Issue 2020:1


Brecht in Prague CZ: Contradictions as a Method (November 2019)


Bertolt Brecht: Contradictions as a Method (Academy of Performing Arts, Prague, Czech Republic, 2019)

  1. Click here for images from the conference (courtesy of Oskar Helcel and Jan Hančil, Academy of Performing Arts in Prague)
  2. “Staging Contemporary Street Scenes” – A Workshop by Ann M. Shanahan (Anja Hartl)

Brecht and the Public Sphere (German Studies Association, Portland, Oregon, 2019)

Critical Public Spheres: Brecht, Müller, Seghers – An Introduction (André Fischer)

  1. Destroying German History: The Work of Heiner Müller as a Challenge to Public Memory (Esther Adaire)
  2. A Public Sphere of Exile: Anna Seghers and the Popular Front (Hunter Bivens)
  3. Anna Seghers – Public Intellectual (Christiane Romero)
  4. Anna Seghers’s Late Work in an International Context (Curtis Swope)
  5. Poetic Personae: Brecht’s Poetry as a Relational Matrix (Sabine Gross)
  6. The Socialist Intellectual and the Public Sphere (Jakob Norberg)

Brecht as Dataset (Modern Languages Association Convention, Seattle, Washington, 2020)

  1. Tweeting (in) “Dark Times”: Brecht’s Second Svendborg “Motto” Post-Trump (Micah Bateman)
  2. Digital Brecht: A Threat Model (David Robinson)
  3. Brecht on Digital Interactivity, Past and Present (Evan Torner)

Brecht und das Theater der Intervention: Zwei Berichte (Brecht-Tage im Literaturforum, Berlin, 2020)

  1. Marianne Streisand, Cornelius Puschke, Christian Hippe, Volker Ißbrücker
  2. Florian Vaßen

“Alles oder nichts.” Die Tage der Commune am Stadttheater Konstanz (Anja Hartl)

The Good Person of Szechwan by Lachende Bestien at Prague’s Venuše ve Švehlovce (Francesco Sani)

Playing to be Good in Times of Capitalistic Surrealism: The Good Person of Szechwan at the Volkstheater in Vienna (Franz Fromholzer)

Theater Work: The Berliner Ensemble at 25 by Peter Voigt (Margaret Setje-Eilers)


Looking Back as IBS President (Antony Tatlow)

Bertolt Brecht in Prague: Contradictions as a Method. “Staging Contemporary Street Scenes” – A Workshop by Ann M. Shanahan

by Anja Hartl

Drawing on her long experience as an actor, director and scholar and her training in both Brechtian and Stanislavskian methods of acting, Ann M. Shanahan (Purdue University) organised a workshop in which participants were invited to explore and apply Brecht’s theories and to bring them into dialogue with Stanislavsky’s approach. Shanahan observed that, while she had initially been trained within a Brechtian framework which privileges principles of commenting and demonstrating, it was only after she had become familiar with naturalistic acting principles based on individuality and identification in the Stanislavskian tradition that she was able to successfully realise Brecht’s ideas in her own practice. This premise set the frame for a workshop which covered rich material from Brecht’s time to the 21st century and proposed an American context for these investigations.

With reference to Brecht’s essay “The Street Scene,” Shanahan introduced two key principles of the Brechtian paradigm: a focus on the actor’s own critical capacity with regard to the character, realised through the notion of standing beside and commenting on a character’s behaviour; and the centrality of the social implications of a particular event or situation which need to be foregrounded on stage. Using the text’s descriptions as an illustration, workshop participants were asked to create their own ‘street scene of DAMU’ by observing tourists and locals in the busy street outside the conference venue and replicating significant forms of behaviour in the rehearsal room informed by a social and critical point of view. Applying Brechtian principles as the core task of this exercise, participants were invited to experiment with gestus and to emphasise the sociological rather than psychological dimension through their embodiment.

These ideas were further tested with the help of Brecht’s Lehrstück The Exception and the Rule. The prologue offered a particularly useful example because of its use of the chorus. Through multiple readings, the group of participants gradually developed a more Brechtian voice by gradually learning to add an intention to their performance to bring across the text’s central message – that the world is indeed alterable. For a subsequent reading of scene 1, techniques such as transposition into the third person and direct address were foregrounded as suitable means for staging the contradictions inherent in the play.

In a second step, the workshop moved on to texts by American playwrights to try out if and how Brechtian techniques can be made productive for performing other plays. Shanahan contended that a hybridisation of Brechtian and Stanislavskian techniques represents a central mode in the American theatre tradition and chose Tennessee Williams’s Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen… to exemplify this argument. Williams’s plays are best known for their use of psychological realism, which focuses on interiority and largely blends out sociological factors. What can a Brechtian perspective offer to such a text? The participants were encouraged to consider the extract through a Brechtian lens and to explore possible applications of Brecht’s techniques for the reading of a sample scene, especially of gestus as a device for foregrounding the contradictions shaping the relationships between the characters. While it was possible to apply gestic strategies, bridging the gap between a Brechtian style and the excessive psychology inscribed into the text was nevertheless experienced as complex by the volunteers. Based on this observation, Shanahan explained the need for new acting techniques which acknowledge the significance of both traditions and are designed to express what she described as a ‘mash-up’ between Brecht and Stanislavsky frequently encountered in the American context.

The workshop concluded with a brief examination of an extract from Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays project. While Parks employs a Brechtian V-effect, her works are also characterised by an emphasis on presence, on the ‘spell’ of a moment which is not necessarily action-based. The text served as a powerful example that issues of gender, sexuality, and race and the role Brechtian devices can play in their representation need to be closely interrogated. Making a strong case for the productivity of bringing Brecht and Stanislavsky together, Shanahan’s workshop, her compelling argument about the forms and functions of Brechtian acting principles in an American context and the diverse applications she offered provided a compelling practical perspective which helped bring to life the theoretical discussions of the conference for the attendees.

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Critical Public Spheres: Brecht, Müller, Seghers – An Introduction (Brecht and Public Sphere)

By André Fischer

The 2019 annual convention of the German Studies Association in Portland (Oregon) dedicated a series of panels to concepts of the public sphere and how socialist writers and intellectuals such as Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers, and Heiner Müller critically engaged with their respective public spheres. This series of panels was organized by the International Brecht Society, the Internationale Heiner-Müller-Gesellschaft, and the Anna-Seghers-Gesellschaft and focused on the self-presentations and interventions of these writers in the public sphere.

An additional roundtable session tried to tie these three panels together in a discussion of various concepts of public sphere. During this roundtable, Jakob Norberg highlighted the reception of Jürgen Habermas’s concept of a liberal public sphere in New German Critique during the 1970s, while Astrid Oesmann engaged with Oskar Negt’s and Alexander Kluge’s concept of counter-public sphere and its origins in Brechtian theory. Christiane Romero investigated Sartre’s notion of the public intellectual and its applicability to Anna Seghers’s work. In the panel on Bertolt Brecht’s “Selbst-stilisierungen,” Sabine Gross examined Brecht’s self-images in his poetry while Lydia White discussed Brecht’s Messingkauf as a theory of public sphere. In the panel on Heiner Müller, Jens Pohlmann analyzed Müller’s acceptance speech for the Georg-Büchner-Preis as symptomatically located between public sphere and public relations. Noah Willumsen demonstrated the autonomous lives of Heiner Müller’s quotations, while Esther Adaire put Müller’s poetry in dialogue with public sculpture and public memory. Hunter Bivens dissected notions of Heimat, the popular, and patriotism in Anna Seghers’s writings during her Mexican exile and pointed at their relevance in contemporary discussions about populism, while Curtis Swope compared Seghers’s stories in Die Kraft der Schwachen with the work of the Mexican mural painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, showing how their works reflect the theoretical shifts in Marxist discourse during the 1960s. Kristin Boney asked about relevancy of Anna Seghers’s works in a post-Wende curriculum and the classroom as public sphere.

The following six essays in this issue by Adaire, Bivens, Romero, Swope, Gross, and Norberg represent a selection of revised essays from the panel series. While the selected contributions each raise particular questions, the overarching questions of our discussions were some of the following: How can the concepts of public sphere and counter-public sphere be applied to capitalist and socialist systems? How did each of the three writers reconcile his or her sophisticated view of Marxist theory with channels for and norms of public expression in the GDR (i.e., the Writers’ Union, major literary journals, speeches at conferences)? Which forces, factors, and ideas drove the choices they made as publicly engaged intellectuals? How did they conceive of the relationship between their roles as public intellectuals and their literary production? Is the notion of literature as an alternative public sphere in the GDR still a viable one? To what degree did writers in socialist countries and socialist intellectuals in the Federal Republic think in terms of public spheres beyond Germany? Our series of panels attempted to shed light on the various stakes of such questions, including understanding socialist cultural production and recasting our notion of how intellectuals viewed their responsibility to the various publics they sought to address.

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Destroying German History: The Work of Heiner Müller as a Challenge to Public Memory (Brecht and Public Sphere)

By Esther Adaire

Theatre studies scholarship on Heiner Müller since his death in 1995 has often addressed the notion that his later works, given their equal presentism and deep concern with German history, continually speak to our own historical moment. As Alexander Kluge writes of his late friend, “I once asked [Müller], is he actually a surveyor or a prophet? And he said: rather a surveyor, but better yet, a seismograph. He is a seismograph who measures meticulously.”[1] Even as early as the 1970s, Müller’s oft-dubbed ‘history’ plays (such as Germania Tod in Berlin, Macbeth, Hamletmaschine) question the viability of historical narrative as drama or as Lehrstück (learning play), with Müller increasingly referencing the social ills of his own present in order to disrupt the notion of a teleological historical continuum. As David Bathrick has noted, in Müller’s later works “there emerges an increasingly problematized view of a German past that continues to haunt the present and that refuses to be overcome by one’s simply becoming a citizen of the [Deutsche Demokratische Republik].”[2]

Yet while these themes in Müller’s work are familiar to theatre scholars as well as literary critics, seldom have he or his writings been used by historians as a potential touchstone for understanding historical consciousness in the DDR. In particular, given the great emphasis that was placed in the early 1990s on both a ‘spatial’ and a ‘mnemonic’ turn, while historians grappled with the rapid physical and cultural dissolution of the DDR, it is curious that so few historians have attempted to distil a philosophy of history from Müller’s writings and interviews, often instead merely referencing him as one of a handful of prominent Marxist intellectuals-in-crisis during the Wende period. Müller’s own particular crisis – the loss of his Wall-straddling status as ‘Müller Deutschland’ – reflects perfectly the broader crisis of what historian Jeffrey Herf has famously referred to as Germany’s “divided memory”[3] – that is, the manner in which East and West German meaning-making about the past evolved in markedly different ways and yet, at the same time, often defined themselves against one another. What’s more, given the recent focus on changes to the East German architectural landscape and studies of ‘urban palimpsests,’ it is of significance that several of Müller’s works focus on themes of destruction, history as archaeology, and the removal or replacement of historical markers – i.e. statues or monuments to Marxism – in the former DDR.

It is precisely these aspects of a physical deconstruction of public history that are of interest to the historian of DDR memory and its post-wall dissolution. Frank Hörnigk has drawn attention to the use of ‘ground,’ or the underground, in Müller’s 1977 play Hamletmachine, as a substrate out of which Müller digs up historical memories. Hörnigk saw in Müller’s “disjunctive correlations” between different historical moments and allegorical images (Germany as Hamlet; the eternal recurrence of failed revolutions) an attempt to realise in theatre the non-linear mechanisms of historical memory: “The ground always determines movement on the surface, thereby suspending linear causality.”[4] Of particular significance is East German memory in Müller’s final few years, against the backdrop of German reunification. Yet even as far back as his 1965 text Der Bau (Construction), Müller took up East German history as his focus in a move against its “repression” – not only the “memory of the idea of a socialist utopia but also the memory of the dilemma of its failure.”[5] By the 1990s, Müller had become concerned about another ‘victors of history’ narrative emerging in the aftermath of the DDR’s dissolution.

By way of summarizing the ‘public memory’ context in which I wish here to situate Müller: During the Wende period, both scholarly and public discourse about the past shifted from being about ‘history’ to being about ‘memory.’[6] This conceptual difference suited and reflected a heightened culture of remembrance in reunified Germany that explicitly situates the past within the present; while history, in the historicist sense, often implies a linear chronology, memory is often non-linear – as is the (in many ways uniquely German) process of Aufarbeitung or ‘working-through.’ One fundamental aspect of memory discourse is the “relation between historiography and individual/collective memory”[7] – that is, an ever-shifting relationship between the way history is told in the public sphere and the way it is told in the home, in the ‘family album’ so to speak. Public memory work, then, necessarily disrupts temporalities – the monument or memorial seeks to jolt the individual observer back through time in order to dwell on their own subjective connection to catastrophe. Yet German memorialisation until 1989 had largely been a West German endeavour shaped by an emergent culture of remembrance which centred around the Jewish Holocaust – a narrative which, in East Germany, looked markedly different, more a culture of ‘monumentalisation’ to the triumph of communism over fascism, an idea based on class and economy rather than one which acknowledged the unique suffering of Jews.[8]

While a corrective to this was clearly necessary, one post-reunification consequence is that East Germans have not only been asked to forget antifascism and join a West German culture of memory, they have also been asked to forget the DDR. Memory of East Germany has subsequently gained an aura of kitsch – a marketable Ostalgie consisting of premature nostalgia for a bygone socialist era, which in fact was only the very recent past. In many ways, memory of the failure of socialism in Germany has not yet been worked through, rather replaced or revised to meet a West German narrative. Some architectural examples of this include the changing of street names, the removal of socialist realist elements from the Berlin area, the replacement of a statue of Karl Marx outside Humboldt University with that of historian Theodor Mommsen, the demolition of the Palast der Republik, the renovation of the Reichstag and the reconstruction of Berlin’s Stadtschloss.

In what remains, then, I will choose one aspect of this shifting public memory discourse – namely, the challenge to public/spatial memory brought about by the removal or changing of monuments to Karl Marx in post-wall Berlin – as examined by Müller in two publications from the early 1990s: 1) the 1990 collection of Müller’s poetry and images by East German photographer Sibylle Bergemann, titled Ein Gespenst verläßt Europa, and 2) his 1991 poem ‘Mommsens Block.’ What both of these examples reveal, I believe, is a tension between Müller’s destructive non-linearity and his Benjaminian ‘melancholy gaze’ upon the ruins of the DDR, both constituting a challenge to the revision of public memory in the former East Germany following reunification. Key to how this challenge functions is Müller’s own writing process, as he expressed it in relation to his perhaps most fragmentary and hermetic ‘history play’ Hamletmaschine – that in writing, his primary interest was in “destroying” his own “obsession” with German history: “I think my main impulse is to strip things to their skeleton, to rid things of their flesh and surface. Then you are finished with them.”[9]

In 1990, several of Müller’s poems were compiled and published alongside the work of photographer Sibylle Bergemann in a collection titled Ein Gespenst verläßt Europa. The use of the Gespenst or ‘ghost,’ here a direct reference to the spirit of communism departing Europe, recurs throughout Müller’s ‘history’ plays from Germania Tod in Berlin to Hamletmaschine and Macbeth, as well as his posthumously-staged Germania 3: Gespenster am toten Mann, signifying the burden of historical memory and the non-linearity (even the impossibility) of historical progress. As Hans-Thies Lehmann writes in his essay ‘Heiner Müllers Spectres,’ the ghost “refers to an uncanny dimension (Unheimlichkeit) in time and history: consciousness demands memory… Without remembering there can be no utopia.”[10] The ghost, in Müller’s history plays as in his poetry, functions as anachronism – “a weave out of past and future” – necessary for Müller’s writing about history.[11] In Ein Gespenst verläßt Europa, the ‘ghost’ takes form as sculptor Ludwig Engelhardt’s statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, photographed by Bergemann; a monument-turned-memorial, after Bergemann’s photographs, taken throughout the 1970s and 80s, become translated into the context of 1990. Together, Müller’s poems and Bergemann’s photographs are presented, as Der Spiegel advertised at the time, in “a book that presents a memorial to the fiasco of [a] past state and its ideology.”[12]

Bergemann’s photographs document the construction of Engelhardt’s statue at his open-air studio on the Baltic Island of Usedom. The monument, which still stands today in the Marx-Engels-Forum in Berlin-Mitte, is shown throughout its development, from several initial conceptual maquettes to the statue’s final transport to the Mitte district in 1986, where it resided against the backdrop of the now-demolished Palast der Republik. Following an introductory shot of the monument in 1990 straddled by tourists, each of Bergemann’s subsequent frames showing the various stages of construction have the paradoxical effect of a deconstruction. Sometimes Marx and Engels are headless against “Magrittian cloud formations,”[13] sometimes they are obscured by unnerving shrouds to protect against harsh weather conditions. The outcome is a Verfremdungseffekt which, in the words of Peter Voigt (who wrote the epilogue to the publication), results in something similar to “the satirical provocation of [John] Heartfield’s photomontages; the effect begins where laughter fades.”[14] Presented alongside Müller’s poems, Voigt continues, it becomes clear that this effect is linked directly to historical memory: “Left in the light of the day, [the photographs’] real melancholy results from the climate of a leaden time” in which each frame “loses its attachment” to temporality.[15]

Müller’s poetry emphasises this melancholy gaze; in the cold light of reunification the statue of Marx and Engels itself becomes anachronistic – a ruin, and in turn an allegory, for the history of the DDR. The poem ‘Fernsehen,’ comprised of four numbered stanzas titled ‘Geografie,’ ‘Daily News nach Brecht 1989,’ ‘Selbstkritik,’ and ‘Für Gunter Rambow 1990,’ creates a vista of the ruins of communism seen through the lens of the television as a source of ‘truth.’ Müller thus creates his own narrative allegory or what he elsewhere calls an “aggregate, a machine on which an infinite number of [other metaphors] can be attached,”[16] by superimposing images from Soviet history atop critique of Western freedom – for example in ‘Geografie,’ when he juxtaposes the history of Western colonialism against images of Berlin and Beijing: “1. Geografie / Gegenüber der HALLE DES VOLKES / Das Denkmal der toten Indianer / Auf dem PLATZ DES HIMMLISCHEN FRIEDENS / Die Panzerspur.”[17] This imagery must in turn be read in the context of Müller’s own present. ‘Fernsehen’ was first presented to the public by Müller in October 1989 during a performance of his play Quartet at the Theater im Palast der Republik. The producer and one of the actors having fled to the West following the opening of the Austrian border in September, Müller stepped in to read the play himself as, outside, the public feared military repression and tanks surrounding the Volkskammer in anticipation of student protests. In a “gesture of solidarity” with other writers who still remained in the DDR (Volker Braun, Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym), Müller interrupted Valmont’s monologue to read aloud an early version of ‘Fernsehen.’[18]

The melancholy of Müller’s historical gaze had by this point become entirely personal. The failure of socialism in the DDR links in the stanza titled ‘Selbstkritik’ to Müller’s own youthful naïveté and thus to the dissolution of his own self-styling as Müller-Deutschland: while his editors rummage through his earlier manuscripts, Müller laments: “Welches Grab schützt mich vor meiner Jugend.”[19] This self-criticism and layering of historical allegory engages with, or recalls, a very public debate over the fate of DDR memory which surrounded Engelhardt’s statue in the initial post-Wall months. After reunification many Berliners wanted the statue – which stood proudly in the shadow of the Palast der Republic, home to the Volkskammer – removed entirely. The narrative that the statue and the other socialist realist artwork in the Marx-Engels-Forum represented – historical progress as the workers’ pilgrimage from suffering and oppression to freedom under socialism – now seemed highly fallacious to many. For months after reunification in 1990 the base of the statue bore graffiti reading “Wir sind unschuldig,” which invited a kind of ersatz public forum for debate, with the ‘un’ in ‘unschuldig’ being crossed out. One could even purchase a postcard, and eventually Marx’s hands were daubed in red paint to signify blood.

While the statue of the Marx-Engels-Forum remains today, the Palast der Republik was eventually demolished, in 2006 – but not before the experimental industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten (whose name, which roughly translates to ‘collapsing new buildings,’ acknowledges the postmodern disposability of post-war spatial memory) took the opportunity to perform a concert in its vacated interior. Neubauten, incidentally, produced a radio-drama of Müller’s Hamletmaschine in 1991 with Blixa Bargeld in the role of Hamlet, the band’s radical negation of music fitting well with Müller’s destructive/disruptive dramaturgy.

In the 1992 poem ‘Mommsens Block,’ Müller solidifies the paradigm of destruction and archaeology that shapes his philosophy of history. The poem’s title is famously a double allusion to the bust, or ‘block,’ of nineteenth century German historian Theodor Mommsen which had replaced the bust of Marx outside of Humboldt University during the cultural turnaround, as well as the writer’s block from which both Mommsen and Müller suffered. Müller, in 1992, had not written a new play for several years, in large part due to his disillusionment over the failure of the DDR in its last few years, while Mommsen had once failed to complete the fourth volume of his Römische Geschichte. One can see Müller attempting to work through his writer’s block in the fragmentary poems he produced during the early years of reunification, for example his 1991 ‘Glucklöse Engel II’ (a sequel to his 1958 homage to Walter Benjamin): “Zwischen Stadt und Stadt / Nach der Mauer der Abgrund.” Directly linking his inability to write with the fall of the Wall and the end of East German history, Müller at once draws upon the loss of his own self-styled identity as writer divided between East and West, and also of the seeming impossibility of writing history from within a temporal ‘abyss.’ In Mommsen, Müller confronts the paradox of the historian with writer’s block; in the replacement of Marx with Mommsen, the erasure of East German memory.

For historians of East German public memory today, the replacement of Marx with Mommsen should seem inherently problematic, for it represents an attempt to locate, within the nineteenth century historicist school, a ‘neutral’ Germany with a usable past, thereby erasing an entire century of ideological conflict. Yet, echoing Nietzsche’s dictum that memory and historical sources often work against one another, Müller “adopts the Gestus of the historian”[20] and begins to identify with Mommsen: “Solche Unternehmungen wie die Mommsens / müssen sehr selten sein, weil ein ungeheures Gedächtnis / und ein entsprechender Scharfsinn in der Kritik und / Ordnung eines solchen Materials selten zusammen kommen, vielmehr gegen einander zu arbeiten pflegen.” [21] (Later in the poem, Müller notes that during their lifetimes, Mommsen passed by Marx entirely: “Sozialismus nach dem großen Historiker / Des Kapitals Den Sie nicht wahrgenommen haben / Arbeiter in einem andern Steinbruch”[22] – the two great German scholars standing in for two narratives of history, East and West, that by their nature seem unable to meet.)[23] The historian with writer’s block, then, or the impossibility of writing history in post-reunification Germany, highlights a dissonance between official reunification narratives about the past in Germany, and the way in which that past is remembered individually, particularly by East Germans, which can be uncovered by noticing the places where DDR memory has been forgotten or purposely erased.

For Lehmann, Mommsens Blockdemonstrates Müller’s understanding of history as archaeology; history written in the palimpsests of urban landscapes or of the very earth itself, capable of “encompass[ing] the entanglement of destruction and resurrection” of the dead. For others ‘Mommsens Block’ is an example of Benjaminian history against the grain,[24] or ‘prophetic speech’ – “The dominant feature is that it is futile to point to history as the place where lessons can be learned and the ‘future’ recognized.”[25] In all cases what Müller leaves to historians is the challenge of new possibilities for writing history post-1989 that avoid a monumentalising narrative. In his 1991 interview with Frank Raddatz, Müller is asked whether memory is the “last bastion” of the historical subject. In response, Müller answers that we all live in museums, both in terms of our immediate surroundings and our internalized experiences. “There is a theory,” he says, “that Lenin was a Dadaist and the October Revolution was a Dadaist performance. Even though that’s sheer nonsense, it’s correct in principle. It’s an attempt to force history out of the museum. Once it’s outside of the museum, it can speak and the dead can speak with us.”[26]


[1] Alexander Kluge, ‘It is an Error, that the Dead are Dead,’ New German Critique 73, Special Issue on Heiner Müller (Winter 1998), pp. 5-11 (p. 7).

[2] David Bathrick, The Powers of Speech: The Politics of Culture in the GDR (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), p. 18.

[3] See Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

[4] Frank Hörnigk and Rachel Leah Magshamrain, ‘Müller’s Memory Work,’ New German Critique 98 (Winter 1998), pp. 1-14 (p. 3).

[5] Ibid, p. 5.

[6] See, for example, Klaus Neumann, Shifting Memories: The Nazi Past in the New Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000) and Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (New York: Routledge, 1995); Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

[7] Milija Gluhovic, Performing European Memories: Trauma, Ethics, Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 4.

[8] See Hans-Joachim Maaz, ‘Zur psychischen Verarbeitung des Holocaust in der DDR,’ in Bernhard Moltmann et al., Erinnerung: Zur Gegenwart des Holocaust in Deutschland-West und Deutschland-Ost (Frankfurt am Main: Haag & Herchen, 1993), pp. 163-168 (p. 166); Olaf Groehler, ‘Der Umgang mit dem Holocaust in der DDR,’ in Rolf Steininger, ed., Der Umgang mit dem Holocaust: Europa – USA – Israel (Köln: Böhlau, 1994), pp. 233-245; Annette Leo, ‘Als antifaschistischer Staat nicht betroffen? Die DDR und der Holocaust,’ in Bernd Faulenbach and Helmuth Schütte, eds., Deutschland, Israel und der Holocaust (Essen: Klartext, 1998), pp. 89-10; Sabine Moller, Vielfache Vergangenheit: öffentliche Erinnerungskulturen und Familienerinnerungen an die NS-Zeit in Ostdeutschland (Tübingen: edition diskord, 2003).

[9] Heiner Müller, Rotwelsch (Berlin: Merve 1982), p. 81.

[10] Hans-Thies Lehmann, ‘Heiner Müller’s Spectres,’ in Gerhard Fischer, ed., Heiner Müller: ConTEXTS and History (Tübingen: Stauffenberg, 1994), pp. 87-96 (pp. 87-88).

[11] Ibid, p. 89.

[12] Blurb in Der Spiegel, ‘Fotografien des Berliner Marx-Engels-Denkmals’ (December 17, 1990).

[13] Peter Voigt, ‘Nachwort,’ in Heiner Müller, Ein Gespenst verlässt Europa (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1990) no page numbers included.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Müller, ‘Shakespeare a Departure,’ in Marc von Henning, ed., Theatremachine (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 99-102 (p. 101).

[17] Heiner Müller, ‘Fernsehen,’ in Ein Gespenst verlässt Europa (Kiepenhauer & Witsch, 1990).

[18] As recalled by Anna Chiarloni, ‘From the Ramparts of History: Two Versions of a Poetic Text by Heiner Müller,’ in Fischer, ed., pp. 244-248.

[19] Heiner Müller, ‘Fernsehen.’

[20] Lehmann, p. 92.

[21] Heiner Müller, ‘Mommsens Block,’ in Berliner Ensemble, Drucksache 1 (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 1991), pp. 1-9 (p. 5).

[22] Ibid, pp. 6-7.

[23] Ibid, p. 7.

[24] Thomas Freeland sees Müller as fundamentally challenging the methodology of the historian: “How is it possible to claim knowledge of history? What happens to those events the historian cannot – or will not – address?” Thomas Freeland, ‘Writing into the Void: Heiner Müller’s “Mommsen’s Block” as a State of Exception,’ New German Critique 119 (Summer 2013), pp. 167-184.

[25] Horst Domdey, ‘Writer’s Block, or ‘John on Patmos in the Haze of a Drug High:’ Heiner Müller’s Lyrical Text Mommsens Block,’ in Fischer, ed., pp. 234-241 (p. 239).

[26] Müller interviewed by Frank Raddatz, ‘The Future is Evil,’ translated by Matthew Griffin in Carl Weber, A Heiner Müller Reader: Plays, Poety, Prose (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. 131-153 (p. 136.).

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A Public Sphere of Exile: Anna Seghers and the Popular Front (Brecht and Public Sphere)

by Hunter Bivens

Anna Seghers emerged in the period of German antifascist exile as one of the major German voices of resistance in Paris and later in Mexico City. This paper will elucidate some of the key aspects of her theory of fascism, the particularities of German national development and history, and the role of a politically committed literary and artistic practice in the interwar period. Across a number of essays and speeches, Seghers lays out the vision of a cultural popular front that compliments, but is not identical with the policy of Communist parties in this period as proclaimed at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International by Georgi Dimitroff in 1935. Seghers’s vision of a popular front politics foregrounds the need for an integral connection between the political and everyday life, one in which art plays the central role as a tool for organizing social experience in order allow imagination, fantasy, historical trauma, and the messiness of everyday life to emerge into the public sphere as a shared history and present. I’ll close with a dilettantish speculation on what this might mean today.

In a number of speeches and essays throughout the 1930s, Seghers would develop her own theory of how the figure of the popular should be understood and of what a literary practice in line with the politics of the Popular Front might look like.[1] Among her better-known interventions is the exchange of letters that Seghers initiated with Georg Lukács in the pages of Internationale Literatur at the time that she was working on The Seventh Cross. In this correspondence, Seghers defended the experimental character of much contemporary socialist prose against Lukács. With reference to the generation of Kleist, Hölderlin, and Büchner, variously destroyed by the misery of the post-Napoleonic German reaction, Seghers wrote that aesthetic immediacy is not always to be linked, as Lukács would have it, to cognitive immediacy, that is, mistaking social appearances for deeper contradictions that produce them.[2] Rather, in times of crisis, revolution, and extreme reaction, aesthetic immediacy represents the affective urgency of the present. Thus, for writers like Kleist, “the reality of their time and their society did not exert a gradual and persistent influence on them, but rather a kind of shock effect,”[3] producing not so much a mirror of the social whole, which is Lukács’s metaphor here, but rather “splinters,” fragmentary reflections of an epoch that could not yet be thought or represented.[4] As Lukács rejoins, the question here is less one of the shock of the new than it is of what he refers to, citing Gorky, as the “social backing” of literature, “the unity of democratic tradition in social life and realist tradition in art,”[5] a unity that both Seghers and Lukács agree has never existed in Germany. Yet, whereas for Lukács the lack of this popular tradition is the justification for rejecting what he dismisses as the aesthetics of immediacy, from Kleist to Expressionism and beyond, Seghers recognizes in the shards of literature’s head-on confrontation with the conflicts and antagonisms that have historically disfigured German culture and society “something that was beginning, that is still not completed: the portrayal of the new basic experience, the art of the new epoch.”[6]

For Seghers, the popular is to be sought not in a given progressive tradition or heritage but rather in social engagement that allows for the “making conscious of conflicts.”[7] Throughout the 1930s, she argued that the key terms of the Communist Popular Front discourse, terms like Volk and Heimat, cannot be regarded as self-evident unities but can be approached only by searching out the contradictions that are concealed by fascist demagogy. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Seghers articulated such a project in her own elaboration of a counter-discourse of Heimat, locating this fissure historically. In her 1941 essay “Germany and Us,” she develops an analysis of the deutsche Misère as a history of breaks and ruptures. Seghers argues that the nineteenth-century industrialization and unification of Germany were not achieved under the banner of an ascendant bourgeoisie but by the reactionary Junker aristocracy. Particularly after the revolutions of 1848, social demands in Germany were no longer articulated in concert with national ones. This rupture between personal experience and the political, generally thought to be one of the defining characteristics of modernity, is pathologically accentuated in the German context, and “therefore the life experience of the Germans is also fissured, burdened by its history.”

Seghers’s “Vaterlandsliebe” address had already explored this fissure in terms of the German relationship to place, opposing the notions of blood and soil deployed by National Socialism with a vision of a different mode of spatial identification inscribed with the history of class struggle and the divisions of German society:

If one of our writers travels crossways through Germany, […] and he catches sight of the grandiose, dreadful, sulfur-yellow Leuna factory-landscape, the pumping heart of our fatherland, where tens of thousands of workers realize peculiar inventions for the frugal country, is he then proud of this sight? Is he proud of Leuna, the national asset? He is not proud of the national asset, and yet he is proud of the labor power of fifty thousand workers, proud of the achievement of this landscape saturated with the blood of the central German uprising, proud of the future of Leuna. Ask first of the weighty word Vaterlandsliebe what it is about your country that is cherished. Do the holy goods of the nation console the dispossessed? … Does the “holy earth of the homeland” console the landless? Yet he who has worked in our factories, who has demonstrated in our streets, who has struggled in our language, he would not be human if he did not love our country.[8]

The presence of this other Germany inscribed into the landscape is a concretization of the “progressive” German culture not as a tradition but as a project that has roots in the present and that might anchor an antifascist discourse of the nation during the exile period. This notion of Heimat reverses the naturalization of social relations through National Socialism’s idealization of biology and destiny. Leuna is not evoked here as a landscape for contemplation but conjured as a symbol for the very possibility of a different emplotment of German history than that offered by Hitler’s ideologues, of a popular antifascist politics that might emerge given a shift in optics. Seghers returns to the ambiguity of the Leuna landscape in “Germany and Us,” writing:

Leuna means at once a painful phase in Germany’s history, memories of the central German uprising, struggle and sacrifice, and the vengeance of those who are today the rulers of Germany and already then had shown their true faces, tortured and murdered. Leuna means the unfailingly precise labor power of tens of thousands of workers, today frightfully misused, employed tomorrow no longer against, but rather for the people, of which it is a part. Just like Leuna, every square kilometer of our country attests to the ability, to the labor power, to the resistance of its people and at the same time to the flashpoints of its history.[9]

Here, rather than a naively crypto-fascist relation to the landscape as a type of mythical origin, the notion of Heimat is political and historical, based in the shared experiences of work and struggle that link the generations. These experiences, though, are precisely what is excluded from the bourgeois public sphere, as it is defined by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge in their classic account The Public Sphere and Experience. For Negt and Kluge, the public sphere is “the general social horizon of experience,”[10] but it is at the same time a bourgeois horizon in so far as it excludes the experiences of production, that is to say work, unemployment, etc. and those of reproduction, in other words, the family, domestic labor and so forth, “the whole of the industrial apparatus and socialization in the family.”[11] This context of experience, which Negt and Kluge designate as the proletarian Lebenszusammenhang,[12] or context of living, can thus only be experienced privately, although it is in fact the very stuff of the social, and indeed of everyday life.[13] Seghers uses the notion of Heimat to locate this everydayness in its historical specificity, a way of addressing the complicated thickening of place and emplotment that animates both the novel form and an antifascist conception of history, but that nonetheless must be made visible through collective action. The problem that occupies many of Seghers’s works of the exile period is one of the legibility of Heimat, which is to say: by what discursive, aesthetic, and political practices can this substratum of resistance be made to appear?[14] At the same time, this Popular Front notion of Heimat can be thought of as an attempt to articulate the proletarian Lebenszusammenhang within the structures of bourgeois publicity, or as Seghers puts it in her essay “Aufgaben der Kunst”: “the making conscious of reality through art encompasses all of the domains of life.”[15]

In the condition of exile, literature and the novel formed something of a substitute Öffentlichkeit for émigrés, and Seghers’s own practice as a novelist was one part of the answer to this question, attempting to refunction the novel to take on aspects of public-ness which were difficult to institutionalize in exile.[16] There is an irony here, since, as Benjamin tells us, the novel is the most private of literary forms.[17] Alain Badiou writes of the turn to the popular among the poets of the 1930s: “These communist poets rediscover what in France Victor Hugo had already discovered: the duty of the poet is to look in language for the new resources of an epic that would no longer be that of the aristocracy of knights but the epic of the people in the process of developing a new world.”[18] Seghers was of course a novelist rather than a poet, but nevertheless during the 1930s developed her distinctive mode of novelistic composition, which she was to pursue and refine in her later great panoramic novels of the GDR, characterized by “an extensive character ensemble, … scenic and episodic narration, … montage, and simultaneous and independently progressing plotlines” that aspired to create a kind of prismatic totality by way of the structural concentration of these narrative elements around a clearly delineated place or event.[19] This narrative structure was developed by Seghers in her first novel Die Gefährten, a multi-strand narrative that follows a number of émigrés from the Hungarian Soviet Republic through the white terror of 1920s, which Kracauer had already described as a contemporary martyr chronicle in a review of the book for the Frankfurter Zeitung.[20] While sharing formal similarities with Die Gefährten, The Seventh Cross, Seghers’s antifascist masterpiece, also borrows from trivial and genre literature to tie its various narrative strands and thematic concerns together around a classical fugitive story, producing a Popular Front thriller. Alexander Stephan has described the book’s form as a kind of “moderate modernism,” which incorporates and mediates between modernism and realism, fiction and reportage elements, and episodic episodes and a traditional linear plot.[21] As Bernard Spies points out, the book “uses the movement of the fugitive in space as a corridor allowing insight into various strata and mentalities of National Socialist Germany, and simultaneously as a structuring element that creates linearity and integration.”[22] Continuity and discontinuity in this narrative structuring are punctuated by the repetition of moments of decision; confronted by the fact of Georg Heisler’s flight, what do characters do?

Seghers locates her analysis of fascist subjectivity in this same “complex meshwork of punctual dissatisfaction, self-preservation, non-conformity, opposition, and more or less open protest in the everyday realms of family, workplace, and milieu,” as Stephen puts it.[23] As he points out, in texts like “A Person Becomes a Nazi” and with the character of the camp overseer Zillich, whom she followed across two decades from Der Kopflohn through The Seventh Cross, and finally the story “The End,”[24] Seghers created a sociological-psychological case study of fascist identification, which echoes and responds to many of the analyses of fascism on the German Left in this period, be they Marxist, sociological, or psychoanalytic.[25] Common to these analyses by figures as diverse as Brecht, Bloch, Adorno, or Reich was the position that Max Horkheimer so tersely expressed in his 1938 essay “The Jews and Europe”: “whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism.”[26] In Seghers’s novels mentioned above, Zillich appears as a precarious young farmer, shaped by the trench combat of the First World War and ruined by the economic crises of the early 1930s. He has been rendered superfluous by capitalism in the same fashion as the unemployed youth of the cities. For Seghers, this failure of capitalism to accommodate the capacities, skills, and aspirations of the working masses is key to understanding the mass appeal of fascism: “up to now this . . . person with all of his abundant value, with all of his talents and abilities, was unusable, untapped, a burden, with millions too many of his sort in every fatherland.” With the rise of fascism, Seghers writes, “suddenly he is utilizable . . . In a certain sense the lie is true and therefore terribly seductive: ‘the fatherland needs you!’”[27] In other words, Seghers locates the subjective appeal of fascism in the experience of precarity and superfluousness, which is itself linked to capitalism in crisis. She depicts great economic crises as a crisis in human relationships and in the capacity for solidarity, both everyday and political.[28] Indeed, as Christiane Zehl Romero points out, precisely these techniques that allow for survival in “the hard struggle for existence, determined by crisis and debt, by property and exploitation” play into the hands of the right.[29]

Without getting into the complicated questions of what kind of alliances and political formations are needed to resist the rise of authoritarian populism today, it is at least worth noting that Seghers’s “we” is not the nostalgic ethno-nationalist “we” of, for example, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Seghers’s “we,” I would argue, is not one that is realized, but is rather an emancipatory project that interpellates those who struggle for, as Marx put it, “overthrow[ing] all those condition in which man is an abased, enslaved, abandoned, contemptable being,”[30] as “us.” Viewed from the present, one might indeed question the usefulness of the people and the nation, not only in Seghers’s publicity of this period, but of popular front imaginaries within left politics in general. One is reminded of Brecht’s famous dictum: “Anyone in our times who says population instead of ‘Volk’ and land ownership instead of ‘soil’ is already denying his support to many lies.”[31] Of course, Seghers’s own use of the terms Volk and Heimat was already part of a Popular Front rhetorical strategy of detournement, attempting to seize this ideological terrain from fascism and for a democratic national popular project. At its best, these values are articulated within an internationalist framework, less as antagonistic than as complementary ideals,” to quote Katerina Clark, [32] but on the left, the focus on the people can take the form of a kind of economic nationalism. Similarly, one could ask about the salience of Seghers’s appeal to Heimat, given that the term was so central to the success of the AfD in recent elections in Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia. These victories of authoritarian populism are all the more disturbing from a socialist perspective in that they occurred on the territory of the former GDR and were often couched in the rhetoric of a “Wende 2.0.”[33]

My point here is not to critique Seghers’s politics, but rather, in critical solidarity with her antifascist and anti-capitalist project, to ask about the efficacy of a Popular Front politics and what it might mean to envision the contradiction between the social and the national in the present moment, when, as Albert Toscano has pointed out, the global rise of authoritarian populism would seem to be “a symptom of the toxic obsolescence of the nation state” itself as forms of ethno-nationalist ideology fill the vacuum of contracting welfare states.[34] In the former GDR, this process was exacerbated by German unification in at least two important ways. First, in the early 1990s, the desires of East Germans for a reformed GDR – which might in some way combine individual freedoms with social solidarity, or as Wolfgang Engler put it so well in Die Ostdeutschen als Avant-garde, “to reconcile equality and freedom”[35] – was quickly overwhelmed by imported power structures from the Federal Republic and the logics of the market in the form of a regime of economic demobilizations and subsidies from the west, converting a large number of East Germans from productive citizens of the GDR to clients of the Federal Republic.[36] At the same time, the 1990s saw the destruction and marginalization of a representative East German Öffentlichkeit, or public sphere. In their discussions about the East German experience since the Wende, Jana Hensel and Wolfgang Engler discuss how this accelerated experience of neoliberalism on the territory of the former GDR, including the harsh austerity policies of Hartz IV and Agenda 2010, has undermined the conditions of social solidarity. Without wanting to endorse Engler’s condemnation of Angela Merkel’s emigration policies,[37] one might nevertheless agree that the struggle against the Hartz reforms would be a necessary part of a socially grounded “welcome culture,”[38] since the experience of social precarity common to migrants and East Germans can easily lead to a zero-sum game of racism and “Ossiphobia,” which then become the material of what Negt and Kluge refer to as public spheres of production.[39] These directly incorporate the frustrations, resentments, and rage of precarious neoliberal subjects into medial discourse in the sense that Walter Benjamin diagnosed in his essay on the artwork and technical reproducibility. The result is a corporate media discourse (Benjamin’s target was fascism itself as an aesthetic regime) that seeks to give the masses “expression” while leaving property relations unchanged.[40]

In a recent and controversial study, the German Center for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM) compared attitudes toward Muslims and East Germans, finding first that many Germans held similar opinions about both groups and reflecting second the marginalization of both groups in the larger mainstream German public sphere. The publication of the study was preceded by an interview between the director of the Center, Naika Foroutan, and Hensel in the Tageszeitung under the provocative headline “Sind Ossis auch Migranten.” Here Foroutan argues that both East Germans and migrants share similar experiences of Heimatverlust, dislocated sense of place, feelings of alienation, and loss of status.[41] There is a lot to say about this study and the debate it catalyzed.[42] All I can say is that racism in the post-GDR can neither be denied or excused, although it is not only in the East that people vote for the AfD, and, as Foroutan notes, “hostility toward Muslims is all-German at a high level.”[43] At the same time, the comparison of East Germans to migrants challenges regimes of racialization and privilege in the Federal Republic in productive ways without necessarily, I would argue, recursively confirming the second class status of East Germans in German society. Indeed, to return to Toscano, the current surge of authoritarian populism is irreducibly racist, a kind of “conservative politics of antagonistic reproduction, the reproduction of some against others” in the context of Germany’s Abstiegsgesellschaft, to borrow the formulation of Oliver Nachtwey – and this is clearly not only a German problem.[44] Both the crises of migration and of austerity are crises not only of capital but of solidarity.

In the German context, though, Foroutan’s call for a “post-migrant alliance” seems to be a more adequate, if less realized, tactic than the left nationalism of something like Sahra Wagenknecht’s disappointing Aufstehen platform,[45] since, as Foroutan asks: “But who is the working class anyway? Who doesn’t have money? First off migrants, East Germans too, single mothers as well. This illusion that you can separate the struggles over representation from gender and background is the fallacy of populism.”[46] Indeed, as Friedemann Wiese writes, “Foroutan’s thesis blurs the boundaries of those categories upon which the supposed antagonisms between East Germans and migrants currently rest. That makes alliances possible and also a common struggle against the decisive inequalities.”[47] At the same time, it does not attempt to collapse identities or efface the particularity of experience at the group or individual level; rather it points to common struggle. A cultural practice that, to again evoke the quote from Badiou above, would contribute to the “epic of the people in the process of developing a new world” is perhaps better founded on the shards of such as-yet precarious alliances than the mirror of identity. A final question, then, to bring us back to Seghers’s theory of the popular, which had its rigorous aesthetic dimension in her claims for the vocation of art as a form of social mapping, the formation of solidarities, and political contestation: what cultural forms and practices are emerging today to do this kind of work?


[1] During her exile in Paris, Seghers took a lead in the refounding of the writers’ association Schutzverband deutscher Schriftsteller im Ausland (SDS) in response to the book burnings in Germany in 1933, acting as the coordinator of the BPRS in western Europe, and participating both in the movement for a German Popular Front and the International Writers’ Conferences for the Defense of Culture in 1935 and 1937. In addition, Seghers was a regular contributor to exile journals like Neue deutsche Blätter, Das Wort, and Internationale Literatur as well as to the French press. In Mexico City, Seghers was involved in the founding of the Heinrich-Heine-Klub in Mexico City and the journal Freies Deutschland, as well as the publisher El libro libre.

[2] Georg Lukács, “A Correspondence with Anna Seghers,” Essays on Realism, edited by Rodney Livingstone, translated by David Fernbach (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980), 177. Lukács gives the example of mistaking the “essence of capitalism in lying in monetary circulation” rather than the extraction of surplus value in production.

[3] Ibid, 170.

[4] Ibid, 186.

[5] Ibid, 193.

[6] Ibid, 187.

[7] Anna Seghers, “Volk und Schriftsteller,” Aufsätze, Ansprachen, Essays 1927–1953. Gesammelte Werke in Einzelausgaben XIII (Berlin: Aufbau, 1984), 116. All translations are mine, except where otherwise noted.

[8] Anna Seghers, “Vaterlandsliebe,” Aufsätze, 35.

[9] Anna Seghers, “Deutschland und wir,” Aufsätze, 95.

[10] Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, The Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, translated by Peter Labanyi, Jamie Owen Daniel, and Assenka Oksiloff (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 2.

[11] Ibid, xlvi.

[12] Ibid, 6.

[13] For Seghers’s conception of everyday life, see Anna Seghers, “Revolutionärer Alltag,” Aufsätze, 5-6.

[14] Such is my argument in Hunter Bivens, Epic and Exile: Novels of the German Popular Front (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2015).

[15] Anna Seghers, “Aufgaben der Kunst,” Aufsätze, 169.

[16] On the role of the novel as a form of Öffentlichkeit in the antifascist exile, see Sigrid Bock, “Roman im Exil: Entstehungsbedingungen, Wirkungsabsichten und Wirkungsmöglichkeiten,” in Erfahrung Exil: Antifaschistische Romanen 1933–1945, edited by Sigrid Bock and Manfred Hahn (Berlin: Aufbau, 1979), 7-53.

[17] Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” Selected Writings 3: 1935–1938, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, translated by Edmund Jephcott, et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2002), 146.

[18] Alain Badiou, The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose (London: Verso, 2014), 95.

[19] Simone Barck et al., eds., Lexikon sozialistischer Literatur: Ihre Geschichte in Deutschland bis 1945 (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1994), 432.

[20] Siegfried Kracauer, “Eine Märtyrer-Chronik von heute” (Frankfurter Zeitung Literaturblatt, 13 November 1932), in Werke, volume 5.4, edited by Inka Mülder-Bach (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2011), 269.

[21] Alexander Stephan, Anna Seghers “Das siebte Kreuz”. Welt und Wirkung eines Romans (Berlin: Aufbau, 1997), 83.

[22] Bernard Spies, “Kommentar,” in Anna Seghers, Das siebte Kreuz, Roman aus Hitlerdeutschland (Berlin: Aufbau, 2000), 474.

[23] Stephan, Anna Seghers “Das siebte Kreuz”, 11.

[24] Ibid, 60.

[25] Alberto Toscano, “Notes on late fascism,” retrieved from http://www.historicalmate-

[26] Max Horkheimer, “The Jews and Europe,” in Critical Theory and Society: A Reader, edited by Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner (New York: Routledge, 1989), 78.

[27] Seghers, “Vaterlandsliebe,” Aufsätze, 36.

[28] Kurt Batt, Anna Seghers, Versuch über Entwicklung und Werke (Leipzig: Reclam, 1980), 101.

[29] Christiane Zehl Romero, Anna Seghers: Eine Biographie 1900–1947 (Berlin: Aufbau, 2000), 317.

[30] Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 60.

[31] Bertolt Brecht, “Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth,” in Brecht on Art and Politics, edited by Tom Kuhn and Steve Giles (London: Methuen, 2003), 149.

[32] Katerina Clark, Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture 1931–1941 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 171.

[33] Maria Fiedler, “Erklärung von DDR-Bürgerrechtlern: AfD missbraucht friedliche Revolution,” Der Tagespiegel, 20 August 2019.

[34] Toscano, “Notes on late fascism.”

[35] Wolfgang Engler, Die Ostdeutschen als Avant-garde (Berlin: Aufbau, 2004), 33.

[36] Wolfgang Engler und Jana Hensel, Wer wir sind: Die Erfahrung, ostdeusch zu sein (Berlin: Aufbau, 2018), 99.

[37] Whether or not Germany ever had an “open door” immigration policy is open to debate. See Christina Buchholz, “Germany Redivided,” New Left Review 116/117 (March/June 2019): 101.

[38] Engler and Hensel, Wer wir sind, 263.

[39] Negt and Kluge, The Public Sphere and Experience, 16.

[40] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility [Third Version],” in Selected Writings 4: 1938–1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, translated by Edmund Jephcott et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2003), 269.

[41] Jana Hensel and Naika Foroutan, “Ossis sind auch Migranten,” TAZ, 13 May 2018.

[42] Anetta Kahane objects to it based on her blanket dismissal of East Germans as communitarian racists (“Nicht in die Fallen tappen,” TAZ, 12 June 2018); Sasan Abdi-Herrie argues that it trivializes racism (“Der Luxus, unsichtbar sein zu können,” Die Zeit, 27 May 2018); Ferda Ataman seems more bemused and supportive: “Welcome to the club!” (“Sind Ossis auch nur Miragnten” Der Spiegel 19 May 2018).

[43] Jana Hensel and Naika Foroutan, “Das nennt man Emanzipation,” Die Zeit, 1 April 2019.

[44] Oliver Nachtwey, Germany’s Hidden Crisis: Social Decline in the Heart of Europe (London: Verso, 2018).

[45] See David Adler, “Meet Europe’s Left Nationalists,” The Nation, 10 January 2019.

[46] Hensel and Foroutan, “Ossis sind auch Migranten.”

[47] Friedemann Wiese, “Schulterschluss statt Hitlergrüße – Wieso sich Ostdeutsche und Migrant:innen vereinigen sollten,” Ost/Journal, 2 April 2019.

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Anna Seghers – Public Intellectual (Brecht and Public Sphere)

by Christiane Romero

Anna Seghers was a public intellectual longer than either Brecht or Müller. She was also a rare woman in her time and beyond. The length of her “tenure” means that she lived through and responded to very different historical situations and participated in differing public spheres. As a rare woman she played a special role, which she did not articulate but performed. However, on the surface at least, she did not fit the understanding that famous public intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre or Edward Said had of the role. According to Said “The real or true intellectual is … always an outsider, living in self-imposed exile, and on the margins of society. He or she speaks to, as well as for, a public, necessarily in public, and properly on the side of the dispossessed, the un-represented and the forgotten.” How much the first part of this characterization fits Seghers warrants discussion, but the second certainly applies to her stories and novels, which are always on the side of the dispossessed and meant for as large and even as international a public as possible. Her many speeches, essays, and other discursive texts are most often addressed to her peers but also focus on the dispossessed by stressing the writer’s responsibility towards society.

Seghers became an intellectual during her studies in Heidelberg, the German university of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where she was surrounded by other young intellectuals, abstract thinkers, future academics, and writers of imaginative literature. She decided to concentrate on the last. From early on, though, she felt equal to theoretical thinkers such as her future husband László Radványi, their friend Karl Mannheim, and later to Georg Lukacs and Jürgen Kuczynski, as well as the great French and international intellectuals whom she met during exile and afterwards. Very often the only woman in a crowd of men, she expressed her ideas vividly and with self-assurance. Her public utterances had the air of intimate, private conversations by fusing the everyday with the larger political and literary questions and blurring distinctions between public and private. There was a “Seghers tone.”

Seghers waited to gain recognition as an artist before joining the Bund proletarisch revolutionärer Schriftsteller and the Communist Party of Germany in 1928. Out of the bourgeois public sphere of the Weimar Republic, where she received the Kleist Prize and made a name for herself as a creative writer, she stepped into an emergent socialist public sphere where her visibility was most welcome. Seghers accepted the obligations she was incurring by joining up and articulating her understanding publicly : “Denn wir beschreiben ja nicht, um zu beschreiben, sondern um beschreibend zu verändern,” was her well-known summary in “Kleiner Bericht aus meiner Werkstatt” (1932). Reflections on how to do that responsibly and effectively occupied her for the rest of her life and informed her artistic practice as well as her continued reflections on it. She expressed the latter discursively in order to participate in the debates about the function of literature, which occupied the public sphere in which she now wished to participate. While Seghers and her colleagues/comrades rejected the idealist vision that literature and its creators stood above the problems and concerns of their day, they continued to believe strongly in the power of art, especially literature, to affect and influence the public. The writer had to express his or her views, i.e., the group’s and party’s views, discursively as well imaginatively, but always unambiguously. Simply put, aesthetic concerns became unimportant, less important, or were understood differently. Seghers, more sophisticated than most, took these issues seriously. Her ideas evolved, but she always came down on the side of art that was contemporary and no longer used “das Schreibzeug, das von gestern auf dem Schreibtisch liegengeblieben ist,” as she formulated it early on in her review of Gladkow’s Zement. At the same time, she strongly believed in her obligation to make her allegiances clear and to defend her own artistic practice, which drew considerable criticism from her own side in the BPRS and its journal, die Linkskurve. Indeed, her creative work continued to cause unease among many in her party until it was eventually twisted into Socialist Realism. She herself was convinced that her imaginative and her discursive writing served the common purpose and that the latter contextualized, explained, and defended the former. Often, she blurred the lines by experimenting with different kinds of text. Still, throughout her writing career there was tension between her committed art and her perceived obligation to participate in the public sphere through speeches, essays, and practical contributions such as organizing.

Beginning in the Weimar period and as long as she physically could, Seghers was incredibly productive as a creative writer as well as a public intellectual. In the late twenties and early thirties she fully, even enthusiastically, accepted the expectations and obligations put upon her by herself and her comrades and participated actively in the public discussions which still were just that, discussions. During her exile in France and Mexiko, Seghers was energized even more by the urgency of the fight against fascism. She became a strong as well as unique voice in a public sphere which was, briefly during the Popular Front, a fusion of the bourgeois public sphere and a socialist public sphere, albeit one which Stalin manipulated, and international in participation. What she wrote and said then about fascism, its fatal attraction and how to try to combat it, made incisive contributions to the public discourse then and is valid again today. More detail on can be found in Hunter Bivens’s excellent paper above on Seghers and what he calls “A Public Sphere of Exile.”

From early on, Seghers chafed under the heavy burden of her obligations. Her letters during exile contain numerous references to overwork but also to her sense that essay writing was a craft. She would never write anything shoddy and thus needed time even for occasional pieces. Nevertheless, she considered all her artistic and essayistic writing, her public speeches and the many organizational tasks she assumed to be necessary and often volunteered with ideas and contributions. Only after her return to Berlin in 1947 did she complain more vigorously about the never-ending expectations for public appearances and speeches imposed upon her by her Communist friends now in power in the east of Germany. What still really inspired her was participation in the international Peace Movement which was sponsored by the Soviets but had strong support from the international left. This public sphere kept her in touch with intellectuals from many countries, people like herself who wrote imaginative literature and took a public stance, for which they also suffered persecution and exile, such as Jorge Amado and Pablo Neruda. From a Western perspective it was a counter public sphere, and even the GDR leadership — while of course supportive in principle – was wary.

After Seghers’s full absorption into the GDR in 1950 – it happened under some pressure – the complaints stopped for a while. She agreed to become President of the GDR Writers Union and, despite a futile attempt to retire in 1968, remained in that position until 1978. It made her the public intellectual of the GDR, albeit one who was expected to be and – certainly by the West – was perceived to be a spokesperson for her government and its ruling party, the SED, against whom she never publicly spoke out. Thus, she did not fit the Western idea of a an independent public intellectual. Even in the East, many critical intellectuals and dissidents considered her irrelevant at best, although some tried to read between the lines of her public utterances and, above all, of her stories, as did, for example, Lev Kopelev and a younger generation in the GDR, including Heiner Müller. Until 1956 Seghers pushed herself towards some optimism about the future and found hope in the kind of socialist international sphere around the Soviet Union and the Stalin Peace Prize, which she herself received in 1951. However, with Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin’s purges, these hopes sustained a serious blow and, perhaps not quite coincidentally, Seghers developed serious health problems and spent considerable time in hospitals and sanatoria. Nevertheless, she continued to fulfill conscientiously her perceived obligations as President of the GDR Writers Union and said what she thought was possible and what the situation demanded. She used the little soft power she had – she was well-aware how little – to speak for art, in which she put more and more hope, for moderation, and for her younger colleagues. It was a thankless task.

“Ich habe hauptsächlich den Eindruck, daß ich allzuviel gesprochen u geredet habe,” Seghers writes in 1971 to the GDR literary scholar Sigrid Bock on the occasion of the latter’s three volume collection Kunstwerk und Wirklichkeit, which came out between 1970 and 1979 and contained many occasional pieces and also letters. Seghers did not like it and forbade publication of a fourth volume after it was already finished. She was clearly tired of her role as a GDR public intellectual and the use others made of it. Looking back on her activities in the year 1974, she notes “viele Artikel u dergl, genug davon.” Yet, in 1976 she prepared a talk for the 9th Party Congress of the SED on “Die Rolle der Literatur in der sozialisischen Gesellschaft,” only to be snubbed and not called upon to give it.

She had good reason to be tired, but never disavowed her essays and speeches altogether. In the GDR she herself published two collections on topics about which she cared deeply: Frieden der Welt. Ansprachen und Aufsätze 1947–1953 and Über Tolstoi. Über Dostojewsky in 1963. She did not object to Christa Wolf’s Glauben an Irdisches. Essays aus vier Jahrzehnten (1969), which contained major essays from her exile period. She also agreed to the two volumes Aufsätze. Ansprachen. Essays in chronological order, which conclude her Gesammelte Werke in Einzelausgaben published by Aufbau between 1977 and 1980. These authorized collections and Sigrid Bock’s four volumes contain what to date is more or less readily available of Seghers’s enormous output in “Publizistik.” There is still more in her archive at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, manuscripts of speeches and articles, some of which were presented publicly, others not. They range widely in topics from “Zu Lenins 90. Geburtstag” and “An die ehemaligen Häftlinge in Buchenwald” to “An den Kongreß des Weltfriedensrats” (1972), “An die Werktätigen des Röhrenwerkes ‘Anna Seghers’” (1973), “Zum 75. Geburtstag von Paul Robeson,” and “Kleists Prosa.” Unfortunately, the Seghers Werkausgabe now in progress is struggling for funding to complete publication even of all the novels. The projected volumes of essays, which would have to be a judicious selection but could carefully evaluate her participation in the public spheres of her time, may never appear at all.

One might say, no matter, the most important aspects of Seghers’s work are her stories and novels which relentlessly plead for the dispossessed, the persecuted, the outsiders and contribute to the counter public sphere of literature in the GDR and world-wide. But I do not agree. Her speeches and essays, which are more hopeful and affirmative than most of her imaginative work, anchor her more probing artistic practice. She had wanted to be part of her time and to step out of the isolation of the bourgeois intellectual into the “we” she sought and expected to find in communism, “der besten Sache der Welt,” as she has a character in Der gerechte Richter say. It promised social change and, after World War II, a Germany – at least in one part – which would resist the continuation or reemergence of fascism. In the GDR she was part of the elite, yet felt like an outsider and paradoxically was one. The more iconic a figure she became, the less she belonged. Ultimately, what Seghers said discursively and affirmatively was inspired by her profound awareness of the world’s endlessly recurring need for hope, on which her stories and novels dwell vividly, even painfully. At their best, her speeches and essays are incisive, at their worst misguided by her patience and long view. Always though, Seghers’s work was an expression of her sense of responsibility to the times in which she lived and to the dispossessed everywhere and of all times.

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Anna Seghers’s Late Work in an International Context

by Curtis Swope

This contribution is part of a book I have been working on for the past two years on the work of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Siqueiros was born in 1896. He fought for a left-liberal faction during the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s; shortly after, he read Lenin along with Bakunin whose works were influential in the Mexican labor movement. In 1923 he founded the Syndicate of Revolutionary Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers; in 1924 he co-founded the Communist Party of Mexico and co-edited its main organ, El Machete. He spent the remainder of the 1920s leading strikes, most notably of abused, underpaid miners in Guanajuato. In 1930, he was jailed for his radical activity. He spent much of 1930s in exile, painting murals in Los Angeles in 1932 and holding an experimental workshop in Manhattan in 1936 that was highly influential for attendee Jackson Pollock. In 1940, Siqueiros led a group of fellow Spanish Civil War veterans in an attack on Leon Trotsky at his house in Mexico City; the group emptied machine guns into the side of the house, injuring Trotsky’s grandson but leaving Trotsky unharmed. Siqueiros was forced into exile as a result of his involvement in the attack. Returning in 1944 from four years in Chile and Cuba, Siqueiros received a number of important government mural commissions to paint walls in museums, hospitals, and theaters. These continued until 1960 when he was arrested and put in prison for leading a large strike of Mexico’s railroad workers. His imprisonment occasioned outrage around the world – with perhaps the strongest reaction in the GDR. Siqueiros was released in 1964, having served four years of an eight-year sentence. His final work, The March of Humanity on Earth and to the Cosmos: Misery and Science, was conceived during his time in prison and completed at a privately funded hotel and cultural complex in southern Mexico City between 1966 and 1970. In 1966, he visited the Soviet Union; he visited the GDR in 1970, gave a lecture at the Akademie der Künste and held a seminar at the Kunsthochschule in Dresden. Siqueiros visited Halle-Neustadt and was commissioned to create a cycle of murals there – a project that his longtime collaborator and fellow Spanish Civil War veteran Josep Renau ultimately completed. Siqueiros died in 1973.[1]

Art historians see the significance of Siqueiros’s work in his commitment to radical political iconography and aesthetic innovation. That innovation, including play with perspective and the use of new media such as spray guns, is often treated as simply particular to Siqueiros’s political commitments and stylistic choices within the context of the muralist movement in Mexico.[2] However, his formation of art collectives to produce his murals, his attentiveness to Marxist theory and to policy changes in the Soviet Union in his iconography, and his committedly realist modernism connects Siqueiros to a whole host of communist artists and writers from Chile, to France, to the USA, to Italy, to Germany, to Spain, and to the Soviet Union. Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, John Heartfield, Paul Eluard, Sergei Eisenstein, Ilya Ehrenburg, and later Heiner Müller, Pier Paolo Pasolini in Italy, and Santiago Alvarez in Cuba engaged social reality in line with Marxism’s realist philosophical approach but saw political potential in the aesthetically radical modernist movements of the first two decades of the twentieth century. The purpose of my book on Siqueiros is precisely to situate his work in this international context.

The comparison I carry out today between Seghers’s Die Kraft der Schwachen, published in 1965, and Siqueiros’s mural, The March of Humanity (1966–70), is part of the project. My argument is that the similarities between the two works can be explained not just by concrete historical connections between writer and painter or efforts at establishing solidarity, but rather because of structural issues within Marxism in the 1960s. Perry Anderson provides a lucid overview of the state of the Marxist project in Western Europe and the United States during this decade that can help frame these similarities. For Anderson, the fading of Popular Front and wartime solidarity, the co-opting of the Western proletariat by capital, and the advent of new military and communication technology exposed anew tensions in Marxist theory between structure and subject and history and nature. Anderson laments the way Structuralism and semiotics rushed into the theoretical breach left by Sartre’s incomplete account of these tensions in his Critique of Dialectical Reason. Anderson ultimately calls for a new Marxism that transcends post-Structuralism by retheorizing the necessary tension between structure and subject and between history and nature and developing a strategic mass politics.[3] Anderson’s analysis, of course, was largely based on the work of Marxist thinkers rather than writers and artists. Many Marxist writers and artists in the 1960s were in fact grappling in new ways, yet often with a productively long and expansive historical view, with those core tensions that Anderson, in the early 1980s, identified as neglected and unresolved in the 1960s and 1970s. Siqueiros in his March of Humanity and Seghers in her Kraft der Schwachen were two such figures.

One other such figure, whom I will mention briefly, is Italian Communist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini who wrote two major essays in the mid-1960s that almost read as a preemptive response to Anderson’s much later text. In “The Cinema of Poetry” and “Notes on a Marxist Linguistics” Pasolini articulates what he sees as the crisis of Marxist aesthetics at the time. This crisis shows how the emergent neo-modernist film and literature of the time, although supposedly leftist, are really symptoms of an emerging reassertion of bourgeois hegemony. Pasolini evinces a fascination with Levi-Strauss’s mobilization of linguistics for social critique but concludes, as would Anderson, that linguistics is a poor tool for describing even other artistic media such as cinema, let alone economies and societies. He sides with the older generation in rejecting a modernist solipsism that ascribes too much value to “structure,” but like them and like Anderson seeks to account for core aspects of experience that do not fit easily into systemic accounts of class struggle and historical process. He sensed that Marxism needed a new direction, but that neo-modernism and Structuralism were a dead-end.[4]

Remaining Marxist yet accounting for the new historical situation: this is what Seghers was grappling with in the late phase of her career. The beginning of that phase is marked by Die Kraft der Schwachen. Christiane Zehl Romero has shown that the work had its genesis in 1957, but was not completed until 1964, with nearly half of the nine short stories, including some of the most enigmatic ones, being written after Seghers’s return from her trip to Brazil. She sees the deceptively hopeful endings of some of the key stories, including “Der Führer” and “Tuomas beschenkt die Halbinsel Sorsa,” as betraying a new form of skepticism in Seghers’s writing as a result of her observations of the struggles of the proletariat in the post-war period in the GDR and elsewhere. Romero characterizes this change as a move toward Existentialism.[5] In the context of her biographical study, of course she does not elaborate on the full context of Existentialism in relation to Marxism, so more can be said. The dichotomies of structure and subject and of history and nature that Anderson sees as challenging for yet essential to Marxism are ones that existentialist Marxists, Sartre foremost among them, had long attempted to account for. In the1940s, Marxist Existentialism helped to reframe the nature of hope in the context of a world of war, fascism, and purges, placing – to use Anderson’s terms – the value of the subject against Stalinist philosophy’s emphasis on the abstraction of “historical process.” The trick for Seghers, Siqueiros, and Pasolini was also to reinject the subject into an aesthetics of revolution without going down a linguistic, structuralist path that dissolved the role of economics and class analysis. They also wanted to avoid the trap of a formalist modernism that used the privileged, artistic self as a device to create slick work that was largely about the trials and tribulations of the bourgeoisie in advanced consumer society.

This is the backdrop against which the stories of Die Kraft der Schwachen and the puzzling imagery of Siqueiros’s The March of Humanity need to be read. One of the most striking stories from Seghers’s collection is “Der Führer,” about a young boy in Ethiopia who tricks occupying Italian scientists and soldiers into following him into the desert where they presumably die of thirst. The beginning is justly famous:

Alles war umsont. Gebete in Kirchen und in Moscheen, umsonst. Beschwörungen, Anrufungen längst vergessener, sich selbst überlassener Götter – umsonst. Und auch der letzte Widerstand mit Messern und Zähnen – umsonst. Die Feigheit war genauso umsonst. Verstecken, Abwarten, alles umsonst. Umsonst Verspechungen, Hoffnungen, unerwartete Hochherzigkeit von Unbekannten. […]Alles war unbegreiflich geworden, was vorher gewesen. […]Wenn es keine Zukunft mehr gibt, ist das Vergangene umsonst gewesen. Die fremden Eroberer, als sie begriffen, dass man auch nicht mit den schlauesten Waffen in das Innere des Landes eindringen konnte, hatten aus ihren Flugzeugen Giftgase in die Berge und Schluchten geschickt. Daran war erstickt, was nicht bereits verblutet war. Und wenn die Menschen, auch die Gerechten unter ihnen, die von jeher an Gut und Böse glaubten, auch die geweihten Priester, so wild und reiβend geworden waren wie ihrer Berge Löwen und Tiger, sie mussten jetzt dran glauben, sie erstickten.[6]

The key word here is “umsonst.” It of course reflects the context of the story, Italian colonial Ethiopia in the 1930s, a time in which destruction had become so easy for oppressive regimes. But even the past has become “umsonst,” indeed, “unbegreiflich.” Cultural destruction wrought by imperialism and big capital aim at keeping the dead silent and rendering their stories incomprehensible. It is this threat of the mass incomprehensibility of working class history that looms behind the existential crises in Seghers’s stories.

Siqueiros’s work is full of imagery that is pregnant with a similar set of associations: thin figures huddled together, wretched, isolated women threatened by mutant tree roots, representation of new technologies of destruction, visual rhetoric guided by the non-logic of flying shrapnel, facelessness of human figures emblematic of the future. These elements together evoke a sense that history is at risk of going off the rails – perhaps even a dawning awareness that it has been off the rails longer than one thinks.

The ethical words “good” and “evil” also stick out in the passage; Seghers casts them as ineffectual relics against the imperial onslaught. But the terms were important to Sartre’s attempts to merge Existentialism and Marxism. In his “What is Literature” of 1947, he averred that one of the ways in which Marxism was failing in the mid twentieth century was in not accounting for the existence of good and evil – not as part of an abstract or Manichean metaphysical system but as material products with identifiable sources for which the categories in question were the best designation. For Sartre, many of the forms the Nazi crimes took were not in the first order driven by the explanations of class and economics. The scientific categories that orthodox Marxism had accustomed itself to appeared stale in the face of experiential realities of fascist terror.[7] The forced “belief” in chemical weapons “suffocation” that the Ethiopians undergo at the end of the passage might be read as an example of Sartre’s materialist-existentialist form of “evil.”

Despite Siqueiros’s critiques of Existentialism, we find the word “existentialist” creeping into our heads when we see the contorted figures and landscapes of The March of Humanity. One example is the group of peasant women who seem to have become directionless and behind whom a tree in the shape of the communist sickle appears to flatten and wither; the working class appears mocked by the derisive smirk of a clownish monster and terrorized by the memento mori of a figure part skeletal, part mummified. The class-conscious eyes of Siqueiros’s earlier works have been replaced in some cases by baleful, abject stares and in others by black, empty sockets or black rectangular blocks. There is a strong sense of misdirected if not aimless wandering of human groups in a chaotic social sphere nevertheless under a system, as indicated in the upper registers of the mural, capable of tremendous technological progress – a progress that itself is in turn potentially misdirected.

Such aimlessness, or near aimlessness, is crucial to the stories in Kraft der Schwachen, all of which are characterized by journeying and walking, often journeys that seem hopeless. The two final stories in the volume, both of which were written in 1964, are primary examples. In “Heimkehr des verlorenen Volkes,” the populace of a pre-Colombian city flees the Spanish conquistadors, the astonishing scale of whose destruction is indicated in the first third or so of the story by the ever-present glow of fires that light the night sky behind the cast-out indigenous wanderers. After a generation or two, the group’s pre-Hispanic cultural traditions fade into memory just as their feet become hardened from the marching of their perpetual flight:

Ihre Füβe waren längst nicht mehr wundgescheuert, sie waren schon verhärtet. Ihr Gedächtnis war blankgescheuert von der durchflüchteten Zeit, die wie ein Fluss auch Steine abstumpft. Sie dachten nur: Weiter! Weiter! Hinter uns ist der Feind. Neben uns auch. Sie dachten schon lange nicht mehr an Säen und Ernten. Sie klaften nicht mehr über verlorenes Korn.[8]

This is a people whom imperialism has sapped of its productive energies, whom it has reduced to marchers whose only goal is survival and whose memory has been “thrashed bare” by time. While there are parallels here to the situation of German exile intellectuals during the Third Reich, as scholars have pointed out, the enduring abjectness of the global working class in the 1960s and the isolation of communist countries at the time seem to offer a better comparison. In fact, the imagery resonates quite strongly with Siqueiros’s depiction of wandering peasants in one of the large-scale panels of The March of Humanity. This is especially true in the sense of barrenness conveyed by the dying tree and the figure carrying a bundle of dried sticks on his back. The loss of memory or consciousness and the connection to positive traditions is indicated, as it at times was for Seghers, in the figures’ eyes – lost, blank, bereft of direction. Similarly, the “enemy” is all around: the evil jester, the chilling mummified figure seen earlier, and the monstrous figure on the left carrying out the lynching of an Afro-American victim.

As in Seghers there appears to be a solution, a way out, but one that by no means resolves the contradictions of the journey. In the penultimate story, “Tuomas beschenkt die Halbinsel Sorsa,” the title character departs his home during a harsh winter to seek food and other basic necessities for his family. The majority of the text relates the challenges of his journey. Turned away nearly empty handed from all the houses he visits, Tuomas begins to lose his orientation in the forest as trees appear strangely motile:

So naßkühl, so düstergrün war der Wald, und der Sonneneinfall war so bleich, so zerfasert, dass ihm die Bäume sprungbereit vorkamen und die Tiere verwurzelt; sie starrten ihn an und hielten ihr Wittern zurück, als etwas fleischlich Lebendiges auftauchte, das sicher gefährlich war, wie alles fleischlich Lebendige. Sie konnten nicht ahnen, die Waldtiere, wie schwach Tuomas war und wie kummervoll.[9]

Highly vulnerable human bodies and trees that appear set in motion are key motifs on the side of March of Humanity labelled, “Revolution of the Future.” Just to the left of center, a brown tree improbably shoots up out of a desolate landscape of rock taking a shape like that of the communist sickle. But unlike the crumpling sickle on the other side of the mural, the one on the “future” side acts as a kind of crucible of abstractly rendered red energy that shoots into the upper registers of the work. Likewise, an enormous tree to the right of center on the “future” side appears animated, as though it were extending tentacles upward. Amidst these forceful, and again, quite abstract, bits of nature are human figures, many of which appear isolated, lost, or injured.

The motif of trees is repeated as well in “Heimkehr des verlorenen Volkes,” again during the heart of a seemingly aimless journey with only survival as its goal. This time it is the indigenous southern Mexicans confronted by a hostile landscape:

Wurzel drehten sich aus der Erde heraus um ihre schmalen Leiber.

And shortly thereafter:

In den folgenden Tagen zogen sie wortlos weiter, in ihren Herzen den Wald, der irgendwo wieder beginnen musste, um Schutz anflehend, und mit dem Wald seine Götter, die ihnen noch unbekannt waren. Doch falls es den Wald gab, mussten auch seine Götter hören. Das Land war inzwischen faltig geworden. Sie tranken sich satt an einem Fluss. Hier gab es Geröll, hier gab es gewundenes Wurzelwerk, das sich gegen die Erde bäumte und sie dann heftig durchstieß, um in die Luft zu wachsen mit jungen, ungebärdigen Trieben.[10]

The trees here really are remarkably like those on the “future” side of Siqueiros’s mural, although I have no hard evidence that he would have read the stories in Die Kraft der Schwachen. Seghers was among those who sent him letters of support while he was in prison; she would start the Mexico story not long after – but the Siqueiros archivist in Mexico City was unable to turn up a copy of the book or a reference to it in notes or letters. In any case, the trees, like those in Siqueiros’s mural, appear old and yet shoot into the air in an unruly way. In so doing, they become implicated in the birth or rebirth indicated in the upper register of the mural, and in the “rebirth” of the indigenous community as a result of Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas’s 1938 land reform in Seghers’s story. The simultaneous sense of rupture and continuity established in the story as a result is also present in Siqueiros’s mural; there is a close relationship between the disturbing landscape and figures of the lower-register and the hopeful geometries of the upper.

I suggest that if we accept that the new mediation of “lower” and “upper” registers – the slog of humanity’s march versus the better arrangements of the future – represents a return to Existentialism, then we might want to revisit the 1950s thinkers on whom Anderson focuses, including Merleau-Ponty and Sartre. Their work, better than that of the Frankfurt School, might help frame Marxist artists of the 1960s, especially but not only among the older generation, who were trying to come to grips with new realities in aesthetically experimental ways that were nevertheless true to historical materialism – Seghers, Siqueiros, Pasolini, Müller, Alvarez, and the Czech New Wave in cinema.


[1] Detailed biographical information is available in Peter Stein, Siqueiros: His Life and Works (New York: Internaitonal Publishers, 1994). Leading Siqueiros scholar Raquel Tibol has a helpful biographical table in her volume of Siqueiros’s primary writings, Palabras de Siqueiros: Selección, prólogo y notas (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996), 507-513.

[2] Desmond Rochfort’s standard history of the Mexican mural movement is an example. Siqueiros’s left-wing politics are mentioned, but not discussed in sufficient detail. Scholarship has become more nuanced since Jennifer Jolly’s article “Art of the Collective: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Josep Renau and their Collaboration at the Mexican Electricians’ Syndicate,” Oxford Art Journal, 31.1 (March 2008): 129-151.

[3] Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 16-18, 35-38, 54-55.

[4] Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The ‘Cinema of Poetry,’” in Heretical Empiricism, edited by Louise K. Barnett (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 167-186, and “From the Laboratory (Notes en poéte for a Marxist Linguistics), ibid., 50-78.

[5]Christiane Zehl Romero, Anna Seghers: Eine Biographie, 1947–1983 (Berlin: Aufbau, 2003), 240-251.

[6] Anna Seghers, “Der Führer,” in Die Kraft der Schwachen. Neun Erzählungen (Berlin: Aufbau, 1965), 61.

[7] Jean-Paul Sartre, “What Is Literature,” in “What Is Literature” and other Essays, edited by Steven Ungar (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 178-180.

[8]Anna Seghers, “Die Heimkehr des verlorenen Volkes,” in Die Kraft der Schwachen, 190.

[9] Anna Seghers, “Tuomas beschenkt die Halbinsel Sorsa,” in Die Kraft der Schwachen, 160-161.

[10] Seghers, “Heimkehr,” 191.

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Poetic Personae: Brecht’s Poetry as a Relational Matrix

by Sabine Gross


I will approach the topic of Brecht’s self-stylization somewhat obliquely. I hope in this way to illuminate the significance of some of Brecht’s stylistic and rhetorical devices and perhaps reframe some of his most famous poems[1]: my argument is that they provide self-images of Brecht, either emphatically or obliquely, beyond any explicit mentions of himself.

Starting with his earliest writings, Brecht tries on images and creates different personae – budding artist, chauvinistic sexual consumer of women, genius in need of solitude, friend and leading member of a circle of friends. Searching assessments of who he is and what he can effect as well as confident positionings of different personae continue throughout his life. Some of his textual self-definitions present an exaggerated sense of self-worth, others are soberly detached assessments of his potential current or future impact. Skepticism and doubt are present in his poems alongside confidence and an authoritative speaking stance in an extraordinary number of what Werner Frick (15) calls “lyrische Selbstbespiegelungen” (narcissistic mirrorings of the self in poetry).

The first years, indeed almost the first decade of Brecht’s poetry, shows the sustained experimentation of a gifted wordsmith who is able to appropriate and try out a remarkable variety of lyric forms, vocabularies, and styles. As has been widely acknowledged, Brecht’s poetic production in the early 1920s continues to be inflected towards Expressionism and an anti-bourgeois thinking in which Brecht’s self-stylization falls mostly in the category of enfant terrible or Bürgerschreck – perhaps at times ironically so. From the mid-twenties on, stylistic exuberance gives way increasingly to a less dramatic style, often incorporating (while in no way reducible to) everyday diction, and what we might think of as a characteristic “Brecht-Ton” emerges across the different lyric genres he continues to use: language that sounds natural yet deliberately crafted, that is polished without being stilted, and whose rhythms and vocabulary are able to assimilate elements of a pointedly poetic register. Besides his own brand of “reimlose Lyrik mit unregelmäßigen Rhythmen” (“unrhymed poetry with irregular rhythm”) about which he writes an insightful essay with this title in 1938, this includes ballad and Moritat, psalm and chronicle, adaptations of texts and styles from Kipling to Latin and Chinese poetry, children’s verse and traditional folk verse, classic forms such as blank verse, distich, elegy, and sonnet.

From the late 1920s on, Brecht pares down his lyric language, uses greater economy, and dispenses with flamboyant verbal images. While his texts continue to provoke, he shifts the provocation from language to ideas and to the logic of what is said as he develops his technique of defamiliarization – not as a theatrical device only, but as a mode of thinking, a sustained activation of dialectical dynamics, and a way of “historicizing” or creating a productive detachment that we find across his oeuvre as a whole. It includes his advice to actors to transpose their lines into the third person introduced by “he said” or “she said”, and a precursor of this detachment can be found beginning in the early poems which, as Frick (17) states in a pertinent essay, show Brecht’s “great adolescent curiosity about himself.” He often presents stylized versions of himself in the third person, be it “BB,” “Brecht,” or “Bidi”/”Biti,” be it in a 1916 serenade featuring “Bert Brecht with his lantern” (“Bert Brecht mit seinem Lampion”) trotting first across the town-hall square and then then through the fires of hell (GBA 13: 93f.),[2] or in the title of his famous “Vom armen B.B.” / ”Poor B.B.” – which admittedly continues in the first person, but reaffirms the autobiographical dimension of the lyrical “I” in the final stanza with “I, Bertold Brecht, cast into the asphalt cities” (Norton 250).

It would be easy enough to trace the evolution and range of Brecht’s Selbststilisierungen through his poems (Frick does some of this very well). But a striking feature of Brecht’s poetic oeuvre is the strong cross-generic impulse and disregard of traditional genre boundaries that mark his writing as a whole. His exploration of particular artistic or sociopolitical questions is not confined to any particular area of production. Similar concerns, arguments, and formulations reappear as Brecht articulates questions of theatrical theory and practice, interpretations of history, appeals to resistance or patience (or impatience) in his plays, in his prose and his essayistic writings, and in his poetry. He repeatedly combines or blends genres as in the Tales from the Calendar or the Messingkauf / Buying Brass.

Brecht is polymorphously promiscuous in his choice and command of lyric forms and similarly in his adoption of lyrical “I”s, what Kuhn and Constantine call his “multiplicity of personae” in their introduction (xiii). This is of course the prerogative of the poet: Brecht gives us children and mothers, prostitutes and explorers, anarchists and drunkards, workers and revolutionaries, even an occasional bird or horse as “lyrical I,” in addition to the strongly autobiographical anti-bourgeois rebel and the later emigrant.

Numerous self-referential poems make the poet – Brecht – present in the poem as poet. A brief example, one that comes close to an epigram in its conciseness and the way it leads up to its punchline (Norton 1002):

On a Chinese tea-root lion

The evil fear your sharp claw.
The good take pleasure in your grace.
I’d like to hear said
Of my poem.

Were the poem to end after the initial two lines, we would read it as a meditation on the small root carving and its subject. The additional lines – with the quaint and innocuous-sounding German “Derlei,” sharpened to a more strongly “that” in the translation – create a whole added dimension of meaning and reframe the initial observation, turning it into a capsule statement on Brecht’s poetics and on the relationship of aesthetics and political engagement as he sees it. They also embed the initial statement in a web of communication – inserting the idea of Brecht’s audience as well as his reception of the audience’s reception of his poems, beyond a statement of how he himself views his poetry.

Some of Brecht’s poetological positioning has a facetious touch, such as when he ends a poem on the need to pay poets for their poetry, “Lied der preiswerten Lyriker” / “Song of the Cut-Price Poets” (included in 1951 in his 100 Gedichte, p. 191, translation quoted from Willett/Manheim 160-163) as follows:

When I began what you’re reading now (but are you?)
I wanted each stanza to rhyme all through
Then thought: That’s too much work. Who’ll pay me for it?
And so regretfully left it. It’ll just have to do.

His materialist critique of the poet’s role is far from a self-ennobling image, as we can also see in one of his famous Hollywood elegies (Norton 876) in the dialectical swerve from critique to self-indictment that occurs mid-poem in a characteristic Brechtian move:

Every morning, to earn my bread

I go to the market where lies are traded
In hope
I take my place amongst the sellers.

Brecht explicates his priorities as a politically engaged poet in numerous other poems, some of them quite well-known, such as his “Bad Times for Poetry” (Norton 751), which professes to understand why readers prefer happy poems while offering a defense of poetry that highlights political danger and social wrongs. It ends with an oft-quoted, marvelously succinct statement of Brecht’s poetics:

Bad time for poetry [final stanza]

Inside me contend
Enthusiasm at the blossoming apple tree
And horror at the housepainter’s speeches.
But only the latter
Drives me to write.

We know that for Brecht, poetry is a weapon to right wrongs, and compared with that urgency and necessity, aesthetic contemplation is a luxury. For all of his work, his model is that of materialist production rather than lofty artistic creation; witness his repeated self-characterization with the dry term “Stückeschreiber,” writer of plays.

Poems on the subject of an author’s poetics have a long tradition. Brecht’s oeuvre offers a less conventional variant in his memorable poems on theater theory and practice, worthy of more careful attention than this mere mention (I will return to them very briefly later).


But let me turn away now from Brecht’s autofictional or self-refererential poetry to look instead at Brecht’s poetic self-stylization by regarding his poems from a linguistic-functional point of view. My aim is to show that stylistic-grammatical devices and the use of “I” and other pronouns come together to form a specific constellation. It marks a major emphasis in how Brecht presents himself in his poetry, and how he wanted to see himself and to be seen. In his poems, Brecht frequently uses an unobtrusive “I” that inserts a level of mediation – of listening, of reading, of taking notice – into what would otherwise be a more descriptive scene or situational poem. We saw a somewhat more “marked,” emphatic version of this above, in the poem on the Chinese tea-root carving. Much more frequently, Brecht does this less conspicuously, in a verse or half a verse; one could cite dozens of instances.

An example from the late 1920s, in the first of Brecht’s poems in “Aus dem Lesebuch für Städtebewohner (“A reader for city-dwellers”), we have not just “cover your tracks” (Verwisch’ die Spuren), but the emphatic:

“I’m telling you: Cover your tracks.” (Norton 310; GBA 11: 157)

The second poem, “Fifth wheel” is prominently about conversation, including the line

“Laß es dir sagen” / “Let me tell you” as well as “you are not listening anymore.”

Half of the 10 sections of the long first poem in that cycle end in variations on the topic of speaking:

“You heard that before”
“This is what I was told.”
“This is how we talk our fathers”
“That’s what I heard a woman say.”
“That’s what I’ve heard people say.”

Other formulations include:

“Don’t talk…..”
“I don’t ask…..”
“If there is anything you still want to say, then / Say it to me.”

The opening of one of the “German satires” [The improvements of the Regime (GBA 12: 67)] has:

“Wenn man herumfragt, so hört man” / “If you ask around, this is what you hear”

And elsewhere one finds:

“Wie ich höre”/“as I hear” (GBA 12: 287).

The Buckow elegy “Upon reading a Soviet book” (GBA 12: 308; Norton 1021) is a fine example. Twice more after that title does Brecht insert the phrase “I read” / ’ich lese” to frame what is said – in a poem that merits in-depth analysis beyond my mention here, because much of the text, as the GBA annotation documents (12: 448), is indeed taken from a Soviet documentary novel, and the economy of the changes with which Brecht transforms an unremarkable and propagandistic text into what is without a doubt a poem is remarkable.

These insertions are relevant: they make the poet qua lyrical “I” present in the text. In this undramatic, subtle way, Brecht defines the poem as an act of processing information, and himself – as poet – as someone doing that labor, carrying out that act of thinking, of meaning-making, of a response that is cognitive as well as artistic. Moreover, this strategy brings the poem into a realm of participatory communication: what is presented as heard, seen, read may in turn be shared with others. This sharing with others is another conspicuous element in Brecht’s poetry, and it defines the poet as someone intent on sharing news or insights with others rather than working out nature scenes or perceptual intricacies in splendid isolation.

In what follows, I would like to bring together the receptivity signaled by these phrases with three other features: Brecht’s use of pronouns, of questions, and of specific verb forms. Besides the “unobtrusive I” I have pointed out, we also find an impressive number of “you’s” and “we’s” in Brecht’s poems, and I am convinced that a quantitative analysis would distinguish Brecht in this respect from many other poets of the first half of the twentieth century. The “I,” then, does not denote a solitary, solipsistic self – it is part of a group of pronouns, deictic markers, of whom three are particularly closely related: I, you, and we/us. I and you are complements, establishing an essential dyad of communication (which in a number of Brecht’s poems, is the “I-you” of a Selbstgespräch).

This is in keeping with what Brecht attributes to one of his alter egos in his Me-Ti. Buch der Wendungen (Book of Phrases or Book of Changes, now in a new translation by Anthony Tatlow: Me-Ti. Book of Interventions in the Flow of Things): “Der Dicher Kin erkannte die Sprache als ein Werkzeug des Handelns und wußte, daß einer auch dann mit andern spricht, wenn er mit sich spricht” (Me-Ti 47, “Über die gestische Sprache in der Literatur”). “The poet Kin realized that language was a tool of action and knew that one speaks to others as well when he speaks to himself” (SG).

“We” is the logical extension of the “I” into the plural of a group. Many of these “you”s and “we”s are defined by the poems – frequently as workers, revolutionaries, friends. They offer a way for Brecht to present himself as a member of such collectives. But Brecht also uses the “we” in particular for poetic labor, thus transposing the model of the collective from political action to the act of poetic creation as represented in his poems. We know that his approach to his work was essentially collective, calling on collaborators, friends, and visitors as sounding-boards and co-writers (and we do know about the dimension of exploitation in this practice, the inequalities that are masked by his embrace of the “we”). The poems present an idealized version of such collaboration and co-creating, and of a way of critical thinking that he defines as productive skepticism, especially in his famous “Der Zweifler” / “The Doubter,” in which he projects an encouragement to doubt onto the figure on a Chinese scroll. The poem starts with a verbal staging of the group process via no fewer than three group pronouns in the first 5 lines (one of them is lost in the translation): “we,” “one of us,” and “us”; and ends with:

Thoughtfully, curiously, we saw the doubting
Blue man on the canvas, looked at one another [sahen uns an] and
Started once more from the beginning. (Norton 628)

The group collectively is the learner, and their projection of questions onto the Chinese figure on the scroll takes on the role of teacher.


This teacher-student dyad reappears in numerous Brecht poems, and in my opinion it is the most prominent configuration in Brecht’s self-stylizations. There are a number of instances where Brecht’s “Praise of Learning,” to cite one of his poem titles, entails his adopting the role of the student. His name for his collaborator and lover Margarete Steffin, “Kleine Lehrmeisterin” or “Little Teacher,” appears in several of his most moving poems, for instance, in a cluster written after her death in 1941. (GBA 15: 43-45)

In another poem about her, “The Good Comrade M.S.” (Norton 585), he describes himself:

With a smile I cross out a line myself already guessing
What she would say about it.

Continuing, he addresses her compatriots as follows:

I came to you as a teacher and as a teacher
I might have departed from you. But because I learned
I stayed.

Brecht presents himself as an advocate of learning, of doubting, and of asking questions, in poems as well as in many of his short prose texts, such as the Keuner stories and his Me-ti cycle. Some of this comes with humility – for instance his short poem “The teach-me-better” / “Der Belehrmich” (Norton 804), which ends with a refusal to assign superior knowledge to the old and willingness to learn to the young:

When I was young I hoped
I would find an old man who would let himself be taught better.
When I am old I hope
A young man may find me and that I
Will let myself be taught.

Part of Brecht’s self-stylization is the way he merges the roles of teacher and student – again, as in the following two lines from another, very brief, poem about Steffin where the simple syntactic parallel establishes the equivalence, indeed the inevitable linkage of the two roles:

“Mein Schüler ist weggegangen / Mein Lehrer ist weggegangen“ (15:45) (“My student left me / My teacher left me,” SG)

Admittedly, the role of sage or instructor is the one Brecht takes on more frequently. We can see its importance in his suggestion for an epitaph (Norton 483), written in the early 1930s, not, as one might assume, towards the end of his life:

I have no need of a gravestone . . .

I have no need of a gravestone, but
If you should need one for me
I would want it to read:
He made suggestions. We
Took them on.[3]
Such an inscription would
Honour us all.

Here the “I” and “you” are replaced first by “he” and “we” to merge into an “us all” that conveys a rather exalted sense of Brecht’s importance in this teaching scenario (as opposed to, e.g., GBA 13: 266 in 1922). The gravestone poem sounds more one-sided than the joining together of making suggestions and willingness to reflect on one’s own contribution that Brecht offers in a brief Me-ti story. There, he first talks of the need to listen well to someone who has much experience, but he balances that statement with the following: “He who expects that his suggestions will be carried out will make sure they are well-thought-through.” (“Der, welcher annimmt, daß man seine Vorschläge ausführt, wird sie sich gut überlegen,” Me-ti 53, SG.)

Learning, understanding, questioning, doubting – we know that these activities and stances are centrally important to Brecht. They are present in his poetics on three levels: in his self-conception, as recurring topics in his poems (for instance, in “Praise of learning,” and in exhortations or encouragements to his son or to workers to learn), but also in the very constitution of his poems.

His poems reference and constitute speech acts that contribute to scenarios of exchange, of learning, of teaching, of thinking and discussion. Looking through his poems, one finds instances of this again and again. Admittedly, Brecht is more often the dispenser of knowledge than the student (“I advise you”), but his choice of words often invites others to share this knowledge: “Seht, wir wissen, Freunde” (“Look, we know, friends,” GBA 13: 125). Encouragements or urging others to “see,” in particular the biblical-sounding “Seht,” appear regularly (GBA 13: 116, 125).

One of his sonnets, written for and to Steffin during a time of separation in the mid-1930s, is titled “Fragen” (GBA 11: 195) / “Questions” (Norton 582). An unconventional love poem, it invites dialogue, solicits it, tries to bridge the distance between her “you” and his “I.” While it presents a catalogue of questions that chart his solicitude and worry, it also includes, with the insistently anaphoric “Write me,” a number of imperatives, followed by assumptions or hopes in the grammatical form of questions. To quote just the two first lines:

Write me what you’re wearing. Is it warm?
Write me how you’re lying. Softly in bed?

Questions and imperatives are both directed towards an Other, a Gegenüber (which may be himself, see his “Gedanken über die Dauer des Exils” [GBA 12: 119] where questions and imperatives invite acts of insight by a self addressed as “you”), and Brecht often uses one in the function of the other. Their frequency in Brecht’s poetic oeuvre is remarkable. Now, these two grammatical forms don’t just ask and order. They can convey a whole range of speech acts. Using them, we can instruct, inquire, invite, encourage, question, affirm, solicit information or action, empower, exhort, demand, doubt, appeal, command, request: they can express curiosity, skepticism, urgency, criticism, or enthusiasm. Without explicitly naming a Gegenüber, they constitute and create it in the act of speaking. All of these constitute not only speech acts, but also “Gestus” (pl.), in Brechtian terms, that is, an attitude or Haltung that underlies words, language use as socially-situationally determined.

Addressing others in this range of speech acts and roles is central to Brecht’s poetic self-image. A list of those to whom these speech acts are directed in his poems would be pages long, including friends, enemies, groups (workers), and countries (“Germany Pale Mother,” GBA 11: 253), counterbalancing the tendency, already mentioned, to refer to himself with detachment in the third person. We find a concentration of such imperatives in Brecht’s poems on theater practice, addressing actors, lighting designers, writers, and all kinds of “Theatermacher,” for instance in “Das Zeigen muss gezeigt werden” / “Showing must be shown,” that opens with the imperative: “Show that you are showing!” / “Zeigt, dass Ihr zeigt” (Norton 921, GBA 15: 166)


Brecht’s lyrical “I”s and other stand-ins for his own Haltung frequently model acts of insight, comprehension, or thought. I will end with two examples, one from his prose and one from his poetry.

First, a brief Keuner story in which the final line carries the most significance even as it encourages us to work out why precisely Herr Keuner feels this way. (“Herr Keuner und die Zeichnung seiner Nichte,” Keuner 69)

Herr Keuner sah sich die Zeichnung seiner kleinen Nichte an. Sie stellte ein Huhn dar, das über einen Hof flog. “Warum hat dein Huhn eigentlich drei Beine?” fragte Herr Keuner. “Hühner können doch nicht fliegen,” sagte die kleine Künstlerin, “und darum brauchte ich ein drittes Bein zum Abstoßen.”

“Ich bin froh, daß ich gefragt habe,” sagte Herr Keuner.

Mr. Keuner looked at a drawing by his young niece. It showed a chicken that flew across a farmyard. “Why does your chicken have three legs?” asked Mr. Keuner. “Chicken’s can’t fly, you know,” said the young artist, “and so I needed a third leg for taking off.”

“I’m glad I asked,” said Mr Keuner. (SG)

For the following – final – example, I will first give a shortened and slightly manipulated version of the Brecht poem “Die Maske des Bösen” / “The Mask of the Angry One” (Norton 1002, and a much better title than “Mask of Evil” Willett/Manheim 383)

The mask of the angry one

On the wall hangs a Japanese carving
Mask of an angry demon, lacquered in gold.
The swollen veins at his temples hint
What a great strain it is to be angry.

And now the original and complete poem:

The mask of the angry one

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving
Mask of an angry demon, lacquered in gold.
Feelingly I observe
The swollen veins at his temples, hinting
What a great strain it is to be angry. [emphases in bold: SG]

Again, we have that characteristic Brechtian inversion, a sudden change in perspective: a defamiliarizing move that allows us a new view of something we thought we had understood before. My truncated version does have that inversion, but it doesn’t foreground it. Brecht’s version emphasizes the insight not only through the rhythm, the weighting of lines and syllables: it also inserts an observer – a proxy for both Brecht and for ourselves as readers – to nudge us towards the surprising conclusion offered in the final line, to invite us to share it and think about it.

This is Brecht the poet-teacher at work. Wishful thinking? An idealized image? Hubris? No doubt those are elements of his more lofty acts of self-stylization, just as his encouragement to keep learning and thinking contrasts with – and is undercut by – numerous instances of dogmatic pronouncements. Brecht knew this, and one of his Keuner stories thematizes the tension:

“Ich habe bemerkt,” sagte Herr K., “daß wir viele abschrecken von unserer Lehre dadurch, daß wir auf alles eine Antwort wissen. Könnten wir nicht im Interesse der Progapanda eine Liste der Fragen aufstellen, die uns ganz ungelöst erscheinen?” (Keuner 24)

“I have noticed,” said Mr. K, “that we deter many from our teachings because we have answers to everything. In the interest of propaganda, couldn’t we put together a list of questions that appear to us to have no solution whatsoever as yet?” (SG)

We can see contradictions in the way Brecht variously adopts the roles of either teacher or student, of questioning or providing answers, of asserting certainty or inviting doubt. Or, taking his oeuvre as a whole, we can say that they come together in a dialectical dynamic of productive dialogue, mutually dependent, as in Socrates’ merging of sage and seeker.

Brecht’s poetic self-stylizations, like his poems in general, show a remarkable range of “voices” – of dialectical twists and sincerity, polemics and apparently straightforward advice, satire, prophecy, and warning. While it would take much more time to demonstrate this comprehensively, my aim was to select a specific strategy that may be less obvious than the “self-namings” Brecht employs in his poetic self-images. I would like to expand what we think of as his self-images in poems to include those that work via demonstration and invitation rather than by explicit characterization. Brecht uses language, especially pronouns and verb forms, to create – rather than merely describe – scenes of collective work and communication. His poems perform speech acts that constitute, model, and invite acts of engagement, of reciprocity, and of dialogue.

I’m not sure whether I haven’t arrived at something entirely predictable and familiar via a detour, namely, that Brecht presents himself as a teacher and learner along with viewing others as teachers and learners. But perhaps the point worth reiterating at the end is that he does so not only by “naming” himself in these roles or by the use of what one might term a strongly autobiographical “I,” but – more importantly – through the use of “you” and “we”; and that the contours of this self-definition emerge first from forms of address, from questions posed and requests directed at others, rather than from anything that he says about himself.

Works Cited / Notes:

Brecht, Bertolt: The Collected Poems. Translated and edited by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn. New York: W. W. Norton, 2018 (cited as Norton).

Brecht, Bertolt: Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978 (cited as Keuner).

Brecht, Bertolt: 100 Gedichte. 1918–1950. Berlin: Aufbau, 1951.

Brecht, Bertolt: Me-ti. Buch der Wendungen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977 (cited as Me-ti).

Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913–1956. Eds. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. London: Methuen, 1976 (cited as Willett/Manheim).

Brecht, Bertolt: Werke. Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe. Ed. Werner Hecht et al. Berlin: Aufbau; Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988ff. (cited as GBA and volume: page).

Frick, Werner: “‘Ich, Bertolt Brecht…’. Stationen einer poetischen Selbstinszenierung.” In Helmut Koopmann, ed: Brechts Lyrik – neue Deutungen. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1999, 9-47 (cited as Frick).

[1] Poems, unless stated otherwise, are cited from the marvelous new Constantine/Kuhn translation, The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht (W. W. Norton, 2018). The collection is a significant improvement over previous translations in many ways, a most welcome corrective to previous inaccuracies and misleading inflections. Any translations of poems or prose by me are identified by “SG.”)

[2] All references to GBA (see works cited) are in-text, volume: page. In his essay, Frick also discusses Brecht’s “notturno” (11-13).

[3] Here, admittedly, I find the rendering of “angenommen” misleadingly literal; Willett/Manheim have “carried them out,” I would opt for “accepted them.”

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The Socialist Intellectual and the Public Sphere

by Jakob Norberg

The socialist intellectual and the public sphere — this is not a new constellation of concepts. Only looking at studies of German literature and thought in a North American context, I would say that it is about 45 years old, at least.

The first issue of the journal New German Critique was published in 1974. According to a 2005 retrospective article written by Anson Rabinbach and Andreas Huyssen, the journal wanted to translate one culture for the benefit of another, transfer German thought to an American situation. Specifically, it wanted to enliven contemporary German Studies but also import German theory to the American left in a situation in which the left in both the US and in West Germany was “spinning out of control,” descending into a “culture of political violence” (Huyssen and Rabinbach 9). To reach these goals – expanding and reinvigorating an academically conservative discipline and reinjecting theory and philosophical reflection into an activist left – the editorial collective set out to transpose new and neglected texts from the developing modern German leftwing theoretical tradition and to cover disregarded German authors and areas; it had not yet “decided whether to orient itself to ‘the movement’ or to the academy” (Huyssen and Rabinbach 16). This general project of translation, transfer, and coverage took two specific forms: the introduction of the fairly young discourse on the “public sphere” in West Germany, which was unknown in US academia, and the treatment of the politics and culture of the GDR, which was ignored in US German Studies.

An encyclopedia entry on the public sphere by Jürgen Habermas appeared in the third issue of New German Critique. Habermas had published his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1962 and it was translated into English in 1989; the entry in New German Critique thus arrived about 15 years earlier than the English version of the book. But in 1974, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge had already released Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung. Zur Organisationsanalyse von bürgerlicher und proletarischer Öffentlichkeit, their 1972 response to and development of Habermas. New German Critique covered this work, too, in the following issue, number 4, published in 1975. Eberhard Knödler-Bunte, Sara Lennox and Frank Lennox wrote an overview of Negt and Kluge entitled “The Proletarian Public Sphere and Political Organization.”

New German Critique thus introduced Habermas’s reconstruction of the liberal model of the public sphere, the bourgeois history of the public sphere, as well as the notion of a specific proletarian public sphere, or rather a proliferation of class- and movement-specific public spheres. Faced with the collapse of the student leftwing politics, the editors turned to a West-German debate on the social constitution and political function of collective discursive practices that would exercise some rational control of policy (Habermas) or serve to articulate collective experiences and sentiments and facilitate the coalescence of social movements (Negt and Kluge).

The other recurrent topic of the early issues of New German Critique was the GDR. The journal’s second issue was devoted to East Germany – it was a special issue on the German Democratic Republic. Most of the articles, written by West Germans, “adopted the conventional tone of political science (on technology, convergence, the economic structures)” (Huyssen and Rabinbach 18) and sought to show solidarity with working-class achievements but criticize bureaucratization in the GDR. This ambivalence also reflected the editorial collective’s own dilemma. One article discussed “Brecht in the GDR”; it was written by David Bathrick. Another author, Heiner Müller, made an appearance in the issue, in an essay by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. There would soon be more articles on Müller, the journals only “literary discovery” (Huyssen and Rabinbach 18): issue 8 from 1976 featured several articles on the dramatist. These literary essays also gravitated toward figures whose presence did not simply support the GDR order by exemplifying a “socialist national culture” but challenged it (Bathrick 91) – by the late 1960s and early 1970s, Brecht had become the poet laureate of the GDR, the GDR classic, but his works were “rich in equivocation, contradiction, ambivalence and intentional obfuscation” (Bathrick 97).

In its first couple of years, then, New German Critique had two specialties: it imported its theory from West Germany, in the form of the public sphere discussion, and it imported its literature from East Germany, with a preference for the presentation of internal alternatives to officially approved GDR culture. Here we have the basic building blocks of the theme of this discussion – the socialist intellectual and the public sphere. But were the two topics combined? Did the editors focus directly on the socialist intellectual in the public sphere? The “proletarian public sphere” already presented a combination of the idea of a public sphere with a socialist tradition, but reading the articles featured in the first couple of issues, it is clear that the editors were introducing fairly distinct figures with separate idioms – the conceptual worlds of Jürgen Habermas and Bertolt Brecht seem not to overlap.

Let us begin with Habermas. His republished encyclopedia entry introduced the full-fledged liberal concept of the public sphere. The public sphere is a specific realm of social life, Habermas writes, where public opinion can form. It is not coextensive with public authority, the state. Public opinion, he claims instead, is the critical discussion in which a “body of citizens” engages vis-à-vis the government of the state (Habermas 49). This public opinion, forming in the public sphere, Habermas underscores, can only come into being when freedom of assembly, freedom of opinion and expression are guaranteed and when the actions of the state, its policies, legal proceedings, are accessible to the citizens thanks to conventions and laws of publicity. Those are the basic legal requirements of a functioning public sphere. Public opinion moreover needs media for discussion, such as newspapers, and the citizens must have the leisure, the communicative competence, the educational level, and the socio-economic independence to speak and write openly with one another. Those are the basic sociological requirements of the public sphere.

In his dense overview, Habermas identifies the legal, social, and economic infrastructure of the political public sphere – they form a complex. Bertolt Brecht, to return to this author, has a very different orientation. It becomes visible in a Brecht text translated by David Bathrick and published in the very first issue of New German Critique, “Intellectuals and Class Struggle.” Brecht’s reflections in these notes are structured by the goal of a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society. In capitalist society, Brecht says, intellect is commodified – all intellectual products (poems, dramas, articles, interventions, declarations) are commodities on a market. Intellectuals will be more than willing to serve a political cause, but then in exchange for a “modest increase in pay” (Brecht 19). In Brecht’s view there is, one can infer, not really a public sphere of free and rational discussion of government policy enabled by a set of legal and sociological requirements. He instead points to a commercial space for the consumption of various artistic, intellectual or even pseudo-political commodities that will not by themselves be able to transform the social order in which they circulate.

Intellectuals, understood by Brecht as subject to the same conditions and hence behaving as a single group, have no obvious interest in the cause of the class struggle with the aim of revolution. Shaped by market conditions, they are opportunists, and therefore rightfully mistrusted by the proletariat; they are actors in a market, dependent on monetary compensation, and typically work for the ruling class. But intellectuals, Brecht adds, can be used toward revolutionary ends – they can, as intellectuals (writers, public figures, leaders) fulfill crucial functions in the struggle. The question is whether the interest of the proletariat and the interest of the intellectuals can and will align. Here Brecht does not quite work out a full-fledged answer; the text is short, even a fragment. It is clear, however, that Brecht is interested in the deployment of intellectuals for an end, in their proper use, and does not consider or care about the legal and sociological requirements of the bourgeois public sphere; he does not take these requirements seriously. The “socialist intellectual” is, for Brecht, a figure of interest, a possibility, but not one that can be taken for granted and not really one that will emerge spontaneously within the confines of the bourgeois public sphere.

Works Cited:

Bathrick, David. “The Dialectics of Legitimation: Brecht in the GDR.” New German Critique 2 (Spring 1974): 90–103.

Brecht, Bertolt. “Intellectuals and Class Struggle.” Translated by David Bathrick, New German Critique 1 (Winter 1973): 19–21.

Habermas, Jürgen. “The Public Sphere.” New German Critique 3 (Fall 1974): 49–55.

Knödler-Bunte, Eberhard, Sara Lennox and Frank Lennox. “The Proletarian Public Sphere and Political Organization: An Analysis of Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s The Public Sphere and Experience.” New German Critique 4 (Winter 1975): 51–75.

Huyssen, Andreas, and Anson Rabinbach. “New German Critique: The First Decade.” New German Critique 95 (Spring–Summer 2005): 5–26.

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Tweeting (in) “Dark Times”: Brecht’s Second Svendborg “Motto” Post-Trump (MLA 2020)

by Micah Bateman

Days before Trump’s inauguration day in 2017, poetry critic Adam Kirsch prescribed Trump’s broken opposition an inoculating dose of broken lines by two non-American poets: W.H. Auden and Bertolt Brecht, who had both written so zealously in verse about the “dark times” marked by the rise of European fascism in the twentieth century.[1] In both cases, the populace had already beaten the critic to the punch, deploying the work of both writers to express what I’ll call an Arendtian mood, after Hannah Arendt, who also wrote extensively about the two poets and who authored The Origins of Totalitarianism. To the digital left remediating Brecht and Auden, the rise of the populist right in America perhaps felt something like the rise of the Third Reich, and what better poets than these two antifascist ones to mark the left’s new foreboding about how it might affect the world?

Auden, particularly, proved a popular post-Trump panacea because his poem about Hitler’s invasion of Poland, “September 1, 1939,” still lingered in the public imagination from its rampant Western circulation after 9/11.[2] The circulation of Brecht is more curious. Brecht did not feature as largely in the U.S. imaginary after 9/11 as Auden, nor is Brecht primarily known – and perhaps especially to U.S. audiences – as a poet. When social media users began to cite Brecht in relation to the rise of Donald Trump, users invoked Brecht first and foremost as a dramatist. In 2015, one user wrote: “Trump is the artist of our time, of America’s masochistic relation to irrational and unearned power. A character from Brecht come to life.” The Twitter account @Tips4Actors advised in July 2016: “Get working on your Brecht. If Trump wins there’s going to be a lot of Brecht revivals.” Days later, Twitter user @thedeadauthor wrote: “All theater is political: Brecht. / All politics is theater: Trump.” Many users noted that Trump’s ascension gave new relevance to The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Surely the election of a reality TV star playing an executive signaled the manifestation of a “theatre of the real” about which Brecht’s dramatic work would have much to say. Moreover, did popular U.S. audiences know Brecht at all? In response to Brecht’s overnight popularity after the 2016 election, associating Trump and Brecht, one Twitter user assured her followers that “Donald Trump doesn’t know about Brecht.” In this, I think she was right, and furthermore, neither did many other U.S. Twitter users.

In either case, it surprised me, then, to learn of the larger role Brecht has played in the post-Trump Anglophone imaginary as a poet. Various English translations of Brecht’s motto or auto-epigraph that opens the second section of his exilic Svendborg Poems (compiled in Denmark after fleeing Nazism) have circulated on Twitter in spikes that almost exactly correlate with major events related to the Trump administration. The most commonly circulated translation is from Willett’s and Manheim’s Poems 1913–1956. Here it is in full:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

I had known this poem, but I didn’t know that this poem was popularly known. And, according to Twitter data, it wasn’t before 2016.

Using Twitter’s Premium Search API, a subscription service just recently unrolled last year that provides Twitter data to app developers for a monthly plus a per-query fee, I downloaded every unique Tweet between mid-June 2015 and the present that contained these three exact strings: “in the dark times” + “singing” + “about the dark times.” This query returned most but not all of the translations of the second motto to the Svendborg poems along with the usernames of those who posted the poem, the time and date posted, and some other assistive metadata. Metadata and counts that I do not possess through Twitter’s Premium Search API include the total followings of all users or the total number of impressions this poem has made over the past several years, which is to say how many times it has been displayed across how many screens. So the data I have pulled using the Premium Search API suggest a much broader impact. While between June 1, 2015, and December 22, 2019, (1,665 days) Brecht’s second motto to his Svendborg Poems has been posted in full in English at least 10,223 times, the number of impressions it has made, given the number of followers of some of the more celebrity posters such as actor John Cusack (Figure 1), I would estimate to be in the millions. Thus I would argue that this marks an important moment in the history of Brecht’s Anglophone reception.

Figure 1: John Cusack’s retweet of Brecht’s “Motto” in July 2018


Figure 2: A line graph depicting Twitter posts of Brecht’s “Motto” from 2015 to 2020


Here are some of the findings from the data: Over the days queried, most days returned zero instances of the poem. That is, the statistical mode of the dataset in total is zero. If I remove the days on which zero instances are returned, the mode becomes 1. So for most days over this time period, Brecht’s poem remained pretty dormant, and this was especially true in 2015. In fact, in the first two months queried (June and July 2015), only nine results posted. Interestingly the one early result from a German user contained the hashtag #poetryforpalestine. The poem started to pick up steam during the following June in 2016 when it achieved its first triple-digit spike after the Brexit referendum on June 23. But this first bump hardly registers in comparison to the poem’s three major spikes over this timeframe (pictured in Figure 2). In November 2016 after the U.S. presidential election, 722 instances were returned. 1,025 instances were returned in January 2017 during and after Trump’s inauguration. And in July 2018 following the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States (announced July 9) and intensification of the U.S.-Mexico border crisis, 1,892 instances were returned. As a share of the total number of full translations in unique Tweet objects, these numbers represent, respectively, 7% (Trump’s election), 10% (Trump’s inauguration and the transition of power), and 19% (Kavanaugh/border crisis). All in all, more than a third of the shares of Brecht’s second Svendborg motto over the last 4.5 years correspond with major events of the Trump administration.

While I can say that these same events invited spikes in other poems, such as Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” and Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” and even that these other poems had wider circulations than Brecht enjoyed, it should be noted that these comparative poems are polyvalent among other political and historical referents of the day. That is, Auden and Dickinson spike every time there’s a social tragedy, be it a school shooting, a bombing, or the election of Donald Trump. But Brecht’s second Svendborg motto seems tightly tied to the Trump administration. Moreover, it’s the least partisanly ambiguous with regard to its use. Whereas most of the users posting Auden and Dickinson after election day can comfortably be said to have opposed Trump, many Trump supporters posted the poems as well, suggesting that Trump was the ‘hopeful thing with feathers’ (in the case of Dickinson) or the “affirming flame” (in the case of Auden). Sharers of Brecht’s Svendborg motto, on the contrary, have been uniformly anti-Trump. This is not true of sharers of Brecht on the whole. Another study might be done, for instance, on the pro-Trump right wing’s use of the following quotation from Brecht’s Life of Galileo, which has also enjoyed circulation on social media: “He who does not know the truth is just a fool, but he who knows it and calls it a lie is a criminal.” In several Tweets, this quotation is followed by a #MAGA, or “Make America Great Again” hashtag associated with Trump’s campaign.

There’s a historical poetry to sharing Brecht on Twitter. The founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, explained in an early interview that the social media platform was “conceived as part of a long line of squawk media, dispatch, short messaging, as well as citizen communications services” like CB radio.[3] In short, Twitter was based on the idea of two-way radio, the very idea that Brecht put forth in his own theory of radio:

The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers. Any attempt by the radio to give a truly public character to public occasions is a step in the right direction.[4]

What Brecht conceived was participatory social media, but as this very report attests, Twitter has become more than just an interchange for multi-speaker communication. It is recorded. It is an archive and a dataset. While there might be a poetry to writing about Brecht and Twitter, there is an irony to extracting data from Twitter to write about Brecht and Trump because Brecht wanted social media to be participatory and revolutionarily public. But in contracting the social media data firm Cambridge Analytica to mine and exacerbate partisan public sentiment, Trump has shown that even citizen communication privileges the rich and powerful and can become a tool of the right.[5]

In addition to radio, Brecht also wanted poetry to be publicly useful. As David Constantine writes in “The Usefulness of Poetry,” Brecht designed his Svendborg poems to set their addressees on alert and induce in their readers a critical attitude.[6] More than this, Constantine continues, Brecht wished for such a critical attitude to result in “a shock, a quickening of consciousness, a becoming alert to better possibilities, an extension, a liberation.”[7] But I worry that in using Brecht’s poem ritually – to ritualize each perceived social tragedy of the Trump administration – it loses its ability to shock, to quicken the consciousness. What if, in its twenty-first century remediations, it no longer mediates consciousness but pre-mediates feeling? Richard Grusin coined the term premediation to describe a post-9/11, new medial logic of refashioning old media “as a form of medial pre-emption. Premediation works to prevent citizens of the global mediasphere from experiencing again the kind of systemic or traumatic shock produced by the events of 9/11 by perpetuating an almost constant, low level of fear or anxiety about another terrorist attack.”[8] In textualizing an Arendtian mood using Brecht’s poem and then ritualizing that mood to self-manage after social tragedies, Twitter users in opposition to the Trump administration may be pre-empting the very shock Brecht was aiming to inspire. When does “singing about the dark times” just make them more bearable?


[1] Adam Kirsch, “Reading in the Dark,” Foreign Policy, 16 January 2017.

[2] See Stephanie Burt, “‘September 1, 1939’ Revisited: Or, Poetry, Politics, and the Idea of the Public,” American Literary History 15.3 (2003): 533-559.

[3] Richard Rogers, “Foreword: Debanalizing Twitter: The Transformation of an Object of Study,” in Twitter and Society, edited by Katrin Weller et al. (New York: Peter Land, 2014). x.

[4] Bertolt Brecht, “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication,” in Brecht on Theatre, translated and edited by John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 52.

[5] See, for instance, Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, “Revealed: 50 Million Facebook Profiles Harvested for Cambridge Analytica in Major Data Breach,” The Guardian (17 May 2018): 22.

[6] David Constantine, “The usefulness of poetry,” in Brecht’s Poetry of Political Exile, edited by Ronal Speirs (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 29-46.

[7] Ibid, 44.

[8] Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and mediality after 9/11 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 2.

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Digital Brecht: A Threat Model (MLA 2020)

By David Robinson

What is at stake?

Bertolt Brecht scholars, even more than literary scholars in general, face urgent challenges to their work from information technology and its legal and institutional frameworks. Brecht’s work is entangled with the law of print and performance copyright, and with technical issues of Internet distribution, audio/visual rendering, and long-term digital storage. Scholarship takes place inside academic and governmental structures devoted to their own diverse agendas. This essay addresses how scholars and other communities of readers can extract maximum benefit from available technology, while at the same time evading the legal and less-legal snares set to extract maximum profit from information.

To the extent that we academics can survive the political and environmental crises we share with the rest of the world, our distinctive social function, alongside artists and many other allies, is to resist the erosion of social commitments that are not native to capitalism. We transmit culture, elaborate it, promote academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, and defend social institutions that allow these principles to flourish. The following table lays out the minimal conditions that scholars need to do their work, organized by access to information and the possibility of collaboration.

Table 1. What scholars need

Access Collaboration
•  To primary materials

•  To secondary literature

•  To analytical tools

•  Among scholars

•  In the classroom

•  Through performance

•  With the public

•  Locally and remotely

Access means the availability of materials and tools unencumbered by burdensome fees or institutional gate-keeping. Collaboration refers to the essentially social nature of learning and art, which far from being “ivory tower” activities are ideally encounters among diverse artists, performers, scholars, students, and audiences of all social classes and bring every conceivable intention and expectation to bear in their artistic engagement. The key benefit conferred by the Internet and by digital distribution is the potential to remove practical barriers to access and collaboration.

Compatibility with these needs must be the criterion when evaluating a technology for an academic project. Sound judgment requires an understanding of the tools available, ranging across Web sites, discussion lists, social media, chat platforms, collaborative online office tools, online publishing of all sorts, video conferencing, online library holdings, online video, online teaching, online performance, analysis and visualization of data big and small, and pattern-recognition algorithms. However, these technologies exist within governmental, institutional, and commercial contexts that confer varying degrees of freedom and restriction on scholars. The following diagram illustrates some of these relations.

Figure 1. Modalities of production in the digital humanities


(Smithies, 128)

Both axes in this diagram indicate degrees of control, favoring either the scholar or someone else (e.g., a lawyer, a bureaucrat, a dean, or a corporation). The horizontal axis measures access to information (“openness”). The vertical axis measures control by users over the technology, ranging from freely available “tools” to contractually restricted “services.” Each segment of the gray bar (Non-commercial, NGO, etc.) provides typical distribution modes above the bar and specific real-world examples below the bar. At lower left, a maximum degree of both freedoms is obtained by using the open World Wide Web to publish material unencumbered by restrictive copyright. At upper right, the least degree of both freedoms is available to users of commercial Internet services and publishers profiting from traditional restrictive copyright. A scholar with advanced technical skills might choose to build custom tools and services, providing greater freedom. A less technical scholar might contract with an NGO or business to use a ready-made service. The choices are not crudely “freedom good, commercial bad” – all choices involve trade-offs. The important thing is to understand what is being traded off.


The challenges to scholarship that computer technology creates or complicates are too numerous to list exhaustively, but they can be categorized as follows.

  • Copyright

The problems caused by copyright are mainly legal, not technological, but digitization of content and potential for easy distribution over the Internet have made the legal issues far more acute. Current legal theories are out of step with current technology, despite all the contorted and ineffectual measures to restrict file-copying, collectively known as “digital rights management.”

  • Gating

Like copyright, physical and bureaucratic restrictions on information flow are not new. Governments, universities, and businesses all have strong motivations to hoard and hide knowledge. Computers, however, provide endless new opportunities to do this for power and profit.

  • Technological traps

Librarians are painfully aware of how hard it is to choose a file format today that will still be readable in 10 years. The go-go-go business culture of the tech industry is littered with antiquated formats, dead companies, abandoned software, and undocumented APIs that can ruin the day of anyone depending on them.

  • Vendor lock-in

The technological traps aren’t just accidental. Technology companies scheme routinely, and sometimes illegally, to make it painful or impossible for their customers to jilt them in favor of a competitor.

In the confines of this brief essay, I offer two examples of these threats as they have played out at the intersection of technology and creative arts.

Example One: Services instead of things

The most lucrative business model in a data economy is one where the company owns everything and the customer owns nothing. That way, the company has no need to produce and sell a product, just a service, which is “licensed,” not sold. Offering a service is almost a good as possessing a monopoly, because only the service provider possesses it, while the customer receives an intangible that is consumed as soon as used, and is safe from the possibility of accumulation or resale. In cloud services, this model is called Software as a Service (SaaS).

For example, Microsoft began as a seller of boxed software – an old-fashioned physical product. It then cut an exclusive licensing deal with IBM for preinstalled operating system software. When cheap clones of IBM hardware grew to dominate the personal computer market, Microsoft software remained the single common component, leading to monopolies in operating system and productivity software (such as Office) that endured through legal and illegal means for 20 years. This ended only when mobile computing, and remotely offered services, began making stand-alone PCs and the software running them obsolete. Seeing its pre-installed operating system monopoly dwindle, Microsoft doubled down on its productivity business, reinventing itself as a cloud company for “office services.” Office became Office 360, a cloud service. You no longer own anything, and you pay a subscription fee … forever. There’s no longer a need to tout pointless upgrades, because customers either pay the monthly utility bill or they get cut off entirely.

Something similar happened in the music industry. Enticed by lower production costs and promising customers improved audio quality, the record companies embraced digital technology in the 1980s in the form of the Compact Disc. Vinyl nostalgia notwithstanding, that format was hugely popular, and within a decade, every analog music recording with potential for future sales had been remastered to CD. Yet the industry committed a tactical error: CDs were unencrypted. The ease of perfect duplication that made digital audio technologically attractive also, inevitably, made it convenient for file-sharers. The industry fought file-sharing for years by suing its own customers, but their profits plummeted. Then Apple iTunes introduced license-based, rather than product-based sales, a business model in turn overtaken by product-free streaming services. The result, still evolving, might be called Music as a Service, improving over prehistoric broadcast radio by directly charging money for every listen.

What does this have to do with humanities scholarship? Suppose a project such as a critical edition is entirely unencumbered by copyright. The researchers contract with a software provider to host their data on the web and provide online editing and collaboration tools. Alas, the company goes out of business after five years, and their database structures disappear with them, while their server software is sold to Uber, which sees vague but huge business opportunities. The researchers consult the contract, and learn that they now possess nothing but the original data they provided, and that only because they made a backup. (But now I stray into pure fantasy.)

Example Two: James Joyce’s Ulysses

Enough fantasy; now for a literary nightmare. In the 1970s and 80s, a team of German textual scholars led by Hans Walter Gabler assembled an ambitious, new, computer-aided edition of James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses. The textual history of Ulysses had been vexed from the start by Joyce’s slow and accretive style of composition. On every typescript or proof returned to him, he crammed the margins full with revisions in a barely legible hand, leading to copy errors at every stage, including some by Joyce himself. The trade editions inherited a famously corrupt original text, and all of them added still more errors of their own. The following galley proof of the the novel’s final page gives a sense of the problem.

Figure 2. Annotated Ulysses proof


(Joyce, Ulysses Placards, “Penelope,” E fin [3 of 5] [])

Gabler and his team attacked this challenge by creating a “synoptic edition,” a genetic text that collated and compared every extant note, manuscript, typescript, galley proof, edition, and errata list that Joyce’s authorial hand had touched. After these materials were digitized and appropriately tagged, the team used custom software to generate a continuous authoritative text as well as a “synoptic” text that displayed the revision history. The continuous text, which Gabler touted as containing more than 5000 corrections (Gabler, vii), was published as a new trade edition by Random House in 1986. The image below from the synoptic edition shows the genetic text on the left and the matching continuous text on the right.

Figure 3. Synoptic Ulysses


(Joyce, Ulysses: A Critical and Synoptic Edition, Vol. 1, pp. 348-349)

The Gabler edition was controversial for its methodology, accuracy, editorial decisions, and motivations. Its detractors suggested, not unreasonably, that financial backing from the Joyce estate and Random House was aimed at establishing lucrative new copyrights extending well into the next century. Certainly Random House stood to corner the worldwide market for the novel, and after a fashion it succeeded – at the cost of trashing Gabler’s reputation and harming the entire field of Joyce studies. For the publisher, the 5000 corrections in Gabler’s Ulysses were just a marketing bauble. After rancorous debate by textual scholars in the pages of the New York Review of Books (Kidd, “The Scandal of Ulysses”; Staley, “The Continuing Scandal of Ulysses”; Rossman, “The New Ulysses: The Hidden Controversy”; Groden, “Ulysses Update”; etc.), and after W.W. Norton jumped in to promise another, competing correction of Ulysses, Random House aban- doned the Gabler edition and returned to selling reprints of its flawed 1961 edition.

Looking back at that pre-Web era, my saddest reflection is that Gabler’s project simply ended once financial support ended. The data and software never saw the light of day. Whatever its flaws, the project was a groundbreaking achievement in digital humanities that could have been refined and built upon. Today, if unencumbered by copyright, it would be an ideal candidate for massively distributed scholarly collaboration of a kind unimaginable in the 1980s. But it is encumbered by copyright. If viewed as “a derivative work made for hire by Hans Walter Gabler for the Estate of James Joyce, the U.S. copyright in the edition would last for 95 years from the year of first publication, or until 1 January 2080” (Saint-Amour, 756).

Copyleft as a solution

When I moved out of academic work and into the computer industry, one of the first things I learned was that software has been an “intellectual property” battleground. Unlike artifacts of a natural language, such as a play by Brecht, a computer program has two aspects: the source code, which can be written and read by trained human beings, and machine code, which is read and acted upon by computer hardware. As a result, software lends itself to the creation of artificial scarcity. If you hide the source code from customers, giving them only the “compiled” machine code, you can prevent them from studying how it works, modifying it, and creating new value from it. This constitutes a business model.

Software with more or less freely available source code predates this model. Early programmer culture emerged from military and academic environments that were insulated from market incentives. The commercial computer industry of the 1950s and 60s concerned itself with selling super-expensive hardware to governments and corporations, giving little thought to software itself as an object of value. The words, symbols, ideas, and algorithms of software became commoditized only in the 1970s and 80s, after computers grew more affordable and interchangeable. Once computer code was understood as something worth locking away, companies like Microsoft turned software sales into big business. And so it came to pass that proprietary software development replaced collaborative development with a regime of patents, trade secrets, and copyright restrictions.

When programmers accustomed to freely acquiring, studying, distributing, and modifying source code found themselves locked out by licensing agreements, some of them, led by MIT researcher Richard Stallman, came up with a creative solution. First of all, and rather insanely, they rewrote from scratch the dominant server software of the day, Unix, producing their own copyrightable code. Second, and rather brilliantly, they hacked the copyright system into what is waggishly referred to as copyleft, and more formally as free or open-source software. Whereas traditional application of copyright prevents non-owners from copying and redistributing materials, copyleft allows anyone to copy, modify, and redistribute, but not to hoard the improvements they make. The primary goal was to protect the freedom of programmers to program collaboratively. The first and classic example of this model is the GNU General Public License, or GPL, under which Stallman and his colleagues licensed their new software. Stallman grounded his copyleft philosophy in the “four freedoms,” which have an obvious affinity to the access and collaboration required for scholarly work.

Richard Stallman’s Four Freedoms
A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

0. Freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.

1. Freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.

2. Freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others.

3. Freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes.

(Stallman, “What is free software?” [])

Importantly, the meaning of “free” in the term “free software” has to do with freedom of action, not price. Stallman’s freedoms do not preclude the sale of software or of technical support for it, but neither do they enshrine profit as a preeminent value. Money can be made directly from free software only if its informational content is fully disclosed and remains open to unrestricted redistribution and modification.

The copyleft software model was so successful that today, 30 years after the GNU GPL was introduced, it protects the main software powering the Internet (GNU Linux) as well as the world’s most popular mobile operating system (the Linux offshoot Android). This success derives from the paradox of free software’s profitability. Commercial software giants such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM contribute funding and expertise to the ongoing development of Linux because broad collaboration ultimately spares more costs than it consumes.

While the GPL is intended to protect computer programs, the reinterpretation of copyright through the lens of the four freedoms has been generalized to cover a much wider range of intellectual property scenarios. Most notably, the Creative Commons project provides a comprehensive framework of licenses, ranging from traditionally restrictive copyright to completely unrestricted distribution. The image below is a representation of the various Creative Commons licensing icons, and the accompanying text is Wikimedia’s licensing statement for the image, itself licensed under Creative Commons. This particular license confers rights on the user that are approximately equivalent to those provided by the GPL.

Figure 4. Creative Commons licensing


(Wikimedia, File: Creative commons license spectrum.svg [ ki/File:Creative_commons_license_spectrum.svg])

Applied to academic publishing, copyleft licenses can protect new material that scholars create, including new editions of primary literature that has fallen into the public domain. As the Brecht copyrights approach expiration, the Brecht estate and its allied publishers will attempt to create new editions with new copyrights that will guarantee profit and control for another century. They require scholarly labor to achieve this. I urge Brechtians to drive a hard bargain with publishers and universities. Do not contribute to projects that lock away intellectual work. Use copyleft to build a distributed, high-participation, computer-aided future of open scholarship.


The following table maps the previously described threats to their potential mitigations.

Gating •  Avoid data-hoarding by governments and universities.

•  Avoid profiteering by corporations.

Technological traps •  Use open, not proprietary file types and compression protocols.

•  Adopt or develop standard platforms and simple-format data storage.

•  Make raw data and the analytical tools available in formats useful to scholars and developers.

•  Don’t just stream audio and video: Make it downloadable.

•  Distribute the data. Let other people help.

Vendor lock-in •  Whatever you build, make it portable. Don’t be beholden to your network and storage hosting, to your funders, your application developers, or even your users.

•  Make sure that you are legally unencumbered if you choose to take your data and tools elsewhere.

•  Beware of free services. If the product is free, then you (and your hard work) are the product.

Works Cited:

Gabler, Hans Walter. “Foreward.” In Joyce, Ulysses: A Critical and Synoptic Edition, vii-viii.

Groden, Michael and reply by John Kidd. “Ulysses Update.” New York Review of Books 36.1 (February 2, 1989), URL: Retrieved 25 March 2020.

Joyce, James. Ulysses: A Critical and Synoptic Edition. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler et al. New York: Garland, 1984. Three volumes.

Joyce, James. Ulysses Placards [galley proofs]. 1921. MS Eng 160.4. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Digital material. URL: Retrieved 25 March 2020.

Kidd, John. “The Scandal of Ulysses.” New York Review of Books 35.11 (June 30, 1988). URL: Retrieved 25 March 2020.

Rossman, Charles. “The New Ulysses: The Hidden Controversy.” New York Review of Books 35.19 (December 8, 1988). URL: Retrieved 25 March 2020.

Saint-Amour, Paul K. et al. “James Joyce: Copyright, Fair Use, and Permissions: Frequently Asked Questions.” James Joyce Quarterly 44.4 (Summer, 2007), 753-784. Accessed via JSTOR: Retrieved 25 March 2020.

Smithies, James. The Digital Humanities and the Digital Modern. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Staley, Thomas F., John O’Hanlon, and Hans Walter Gabler, reply by John Kidd. “The Continuing Scandal of ‘Ulysses’: An Exchange.” New York Review of Books 35.14 (September 29, 1988). URL: Retrieved 25 March 2020.

Stallman, Richard M. “What is free software?” URL: Retrieved 25 March 2020.

Wikimedia. “File:Creative_commons_license_spectrum.svg example.” URL: Retrieved 25 March 2020.

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Brecht on Digital Interactivity, Past and Present (MLA 2020)

by Evan Torner

It is unlikely that German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, were he alive today, would be a champion of video games as a medium. One connects Brecht with principles of pro-labor politics, modernist Verfremdung effects, and antifascism; meanwhile, video games emerge from exploitative workplaces (Joseph and Williams 2015), revolve around dopamine rewards (Zastrow 2017) and illusionist escapism (Mitchell 1994), and have always been in bed with racist, imperialist value systems (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009, Pedercini 2014). They are the planet’s dominant entertainment industry in the twenty-first century (Shieber 2019), just as they also compound climate change, indifferent to the sufferings of billions (Gordon 2019). And yet Brecht, along with other dramatist-theorists such as Augusto Boal, still play an outsized role in our academic framings of video games, particularly those games that seek to critique and impact society.

Brecht’s “epic theater” theory, conceived in exile from Germany in the 1930s and 40s, sought to situate theater performers in relation to larger social mechanics of control and oppression; his earlier theory of the Lehrstück collapses the distinction between performer and audience. Boal’s (1993) observations of trends in Brazilian revolutionary theater of the 1950s led him to the notion of the “spectactor,” a construct that encourages the participation of both actor and audience in “rehearsing the revolution” against such oppression. Brecht’s and Boal’s long shadows can be found in both those games that aspire to achieve political modernist aesthetics, such as Lucas Pope’s Papers Please (2014) – a self-reflexive indie game in which one plays a border guard in a fictional dystopia – as well as those triple-A corporate games that stumble into such aesthetics in retrospect, such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007), a first-person shooter who raises epistemological questions after a nuclear weapon is detonated in the Middle East. Lars De Wildt (2014) writes of “estrangement of play” in the game Spec Ops: The Line (2012), in which the player’s acts of killing performed in the game estranges the player-as-interpreter from the “playing subject” who is just trying to navigate and beat the game. Astrid Ensslin (2015) writes of games possessing “unnatural narratives” such as The Stanley Parable (2011) and Braid (2009), which deploy tricks of illusory agency, metadiegetic reflection, and non-linear temporality to create these forms of estrangement. Yet beyond these games’ design decisions and their critical analysis, Brecht has proven particularly pivotal in formative discussions around video games and digital interactivity per se.

Here, I offer a provisional summary of the way Brecht is used in discussing video games and interactive fiction prior to 2001. Notably, a brief preoccupation with Brecht’s theories of new media and telecommunication in the 1980s was wholesale abandoned by the early 2000s favor of directly applying his theories of theatre performance to digital gameplay and aesthetics, because video games naturally elide the difference between performer and audience. Theories by Brenda Laurel (1991) and Gonzalo Frasca (2001) that lean heavily on Brecht’s famous theories of formal estrangement or Verfremdungs-effekt and political modernism substantively shaped the modern discourse regarding “serious games” and the possibility of videogames to become an apparatus for class communication and a site of class struggle. In the face of new media that continues to be presented as emergent and strange (Ravetto-Biagioli 2019), I am advocating for the centrality of German Studies in the discipline of Game Studies, as well as a renewed investment in the direct linkage between the theater and videogames.

The twenty-first century has brought with it renewed interest in media specificity – that is, the affordances and constraints of any given media platform supersede its content – and the media theorists who advanced those theories, namely Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, and Friedrich Kittler. Kittler (1999) in particular described how “sound film and video cameras as mass entertainment liquidate the real event…” (Kittler 133) and that such media, disconnected from context, only advance the global machinery of profit and war. Yet whereas Kittler often describes media as “ghosts” that “cannot die at all” (130), Brecht would have us see certain media products as ghosts in the machinery that can activate all audiences against bourgeois illusionism and militaristic fealty. To this end, in his famous short essay “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication,” Brecht (1932) adopted the stance that “[radio] must follow the prime objective of turning the audience not only into pupils, but into teachers” (416). He advocates for radio to be changed “from distribution to communication … the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes” (Ibid.). In retrospect, Brecht’s words mirror the aspirations of cyberspace guru John Perry Barlow (1996) in the 1990s to “spread our [virtual] selves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts.” Media platforms bind us with their limited technological capabilities and political use, but each medium contains emancipatory potential within it.

In documenting the use of Brecht as a technological visionary, a theorist of “a theatre for the future” (Wright 1989, 12), I have found him frequently cited with respect to the potential for agency that theater and other arts grant their audiences. Yet any rubric to understand future technologies is always shaped – even paralyzed – by our present frames of reference. When Brecht wrote his 1932 essay on communicative radio, he stood before a paradigm shift (Kuhn 1962) propelled by the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933 that transformed the radio into an all-consuming mouthpiece of state and commercial interests. Later during wartime, radio transmissions became the centerpiece of encryption and decryption efforts, efforts which then led Alan Turing to create numerous foundations of modern computing. As far as the prognosticatory power of the 1932 essay is concerned, Brecht’s expertise and ambitions ran up against the natural boundaries of prediction and innovation. Reinhart Koselleck (1979) reminds us that all historical moments and their actors operate within an “Erfahrungsraum” (space of experience) and “Erwartungshorizont” (horizon of expectation) (Koselleck 355). Experience and expectation mutually constitute each other. What one may hope for is quite delimited by what one has already seen happen in one’s lifetime. Brecht’s space of media experience was that of the newspaper and film, to be superseded as mass media by radio; his horizon of expectations included a more interactive newspaper, film, and radio. Yet Brecht’s musings on such media, as influential as they may be (Koutsourakis 2018), pale in comparison with his already-extant and ongoing theories of the theater, which would grow into a cornerstone of game studies as a discipline in the 1990s and 2000s.

Game studies, as it turns out, emerged in part from Germanists in the 1980s applying Brecht and other theorists to explain the new poetics of interactive fiction. Since the 1966 invention of ELIZA for the IBM 7094, computer scientists such as Jewish-German émigré Joseph Weizenbaum had created “natural-language” programs that would allow a human to communicate with a computer by typing in straightforward human speech. ELIZA would usher in an era of text adventures, starting with Crowther and Woods’ ADVENTURE (1976), which circulated on systems at MIT, Stanford, and other technical universities’ computer systems for years. In 1984, Germanist and ham radio operator Anthony J. Niesz partnered with literary critic Norman Holland to study the meaning of ADVENTURE and other titles from nearly two decades worth of human-computer language interaction in the groundbreaking article “Interactive Fiction” for Critical Inquiry (Niesz and Holland 1984). Based on speculative thinking and the limited information at their disposal, they experienced interactive fiction as a hyperbolic construct: “One senses one’s essential humanity wobbling in the midst of the infinite paradoxes of existence and meaning” (Niesz and Holland 1984, 121). They invoke Brecht specifically in the context of his thoughts on the radio as a two-way communication device:

[Interactive fiction] seems to emancipate the reader from domination by
the text by putting her in at least partial control of the sequence of events.
… [It] could be understood, in fact, as the realization of some of Bertolt Brecht’s
ideas about the critical, antagonistic relationship of reader to text. Writing in the
heyday of radio, Brecht envisioned a system in which the audience would not
only have access to receivers but would in turn be able to make answering,
critical transmissions. Interactive fiction implements this feedback ideal.
An interactive reader can, in effect, tell the text to go to hell – and it will. (Niesz and Holland 123-124)

Brecht in the 1980s was frequently summoned within the framework of postmodernism (Wright 1989) and the dissolution of the boundaries between reader and text, but also against the backdrop of the Germanistik-driven reader-response theories of Wolfgang Iser entering the U.S. academy (Holub 1982). Readers were seen as having agency over the text, rather than the other way around. A year later in 1985, fellow Germanist and Ph.D. student Mary Ann Buckles would submit her dissertation on “interactive fiction” and the game ADVENTURE. Buckles (1985) wholly abandoned Brecht for figures such as psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Curiously, however, her own rejection of Niesz and Holland’s thesis stands on premises affirmed in Brecht’s Me-ti (2017) and other texts, namely the necessary collision between the scientific method, interpretation, and the internal emotions of the reader or player:

Interactive fiction has a strong contemplative quality which Holland
and Niesz have overlooked. It is not enough to think the problems through on a strictly intellectual basis … because so many of them are symbolic or emotional in nature, not intellectual. To solve such problems, readers must look inward and observe their own interpretive assumptions, review the evidence, then ask themselves why they think the way they do. (Buckles 185)

Buckles argues that moral judgment and two-way engagement with the material is what the playing and reading of interactive fiction look like, and that such judgments are perhaps rehearsals for moral decisions made outside of the game later on. Structuring Buckles’s own experiences and expectations within her historical moment were the two revolutionary new game titles A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985), which has the player take on the role of a roaming artificial intelligence at the apex of computer systems and social systems, as well as Balance of Power (1985), a strategy game in which players try desperately to avoid nuclear war. As Buckles saw the potential for emotional and moral reactions to games, these two titles demonstrated that computer games could adopt political stances that exposed the corruption of existing power structures and the possibilities of their reinvention. This Brechtian-space-without-Brecht would cascade into the work of Espen Aarseth (1997), who was strongly influenced by Buckles, in his foundation of modern game hermeneutics.

But interdisciplinary game developer Brenda Laurel would keep the flame burning for Brecht when she published Computers as Theatre in 1991. Rather than viewing computers and computational entertainment as “intellectual” endeavors, as with Niesz and Holland, or opportunities for emotional and moral introspection, as with Buckles, Laurel anticipated the modern somatic turn in video game studies (Keogh 2018) by insisting on game players as physical performers. In Laurel’s schema, computer users become actors and they derive Aristotelian “rational pleasure” from their cognitive-physical performance. She states:

In a theatrical view of human-computer activity, the stage is a virtual world. It is populated by agents, both human and computer-generated, and other elements of the representational context (windows, teacups, desktops, or what-have-you). The technical magic that supports the representation, as in the theatre, is behind the scenes.” (Laurel 1991, 17)

Laurel thus sees computer game design as setting a stage for the player as actor and audience, combined, not at all dissimilar to Brecht’s notion of epic theater as intended for the actors themselves, rather than a notionally separate audience. She then sees, in a Brechtian vein, the opportunity for computers to offer catharsis beyond the boundaries of the gameplay performance itself: “[the] representation lives between imagination and reality, serving as a conductor, amplifier, clarifier, and motivator” (Laurel 31). Yet the route from computer gameplay to action in the real world is not at all a linear one: in Laurel’s view, such games are terrible at directly eliciting catharsis, let alone emotions of any kind: “They are the best when a computer-based opponent wins, and they are the worst when no one wins, but the action is truncated because it could not continue” (Laurel 122). In other words, one tends to learn from modulated failures in games, whereas failures that cannot be corrected by player behavior teach us very little. Brechtian theory of Verfremdung applies only to those games that estrange us in certain ways.

Laurel’s trajectory in games-as-theater studies prefigure modern uses (Evans 2014, Dunne 2014, De Wildt 2014, Pötzsch 2017) of Brechtian theater theory –– not media theory – to explain games with non-commercial artistic and/or serious ambitions. Just as we can trace a line from Buckles to Aarseth, so can we trace Laurel’s influence on Uruguayan ludologist Gonzalo Frasca, whose 2001 M.A. thesis “Videogames of the Oppressed” relies heavily on Brecht and Boal to state that videogames can engage in rhetorical debates and serious gaming. [Note: Academic sexism and gatekeeping are likely the reasons why we refer to Aarseth and Frasca, as opposed to Buckles and Laurel, as founders of the game studies field.] Nevertheless, Frasca’s thesis convincingly demonstrates the overlap between the instantiations of the theater, simulation, and computer programs. He shows us via modifications made to the 1999 human simulation game The Sims that videogames can serve as simulation spheres for oppressive systems. Indeed, theater has always relied on games as a substantive framework for its content (Bloom 2018), so one can see modern video games much more as computational instantiations of older phenomena rather than radically new media that erase prior human rubrics of performance, physicality, narrative, and experience. As I have argued in the past, Brecht would likely find just as much fault with the rhetoric around immersion in the twenty-first century as he found with illusionism in the twentieth (Torner and White 2012, 3). But it also means that mechanics, aesthetics, and narratives of games can all be mobilized in the service of Brechtian estrangement (de Wildt 2014, Pötzsch 2017) within a relatively comprehensive Brechtian framework. Spec Ops: The Line, a Heart of Darkness-esque first-person shooter in which one turns out to be the villain, can be read as a kind of Brechtian Lehrstück. Papers, Please, which relies on players’ fast processing of border paperwork that reveal multiple mostly unpleasant storylines, can also be read as such. Self-reflexivity within the medium does not necessarily produce political action on the part of the player, but political modernism combined with self reflection is a potent cocktail indeed to prompt design for social change.

As a new decade dawns, the flames of fascism and exclusionism worldwide have been whipped up as never before. Art and culture have resumed their primacy as a means of speaking truth to power and enabling audiences to think critically about the systems that perpetuate their subjugation. In this light, is it trivial to reconsider Brecht’s impact on games scholarship, when we could be staging and refining urgent works such as The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (1941/1958) or Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (1938)? Let me make the case for its non-triviality.

In the longer view afforded by this paper, Brenda Laurel’s position that computational media really are theater is quite convincing. Video games – even those consisting of just command lines and text – are performatively embodied, deal in theatrical frameworks of on- and off-stage, and contain within them the possibility of activating their audiences against hegemonic forces of domination. Our preoccupations with Brecht as a media theorist, particularly relying on his writings related to radio or film, have less relevance to modern game theorists than straightforward applications of Brechtian theater theories on the game works of the present. If any of us were afraid that such theories of theatrical Verfremdung or political modernism would themselves be proven irrelevant by the digital present, let those fears be put to rest: we read computational media less as acts of communication and moving images than we see them as acts of politicized performance. Given that GamerGate galvanized middle-class gamer boys into adopting extreme-right viewpoints (Consalvo and Paul 2019) and now that such youth are primarily raised and socialized with videogames, computational media are needed that openly resist the “introduction of aesthetics into political life” and the glorification of war which Benjamin (1936) famously ascribed to fascism. Both theater and those games that turn their inherent theatricality against bourgeois and imperialist projects can play an active role in resisting fascism. In other words, serious games designed in the Brechtian vein can reach new audiences with older theories of performance and the political. And Brecht’s theatrical theories about estranging the audience already stand front and center in modern game theory without any media studies intermediaries. Scholars of Brechtian theater technique are of interest to all of us in a digital era, full stop.

Nevertheless, as I have asserted recently (Torner 2018), digital games are just one gaming medium among an increasing variety of digital and non-digital interactive media – including board games and live-action role-play (or larp) – in the twenty-first century, all of which are attempting Brechtian distanciation and political activation. In fact, analog game creators mobilize digital tools and networks to make political critiques at-scale without relying on app stores and other market-censored mass media platforms (Trammell 2019). Consisting of structured forms of “let’s pretend” adult play and despite its awkwardness and niche quality, larp continues to reveal its potential for personal and political emancipation (Levin 2012, Kemper 2018). Moreover, gaming, among other computational media such as memes, have played a decisive role in revealing the dysfunction within larger social systems (Bailes 2019), with gaming offering us the potential to enact sociological fictions that collapse the distinctions between audience and performer, lived processes and fictional constraints. Mike Watson ascribes it to a new horizon of expectations among the generation born between 1980 and 1992 known as “millennials”: that prior capitalist and communist dreamworlds require clear re-conceptualization in terms of their effects. According to Watson, “I think what is mistaken for psychopathy and apathy in millennials may actually be a refusal to take the easy way out, or to find comfort in messianic systems” (as quoted in Bailes 2019). For me, that means a new generation embracing Brecht and rejecting a pervasive illusionism spread by an ever-proliferating array of media.

Works Cited:

Aarseth, Espen (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bailes, Jon (2019). “Mike Watson: Millennials, Memes and Adorno.” State of Nature. Blog. 3 December.

Barlow, John Perry (1996). “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Benjamin, Walter (1936). “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Translation of “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner mechanischen Reproduzierbarkeit” by Harry Zohn.

Bloom, Gina (2018). Gaming the Stage: Playable Media and the Rise of English Commercial Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Boal, Augusto (1993). Theater of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Brecht, Bertolt (1932). “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication.” Translation of “Der Rundfunk als Kommunikationsapparat” Blätter des Hessischen Landestheaters. Re-published in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, Edward Dimendberg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, 615-616.

Brecht, Bertolt. (2016) Me-ti: Book of Interventions in the Flow of Things. Translated by Antony Tatlow. London: Bloomsbury. 

Buckles, Mary Ann (1985). “Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame ‘Adventure’.” Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California San Diego.

Consalvo, Mia and Christopher Paul (2019). Real Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

De Wildt, Lars (2014). “Estranging Play: Distinguishing Playful Subjecthood from Governance.” Philosophy of Computer Games Conference 2014.

Douglass, Jeremy (2007). “Command Lines: Aesthetics and Technique in Interactive Fiction and New Media.” Dissertation. University of California Santa Barbara.

Dunne, DJ (2014). “Brechtian Alienation in Video Games.” Press Start 1.1, 80-99.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick and Greig de Peuter (2009). Games of Empire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ensslin, Astrid (2015). “Video Games as Unnatural Narratives.” Diversity of Play, edited by Mathias Fuchs. Lüneburg: Leuphana Universität, 41-70.

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

Frasca, Gonzalo (2001). “Videogames of the Oppressed: Videogames as a Means for Thinking and Debate.” Master’s Thesis. Georgia Institute of Technology.

Gordon, Lewis (2019). “The environmental impact of a Playstation 4.” The Verge, 5 December.

Holub, Robert C. (1982). “Trends in Literary Theory: The American Reception of Reception Theory.” German Quarterly 55.1, 80-96.

Joseph, Daniel and Ian Williams (2015). “Games Without Wages.” Jacobin.

Kemper, Jonaya (2018). “Playing to Create Ourselves: Exploring Larp and Visual Autoethnographic Practice as a Tool of Self Liberation for Marginalized Identities.” Master’s Thesis. New York University.

Keogh, Brendan (2018). A Play of Bodies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kittler, Friedrich A. (1999). Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Koselleck, Reinhart (1979) Vergangene Zukunft: Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Koutsourakis, Angelos (2018). Rethinking Brechtian Film Theory and Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Laurel, Brenda (1991). Computers as Theatre. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Levin, Hilda (2012). “Democratic effects of role-playing in participatory art – Participant reflections from the larp Till Death Do Us Part in Ramallah 2012.” Master’s Thesis. University of Göteborg.

Mitchell, William J. (1994). The Reconfigured Eye. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Niesz, Anthony J., and Norman N. Holland (1984). “Interactive Fiction.” Critical Inquiry 11.1, 110-29.

Pedercini, Paolo (2014). “Videogames and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Molleindustria.

Pötzsch, Holger (2017). “Playing Games with Shklovsky, Brecht, and Boal: Ostranenie, V-Effect, and Spect-Actors as Analytical Tools for Game Studies.” Game Studies 17.2

Ravetto-Biagioli, Kriss (2019). Digital Uncanny. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shieber, Jonathan (2019). “Video game revenue tops $43 billion in 2018, an 18% jump from 2017.” TechCrunch, 22 January.

Torner, Evan (2018). “Brecht, Moreno, and Role-Playing Games.” Communications from the International Brecht Society.

Torner, Evan, and William J. White (2012). Immersive Gameplay. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Trammell, Aaron (2019). “Analog Games and the Digital Economy.” Analog Game Studies 6.

Wright, Elizabeth (1989). Postmodern Brecht. New York: Routledge.

Zastrow, Mark (2016). “Is video game addiction really an addiction?” PNAS 114.7, 4268–4272.

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Brecht und das Theater der Intervention (Brecht-Tage 2020)

von Marianne Streisand, Cornelius Puschke, Christian Hippe, Volker Ißbrücker

Brechttage 2020 2AbendChristine Wahl Bernd Stegemann Florian Malzacher. IMG_5867

Florian Malzacher, Bernd Stegemann, Christine Wahl. Image courtesy of the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus

Für die diesjährigen Brecht-Tage interessierte es uns als Konzept- und Projektleitung den Versuch zu unternehmen, zwei Universen zusammenzubringen: einerseits die Arbeiten und Vorschläge Bertolt Brechts, andererseits den im gegenwärtigen internationalen Kunstdiskurs überaus virulenten Diskurs um das Projekt der „Intervention“. Es sind offensichtlich gerade dieser Terminus und die dahinter stehenden diversen Kunstpraxen der Intervention, die gegenwärtig wie wenige andere geeignet erscheinen, auf den politischen Handlungsdruck durch die weltumspannenden Katastrophen und Krisen reagieren zu können und ein (vielleicht) wirksames Mittel darzustellen, in Konfliktzonen schnell und zielgerichtet künstlerisch zu agieren. Im Gegensatz zu anderen künstlerischen Verfahren, Formen und Methoden ist das Medium der Intervention eines, das gezielt eingreifen will da, wo es gilt, Probleme, Konflikte, Missstände zu beheben oder zumindest deutlich auf sie aufmerksam zu machen. Dabei agieren Kunstkollektive in den zeitlich begrenzten und in den Zielen oft relativ genau definierten künstlerischen Interventionen anders als in üblichen künstlerischen Praktiken und Theaterarbeiten. Hier wird nicht symbolisch gehandelt oder Abbilder von Welt erarbeitet und vorgestellt, um als „Laboratorium sozialer Phantasie“ (Wolfgang Heise) für Spieler*innen und Zuschauer*innen wirken zu können. In den Interventionen geht es darum, unmittelbar in der und für die Realität zu agieren. Danach zu fragen, inwieweit diese Aktivitäten mit Brechts diversen politisch-ästhetischen Praktiken gedanklich zu verknüpfen sind, lag eigentlich längst auf der Hand.

Was uns dazu veranlasste, dieses Thema für die diesjährigen Brecht-Tage vorzuschlagen, war ein kleiner Link, der von Brecht selbst kam und bereits bei einer Veranstaltung im Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus zwei Jahre zuvor Gegenstand war[1]. Wir gingen aus von Brechts „kleinen wendigen Kampfformen“ und „kleinen Truppen“ der Theaterkunst, an die er in seiner wichtigen Rede vor der Sektion Dramatik auf dem IV. Deutschen Schriftstellerkongress von Januar 1956 erinnert hatte. Brecht sprach dort über Probleme der jungen Dramatik und der Theater in der DDR, in denen die Traditionen der Avantgarde der 1920er Jahre fast vergessen waren. Er diagnostizierte für die junge gegenwärtige Dramatik eine überwiegend brave und langweilige Konfliktabstinenz unter Beibehaltung traditioneller Formen, die den anstehenden Herausforderungen in keiner Weise gerecht wurden. Was er wollte war, einzugreifen in die realen Prozesse mit künstlerischen Mitteln. Brecht sagte:

Das ist die Frage, wie wir, abgesehen von dem großen Stück für die Theater, wieder zu den kleinen, wendigen Kampfformen kommen, wie wir sie einmal in der Agitprop-Bewegung gehabt haben. […] Die kleinen Truppen […] können wirklich eingehen auf die echte Situation ihrer Zuhörer, auf ihre echten, eventuell sehr kleinen und niedrigen Probleme. (GBA 23: 368-369)

Brecht ging es darum zu erreichen, dass – wie er sagte – „wir unser Publikum wirklich scheiden“ (GBA 23: 372). Das heißt, er wollte die Theaterkunst in der jungen DDR überhaupt erst einmal politisch setzen. Genau das aber war einer der Punkte an diesem Konzept, die von Seiten der DDR-Kulturpolitik jener Zeit wenig geschätzt wurden. Man setzte dort eher auf eine illusionäre Vereinigung des gesamten Publikums im Zeichen einer erhofften nationalen Erneuerung. Von Brecht demgegenüber war anvisiert, „kleine, wendige Truppen und Trüpplein“ (ebd.) von professionellen und nicht-professionellen Spieler*innen zu bilden, die „mit Lastwagen“ über Land ziehen und vor Ort für die Bevölkerung Theater machen sollten – mit vorbereiteten, aber offensichtlich auch mit soeben erst recherchierten und improvisierten „Texten, Sketchen, Songs, Kampfliedern“ (S. 369). Sie sollten sich auf die „Alltagsfragen“ der sogenannten kleinen Leute (S. 370) beziehen und auch direkt mit der „örtlichen Politik“ (ebd.) zusammenarbeiten. Brecht sagte: „Etwas können wir ruhig von früher beibehalten: dass man es selber macht“ (S. 369). Inwieweit diese Anstöße in den Folgejahren in die Tat umgesetzt wurden, stellt ein eigenes Kapitel der Kulturgeschichte der DDR dar, darüber wurde unter anderem am letzten Tag unserer Brecht-Woche diskutiert. Auf einen wichtigen Theatertext in der unmittelbaren Nachfolge von Brechts Rede 1956 sei hier aber doch ausdrücklich verwiesen – auf Heiner Müllers „Die Korrektur“ (1. Fassung, 1957).

Der Begriff „Intervention“ wurde von Brecht selbst kaum gebraucht. Gleichwohl lassen sich viele Aspekte seiner Ästhetik darunter bündeln. Ausgehend vom „eingreifenden Denken“, Brechts Postulat eines auf Handeln ausgerichteten Denkens, lässt sich das Konzept der Intervention in verschiedener Form in Brechts Theatertheorien wiederfinden. Erstens lässt sich darunter fassen: das Insistieren auf eine epische Schauspielweise, die die Wirklichkeit als zu verändernde Wirklichkeit zeigt, ein Geschehen, in das man eingreifen kann – und die das Publikum zu solchen Möglichkeiten des Eingreifens auffordert und ermächtigt. Zweitens sind die „Lehrstücke“ Brechts als Form einer direkten, inkludierenden Form der Intervention zu verstehen, insofern es nur noch Mitwirkende gibt, die Teil eines theatralen Lern- und Erfahrungsprozesses werden. Die Nähe zu partizipatorischen Konzepten des Applied Theatre, die explizit als Theater der Intervention diskutiert werden, ist im Falle der Lehrstücke evident. Lehrstückarbeit ist auch fester Bestandteil der Theaterpädagogik. Mit Brechts Vision der „kleinen wendigen Truppen“, die als eingebundene Interventionsgruppen Problemlösungsprozesse auf lokalpolitischer Ebene begleiten sollten, war hier in Brechts letztem Lebensjahr eine dritte ästhetische Form und Methode hinzugetreten, die weit in die Kunstpraxis des 2. Jahrtausends hinein weist. Die Idee „kleiner wendiger Truppen“ ist in der Nähe zu künstlerischen Ansätzen urbaner Interventionen zu diskutieren, wie sie im Besonderen von Akteur*innen zeitgenössischer Performance-Kunst oder der Theaterpädagogik verfolgt werden. Erinnert sei an Aktivist*innentruppen und politisch subversive Kunstkollektive wie etwa „The Yes Man“, „Peng! Kollektiv“, „Zentrum für politische Schönheit“ und die Truppe „Wiener WochenKlausur“, die wir zu Gast bei den Brecht-Tagen 2020 hatten. Gerade in diesen Kontexten ist der Begriff der Intervention, in Verwandtschaft zur Bildenden Kunst, ein längst etablierter Terminus. Für uns als Konzeptteam dieser Veranstaltungen war es überaus reizvoll, hier eine tatsächlich transdisziplinäre Veranstaltungsreihe auszuprobieren, in der die Ideen und Methoden zwischen Theater, Bildender Kunst, Performance, Theaterpädagogik, Applied Theatre, aber auch verschiedenen Wissenschaften und Praxen wie Ästhetik, Politik, Sozialarbeit / Sozialpädagogik, Pädagogik, auch Psychologie (erinnert sei nur an die berühmte „paradoxe Intervention“) hin und her wandern und sich gegenseitig mit neuen Inhalten und Energien auffüllen.

Ziel der Brecht-Tage 2020 war es also, „Intervention“ als einen Kernbegriff für Brechts Ästhetik zu prüfen und kenntlich zu machen. Es sollte ferner nach Vorläufern und der Tradition eines interventionistischen Theaters gefragt werden. Letztlich interessierte der Aspekt, welche Impulse von Brecht für interventionistische künstlerische Praktiken ausgingen. Aber auch abgesehen von möglichen Impulsen durch Brecht sollten diese Praktiken in ihren verschiedenen Ausprägungen vorgestellt werden: von Ansätzen des Applied Theatre bzw. der Theaterpädagogik, aktivistischer Intervention bis zu operativen Aktionsformen.

Im Programm der Woche waren darum Veranstaltungen, die sich sowohl diskursiv als auch künstlerisch-praktisch mit diesem Thema „Intervention“ beschäftigten. Am ersten Abend, Brechts 122. Geburtstag (10.2.), diskutierten unter dem Titel „Brechts Texte zur Intervention“ die Kultur- und Theaterwissenschaftler*innen Margarita Tsomou, Matthias Warstat und Moderator Christian Rakow Bruchstücke aus Brechts Schriften in einer Art Close-Reading-Verfahren. Es ging darum, durch die Lektüren, Assoziationen und Interpretationen sowohl die Spannweite eines Denkens der Intervention zu beleuchten als auch kritisch kommentierend nachzuhaken und zu intervenieren. Der zweite Abend (11.2.) war stärker auf die unmittelbare Theaterarbeit Brechts konzentriert. Die Theaterkritikerin Christine Wahl war im Gespräch mit den Autoren, Theaterwissenschaftlern bzw. Dramaturgen Bernd Stegemann und Florian Malzacher. Hier stand im Zentrum die Frage, mit welchen Mitteln und ästhetischen Strategien heute Brechts auf Wirksamkeit gerichteter Ästhetik auf dem Theater Rechnung getragen wird und an welches Publikum sich dieses Theater wendet.

Der Mittwochabend (12.2.) wandte sich ganz konkret der Vorstellung und Diskussion von praktischen künstlerischen Interventionen in Bildender Kunst, Theaterpädagogik und Applied Theatre zu. Die Veranstaltung war überschrieben mit dem Thema: „Mit Kunst Missstände beheben?“ Die Wiener Truppe „WochenKlausur“, vertreten durch Martina Reuter und Wolfgang Zinggl, stellte ihre vielbeachten interventionistischen Arbeiten vor, die sie in Österreich, aber auch in vielen anderen Ländern unternommen hatten. Ursprünglich aus der Bildenden Kunst hervorgegangen, stellte schon ihre erste Intervention aus dem Jahr 1993 ihre Methode deutlich vor. Hier hatte der Initiator Wolfgang Zinggl acht Künstlerinnen für eine Ausstellung in der Wiener Secession eingeladen, an der Lösung eines konkreten sozialen ortsspezifischen Problems zu arbeiten und dafür ‘in Klausur’ zu gehen. Es ging um die medizinische Versorgung Obdachloser in Wien. Ins Leben gerufen wurde ein Bus als medizinische Ambulanz, der noch heute durch Wien fährt und monatlich an die 600 Patienten ohne Krankenschein betreut. Zum zweiten stellte der Theaterpädagoge Bernd Ruping soziale Interventionen, die unter anderem in der Nachfolge Augusto Boals entwickelt wurden, in klein- und mittelständischen Unternehmen Niedersachsens und Hamburgs vor, und der Kulturwissenschaftler Julius Heinicke diskutierte Aktionen des Applied Theatre im subsaharischen Afrika. Jeweils handelte es sich hier um künstlerische Interventionen als Eingriffe in gesellschaftliche Defizite, die – im Gegensatz etwa zu spektakulären Kunstaktionen – von Feuilleton und Kunstkritik jeweils kaum beachtet werden, aber weit verbreitete und sozial wichtige Aktionen darstellten.

Auch am vierten Abend, dem Donnerstag (13.2.), waren Künstler*innen zu Gast, aber es gab nun auch eine (kleine) Intervention selbst zu erleben. Der Architekt und Künstler Aram Bartholl installierte einen seiner „Dead Drops“ am Brecht-Haus, mit denen er seit 2010 ein digitales Netzwerk ohne Internet weltweit errichtet hat. Helgard Haug von einer der in Deutschland wohl renommiertesten Performancetruppen „Rimini Protokoll“ berichtete über interventionistische Aktionen, etwa das Entern als „Parasiten“ einer Hauptversammlung der Daimler AG im ICC Berlin 2009.

Die Frage, die im Zentrum der gesamten Woche stand, war die nach den diversen Formen von Brechts interventionistischer Ästhetik und ihrem Weiterwirken bis in die Gegenwart. Sie wurde ausführlich in einer eintägigen Tagung am Freitag, den 14.2., mit acht Vorträgen diskutiert. Gegenstände der Reflexion waren „Brecht und die interventionistischen Theaterformen beim frühen Piscator und im Agitproptheater“ (Eva Renvert), „Von Theaterentwürfen und kämpferischen Praktiken: ‚kleine wendige Truppen‘ bei Bertolt Brecht und Maxim Vallentin“ (Anja Klöck), „Interventionen und Institutionen: Brechts Lehrstücke und ihre zeitgenössische Produktivität“ (Michael Wehren), „Eingreifende Kunst, Autonomie der Kunst – Rückkehr zu einer Debatte“ (Matthias Rothe), „Brechts Kritik der Institution Theater“ (Anja Quickert), „Musik als Intervention bei Brecht – auf und jenseits der Bühne“ (Carolin Sibilak), „Lehrlingstheater der 1970er Jahre als Intervention zur erhofften proletarischen Revolution“ (Katharina Kolar) und „‘Zum Beispiel ein Spielclub‘. Wiederaufführung eines Modells der künstlerisch-edukativen Intervention 1970/71 heute“ (Claudia Hummel).

So weit gespannt die Themen dieser Beiträge waren, als so weit gespannt hatte sich das Thema der Relationen zwischen Brechts Werk und einem Theater bzw. einer Kunst der Interventionen generell erwiesen. Es ist ein weites Feld, dessen Erforschung gerade erst begonnen hat. Ein Dokumentationsband zu den Brecht-Tagen 2020 ist in Vorbereitung.


[1] Podiumsdiskussion vom 26.6.18 unter dem Titel „Kampfformen und Interventionen – Brechts Theatervision ‚kleiner, wendiger Truppen‘“ mit Alexander Karschnia (andCompany&Co.), Jean Peters (Peng! Kollektiv) und Hilke Berger (HafenCity Universität Hamburg), moderiert von Cornelius Puschke. Anschließend wurde bereits ein Antrag auf Weiterführung des Projekts durch das Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus und Cornelius Puschke erarbeitet.

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Brecht und das Theater der Intervention (Brecht-Tage 2020)

von Florian Vaßen

Brechttage 2020 Erster Abend Margarita Tsomou Matthias Warstat Christian Rakow IMG_0245

Margarita Tsomou, Matthias Warstat, Christian Rakow. Image courtesy of the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus

Das Theater der Intervention, das Applied Theatre, das partizipative Theater und sogar Brechts Lehrstück-Konzeption sowie allgemein die Theaterpädagogik haben in Deutschland ‚Konjunktur‘ und sind zunehmend verbreitet – vom Theater bis zur Schule. Das Thema der diesjährigen Brecht-Tage lag demnach auf der Hand, der Titel „Brecht und das Theater der Intervention“ überrascht jedoch insofern, als Brecht den Begriff Intervention für sein Theater selbst nie verwendet hat.

In diesem Kontext ergeben sich folglich eine Vielfalt von interessante Fragen: Ist Brechts episches Theater mit seinem Ziel, die Zuschauer*innen zum Nachdenken anzuregen, interventionistisch? Ist Agitprop nicht ein deutlich konträres Theater-Modell, und war Brechts Verhältnis zu dieser politischen Theater-Form in den 1930er Jahren dementsprechend nicht eher kritisch distanziert? Ist seine Lehrstück-Konzeption nicht deutlich anders und vielleicht auch radikaler als alle anderen theatralen Interventionen, weil diese Intervention sich auf den Spielprozess, die Gruppe und die Spielenden selbst konzentriert und sich als sozusagen interne Intervention erst in zweiter Linie nach ‚außen‘ orientiert, den Gegensatz von ‚Subjekt‘ und ‚Objekt‘ der Intervention also deutlich minimierend? Gehören Kindertheater und partizipative Theaterformen überhaupt zum Theater der Intervention oder – genau entgegengesetzt gefragt – ist ihre Intervention nicht sogar viel intensiver als die des Agitprops, des Lehrlingstheaters und des politischen Straßentheaters, die ja ‚nur‘ aufklären und zum Handeln auffordern? Und sind die Methoden der Theaterpädagogik als „Kunstvermittlung und Vermittlungskunst“ nicht durchweg interventionistisch, auf ein Material, eine Zielgruppe, einen Zweck gerichtet?

Um zurück zu Brecht zu kommen, stellt sich weiterhin die Frage: Warum hat er gerade 1956 in der Sektion Dramatik des IV. Deutschen Schriftstellerkongresses vor den versammelten Kolleg*innen politisches Eingreifen durch „kleine direkt agitierende Truppen“ (GBA 23: 368) gefordert, die zur „Umbildung“ der Bevölkerung beitragen sollen, an den „Alltagsfragen“ anknüpfen und „wirklich eingehen auf die echte Situation ihrer Zuhörer, auf ihre echten, eventuell sehr kleinen und niedrigen Probleme“ (GBA 23: 370). Und schließlich: Ist an Brecht – an welchen Brecht? – heute anzuknüpfen, lässt sich sein Theater produktiv machen und weiterdenken? Ist er gar der Urvater des Theaters der Intervention und dementsprechend aktuell oder ist er doch eher überholt? Viele Fragen also umkreisen den zentralen Begriff Theater der Intervention, sie zu präzisieren, zu differenzieren, zuzuspitzen und auch – vermutlich vorläufige – Antworten zu finden, war das Ziel der Brecht-Tage 2020.

Ein besonderes Charakteristikum von Bertolt Brecht ist sein Theorem des „eingreifenden Denkens“; weiterhin spricht er von „eingreifenden Verhaltungsweisen“, „eingreifenden Sätzen“, „eingreifender Kritik“ oder „vom „Denken als ein Verhalten“ (GBA 21: 403, 414-415, 421-423, 524). Auch bei dem berühmten Gedicht „Der Zweifler“ (GBA 14: 376-77), bezogen auf das Rollbild, dass Brecht im Exil überallhin begleitete, sowie bei Ka-Meh, dem Pseudonym für Marx im Buch der Wendungen (GBA 18: 45-194), verbindet sich Denken und Handeln in besonderer Weise, und in der „Theorie der Pädagogien“ sollen die Lehrstück-Spielenden „zugleich zu Tätigen und Betrachtenden“ (GBA 21: 398) werden. Sowohl Brechts episches Theater und seine Lehrstück-Konzeption als auch die von ihm geforderten „kleinen, wendigen Truppen und Trüpplein“ (GBA 23: 368) stehen für ein intentional politisches Theater. Den Begriff Intervention habe ich bei Brecht – zumindest als Titel eines Textes – allerdings nur in einem gleichnamigen Gedicht gefunden, in dem eine imaginäre ‚mütterliche‘ „Intervention“ vor dem „Geschützstand“ stattfindet gerade als die „Schlacht“ beginnt – es geht also um eine antimilitaristische Intervention (GBA 14: 459).

Das Applied Theatre wird von Matthias Warstat und anderen mit gutem Grund nicht als „angewandtes Theater“ übersetzt, vielmehr sprechen sie von Intervention (Theater als Intervention, 2015). Dabei geht es um „im Voraus explizit formuliert[e]“ Ziele, „Zwecke“ und um „Anwendungskontexte“, aber auch um „Praktiken der Unterbrechung“ (S. 10f.), denn intervenire (lat.) heißt nicht nur ‚eingreifen‘, sondern auch ‚unterbrechen‘. Das betrifft den Text und die Inszenierung, oft durch Montage-Formen und Fragmentierung, die Rezeption des Publikums als Irritation und Verunsicherung, Staunen und Nachdenken, die ‚Umfunktionierung‘ der Institution Theater mit Hilfe organisatorischer Destruktion und Aneignung durch die Produzenten*innen sowie die Infragestellung des gesellschaftlichen Rahmens durch dessen Störung. Warstat u.a. rekurrieren dabei auch auf Brechts Begriff des Gestus, die „begriffene Geste“, das ‚Begreifen‘ im Sinne von ‚Greifen‘ und ‚Griffen‘, verstanden als zugleich körperliche und geistige Haltung und damit als prozesshaftes reflektiertes Handeln und nicht als Produkt.

Die Brecht-Tage standen unter dem Motto: „Man kann die Dinge erkennen, indem man sie ändert.“ (Programmheft) Abgesehen davon, dass sich die Frage nach dem Subjekt der Handlung stellt – also: Wer ist eigentlich „man“? – ließe sich mit gutem Recht auch formulieren: Die Dinge werden verändert, indem sie erkannt werden. Beides ist wohl nicht voneinander zu trennen, aber im Kontext von Präsentationen, Vorträgen und Diskussionen dominierte während der Brecht-Tage dann doch das Erkenntnisinteresse.

Am ersten Abend präsentierten Matthias Warstat und Margarita Tsomou als prägnanten und sehr anschaulichen Einstieg eine Auswahl von Brecht-Texten und -Formulierungen zum Thema, in der allerdings nur ein geringer Teil der weiter oben erwähnten Zitate enthalten war.

Das am nächsten Abend folgende Streitgespräch zwischen dem Dramaturgen, Autor und Hochschullehrer Bernd Stegemann und dem Kurator, Dramaturgen und Autor Florian Malzacher thematisierte den Gegensatz von Interventionen in einer ‚realistischen‘, eher traditionellen Theaterkonzeption und in den experimentellen performativen Künsten, wobei ich mir eine stärkere Konfrontation und damit verbunden eine präzisere Differenzierung gewünscht hätte.

Die Doppelveranstaltung am Mittwoch konzentrierte sich zunächst auf die sozial-interventionistische Gruppe „WochenKlausur“ aus Wien, die weniger eine interventionistische Ästhetik verwendet als eine Ästhetik der Intervention praktiziert. Bei dieser ‚Sozialkunst‘, die sich in einzelnen, sehr unterschiedlichen Wochen-Projekten mit der Gestaltung des menschlichen Zusammenlebens beschäftigt, stellt sich vermutlich immer wieder die Frage, was an ihrer Arbeit noch Kunst ist. In den anschließenden Vorträgen von Bernd Ruping und Julius Heinecke ging es zum einen um das weiterhin schwierige und komplexe Thema der theatralen Interventionen in Unternehmen und zum anderen um Intervention im afrikanischen Theater, das oft keine Differenzierungen zwischen Kunsttheater und Theaterpädagogik kennt, sich mit prä- und postkolonialen Theaterformen auseinandersetzt und sich an den Theorieansätzen von Entähnlichung, Desintegration und Transkulturalität orientiert (vgl. Heinicke: Sorge um das Offene. Verhandlungen von Vielfalt im und mit Theater, 2019).

Auch am Donnerstag trafen zwei deutlich verschiedene Konzepte aufeinander: Aram Bartholl, Medien- und Konzeptkünstler sowie Kunstprofessor in Hamburg, stellte sein inzwischen weltweit verbreitetes, dezentrales Projekt „Dead Drops“ vor, das sind „ins Mauerwerk zementierte USB-Sticks, die als Peer-to-Peer-Stationen ein Netzwerk zum lokalen Datenaustausch ermöglichen“. Es begann 2010 mit fünf Sticks in New York und dauert bis heute an; seit Donnerstag, den 13. Februar 2020 gibt es auch eine ‚Station‘ am Brecht-Haus. Helgard Haug sprach über die Arbeit der bekannten Theatergruppe „Rimini Protokoll“ (Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, Daniel Wetzel) und präsentierte Video-Material von der ‚Theaterinszenierung‘ der Hauptversammlung der Daimler AG im ICC in Berlin; es geht dabei vor allem um ein abweichendes Verhalten als ein ‚normales‘ sowie um das Unterlaufen von Regeln.

Die acht Kurzvorträge mit Diskussion im Rahmen der abschließenden eintägigen Tagung „Brechts interventionistische Ästhetik und ihr Weiterwirken“ am Freitag beschäftigten sich am Beispiel von Brecht, Piscator und dem Agitproptheater (Eva Renvert) sowie dem Vergleich von Bertolt Brecht und Maxim Vallentin speziell in der DDR (Anja Klöck) mit historischen Fragestellungen. Zu Brechts Lehrstück Der Lindberghflug als Transformation und Interruption (Michael Wehren) und Adornos vielschichtiger Auseinandersetzung mit Brecht, seine positive Bewertung des „Eingriffs“ der frühen Texte und seine Kritik an dem Begriff des „Engagements“ (Matthias Rothe), wurden weiterführende theoretische Überlegungen angestellt. Mit Brechts Institutionskritik (Anja Quickert) und der Musik als Intervention (Carolin Sibilak) wurden weitere zentrale Aspekte des Themas angesprochen, und der Blick auf das Lehrlingstheater der 1970er Jahre (Katharina Kolar) und das Experiment einer Wiederaufführung eines Berliner Spielclubs von 1970/71 (Claudia Hummel) beinhaltete die Auseinandersetzung mit praktischen Beispielen aus der Zeit der Studentenbewegung. Der wissenschaftliche Diskurs bildete eine produktive Ergänzung und zugleich einen gelungenen Abschluss der Brecht-Tage. An fünf Tagen unternahmen Kunst / Performance / Theater-Theoretiker*innen und -Praktiker*innen den Versuch, Brechts Bezug zur Intervention in historischer Dimension, aktueller Situation und zukünftiger Perspektive zu klären.

Es ist nicht überraschend, dass die Teilnehmer*innen der Brecht-Tage 2020 immer wieder über den Begriff der Intervention diskutierten und ihn befragten, vor allem wohl, weil er ihnen im Zusammenhang mit Brecht unbekannt war bzw. ungewohnt erschien. Woher kommt dieser Begriff, der ja von der Pädagogik und Therapie über Ökonomie und Politik bis zum Militärwesen verwendet wird und dementsprechend einen unglaublich weiten Bedeutungshorizont hat. Zentral ist sicherlich zum einen der Bezug zur Bildenden Kunst, die ihre Aktionen im öffentlichen Raum Intervention nennt, und zum anderen – sehr naheliegend – die Verbindung zur englischen Übersetzung von „eingreifendem Denken“: intervening thought.

Lassen sich Brechts Lehrstückkonzeption der 1920er und 30er Jahre, sein erneuter Blick auf die „kleinen wendigen Kampfformen“ (GBA 23: 368) von kleinen Theatergruppen 1956 und grundsätzlich sein „eingreifendes Denken“ unter den Begriff Intervention subsumieren? Die Tragfähigkeit dieses Begriffs, gerade auch in Bezug auf die heutige Performance- und Theater-Arbeit, sowie Brechts Einfluss und Weiterwirken in diesem Kontext werden weiterhin zu diskutieren sein.

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„Alles oder nichts“: Die Tage der Commune am Stadttheater Konstanz

von Anja Hartl


Links nach rechts: Jana Alexia Rödiger, Thomas Ecke, Sarah Siri Lee König, Peter
Posniak; hinten: Axel Julius Fündeling, Dan Glazer

Das 1949 verfasste, aber erst 1956 posthum uraufgeführte Die Tage der Commune zählt, nicht zuletzt aufgrund seiner Entstehungsgeschichte und des politischen Kontextes der damaligen Zeit, zu den weniger bekannten und umstritteneren Stücken Brechts, bleibt aber, wie die Inszenierung von Brecht-Enkelin Johanna Schall am Stadttheater Konstanz eindrucksvoll zeigt, auch im Jahr 2019 hochaktuell in seiner Thematik. Das Doku-Drama erörtert die Niederlage der Pariser Commune im Anschluss an den Deutsch-Französischen Krieg 1870/71 als Beispiel für eine proletarische Revolution, die trotz ihres Scheiterns aus marxistischer und leninistischer Perspektive einen wichtigen Referenzpunkt in der Geschichte darstellt. Während die zentrale Frage nach Widerstand, Gerechtigkeit und die Legitimation von Gewalt im Zusammenhang mit Bewegungen wie die der gilets jaunes in Frankreich oder durch aufsehenerregende Aktionen von Klimaaktivisten in jüngster Zeit von der anhaltenden Relevanz des Stücks zeugen, werden solche zeitgenössischen Referenzen nur auf Werbeplakaten oder im Programmheft explizit gemacht. Schall lässt das Stück ansonsten für sich selbst sprechen, was eine der großen Stärken dieser Produktion ist. In Dialog mit ihrem Großvater wird das Stück „nach“ und nicht „von“ Bertolt Brecht in stark gekürzter Fassung präsentiert – die Regisseurin bleibt dem brechtschen Theater jedoch in Text, dramaturgischer Ästhetik und musikalischer Gestaltung (Torsten Knoll, der Hanns Eislers Vertonungen virtuos umsetzt) treu. Dadurch ist ein kurzweiliger und lebendiger Abend entstanden, der nachdenklich stimmt: Den alten Fragen der Communards stehen wir am Ende der gut zweistündigen Inszenierung weiterhin ohne abschließende Antwort gegenüber.


Links nach rechts: Axel Julius Fündeling, Jana Alexia Rödiger, Sarah Siri Lee König, Thomas Ecke; hinten: Thomas Fritz Jung, Arlen Konietz

Schall bettet die Handlung in einen narrativen Rahmen ein, der das Ende des Stücks bereits vorwegnimmt. Auf einer symbolträchtigen Rampe, die aus Gitterrosten konstruiert ist, kehrt das Ensemble zu Beginn dem Publikum den Rücken zu. Während sie eine der Hymnen der Communards, „Le temps des cerises“, anstimmen, werden die Figuren nacheinander erschossen, wenden sich jedoch noch als Eröffnungsgeste dem Zuschauerraum zu, bevor sie tot umfallen. In brechtscher Manier wird so der Aufführung die Spannung auf den Ausgang genommen und stattdessen die Aufmerksamkeit auf die Hintergründe der Vorgänge gelenkt. Das Stück entwirft dabei einen spannungsvollen Dialog zwischen politischen Vorgängen einerseits und ihren Auswirkungen auf das einfache Leben der Pariser Bürger andererseits. Das Bühnenbild (Nicolaus-Johannes Heyse) unterstreicht diesen Konflikt, indem es eine dialektische Präsentation des Stoffs ermöglicht. So setzt die Inszenierung die Hierarchien und Gegensätze der Handlung gekonnt räumlich und visuell um, in dem es mit Kontrasten wie links/rechts, oben/unten, schwarz/weiß arbeitet und insbesondere die Disparität und das Machtgefälle zwischen den Kämpfern der Commune auf der abschüssigen Rampe und den politischen Entscheidungsträgern in weißen Anzügen, die auf Hochsitzen im Hintergrund eingefahren werden, hervorhebt. Nicht nur in der karikaturhaften Überzeichnung der politischen Funktionäre setzt Schall dabei auf den Einsatz von Komik, die zwar zur Distanzierung beiträgt, gleichzeitig aber an mancher Stelle überspitzt wirkt. In ähnlicher Hinsicht stellt sich darüber hinaus die Frage, inwiefern diese eher rigide, auf Dichotomien basierende Darstellung der Verhältnisse im 19. Jahrhundert mit brechtschen Mitteln aus der Mitte des 20. Jahrhunderts der Komplexität der heutigen Zeit gerecht wird und ob eine gewisse Hinterfragung und Öffnung des Stoffs und der Ästhetik expliziter hätten verfolgt werden können.

Nichtsdestoweniger setzen Regisseurin und Schauspieler die Prinzipien des dialektischen Theaters wirkungsvoll um und entwerfen ein eindrucksvolles Bild der Geschichte, deren Bedeutung für das Konstanzer Publikum nicht infrage steht. Auch strukturell spielt der brechtsche Ansatz eine zentrale Rolle: Während das Publikum mit dem Triumph der Commune in die Pause entlassen wird, widmet sich die zweite Hälfte ihrem Niedergang. Die Rolle der Zuschauer wird in dieser Inszenierung besonders hervorgehoben, indem beispielsweise eine riesige Kanone direkt auf das Publikum gerichtet wird oder sie direkt angesprochen werden, insbesondere während der Darlegung der Prämissen der Commune, und so dazu herausgefordert werden, Stellung zu beziehen. Die längsten Szenen der Inszenierung befassen sich mit der Aushandlung dieser Prinzipien und erörtern gleichzeitig die Gründe für das Scheitern des Aufstandes, das Brecht in der Uneinigkeit der Pariser Revolutionäre, insbesondere hinsichtlich der Frage nach Gewaltanwendung, verortet. Die Aufführung endet auf einer paradoxen Note, indem sie zwar den Arbeitern (und nicht, wie bei Brecht, der Bourgeoisie) das letzte Wort – „Es lebe die Commune“ – erteilt, jedoch ihren Tod schonungslos zeigt. Während das Schlusstableau wieder zum Anfang zurückkehrt und sich der Rahmen des Stücks schließt, lässt die Inszenierung die wichtigsten Fragen offen: Welcher Preis soll für Frieden und Arbeit gezahlt werden? Und welche Mittel sollen eingesetzt werden, um eine Veränderung der Verhältnisse herbeizuführen? Der Desillusionierung der Communards setzt Schalls markante Inszenierung in brechtschem Stil eine klare Aufforderung an das Konstanzer Publikum entgegen, sich mit dieser Problematik aus heutiger Sicht auseinanderzusetzen.

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The Good Person of Szechwan by Lachende Bestien at Prague’s Venuše ve Švehlovce

by Francesco Sani

Four women stand in front of the audience, cigars in their mouths. As a cloud generated by their incessant act of smoking surrounds them, they state that they are going to stage Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan. Yet, instead of performing the play, the four actresses start questioning its contents and the purpose of staging it in that very moment on the stage of Prague’s Venuše ve Švehlovce theatre – a move that Brecht himself may have appreciated. The women ask whether there is any significance in Brecht’s parable about the impossibility of being a good person in a capitalistic society in an age in which there seem to be no alternatives to capitalism. Also, the very meaning of Szechwan is questioned: what is Szechwan? The abstract image of a China outside of time where Brecht could set his socialist narrative. What is left of it? A flat stereotype of an exotic world, providing a bitterly humorous refrain for the entire performance: “Ping pong panda yin´n´yang – province Szechwan.

The scenes of Brecht’s dramatic text are fluidly alternated with this denunciation of the state of affairs in the neoliberal, post-cold war Czech Republic. The women set up each scene of the play by changing their clothes on stage and rotating in the role of Shen Te/Shui Ta and the other characters. The minimalistic scenography is composed of a ping pong table, a wall, and a sound console on one side, where the only male actor performs musical accompaniment, occasionally narrates developments in the play’s plot, and laments the exclusion of the character Wong (the water seller) from the production. There is an uninterrupted continuity between the performance of Brecht’s play on the one hand and the moments of reflection on the play and the social context in which it is staged on the other. This extends to how space and props are employed (e.g., the ping pong table can be used for staging the business transactions during a scene of Brecht’s play but also to interrupt the sequence of the dramatic text by a round of ping pong). Thus, the Brechtian narrative becomes a moment of dramatic action emerging from the discourse on the social situation framing the performance. All this acquires an immanent meaning, exemplifying the impossibility to be good or act outside of individualistic interest in a capitalistic society. It is particularly salient to the Czech context, a country that saw socialism turn into the nightmare of Soviet totalitarianism and is now experiencing new forms of oppression with the inequality and strident contradictions of neoliberal capitalism.

szechuan performance (sara freeman)

Lachende Bestien’s Szechwan, dir. Michal Hába

Despite its strong and straightforward political commentary, the production predominantly adopts humour as a modality of expression. A long soliloquy starting from the refrain “Ping pong panda etc…” emphasises the impossibility of conceiving a real form of political intervention in a world dominated by financial markets employing pandas as a metaphor, i.e., an animal that has become the mascot of WWF and a symbol of the struggle against the abuse of animal rights for economic profit but is ultimately employed as a commodity in exchange for cultural prestige and influence on the part of the Chinese government. While one of the performers speaks the soliloquy, another comes on stage wearing a panda costume to disturb her. The soliloquy’s meaning is not much altered, but rather reconfigured by the comical inversion. The panda preserves its symbolic function in the order of meaning evoked on stage but, being ridiculed, it also highlights the impossibility of turning the stating of a problem into an action that could solve it. If the denunciation of injustice on the stage turns into a pointless linguistic utterance, it is not because it is to be taken less seriously, rather because it is to be questioned whether this denunciation can have any value outside of the theatre. Humour becomes a tool to question what is being presented to the audience in order to find a social value for the theatrical performance: not only communicating problems but fostering a new meaning for communication in regards to social participation, first and foremost in the immanent space of the theatre. The performance blurs the distinction between performers and audience, as, for instance, exemplified by the scene of Shen Te’s wedding banquet, in which the actors invite spectators on stage to drink wine and smoke with them, turning the constant action of smoking into a communal social ritual – and in fact realising Brecht’s desire of a smoking audience. Szechwan becomes a space where theatrical performance assumes value not only as entertainment or political proclamation, but also in the constant interaction between audience and performers. It opens an exchange of perspectives in which the communication of political content goes hand in hand with the demand to take a stance towards what is being shown, what is the position the spectator assumes in regard to it, and what are the positions that they can assume towards it, in the theatre and outside of it.

Lachende Bestien’s Szechwan, directed by Michal Hába, successfully employs the methodologies of post-dramatic theatre to confront its audience with Brecht’s pressing question on the possibility of being good in a world where goodness seems impossible, a question that remains rather difficult to answer in contemporary, neoliberal Europe. The effective framing of the performance in the current Czech political situation, the wit that characterises the production, and the clever self-inquiry of the reasons and the implications of staging Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan in current times finally charge the play’s epilogue with the same urge for action and change that originally motivated Brecht in writing it: “ Auf welche Weis dem guten Menschen man/ Zu einem guten Ende helfen kann./ […] Es muß ein guter da sein, muß, muß, muß!“

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Playing to be Good in Times of Capitalistic Surrealism: The Good Person of Szechwan at the Volkstheater in Vienna

by Franz Fromholzer

Watch out! The eternal recurrence of Brecht’s classic plays can no longer be taken seriously. This seems to be the basic idea of Robert Gerloff’s Brecht production at the Volkstheater in Vienna. The ever-returning Brecht himself dominates the centre of the revolving stage. A huge picture of the author on a provisionally constructed tower with his famous big cigar humorously jutting out of the photograph into the stage infinitely turns round and round. To free yourself from the oppressing structures of history you have to understand these structures as changeable and therefore as comical as well (Marx suggested). The young director Robert Gerloff tries to stress this idea by making fun especially of Brecht’s historic gender roles. Yet Brecht’s strong and challenging belief in the possibilities of theatre to contribute to social justice is likewise playfully revised.

The protagonist in this production is no split personality: Shen Te appears in a white blouse and orange trousers, nearly androgynous – not a seductive prostitute at all. Consequently she calls herself in feminist terms a “sex worker.” When Shen Te changes into Shui Ta, there is no big difference: only a green coat refers to her new personality. So the gender roles of a helpless woman in need and a convincing, powerful man no longer pertain. You always realise that it is the witty, lively and capable Shen Te, and she is the one who successfully copes with her problems. Her characteristics are neither typically male nor female. Claudia Sabitzer, who previously played leading roles in works of Elfriede Jelinek, Felix Mitterer or Ferenc Molnár at the Volkstheater, performs Shen Te as a methodically calculating and inventive person who tries to control her emotions by creatively using different forms of behaviour. She reduces her body language, uses no exaggerated or passionate gestures, but her shoulders are upright and her arms kept open to act fast. When Shen Te snaps her fingers, she suddenly stands in the light of headlamps and comments her acting and decision-making. Brecht’s epic theatre is quoted, but these moments of talking ad spectatores often enact a kind of traditional soliloquy as well.

In contrast to Shen Te the three Gods show excessive body language, they often behave like clowns and imitate each others or simply quote famous stars of our time. Repeatedly the Gods move farcically like the pop group Genesis in their music video “I can’t dance.” Meanwhile their hand gestures also might mirror Angela Merkel’s widely known rhombus gesture with her hands while talking, or they might parody the GDR-typical Saxon dialect. In addition, the water-carrier Wang in his absolute quest for being good is simply disconcerting for these Gods. At the end of the play two Gods appear looking through Brecht’s eyes out of the tower during the court proceedings. The God-like perspective of the author’s demand for justice is no longer taken seriously. Generally, the claim of engaged theatre to contribute to social justice seems to be history. Indeed, this claim can be reconstructed, but in today’s world it is mere comedy and a parody of history. Brecht’s epic theatre now is part of pop culture, like pop music. This connection between contemporary popular art and Brecht’s play is apparent everywhere. The performances of music like The Song of Saint Nevermind or The Song of the Eighth Elephant turn up next to music from Queen or Genesis. In addition, this idea of Brecht theatre as pop culture characterises the protagonists. Especially Shen Te’s lover Yang Sun (played by Jan Thümer), the pilot and later factory worker, is reduced to a kind of macho stereotype. Western film music accompanies his scene, and his coolness while trying to commit suicide seems to be a mere exaggerated quotation of cowboy behaviour. Even Brecht’s cigar starts to smoke when observing this egocentric movie hero. Facing a fight, Yang Sun moves in slow motion and thus imitates silent film scenes. The struggle to survive is no longer serious; it is more like a game or a play. How can one explain this?

The programme booklet underlines the importance of the concept of “capitalistic surrealism” for this production. The authors Markus Metz and Georg Seeßlen bid farewell to capitalistic realism, an attitude of fatalistic acceptance of capitalism and belief in the systematic improvement of society. Capitalistic surrealism in contrast tries to creatively suspend and subvert the economic status quo by playfully revealing the discrepancies of capitalism. It is a kind of childlike behaviour, a method of artistic experimentation and destructive process. The artist as capitalistic surrealist unconditionally accepts the system, but she or he does not take the system seriously. The demand for creativity thus is imperative. Reason and morality are simply material with which one creatively plays. Shen Te in this production probably depicts a representative of capitalistic surrealism. She never gives up, she never considers herself a victim, her love for Yang Sun never spirals out of control but resembles more an inquisitive self-experiment. Therefore, her double role is a kind of self-confident playfulness to cope with the oppressive system. The cigars of her tobacco shop are nearly as big as humans, and it is obviously fun to trade and play with these products. Sometimes it seems the actors exaggerate childish behaviour provocatively, and the whole performance then resembles a distressing kindergarten business.

Yet at the end, Gertrud Roll impressively recites the play’s famous epilogue, and the demand for social justice that still cannot be found painfully fades away in the silent theatre. The audience is captivated. The inconsistency between the childlike experiments of capitalistic surrealism and Brecht’s epic demands finally appear as a kind of hopeful new beginning. The eternal recurrence of Brecht has not ended.

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Theater Work: The Berliner Ensemble at 25 / Theaterarbeit. Das Berliner Ensemble im 25. Jahr. Documentary by Peter Voigt, DEFA, 1975. German with English subtitles, 63 min., DEFA Film Library, 2018.

Film review by Margaret Setje-Eilers


Theaterarbeit © DEFA-Stiftung

The recent digitization of Peter Voigt’s 1978 documentary, Theater Work: The Berliner Ensemble at 25, is a jewel in the DEFA Film Library of GDR film history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Hired by Brecht as assistant director and assistant dramaturg, Voigt worked for Brecht at the Berlin Ensemble from 1954–1958. He later made a great many theater documentaries – notably here, Bertolt Brecht: Image and Model (Bertolt Brecht – Bild und Modell, 2007) and shortly before his death, Brecht’s Bookshelf (Brechts Regal, 2014–15, unfinished). In Theater Work, he interviews a number of theater technicians from May to October 1974, the year that marks the 25th anniversary of the theater’s founding in 1949.

Voigt elicits memories, experiences, and anecdotes from Willi Bast, Wolfgang Bömelburg, Willi Dittrich, Walter Gneist, Günter Janda, Johannes Karsch, Emil Kohlmeier, Horst Kotterba, Horst Künzel, Joachim Mietzner, Helmut Schlafke, and Gerhard Schönherr. From decades behind the scenes and their specialized perspectives ranging from sound to lighting to carpentry, they recount disagreements and resolutions, stories about international guest performances, and recollections of Brecht and Weigel from the first years of the BE to its move to the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm five years later. It is truly a view from “near and far,” as the narration suggests. Interested viewers can also turn to master carpenter Wolfgang Bömelburg’s written account, Hobellied für Bertolt Brecht. Ein Theatertischler erzählt (Eulenspiegel, 1997).

Happily, the film is narrated by Jürgen Holtz, who still can be seen on stage today at the BE. Voigt also uses old sound recordings from Paul Dessau, Hanns Eisler, Hans-Dieter Hosalla, and Kurt Weill. The chance to hear this music and the stories, to see the images and the historic shots of the theater outweighs the quality of the new digitization, which was based on Voigt’s 16mm footage. For example, the technicians discuss the fate of the eagle on the coat of arms overlooking the stage and the problems they faced when Brecht requested they remove this emblem of aristocracy, since the building was historically protected.

Working in the theater is Theater Work, Theaterarbeit. It is probably no coincidence that Voigt’s title reminds us of the book Theaterarbeit (1952), the classic that evaluates six plays, published by the Berlin Ensemble and Helene Weigel. Three of these same plays, we hear in the film, established the fame of the BE: Mr. Puntila and his Man Matti (Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti), The Mother (Die Mutter), Mother Courage and Her Children (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder). Jürgen Holtz’s narration also adds The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Der kaukasische Kreidekreis) to the list. Why were these productions so successful? The technicians agree that it was Brecht’s concept of collective collaboration, i.e., the combination of both working with him and thinking independently.

Consequently, it is their own Theaterarbeit, their actual physical work and the work of actors and directors – not the evaluation of productions that characterizes Weigel’s book – that propels this film. The technicians offer little artistic assessment. Even before the first image appears, we hear thumping, rolling, and other stage noises, along with voices. We then see shots of a rehearsal of The Mother (the new production of October 1974 that serves as book ends in the film). The actors stand on stage, while director Ruth Berghaus gives suggestions that came up in the set rehearsal, the one that takes place with the technicians (Bauprobe). Their subsequent loose narratives give an overview of the life of the BE from its beginning to 1974, the post-Weigel years under artistic director Berghaus and director-in-chief Manfred Wekwerth, when rehearsals for a production could go on for two years, and The Threepenny Opera reached its 600th performance. We see many familiar, strangely youthful faces in clips of rehearsals and curtain calls of productions in the 1973–74 season, for example, Coriolanus, In the Jungle of Cities, The Mother, Señora Carrar’s Rifles, The Threepenny Opera, and Heiner Müller’s Cement. Voigt inserts rehearsal clips, photographic stills and set designs, and discussions of international tours. For example, the technicians recount the BE’s participation in the Bergen Festival with Brecht as its theme in Norway, May 1974, and the controversy over The Mother in 1960 Paris.


Peter Voigt 1993
(Familienalbum Jutta Voigt, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The extras include three magnificent shorts that warrant closest scrutiny. The DVD also contains two pdf files: “Biographies and Filmographies,” and “Brecht, DEFA, and the Moving Image,” an article by Séan Allen (Professor of German at the University of St. Andrews), which gives an account of the importance of Brecht for the GDR and his relationship with the cinema, focusing on his influence on film aesthetics and his rejection of aesthetic orthodoxy, as well as a discussion of Peter Voigt’s film and all three films included in the extras.

The Plum Trees Have Surely Been Cut Down (Die Pflaumenbäume sind wohl abgehauen, GDR, 1978, Kurt Tetzlaff, 11 min.). Marie Rose Amman gives a charming interview about her relationship with young Brecht. She reads Brecht’s famous poem “Erinnerung an Marie A.” from a newspaper clipping and explains how the poem came to be written.

And Yet It Moves (und sie bewegt sich doch, GDR, 1978, Kurt Tetzlaff, 32 min.). The documentary recounts the path of Galileo (Leben des Galilei), beginning with its origins in Scandinavian exile, the U.S. production with Charles Laughton, and its subsequent history at the Berlin Ensemble.

Brecht Dialog 1968 (DDR-Magazin 1968/40, GDR, 1968, Karlheinz Mund, 11 min.). I was thrilled to see this short. In honor of Brecht’s 70th birthday, international Brecht experts were invited to the Berlin Ensemble for a week-long conference that included performances and podium discussions. Viewers will recognize luminaries such as Giorgio Strehler, Benno Besson, George Tabori, Ekkehard Schall, and Hilmar Thate. In one astonishing sequence, we see clips from a Syrian student production of the Exception and the Rule, directed by young Chérif Khaznadar. Weigel closes the Brecht Dialog with a quote from Galileo, still stunning in its political validity: “Truth prevails only insofar as we assert it. The triumph of reason can only be the triumph of reasonable people.” (“Es setzt sich nur so viel Warheit durch, als wir durchsetzen; der Sieg der Vernunft kann nur der Sieg der Vernünftigen sein.”) Peter Voig’ts film Theater Work suggests that he is one of these reasonable people.

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Looking Back as IBS President

by Antony Tatlow

20200330Antony Tatlow003

[Editor’s note: See other articles and interviews from this e-cibs series on the history of the International Brecht Society, such as: Jost Hermand (2017), Gisela Bahr (2018), and Karl-Heinz Schoeps (2019)]

The International Brecht Society emerged from the Modern Languages Association in 1971. Ensured of cooperation through the size of the United States university system, it was partly protected, unlike in some other cultures, by its insignificance for domestic politics. Given this combination of interest and disinterest, the society survived. Fifty years later, it seems stable, largely due to the individuals committed to its publications. This was not always so, nor was survival predestined. Comparable attempts failed elsewhere.

I was Vice-President from 1979­–82 under Gisela Bahr and President from 1982–90. Apart from a notional supervisory role, the President has responsibility for the symposia. Supervision can sometimes be difficult and time-consuming as when, based in Hong Kong, where I worked from 1965–96, I once travelled to Las Cruces (New Mexico) to really find out why Communications was not working properly.

The regular sessions at the annual conventions of the Modern Language Association (MLA) since 1969, occasional events independently arranged or in affiliation with other societies, together with well-spaced, substantial, outward reaching symposia have served the society well. Notwithstanding fluctuating membership numbers, our publications, with some variations in appearance, still exist and have improved.

The contexts for this account no longer pertain but are historically interesting and worth describing. I experienced, with some surprising consequences, the ambivalent relationship between the IBS and the Berlin Brecht Zentrum (BZ) in those crucial early years. During the 11th Symposium in Berlin (2003), Werner Hecht acknowledged that the German Democratic Republic government was persuaded to establish the BZ in order to counter the Goethe Institute’s supposed West German influence in the IBS and other unwelcome evaluations of Brecht’s work. Since the BZ endured an ambiguous relationship with its own government, it had reason to be thankful for purported competition from the IBS.

They overlapped from 1978 to 1990, the BZ as a Centre, with correspondingly centred views and supported by a state, the IBS as a Society of academics and workers in the arts, whose constitution envisaged ‘the interdisciplinary study of the interrelationship of the modern arts and society at large,’ which implied aesthetic and ethical, textual and social interpretation. Individuals cooperated and competed. Brecht’s writing and propagation of his thought placed them both – Centre and Society – in opposition to forces within their respective cultures, as institutions engaged in wars on two fronts in their societies. Exploring this legacy therefore united and divided them internally and externally. Both found that mixing aesthetics and social politics alarmed conservatives everywhere. This makes for a complex story, reaching in many directions. Though not subjected to sanctions or direct political pressures, the IBS did face prohibitions and official reluctance to offer assistance. For several years, West German authorities would not support an IBS symposium either inside or outside the Federal Republic. Seeking such support for the 7th Symposium in Hong Kong, I wrote numerous letters without success, even to the Alfred Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation, receiving a courteous reply from Bertold Beitz, hoping for my understanding but regretting the Foundation was not permitted to support scholarly events not directly connected with its own projects.

East Germany was officially out of bounds to the IBS, though not to individuals. Nevertheless, twenty-one years passed before our 8th Symposium took place in West Germany. Of the sixteen symposia between 1970 and 2019, seven met in the USA (one in Honolulu), five in Germany, and one each in Canada, Hong Kong, England, and Brazil. I was not an MLA member but attended every Symposium from Montréal (1974) to Leipzig (2019), except Brazil (2013), where I had helped Claus Vetter, then Director of the Goethe Institute, arrange a separate Brecht symposium in Rio in 1998. In that anniversary year, I also devised a five-month-long exhibition, Brechts Ost Asien (published by the Berlin Parthas Verlag), in the Brecht House, and organized other events, one of which, Where Extremes Meet: Comparing Brecht and Beckett, appeared as Brecht Yearbook 27 ( idx?id=German.BrechtYearbook027).

Not just another literary society, the IBS encountered official opposition, which was always disruptive. The New Jersey Symposium (Rutgers University, 1971) was focused on work by John Willett and Ernst Schumacher. At the last moment, the US government refused Schumacher a visa. Asked by the State Department consul in Berlin whether he felt he had been invited as a private citizen or as an academic working in East Berlin and if he was a communist, Schumacher replied: ‘Yes, and a West German citizen.’ In Communications 1.1 (1971), John Fuegi complained that excluding ‘one of the most prominent Marxist interpreters of Bertolt Brecht,’ affected the Society’s purpose ( The New York Times reported the direct protests to the State Department concerned with the freedom of speech and indirectly through the American Civil Liberties Union, the MLA, and the American Association of University Professors with support from Noam Chomsky.

Schumacher’s contribution appeared in the second volume of Brecht Heute – Brecht Today. Jahrbuch der internationalen Brecht-Gesellschaft (Frankfurt: Athenäum, 1972, 27-87), together with Willett’s, “The Poet Beneath the Skin” (88-104). Schumacher stressed the significance of Brecht’s interventionist thought for social theory, and that the relationship between the individual and society also entailed appreciation of his aesthetics and art in general (

Interdictions also affected the Montréal Symposium (McGill University, 1974). The West German press reported that the German Department had invited a large GDR delegation for ‘a political propaganda show’ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 06.09.74: “Ost-Berlin dringt ins Vakuum”). Die Welt described an ‘ominous development’ designed to exclude a variety of views in favour of GDR positions, due to politically naïve Swiss members of the department. This ‘massive’ delegation, Wekwerth, Hecht, Schumacher, Mittenzwei, Renate Richter and the Guenther-Fischer-Quintett, never arrived. In Montréal we heard accounts of the 1000-page files of a Famous But Incompetent organization that Brecht, though maltreated by the National Socialists, was a ‘dangerous enemy alien,’ and possessed underground information ( Had he later sought to return to the USA, he would have been refused. Sweden decided not to extend his permission to stay in 1940, and Switzerland would have done so in 1949.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki had asked me to report for the FAZ on the Montréal Symposium. I was enchanted by Pauline Julien’s French Canadian songs, substituting for Renate Richter, and praised French and English productions, of greater interest than arguments about the oedipal or pre-oedipal Brecht, wishing the IBS paid more attention to theatre. The Montréal International Theatre’s Puntila, not beholden to an appropriate style, alienated ‘alienation,’ while exploring the play’s fantasies. Another captivating escape from the all-too-familiar was the 1921 film, Mysterien eines Frisiersalons, by Valentin, Brecht and Engels, who said later he had never had so much fun. A barber, Valentin, inadvertently cuts off a customer’s head but bandages it on again quickly, before anyone notices. Fortunately for his reputation, it is severed again shortly afterwards, though this time ‘legally’ in a duel, to the astonishment of the victim’s opponent. Three years after the World War, this was pertinent satire. I also reported that the political allegations in the West German papers were nonsense, as the programme had been established by Professors Reinhold Grimm, Jost Hermand, John Fuegi, Ulrich Weisstein (all in the USA) and Walter Hinck (FRG). The FAZ refused to print my account.

Further to visa prohibitions, I had invited Gerhard Seidel, Director of the Brecht Archives in East Berlin, to the Hong Kong Symposium (1986). The Hong Kong University Vice Chancellor, the distinguished historian Wang Gongwu, was also unable to persuade the government to change their refusal. Policy supposedly prohibited admission for East Europeans. Their hands, they said, were tied. Due to irritation in Hong Kong, apart from our protests, this policy was quietly dropped three months later. On that occasion, Hong Kong immigration strip-searched a female participant from Australia with a Syrian passport, discovering in her luggage only the Penguin Book of Women Poets, which contained some of her work. (Communications 16.2, p. 20 has accounts of these events: We could not always bring together those we wanted.

Tension between frustrated activists and reassessing scholars emerged in Montréal. Helmut Karasek once argued the play’s “Finalität” outside the theatre, the stage serving a political purpose which completed the performance. That implied agreement with the author’s and socially authorized political intentions. Did a text’s meaning lie primarily within or beyond itself, and then how precisely? Did reading and performance instigate political or individual and psychological change? What was made strange in these encounters? These issues were still causing disruption during the 12th Symposium (Augsburg, FRG, 2006), held on the same floor of the building as a meeting of a Seniors Society. The IBS arguments were also generational in character.

Contrary factors were emerging as I became President. The view of Brecht as not seriously performable, if activating social change was not in the offing, was also advanced by theatre directors. Jürgen Flimm told me he could not present Brecht. A play like The Good Person of Szechwan was no longer possible on the stage. Senior colleagues were saying Brecht was passé. The IBS, I was warned, had no future. Other developments also affected prospective members. The Yearbook’s first three volumes, published by Athenäum, contained a balanced number of contributions in English and German. The following seven, re-titled Brecht Jahrbuch, appeared in the paperback edition suhrkamp from 1974 as a German-language publication. Apart from an occasional article or review in English, non-German speakers no longer had access to its research. With interest in Brecht declining in Germany, Suhrkamp discontinued the Jahrbuch in 1980.

At the Portland Symposium (1982) I responded to the signs of disaffection, grotesquely mirrored by the presence, astonishing some Chinese participants, of the Maoist Chairman Bob Avakian and his supporters of Jiang Qing (Chiang Ch’ing), who was responsible for the eight model revolutionary operas, with a satirical dialogue: The International Brecht Society Funeral Parlor Game. Performed as an opener, it appeared, unfortunately not edited down, in Communications ( Its conceit was that believers in Christ-like redeemers now thought Brecht was dead, and the problem was their belief. I also hoped to separate Brecht from German disaffection by internationalising and diversifying the IBS and by securing a more English-language Yearbook to entice disappointed theatre practitioners. I looked for global communication, especially with Chinese and Japanese colleagues, whose work then repaid attention, since interest in Asia countered dismissal in the West. Joachim Fest, an FAZ editor, echoing Reich-Ranicki, described Life of Galileo to me as ‘Schulfunk.’ In Theater heute Peter von Becker would maintain that Brecht’s fairy-tale plots, after losing all efficacy in a progressive Europe, were more suited to East Asian theatres’ preference for their simple clarity. Though probably just the consequence of cultural ignorance, misjudging both the politics and sophisticated East Asian aesthetics also seemed critically racist. The contrast with the real situation in East Asia was striking and this deserved to be known. Practitioners would benefit from IBS interest, and we needed to know more about them, given the influence of developments in Germany. Denounced during the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese theatre practitioners had been imprisoned and suffered accordingly. Given paper to write his confession, Ding Yangzhong used it to translate Life of Galileo. Kuo Paokun, a playwright and theatre director, introduced Brecht to Singapore with a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 1967. He spent four years at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney, and slightly more as the involuntary guest of the Singapore government, the result of a political disagreement over politics in the theatre. His integrity won him recognition and respect. Aside from direct involvement, a significant Chinese writer, Ba Jin, whose novel Family had defined the nature of Confucian patriarchy, was fascinated when I showed him Brecht’s Chinese scroll of The Doubter and the poem he wrote. Made to kneel on broken glass in the Cultural Revolution, frail and indomitable, Ba Jin cried out to his public tormentors: ‘No matter what you do to me, it will not change the truth.’ Many suffered unspeakably but did not talk about it. Their dignity was inviolable.

The 1979 Beijing Life of Galileo directed by Huang Zuolin and Chen Rong profoundly affected understanding of the Cultural Revolution among concerned Chinese. I experienced discussions showing how the encounter with Brecht changed the perception of their own culture. That production ran for 80 performances over several weeks, the first Western play performed since the start of the Cultural Revolution. Its impact was transformative. Though naturally restricted in audience breadth, but not in depth, I would liken it to the effect in Berlin in 1949 of Mother Courage after the devastation of the war. The China Youth Arts Theatre was one of the largest in Beijing, later symptomatically replaced as part of a huge shopping mall, yet the sell-out audience was of course only a fraction of the Chinese population. This ‘foreign’ play interested an elite starved of intellectual stimulation. Both traumatic and therapeutic, it helped them confront the psychological and political consequences of those wasted years. I remember one remark, which would have placed its author in prison not long before: Brecht’s play would enable them to ‘break through the paper curtain of our parochial arrogance.’ The play and its aesthetic situated their own deprived revolutionary theatre.

So I determined to organize an event in Hong Kong, where colleagues could learn directly and in detail what had happened from the enablers of that production. Published as Brecht and East Asian Theatre (University of Hong Kong Press, 1982), a short evaluation of the 1981 seminar was printed in Communications 10.3 (July 1981), pp. 3-14 ( I approached Werner Hecht about this Hong Kong seminar, looking only for modest technical assistance, illustrations and information on productions in the GDR and, I suppose, psychological support in what was for me a considerable undertaking quite different from the large events arranged in the GDR (the regular “Brecht-Dialoge”). Though we had a good personal relationship, he clearly viewed the IBS as a not entirely serious competitor. Communications reminded him, he said, of a Beekeeping Association pamphlet (“Mitteilungsblatt eines Imkervereins”). I argued the difference between their government support and the position of the IBS. But my request proved a step too far. His refusal brought home to me the reality of the BZ’s position. Helping the IBS would be tantamount to resigning as Director: ‘Da könnte ich gleich meinen Hut nehmen.’ I argued that he would lose an opportunity to reach significant Chinese colleagues. Only then did I fully realize how the BZ was circumscribed by the GDR government and Soviet Union politics, then opposed to any accommodation with the People’s Republic of China. Cooperation with Vietnam was acceptable, but China was out of bounds. He said the Goethe Institute spied on him. It subsidized some participants.

The 1981 Hong Kong seminar had unforeseen consequences. The first, a setback, enabled the other two, which were successful. I also developed a correspondence with Huang Zuolin (1906–1994), the doyen of Chinese theatre. Sent by his father to Birmingham to study economics in the 1920s, he turned to theatre instead, writing a play which he sent to Shaw, who encouraged him to find his own path. Brecht’s essay on Chinese acting after seeing Mei Lanfang in Moscow interested him. Huang met Shaw, and later introduced Brecht to China in a celebrated six-hour lecture (which he wrote in six weeks) and a production of Mother Courage, which ran for only 11 performances. His family called him ‘Father Courage.’ An anti-war play was then foreign to the audience. One of the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution, Yao Wenyuan, then a drama critic, condemned it as a pacifist play from a petit-bourgeois author.

The seminar and its publication encouraged the colleagues from China to support the IBS holding its next Symposium in Beijing. With this in mind, I visited the Central Academy of Drama, the Academy of Social Science and Peking University in 1981 and 1983, met Feng Zhi and Bian Zhilin, distinguished poets and Brecht translators, and other academics and officials of the Chinese Drama Association. Detailed negotiations followed, though I was advised not to mention Marxism in official communications, which would only raise suspicions among party bureaucrats with little understanding of the distinctions involved. Negotiations proceeded apace, and I was told to prepare for good news and could make a preliminary announcement. I did so and then received a telegram apologizing that the definite answer would be delayed ‘because of various reasons.’

Preparations for the Beijing Symposium reached discussions of hotel room discounts, when the project fell afoul of the Campaign against Spiritual Pollution (i.e., ‘Western’ influence) and was prevented. Our proposal very likely helped to instigate that Campaign, since it began with a prominent newspaper article denouncing the idea that ‘alienation’ was also a phenomenon in modern Chinese society, not the best time for discussing Verfremdung effects.

The impossibility of the 7th Symposium in Beijing had two satisfying consequences. It encouraged the Chinese colleagues to mount their own independent, first Brecht Seminar in Beijing and Shanghai (1985), and it enabled me to switch the 7th Symposium to Hong Kong in 1986 with exceptional Asian participation, particularly from China. This became possible because they looked to the IBS for cooperation and encouragement. In spite of their personal connections with the GDR, this was not available to the same degree from the BZ. Apart from the exceptional quality of interest, both events were marked by outstanding productions, those in Hong Kong enabled by generous subventions.

At the 1985 Seminar in Beijing, the 2000 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, Gao Xingjian, explained how he had been primarily influenced by Brecht. Studying Western literature, he had translated French texts and knew about Brecht’s theatrical practice. Brecht showed him that ‘the rules of theatre and acting could be completely different from those of Ibsen or Stanislavski.’ His plays broke with what passed in China for political dramaturgy, exciting the audience and alarming the Party. From 1982 to 1986, they moved from depicting imaginable social behaviour, through satirical to philosophical and Buddhist explorations of Chinese cultural life and behaviour. He did not see in Brecht a method to be applied but a practice encouraging creativity, inspiring him to develop his own ideas and stimulating a deeper search for Chinese narrative forms and cultural traditions. This validated not just a totally different approach to writing plays, no longer dependent on the artifice of constructed dialogue, but also fundamentally affected the position of the audience. Abandoning the pretence of being what is represented, narrative automatically relativizes performance, involving other perspectives. Audiences are differently engaged in what occurs. Brecht, Gao observed, ‘makes them aware of themselves.’ Brecht once spoke of the ‘dividuum,’ and Gao subsequently wrote two culturally unique autobiographical novels, which separate identity among three pronouns, I, you, and he, to convey a truthful understanding of involvement in complex events during the turmoil in China.

The Hong Kong Symposium (1986), the only so far in Asia, was unprecedented, at least as a contribution to comparative drama. There were performances in standard Chinese (Putonghua), Cantonese, Suzhou-Shanghainese, Japanese, Pilipino (Tagalog), Bengali and English, also cinema-screen videotapes in Putonghua, German, Finnish and Dutch. The plays attracted over 8000 people, among them The Good Person of Sichuan by Korea Senda’s Haiyuza, (Workers’) Theatre with the celebrated actress Komaki Kurihara, then also playing Lady Macbeth in Tokyo, The Caucasian Chalk Circle by the China Youth Arts Theatre from Beijing, and in a demonstrated version by the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA), set in Mindanao culture, Puntila and his Man Matti by the Calcutta Unity Theatre, and a superb version of the rarely performed Visions of Simone Machard, adapted for Chinese history by the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, directed by Fredric Mao. In addition we saw Schweyk in the Second World War by the People’s Art Theatre, Beijing, directed by Lin Zhaohua, and The Horatians and the Curiations from Tokyo, as well as the Jasager and Neinsager in versions from Tokyo and Hong Kong. There was also an exceptional Pingtan narrative performance by Jiang Yunxian of the Song Dynasty Chinese Chalk Circle story, a highlight of the Symposium. Numerous illustrations can be seen in my contribution “Theatre among Strangers: Brecht and East Asia” in e-cibs 2:2019 (

Since my views can hardly be entirely ‘objective,’ here are two of many responses:

Clas Zilliacus wrote (22.12.86): ‘It was a great relief to find that the B-Müdigkeit prevalent in Europe is counterbalanced by this very vivid and enthusiastic interest in Asia.’

Sekhar Chatterjee, the director of Puntila, wrote (08.01.87): ‘I personally think this was the greatest theatre event in my life.’

Carl Weber’s account can be found in the Brecht Yearbook 14 (

Conveying our work through publications became my major problem as IBS President. It affected more than one Yearbook, threatening the nature and probably the survival of our Society. The story needs to be told. After Suhrkamp stopped publication, the Yearbook format changed again. Managing it, never an easy task, became fraught with difficulty until a solution was found after an exceptional crisis. ‘Before I turn the business of the IBS over to you,’ Gisela Bahr wrote (21.05.82),Wayne State University Press would publish the Yearbook ‘under the general editorship of John Fuegi, John Willett and myself,’ accepting articles in German, English and French with synopses of each in the other two languages. An editorial board was to be established to ensure quality. At the Paris 1985 business meeting we agreed that Fuegi should continue as managing editor but with greater supervision.

What actually happened was documented when John Willett copied a letter to Fuegi (19.11.85) that he could not continue to take responsibility ‘however nominal.’ His grounds were the publication of ‘far too many contributions’ he had never seen, or ‘even heard about,’ that the book reviews were ‘an abdication of judgement,’ that the handling of his latest contribution was ‘an all-round disgrace,’ that cable requests to correct errors and receive proofs were not addressed ‘nor even acknowledged,’ and that ‘I don’t think we have produced a good enough book.’ I tried to persuade him to stay. At the 1986 business meeting in Hong Kong, Fuegi described problems with Wayne State University and objected to ‘unsubstantiated rumours,’ to which I replied that the best way of dealing with them was to deprive them of their basis. Nobody else was willing to undertake the job of managing editor. I also wrote to Fuegi asking him to expedite publications, which were steadily falling behind. He assured me in return that Wayne State was now behaving quite differently, great progress had been made and the problems would be resolved. In another letter (27.03.87) I warned again that libraries were cancelling subscriptions and members were seriously worried. I resisted suggestions that we should abandon the Yearbook. On his advice, I had signed another contract with Wayne State, but they did not return the signed copy and simply abandoned the contract without further information or ado. I telexed (02.11.88) that ‘it was absolutely vital to our Society to get the Yearbook and the subsequent numbers into print as soon as ever possible. The delays are ruinous.’ Volume 12 (1983) had appeared in 1985. By 1988 we were years behind. It was particularly galling since we were sitting on excellent original material from the 7th Symposium. I also informed the Steering Committee that if he could not resolve the problems, we should change managing editor.

The Secretary/Treasurer had written that the University of Maryland had cancelled its subscription, adding that Fuegi had not ‘paid his dues for some years.’ At the time knowing nothing about Wayne State , I wrote again (15.11.88) enquiring about the University of Chicago Press, which Fuegi had approached. Since I had sent the material from the 7th IBS Symposium (1986) for publication, fearing the worst, I asked Fuegi for the proofs as soon as they were ready. Telephoning proved fruitless, so I faxed again and, providentially, received the already bound copy of Volume 14 on the same day as the fortunately successful political climax of my nine-month struggle to establish a separate Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong. Immersed in that event and in the middle of examinations, I had time only to read a couple of articles and get a sense of the rest. Horrified, I faxed a strong letter enumerating mistakes (12.06.89) and received a reply (28.06.89) asking for ‘your complete list of the errors for the whole volume within one week of the receipt of this fax.’ This would seem to contradict his later claim that he had lost interest in the matter.

But further perusal compounded my initial alarm. I had already sent a list of over 300 additional errors, copied to the other editors and the steering committee (21.06.89). Apart from being riddled with typos, words, phrases, and whole lines were omitted, creating incomprehensible paragraphs. There were blank pages instead of illustrations. Some articles had language summaries, others did not. Those that did, contained grammatical errors and basic language mistakes. Not even the titles of the plays were consistent. Carl Weber, among others, noticed some 200 serious mistakes. We agreed that it was a disaster. Given his penchant for acting without approval or telling anybody, I was fearful Fuegi might distribute it, and repeated the demand to suspend any contemplated distribution. Were that to happen, it would have put an end to the IBS. Readers and libraries would have cancelled their subscriptions. Rehabilitation would have been impossible.

Fuegi was not pleased by this reaction. It was obvious that he had no idea what he had allowed to happen. Corrections in the disc, then sent to me, contained new mistakes. With the huge increase of detected errors, an errata slip was impossible, and I told him the volume ought to be withdrawn and completely re-done.

That is what happened. I re-edited it from start to finish in Hong Kong. Brecht Yearbook XIV lists Fuegi among the editors, with myself discretely added as Consulting Editor/Design.

I relieved him of his post as Managing Editor (28.09.89). Marc Silberman took over. Improvements began, as sanity returned.

At the time it seemed a close-run thing.


In respect of Verfremdung, I had unforgettable experiences when invited as IBS President to speak in 1983 in South African universities (Witwatersrand, Western Cape, Rands Afrikaans, Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Rhodes, and Natal). I was warned not to tell Johannesburg Immigration. Without a work permit, unobtainable for my topic, they would put me back on the plane. Aware of intricate social situations from Hong Kong, South Africa was in a category of its own: beaches for whites only, train carriages for blacks or for whites. Avoidance strategies were essential. In consequence almost everyone appreciated complexity, though the ethos in the Afrikaans institutions seemed different, elsewhere Brecht was a hot topic. I found the University of the Western Cape for so-called coloureds liveliest, where their ‘coloured’ Professor of Afrikaans, Jake Gerwel developed a sophisticated disruptive consciousness. I also recall Peter Horn in Cape Town University and Astrid von Kotze’s energetic drama activities in Durban.

After a talk at one university, an Alsatian shot across my host’s garden to inspect his guest. His wife then offered the following unsolicited observation: ‘It isn’t true that dogs are trained to attack Blacks. The reason is the different smell. They react to the different smell and it’s an intrusion for them. The gardener comes once a week and I have to lock up the dog.’

When I was there, a maid, as her employers went on holiday, was left to look after their dogs. On returning, they found her foot caught in their chain. They had killed and started to eat her. The police sent them to a named dog pound, which then received telephone calls: not for the dogs to be put down but requests to buy them.

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