Essays and Reflections:
“‘Writing Brecht’ Reaches out, and Fades out…” (Tom Kuhn)
by Tom Kuhn
As many of the readers of Communications will know, for the past five years I have been heading up a project at the University of Oxford, which has been devoted above all to extending the corpus of Brecht’s works that is available in English (see: http://brecht.mml.ox.ac.uk/). This has been a wonderful opportunity to work with an international array of senior scholars and younger colleagues and friends, to whom I am extremely grateful for the experience and the work we have been able to produce together. We have been supported by an even wider and more international cast of advisors and well-wishers. The project is now winding down and I expect to archive the website over the summer.
The book-length publications have numbered two volumes of Brecht’s theoretical and practical writings about the theatre: a revised and extended edition of Brecht on Theatre and a new volume, Brecht on Performance, containing the Messingkauf and extracts from the Modelbooks – both edited by Marc Silberman, Steve Giles and Tom Kuhn (November 2014); the Berliner Ensemble Adaptations, edited by David Barnett (July 2014). a collection of Love Poems, translated and edited by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn (with W.W. Norton, November 2014); Brecht’s Me-Ti, a collection of fragments, aphorisms and poems, translated and edited by Antony Tatlow (July 2016); and the unfinished novel The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar, translated by Charles Osborne, available for the first time in English translation (ed. Anthony Phelan and Tom Kuhn, January 2016)
2018 saw the publication of The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht – over a thousand poems, translated and introduced by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine (W.W. Norton); and the Brecht Yearbook 42: Recycling Brecht (Camden House), edited by Tom Kuhn and David Barnett, a collection of essays arising from the conference held in Oxford in 2016. Just out this year is Brecht and the Writer’s Workshop, a collection of Brecht’s dramatic fragments, translated into English and collected together for the first time (Bloomsbury), edited by Tom Kuhn and Charlotte Ryland.
Later this year, Brecht’s Refugee Conversations (Flüchtlingsgespräche) will come out with Bloomsbury, in a translation by Romy Fursland – again the first time there has been a complete version of this wonderful text in English.
As well as all the scholarly activity, the editing and translating, the conferences and so on, we have had the opportunity to reach out and engage with a wide variety of different audiences and practitioners in the arts. We have worked with theatres and directors (especially on productions of Fatzer and Arturo Ui) and a large number of actors and musicians. We have visited schools and colleges and literary festivals. For the English translations of some of Brecht’s poems we have commissioned new musical settings, by Richard Thomas and Niels Rønsholdt (which will be recorded in the summer). We hope there will be a production of Fleischhacker, directed by Phoebe von Held [Editor’s note: see Phoebe von Held’s contribution on the Fleischhacker production in this issue], and possibly of Refugee Conversations too.
Brecht’s work, as we all know, has moments which are extraordinarily current. Far from being passé, too historically specific or too abstract, or humourless, or in whatever other way missing its mark, in fact it is often as topical, direct, urgent and unsettling for modern readers as it was for his own contemporaries. It is a shame on us that we still live in a world that Brecht would so very easily have recognised: where persecution, forced migration, trafficking and slave labour, homelessness and hunger are common, where state violence, strutting populist leaders and rampant corporate capitalism are all the order of the day. ‘Late capitalism’ proves adept at inventing ever ‘later’ and more awful forms. ‘The great day when I become useless’ has not come to pass: ‘That will be a glad day when one can say: Put away the weapons, they are not needed!’ We still need Brecht, in all languages.
These are the qualities which make it incumbent upon us to take Brecht’s work out into the wider world, where we see an opportunity. Let me pick out two highlights of our recent ‘engagement’ work. First, a project with an Oxford charity for the homeless, Crisis Skylight. This started with a series of workshops, reading and talking about some Brecht poems with people of all ages who are homeless or vulnerably housed. Emboldened by that, it became a writing workshop, in which the participants drew on their own experience and produced some exceptionally good work. That, in turn, led to a performance, supported by Sphinx Theatre (two nights sold out in Oxford), and finally to a small publication, Words As Weapons, juxtaposing the work of Crisis members with poems by Brecht himself. Second, a collaboration with a Berlin graphic workshop for the disabled called VIA Blumenfisch. This is an extraordinary organisation dedicated to supporting the lives of people with physical and learning disabilities and providing a safe workplace. As well as the graphic workshop, they work in wood, cloth, metal … and they have a catering section. In the closing months of 2018 the members of Blumenfisch produced a wonderful series of poster designs, inspired by quotations from the English versions of the poems. These are now on show in Oxford and at the Blumenfisch shop in Berlin (and available from me as a set of postcards, in exchange for a donation). It has been a real privilege to work with these people. The resonance we have had from our public work has been every bit as exciting as the response of the scholarly community.
For their support of all of this we have to thank the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (it pains me to have name them first because they gave the most money, for they are a faceless and robotic institution – and this is one of the few places where I might get away with saying that); the University of Oxford and my lovely college, St Hugh’s; the Arts Council of England; the inestimable Akademie der Künste, Berlin (especially the Brecht Archive); the Toepfer Stiftung, Hamburg; and a large number of individual benefactors. We owe huge thanks to the publishers involved: first the Suhrkamp Verlag (who have been wonderful at every turn) Bloomsbury, W.W. Norton, and Camden House. Our thanks are due especially to the Brecht heirs, first Barbara, and latterly Johanna and Jenny, for their unwavering encouragement and support.
Thank you everyone!
by Robert Lyons
The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp
The Freedom Theatre is a cultural center founded in 2006 on the edge of the Jenin Refugee Camp in the northern West Bank of occupied Palestine. It includes services such as day care and drama games for children, photography and film courses for youth and adults, a three-year professional acting school, and a troupe that performs in its own theatre and tours Palestine and the world – from refugee camps in Lebanon to colleges in New York and venues in England, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, and India. To quote from their website: “Through cultural resistance, The Freedom Theatre aims to raise a new generation that is able to challenge all forms of oppression.” The staff is Palestinian, supplemented by volunteers from many countries. I’ve been there twice to date, in February 2011 and September 2015, teaching primarily about Brecht and epic theatre in theory and practice, and concentrating on The Caucasian Chalk Circle in workshops. I’ve listened to the students as they’ve searched for Palestine through the play and for alternatives to the action, as Brecht hoped students, actors, and audiences would do.
The Egyptian uprising first appeared in the media in Jenin on February 25, 2011. During lunch breaks we watched history unfold as the Egyptian news items were soon joined by images from Libya, where Khaddafi’s troupes were slaughtering civilian protesters. In the midst of the horror was hope for radical change. When I returned to teach a new group of students in 2015, after the Arab Spring, hope was harder to find.
Prologue – A Valley or a House
In the prologue to Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, the Soviet delegate must decide which of the two communes should manage the valley newly regained from the retreating Nazis for the benefit of all. The student Osama explained that in Jenin in 2015 you wouldn’t have two groups, just a lot of people. And who would be the person to weigh the arguments? Back in 2011 Zakaría Zubeídi, previously the leader of the armed resistance in Jenin who had agreed in 2007 to lay down his weapons and engage in cultural resistance through The Freedom Theatre, would have been the likely one. In 2011 he was still a highly respected arbitrator in the Jenin Refugee Camp. But in 2012 his amnesty was rescinded, and he was jailed in Ramallah. By 2015, no one had taken Zakaría’s place. So The Jenin Chalk Circle would be hard to frame in 2015.
Whereas there had been a sense of community in 2011, Jenin was now, according to the 2015 group, in a period of less collective concern and increasing personal greed. The Palestinian community was splintered, the people depressed, unable to trust their own leaders. Instead of unity, they longed for the very latest cellphones and fashionable shoes. And they wouldn’t be discussing joint care of a valley. Maybe a house. In Jenin there were several unfinished building projects at a standstill. Huge concrete blocks with skinny iron supporting rods poking skywards. Optimistic beginnings, built as far as the cash flow would allow and then abruptly abandoned, perhaps to be continued someday, perhaps not.
In The Jenin Chalk Circle we would be planning and then building a house, a home for all of Palestine. If we could get the funding. And if we could muster enough belief in the project. If we could look to the good of the group rather than to private gain long enough to organize the work.
The Noble Child – Someone Trustworthy
Once the decision is reached in Brecht’s Caucasus, the story-teller begins the tale of the chalk circle, about a society characterized by strict hierarchical control in a time of sudden power shifts. You need to know to whom you should demonstrate your loyalty. The Grand Duke and his governors – or the Princes? The students in Jenin referred to the Palestinian Authority (PA) police and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, both patrolling Jenin. When stopped and questioned, would it be better to be interrogated by the PA or the IDF? Who could you trust? No one. Perhaps better to talk with the IDF soldiers since the PA police know your family. The problem of abrupt shifts in gestus during uneasy times was clarified by a student in 2015 who explained that a close relative of his, clever with computers, was recruited by the PA. Was this relative now doing undercover work? How close is close? Their relationship shifted from one moment to the next.
Chaos hits swiftly in Brecht’s first scene of the play-within-the-play. The infant Michael is abandoned in the hullabaloo. In 2015 Rokh suggested a Palestinian version of Michael might be a runaway Israeli boy with a Palestinian mother – not unlike Juliano Mer Khamis with his mixed background and his celebrity status as an Israeli film star: Juliano, the founder, first artistic director, and visionary leader of The Freedom Theatre, martyred in 2011, shot dead in front of the theatre. But in a fictional Jenin a Juliano could survive. In Jenin in 2015, shortly before my arrival there, Israeli soldiers entered the camp one early morning in search of an alleged terrorist. They found his home easily enough, but he wasn’t there. His wife and children were given a moment to leave before they bulldozed the house to rubble before their eyes. In the ensuing confusion, we could easily imagine an abandoned child being scooped up by Grusha.
The Flight into the Northern Mountains – or South to Ramallah and Hebron
Grusha flees north to save Michael from the Ironshirts. They have some close calls. Freedom Theatre members and I travelled south during the festival of Eid all adha. Of course we were often stopped at checkpoints – would the Israeli soldiers let us pass? Would they confiscate my Swedish passport? We got through and moved on – to the teeming city of Ramallah, to the oasis of a café bar called La vie, where, relaxing in the lush garden, we heard the discreet chatter of European businessmen.
We continued on to Hebron, where the bustle in the market streets was abruptly interrupted by wave after wave of coughing, running people barraged by tear gas fired by IDF ironshirts high up on the rampart of their headquarters overlooking the ancient city. A few days before, an elderly woman, perhaps brandishing a knife, had been shot dead right here at a checkpoint in the center of town. This particular day was her funeral. The thousands of angry mourners, running like Grusha, were now being dispersed. We coughed our way out and moved on toward Aroub Refugee Camp.
In the Northern Mountains – or in Aroub in the South
Grusha and Michael find a touch of relief in The Northern Mountains. We travelled on to Aroub – colorful, Mediterranean-like homes in a warm atmosphere of friendly and neighborly celebration. Entertained in inner gardens by the accomplished singers and oud-players of The Freedom Theatre’s extended family, we sipped coffee and sampled lovely local dishes. The beauty and hospitality were real, the relief was as temporary as Grusha’s mountain wedding feast. Aroub is surrounded by high walls and guarded by watch-towers. After the holiday we returned to Jenin, dodging our way through the checkpoints.
The Story of the Judge – Other Azdaks
Brecht’s corrupt working-class hero Azdak has to watch his back at every turn. Habeeb of The Freedom Theatre in 2015 is a mixture of tough craziness, serious drinking, and total loyalty with an eye for the ladies. He’s not entirely convinced of the efficiency of non-violent resistance. An Azdak, but without Azdak’s position of power. Azdak is of course a survivor. Like Brecht himself. And like Nabil Al-Raee – who got through forty days of confinement and torture on trumped up charges and came out of prison as artistic director of The Freedom Theatre.
The Chalk Circle – Getting Away
Azdak defies the oppressive rulers by awarding Grusha custody of the child and then rushes off into the night. Who wins what in Jenin in 2015? Is there any kind of happy ending? Anybody saved? The dramaturgy is Brechtian – open-ended. Raneen and Samah, the young women in the group bravely defied not only the oppressive rulers and their ironshirts, but also the unwritten laws of female behavior in the local community. Standing onstage in front of an audience together with men required courage in Northern Palestine in 2015. And now they travel the world with their fellow performers and their inspirational art. And they return to Jenin. Perhaps safely.
by Nada Saab
In his memorable address, “Thirst for Dialogue,” on UNESCO’s International Theater Day on March 27, 1996 in Paris, Sa’dallah Wannous (1941-1997), the first Arab playwright invited to give the speech for the event, speaks of his full commitment to the theater, which for him is a vehicle for dialogue:
I believe that the theater will remain the exemplary place where humans can ponder their historical and existential conditions. The distinctive characteristic of theater, which makes it a unique space, is that it is the place in which the spectators break out of their shells so that they can contemplate the human condition in a communal context that arouses their sense of belonging to the community. It teaches the spectator the breadth and multiplicity of dialogue… theater is not merely a manifestation of civil society, it is one of the elements that is a requirement for the emergence of society in this sense.[i]
He is, however, keen to clarify that:
we should not fool ourselves: theater is now in retreat… one might have hoped that the utopia humans had always dreamed of, the utopia of living in a single interconnected world whose peoples are able to partake of its wealth without being duped, and in which humanity can flourish without injustice or aggression, would have come to fruition. But, to our disappointment, the shape globalization is taking as it becomes firmly entrenched… is in almost complete opposition to the utopia that was proposed by philosophers… Culture now constitutes the principal means of resisting an egocentric globalization that is devoid of any human dimension… Theater can play an essential role in both the critical and creative missions of culture … We are sentenced to hope that what is happening today is not the end of history.[ii]
As we can see, Wannous, a playwright, drama theorist, writer and critic sees theater as essential to nurturing communal life, although he is also aware of its declining role with the advent of late capitalism. However, he ends his speech by reaffirming his belief in the resilience of theater as a means of creating meaningful interactions. It is significant that Wannous, who was battling an advancing disease, gave this passionate speech a year before his death from cancer. However, his life and career had been rich and intensely active, although marked by a series of crucial political crises in the modern Arab world.
I would like to begin by sketching a brief chronology that singles out some of the principal events that marked Wannous’s life and career in the theater:
1959 Begins studies in Cairo. While studying journalism at Cairo University, he is introduced to theater and is influenced by Tawfiq al-Hakim’s theater of the mind, existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. In Cairo, he writes seven plays based on the aesthetics of these movements. These early plays are literary plays, which are not produced. They focus on the social condition of the individual rather than on the dilemmas of the “self” that mark existentialist literature. At the time Brecht’s theater was widely circulating in Cairo and Damascus. Brechtian plays were being adapted and produced, and translations of his works into Arabic were made available. Brecht’s appeal was intensified after the rise of socialism in the Arab countries.
1966 He begins his studies in drama at the Sorbonne.
1967 The Six-Day War ends with the outright defeat of the Arab armies by Israel. The war is a turning point in Wannous’s life. It has a physical and emotional impact on him. He writes that
When Nasser acknowledged the 1967 defeat and we knew for certain it was true, I felt I was going to die. I was suffocating! I cried and cried! I felt that this was the end; history and time had stopped. Everything connecting me to life, to being itself, had collapsed. I’d have to enshroud and bury the past if I wanted to continue the journey, but what could tomorrow hold for me? I didn’t know.[iii]
1977 A political, personal and intellectual crisis follows Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat’s visit to Israel to offer a peace deal. Wannous, who rejected peace with Israel, stops writing for the theater for ten years.
1989 He resumes playwriting after the Oslo Peace Accord between Israel and Palestine that ends the First Intifada and writes The Rape, a play about the torture of Palestinian prisoners by the Israeli secret police, the Shin Beit, during the uprisings. Wannous’s play is an adaptation of Spaniard Antonio Buero Vallejo’s The Double Story of Dr. Valmy, a play that denounced torture during the Franco regime in the 1960s.
1992 He writes Historical Miniatures, a play that alludes to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which shocked and angered the Arab world.
The events listed above mark the principal transitions and phases in Wannous’s theater. During the first phase he wrote existential plays influenced by al-Hakim and existentialism, during the second Brecht is clearly his model, and in the third, which begins with The Rape, he diverged sharply from Brechtian aesthetics, experimenting with various dramatic styles, and ultimately wrote a series of plays and prose texts distinguished by forms and themes that are Wannous’s own. The most obvious shift by Wannous to Brechtian aesthetics occurred after the devastating defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in Six-Day-War of June 1967, which Arab rulers attempted to minimize by calling a setback (naksa). However, Wannous and other Arab artists and intellectuals recognized that the defeat had been a military disaster caused by Arab regimes led by military officers engaged in rivalry and deadly power disputes.
Immediately after the catastrophic defeat, Wannous, who was in Paris, decided to return to Damascus to witness the impact of the war on Syria. He spent four months in the country before returning to Paris to continue his studies with a new conviction. In Syria, he noticed that the defeat had emboldened the Arab regimes, which had become even more authoritarian. For him, there was a need for a new kind of response and a new kind of writing that would advocate for the rights of the people, and he decided to use his gifts as a playwright to fight the arbitrary and oppressive rule of Arab leaders. It was also during this period that Wannous adopted a Marxist view of society, concluding that Palestine could only be liberated through a Marxist-inspired revolution in the Arab countries.
The May 1968, events in France, especially the students’ demands for university reform, the workers’ demands for participation in factory management and the general demand for civil rights, had a profound influence on Wannous. Wannous himself took part in a number of political demonstrations and other events with Marxist groups and worked to attract the attention of the French public to the Palestinian issue by giving speeches and distributing leaflets.
Wannous was clearly revitalized by the rich cultural life of Paris. During this time he was obviously engaged in contemplation about a new vision and new mission for his writing and Brecht became a more significant figure, one could even say a model, for Wannous. He attended the Brecht Dialog forum held in East Berlin in 1968, and the influence in the conceptualization and writing of An Evening Party for The Fifth of June (Haflat Samar min Aji Khamsa Huzayran) is obvious.
It should also be noted that the interviews conducted in Paris during this period by Wannous, who was also working as a cultural journalist in the French capital, with Jean-Marie Serreau and Bernard Dort, a leading expert in the theater of Brecht, had such a profound impact on his understanding of Brecht’s dramaturgy, and ultimately his own, that he included them in the third volume of his complete works. Below are some excerpts.
Wannous comments on Dort’s statements during the Berlin Dialogue that Brecht was being “falsified” in Paris. In an interview with Bernard Dort[iv] Wannous notes that he personally saw such falsifications in several productions of Brecht’s plays in Paris, adding that:
the bourgeoisie has managed skillfully to embrace Brechtian theater and empty it of its true content and essential goal. I saw the audience empathize with Puntilla, the capitalist, rather than Matty, the servant. I saw a bad production of Mother Courage. I am now convinced of how bad it is after having seen it produced at the Berliner Ensemble. The bourgeoisie has turned Brecht’s experience into nothing more than dramatic texts, disregarding the theory on which they are based and ignoring the special tools required for production and acting. I mean by tools those elements that effect alienation/estrangement/or the verfremdung effect including narration, and that stimulate the audience to think rather than be absorbed.[v]
Wannous then wonders whether “a non-falsified presentation of Brecht requires that the social and political structures should be changed first, because in a society in which bourgeois mentality prevails, such as French society, Brecht will necessarily be falsified.”[vi]
Dort underscored that Brecht’s epic theater must be understood as a social ideology, not as formalist aesthetics. The means used in epic-like theater (i.e. form) would only gain significance, he asserted, if they impelled the audience to think. These means would necessarily have to be intrinsically relevant to induce thinking and reflection. Dort’s views led Wannous to question whether Brecht relates to “our part of the world.”[vii] He gave as an example a production of Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule in Damascus in 1964-65. The reception of the play had been lukewarm, despite its obvious relevance to the Damascene public and society.
However, Wannous noted that Brechtian tools originate in a specific culture, and address a long and well-established theater tradition, which is mainly a European bourgeois tradition. Understandably, the Damascene audience, which was not part of part of that tradition, and had rarely, if ever, been exposed to it, would not properly respond to a Brechtian play. He suggested that it would be more prudent to devise tools to create the estrangement effect that originated from local culture and its tradition, a view endorsed by Dort.
Wannous also asked Jean-Marie Serreau[viii] to advise Arab dramatists about how to create a modern Arab theater in the absence of a strong indigenous tradition. Serreau replied that:
Your countries may lack a theatrical tradition, but their folkloric heritage can be a starting point. The history of Islamic countries often yields examples of the struggle between the people and the feudal system, though this struggle may not be clearly visible. Your heritage is rich in astute criticism. For example, the character of Juha– though I do not claim he is revolutionary–for centuries conducted a noble campaign against the corruption of the feudal system. So folk tales and traditions provide a solid foundation and have great potential. Some critics have seen the lack of a theatrical tradition in Arab countries as a problem, but this is not important because it would be a great mistake to create a theater according to European models. You, the Arabs, can contribute to world theater by breaking away from the inflexible forms of European models–which restrain our mobility and disable our thinking–in order to invent new theatrical forms and styles. In a virgin climate there are many opportunities for a fresh start which is free, spontaneous and full of collective enthusiasm.[ix]
I’d like to point out that Wannous borrowed two key points from Brecht: 1. Theater should seek to change the world, not to explain it, and compel the audience to think. 2. History is determinative; it has a role in defining fate. Wannous also realized that in order to be socially and politically effective his theater needed to avoid being dependent on Brecht’s artistic and technical forms. Instead, he sought to reinvigorate the techniques created by the early pioneers of Syrian theater, al-Naqqash and al-Qabbani. For example, Qabbani’s plays, which shocked a sleepy and provincial nineteenth-century Damascus, provided a model for the construction of effective performances. Wannous also noticed Qabbani’s instinctive use of estrangement tools such as crude stage decorations and exaggerated acting that reinforced ‘play acting’ instead of metamorphosis or mimesis.
Wannous’s second phase, as defined by Syrian critic Mary Ilyas, is marked by a shift to political theater and extends for a period of a little over a decade. During this phase Wannous wrote An Evening’s Entertainment for the Fifth of June (Haflat Samar min ajl Khamsa Huzayran), The King’s Elephant (al-Fil ya Malik al-Zaman), The Adventure of the Head of Mamluk Jabir (Mughmarat Ra’s al-Mamluk Jabir), A Soiree with Abu Khalil al-Qabbani (Sahra ma’ Abi Khalil al-Qabbani) and The King is the King (al-Malik huwa al-Malik).
During this second phase he also developed his concept of “theater of politicization” (masrah al-tasyis), a theory he put into practice in The Adventure of the Head of Mamluk Jabir. In the introduction to the play, entitled “Notes on Performance and Direction,” he informs the reader that the script is merely a blueprint for performance and should be adapted according to the performance setting (in terms of language, music, songs). He also recommends that the actors engage in dialogue with the audience. In this play, as in others written during this period, Wannous sought to galvanize his audience, to force them to make moral judgments, and to openly take sides on issues during and after the performance.
The play was completed in 1970 and is perhaps the most important example of the advice Serreau gave to Wannous to break away from European models. The play alludes to the heroic deeds of Sultan Baybars, who defeated the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in Palestine in the thirteenth century. However, it sheds more light on the historical accounts of the violent Mongol invasion of medieval Baghdad than on the bravery of Baybars, a revered figure in Arab medieval history. In the play, Wannous makes a number of innovative and creative alterations such as deciding to set the play in the besieged city of Baghdad during a feud between the caliph, the city’s ruler, and his duplicitous vizier, or adviser, focusing on the story of the servants and slaves in the court instead of the rulers, and changing the Mongols, the historical attackers, into Persians.
The action is provoked, or directed, by a hakawati, a traditional storyteller, who choreographs the events of the play, which are presented in a café (per stage directions, the play can also be done in any other public space). The café patrons are his audience. They are also the spectators of a second, troubling inner story that the hakawati decides to tell them, although they want to hear a tale about the victories of Sultan Baybars. This inner story which the hakawati narrates is played out in front of the patrons by actors. The same actors may perform different roles on both spatial levels of the play, i.e., they can move from the dramatization of the story being narrated by the hakawati into the audience of café patrons and vice-versa. The dispassionate objectivity of the hakawati character, which Wannous calls his “cool neutrality,” should, he asserts, be clearly conveyed through his facial expression. He functions as a kind of chorus that connects the two spatial and narrative levels of the play and provides it with a third level. He is used as a device to point to the moral of the story the play dramatizes.
The plot centers on the power rivalry between the Abassid caliph and his vizier, al-Alqami, which is also the name of the vizier character in the play. This rivalry was a key cause of the sack of Baghdad by Hulagu Khan in 1258. Al-Alqami, devises a plan to ally himself with the enemy and seize control of the city. He agrees to go along with the plan of Jabir, his cunning and ambitious slave, to deliver a message urging Hulagu, who is given the name Munkatim ibn Dawud instead in the play, to invade the city, tattooed on Jabir’s head (after he has shaved his head and let in his hair grow again) in exchange for Jabir’s freedom and for allowing him to marry his beloved fellow slave, Zummurud. Jabir’s actions and involvement with affairs of state are criticized by Mansur, a prudent slave who is aware of the machinations of their master, the vizier.
In the play, the citizens of Baghdad are nameless (referred to by their gender, followed by a number), timid and paralyzed by fear as they witness the power struggle between the two rulers and endure the consequences of the siege of the city by the invaders. One of the characters who represent the people is Man #4. As opposed to his cowed fellow citizens, his is a conscious dissenting voice. To the small crowd lined up to buy bread he explains that he has been in jail but is no longer afraid, since passivity means that “[w]e end up paying the price for disputes whose causes we don’t understand.”[x] His function in the play, a sort of political supplement to the instinctive prudence of the slave Mansur, is to raise the consciousness not only of his fellow citizens, but that of the café patrons and ultimately the audience of the play as well.
Man #4’s line prefigures the fate of Jabir, who is ultimately executed after delivering his message, and the destruction of Baghdad and of the Abassid Caliphate, which is one of the most tragic events in Islamic history. The inner story of the play is also an allegory of the political betrayals that took place in Syria in the 1960s and ultimately led to assumption of power Hafez al-Assad. (Obviously, Assad perceived the play to be an allegory related to his own rise, since his censors banned it shortly before its premiere, which was also soon after Assad took control of the country in a coup). Perhaps most importantly, the story of Jabir is a didactic and cautionary tale in which Wannous denounces political passivity and alienation as the cause of social disintegration.
Curiously, Wannous also places responsibility for the success of Mamluk Jabir on future performers of the play. In his introduction, he describes his piece as merely a blueprint for a play that will only be fully realized by a cohesive theatrical group with a distinctive vision. This group should, he writes in his introduction, develop the text further by engaging in detailed research on the materials and avoid being caught up in aesthetic concerns, instead addressing actual socio-political problems. For him, every attempt to stage the play must reflect and explore the context in which it is produced and create specific contextual conditions for engaging the audience. Any other approach will, he claims, thoroughly undermine any value this “potential” play may possess.
I’d like to conclude this talk by supplementing the passage of Wannous’s speech I mentioned at the beginning with another observation the playwright makes. Wannous clearly attempted to create a theater that offers a context in which dialogue between two spaces takes place. As he puts it, “There is dialogue within the dramatic performance itself and a more implicit dialogue between performance and spectator.”[xi] “Culture,” he adds “is what allows people to regain their humanity, and it offers them the thoughts and ideals that can make them free, aware and whole. Within such a framework, theater can play an essential role in both the critical and creative missions of culture. Theater will teach us through example and participation how to repair the fissures and mend the factionalisms that have torn apart the body of our community. It will enliven dialogue, which we all miss. I believe that commencing with a comprehensive and serious dialogue is the first step we must take as we confront the disheartening set of circumstances encompassing our world at the end of this century.”[xii]
[i] Wannous, Sa’dallah. Sentenced to Hope. Edited and translated by Robert Myers and Nada Saab: Yale University Press, forthcoming.
[iii] Al-Anezi, Ali Ali ‘Ajil Naji, An Analytical Study of the Theatre of the Syrian Playwright Saadallah Wannous, with Particular Emphasis on the Plays Written after the 1967 War, thesis submitted to the University of Sheffield English Literature Department March 2006, p. 5. The original source of the quote is an interview with Wannous in Une Mort Éphémère (1996), a documentary film directed by Omar Amiralay, France, TV5 Production.
[iv] The full interview with Bernard Dort is in Wannous’s complete works, A‘māl al-Kāmila, Beirut: Dār al-Ādāb, 2004, vol. 3, pp. 195-215. This and subsequent quotes are my translations from passages of Wannous’s complete works vol. 1-3.
[v] See A‘māl al-Kāmila, vol. 3, p. 206.
[vii] Ibid. p. 209
[viii] The full interview with Jean Marie Serreau is in Wannous’s complete works, A‘māl al-Kāmila, Beirut: Dār al-Ādāb, 2004, vol. 3, pp. 183-194.
[ix] See A‘māl al-Kāmila, vol. 3, p. 193.
[x] See A‘māl al-Kāmila, vol. 1, p. 260.
[xi] Wannous, Sa’dallah. Sentenced to Hope. Edited and translated by Robert Myers and Nada Saab: Yale University Press, forthcoming.
by Robert Mayers
First, I would like to thank Ela Gezen for inviting us to be on this panel. Both Nada Saab and I feel strongly that Sa’dallah Wannous is a very significant writer and intellectual, and we believe it is important that people who are interested in the study of literature and theater — not simply those specializing in Middle Eastern and Arabic literature and culture — become aware of his work.
What I would like to do today is to discuss some of the themes and formal aspects of three of Wannous’s plays that scholars and Wannous himself have linked to Brecht’s theater and critical writings. I will then examine some of the very direct and concrete links we have discovered between the work of Brecht and Wannous. Some of the obvious formal and thematic elements associated with Brecht that one finds in the plays of Wannous, especially those written between 1969 and 1977, include:
- the foregrounding of economic and political themes, and themes related to power relations in society.
- the dramatization of events from the perspective of peasants, working-class people and the marginalized.
- the use of parables and folk tales and other folk theatrical forms as both source material and as formal aspects woven into the plays (e.g. hakawati or storyteller; the musical theater of Syrian theater’s pioneer, al-Qabbani; frame tales).
- clearly didactic and philosophical aspects embedded in the works.
- a preoccupation with the audience, especially as it relates to dramatic techniques to raise consciousness on the part of spectators.
- the alienation effect, including the foregrounding of the constructedness of character and the frequent use of metatheater.
- the use of narration.
- the breaking of the fourth wall, especially as a mechanism to engage the audience.
- characterization through class, profession, social role as opposed to the creation of character through psychological development. (Often characters are defined in part through a characteristic action or activity, what Brecht refers to as “gestus”).
- the plays Wannous wrote between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s ignore Aristotelian unities and conventional unfolding plots in favor of disjunctive narratives. The forms of the plays necessarily prod the audience to ask questions such “why” or “what are the economic underpinnings of this society” as opposed to “what will happen next?”
- the extensive use of dialectical structures including juxtapositions, contrapuntal action, the use of pairs and doubling, employer/employee and monarch/adviser relationships.
Three other aspects of Wannous’s work that link him to Brecht are, first, he was a committed Marxist, at least until the early 1990s, and a social theoretician. Unlike other admirers of Brecht such as, for example, Wole Soyinka, from Nigeria, and Athol Fugard, from South Africa, who utilized aspects of Brecht’s aesthetic formulae but were not necessarily committed Communists or radicals, Wannous, like almost all of his artistic contemporaries in the Arab world, was a Marxist. Second, Wannous, like Brecht, theorized extensively about theater, especially its social and ideological role. He was not a director, as Brecht was, but he did work extensively as a cultural, literary and dramatic critic and wrote manifestos and essays about what theater in the Arab world should be and do. In the 1990s, he wrote extensively about the relationship between his aesthetic/ideological project and the thinkers of the nahda, the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intellectual and cultural awakening in the Arab world. (Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab has written extensively about this aspect of Wannous in her study Contemporary Arab Thought). Third, Wannous, like Brecht — at least the Brecht of the post-World War II period— was a theater artist from the Eastern bloc. People often look at the late twentieth-century Arab world through the mass media’s twenty-first century lens of Islamism. It is important to remember that, like Brecht, Wannous was the product of a socialist Eastern-bloc country with a secular government that was within the orbit of the Soviet Union. This relationship is especially important when one remembers that so much of what we think of as modern and contemporary Western theater also has its roots in the works and theories of Russian theater artists such as Chekhov, Meyerhold, Stanislavsky, Eisenstein, Maxim Gorki and others.
One way to think of the artistic and political project of Wannous, who was born in 1941, would be to compare him to two other significant Eastern bloc artists, the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, who was born five years earlier, and the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, who was born eight years before. The relationship between Brecht and Soviet Russia, both before and after World II, is, of course, a complex and significant one in relation to both his ideology and his aesthetics. Finally, it is important to realize that during Wannous’s lifetime a number of his plays were produced in the Eastern bloc, sometimes as a means for the Syrian government to suppress them domestically while exporting them to other Socialist counties as examples of Syria’s rich culture. Wannous’s plays were staged in East Germany, the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the Eastern bloc. He also participated in the Brecht-Dialog, a conference in East Berlin in 1968 that marked Brecht’s 70th birthday and attracted theater artists, critics and scholars from around the world, especially from the socialist bloc countries.
The first play I’d like to discuss is Evening’s Entertainment for the Fifth of June, perhaps Wannous’s best-known work and the one that established his reputation, which was written in 1968 and 1969 and first produced in Syria in 1971. It is a scathing critique of the duplicity of Arab leaders, especially Gamel Abdel Nasser, in the wake of the resounding defeat of Arab forces in the 1967 War.
The play, like many of Wannous’s works, is metatheatrical. Its initial conceit is that it begins when the artistic director of the theater in which the play is being staged informs the audience that the play they have come to see, “The Whistling of the Spirits,” will not be staged. Since no such play is mentioned in the program, the audience reacts in confusion. The director goes on to explain that, although he had commissioned a playwright to write this work which would glorify the performance of the Arab soldiers in the recently concluded war, the playwright had refused to allow it to be performed because, as he would later claim, the words of the texts smelled to him like the “vaginas of whores.” When the director enacts a meeting with the playwright, the supposed “actual” playwright identifies himself in the audience, comes onstage and insists on playing himself. As the director discusses the scenario he has concocted for the potential play, a cheap and implausible paean to the soldiers who defended a village in the Golan Heights, we see the imagined scenes enacted onstage with an ironic commentary by the playwright. Members of the audience (played by actors), ask questions, stand up and make comments and come up onto the stage. Among the questioners is a peasant from the Golan, who does not recognize his experience and that of his fellow villagers in the recent war in the action being dramatized on stage and demands to know precisely which village is being portrayed. This disruption causes the artistic director to try to distract the audience with a folk dance. In the front row a political figure is seated, apparently the country’s leader, who begins to direct his police with gestures indicating what they should do to control the audience. He eventually gives a signal and the entire troupe and audience is arrested.
In addition to some of the obvious Brechtian formal techniques Wannous employs in the play, Brecht’s influence can be seen in statements Wannous made after the play was produced in Syria in 1971. He stated that he had expected the play to radicalize his audience, provoking a social revolt, and when it did not he was sorely disappointed and felt the work was a failure.
When the Six-Day War that pitched the Arab countries against Israel broke out in June 1967, Wannous was studying theater at the Sorbonne and writing cultural journalism for various publications in the Arab world. After the war, he returned to Syria for four months and then came back to Paris in 1968, which is when he wrote Evening’s Entertainment. As Nada pointed out, significant influences on his work included his relationship with the French director, Jean-Marie Serreau, who directed the 1954 production of A Man’s a Man in Paris, and with the noted theater critic Bernard Dort, one of the principal French experts on the theater of Brecht. Wannous was also a close friend of the German playwright Peter Weiss, the most important German “neo-Brechtian,” so to speak, whose works included Marat/Sade, directed by Peter Brook in Paris in 1964, and The Investigation, in 1965, about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. It was Peter Weiss who urged Wannous to attend the week-long Brecht-Dialog in East Berlin in February 1968, which included productions of eight Brecht plays and numerous panels and discussions about Brecht’s theories, his theater and his legacy[i]. We will show you some of the material Wannous collected at that event shortly, along with other related material.
Other obvious influences on Evening’s Entertainment include two works by the Living Theater that were being presented in Paris and elsewhere in Europe during this period: Antigone, the group’s version of Sophocles’ play, which Hegel identified as the first political play, and Paradise Now, an anarchic dance/theater piece involving nudity and audience participation that denounced militarism, encouraged marijuana smoking and called for an end to the war in Vietnam. Wannous definitely saw this latter work, and was certainly aware of theatrical happenings such as Peter Brook’s US, a consciousness-raising piece opposing the war in Indochina at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1966.
The two other Wannous plays from this period that are clearly influenced by Brecht include The King’s Elephant, also written in 1969. This one-act play is a parable, reminiscent of Brecht’s Lehrstücke, in which the king’s elephant, who is allowed to roam free, tramples a boy to death in a poor neighborhood. A peasant leader organizes a protest and convinces the peasants to confront the king and insist that the elephant be restrained. However, when the peasants meet the king, they are so cowed by him that the protest leader is reduced to an obsequious sycophant who, on the behalf of the peasants, begs the monarch to find a consort for his elephant and offers to take care of the two animals.
The other play, The King is the King, produced in 1977, and the last of Wannous’s overtly Brechtian plays, is about a bored monarch who seeks out a peasant and dresses him as the king for a day. However, when the king tries to resume his former role, he discovers that his advisers and even his spouse cannot tell the difference and thus treat the imposter as the actual monarch. Many people noticed the similarity between the play and Brecht’s A Man’s a Man, but Wannous claimed that the source of the play was a tale from A Thousand and One Nights, in which a monarch also finds a peasant to assume his role. Whether Brecht’s play was the principal source is not clear. What is clear is that Wannous knew Brecht’s play very well and had likely seen it at the Brecht-Dialog in 1968 and again in Beirut in a French-language production in 1969.
What I would like to share with you are some items from Wannous’s personal library, which was donated to AUB. The donation took place in part because Nada and I had translated two of his later plays, and I had produced them in Beirut. During this process, we worked closely with his daughter, the writer Dima Wannous, and his widow, the actor Faiza al-Shawish, who wanted to preserve Wannous’s library by donating it to an institution. In 2015, they decided to donate it to AUB.
About two months ago, one of the librarians at AUB contacted me and said they had found some material in the Wannous library they did not know how to catalog, and Nada and I went to look at it. The material was in a folder, which is the first image. Following it are images of programs of Brecht plays, some of which were presented during the Brecht-Dialog meeting, some presented at other times, which Wannous may or may not have seen, and other related programs Wannous collected and placed in this folder.
[i] For anyone interested in learning more about the Brecht-Dialog 1968, a book with the complete proceedings was published in German by the University of Iowa entitled Brecht-Dialog 1968: Politik Auf Dem Theater, edited by Werner Hecht. There were apparently many lively debates at the meeting.
by Alexis Strondberg, transcribed by Steve Giles
TRIENNIAL MEETING OF THE INTERNATIONAL PISCATOR SOCIETY
16 AUGUST 2016, ST HUGH’S COLLEGE, OXFORD
AWARD OF THE GOLD MEDAL OF THE IPS TO HERR BERTOLT BRECHT ON HIS 60th BIRTHDAY
It gives me enormous pleasure to be able to welcome Herr Bertolt Brecht to our triennial meeting on such an auspicious occasion. BB’s fascination with the English-speaking world – primarily the UK and USA – has indelibly marked his career from his first play LuLu/bAAL to his recent collaboration with Mark Ravenhill on Leben Alfred Einsteins/A Life of Einstein. BB’s first trip to England was in 1978 as a DAAD exchange student at the University of East Anglia. He arrived in Norwich on a bitterly cold morning in early January, and wrote in his diary ‘A semester of screwing or a semester of thinking?’, but soon realised that at UEA he could achieve both. It was in Norwich that he developed his new identity as a post-dada punk rocker, with his signature leather jacket, cropped spiky hair, and purple eyebrows. He would watch Norwich City in the Barclay Stand at Carrow Road, together with the postgraduate radical theory group, and together we would chant ‘Althusser’s immense theoretical revolution’, much to the ire of more traditional supporters chanting ‘Johnnie Bond’s yellow green army’. It was at UEA, the leading centre in Europe for research and teaching on modernism, that BB developed his skeptical attitude to German Expressionism, but was fascinated by the wilder parts of Berlin Dada and Russian Formalism. And it was during a lecture on Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, referring to his notion that puppets thirty feet high should represent King Lear’s beard in the storm, that BB became fully aware of the intrinsic arbitrariness of the Surrealist theatrical sign. After his return to Berlin, in Summer 1978, he wrote LuLu/bAAL as a response to the German Autumn of 1977, and completed his studies at the FU in 1982.
One consequence of BB’s sojourn in Norwich was his plagiarism dispute with the Sex Pistols in 1984. His radical pre-post-dramatic production of the second version of LuLu/bAAL anarchie in der brddr in 1983 had caused a furore similar to Erwin Piscator’s 1928 adaptation and production of John Gay’s Threepenny Opera (where beggars in the audience robbed the West End Berlin bourgeoisie while a film of Queen Victoria’s execution was projected onto the rear screen at the Freie Volksbühne). It was in that production that Baal der Zerstörer sang the now notorious atonal version of ‘Ich bin der Antichrist, ich bin ein Anarchist’, in a strictly literal translation where the words are deliberately identical to those in the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Brecht’s historic winning defence, as is well known, was based on the core thesis of the newly emerging discipline of translation studies grounded in Derrida’s concept of ‘dis$emi/nation.ink’, according to which lexical equivalence does not of itself entail semantic or functional equivalence.
Brecht’s second trip to UEA – he was now known in England as Berlin Bertie – was as guest dramaturg at Max Sebald’s ‘Radical Stage’ conference in Spring 1987. It was here that Sebald introduced BB to the work of Alexander Kluge: Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 5. April 1945, the key text in his Neue Geschichten. Hefte 1-18 ‘Unheimlickekt der Zeit’, and Kluge’s speech on receiving the Fontane Prize, where he quotes the little known 1931/32 addendum (its dating is disputed) to Erwin Piscator’s Grundlinien der soziologischen Dramaturgie/Basic Principles of a Theory of Sociological Drama. In that addendum, Piscator had presented his now classic critique of Neue Sachlichkeit neo-realism with reference to photographs of the Krupp and AEG factories in Berlin – a critique that was also crucial for Walter Benjamin’s Kleine Geschichte der Photographie/Short History of Photography and, ironically, for his most strident critic T.W. Adorno in his ‘Balzac-Lektüre’/’Reading Balzac’. The Kluge and Piscator texts were central to BB’s radical rethink of his artistic practices and aesthetic theory in the late 1980s, as he moved away from his post-punk-post-everything anarchism towards a more nuanced post-modernist critical realism. But, as we all know, this new direction was curtailed by German Unification. BB had stayed in West Berlin after graduating from the FU so as to avoid military service, but he could not face the prospect of conscription and emigrated to Hollywood in January 1990. We now know that BB’s move to the USA had been facilitated by Steven Spielberg. BB was a great admirer of Spielberg’s ‘populist’ anti-Nazi films – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – and he collaborated with Spielberg on the screenplay of Schindler’s Ark. Indeed, it was in fact BB who suggested the new title Schindler’s List, with its typically Brechtian pun highlighting the importance of cunning. His work with Spielberg also inspired his brilliant anti-fascist political farce Herr Wooster und sein Knecht Jeeves, written in May 1995 to commemorate the end of World War 2. BB’s American exile was cut short, however, in November 2000, when he was forced to leave the USA in something of a hurry because his tweet responding to the Bush/Gore hanging chads fiasco went global within 24 hours. His tweet had merely averred, not unreasonably, that Congress should consider dissolving the American people and electing a new one.
BB’s American exile had meant that he was not in a position to put his new ideas into practice until the new millennium, when he returned to Berlin 5 years after the untimely death of Heiner Mueller (1929-1995). BB and HM had been good friends from 1978 onwards, owing to their shared predilection for stogies, whisky and fast women. HM saw BB as his true ‘theatrical’ son – as opposed to his wayward offspring Ekkehard – and BB was appointed artistic director of HM’s Berliner Ensemble in February 2001. In the late 1960s, the DDR authorities had at last permitted HM to stage his own plays, but only in the dilapidated and decrepit Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, which had been closed due to bomb damage since 8 April 1945.
In the decade that followed his move to the BE, BB concentrated on rewriting and producing the plays he had written while in exile. BB’s first ‘American exile’ play was Der Potsdamer Kreidekreis, written in 1992 in response to what he saw as Germany’s botched unification in 1990/91, and notorious for its incendiary ‘Vorspiel’ – in the style of a Piscator Lehrstück – set in ‘no man’s land’ on the site of Hitler’s bunker. BB’s work in exile was also inspired by his continuing fascination for English history and culture. The classic example remains Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzbärte, based on the English Civil War but set in Iraq during the first Gulf War, with copious citations from Christopher Hill’s The World Upside Down, which also inspired the chorus of ‘masterless men’ singing the revised version of the Ballade vom Wasserrad/Ballad of the Waterwheel. Written in the wake of the Kluge shift, Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzbärte was conceived of as a multimedia theatrical hypertext comparable to Kluge’s Luftangriff auf Halberstadt, and put into practice BB’s newly minted notions of ‘literarising the theatre’ and ‘complex seeing’, grounded in his post post-modernist concept of a more abstract realism. Reviewers of the premiere described it as ‘Piscator on speed’, and as a more comprehensible version of late Heiner Müller.
During the millennial decade, BB also visited the UK on a regular basis, and in 2007 composed Rise and Fall of the City of Aberystwyth, his post-punk rock opera written in collaboration with the Welsh avant-garde composer Karl Jenkins, who had been a key member of Soft Machine, Brecht’s favourite band when he was in his teens. Unfortunately, a rift soon developed between them when Brecht claimed authorship not only of the opera’s libretto, but also of its melodies, which he insisted he had sung to Jenkins after a night on the town in the fleshpots of Barmouth.
And finally, a few words on BB’s most recent masterpiece, Der gute Mensch von Shanghai, Baby, and his still controversial theory of epic acting, which brings us full circle to his first visit to England in 1978. During the UEA Classic Comedies film season in that momentous Spring semester, Brecht had been enthralled by Arthur Lucan’s performance as Old Mother Riley, and it was as a homage to Lucan’s self-reflexive acting that he first conceived of a dual gender role. Instead of construing the visible distance between Lucan and Riley as ‘bad’ acting, he pondered a new style of ‘epic’ presentation. He had also been intrigued by Erving Goffman’s concept of ‘hypocritical man’ in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which he encountered in a philosophy and social theory course: the paradox of hypocritical man – or woman – who plays all his/her roles with distance. He then pondered further. If an individual’s self/identity is the sum of their roles, does hypocritical man/woman have no self or agency? But if he/she lacks any substantial self, ‘who’ is playing their roles with distance? It was also during his philosophy and social theory course that he read the opening pages of the Feuerbach section of Marx’s Deutsche Ideologie/German Ideology – but then read no further. He found Marx’s sudden and unmediated shift from the biophysical to the socio-economic quite unconvincing, and as a result formulated his own version of Marx’s 6th thesis on Feuerbach. All these intertwining strands led ultimately to his brilliant conception of Shen Te/Shui Ta in Der guter Mensch von Shanghai, Baby, and he was particularly enthralled by the 2013 Foundry Theatre New York production starring the drag performer Taylor Mac. And there is even a gesture – some might even say a gestus – towards the text that inspired him to become a playwright in the first place, when Shen Te/Shui Ta looks into the mirror in a direct reprise of Lulu viewing her own reflection in Wedekind’s Erdgeist /Earth Spirit and whispering ‘Ich wollte ein Mann sein, mein Mann’.
To some people, the brechtmoaners and the naysayers, BB’s intellectual and artistic biography can seem fantastical, mind-boggling, and utterly implausible – but rather than accepting that hasty judgement we should remember, in the immortal words of the British Cabinet Secretary’s testimony to the Scott Inquiry, that even half a picture can be true. Herr Brecht, we salute you!
1978 LuLu/bAAL anarchie in der brddr (first version) LuLu/bAAl anarchy in the frgdr. Subsequently revised and rewritten 1983, 1987/9, 1993, 2012. BB concentrates on writing post-Dadaist and Surrealist sound poems until his second visit to UEA in 1987, after which he drastically rewrote LuLu/bAAL, and continues to do so.
1992 Der Potsdamer Kreidekreis/The Potsdam Chalk Circle
1993 Im Dickicht der Großstädte/In the Jungle Metropolis (written after a rumbustuous trip to Chicago during which he became involved in a drunken brawl in the Cecil Mayne’s public library)
1994 Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzbärte/Roundheads and Pointy Beards
1995 Herr Wooster und sein Knecht Jeeves/Lord Wooster and his Man Jeeves
1999 Flug der Lindberghs/Flight of the Lindberghs (commemorating the 70th anniversary of his pioneering flight, and uncannily prefiguring BB’s own flight from the USA a year later)
Germany 2000 to present
2005 Leben Alfred Einsteins, BB’s homage to Piscator’s Leben des Galilei/Life of Galileo, written to commemorate the centenary of Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. English version A Life of Einstein (2014) in collaboration with the up-and-coming English dramatist Mark Ravenhill.
2007 Rise and Fall of the City of Aberystwyth
2010 Die heilige Joanna der Börsen/St Joan of the Stock Markets, written in response to the global finance crisis of 2008/9.
2012 Der gute Mensch von Shanghai, Baby/The Good Person of Shanghai, Babe
 Artaud acted in the film version of Piscator’s adaptation of John Gay’s Threepenny Opera, directed by G.W.Pabst in 1932. BB was also fascinated by the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, and his unfortunate encounter with a reproduction of the latter’s urinal at the Hayward Gallery London in 1978 clearly inspired the final couplet of Orge’s song in the second version of LuLu/bAAL: ‘Und doch erkennst Du dorten was du bist: Ein Bursche der auf dem Aborte frißt!’/ ‘At that you realize how far you’ve gone: / Using the lavatory – to eat on.’
 Sebald’s commentary on Kluge’s text is readily accessible in Luftkrieg und Literatur (Fischer, 1999). English versions of Sebald’s essay and a revised (and less radical) version of Kluge’s text may be found in Alexander Kluge, Air Raid, translated by Martin Chambers (London, Seagull Books, 2014).
 Controversy still surrounds the precise nature of Piscator’s development in the later years of the Weimar Republic, and its relationship to his (allegedly) postmodernist productions in the 1960s. The term ‘epdok’ – modelled on ‘diamat’ in Leninist theory – had been coined by orthodox Marxist critics to characterise Piscator’s ‘mature’ epic/documentary productions in the mid to late 1920s, such as Trotz alledem/In Spite of Everything and Rasputin, which constituted a clear epistemological break from his ‘infantile’ collaborations with Berlin anarchists and Dadaists such as Grosz, Heartfield and Herzfelde. Similarly, his ‘pomo’ aficionados in the 1960s and 70s rejected any continuity between their preferred variant of postmodernist postmodernity and his left-wing radical radical modernism of the early 1920s. In fact, Piscator’s development in the 1960s was far more complex than either camp is willing to concede. His postmodernist collaboration with Peter Brook and Luigi Nono on Marat/Sade was followed by a reversion to ‘epdok’ with his multi-media documentary production of Die Ermittlung/The Investigation, while his productions in the late 1960s – with his then little-known assistant Robert Wilson – inaugurated contemporary ‘postdramatic’ theatre. But his final collaboration with Wilson in 1970, Death and Destruction in Dresden, ended in chaos and confusion because of a fundamental disagreement on the representation of the repeated bombing of the city in early 1945. Piscator insisted on using Caspar Neher’s projections of bombers from their 1931/32 Volksbühne production of Leben des Galilei/Life of Galielo, combined with ear-shattering quadrophonic sound effects that overwhelmed the audience, whereas Wilson chose to represent the air raids diacritically, with Japanese samurai led by the precocious Udo Samel declaiming the ‘Jabberwocky’ and firing paper darts into the audience. Piscator’s reprise of his final production in the Weimar Republic was not auspicious. It had made revolutionary use of modern media, with multiple projection screens depicting the rise of science and technology from the stone age to Einstein’s theory of relativity, in the context of the rise of capitalism from Renaissance Italy to the Wall Street Crash; but it lasted seven hours – and ended in chaos, as the stage collapsed under the weight of the set, which was a lifesize replica of Galileo’s observatory.
 In the first version of the Ballade vom Wasserrad/Ballad of the Waterwheel, the water that keeps the wheel turning represents the lower orders of society, sustaining and reproducing oppressive socio-economic and political structures. Crucially, the water continues to drive the wheel in the refrain of each verse: the status quo continues. In the final refrain of the later version, however, the lower orders withdraw their labour, the wheel stops turning, and the water is liberated and able to determine its own course, thereby realizing the aspiration articulated in the pivotal line in the second verse – ‘what we need is not different masters, but no masters at all’. This shift in the final refrain is highlighted poetically in three ways: by a significant rhyme change – ‘weiter’ rhymes not with ‘leider’ but with ‘befreiter’; by the accentuation of ‘Stärke’ at the beginning of the final line; and by symmetry in syllables per line (10 9 10 9, instead of 10 9 12 9 in the first two verses), as the conflictual societal relations of the status quo are supplanted by a harmonious social order grounded in self-determination. A classic example of BB’s use of artistic form to convey political meaning.
 See BB’s unpublished ‘Anmerkungen zu Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzbärte’. After citing Marx – ‘Heute, wo das menschliche Wesen als “das Ensemble aller gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse” aufgefaßt werden muß’ – he notes that ‘Auch der Mensch, und zwar der fleischliche Mensch, ist nur mehr aus den Prozessen, in denen und durch die er steht, erfaßbar.’ (‘Nowadays, when the human essence must be construed as “the ensemble of all societal relations” […] Even human beings, made of flesh and blood, can only be properly understood in terms of the processes that constitute and sustain them.’)
by Joel Schechter
As Donald Trump campaigns to win another four years in the White House, his opponents might benefit from reading Brecht’s dialogue on the “Theatricality of Fascism.” Trump is not Hitler, but at press conferences and in front of large crowds he displays some of same behavior Brecht observed in the German dictator’s public speaking. Brecht’s perspective may be helpful in opposing the resistible rise of Donald Trump.
Originally published in the German edition of his Messingkauf dialogues, and translated into English in Brecht on Art and Politics, the conversation Brecht wrote about fascist theatricality finds “the house painter’s” (Hitler’s) public addresses winning empathy from his listeners. The dictator’s ability to encourage emotional identification with him through empathy is said to account for some of his success. In his own Epic Theatre Brecht sought to reduce empathic acting. In Messingkauf, he wrote that the empathic identification with a speaker such as Hitler that “induces everyone to abandon their own points of view.” Listeners “adopt [the speaker’s viewpoint][…] forget their own interests[…]. He involves his audience in himself, implicates them in his movements, lets them ‘participate’ in his troubles and triumphs, and dissuades them from any criticism, even from a fleeting glance at their surroundings from their own viewpoint.”
Brecht’s prescient words describe Trump’s public speaking to some extent. When our American Narcissist-in-Chief announces “I am a very stable genius” at a press conference, and asks staff members to confirm it, which they do, he insures his personality, his troubles and triumphs hold the center of attention. His latest lies, boasts, and denials of erratic behavior become the lead story of the day, overshadowing crises in climate change, wealth inequality, even threats of war, as has happened hundreds of times since he sought the Presidency.
Brecht describing a Hitler at a rally eerily anticipates the wild rants of Trump: “He loses himself in furious tirades like some Homeric hero, insists on his innocence, implies that he can only barely stop himself leaping at his opponent’s throat, addresses him directly, flings challenges at him, ridicules him, and so on.” That was Hitler in the 1930s, but it also could be Trump in 2019 as he responds to Democrats who want to investigate his financial records and his obstruction of justice. Trump’s recent protests against investigators’ “Presidential harassment,” as if it is a variant on sexual harassment, might be regarded as humorous if performed in a satiric play, but the President is not joking.
Brecht’s play satirizing Hitler’s rise to power, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, includes scenes of the fascist theatricality discussed in the “Messingkauf” conversation. In one scene, the tyrant Ui, a Chicago gangster, takes acting lessons to improve his public image. He wants people to look at him, and he wants them to forget everyone else when he’s speaking, Ui tells his acting teacher. Donald Trump also learned how to attract attention to himself. In case you don’t know you’re watching him or what you should think of him, he tells you, sometimes in the third person – no one thinks more highly of Donald Trump than Donald Trump. “He involves the audience in himself,” as Brecht wrote, but the Donald is a major contributor to that audience, too, as he watches himself frequently on Fox News.
If his favorite character’s story is inconsistent or still being written, this can be seen as another characteristic Brecht observed in 1939: the trick is to keep the public guessing. Trump often announces “we’ll see what happens” as if another installment in his soap opera (and by extension the nation’s) is due soon. Brecht explains: “First of all, by all sorts of tricks, the expectation of the audience – for the people must become an audience – is aroused. Word gets around that no one can predict what the speaker will say.” Of course it is possible that Trump himself has little idea what he will say when he launches into his rambling press conference speeches. But that works to his advantage, as unpredictability becomes an asset. What he says is less consequential than the self-absorption into which he draws listeners. He can contradict himself or pivot the next day without losing the advantage of unpredictability. The self-absorption, if it attracts listeners, and if they are taken far enough into his world, a world free from climate change and taxes, undermines the audience’s decision-making abilities. “Instead of awakening, they sleepwalk,” wrote Brecht. “Instead of doing something, they let something be done with them.”
Trump’s delight in derogating his opponents with names like “Nasty Megan” or “Crooked Hillary” also recalls Brecht’s note that Hitler “picks fights with individuals, foreign ministers or politicians. He gives the impression that he’s involved in some personal dispute with these people, because of the way they are.” In Trump’s view, “the way they are” is deformed, with physical or moral flaws that can be summed up or dumbed down with one adjective. Here too the result, as Brecht suggests in writing about Hitler, is to distract audiences from their own points of view, to absorb them in “his troubles and his triumphs.” Trump’s flawed opponents receive mention mainly because they are his opponents, and his own petty criticisms and self-defense tend to supplant any more substantial criticism or independent judgment that his listeners might develop.
Brecht wrote his theory before the advent of social media. Opportunities for self-absorption in public have increased. Late at night, early in the morning, Trump Tweets his personal thoughts to millions, instantly letting the public and the press obsess over Presidential threats, mini-rants, confessions tinged with nativism and sexism. His technologically new, electronically shared narcissism distinguishes Trump from Hitler; but both men practice forms of the fascist theatricality Brecht described in 1939. In the age of Twitter and Tweets, it may be accurate to call Donald Trump “Twitler.”
(All quotations from Brecht are taken from his dialogue “On the Theatricality of Fascism,” pages 193-201 in Brecht on Art and Politics, translated by Steve Giles, Tom Kuhn, Laura Bradley. Bloomsbury, London).
by Margaret Setje-Eilers
After directing seventeen of Brecht’s plays throughout his career, Manfred Karge brought his production of Antigone to the Swiss city of Chur in fall 2018. His adaptation of Brecht’s Antigone from the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden opened the new season of the Theater Chur and the festival Brecht!/BB18. The guest performance on 19 September commemorated the 70th anniversary of Brecht’s own adaptation of Antigone, a “kind of preview,“ as Brecht put it, for the years ahead.
For three months, the festival showcased Brecht, with works for the theater, digital installations, and experiments in virtual reality. The title of Karge’s contribution extends the legacy of Sophocles, via Hölderlin and Brecht, to himself: Die Antigone des Sophokles – nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Bertolt Brecht in einer Fassung von Manfred Karge. In Chur, Karge stayed in the same Hotel Stern at Reichsgasse 11, and even in the same room that Brecht had occupied from January to February 1948. Moreover, to Karge’s surprise, a ninety-year old man informed him that he had attended rehearsals of Antigone seventy years earlier. Why was Karge retracing Brecht’s steps? He came with a double agenda: to honor Brecht’s interpretation and to open the play to questions about critique through the arts.
To better understand the ties that link Brecht to Chur, recall Brecht’s postwar situation. Brecht left the US with his family at the end of October 1947, immediately after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. After some time in Paris and Zurich, rehearsals began in Chur in January 1948 for his adaptation. The premiere took place on 15 February at what was then called the Stadttheater. Brecht biographer Stephen Parker notes that Brecht used Hölderlin’s translation of the ancient Greek play at the suggestion of artistic director Hans Curjel. Brecht’s production famously involved a series of “firsts.”
Most importantly, the production inaugurated Brecht’s postwar career on the European continent. Moreover, Brecht collaborated again with Caspar Neher for the first time after the war. Neher, who was to become Brecht’s longtime set-designer, co-directed and designed the set and costumes. Brecht adapted Antigone for Helene Weigel as a kind of test for her acting skills, since she had been away from the stage after more than a decade of exile. She then famously relaunched her career for wider audiences in Mother Courage and Her Children at the Deutsches Theater, amidst the ruins of Berlin. The Antigonemodell 1948, edited by Ruth Berlau and with commentaries, sketches by Neher, and ninety-four of her photos, emerged from the Brecht-Neher partnership as the first model book (Berlin 1949). The book was compiled as a model – a guide – for a new Brechtian postwar theater aesthetic. The Antigonemodell 1948 resonates to this day. In 2016, René Pollesch foregrounded the model book in his play Bühne frei für Mick Levčik (Presenting Mick Levčik). His play reflects on productive copying in the arts – repetition and rewriting – in the form of adaptation. (See Hans-Thies Lehmann, Brecht Yearbook 42, pp. 1-18).
With its set design and costumes, Karge’s adaptation immediately reminds us of Brecht’s. In a nod to Caspar Neher’s open stage design in the shape of a recessed semicircle, Gisbert Jäkel’s set is a large round white structure with floor-to-ceiling sliding doors at the front. The doors open wide to reveal a single hunting trophy – a huge stag’s head on the back wall replaces the sacrificial animal skulls on stakes that decorate Neher’s stage. Black ashes are strewn across the floor. The color scheme is black and white. Costume designer Jessica Karge outfits Uwe-Eric Laufenberg as Creon in a general’s black uniform. (Laufenberg is also artistic director at the Wiesbaden Theater.) Llewellyn Reichman plays Antigone, her hair in a short page-boy, in a white, shroud-like garment. Her black shawl recalls Weigel’s Antigone. Mira Benser as Ismene also wears a white gown. The elders are dressed as twentieth-century businessmen, in black suits, ties, and hats, and white shirts. Tiresias alone wears gray: he is in black and white with a gray jacket. It is immediately noticeable that Karge has added several new characters: Mira Benser (Ismene / Death); Maximilian Pulst (Haemon / god of war); Rainer Kühn (the seer Tiresias / narrator); Tobias Lutze (soldier / guard); Evelyn M. Faber (woman / widow); Vincent Peine / Elias Taapken (boy); Uwe Kraus, Ulrich Rechenbach, Matze Vogel, Evelyn M. Faber, Rainer Kühn, Maximilian Pulst (elders); Benjamin Krämer-Jenster (one of the elders). Tobias Schwencke provided music and led the chorus, and Karl and Monika Forster furnished production photos. Wolfgang Behrens was the dramaturge.
Karge’s version sustains Brecht’s critique of tyranny, while also taking a daring new direction (hence the additional characters). He adds his own pungent satyr play – in the manner of the lascivious short plays often placed between acts of a Greek tragedy. He omits the prologue referring to Hitler’s Berlin in April 1945, freeing his play from historical references. (However, he does add an epilogue: Ismene – alone on stage – writes on the back wall, quoting Antigone: “Zum Hassen nicht, zur Liebe leb ich.“) Like Brecht, Karge denounces the idea of fate, and he highlights agency and personal action, but his adaptation also implores people to find voices for acts of civil disobedience. Through the insert, Karge creates the situation of a theater where spectators in the main play view the satyr players. This configuration enables critique of the main play across a new boundary between the players and their audience. It is a play-within-a-play that alludes to the ethical conflict in Antigone, modeled on the Mousetrap in Hamlet.
Karge’s satyr play is unlike Brecht’s prologue because its storyline alludes to, but does not exactly mirror his play. Recall that Brecht shows two sisters who argue about burying their brother, who they discover has been killed outside their door after having deserted from Hitler’s army. Karge’s insert is also structurally more complex than Brecht’s prologue, with a narrator’s introduction, the players’ story, and a wrap-up discussion among the players. While Creon’s preparations advance for the “victory celebration” over Argos, a troupe of masked players set up a small stage. They are dressed in vivid colors and striking textures, such as fur and steel. Shortly before Antigone strides to her tomb, Creon, his guard, and the elders of Thebes stop to watch the players. There is a sudden shift in register: instead of Hölderlin’s lofty verses as in the Brecht-Karge adaptation, the players speak in often-bawdy Shakespearean iambic pentameter. A narrator explains that Brecht’s prologue dragged the play out. Instead, this short piece will show how artists behave in a repressive state and how far they can go: “Der Kunst sei heut erlaubt, dass auf die Schippe / Wir manches nehmen, und ‘ne freche Lippe / Riskiern. Im rauen Alltag liegt uns solches fern.“ Instead of anchoring the play in Hitler’s Germany with parallels between Argos and the Soviet Union, Karge’s insert indirectly brings in his own background in theater: the role of critical artists in general and during the lifetime of the German Democratic Republic.
The storyline of the satyr play is almost a mise en abyme about denying a soldier’s right to proper burial. In the play, the god of war – a newly invented character in a battle helmet and flamboyantly vibrant colors – first brags about his refurbished manhood, then prevents a widow with a small puppet-child from burying her husband, deceased in battle. In the audience is the Theban elite – Creon, his guard, and the elders. The elders immediately recognize the god of war as Creon, turning to look at him when the god of war calls the soldier cowardly and unworthy. He forbids the burial and insists that the corpse should remain unburied carrion. Raising his knife to intimidate, ready to decapitate her, he sounds like Creon: “Sein Leib gehört den Geiern und den Hunden.“ The widow grabs the knife and threatens to castrate him; he relents and agrees to dig the grave himself. She notes how relieved she is that there is still justice in Thebes. Unlike the conclusion of the main play, it’s a happy ending here (and the widow keeps the knife). The announcer asks the audience to clap if they liked the show. Everyone remains silent, looking at Creon. When he suddenly laughs and claps, they all follow his lead. In Hamlet, the situation in the Mousetrap is similar; the actors enact a version of the main play. However, not only the outcome, but also the kings’ reactions to the action differ sharply. Shakespeare’s Claudius rises and abruptly stops the players, calling for light; after moments of silence, Karge’s Creon applauds and laughs at the bawdy players. He seems neither to reflect nor draw conclusions, and exits without comment, along with the elders. Creon’s guard remains behind.
Alone on stage, the actors discard their roles and debrief after their performance. They wonder aloud whether Creon understood their intent. (If the main play were a perfect world, the elders would have this conversation.) They can only agree that one can never know with people in high ranks. Their conclusion is boldly subversive, implying that Creon may have only pretended not to see the warning. In other words, in the main play, he also may have been disingenuous about the outcome of the war against Argos. No one can be sure what Creon really believes. His position is destabilized. Karge’s play-within-a-play foregrounds the lies (“alternative facts”) and duplicitous strategies of absolute state power. Face to face with his own narcissism and self-aggrandizement, Creon seems as blind as Tiresias, but without his insights. The point is, we don’t know. And, spookily, Creon’s guard has been watching them.
With its play-within-a-play, Karge’s adaptation comments on politics today. The elders of Thebes don’t object to Creon’s handling of Antigone and they are silent at the end of the satyr play. Creon has shaped public opinion with misinformation. He announced victory prematurely and launched celebrations long before the war has in fact been lost. Why does Creon express amusement at the satyr play? His laughter is hard to interpret. Is he really not afraid of threats to his power, as depicted in the sketch? Does he really believe his army has won the war? If not, he lies blatantly in both Brecht and Karge’s text. (Brecht) “Ihr Männer, teilts mit allen: Argos / ist nicht mehr.“ (Karge) “Ihr Herren, teilt’s allen mit: Argos / Ist nicht mehr.“ Shamefully, the elders understand the play-within-a-play, but make no comment. Nothing is more monstrous than man: “Ungeheuer ist viel. Doch nichts / Ungeheurer als der Mensch.“ The responses of Creon and the elders enable critiques of both groups: those that think they have power and those that think they don’t. As in Brecht’s version, notions of fate evaporate, but Karge’s insert intensifies Brecht’s call for resistance and civil courage against absolute government. In both plays, Antigone is a model of civil disobedience: daring, but also utterly alone in her rebellion. Silence and laughter, first from Creon, then from the elders, emphasize Antigone’s abandonment by and lack of support from the Thebans.
Besides emphasizing the need for action and noncompliance, Karge’s satyr play outlines artistic critique in the GDR, not only as individual acts, but also in conjunction with others. The players in his play-within-a-play reflect on the reception of their critique together. From Karge’s pen, it also translates into how aesthetic forms of resistance were met by state officials. In the theater program for Antigone, he elaborates on the state of artists under a repressive regime:
Vielleicht spielt da meine eigene Geschichte im Umgang mit der repressiven Macht eine Rolle. Das heißt, meine künstlerische Arbeit unter einer solchen. Man schaut ja auch da, wie weit man gehen kann. Man versucht, Wirklichkeit trotz Druck von oben abzubilden. Das ist so etwas. Die kleine Welt der Künstler, die dieses Satyrspiel verfasst haben und es nun als Stück im Stück aufführen, wird hier angerissen. Im Gegensatz zum König im Hamlet verhält sich Kreon etwas schlauer, geschickter, etwas moderner.
As an earlier literary artist in the East, Brecht also risked a great deal, and was at times ignored or censored.
Of course, Brecht and Karge both dealt with state censorship. Brecht for example, became embroiled in the controversy about Lucullus, and he expressed discomfort with the state into his last work, The Buckow Elegies. Much later, state functionaries interpreted Karge-Langhoff’s production of Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes (Sieben gegen Theben) in 1968 as an allegory of the Prague Spring – two brothers that kill each other. In danger of being suspended, the play was saved only by Helene Weigel’s clever maneuvering at the Berlin Ensemble. Karge explains in the Antigone program: “Helene Weigel, der Brecht-Witwe, großartigen Schauspielerin und damaligen Intendantin des Berliner Ensembles, gelang es aber durch ihr pfiffiges Verhandlungsgeschick, die Aufführung durchzusetzen.“ His production of Schiller’s The Robbers at the Volksbühne was banned in 1971, purportedly because Karl Moor wore boots to bed, and the production was therefore deemed unfit for school children. Brecht and Karge saw that artists could risk a lot in their stagings, they could go pretty far in their critiques, and that the effect was not always insignificant.
Taken together, the careers of Brecht and Karge span the entire era of the GDR. Brecht’s future residence was still undecided when he left Zurich, Switzerland in October 1948 to negotiate the prospects of settling and working in the Soviet Sector of Berlin. He started rehearsals of Mother Courage at the Deutsches Theater in 1948 and staged plays at the Berlin Ensemble (BE) until his death in 1956. Karge’s career began at the BE in 1961, when artistic director Helene Weigel hired him directly from what is now the Hochschule für Schauspielkunst Ernst Busch. He embarked on a career – often provocative – as writer, actor, and director at the BE and the Volksbühne, for decades partnering with Matthias Langhoff. After working in East and West Germany, he returned to the BE with Claus Peymann, and by the end of the Peymann era, he had become the most prolific director of Brecht’s plays. As an actor, Karge played lead roles in several of Peymann’s stagings of Brecht (Mother Courage, Saint Joan of the Stockyards). In his new adaptation of Antigone, Karge maintains Brecht’s positions, steadfastly antiwar, inviting change, pointing to connections between war and the market economy – and creatively opening his work to contemporary issues. Now, at age eighty, he shows no signs of slowing down. The world premiere of his own new play Paris-Dakar oder Schrödingers Katze is scheduled for 8 May 2019 at the Internationale Maifestspiele in the Staatstheater Wiesbaden. That may lead to another stay in the Hotel Stern.
by Franz Fromholzer
Anna Jordan’s adaption of “Mother Courage and her Children” at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester transfers Brecht’s plot to a post-apocalyptic future in the year 2080. It’s a man’s world again, women have lost their rights, and the internet doesn’t exist anymore. People travel around Europe in mobile homes, rusty guardrails and burning barrels lighting the way. The open staging of the theatre expands war and migration to the entire hall, including the audience. Yet again, Mother Courage copes quite well for a while in this gloomy future world.
In this worst-case scenario, history moves forward in circles and loops. A red and a blue army are fighting each other, their flags evoking the ideologically renewed conflict between the Soviet Union and the USA. Pistol shots frighten the spectators right from the start. In this Manchester staging, war is a form of sexual violence in particular: soldiers are constantly threatening women, using obscene language and explicit gestures. Humiliations and archaic subjugations have replaced civilisation. Women have either become cunning prostitutes like Yvette or desperately long to do so like miserable Kattrin. The strong impact of male violence will only in a later scene be treated satirically when topless soldiers with combats and suspenders perform a choreographed dance. Mostly male strippers pose provocatively as war materiel and sex objects. The feminist point of view subjects these male gestures of power to critical scrutiny. But can Mother Courage truly represent the counterposition of female strength?
This Mother Courage is without a doubt a very likable one. She is a strong and caring, sometimes-overtaxed single mother, an imaginative businesswoman who loves her profession. Above all, this witty mother can be a funny entertainer as well. Cheerfully recalling her different lovers and the different fathers of her children she is introduced almost as a comedienne (which Brecht hardly would have objected to). No wonder that playwright Anna Jordan refers to an episode of British comedy series Only Fools and Horses in talking about her creative inspirations. In this episode, a German coloured baby girl is up for sale. Comedic influences therefore are often emphasized in this staging. Mother Courage’s name is abbreviated to “MC” ironically relating her to a kind of hip-hop singer and entertainer. Nevertheless, Mother Courage’s business is the only way for her to participate in this male world of power and violence.
Furthermore, in this production, war hasn’t formed an unmoved female character who is forced to react cold-blooded. Mother Courage’s features can hardly hide her inner suffering here. Even when it comes to neglecting her dead son Swiss Cheese, this act represents a short moment of extreme self-control rather than a hardened and calculating woman. Out of desperation she is still concerned about her business at the end of the play. This business is essential to mask her inner hopelessness. So, it is her enterprise which finally keeps her alive after all the entertainment has gone.
Julie Hesmondhalgh’s performance can be described as powerful, very emotional, straightforward and also painful insofar as it does not conceal Mother Courage’s vulnerability and inconsistencies. It is obvious that neither Julie Hesmondhalgh nor the director Amy Hodge wanted to portray her character with ‘role distance’ (Rollendistanz)in the Brechtian sense. Emotional identification is a central approach to this female character, who pushes herself through a world thrilled by power. No less than Anna Jordan, the playwright, referred to her as a “feminist hero”. This surprising statement can probably be explained by the playwright’s challenging last three years during which she miscarried two children, lost her mother and became a mother herself (which she has written about publicly). Her adaption of Brecht’s play therefore may be interpreted as a very personal and emotional approach to the role of a mother.
The original songs in the Manchester production, composed by James Fortune, offer an eclectic blend of different musical styles. You see Mother Courage dressed in a post-apocalyptic fur dancing on the van, and listen to a quiet lullaby after Kattrin’s death. The main idea of the songs was probably to appeal to an audience of different ages and backgrounds, and this works really well. Joanna Scotcher’s set design took inspiration from the “Mad Max” movies and the filming of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, as the programme suggests. But this quite familiar cinematic aesthetic still brings inventiveness and originality to Brecht’s classic play.
Brecht’s “Mother Courage”, of course, is a play about refuge and rootlessness. So the refugee issue dominating European and US media for the last few years is still a very crucial one in the year 2080. Anna Jordan’s adaption shows Mother Courage moving through Germany, the Ukraine, Romania, Serbia and finally into Greece. The plot comes closer to the present at the end, when Kattrin is shot in a Greek refugee camp. This scene, called “Need for Noise,” (cardboard signs show the name of each scene) is an unambiguous political statement connecting the present with the Thirty-Year-Wars and the future of Europe. One might wonder how the decisive request for gender equality and feminist perspectives on motherhood are really connected to the refugee issue in this production, but there are no lectures here. Again, the play seems to propose a personal and emotional approach to a never-ending political struggle.
Today, former achievements in women’s rights and in the treatment of refugees no longer seem secure. Even when capitalism seems to offer a world of entertainment and opportunities, structures of domination and violence still prevail. The mobile shop of Mother Courage functions as a kind of symbol for this frightening ambivalence. Of course, the hand cart was the main theatrical prop for famous actresses like Therese Giehse and Helene Weigel in post-war Europe. The Manchester ice-cream van built for beach fun changes into a chip shop or fairground booth depending on Mother Courage’s business. The gradual process of dismantling these versatile wheels finally comes to an end when dumb Kattrin and Mother Courage have to pull the ruined van on their own. Obviously, this history of decline contrasts two contemporary forms of migrant living: on the one hand, travelling around holiday paradises in mobile homes; on the other hand, fleeing from war and hunger with a few essentials. Apparently, it is hard to see that we are not sure about the way we will be travelling in the future. When Mother Courage laboriously pulls her van alone in the end, she recalls a female Sisyphus, hardly making progress as she conducts her business.
Anna Jordan’s adaption of Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children will be published by Bloomsbury in the Modern Plays series.
 Anna Jordan, What Kind of Fuckery is This? https://www.annaruthjordan.co.uk/lifeandstuff/what-kind-of-fuckery-is-this/ [25/02/2019]
 Actress Julie Hesmondhalgh herself engages in performance projects responding to actual political events at the Take Back Theatre in Manchester.
by Franz Fromholzer
The Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre has been staging Brecht’s play The Good Person of Szechwan since 2013. In a guest performance at Barbican Theatre, the Russian production was presented to a London audience this February. It was the first Brecht play to be directed by Yuriy Butusov, who has celebrated successes with Shakespeare, Beckett and Dostoyevsky in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The actors spoke Russian and sang Brecht’s songs in the original German. Of course, English subtitles were provided. The performance of Brecht’s drama at Barbican Theatre as well as two other productions (Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Aitmatov’s Mother’s Field) were made possible through the generous support of Roman Abramovich.
Over seventy years ago, Brecht’s parable was first shown in post-war West Germany and the suspected communist views of East Germany’s prominent author obviously caused politically motivated debates. Despite that, the play was soon regarded as a classic, mixing Asian and Christian ethic demands, debating gender roles through characters that were both thrilling and humorous. These aspects of the drama remain highly relevant today.
The forced dual personality of Shen Te – Shui Ta is the basic idea of Brecht’s play. The need of a good woman to act ruthless in a wicked world makes her transform into a frightening male cousin. In Butusov’s production other characters also split into two persons and this idea is stretched out. At first sight the gender roles of dual personalities seem to be emphasised in this Moscow staging. Shen Te, the demeaned prostitute in high heels, wears torn fishnet tights under her patent leather jacket and miniskirt. Fierce Shui Ta appears in an early twentieth century suit, a bowler on his head. But a closer look gives evidence for the asexual, non-conformist role of the clown in both characters: Shen Te’s make-up expresses the tears of the crying clown. Shui Ta’s bowler and suit remind of Charlie Chaplin. It is the clown’s ability of Verfremdung which plays a vital role in exposing the brutal mechanisms of society to the audience. Alexandra Ursulyak’s performance here can be described as overwhelming: childlike innocence and calculated wit, questionable helplessness and an exaggerated domineering nature are shown under changing circumstances by Shui Ta and Shen Te. Furthermore there are slapstick moments transforming other characters into clowns as well: For example, an elderly woman lending dollars to Shen Te nearly punches her with the money. You could cry and laugh at once watching the split character Shen Te – Shui Ta on the devastated and abandoned stage which set designer Alexander Lisyansky created.
The helpful water-carrier Wang, played by Alexander Matrosov, is a dual personality as well. Talking to the god, this simple water-carrier is an almost prophetic and visionary character. But returning to his social sphere his intellectual and physical disability becomes obvious. Wang’ s representation of a fringe group is, in particular, expressed through the body and without words. Alexander Matrosov’s stage presence is striking and powerfully distressing at the same time.
Brecht’s original three gods are reduced to a single god, a woman with short blond, gelled hair, played somewhat coldly and distantly by Anastasia Lebedeva. But this god is also a vulnerable one, becoming pregnant and looking for help during birth in one scene. Her personality seems to split into separate roles as well. As is evident from Brecht’s plot, this god will not answer burning desires for social justice.
Other characters are also finely-drawn, oftentimes performing dances and songs. The two cheeky prostitutes in the park tempting Yang Sun recite their texts in greatly exaggerated style, with background music creating a groovy atmosphere. Meanwhile, twins with innocent eyes are projected onto a screen, and reminding us of the prostitutes’ remote childhood. The two pairs of open eyes and the similarly plaited pigtails of the twins emphasize the prostitutes’ (and Sheng Te’s) dual personality in a peculiar way. Afterwards, the gallows from which Yang Sun wants to hang himself remains on the stage up to the interval. This cold and greedy world is still a threatening one today. During the song Das Lied vom Rauch you see a huge picture of child soldiers projected to a screen in the background. The children are again staring at the audience like the twins did. Childhood and later life seem to be divided, and children act as a kind of silent moral authority. Is today’s society not responsible to these lives?
But Butusov’s production does not lack either poetic or funny moments. During the love scene between Shen Te and Yang Sun, hailstones of rice fall; later it rains packs of cigarettes when the tobacco business booms. Can capitalism truly save us by producing unhealthy cigarettes? The comic relief is perfectly stage-managed here.
Talk of money and business is always accompanied by music. For the most part, the supposed business partners dance and move with relish while they are negotiating. It sometimes looks like the dance of the greedy and power-crazed, but often their moves simply express a hedonistic lifestyle. Their elegant clothes and their well-groomed appearance obviously radiate the enjoyment of prosperity. Is this the body language of capitalism, hedonistic capitalism translated into physical expressions? The Pushkin Drama Theatre’s performance does without political explanations. The programme distances the production from an explicit political position and refers to the scientific concept of behavioral plasticity, which interprets human actions as a manner of adapting to the environment. It might be an interesting idea to apply explanations of animal behaviour to human behaviour, but there is no need to know much about behavioral plasticity to understand the performance. Perhaps this comment is simply meant to direct the audience to observe the actors’ body language carefully: watch how we move, gesticulate and produce ourselves and you will learn a lot about the society we are living in.
Since the motifs of twins and dancing have such a major impact on this performance you hardly can deny the influence of the US series Twin Peaks by David Lynch which had been broadcasted during the early 1990s in post-communist Russia. Indeed, there is a tendency towards psychologization: Brecht’s doubles have been described by some scholars as different sides of the psychology of a single person (Brecht rejected this interpretation). Yet in one scene, Shen Te and Shui Ta are on stage at the same time. Simple (social) psychological or natural-scientific answers are – thank goodness – therefore not given. But it is clear that the varying actions of the same person in different situations have especially drawn the interest of director Yuriy Butusov to this drama. “When you see me again, it won’t be me”: the famous riddle message from Twin Peaks can be perfectly applied to this provocative connection between Brecht and behavioral plasticity.
So is it all about Shen Te’s ego trip to moral goodness? Not at all. There are several scenes featuring powerfully pronounced indictments of social injustice. Shen Te’s enraged singing of Das Lied von der Wehrlosigkeit der Götter und Guten seems to arouse the fire storm that the song itself wants to create to finally end the unfairness of society. Shen Te fervently pleads to the gods in German: “Gebt Feuer!” Barbican’s audience is seized and at least partly applauding.
At the end when Shui Ta is judged, a long row of uniforms can be seen behind the court scene. Can social roles with good morals really be ready-made to wear? When the god disappears from this earth and Shen Te is left alone crying out to the audience for help, what should be done? Are we hedonistically dancing through Barbican Theatre’s doors into London’s nightlife? Yes, we are, aren’t we?
 As the theatre programme mentions the production of Aitmatov’s Mother’s Field is also based on the principle of behavioural plasticity. It would be interesting to know why this scientific concept plays such an important role in performances of Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre.
by Phoebe von Held
Fleischhacker is an early dramatic fragment by Brecht, developed in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann, roughly between 1924 and 1929. The fragment is best known for being the first project in which Brecht approached the subject of global capitalism. The challenge to find an adequate dramatic form to represent the operations of global financial markets prompted his first reading of Marx and led to the development of epic theatre. It involved a radical attack on the conventions of classical drama, especially narrative flow, suspense and closure. In many ways Fleischhacker could be seen as a parallel aesthetic gesture to the anti-figurative, abstract as well as ‘destructive’ moment in Russian constructivism, fostering a level of experimentation which may have been difficult to contain in a finished play that could be produced on the stage of the Weimar Republic. What remained is a substantial collection of about 270 archival leaves, including dramatic scenes, images, meta- and extra-textual material, collected in the Fleischhacker folders at the Bertolt Brecht Archive in Berlin. The exuberant experimentalism that characterizes this project, its open form, and timely subject — the critique of finance-based economy — make Fleischhacker an irresistible project for adaptation and performance.
Video clip 1: ‘Meat scene with news report 1’: https://youtu.be/XexPYReLEK4
Our Fleischhacker R&D sprang from a new translation of the text conducted by Matthias Rothe and myself, in collaboration with a London-based feedback group bringing together a mix of scholars, translators, writers and theatre-makers. We were keen to develop the English version within a spoken word, dialogical format that included native speakers from both languages, with almost all participants having fluency in both English and German. Fleischhacker is a striking example of the young Brecht’s wide-ranging poetic experimentalism. Our aim was to make this virtuosity available to an English audience, teasing out the jazz-inspired melodies and jarring edginess of Fleischhacker‘s iambic verse. The translation was published in a new volume of Brecht’s fragments for the stage Brecht and the Writer’s Workshop: Fatzer and Other Dramatic Projects, edited by Tom Kuhn and Charlotte Ryland, Bloomsbury 2019.
Video clip 2: ‘I’ve had the wheat of America’: https://youtu.be/Q0H2aztiU2c
Fleischhacker R&D, April/May 2019
Following the translation, I set up and directed a performance R&D, in order to develop a scenographic concept and script version for a full production of the piece. The R&D was hosted by Guest Projects at Yinka Shonibare’s Studio in London, a residency programme that supports experimentation across the arts. It included a cast of four actors (plus one child), a stage designer, a sound designer / multi-media director, a film-maker, a post-punk musician / singer, a lighting designer, as well as five assistants. The work with the full team evolved over a period of just over two weeks. The outcome was shown in three work-in-progress showings as the first staging of Fleischhacker in the UK. Performances were followed by two after-show discussions, one chaired by Tim Bano (Joint Lead Critic of ‘The Stage’ newspaper), the other by Tom Kuhn (Brecht translator and Editor of the Methuen/Bloomsbury Brecht Series; Professor of German Literature, Oxford University). Prior to the R&D, we also facilitated two creative community workshops (in partnership with Hackney Empire New Futures, Outside Edge Theatre Company and Mayday Rooms), exploring the piece and its politics with a group of young untrained theatre-makers (age 18-27), as well as participants of ‘Outside Edge’, a theatre charity for people in recovery of substance abuse and addiction. The idea was to stir feedback from people who have been especially affected by British austerity politics following the 2008 financial crisis.
Video clip 3: ‘The Four Bulls’: https://youtu.be/4849glIZIac
Content of the piece
Fleischhacker includes two sub-projects: the first one focuses on Jae Fleischhacker, a cut-throat futures trader at Chicago’s Commodity Exchange who attempts to corner the wheat market, buying up the entire supply of world wheat. The second project features a destitute rural family, ‘the family from the Savannah’, who come to Chicago to try their luck. Both narratives begin with the characters full of entrepreneurial zeal and end in ruin. Both look to the metropolitan city as the main stage of financial interest and interaction. Of all of Brecht’s works, Fleischhacker deals most directly with the internal mechanisms of modern global capitalism, illuminating how unregulated financial markets unleash economic catastrophe worldwide, divide society and corrupt human relations. The prescience of this unknown work, written in the years before the 1929 Stock Exchange Crash, cannot be overstated, resonating strongly with the crises that followed the 2008 financial crash. The rise to political power in the US of a ruthless real-estate dealer, a powerful manipulator of the mass media who has become the anti-establishment role model of a disenfranchised working class, is uncannily foreshadowed by the character of Jae Fleischhacker. Brecht juxtaposes the successful self-made trader with the socially ‘left-behind’ family from the Savannah who feel they’ve become immigrants in their own country, deluded by an entrepreneurialism supposedly accessible to everyone. Moreover, Brecht’s rendering of world-wide economic crisis in the biblical image of the Great Flood, takes on prophetic dimensions in our understanding today, pushing allegory into the all-the-more-harrowing concrete realm of real ecological catastrophe and climate change.
Video clip 4: ‘Arrival scene of the family’: https://youtu.be/qpuREerH3N0
Performance version and concept
Whilst a new script version required the development of a structure that would allow an audience to absorb the complex material within the time-based medium of performance, I was nevertheless interested in highlighting the fractured rawness and disjointed energy of the text. Rather than attempting to ‘finish off’ the incomplete play, I aimed to create a tension between the project’s evocations of narrative and its snapshot-like, anti-dramatic character. Lacking narrative coherence amongst the written dramatic scenes, I decided to provide a basic narrative skeleton by using the scene plans to tell the two stories, following the alternating tableaux pattern that Brecht and Hauptmann had sketched out. The actual dramatic scene material was organized in a way that it would plug into the context of each tableau, creating loose rather than definitive connections, given that clear correspondences between plot-lines and scenes are sparse. In this way meta-textual material (the narrative structure of the plot plans) became actual performance text, telling the story even when actual scenes were missing. Yet Brecht and Hauptmann’s different plot versions and the different narrative episodes within them were also often mixed up in order to make room for the disparate scene material. Moreover, what stands out in the original Fleischhacker material is that the focus on the discontinuous anti-chronological snapshot is juxtaposed by a striving for taxonomy. Plotlines are numbered and so are some of the scene fragments that are assembled on one archival page, showing that Brecht and Hauptmann did partly think in terms of temporal successions. This ‘taxonomical’ thrust was incorporated into the performance text, but it was also undermined, reflecting the project’s internal conflict between the a-temporal singularity of individual scenes and the chronological taxonomy of the montage plans. The original internal order of the plot plans and their numbering systems was constantly thrown into disorder, flagging up the very absurdity of those numbers within a play in which numbers never come add up to a coherent narrative. Original numbers are used in new combinations of succession, running backwards and forwards; repetitions occur.
To emphasize the internal tension between order and disorder, between chronology and anti-chronology, the numbers were read out by the actors, accentuated through large projections on a blackboard at the center of the stage. The absurdity of numbers that don’t add up was reflected the unpredictable nature of finance as a seemingly rational, calculable system. Financial contracts are sold on the basis of complex algorithms promising a good return at the final point of redemption, creating suspense and dramatic tension on the way, but often that calculation, depending on many unforeseeable circumstances, doesn’t add up; it can never be entirely ‘plotted’. This inherently entails a risk not only of individual losses but of large-scale economic crisis. In the same way in which the plots of financial speculation can easily derail, the dramaturgical taxonomy of our Fleischhacker’s text version often ‘loses the plot’.
Video clip 5: ‘Downfall of the Family’: https://youtu.be/L3o9O5bPOlQ
We also began to introduce some newly devised scenes. These were inspired by Brecht and Hauptmann’s working notes and the fragment’s work-in-progress status. They related to the question as to how to make a play about finance, in particular, futures trading: how does it work, how can we understand it, how do we represent it in the theatre. The work-in-progress scenes emphasized the exploratory character of the project, but also the relevance of these questions now, capturing the position of the non-specialist approaching the highly abstract subject of finance, be it Brecht and Hauptmann, us as artists working now, or indeed the audience. Part of this process of ‘modelling’ the operations of futures trading led to the idea of using actual, material models. This seemed to capture well the heuristic, analytical working mode of Brecht’s approach in Fleischhacker, at the same time as it tapped into the methodology of theatre production, using a theatre model box for designing a production. We thus included a model box of a wheat field which the actor representing Fleischhacker (Ery Nzaramba) played with, against an abstract account of his calculations and trading strategies of the wheat trade that eventually leads to his corner — Fleischhacker ‘holding the entire market in the hollow of his hand’. The model box was also to convey that strange character of commodity trading, which is on the one hand marked by concrete materiality, and on the other, by elusive abstraction. Live-streaming and projecting the actor’s interaction with the model box amplified this intangible rift between image and model, between the abstract and the material.
Video clip 6: ‘Corner with wheat field model’: https://youtu.be/-fGxLhDkpL0
Brecht’s experimentation with the epic in Fleischhacker comes out not only in his focus on the single discontinuous scene, but also in a heightened sense of retrospectivity. Whilst the scene collection lacks material from the dramatic ‘middle’ part of the play, the nucleus in classical drama in which the plot thickens and suspense is created, we can find an abundance of scenes that look back at the failed attempt of cornering the market after the fact. The retrospective scenes are complemented by scenes that speak from a larger, detached, more global perspective about the wider consequences of economic crisis. Both categories of scenes were inserted as monologues in between the different tableaus, rupturing the unfolding of the performance. They were read, rather than enacted, from a position behind the audience whilst being live-streamed and projected onto the main stage, injecting moments of melancholia, mourning, stasis and temporal disjuncture. Using the inherent latency in the live streaming device helped to accentuate a sense of falling out of ‘time’.
Video clip 7: ‘Times are good’: https://youtu.be/BOCNZR9QFF8
The set-design gestures at a site of simultaneous con- and de-struction. While Fleischhacker tracks the process of building a performance piece on the subject of finance, it also executes the destruction of an American naturalist novel, Frank Norris’s The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1903), from which Brecht adopted core aspects of its content, using the novel’s subject of wheat trading and the corner as material for his own play about ‘money’. But rather than borrowing Norris’s naturalist narrative, Brecht and Hauptmann’s adaptation of the material explodes the process of financial speculation into a complex palimpsest of key moments and social scenarios that typify capitalist relations. Snapshot by snapshot, the workings of the capitalist mind are unveiled resulting in a refracted space that does not purport to represent the causalities of finance within a unified frame or single perspective.
To amplify the startling sense of complexity that permeates the Fleischhacker material, we equipped the scenographic installation with multiple projection surfaces and monitors, creating a layered multi-media landscape. Projections included found footage as well as specially filmed footage relating mainly to the family from the Savannah and their experience of the metropolitan city as a locus of capitalist promise, struggle and failure. Footage was filmed in specially selected locations in London, to anchor the piece within the concrete experience of this city as a global center of finance, with extreme rifts between exorbitant wealth and harsh urban poverty. We also included a number of departure scenes in the projected film footage, taking up the recurrent motif of the family’s disintegration evoked in the plotlines and dramaturgical notes, which however isn’t represented in the existing scene material. The departure footage marks the beginning of a walk into the city by different members of the family. We see them leaving the performance space. Their imagined focal point is then taken over by the camera, through which the journey through the city continues.
Throughout this performance version, we worked to highlight a rich texture of contemporary resonances in Fleischhacker, from the notion of ‘false news’, to the characterization of Jae Fleischhacker as an exploitative manipulator of the masses, to the inherent connection between economic imbalance created through capitalist exploitation and the breakdown of ecological systems. Experimentation and discussion during our R&D led to a one hour showing and performance script, determining a basic structure in which the material could be performed on a timeline. Some of the dramaturgical formats and scenographic approaches we explored are discussed in this account. Many ideas are still at the level of starting points and haven’t been fully unpacked yet, others we didn’t even begin to test, as time and resources were limited during the residency. The first staging of Fleischhacker in the UK was thus only another stop on the journey of an ongoing experiment, to be continued hopefully in the near future and within the framework of a full production.
Video clip 8: ‘The great flood’: https://youtu.be/e1fAqTcsLCU
Video clip 9: ‘Savannah Song’: https://youtu.be/UPTW1ej1-r0
Artists involved in the 2019 Fleischhacker R&D
Cast: Joe Bence, Angelina Chudi, Ery Nzaramba, Bruno Roubicek, Ori Wallach
Director/translator/author of this performance version: Phoebe von Held
Designer: Sophie Jump
Sound design / multi-media director: Jamie Hamilton
Lighting: Joshua Gadsby
Film-maker / video documentation: Dror Shohet
Dramaturgy / translator: Matthias Rothe
Savannah Song: Sasha Ilyukevich
Casting: Irene East
R&D producer: Ellie Keel
Assistants: Ceci Calf, Cara Evans, Alice Faucher (design), Edward Caughlin (film), Cody Freischlag (directing)
Community workshop facilitator: Fani Arampatzidou
Translation feedback group: Laura Killeen, Jane Robinson, Naomi Segal, Robert Stock, Sam Williams
Photography: Ioana Marinescu
by Corson Ellis
From the 21-24 March 2019, Professors Till Nitschmann and Florian Vaßen of the Leibniz Universität Hannover, together with Schauspiel Hannover and the Internationale Heiner-Müller-Gesellschaft (International Heiner Müller Society), hosted the conference “KüstenLANDSCHAFTEN: Grenzen und Selektion – Unterbrechung und Störung,” (Coast(al) Landscapes: Borders and Selection – Disruption and Disturbance). Held in the 90th year since Heiner Müller’s birth, the symposium celebrated the incredible artistic legacy of Müller and analyzed and investigated his works in new ways.
The conference began on the 21st with an introduction of the overall schedule, followed by a viewing of the performance of Räuber – Ratten – Schlacht, an ambitious combination of the three pieces by Friederich Schiller, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Heiner Müller respectively. The following two days featured numerous panel discussions and plenary talks, along with a discussion with B. K. Tragelehn and Tomas Irmer and a performance by Florian Thamer and Tina Turnheim from the Freie Universität Berlin, entitled “Nekrophilie ist Liebe zur Zukunft: Der ZRM3000 – Eine Theatermaschine für den ‘Dialog mit den Toten,’” (Necrophilia is the Love of the Future: The ZRM3000 – a Theater Machine for the Dialog with the Dead) and also a performance of Der Auftrag (The Mission). On the final day, two panel discussions preceded the closing discussion. While all of the presentations were intellectually engaging, due to the length of the conference, only a few of the presentations will be discussed at greater length below.
The conference was intellectually diverse, with novel interpretations of and approaches to Müller’s work. On the first day, during Parallel Panel 1, Zbigniew Feliszewski of the University of Silesia in Katowice gave a presentation entitled “Der Begriff des Realen in der Schreib- und Theaterpraxis Heiner Müllers” (The Concept of the Real in the Written and Theatrical Praxis of Heiner Müller). He addressed the tension between the “real,” or the true nature of things, and formalization in Müller’s work, as well as its relation to the project of scientific socialism. Specifically, Feliszewski asserted that, in keeping with the Brechtian understanding of the separation between stage and the audience, Müller rejected plot-centric drama and focused on the “overflow” of the stage into the audience. This is achieved through the use of the tension between the overwhelming and normal events. By overwhelming the viewer, according to Feliszewski, the Müller’s billiard ball” approach creates a Wahlzwang (necessity of decision), thus “removing” the viewer from the play. This process forces the viewer from a position of passive intake to one of “an active pausing,” thereby inviting the viewer to break through the surface level of the play and grasp for the underlying structure, or the “real.” As a result of this practice, Müller does not politically moralize through fable and fiction, but asks the audience members to search for the “real” or the meaning of the play themselves. Räuber – Ratten – Schlacht, while hard to follow, provided an interesting practical example of some of the Müllerian principles in Feliszewski’s presentation by overwhelming viewers and forcing them into choosing what to look at.
During Parallel Panel 5, “Landschaft und Geschichte” (“Landscape and History”), Marianne Streisand of Hochschule Onsabrück gave the presentation “Landschaften nach Kriegen – Umsielder und ‘Umsiedlerin’” (Landscapes after Wars – Resettled People and ‘Umsiedlerin’) about the play Die Umsiedlerin and how Müller portrayed the post-war landscape of East Germany, as a series of interactions between theater and history/landscape. Umsiedlerin is considered one of his greatest works, not just by Müller scholars, but also by the playwright himself, who called it his favorite play. In her presentation, Streisand examined the multiple ways in which landscape and history interact in the play, which tells the story of a pregnant woman who arrives in East Germany as part of the forced resettlements. The structure of the piece separates the story and the landscape into small pieces, mirroring division of land during the land reform into small plots. The play was performed with only 15 “Bilder,” but archival information presented by Streisand showed a 16th “Bild,” found in archival sources, that was not included in the first production or the printing. With this 16th “Bild,” the end of the play would have transformed the disparate parts of the play into a single whole, thus reflecting the structure of the collectivization that followed the land reform. The framework of Umsiedlerin was strongly influenced by Sergey Tretyakov’s “Biography of the Thing,” and as a result, according to Streisand, turns the landscape itself into the protagonist of the play. Finally, Streisand noted that both collectivization in the 1950s and privatization in East Germany in the 1990s as processes that were forced not only on the farmers in the countryside, but also on the countryside itself.
Another presentation from 5th Parallel Panel, given by Michael Wood of the University of Edinburgh was entitled “Ein Dialog mit einigen Toten? Heiner Müller, Friedrich Wolf und die Selektion der Tradition” (A Dialog with Certain Dead? Heiner Müller, Friedrich Wolf, and the Selection of Tradition). Wood used the lens of a comparison between Wolf’s Bürgermeister Anna and Müller’s Weiberkomödie to examine the reasons for Wolf’s exclusion. Specifically, Wood uses the similarities in structure and content between Müller’s Weiberkomödie und Wolf’s Bürgermeister Anna to posit Weiberkomödie as a Müllerian commentary on Wolf’s theatrical style. Müller engaged in “dialog with the dead” because he believed that an understanding of the past was critical to the construction of the future; however, Friedrich Wolf, despite being an important playwright and contributor to the GDR’s theater scene, is almost never named in any of Müller’s works. Citing Jack Zipes, Wood notes that Wolf does not move beyond the primacy of plot and content, whereas Müller, like Brecht, represents the anti-Aristotelian theater and the dialectic of form and content. The plays have similar plots; in both, young women are confronted with issues of sexism and liberation in a socialist society and particularly at a construction site. However, while the success of the central figure in Bürgermeister Anna is untainted, and thus presents an example of didactic theater, Weiberkomödie’s story of liberation ends uncertainly, the viewer being unable to see who ends up constructing the crane at the climax of the play. This uncertainty undermines the didactic theater, and more specifically Bürgermeister Anna. To conclude, Wood described the exclusion of Wolf as an indicator that Müller did not consider Wolf’s theater as productive and useful for the construction of the future, as it did not invite engagement from the public.
The second plenary presentation, “Arbeit am Gelände (des Theaters)” (Work on Terrain (of the Theater)) given by Nikolaus Müller-Schöll of the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, drew attention to a novel aspect of Müller’s work; namely, his role as a dramaturg. As Müller-Schöll pointed out, Müller’s work as a dramatist and playwright is quite well documented and researched. However, Müller’s role as a dramaturg, a position that he held in an official capacity in the 1970s at the Berliner Ensemble and then later at the Berliner Volksbühne, is relatively unknown. According to Müller-Schöll, not only is Müller’s role as dramaturg under-researched, but his work also comprises an important part of the history of dramaturgy as discipline. The particular focus of this presentation was Müller’s role in continuing Brechtian dramaturgy through a divergence from more traditional conceptions of 20th century dramaturgy and dramaturgical dynamics, what Müller-Schöll labels “polizeiliche Dramaturgie.” As he pointed out, this dearth of analysis of Müller’s dramaturgy is especially surprising given that the author’s works are dramaturgic, in that they are often commentaries, variations, or translations of other works, making this a field that invites further investigation.
Hendrik Werner’s talk, “Textspiel ohne Grenzen: Gesten der Überschreitung in späten Werken Heiner Müllers” (“Word Play without Borders: Gestures of Transgression in the late work of Heiner Müller”) was primarily concerned with the power of the transition over borders and of the intertextuality of Müller’s work. The issue of borders is just as present today as it was when Müller was alive, as Werner observes, with the current migrant crisis in Europe, which Werner sees predicted, to some extent, in Müller’s works of Der Auftrag and Anatomie Titus The Fall of Rome: Ein Shakespearekommentar, where the supposed Third World irrupts into the supposed First World. According to Werner, Müller’s twinning of invaders to natural phenomena, like “Wälder als Waffe” (forests as weapons) and “Aufstand der Toten als Krieg der Landschaften” (“Uprising of the Dead as the War of the Landscapes”) links back to the idea of irruption of one world into another. Werner asserts that Müller’s works are about the in-between, the moment of transition across borders, and that this desire for change, and also fear of it, are key to understanding his work, and his position as an author who lived under four very different political systems.
Finally, the attendees of the conference had the opportunity to listen to a discussion between Thomas Irmer and B. K. Tragelehn, a close friend of Müller’s with whom he collaborated frequently. The talk began with the concept of landscape, with Tragelehn emphasizing the importance of landscape in theater as a guiding force in the communication between actors and the audience, drawing links between Müller’s approach and Brechtian theater, as well as recalling examples of performances that he had participated in or seen that demonstrated principles like the invasion of the audience or the importance of movement. During the question and answer portion, Tragelehn and Irmer, in conjunction with other attendees, vigorously discussed the extent to which reality and art should be divided in Müller’s theatrical works.
The presentations all tackled, in one way or another, the way in which Müller approached barriers on multiple levels in his work, not just thematically but also structurally. Müller navigated the boundary between the formalized and the real, between the living and the dead, landscape and humans, individuals and society, and between the “out” and the “in” of the German Democratic Republic. His work has not lost any relevance in the 24 years since his death, as new borders and boundaries are created and crossed every day. As Müller famously remarked, “man muss die Toten ausgraben, wieder und wieder, denn nur aus ihnen kann man Zukunft beziehen,” (One must unbury the dead, again and again, because only from them can the future be derived) so too must Müller must be unburied, to help understand the future.
by Franz Fromholzer
In late 2018, Brecht’s collected poems (translated into English by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine) were published. This march, the translators presented their impressive work in London in what amounted to more than just a book event. “Bertolt Brecht: The Poet Now” at Kings Place was more than a simple introduction to the new translations of Brecht’s poems. It was, without a doubt, a high quality multimedia performance as well. Actress Janet Suzman recited Brecht’s poems. Soprano Sarah Gabriel sang some of Brecht’s most famous songs such as “Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe”, “Alabama Song” and, of course, “And the Shark, He Has Teeth” (Die Moritat von Mackie Messer) accompanied by pianist Joseph Atkins. The translators Tom Kuhn and David Constantine themselves gave intriguing insights and provided the audience with helpful context and background information. Historical photographs and pictures of Brecht himself were projected in large format onto a screen during the presentation. The entire evening performance was arranged by artistic director Sue Parrish, who recently produced “A Berlin Kabaret” at the Brighton Fringe Festival. The performance focused on the period between the Weimar Republic and World War II in particular.
It was exciting to hear David Constantine and Tom Kuhn stress certain witty parallels and relations between poems of Brecht and of famous English poets. For example, William Blake’s “Minute Particulars” encourage the reader to help the poor and needy – “And those who are in misery cannot remain so long”. Thomas Hardy’s pointed “Christmas 1924” poem is highly critical of the church: “After two thousand years of mass/ We’ve got as far as poison-gas” – thus discussing the responsibility of science as well. And it was fascinating to hear about Brecht reading Wordsworth in 1940. Brecht emphasizes that poetry has in itself the power to resist inhumanity. So both translators initiated a dialogue between Brecht and very different English poets to highlight their highly beneficial work.
The context of the Jewish Book Week in London was also taken into consideration. Brecht’s “Medea of Lodz” and his poem written after the death of Walter Benjamin were recited. Still, some listeners asked at the end of the evening about Brecht’s texts concerning the Holocaust, and regretted not having heard anything about his commitment to Jewish victims. In response, David Constantine and Tom Kuhn emphasized Brecht’s fundamental sympathy for the poor which left its indelible mark on his writing in general.
Above all, the evening created the possibility for listening to a lot of great poetry and gaining closer insights into Brecht’s life. Especially the alliance between poetry and nature oftentimes gave lessons on art as a form of political resistance in dark times. Poetry liberates life from being reduced to algorithms, as Tom Kuhn mentioned strikingly; it presents verses as an act of flourishing.
by Margaret Setje-Eilers
In the first shot of Heinrich Breloer’s magnificent new biographical film, Brecht (Burghart Klaußner) shouts, “Nein, nein, nein!” and demands that the entire stage be lit, not just the small set. Let the audience see that they are in a theater! In the last shot, Helene Weigel (Adele Neuhauser) disappears into Brecht’s bedroom in their apartment in the Chausseestraße just after his death. She closes the door almost as if in our faces. We spectators are not invited to witness these moments. But in the space of the three hours between these shots, Breloer takes us from Augsburg to Berlin and depicts Brecht’s life and work in a number of narrative threads that intercept, interrupt, and even contradict each other. Dokudrama, the documentary style that Breloer initiated twenty years ago in films like Die Manns (2001) and Buddenbrooks(2008), could not be better suited for a film about Brecht’s life and work. It is epic theater pur.
Not only do newsreels, film clips, and musical numbers keep interrupting the film narrative, but actors, directors, and people involved in Brecht’s work speak up in commentaries. They even make remarks on their own acting in film clips just shown. It is everything we hope for and expect in epic theater: text, music, images, even projections, often rudely scuffing up against each other. The commentaries conjure up the role of the narrator in Brecht’s plays, only in Breloer’s film they are more elusive and often delivered by women. The ensuing threads form parallel narratives – film and photo documentation of Brecht’s life in black and white, newsreels of immediate postwar Berlin, familiar historical subtexts that show the GDR and the Berlin Ensemble, and elements of a feature film in color. All these strands strive to get our attention, along with color inserts featuring many of Brecht’s contemporaries, such as B.K. Tragelehn, Paula Banholzer, Regine Lutz, Käthe Reichel, Charlie Weber, and Werner Hecht. The materials in these parallel worlds are ambitiously interwoven, constantly breaking into and distancing us from the narrative at hand, sometimes undermining it or elaborating cynically. At one point, Paula Banholzer comments on a statement from Brecht in a film about them, Bidi und Bi in Augsburg (1978) made by Breloer himself. Brecht maintains that he taught her how to swim. Banholzer: “Er lügt!” It is the perfect scenario for Brecht’s epic theater; we as spectators need to make up our own minds. Tragelehn declines to answer whether Brecht saw his own position as similar to that of Galileo, the last play he was rehearsing in Berlin before his death. “Besser befleckt als leer.” Brecht: “Wir stellten Fragen.”
The film raises many potent questions about biography. Where is biography located? How should it be presented? How many narratives are there? What constitutes a “main narrative” and how does it get to be the main storyline? Breloer draws from vast visual and textual archives, as well as interviews from his own earlier films. The credits for his new film are extensive, staggeringly comprehensive sources of the sort that would make even the most superficial Brecht fan drool. These credits are well worth scrutinizing.
The casting of the color narrative film sections is very strong, and despite the many interruptions, the familiar faces keep the story strands easy to follow. The actors have physical characteristics that are uncannily similar to the figures they depict, but still different enough to remind viewers that they are actually seeing Tom Schilling and Burghart Klaußner enact the younger and older Brecht. The uneasy, unarticulated questions one might have, as to whether Brecht’s hair was as long as Schilling’s, are also features of epic theater. Breloer pulls this – and other similar situations – off masterfully. Lou Strenger is compellingly stunning as the younger Weigel from 1927-1933. Adele Neuhauser plays the older Weigel from 1947-56. (What about the exile years? More on that later.) Alas, my inner Weigel, the one I have long imagined, has more warmth. That left me realizing that I have long nurtured my own internally formed images of the Brecht family. Weigel, who is always active in the film – cooking, washing, baking, shoving furniture around – reaps deservedly high praise from characters on many narrative levels, from both the contemporary commentators and within the narrative film strands: “Die Mutter des Ganzen.” Elisabeth Hauptmann says it was tough for all the women. True. While Brecht seduces Isot Kilian, Regine Lutz speaks about his charm. Later Brecht says it all, albeit in a different context: “Das Denken ist eine körperliche Lust.”
Breloer spins the stories of Brecht’s youth in Augsburg with Caspar Neher, Paula Banholzer, and Marianne Zoff, his early years with Weigel and how the meeting with Ernst Josef Aufricht turned into the chance to produce The Threepenny Opera. But the narrative breaks off when Brecht leaves Berlin after the Reichstag fire, and it picks up again only at the HUAC hearings in the US, after which he returns to Europe. The exile years, especially those in the US, are not covered, except for several cleverly woven brief flashbacks to Ruth Berlau (Trine Dyrholm) in New York. (Highest praise for the film editing by Claudia Wolscht, for example, crosscuts from Berlau to Kreidekreis and a flashback to New York, where Berlau and Brecht discuss their unborn son Michel, the name of the boy in Kreidekreis.) It is too bad that Brecht’s time in Chur spent rehearsing and producing Antigone is omitted, as well as his exile in Scandinavia and his trip to Moscow with Margarete Steffin. Why did Breloer decide to concentrate on the years in Germany? Was there not enough visual documentary material? Ruth Berlau mentions Steffin briefly, but I would have appreciated seeing her as a character, as well as more about Hauptmann’s vast contributions to Brecht’s work and what is now the Bertolt Brecht Archive. Despite the staggering cast of characters, and the enormous scope of his project, it can’t include everything. Personally however, I would have nothing against another few hours of this film.
Nevertheless, the film does include documentation from many of Brecht’s rehearsals (narrative film level with Klaußner). We see clips, for example, from Baal, Trommeln in der Nacht, Die Dreigroschenoper, Der Hofmeister, Urfaust, Puntila, Kreidekreis, Mutter Courage (original footage from 1954 in Paris), and Galileo. We witness Brecht reacting to the uprising on June 17th, 1953 and one year later receiving the Stalin Peace Prize, subsequently learning of the Stalinist terror before his death.
Importantly, the film raises one of the questions Galileo wrestles with, but does not answer. It’s more relevant than ever today. What happens with the knowledge we have? What do we make of it? It’s a wise film, and it is not only about Brecht.