing out the story, to third person narrators distinct from the character. The actors divest themselves of their original character for moments and assume the role of detached observers who comment on the actions which have transpired. This gives the audience some release from the emotional enthrallment which threatens a cerebral engagement with the events being portrayed. This move and others like it create opportunities for a starker, more intellectualized and rational understanding of what is being represented on stage. They give the audience the chance to step back and think critically about what they are seeing so that they can, in the end, pronounce judgement.


Unfortunately, it’s unclear the extent to which a good portion of the audience was able to recognize and take advantage of these opportunities. In the final analysis, the story being told was a brooding, weighty one about the callous alienation of a woman from her whole self, made possible by unjust socio-economic factors and their corollary—male domination. Yet, during some of the bleakest dialogue between the pawnbroker and the girl, dialogue where the pawnbroker uses his social position to leverage things from the girl and the girl in turn begins to capitulate, realizing the nature of her limited agency—her enslavement—quite a few in the audience laughed as if they were watching a romantic comedy. Perhaps the depiction of a woman-object so completely at the whim of external forces, so thoroughly deprived of ego is such a common literary device that some in the audience were unable to notice that something very sinister and preventable was going on. Indeed, this is often the way romantic comedies develop. The woman serves not as a complete human character but an object for the possession of the male pursuer. In these cases, the woman character is often swept up in the machinations of others just as we saw happen to the girl in this play. It is likely that those who laughed are so accustomed to observing women in roles like this (in cultural representations and in real life) that for them it has become something quotidian, taken-for-granted and virtually unrecognizable. It thus resists critical reflection and judgement through the shine of a naturalized veneer. If this is the case, the play may have missed its mark with this subset of the audience. Nevertheless, my theater companions and I certainly understood right away what Djukic was up to, and I personally was impressed with many of the ways he chose to do it. The laughter on the part of some in the audience, if it is indeed an indication of their inability to critically engage with the horrible consequences of unjust socio-economic orders and blatant sexism, is itself an indictment of the social world we live in and the way that world is typically represented to us. Far from being the result of a shortcoming of the play itself, this misguided laughter and the worldview from which it stems are a tragic indication of exactly what this play is up against and discloses, undoubtedly, the need for it at this time.

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A Lesson in Manipulation and an Exercise in Resistance: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at London’s Donmar Warehouse

by Anja Hartl, University of Konstanz

The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui

Lucy Ellinson (Giri) in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar. Photo Helen Maybanks.

New translations and adaptations of Brecht’s plays by British and American dramatists have abounded over the past few years on the British stage. After Mark Ravenhill’s energetic A Life of Galileo for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013 and Simon Stephens’s invigorating take on The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre in 2016, Tony, Pulitzer, and Olivier award-winning playwright Bruce Norris has successfully adapted The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for London’s Donmar Warehouse in a striking and dazzling new version. Taking certain liberties with Brecht’s text without betraying the original, Norris’s Arturo Ui shares its emphasis on creating a pleasurable experience for the audience with Ravenhill’s and Stephens’s work. Introducing a decidedly more explicit and rougher style, Norris manages to update the specific linguistic characteristics of Brecht’s version in particular, thereby accentuating the tension between “grand style” and gangster-/Trump-speak for contemporary audiences. Through the parallels the American author establishes with both the past and the present moment, notably the “rise” of Donald Trump, the production fruitfully interweaves different historical moments, albeit without over-emphasising the allegorical dimension of the text.

For director Simon Evans, part of the appeal of staging Arturo Ui now is that, in the light of recent political developments, audiences are very much “alive to the politics of their time” and thus, ideally, “politically active and motivated,” as he explains in an interview.[1] These concerns directly translate to Evans’s thrilling production, which the Announcer (in a mesmerising performance by Tom Edden, who also beguilingly takes on the roles of reporter Ragg, Sheet and the Actor) declares a gangster music hall. Songs – from “Mack the Knife” to Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” to Rag’n’Bone Man’s “Human” and Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero” – play a crucial role in the production, underpinning transitions in-between scenes and thereby not only creating a joyful atmosphere, but also – and significantly – initiating a gestic comment on the wider socio-political context. Indeed, Brechtian Gestus shapes the whole production: the slamming of piano lids, the handing over of files and envelopes, the pulling out of guns, the changing of hats and, most notably, the taking of photographs at crucial moments in the play serve to create an image of the Benjaminian “dialectic at a standstill,” focussing attention on the relationships between the characters as well as between characters and their respective circumstances and inviting the audience to take the bigger picture into account. Consequently, the acting is of a very corporeal, fast, and playful nature. Lenny Henry, renowned for his work as a comedian, is outstanding in delivering Arturo Ui’s transformation from inadequate rogue to shrewd politician, capturing the tension between the animalistic, violent gangster and the manipulative and slyly strategic leader. Michael Pennington’s rendering of Dogsborough’s downfall is compelling and Lucy Eaton’s performance of Dockdaisy is seductive and powerful, especially when she desperately cries out against Arturo Ui before being shot in a final scene inserted by Norris.

The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui

Lenny Henry (Arturo Ui) in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar. Photo Helen Maybanks.

The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui

Lucy Eaton (Dock Daisy) and Lenny Henry (Arturo Ui) in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar. Photo Helen Maybanks.

What makes this production stand out as refreshing and important is the fact that it is dominated by none of Brecht’s characters – indeed, the leading role is performed by the audience. For this purpose, Peter McKintosh has turned the Donmar Warehouse upside down, creating an immersive design in which auditorium and stage melt into each other. Spectators sit at bar tables, actors mingle and chat with the audience at the beginning and during the interval, and random audience members take over parts of characters spontaneously, for example as witnesses in the court case, which is not only very funny to watch, but also acutely draws attention to the spectators’ implication in the unfolding events. For the scene of Arturo Ui’s takeover of the market in Cicero, the audience plays a particularly pivotal role as voters. Threatened to cheer on, vote for and support Arturo Ui, the spectators are uncomfortably confronted with the gangsters’ manipulation and the auditorium’s complicity in and responsibility for the development of the events all along (this might also be read as a metatheatrical and self-critical comment on the manipulative nature of immersive theatre as such). Simultaneously, though, and fascinatingly, this particular scene turned into a spontaneous exercise in resistance, with certain audience members refusing to stand up for Arturo Ui. Invited to sit in the middle of the stage as a sign of their opposition and to be more directly exposed to the gangsters’ threats, more and more spectators joined the group of résistants during this particular performance, and while their opposition may not have impacted the eventual outcome of the election, it created a powerful experience and a vivid reminder of each individual’s agency in light of current politics: on that particular night, Arturo Ui’s rise at the Donmar Warehouse was, indeed, resistible.

The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui

Tom Edden (Announcer) in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar. Photo Helen Maybanks

[1] This quotation comes from the following interview:

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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Comédie française

by Florence Vatan

April 1-June 20, 2017

February 27-June 24, 2018

Éric Ruf, the administrative director of the Comédie française since 2014, is pursuing the tradition of opening the theater to foreign directors and expanding the existing repertoire. In July 2016, he invited the Belgian theater director Ivo van Hove to adapt Luchino Visconti’s movie The Damned to the stage. In the same vein, he asked the Berlin-based actor and director Katharina Thalbach to stage Bertolt Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a production that has been very well received and that will be shown again next season from February 27 to June 24, 2018. That the Comédie française selected two plays focusing on the rise of Nazism, and on the dangerous liaisons between greed, coercion, ordinary corruption, violence, lure of extremism, and the thirst for power is no coincidence. At a time when precariousness and feelings of insecurity fuel populist and far-right movements, Brecht’s parable has an uncanny actuality.

Katharina Thalbach is the daughter of Sabine Thalbach and Benno Besson. She spent her childhood at the Berliner Ensemble and received her actor training under the guidance of Helene Weigel. The adaptation she offers of Brecht’s “gangster play” is fast-paced, entertaining, and highly effective. The actors perform on a steep stage whose floor depicts a map of downtown Chicago. A movable spider web is suspended over the stage. It symbolizes the cynical interplay between predators and victims, and the progressive entanglements of the leaders and inhabitants of Chicago and Cicero as Arturo Ui and his henchmen take hold of the cauliflower trust through coercion, manipulation, and racket. The rise of Ui also means the downfall of the surrounding characters who find themselves on the slippery slope of compromise and corruption.

Arturo Ui_RdL_0482Vatan

All characters wear heavy makeup and costumes that are reminiscent of George Grosz’s and Max Beckmann’s paintings, and conjure up familiar representations of the Weimar decadence, the roaring twenties, and the Chicago underworld. The circus music, the montage of scenic tableaux as well as the musical and dance interludes evoke the atmosphere of popular theater, cabaret, and expressionist films as well as gangster movies. In addition to this visually compelling stage design that successfully blends the German and American contexts, Katharina Thalbach remains true to Brecht’s use of the grotesque. She brings to the fore the play’s farcical quality by letting the actors perform with emphatic theatricality, and resort to slapstick and caricature. Arturo Ui—interpreted brilliantly by Laurent Stocker—appears as an irascible disarticulated puppet that combines bullish behavior with narcissistic susceptibility, and cowardice with a reckless thirst for recognition and longing for respectability. His attempts at self-control more than once turn into vociferous ranting, deluge of threats, tantrum-like behavior, and even occasional barking. In the hilarious scene in which Arturo gets a lesson in posture and declamation from the drunk and decrepit actor “Old Mahoney” who seems to come straight from a play by Shakespeare or a comedy by Molière, Laurent Stocker performs Hitler’s signature body language and public speaking style with caricatural exuberance.


Yet the slapstick and grand-guignol do not diminish the somber undercurrent in the play. Quite the contrary. Behind the laughter, shrill voices, dissonant music, and clownish grins lurks ruthless violence. Ui’s henchmen kill unwanted witnesses and potential enemies as if they were chasing flies. Protestors are silenced through threats, intimidation, or summary execution. The warehouse fire trial turns into a judicial farce. Givola dances with Daisy to the sentimental tune “Das gibt’s nur einmal, das kommt nicht wieder” and then coldly kills her and the accompanying dancers. When Gori the clown—who diligently collects the hats of his victims—asks the audience “how are you doing kids?” as if we were watching a circus performance, the number of casualties has already increased significantly. The gunshots keep getting louder as a potent reminder of the exponential spiral of violence.

As a matter of fact, the audience never loses sight of the historical background. When the announcer introduces the key players of this “great historical gangster play,” the four main actors initially appear as their historical persona—Hindenburg, Goebbels, Göring, and Hitler—before dramatically removing their rubber masks. Signs throughout the play that are often displayed in a fanciful fashion remind the audience of the historical events in Germany. By staging his play in Chicago and writing it initially with an American audience in mind, Brecht sought to explore the ties between fascism and capitalism, and to draw attention to the analogies between Nazism and organized crime. More importantly, however, the play staged by Katharina Thalbach emphasizes the theatricality inherent to the exercise of power as well as the deep connections between politics and spectacle. Ui who—in a reiteration of the myth of the self-made man—likes to portray himself as a “humble son of the Bronx” owes his success to his ability to control his image, to master appearances, and to turn radio into a powerful propaganda machine. The microphone—that becomes an extension of Arturo/Hitler himself—amplifies Ui’s narrative of rampant danger, need for protection, and strong leadership. This narrative becomes so invasive that it turns the real world into a resounding board in which facts are tweaked, manipulated, or plainly fabricated. At the end of the play, the merging of Arturo Ui’s speech on radio with Hitler’s actual voice epitomizes the rise of a dictator in the making. While it is counterbalanced by Damia’s 1939 song “tout fout le camp” [everything is falling apart] and by the cautionary warning in the epilog, the play is also a potent reminder of the perils inherent to demagoguery.

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“There’s Happiness in Doubting” – Brecht’s Life of Galileo at London’s Young Vic Theatre

by Anja Hartl, University of Konstanz

Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo by Leon Puplett Projections by 59 Productions (2)

Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo by Leon Puplett. Projections by 59 Productions.

In our current “dark times” of political, social, economic, and environmental crisis, fundamental notions of truth, fact, evidence, and objectivity have increasingly been corrupted, thereby abusing and instrumentalizing science for the purposes of power and authority. Staging Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo in 2017, therefore, seems a timely choice, and London’s Young Vic Theatre has unmistakably turned it into an unequivocal gesture of resistance and a powerful call for scepticism and reason. Based on John Willett’s original translation (rather than the more recent one by Mark Ravenhill), award-winning director Joe Wright’s production is exceptional in bringing Brecht’s version of Galileo’s life to contemporary audiences without forcing the twenty-first-century context on the play. Through its energetic, young, playful, and decidedly imaginative nature, the show combines, in Brechtian fashion, the need for both pleasure and instruction. Appealing to all senses, this highly theatrical Galileo makes use of the entire aesthetic repertoire available to the theatre, including music, projections, masks, puppeteering, special effects, and an exciting stage design to bring to life and to carve out the contradictions shaping the dispute between Galileo and the church. Despite – or precisely because of – the occasional ironic nod to the German playwright, this production makes Brecht’s legacy productive for our times and proves that Brechtian stagecraft is far from ineffective or conventional – provided it is connected with a clear political purpose.

The production’s political impetus derives from the crucial role it attributes to the audience, which is literally and metaphorically at the centre of the play, since the stage is designed in the round like a planetary system, with the spectators sitting both inside and around a wooden circle. The actors playfully mingle and interact with the audience, creating a casual, informal atmosphere that encourages the audience to get involved and to engage with the characters and the larger context of the play. Wright’s Galileo stands out because of its decidedly visceral quality, through which the spectators can holistically experience the performance. For this purpose, overhead projections created by 59 Productions accompany the play. They immerse us in the play’s explorations, amplify Galileo’s demonstrations and thereby give us the feeling of being not only an integral part of the universe, but also of the play’s investigations. The experiential nature of the production is also underscored by its extensive use of music, which is supplied by The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands. Loud, electronic beats help to inspire a party-like atmosphere (with spectators swinging to the music or even dancing with the actors), reinforce the grandeur of the illustrations of the cosmos on screen, and are an ideal means of enhancing Galileo’s restlessness, passion, sensuality, and materialism.


Bettrys Jones in Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson.


Brendan Cowell in Life of Galileo at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson.

Brendan Cowell’s rendering of Galileo is impeccable and irresistible, conveying the scientist’s thirst for knowledge and pleasure, but also his internal conflicts. Acting is fast-paced, dynamic and at times ecstatic. Wearing everyday clothes and, therefore, not immediately distinct from the audience, the actors clearly draw attention to the artificiality of the spectacle. In contrast, other moments in the play explode with theatricality, in particular during the Inquisition, with Paul Hunter’s dazzling performance of the Inquisitor, as well as the fabulous carnival scene. Puppeteer Sarah Wright adds an imaginative dimension to the production when transforming the poems preceding each scene into a short visualisation and demonstration of the action to follow with the help of puppets. For the actors’ performance, therefore, Gestus plays an essential role of the play’s depiction of Galileo’s conflicts – not only through puppetry, but also through the use of light, sound, and gesture to underpin the political and social relevance – rather than the purely individualistic dimension. The play’s bracingly optimistic ending, in which Billy Howle’s curious and wondrous Andrea literally hands over the apple of knowledge to the future generation in a (maybe overly) hopeful and triumphant moment, suggests that the spectators must now accept the challenges of these “dark times”: “we’re really just at the beginning.”

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Brecht and Collaboration: New Directions, New Discussions

by Katherine Hollander

As long as there have been conversations about Brecht, there has been curiosity, uncertainty, and conflict about his relationship to collaboration and co-creation. Members of the International Brecht Society will be familiar with these debates as they have played out in The Brecht Yearbook, and elsewhere, over the years.[1] Scholarly assertions and reactions have ranged from an early, sometimes puzzled interest in those figures who seemed to hover at the margins of Brecht’s creative projects, to bitter accusations of plagiarism and maltreatment, to enthusiastic defenses of Brecht himself and those of his co-creators whose reputations suffered because of these attacks.[2] At the International Brecht Symposium in Oxford in June, 2016, we had the chance to revisit and reconceive these questions with a panel dedicated specifically to “Brecht and Collaboration.”[3] Paula Hanssen, Vera Stegmann, and I each presented a paper on the subject of Brecht and co-creation, with Tom Kuhn chairing and facilitating the discussion that followed—a discussion which proved to be exciting and productive. The audience and panelists engaged with one another and with these knotty questions with an unusual degree of enthusiasm, open-mindedness, and commitment, and the exchanges that resulted pushed a familiar conversation to fruitful new places.

This article aims to communicate the contours of that dynamic conversation. It summarizes, though it does not fully reproduce, the papers given by each of the panelists, and outlines the new directions for consideration, framing, access, and research suggested by the conversation with the audience. The panel presented neither a uniform nor a totalizing argument about Brecht as a collaborator, but three overlapping snapshots, each of which contributed to the conversation that emerged. Though we floated suggestions, problems, questions, and potential solutions, the conversation did not resolve itself, but rather indicated that more dialogue on the topic would be welcome and productive. This article, then, arose from a desire to make our initial conversation available to a group beyond those us of in that conference room on that spring day at St. Hugh’s College, and I wrote it after consultation by email with the panelists and the chair, who also had a chance to weigh in before the article was submitted.

Paula Hanssen opened the panel by playing a video of David Bowie performing the “Alabama Song,” with which the audience gamely joined in. Hanssen began her talk, “Brecht’s Women Colleagues and Translation: Muses, Translators, and Scribes,” by reminding us that the “Alabama Song” is, in fact a “Hauptmann text.” Since the lyrics are typically presumed to have been written by Brecht, this assertion, that Elizabeth Hauptmann in fact produced them, immediately opened up questions of authorship, accreditation, and authority. The talk then introduced, via biographical details and photographs, three of Brecht’s most significant female collaborators: Hauptmann (on whom, in particular, Hanssen is a pioneering expert), Margarete Steffin, and Ruth Berlau.[4] It was poignant to observe some of the audience members encountering the very human faces of these women for the first time on the projection screen. For scholars of Brecht who are at the beginning their careers, or for those who are rooted in theater and performance rather than history and biography, there seemed to be some genuine surprises here.

Hanssen provided clear and specific information about Hauptmann, Steffin, and Berlau, detailing when and how they came into or passed out of Brecht’s creative (and personal) life, and what they contributed to the works in the Brecht canon, paying special attention to their roles as translators and scribes. She finished with a provocative and intriguing meditation on the concept of authorship itself. Referencing Foucault’s and Barthes’s doubts about authorship as a stable category in a modern (or postmodern) context, Hanssen suggested we might do well to wonder whether there is a unitary or singular author “Brecht” at all. She urged us to ask ourselves whether the lens of “author” is, in the end, of use in interrogating those works attributed to him.[5]

Vera Stegmann’s paper, “Brecht, Weill, and Hannah Arendt: Pamela Katz’s Book The Partnership in View of her Work for Film,” considered the recent work of the filmmaker Pamela Katz. Stegmann began by introducing the characters and themes in Katz’s book, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, which focuses on the collisions among Brecht, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Elisabeth Hauptmann, and Helene Weigel during the creation of the Threepenny Opera in Berlin in 1928.[6] Though she criticized Katz’s book as a feminist project which nevertheless declines to name its female subjects in its title, Stegmann praised it as a useful example for scholars, since it considers not only Brecht and Weill (though they are the central creative pair) but the “three women” in their lives as well.

In particular, Stegmann argued that as a study of the psychology of creativity, the project is exemplary. Going further, she connected the book through its author to another German contemporary of Brecht, Hannah Arendt, whom Katz has made the subject of a film (Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarete von Trotta).[7] Incorporating Arendt as an infrequently-considered comrade of Brecht can itself lead to fruitful intellectual connections—as Minou Arjomand pointed out in a paper given at Oxford earlier in the week—and remind us that not only dramaturges, actors, and composers, but philosophers as well, have something to give to our understanding of Brecht’s political theater.[8] For Stegmann, an illumination of the psychology behind intellectual and artistic creativity provides a way to access Brecht the collaborator.

My paper, “‘Producing Something with the Other’s Talents’: Brecht, Community, and Zusammenarbeit in Exile,” aimed to communicate some of the historical data and analysis from my study of Svendborg, Denmark, which in the 1930s became a haven for intellectual refugees, including Brecht, Weigel, Steffin, and Walter Benjamin, who are the principal figures of my project. At the center of this community was the Danish feminist writer Karin Michaëlis, who had been Weigel’s mentor in Vienna and who later acted as anchor and patroness of refugees on the Svendborg Sound.[9] Having synthesized material from letters, journal entries, and literary products, I wanted to share with the audience my sense both of the working and personal relationships amongst these intellectuals, and of how they developed and utilized a system of intellectual collaboration and literary borrowing. Connecting back to the theme of the conference at large, “Recycling Brecht,” the paper asserted that literary and intellectual lending and borrowing were understood by Brecht and his co-workers not only as an anti-bourgeois impulse, but also—in interpersonal relationships as much as in broader political terms—as an ethical and creative good.

In addition, the paper presented preliminary conclusions drawn from my data, which shows that a plurality of works generated by the participants on the Svendborg Sound were produced collaboratively, and mapped a typical path that such work—for example, a play like Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder—would have taken through the collaborative process. Statements from Brecht, Benjamin, and Michaëlis in particular strongly suggest that, in their assessment of creative contributions, they valued criticism, editing, translation, and commentary much more highly than is conventional. If we, too, shift our understanding so that it includes these types of labor, weighted more equally with what we often understand as “original” writing, we can better understand the methods used on the Svendborg Sound and recognize Benjamin and Steffin (the primary commenter and translator, respectively) as co-equals with Brecht. In this view, division and conditions of labor, as well as notions about its value, are as important to an understanding of Brecht’s relationship to collaboration as assessments of authorship and credit.[10]

By the end of the three papers, the pool of collaborators captured by our research was much wider than is usually investigated in one place at one time. Rather than a series of “Brecht-and-…” partnerships, dyads of those who assisted Brecht by editing, co-writing, or composing pieces of those larger projects attributed to him, we had before us a group of some nine intellectuals and artists, each gifted in different ways, who worked not only with Brecht but also solo and with one another. They are a diverse and prodigious bunch. Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Ruth Berlau, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Lotte Lenya, Karin Michaëlis, Margarete Steffin, Helene Weigel, and Kurt Weill differed from one another in nationality, gender, generation, their interpretations of socialism, capitalism, and fascism, and in their various academic or artistic backgrounds. This group cannot be easily categorized—some were lovers of Brecht, but many were not; many were female but some were male. As Tom Kuhn pointed out, including Weigel along with Berlau, Hauptmann, and Steffin erases the false dichotomy amongst them of “lover” versus “wife” that has sometimes oversimplified or obfuscated investigations of Brecht’s collaborative relationships with women. The same is true, although in a different way, of the inclusions of Arendt, Lenya, and Michaëlis, women with whom Brecht did not have a sexual relationship.

Even merely putting the names of these collaborators in alphabetical order, rather than by grouping them along other lines of affinity (profession, gender, politics), seems to put the matter into a new and potentially productive light, allowing both more objectivity and more flexibility in our understanding. And we should recall that an even larger and more diverse group than these contributed to the plays, novels, stories, poems, and theoretical works in the Brecht canon. In fact, as an archivist and editor at the Bertolt Brecht Archiv, Herta Ramthun identified some sixteen individuals whose handwriting appears on Brecht’s manuscripts. These include, among others, Emil Burri, Paul Dessau, Hanns Eisler, Karl Korsch, and Hella Wuolijoki, as well as some of those collaborators discussed by our panel—in specific Hauptmann, Weigel, Steffin, Berlau, and Benjamin.[11] Kuhn pointed out during our discussion that Burri is particularly interesting, and understudied, as one who collaborated with Brecht, and whose work and life seem overdue for investigation.

Beyond this broader, more diverse group of collaborators, different models for understanding collaboration also emerged from our overlapping studies. The three panelists asked different questions and applied different frameworks to the collaboration under study, with Hanssen exploring questions of authorship, Stegmann investigating the psychology of creativity, and my work aiming to illuminate issues of labor. These three interrogatory strategies—authorship, psychology, and labor—allow us to see particularly clearly that not all creative contributions to what we know as the Brecht canon were captured in written form. Social and supportive work was central, too, though of course it often left fewer textual traces. Hanssen spoke of Hauptmann as a “coach for other writers,” a way of characterizing her talent and labor that is startlingly clarifying. Perhaps along similar lines, rather than categorizing Steffin as Brecht’s secretary, my work identifies her as an editor and the chief administrator for the collective. Becoming curious about the specific tasks performed by these collaborators allows us to treat their contributions with new gravity, revealing that they tended to have greater authority in cooperative creative processes than previously assumed. Ironically, but perhaps not incidentally, it is only now, with the increased professionalization—and the attendant rise in status—of roles like “writing coach” and “administrator” that we can finally ascribe more agency and importance to collaborators like Hauptmann and Steffin.

In his comment, Kuhn reminded us that so much of what we think we understand about Brecht and collaboration is a result of the passage of time—the accumulation of years, popular assumptions, editorial choices, and scholarly presentations—rather than being directly traceable to the actions or opinions of the man himself. In particular, Kuhn described Brecht’s methods for acknowledging collaboration in the early Versuche, in which the names of all co-creators would appear in equal size.[12] And yet consistent public acknowledgment of collaborators never seems to have been the central priority, either for Brecht and those with whom he worked, or for scholars, in part because both data and intellectual frameworks for understanding Brecht’s collaboration have sometimes been difficult to access, assess, or contextualize.

The broader conversation, following the presentations and comments, was enthusiastic and thoughtful. One particularly illuminating question was raised early on by a member of the audience to whom the information about the female collaborators (particularly those introduced in Hanssen’s presentation) was very new. This American theater professional marveled at how little she had known about Hauptmann, Steffin, and Berlau, and asked the panelists whether information about them was difficult to access. After a beat of silence, the three panelists all answered “No,” and shared a rueful laugh. Hanssen described how, even in the early days of her research when much archival material was, or should have been, out of her reach in East Berlin, she nevertheless was able to view Hauptmann’s papers more easily than she had expected. Beyond archival materials, Hauptmann appeared in a documentary and gave several interviews before her death, and Berlau’s memoirs are published, as are collections of Steffin’s letters and literary works. But as we talked, it occurred to us that most of the published material on and from these women—in particular the primary sources—appears only in German. By comparison, Brecht is exceedingly easy to encounter in English translation. So, for non-German readers, it is a question of access, and the female collaborators, in particular, may seem to be hiding in plain sight.

Another question about the women who worked with Brecht brought to light some of the differences between, and priorities of, those women themselves. A member of the audience interested in Berlau as a collaborator asked whether Brecht had helped her on her own projects, rather than just the other way around. The answer from the panel was yes, that creative assistance and in-put was mutual among Brecht and many of his collaborators.[13] But when the audience member followed up to ask whether the other women—Weigel, Hauptmann, or Steffin—would also have been helpful to Berlau in her creative work, the response was more complicated. Although workable relationships did develop among Steffin, Weigel, and Hauptmann both professionally and personally, things could be thornier with Berlau, who did tend to work more exclusively with Brecht. Moving away from a “Brecht-and-…” dyad to understanding group dynamics may be vital from a scholarly perspective, but we should also be alert to interpersonal realities and the sticking points that did prevent collaboration or cause the center of the creative circle to shift back to Brecht himself. Brecht’s charismatic pull, as well as genuine conflicts or temperamental mismatches between collaborators, were real forces to be reckoned with, and scholars must be alert to them as much as to examples of friendship and sympathy.

Picking up on what Kuhn had reminded us in his comment, another member of the audience raised his hand to make a blunt summary and issue a call for correction. If the confusion about Brecht as a collaborator isn’t Brecht’s fault, he asked rhetorically, whose is it? If we recognize that the singular focus on Brecht himself is the doing of the scholars and enthusiasts who work on him, are we then responsible for the erasure of the collaborators and the persistent misunderstandings about their contributions? We are, he reminded us playfully, the International Brecht Society—have we even got our own name wrong? Should we be called something else, perhaps something that makes Brecht the man less central to our purpose? And, he asked, what can we, we in this room, do to address the misrepresentations and effacements of collaborators within scholarly and popular understandings of Brecht and his oeuvre? He asked this last question several times as the discussion unfolded.

Some interest and agreement followed. Another member of the audience, however, vigorously objected, and rejected the notion that members of the IBS should carry the burden of fault. A long-time member of the society, she reminded us that from its beginning, the IBS was brought into being, and supported in its activities, by scholars who labor on this material out of enthusiasm and love, and whose efforts over the past forty years to create space for the study of Brecht should not be so easily impugned. She also reminded us that, almost from its beginnings, the IBS and the Brecht Yearbook have investigated and included the collaborators, and the question of collaboration more broadly, in an evolving sense of the Brecht canon.

As the time allotted to the panel expired, the discussion broke up into smaller conversations, many of them energetic and fruitful. It is clear that, collectively, members of the IBS are in possession of a wide repository of anecdotes, historical and literary details, and insights around Brecht and collaboration—not all of which give rise to an identical picture of social relationships and collaborative strategies, but which have substantial areas of overlap. Yet it also seems clear that as each of us chooses our own focus for research and argument, many of these details and insights remain somewhat marginal to our work, as if waiting in the wings. What if, instead, they took center stage? What new understandings would emerge if we continued to move away from the model of the one man show, and embraced, as Brecht and Weigel themselves did, the more dynamic and flexible vehicle of the ensemble?

It may not be possible for us to come to a consensus about Brecht the collaborator; such consensus may not even be desirable. Nevertheless, the moment seems ripe for a deeper conversation about authorship, creativity, labor, and relationships, not only in our own scholarly society, but in terms of literature and culture much more broadly. Questions about collaboration, artistic partnerships, and community are increasingly central to scholars of literature, intellectual history, cultural history, and theater praxis. Given that this is the case, Bertolt Brecht—as a figure so wry and brilliant, so contradictory and unknowable, and so unusually gifted and prolific in his cultivation of creative relationships—provides us with an especially rich model, a complex node around which the discussion could turn. Rather than worry, as some have in the past, that a thorough investigation of Brecht as a collaborator would lead nowhere (or nowhere good for the man and his reputation), such an exploration would put members of the IBS on the cutting edge of a literary and historical conversation whose time has come.


[1] Volumes of The Brecht Yearbook which have paid special attention to this issue include volume 12, Brecht: Women and Politics (1984), volume 19, Focus: Margarete Steffin (1994), volume 20, Brecht Then and Now (1995), volume 21, Intersections (1996), volume 24, Helene Weigel 100 (2000), volume 28, Friends, Colleagues, Collaborators (2003), and volume 30, Who Was Ruth Berlau? (2005). I would like to thank my colleagues on the panel “Brecht and Collaboration,” Paula Hanssen and Vera Stegmann, as well as Tom Kuhn, David Constantine and the Brecht Into English Project. My thanks are due also to John A. Coakley.

[2] Readers interested in the general shape of the scholarly (and to some extent popular) discussion might see, for example, John Willett, “Bacon ohne Shakespeare? The Problem of Mitarbeit,” in The Brecht Yearbook 12 (1983), Sebine Kebir, Ein akzeptabler Mann? Brecht und die Frauen (Köln: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1989), John Fuegi, Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama (New York: Grove Press, 1994), and the multiple articles in response to that volume in The Brecht Yearbook 20 (1995) and The Brecht Yearbook 21 (1996). In particular, see Erika Munk, “Brecht and Company: A Review Essay,” Gudrun Tabbert-Jones, “The Construction of the Sexist and Exploiter Brecht,” John Willett, James K. Lyon, Siegfried Mews, and Hans Christian Nørregaard, “A Brechtbuster Goes Bust: Scholarly Mistakes, Misquotes, and Malpractices in John Fuegi’s Brecht and Company,” all of which appeared in The Brecht Yearbook 20, as well as Gitta Honegger, “Hauptmann Contra Fuegi,” Theater, vol 29.2 (1999), Michael Mayer, “Giving the Devil his Due,” New York Review of Books, December 1 1994, and Michael Hofmann, “That Brecht Was a Nasty Piece of Work, and He Didn’t Even Write his Own Plays,” London Review of Books, vol. 16, no. 20 (1994).

[3] “Brecht and Collaboration,” panel given at the International Brecht Symposium, St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, June 26, 2016.

[4] See, in particular, Paula Hanssen, Elisabeth Hauptmann: Brecht’s Silent Collaborator (Bern/New York: P. Lang, 1995).

[5] See Roland Barthes “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, selected and translated by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), and Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Ethics, Method, and Epistomology, edited by Paul Rabinow, translated by Robert Hurley et al, (New York: The New Press, 1998).

[6] Katz, Pamela. The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink (New York, Doubleday: 2015).

[7] Hannah Arendt (2012), screenplay by Margarete von Trotta and Pamela Katz, directed by Margarete von Trotta.

[8] Minou Arjomand, “Eichmann in Jerusalem as Epic Theater,” presentation given at the International Brecht Symposium, St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, June 25, 2016.

[9] For a detailed description and analysis of this community, see Hollander, “Collaboration, Exile, and the Quotidian: Community on the Svendborg Sound, 1933-1939,” forthcoming from The Brecht Yearbook, and “Bridges and Islands: Community and Karin Michaëlis in and out of Exile, 1907-1942,” in Networks of Refugees from Nazi Germany: Continuities, Reorientations, and Collaborations in Exile, edited by Helga Schreckenberger (Leiden and Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2016), 123-140.

[10] See Hollander, “At Home in Exile: Co-creation and Intellectual Labor in a Socialist Circle.” PhD diss., Boston University, 2015.

[11] Readers interested in this subject should consult any of the bound volumes at the BBA in which Ramthum identifies handwriting in various original manuscripts. Each volume includes a list of all authors whose handwriting is identifiable upon the manuscripts.

[12] For more details, see Tom Kuhn, “Bertolt Brecht and Notions of Collaboration,” Bertolt Brecht: Centenary Essays, Steve Giles and Rodney Livingstone, eds. (Amsterdam/Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1998).

[13] For a treatment of this aspect of Brecht and Steffin’s relationship in particular, see Sabine Gross, “Margarete Steffin’s Children’s Plays: Anti-illusionism with a Difference,” The Brecht Yearbook 20 (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1994). Gross coins the term “collaborator-lover” to apply equally, and mutually, to Brecht and Steffin.

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Theater nach Brecht: Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus
Berlin, June, 2017

by Alexandra Marinho de Oliveira, Goethe University, Frankfurt

The starting point for the discussion that night was one of the most frequent in Brechtian meetings: What is the importance of Brecht for the theatre today? There was a group of people standing, filling the room during the literary event in Brecht’s House. Pedestrians passed by in amazement and intrigue. Almost all of them made the same gesture. They looked at those people through the window and immediately read the inscription over the door: Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus. Then they had a final look at us. ‘Us’ really matters. The people sitting and discussing in Brecht’s House clearly had a common goal: to think about the world through theatre.

Those present included the guest speakers, Günther Heeg (who moderated the discussion), Jürgen Kuttner, Kathrin Röggla, Hans-Thies Lehmann, and a remarkable audience. The participants of the event ‘Working with Brecht’, which lasted the entire day included people who were interested in discussing Brecht and doctoral students like me who always have that primary question in mind: What is Brecht’s importance for the theatre today? There were also people like Patrick Wengenroth (director of the Brecht Festival in Augsburg) and, sitting right beside me, Willi Bolle, a German-Brazilian professor and translator who has been reinforcing the literary relationship between Brecht and Brazil for decades.

One of the first issues mentioned was the interpretation of the central theme of the discussion: Theater nach Brecht, which could be translated as the Theater ‘after’ or ‘according to’ Brecht. If the debate about Brecht’s ghost had overlapped with the one about the current enlightenment that the Brechtian theatre has presented worldwide, the night would not have been as provocative as it turned out to be. Lehmann, known as the most important living theatre researcher of our time, pointed out emphatically that what really matters is good theatre, Brechtian or not. But what is good theatre?

Röggla and Kuttner shared their memories about their first experiences with Brecht’s work, and Lehmann told us that a published volume of the play The Caucasian Chalk Circle led him to discover his lifelong enthusiasm for Brecht. Coincidently, the play was written in the same year that the author of Brecht Lesen was born, but it only premiered in English in 1948 and in German in 1954 in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm.

Kuttner emphasized the impact of The Measures Taken in his first encounter with Brechtian literature, when he realized the Learning Plays’ represented a great dimension of political theatre. However, as Kuttner points out, the political theatre today has become a mostly empty theatre that tries to bring information to the audience like a newscast, and thereby loses the artistic and aesthetic character of the good old political theatre.

That night brought up memories and produced reflections that will certainly help us think about the world we are living in and the role theatre plays in it. Undoubtedly, turning theatre into an informative tool for daily events create neither a theatre after Brecht nor according to him. Therefore, the main question remains: How can we deal with the matter of our own times? Are we able to face these times?

Now I sit here with my own recollections of Brecht. Twenty-five years ago, when my father gave me my first Brecht book, Poems 1913-1956, I realized I had found a way to communicate.

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

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Working with Brecht – Baustelle Brecht

by José de Ipanema

The one-day workshop organized last June by IBS in cooperation with the Literaturforum im BrechtHaus gave attendees a rare opportunity not only to be brought up-to-date on current research on Brecht but, especially, to reflect upon the basics: what is the point of researching Brecht today? Is there any recipe that provides us with clear instructions on identifying Brecht’s legacy in today’s theater? Is there any open road from where we draw a borderline in such a way that its crossing means entering, or leaving, Brechtian territory?

The changing nature of Brecht’s theater its associated  conception of a world in permanent transformation, make a very confident “no”  the only reasonable answer. The word “recipe” itself would instantly mislead us by reminding us of the culinary theater about which Brecht was especially critical, and by assuming a rigid, single procedure to artificially categorize various styles of performance.

But where could this assured response lead us in our effort to acknowledge the vitality, or even the validity, of Brecht’s ideas? Not very far if we consider the almost unlimited aesthetic choices and the diversified political orientations of current theater practitioners.

Perhaps the analysis of the German title of the workshop, Baustelle Brecht, could give us a hint, although not a safe answer, of a viable way of finding consistent arguments surrounding Brecht’s legacy. The term offers a slightly different meaning from the English “Working with Brecht” as it indicates a construction or building site where a structure is being shaped.

“Working” points to some sort of unfinished endeavor, which has the advantage of configuring a process rather than an end product. However, Baustelle evokes  a framework devoted to the conversion of resources into something useful, into an edifice at the service of a communal purpose.

This comparison between theater and a construction site seems especially interesting because it establishes the necessity of understanding external influences and where they are coming from in order to better interpret the function of the building. If we are to discuss Brechtian implications in today’s theater, it is essential to consider the social and political environment of the artistic enterprise.

So, instead of starting with an arbitrary search for supposedly existing Brechtian features in the current theater and looking for elements that would reveal a recognizable pattern, we should direct our gaze not exclusively toward what is happening inside the building, but also toward what is happing in the surrounding area. In other words, we should look towards real life and reflect upon its effects on theatrical practices.

This would be a valid strategy in the case of Caryl Churchill’s productions on feminism or René Pollesch’s creative use of the chorus and satirical style to discuss issues surrounding the current stage of capitalism (as presented by speakers Anja Hartl and Andreas Tobler, respectively). Moreover, as a contemporary phenomenon that defies the traditional nature of spectatorship by sharing a plot with all participants, Evan Torner’s Role Playing Games are another good example of this attempt to focus first on real life events and then on establishing productive criticism with the help of key Brechtian theories.

However, I find it especially difficult to separate real life from theatre, even with didactical aims. From this perspective, because it brings the real-life experiences of oppression of “spect-actors” into open discussion through theatrical exercises, the work of Augusto Boal is paradigmatic.. These scenes, to which all participants can contribute, attempt to identify practical suggestions to solve communal issues.

The Brazilian director and theorist Boal, who is active in all continents with many groups spread across dozens of countries, accomplishes this through theatrical means which are simultaneously political, simple, and useful, thereby pushing Brecht’s ideas forward by developing a highly adaptive practice that truly engages the oppressed while offering practical tools for reflection and social transformation. The political challenges produced by the current rise of conservative forces in Brazil, which concentrate benefits and profits in the hands of a tiny group, clearly show that it is reality that gives us hints about the best means to effect change the situation – and not the other way around.

So, if we want to see theatre as having some usefulness in the immense task of thwarting social injustice, it is crucial to look beyond the Baustelle in order to more adequately respond to the inputs coming from reality. In this sense Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” (to paraphrase Florian Malzacher) provides us with a form that is flexible enough not to transform over time into an innocuous repetition of the miseries that the theatre itself wants to fight.

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