TABLE OF CONTENTS
REMEMBERING ERIC BENTLEY (Vera Stegmann and Stephen Brockmann)
DER SCHAUSPIELER JÜRGEN HOLTZ (compiled by Helen Fehervary)
Laudatio auf Jürgen Holtz (Hermann Beil)
Jürgen Holtz Notizen (Alexander Stillmark)
Ein Brief von Jürgen Holtz (Helen Fehervary)
Brecht and Weimar Turmoil (Astrid Oesmann)
My Journey with Müller and Brecht (Corson Ellis)
Hitler’s Deputy (Kent Sjöström)
Žižek, Wagner, Brecht (Vera Stegmann)
A Brief History of the International Brecht Society, 1970–2020 (Marc Silberman)
The Brecht Project’s The Private Life of the (Not So) Master Race (Margaret Setje-Eilers)
Fear and Misery in the Third Reich by The Brecht Project (Zoe A. Welch)
REMEMBERING ERIC BENTLEY
Statement by Stephen Brockmann, IBS President
Carnegie Mellon University
Eric Bentley was the key figure in introducing Bertolt Brecht and his work to U.S. audiences at the end of World War Two and in the postwar period. Americans have gotten to know Brecht through Bentley’s fine translations and interpretations, and we owe him a huge debt of thanks for this. In an era of relative conformism and conservatism in the 1950s, Bentley championed theatrical innovation and modernism, and he challenged Americans to think outside the box artistically, politically, and in terms of lifestyle choices. He was an early and strong proponent of gay rights and sexual liberation. He resonated particularly well with Brecht’s anti-establishment and anarchist streaks – less well with rigid party politics and dogmatism. Bentley was also a good friend to the International Brecht Society and personally a very charming and approachable man. We honor him and his life’s work, and we will miss him greatly.
Remembering Eric Bentley
On Wednesday, August 5, 2020, Eric Russell Bentley died at his home in New York City, at the age of 103. He would have turned 104 years a good month later, on September 14.
Born in the northern industrial town of Bolton, Lancashire, England, Bentley studied piano at the Bolton School and earned a diploma in piano playing from the Guildhall School of Music in London. He then received a scholarship to study history at Oxford University, where C.S. Lewis was one of his professors. In 1938, he moved to the United States to attend Yale University, where he completed his PhD in Comparative Literature in 1941. Bentley became an American citizen in 1948 and had been living in New York City for many years at the time of his death.
Eric Bentley was a public intellectual of enormous range. As a scholar and artist with far-reaching influence in the American theater world, he worked as a critic, translator, editor, teacher, director, performer, singer, pianist, and playwright. His first groundbreaking scholarly book, The Playwright as Thinker, appeared in 1946; his later critical work The Life of the Drama (1964) is considered by many to be one of the most astute general works on theater. In an interview with Joachim Lucchesi he described The Life of the Drama as his answer to Brecht’s “Kleines Organon für das Theater,” since it contains hidden references to Brecht (Dreigroschenheft 3/2005: 11). Other analytical books by Bentley include Bernard Shaw (1947), hailed by Shaw himself as “the best critical description of my public activities I have yet come across”; In Search of Theater (1953); and The Theatre of Commitment (1967).
As an editor, Bentley brought out, among others, The Modern Theatre (six volumes, 1955), The Classic Theatre (four volumes, 1958), and The Theory of the Modern Stage (1968). Many of these edited volumes became required readings in college drama curricula. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1969 and was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1998.
From 1952 to 1956 Bentley was the drama critic for the journal The New Republic, a role in which he succeeded Harold Clurman. This distinguished post allowed him to familiarize himself closely with Broadway theater, since his own training was in the European dramatic tradition. He tended to be critical of Broadway’s commercial entertainment culture, for a while even of renowned American authors like Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller, and he favored modern European playwrights. His play reviews from that period filled two volumes, What Is Theatre? and The Dramatic Event, published together in 1968.
Beginning in 1970, Eric Bentley turned to writing his own plays. This was possibly his greatest aspiration and the one for which he is least known. His plays include the documentary Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? (1972), his most frequently performed play on the hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the collection Monstrous Martyrdoms (1985) which consists of Lord Alfred’s Lover, H for Hamlet, and German Requiem. Other plays include The Recantation of Galileo Galilei (1972, a response to Brecht’s Galileo); A Time to Die and A Time to Live (1970, two short plays); The Kleist Variations (1990, three plays based on Heinrich von Kleist’s works; Concord, a comedy based on Kleist’s Der zerbrochene Krug; The Fall of the Amazons, a tragedy from Kleist’s Penthesilea; and Wannsee, a tragicomedy, Bentley’s rendering of Das Käthchen von Heilbronn).
Eric Bentley was equally at home in the worlds of theater and academia, and he taught at universities throughout the United States. Besides UCLA, the University of Minnesota, Black Mountain College, SUNY Buffalo, and the University of Maryland, he taught at Harvard University as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry in 1960–1961. His longest continuous engagement was a prestigious post at Columbia University, as Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature from 1953 to 1969. At Columbia he became involved in left-wing student movements, and then he abruptly resigned from Columbia in 1969. This decision surprised many colleagues, but he had decided to dedicate himself more fully to creative writing. Furthermore, he had recently come out publicly as homosexual – as part of the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s – and he planned to pursue an active gay life, which in those days was impossible in academia. Bentley had earlier been married twice, first to Maja Tschernjakow, an Austrian Jewish émigré who was also his collaborator. They later divorced, and he married Joanne Davis, a psychotherapist. That marriage ended in separation, not divorce, and they had twin sons, Philip and Eric Jr., who, along with their mother and four grandchildren, survive Bentley.
Bentley translated poetry and prose by many writers, among them Frank Wedekind, Heinrich von Kleist, Arthur Schnitzler, Wolf Biermann, Anton Chekhov, Luigi Pirandello, and, last but not least, Bertolt Brecht. It is in this context of Bentley’s large and diverse oeuvre that we need to understand his profound engagement with Bertolt Brecht. Eric Bentley is of primary importance for anybody exploring the works of Brecht in the English language. Beyond being a pure “Brecht expert” – which he certainly was, one of the preeminent ones in the United States – he approached Brecht’s works from multifaceted scholarly and creative angles: as a critic and interpreter who knew and read Brecht closely, but also as a performer and playwright in search of his own style.
Bentley met Brecht in Santa Monica, California, in 1942, where the 25-year-old, freshly minted PhD from Yale was teaching freshman English at UCLA and revising his Yale dissertation into his book A Century of Hero Worship (for which he was researching Stefan George, not Brecht!). The film director Herbert Kline introduced the two, and through him Bentley got to know many German exiles in Los Angeles. Bentley dedicated The Brecht Commentaries “to those who sat around the dining table in the home of Rosa and Herb Kline.” His encounter with the 43-year-old Brecht led to a friendship and collaboration that lasted to the end of Brecht’s life. Bentley returned to Europe from 1948 to 1951 to direct in Zürich, Padua, and Dublin. He attended the landmark January 1949 opening of Mutter Courage in East Berlin with Helene Weigel, and in 1950 he worked as Brecht’s assistant at the Münchener Kammerspiele for the performance of Mutter Courage with Therese Giehse. He visited Brecht again at his East Berlin home on Chausseestraße in June 1956 to discuss theater projects, only a couple of months before Brecht’s death in August 1956. By 2020, Bentley was likely the last living person who knew Brecht and formed part of his ensemble. With his death, an era comes to a close.
An era may be closing in a broader sense as well. By introducing American audiences not just to Brecht, but to many contemporary European playwrights, Eric Bentley became an important mediator between European and American theater cultures. “If my body escaped to America, my soul did not,” he stated in Bentley on Brecht (415), although this sentiment from his early stay in the United States may have changed over time. His writings added a cosmopolitan dimension to the Broadway stage.
Bentley’s reflections on Brecht are comprehensively recorded in his book Bentley on Brecht, published by Applause Books in 1998, the year in which Brecht would have turned 100 years old. It includes both The Brecht Commentaries (1981), critical analyses of individual plays by Brecht, and The Brecht Memoir (1985), a personal account of their artistic encounter that he dedicated to the memory of Ruth Berlau. The Brecht Memoir was itself turned into a play, Silent Partners, by the American critic, theater director, and playwright Charles Marowitz. The celebration for the publication of Bentley on Brecht took place on December 16, 1998, at the National Arts Club in New York City. This beautiful building near Gramercy Park was filled with a capacity crowd, standing room only by 8:00 pm. Eric Bentley displayed both his critical and artistic talents on that evening: He read sections of the book and then performed songs and poetry, among them “The Song of Mandelay,” “Bill’s Dance Hall in Bilbao,” “Surabaya Johnny,” and “The Ballad of Hanna Cash.”
Bentley edited the Grove Press series of Brecht’s plays. Through his translations, frequently in collaboration with Brecht, he became Brecht’s Anglo-American voice in the United States. Not in Great Britain, though: that voice was John Willett. The brilliant scholar Willett also knew Brecht and wrote more literal translations, closer to Brecht’s texts, for the Methuen edition. Bentley, who described his own English once as ‘transatlantic English’ – British-infused American English – allowed himself to deviate a bit more from the texts, to adjust them to the needs of the American stage, and to use the act of translating as a path toward his own creative writing. He frequently referred to his translations as adaptations or “English versions.” The debate continues to this day about the comparison between these two translators. The scholar and pianist Michael Morley, for example, wrote to me that John Willett was always his reference point for translations of Brecht into English, and when he performed his Brecht repertoire together with the Australian singer Robyn Archer beginning in 1977, they used Willett’s translations. On the other hand, Morley read Bentley’s critical writings “on theater (and much else) with real delight and interest. The Playwright as Thinker remains a terrific, ground-breaking book,” and he considers Bentley’s play Are You Now or Have You Ever Been “still compulsory reading.” Michael Morley also reminded me that Bentley and Willett, competitors as translators, were friends as young students in Oxford and stayed in intermittent contact throughout their lives. John Willett first heard Die Dreigroschenoper on old 78s that Eric Bentley played to him in his college room at Oxford in the 1930s, which may have sparked a common interest in both authors (Bentley on Brecht 315).
Music, the subject of Bentley’s early training and a foundational art for Brecht, was an important source for Bentley’s fascination with Brecht. Bentley emphasized Brecht’s poetic genius more than his theory; he saw Brecht as quintessentially a poet, “a poet who proceeded from lyric to dramatic poetry” (Bentley on Brecht 17, 66). This musicality in Brecht’s language may have particularly inspired Bentley. As performer, Bentley recorded music and plays: Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities (1963), Bentley on Brecht (1965), Bentley on Biermann (1968), and Songs of Hanns Eisler (1964), all on Folkways Records. Many of these songs had never been recorded in English before.
In addition to performing Brecht’s lyrics, Bentley also published The Brecht-Eisler Song Book (1967), which includes popular songs and complex Lieder in his translations. Now, over fifty years later, it remains the only way to acquire sheet music of Hanns Eisler with vocal texts in English, as the Eisler scholar Peter Deeg recently pointed out (Eisler-Mitteilungen 61: 15). Bentley dedicated The Brecht-Eisler Song Book to Georg Eisler, Hanns Eisler’s son, and to Wolf Biermann, who knew Eisler and whose poetry and songs Bentley also translated and performed. It may seem surprising that Bentley turned his creative attention to Hanns Eisler, an overtly political composer, and not to Kurt Weill. But American audiences were already more familiar with Weill, whose Threepenny Opera was adapted by Marc Blitzstein and whose “Mack the Knife” is included in the Great American Songbook.
“Marxism was important to me. I was and am deeply influenced by it. But I have never been a Marxist” (Bentley on Brecht 335-336). Eric Bentley befriended and became a part of many left-wing artistic circles, but he shunned dogmatic politics. In a 1946 letter he wrote to Brecht: “Like Shaw you are more eager to explain your politics and morality than your art” (Bentley on Brecht 290, 392). It remains a fascinating paradox, and a productive tension within Bentley’s oeuvre, that he chose as his artistic idols deeply political artists – George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler – while rebelling against their radical politics.
In his New York City apartment on Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River, Bentley had seen twentieth-century history unravel. It is situated close to New York’s German émigré neighborhood, a place that breathes history. In the 1940s Elisabeth Hauptmann was not only a collaborator and occasional competitor in matters of translation, but also a neighbor on Riverside Drive whom Bentley saw frequently. In the 1960s, Uwe Johnson spent a couple of years in New York, living, like Elisabeth Hauptmann, at 243 Riverside Drive.
I had the great fortune to visit Eric Bentley a few times in his New York City home in the 1990s and again around 2002 for our MLA interview that was later published in Brecht Yearbook 28 (2003). He was a gracious, warm-hearted host, generous with his vast knowledge, and always quick to answer correspondence. I also had the honor to attend several events that featured him, such as the Bentley on Brecht book reception in 1998 and his 90th birthday celebration at Symphony Space in 2006, featuring the cabaret Unholy Trinity. A natural performer, he didn’t mind being a “primo uomo,” as he once joked with gender-bending irony. These events, filled with a large audience reflecting all generations, reminded me what a legendary presence Eric Bentley had in the New York theater community.
Eric Bentley collaborated not only with musicians, but also with visual artists. The German-American graphic artist Ilse Schreiber-Noll has produced over ten art booklets together with him in which she illustrated poetic texts in translated versions by Bentley with her woodblock prints, pen-and-ink drawings, aquarelles and collages. Many of them feature poems by Brecht that could not all be published, due to copyright limitations. The collaboration between Bentley and Schreiber-Noll began in 1993 with two books entitled The Wedekind Cabaret. In 1997, when the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater in New York produced Brecht’s Mother Courage in Bentley’s translation with music not by Paul Dessau, but by Darius Milhaud (albeit in a reduced orchestration), Schreiber-Noll created woodcuts and drawings for the production. In 2010 Samuel French published the Brecht/Bentley/Milhaud version of Mother Courage with drawings by Ilse Schreiber-Noll. The images on her memorial poster card for Eric Bentley are included in that book.
Even at an advanced age, Eric Bentley reached out to young artists. The soprano Karyn Levitt describes in the journal Eisler-Mitteilungen (vols. 62, 65) how she approached him in August 2011 requesting advice for a performance of Kurt Weill songs. Within a week, the then 94-year-old Bentley responded and suggested that she should focus on Hanns Eisler instead. Bentley guided Levitt in exploring Eisler’s music and coached her in Brechtian performance techniques. Their collaboration culminated in the release of the CD Eric Bentley’s Brecht-Eisler Song Book, performed by the singer Karyn Levitt and the pianist Eric Ostling, which appeared in 2016 to mark Bentley’s 100th birthday.
In his Brecht Commentaries Bentley mused about the reasons why Broadway had not embraced Brecht. He saw a partial cause in Brecht’s dark, black European irony, whereas Broadway favored a lighter American humor. Bentley’s own humor may have been of the lighter American variety. Asked at age 100 by the theater critic Michael Riedel, around half his age, about the secrets of longevity and any fear of death, he answered that he was not afraid of death: “No, I don’t believe in an afterlife, that’s a great fantasy, so I am not afraid of hell. I don’t think there is any such place. So, this means there is only death itself to be afraid of, if you are. Death itself is just something that happens after which you are nothing; I expect to be nothing.” He continues to cite the author Lytton Strachey who, lying down, said: “If this is death, I don’t think much of it.”
Eric Bentley will live on in all his works, and in the friendships and intellectual exchanges he created. We remember him for his magnificent contributions to theater, music, and drama.
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DER SCHAUSPIELER JÜRGEN HOLTZ (1932-2020)
Laudatio auf Jürgen Holtz
zur Verleihung des Berliner Theaterpreises 2013 der Stiftung Preußische Seehandlung an Jürgen Holtz am 5. Mai 2013 im Haus der Berliner Festspiele
Stellen wir uns vor, ein Dramaturg fragt Jürgen Holtz:
IST DIE KUNST NÜTZLICH?
Und Jürgen Holtz würde auf diese Frage ganz lakonisch mit einen trockenen „JA“ antworten.
Und stellen wir uns vor, der Dramaturg fragt naturgemäß nach „WARUM?“, so würde Holtz ganz gewiß mit einem hintersinnigen Lächeln ebenso lapidar sagen:
„WEIL SIE KUNST IST!“
Wie aber kommt Jürgen Holtz zu dieser Gewißheit, fragt sich nun der Dramaturg. Er kommt zu dieser Gewißheit, weil er ein absoluter Schauspieler ist und zugleich viel mehr als ein absoluter Schauspieler – er spielt seine Rollen nicht der Wirkung wegen, er spielt sie um ihrer Botschaft an die Menschen willen! Und obendrein ist er das, was Goethe einmal beiläufig als Schauspielkunst definiert hat, er ist ein „phantastischer Riesengott“. Jedenfalls er ist nützlich für die Kunst. Mehr als 60 Jahre übt Jürgen Holtz sich schon in der Erkundung dieser göttlichen Kunst des Erschaffens. Auch seine Selbstzweifel sind schöpferischer Natur, seine permanenten Zweifel an der Berechtigung von Theaterstücken und Theater überhaupt sind gerade der Beweis ihrer Berechtigung. So wird auch jedes Gespräch mit ihm naturgemäß zu einem philosophischen Diskurs. Das mag man fürchten und doch lohnt es sich immer, es weitet den Horizont, es ermuntert und beflügelt. Selbstzufriedenheit ist seine Sache nicht. Das Dichterwort, das Theaterstück, der szenische Vorgang, die inszenatorischen Probleme – das alles rumort in Jürgen Holtz, so lange bis es – nicht dumpf, sondern befreiend – explodiert, bis es wie ein gedanklicher Lavastrom sich über die Bühne ergießt, bis er die Sache scharf und genau auf den Punkt gebracht hat. Das Nachdenken macht sein Spiel nicht grüblerisch oder kopflastig. Sein Spiel ist hellsichtig und nicht ohne Grazie. Seine Komödiantik ist auch durch seine vis comica unwiderstehlich, ja herzerwärmend, weil sie uns erleben läßt, daß LACHEN eine besondere Form der Erkenntnis ist. Vielleicht die schönste Form, zumindest die fröhlichste. Und sein Schweigen auf der Bühne hat Jahrhunderte im Schlepptau.
Die großen Rollen seines Anfangs in Greifswald mit den Regisseuren Adolf Dresen und B. K. Tragelehn — Macheath, Schwejk, Volpone, Hamlet –markieren jene Ebene, die Jürgen Holtz nie verlassen hat, vielmehr souverän und beharrlich im künstlerischen Anspruch ganz selbstverständlich einnimmt. Firs, Schigolch, Queen Elizabeth I. und Queen Elizabeth II. zeigen uns jetzt am BE, wie sich seine Schauspielkunst zu ganz besonderen Figuren zu kristallisieren vermag. Am BE hat Jürgen Holtz schon einmal (zusammen mit Jutta Hoffmann, Einar Schleef und B. K. Tragelehn in Strindbergs Fräulein Julie) Theatergeschichte geschrieben. In einem DDR-Lexikon stand damals über Holtz zu lesen: „Gestalterisch außergewöhnlich ausgeprägter Schauspieler, dessen Darstellungen sich durch hohe Intelligenz und konzentrierte Genauigkeit, vielfach durch Kalkül des Details auszeichnen!“ Und dennoch hinderte dieser positive Lexikoneintrag keineswegs die politische Geschmackspolizei der DDR am Verbot von Fräulein Julie nach nur 10 Vorstellungen, obwohl die Lexikonwürdigung eigentlich einer amtlichen Bestätigung gleichkam.
Theatergeschichte und zugleich Theatergegenwart ist auch sein Bettlerkönig Peachum, spielte er doch diese Brecht-Figur immer wieder und immer wieder neu, in Köln, Frankfurt und nun seit 6 Jahren am BE in Robert Wilsons Dreigroschenoper-Inszenierung. Wenn Jürgen Holtz im Choral der Ärmsten der Armen uns alle mahnt: „Bedenkt das Dunkel und die große Kälte / In diesem Tale, das von Jammer schallt“, dann weiß er in der Tat, um was es geht. Er hat es erlebt, er hat es erfahren. Er hat es erlebt und erfahren in Ost und West, auch mit Stücken und Aufführungen, die unterdrückt oder bekämpft worden sind, und in Zusammenarbeit mit Autoren und Regisseuren, die Schikanen, Verboten oder verständnislos hämisch prügelnder Kritik ausgesetzt waren. In diesem Sinne ist er für mich ein unglaublich authentischer deutsch-deutscher Schauspieler. Ein Schauspieler als Zeitgenosse, als ein hellwacher aktiver Zeitgenosse wohlgemerkt. Sein Rollenverzeichnis allein ist schon ein aufregendes zeitgeschichtliches Dokument. Und seine Engagements an über 20 Theatern in Ost und West gleichen einer Theaterodyssee, bei der er freilich den Kompass nie verloren hat, den Kompass für künstlerischen Sinn, für künstlerische Wahrhaftigkeit und künstlerische Notwendigkeit.
In dem dramatischen Riesenpanorama von Peter Steins Wallenstein-Inszenierung in der Kindl-Halle zu Neukölln wuchs die Rolle des Buttler durch Jürgen Holtz zum wahren tragischen Gegenspieler von Klaus Maria Brandauers Wallenstein und damit zu einer Darstellung von unabweisbarer Notwendigkeit. Holtz vermochte der großen Form Sprache und Seele zu geben und uns als Zuschauer in die Zerreißproben seiner Schiller-Figur hineinzuziehen. Ja, die Qualen seiner Figur wurden auch unsere Qualen und wir – wir mußten gleichsam mitentscheiden.
Aber wie schafft solch wundersamen Vorgang dieser Jürgen Holtz? Wie vermag er zum Beispiel bildermächtigen Bühnenräumen von Erich Wonder standzuhalten wie in Bochum in Heiner Müllers Auftrag-Inszenierung? Oder nur mit einem einzigen stummen Gang über die Bühne eine ganze Erzählung anzubieten? Wie also gelingt ihm immer wieder die Verwandlung von Bühne und Zuschauerraum zu einem gemeinsamen großen Atem? Vielleicht ist das alles viel einfacher, als wir klugen Leute es uns denken mögen. Es gelingt, weil Jürgen Holtz dem Dichter vertraut, und seinen Figuren unablässig nachforscht. Und – er läßt uns teilhaben an seinem Spiel. Die Teilhabe ist möglich, weil Holtz uneitel spielt, er spielt mit Lust, aber völlig uneitel. Sein Mann im Fahrstuhl in Heiner Müllers Auftrag ist gerade nicht eine Virtuosennummer, sondern der existentielle Befund, daß in einem Menschen mehrere Epochen und Orte gleichermaßen virulent sein können.
Karl Kraus’ poetische Generalabrechnung mit dem hochmögenden Berliner Theatersitten und Theatermoden ist nicht nur historisch amüsant – interessant, dieser Zornesausbruch in Versform – „alle Maße sind verschoben, groß ist klein und kurz ist lang“ – mag sogar, von Zeit zu Zeit, immer noch zutreffend erscheinen und in den fünf Jahrzehnten des Berliner Theatertreffens – seien wir doch ehrlich! – gab es manch köstliches Beispiel für die andauernde Richtigkeit seiner einstigen Beobachtungen. Jürgen Holtz hingegen ist davon in jedem Fall und jederzeit auszunehmen. Dieser Schauspieler zertrampelt keine Worte und Sätze und nie und nimmer würde er aus einer komplexen Figur eine plumpe Mißgestalt machen. Davor bewahrt ihn sein Wissen um, seine Freude an dichterischer Erfindung, die allein darzustellen schon alle Verantwortung und Anstrengung einfordert.
Was also ist nun der geheime Grund oder das PRINZIP HOLTZ?
„Ich bin Künstler. Ich arbeite“ sagte er kürzlich in der Frankfurter Rundschau über sich selbst. Sein Prinzip ist Arbeit, ganz einfach die genaue Arbeit. In der Arbeit drückt sich seine Sehnsucht nach Vollendung aus. Und durch Arbeit gelingt ihm diese Vollendung. Eine Vollendung, bei der alle Widersprüche eben nicht verschwinden, vielmehr sie wirken weiter und leuchten.
Und wenn Sie, sehr verehrte Damen und Herren, und Sie, liebe Theaterkollegen, es ganz genau wissen wollen, so empfiehlt Ihnen der Dramaturg, schauen sie bitte bei Youtube nach, erleben Sie, wie Jürgen Holtz einen Witz erzählt!
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Jürgen Holtz Notizen
Alexander Stillmark, Berlin
1. Kabale und Liebe, Deutsches Theater Berlin, 1971
Das Leben im Überdruckkessel
Überdruck im Kopf – die Gesellschaft im gleichgültigen, unterwürfigen Fluss des Alltäglichen. Keine Änderung sichtbar. Aber der Kopf zerspringt.
In den kleinen Stuben….
Jürgen Holtz als Kammerdiener: ein Stein beginnt zu reden. Die Unperson wird Subjekt. Er ist Kammerdiener, als Beamter absolut vertrauenswürdig, weil er schweigen kann. Der Funktionär fürs Intime: der alles sieht und schweigt. Ein exzellentes Instrument der Macht. Sein Schweigen ist eine staatstragende Tugend, die Basis seiner gesellschaftlichen Rolle. Jetzt presst ihm das persönliche Leid die Kiefer auseinander und der Gehorsame spricht Worte, die vordem nie so gedacht und also nie über seine Lippen kamen. Der Staatsdiener verliert seine Rolle und es erscheint der Vater im Wahnsinn. Das Unfassbare spricht aus ihm: mal als Vater, mal als Diener, mal als Zeuge, dem sich fotografisch genau alle Bilder eingebrannt haben.
DER MUND ENTSTEHT MIT DEM SCHREI
Jürgen Holtz bezieht diesen Vorgang AUF SICH, in der DDR 1972; es ist SEIN SCHWEIGEN, dem er nachspürt, es sind SEINE BILDER staatlicher Willkür, die sich ihm eingebrannt haben, es ist SEINE EIGENE ZERBROCHENE SPRACHE, die aus ihm dringt. Das ist kein bewusster revolutionärer Protest, sondern eher das ohnmächtige, fassungslose, zutiefst persönliche Eingeständnis eines Verbrechens, dessen schweigender Zeuge und Komplice er geworden ist. Dicht am Wahnsinn hat er seine Rolle verloren.
Aber es ist seine Wahrheit. Sie zu finden war Holtz auf der Probe; die Komplexität dieses Vorganges zu fassen, diente seine Suche. Was er ablehnte war das „Üben“ auf den Proben, verabredete Wirkungen wieder und wieder zu wiederholen, bis „sie reibungslos sitzen“. Er suchte immer das Risiko des Neuen. Keine Probe durfte wie die andere sein. Für die Mitspieler oft nicht einfach ihm zu folgen. Wir von der Regie bauten ihm die Situationen, die Sprunghöhen, von denen er seinen freien Fall des Spielens in der Rolle und mit der Rolle vollziehen konnte. Und beim Kammerdiener war es der Moment, an dem dieser Diener seine Rolle verliert.
Im Herbst 1989 werden die Schauspieler des Staatstheaters Dresden nach den abendlichen Vorstellungen ihre Protestaufrufe mit dem Satz beginnen: „WIR TRETEN AUS UNSEREN ROLLEN HERAUS!“
2. Der Auftrag, Volksbühne Berlin, Theater im 3.Stock, 1980
Neun Jahre zuvor, 1980, hat Jürgen Holtz in der Uraufführung von Der Auftrag von Heiner Müller den Text „Der Mann im Fahrstuhl“ zu sprechen: schutzlos, vorn an der Rampe, dicht vorm Publikum. Er macht uns zu Zeugen SEINES ALPTRAUMS. Ich war damals erschrocken über diese Intimität, mit der er sich mitteilte, uns mit hineinzog in seine Gedanken: wie er ICH sagte. Das war nicht ohne Holtzschen Humor geträumt, ließ aber auch keine Schrecken aus. Hinter dem Text wurden Erfahrungen sichtbar, die jeder von uns in ähnlicher Art schon gemacht hatte. Und doch war dieser Traum so komplex und einzig wiederum sein eigener, dass sich mit jeder Wendung neue Dimensionen und Horizonte auftaten. Es war keine Beweisführung von der Bühne herab, sondern dieser Schauspieler dachte und sprach, reglos vor uns stehend, ohne Gesten, halblaut einen Text, der in seiner zwingenden Beweglichkeit zwischen Bühne und Publikum hin und hersprang: mal dichter bei Holtz, mal näher bei mir, mal uns alle erfassend. Ich erinnere mich, dass ich eine große Lust verspürte, mit diesem Schauspieler weiter „alpzuträumen“, mich weiter und weiter von mir entfernen zu lassen, um zu begreifen, wer ICH bin, oder wäre, oder sein könnte…
Später im Stück, im Verratsmonolog, verlässt Debuisson/Holtz plötzlich seine Rolle: er reißt eine Lüftungsklappe der Seitenbühne auf, die ins Freie führt, und schreit in die Nacht, über die Dächer der schlafenden Hauptstadt der DDR seinen Verrat: „Ich will mein Stück vom Kuchen der Welt. Ihr, ihr habt kein Messer.“ Wie ein Menetekel, wie ein Damoklesschwert hängen diese Worte 1980 über dem realsozialistischen Land.
„Kommt die D-Mark nicht zu mir, gehen wir zu ihr“ — Sprechchor auf den Demonstrationen 1990 nach dem Fall der Mauer.
Das Ende der Utopien? Für Jürgen Holtz war das Theaterspielen eher ein ewiges, lustvolles Abenteuer auf dem steinigen Weg der Erkenntnis. Mit vollem Risiko. Unter dem machte er es nicht.
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Ein Brief von Jürgen Holtz
Jürgen Holtz begegnete ich zum ersten Mal 1975 nach der Absetzung der legendären Inszenierung von August Strindbergs Fräulein Julie am Berliner Ensemble. Eine Bühnen-Photographie, die er mir schenkte – mit Jutta Hoffmann als Fräulein Julie, Annemone Haase als die Köchin Kristin, Holtz als der Diener Jean –, hängt heute noch eingerahmt bei mir zu Hause. Der Leichenschmaus, zu dem mich der damalige Hausautor des Berliner Ensembles Heiner Müller eingeladen hatte, fand bei Jürgen und seiner damaligen Gefährtin, der Schauspielerin Margit Bendokat, statt.
Erst vier Jahre später, als ich ein Forschungsjahr in Berlin verbrachte und im Herbst 1979 den Proben zu Müllers Der Bau an der Volksbühne beiwohnte, in dem Jürgen den Oberbauleiter Belfert spielte, befreundeten wir uns. Das hatte zunächst weniger mit Theater zu tun als mit der Tatsache, dass wir beide an Krebs litten. Ich hatte gerade in den Staaten eine Hysterektomie für Gebärmutterkrebs hinter mir und bei Jürgen konnte man die Kreuze an seinem Hals sehen, wo er die regelmäßige Bestrahlung wegen seines Kehlkopfkrebs bekam.
Damals galt Krebsdiagnose fast so schlimm wie ein Todesurteil. Manche glaubten sogar, Krebs sei ansteckend. Jürgen und ich tauschten Erfahrungen aus, wie man uns im Theater oder an der Universität vermied und aus dem Wege ging. Beachtenswerte Ausnahmen in dieser Hinsicht waren Heiner Müller und seine Frau Ginka Tscholakowa sowie Fritz Marquart, der Regisseur von Der Bau, der nach den Proben an der Volksbühne die Theatergruppe mitunter zu sich einlud, wo wir viel redeten, lachten und reichlich aßen und tranken. Das Gleiche erlebte man bei Margit Bendokat und den Kindern.
Doch die Krankheitserfahrung gehörte uns allein. Im Februar 1980 fuhren wir in Jürgens Auto nach Erfurt, wo das Regisseurteam Alexander Stillmark und Klaus Erforth eine Doppel-Inszenierung von Müllers Stücken Die Schlacht und Traktor auf die Bühne brachte. Jürgen und ich saßen zusammen ganz oben auf der Tribüne. In der letzten Szene von Traktor liegt der Traktorist, der beim Minenpflügen ein Bein verlor, im Krankenhaus, wo ihm ein parteiamtlicher Besucher seine Verletzung vernunftgemäß zu erklären versucht. Als der Darsteller des Traktoristen die zwei Sätze von sich gab – „Und wenn du dir das Maul zu Fetzen predigst: / Mein Beinstumpf ist der Mittelpunkt der Welt“ – brachen Jürgen und ich ganz spontan in ein schallendes Gelächter aus. Ansonsten lachte niemand.
Auf dem nächtlichen Heimweg hielt Jürgen auf einmal den Wagen an, schaltete die Autolichter aus und sagte mürrisch, der Motor funktioniere nicht richtig. Wir waren in einer einsamen Gegend, es war kalt und stockdunkel. „Wir haben uns scheinbar verfahren“, fügte er hinzu und reichte mir eine Landkarte, aus der ich trotz einer Taschenlampe gar nicht klug wurde. Dann stieg er aus, ging dreimal um den Wagen herum und versetzte jedem der vier Reifen einen Fußtritt. „Alles in Ordnung“, rief er, stieg wieder ein, startete den Motor und wir fuhren los. „Aber wo sind wir denn, wie finden wir die richtige Straße?“, fragte ich besorgt, noch immer die Taschenlampe und die Landkarte in den Händen haltend. Da ertönte leise die Stimme des Stückeschreibers Müller auf dem Rücksitz: „In der DDR braucht man keine Angst zu haben, dass man sich verirrt. In kurzem erreichst du eine Grenze und dann erschießt man dich.“
Heiner liebte Jürgen nicht nur als Schauspieler, sondern auch sonst. Damals litt Jürgen nicht nur an seiner Krankheit sondern auch an der Tatsache, dass ihm die DDR-Theater in der Regel keine seinem Talent entsprechenden Rollen anboten. Ein kurzfristiges Visum, damit er hin und wieder in Westdeutschland hätte spielen können, bekam er auch nicht. Also hatte sich Müller etwas ausgedacht, was ihm 1976 mit seinem Lehrstück Mauser gelungen war. Dessen Veröffentlichung war von der SED sowohl für die DDR als auch für die BRD verboten worden. Marc Silberman und ich hatten das Stück bereits übersetzt und es sollte im Frühjahr 1976 in der Zeitschrift New German Critique erscheinen. Heiner wollte unbedingt, dass das Stück in der Zeitschrift gleichzeitig auf deutsch und auf englisch erscheinen würde, was dann auch geschah. Wenige Monate später ließ Hildegard Brenner den deutschen Text als Kopie in der von ihr herausgegebenen westberliner Zeitschrift alternative abdrucken, und damit wurde dieses Stück erstmals in der westdeutschen Öffentlichkeit und darauf auch in der DDR bekannt.
Ein ähnlicher Trick erfolgte 1980. Heiner fragte mich und Sue-Ellen Case, die Regisseurin aus Kalifornien, die bei den Proben an der Volksbühne auch zugegen war, ob wir etwas über Jürgen in den Vereinigten Staaten veröffentlichten könnten. Die Gespräche mit Jürgen, die auf deutsch verliefen, habe ich dann übersetzt und in den englischen Text eingeflochten, der uns dem sozialistischen Staat gegenüber als naive Amerikanerinnen darstellte. Das stimmte nicht ganz, erfüllte jedoch seinen Zweck. Der Essay „Jürgen Holtz: Self-Portrait of an East German Actor“ erschien dann Mitte 1980 in Performing Arts Journal (PAJ 13). Kurz darauf wurde dieser Artikel in Westberlin mit der neuen Überschrift „Jürgen Holtz: So spiele ich den Clown“ ins Deutsche zurückübersetzt. Er erschien Ende des Jahres in Theater 1980: Jahrbuch der Zeitschrift „Theater heute“ mit Fotos von Jürgen in drei Inszenierungen – Brechts Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg 1963 in Greifswald, Peter Hacks‘ Moritz Tassow 1965 an der Berliner Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz und Strindbergs Fräulein Julie 1975 am Berliner Ensemble. Offenbar hatte Heiner auch hier seine Hand darin, denn eingelegt in den Holtz-Text war Müllers Rede vom April 1979 auf dem Brecht-Kongress in Maryland/USA: „Brecht gebrauchen, ohne ihn zu kritisieren, ist Verrat“. Ob das Jürgen wirklich geholfen hat, weiß ich nicht. Allerdings bekam er 1981 ein Visum für Bochum, wo er in einer nicht realisierten Inszenierung von Müllers Quartett mitspielen sollte und dann 1982 für eine zweite Inszenierung von Müllers Der Auftrag in Bochum.
Mein Forschungsjahr in Berlin ging im Mai 1980 zu Ende. Daher versäumte ich nicht nur die September Premiere von Der Bau, sondern auch die berühmte Inszenierung von Müllers Der Auftrag im November, in der er und seine Frau Ginka Tscholakowa Regie führten und Jürgen als Schauspieler entscheidend mitwirkte. Jürgen hatte versprochen, dass er mir von dieser Inszenierung berichten würde. Der Brief, in dem er das tat, schickte er mir im Dezember zusammen mit acht Fotos aus der Inszenierung, vermutlich über West-Berlin, mit Poststempel 22.12.80 und mit westdeutschen Briefmarken. Er wird im Folgenden abgedruckt, um so einen kurzen Einblick aus dem Jahr 1980 in das Leben des außergewöhnlichen Schauspielers und gleichermaßen außergewöhnlichen Menschen Jürgen Holtz zu gewähren.
Jürgen Holtz an Helen Fehervary
[Sehr dankbar bin ich Sabine Holub, Jost Hermand, Carol Poore und Marc Silberman, die mir bei der Herstellung des Manuskripts halfen. — HF]
einen monat nach der premiere ,auftrag’ sind nun erste bilder fertig geworden. Vieles muß noch fotografiert werden (zu wenig licht) Ich will Dir wenigstens ein bißchen was schicken, wenn auch ohne glauben Dir einen eindruck zu ermitteln.
Unsere arbeit wird nur langsam bekannt, weil wir nur 40 zuschauer an einer schmalseite des spielraumes übereinander auf bänke getürmt haben. Wir spielen ohne rampe vor, neben, unter, hinter, über ihnen* [*meist vor ihnen] – 6 schauspieler, zwei ausgestopfte kleider als papa und mama im schrank. Das ganze dauert, mit pause, 3 ¼ Stunden. Die kritik bewegt sich zwischen hilflosigkeiten ihres eignen instrumentalismus, spaß, zweck und die ÜBERSCHAUBARKEIT fallen durch. Auch das gewohnte bild des erbärmlichen verrates als ablaß für alle zuschauer findet nicht statt, vielmehr „müllers verrat an der revolution und der kunst“ [frau wirsing in FAZ]. Sie meint sicher etwas richtiges und bringt es auf die marken-formel. Denn unser versuch ist bestimmt gegen kunst als gewohnheitsmäßige ästhetisierung und absegnung der gewohnheit, der ästhetisierung der ökonomie der bürgerlichkeit, verteidigung des galaktischen kollapses . . . Unsere arbeit ist bewegung prozess, nicht ergebnis ziel. Es war schwer mit jeder art affentheater aufzuhören, mit albernem getue. Es ist eine art tiefer (vielleicht schrecklicher vielleicht verzehrender) ernst entstanden, viel sprache und körpersprache, in wechselndem farbigem licht, in musik, geräusch, flüstern, erstarren . . .
Die unmöglichkeit einen auftrag zu erfüllen, die ungeheuere anstrengung, es dennoch zu müssen, erzeugt ein geheimes leuchten (etwas anderes als die komödie der vernunft)* [*und die vernunft der komödie] Warum sehen wir so gern, wenn das wasser gepflügt wird – die wellen breiten sich aus auf einem leib – das ist die dramaturgie der ‚erinnerungen an eine revolution‘ in unserem stehenden gewässer ausgedehnter gegenwart (Jetzt denke ich an das bild des sich wie eine haut nach allen seiten ausdehnenden kosmos – seifenblase) Die bilder machen die leute, gegenstände, umstände … wie wird das gebäude durchstoßen. Du kennst dieses bild, wie einer seinen kopf durch die himmelssphären hindurchsteckt.
Die arbeit war so anstrengend wie gemeinsam. Sie ist mir sehr sehr wert und lieb geworden. Sie kommt mir vor wie die möglichkeit einer rückkehr zu mir. Gestern hatte ich meine letzte vorstellung von „pflichtmandat“.  Das „Deutsche Theater“ habe ich jetzt erst, durch AUFTRAG hinter mich gebracht. In der vorstellung gestern überkam mich plötzlich eine namenlose wut darüber wie viele jahre, wie ich mich, in der rolle als anwalt, in der inszenierung, vor meinem partner verkleinert habe, mich verheimlicht, verbogen, zerschnitten und unkenntlich gemacht habe aus feigheit, angst? Die blendung der hellen lichter nicht ertragen und die augen schließend viel verrenken – so kommt mir die kunst vor, die bejubelt wird.
Ich glaube, die schönheit / das schöne ist der raum, in dem unser spiel stattfindet, das prokrustes-bett, seine grausamkeit wird offenbar. Wir können die leute mit unserem thema nicht überzeugen. Versuchen eine starke emotionalität und emotionalisierung der situationen zu erreichen das wachrufen der sinne bei allen die in dem raum sind, durch schrecken, verwirrung, dunkelheit, schlimmes licht. Der geschlossene raum des historisch-konkreten steht selber zur kritik mit seinen spielregeln und kochrezepten.
Übrigens schreibt Andrzej Wirth darüber im jan. oder februar-heft von Theater Heute. 
Die frage wie es weiter geht,
Kannst du Dir „auftrag“ vorstellen vor 1000 menschen im feudalen theaterbau mit luster und balkon (und vor lauter abonnements-kravatten usw) aber vielleicht kann man 1000 ellipse in den bann einer vollständigen einsamen abwesenheit schlagen – sie müßte sein wie der sternenhimmel? Ich soll nicht ungeduldig werden. Ich will diese arbeit mit müller weitermachen. Sicher auch mit ginka. Aber die muß ein paar ihre eignen sachen machen, viel bestätigen, an sich glauben.  Die ganze gruppe muß weitermachen. Für margit ist das alles sehr wichtig geworden. Nun partizipiert (nassauert) A. Lang im DT an ihrer „1. Liebe“ in Dantons Tod. Gottseidank hat margit noch zeit noch lust dazu. Eigentlich hat sie’s jetzt ein bißchen hinter sich. Ich will es ihr nicht sagen. Sie hat doch keinen ausweg aus dem naturalistischen privattheater, obwohl sie viel besser ist als das. Siehst du, bei mir wirft immer alles gleich alle fragen auf. Aber margits anteil an der arbeit ist groß. Margit ist als schauspielerin eben un-praktisch, das ist etwas unwägbares seltenes. (ich meine nicht geschickt) 
Heiner verschwindet jetzt für die deutscheste zeit nach dem sonnigen süden und ich hoffe, er erhält dort eine unvermeidbare einladung zu einer weihnachtsfeier mit baum und christkind. Ende Januar finden aus anlass des ablebens der BAUERN in der volksbühne Müller-festspiele mit einem bedeutenden Colloquium statt mit bedeutenden idioten der literatur. Sicher (alle freuen sich drauf) und ich muß bis dahin 1000 seiten junger dichter lesen, damit irgend etwas schreckliches verlesen werden kann. Ansonsten habe ich den FALL GROSS vor (franz jung)  Mal sehen, was wir damit machen. — Reinstürzen für den anfang. Mein gott, ich begreife an so einem brief wie weit amerika ist.
Euer artikel (Dein + Sue’s) ist im TH erschienen, sozusagen als rückläufer.  Ich nehme an dafür habe ich einen halbseitigen beitrag in theater d. zeit bekommen (echo des echos)  Rischbieter konnte mit „auftrag“ nichts anfangen.  Macht nichts. Ich fand euren artikel lieb und erschreckend, zunächst. (Das soll ich sein, das soll ich gesagt haben . . . ?) Ich fand alles verkehrt, was von mir war und alles gut von euch. Meine intelligenz laß ich mir nur grollend bestätigen, wo mir nichts eingefallen ist. Ihr habt wirklich alles gemacht. Meine examination habt ihr gemildert zu äusserungen. Aber warum kann ich denn nicht sprechen, verdammt, über unsere verdammte sache, und klar und deutlich. In eurem keller war es, als hätte ich alle steine verschluckt, an die mein schlund denkt, die ich gesehen habe.
Noch einmal: der entscheidende punkt in der aufführung ist die entdeckung des tragischen im verrat. Hier entsteht die verwirrung der kritik als sprachrohr der sogenannten öffentlichen moral. Wo der zustand des öffentlichen interesses so wird, daß er das individuum freisetzt wie ein ausscheidungsprodukt, bekommt diese Repräsentante Kritik „im interesse der mehrheit“ eine reaktionäre funktion; daran haben sich alle strikt gehalten, nachdem sie und während sie uns ihrer subjektiven sympathie versichern, für etwas im übrigen, was sie nicht verstehen weil sie es nicht verstehen dürfen — kreaturen. Sie sind nicht einmal fähig mit intelligenz reaktionär zu sein. Also schieben sie meinen totentanz und -taumel in das gebiet des artistischen, margit in das reich des sinnlichen ab. Mit solchen leuten muß man auch noch nett sein! Aber es beschreibt nur einen allgemeinen zustand, in dem der mensch, der phantasie begabte und arbeitende, der produktive sich als den abschaum, die scheiße begreift mit allem zusammen was die maschine nicht ist, die maschine nicht erbaut oder verdaut hat — die toten ordnungen.
Wir wünschen Dir alles gute.
margit läßt grüßen
 Die Premiere von Der Auftrag war am 12. November 1980 im Theater im 3. Stock der Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin. Der kleine Raum hielt nur vierzig Zuschauer, und es gab im gleichen Monat noch zehn Vorstellungen. Regie führten Heiner Müller und Ginka Tscholakowa. Die drei Jakobiner auf Jamaika waren mit Hermann Beyer als Galloudec, Dieter Montag als Sasportas und Jürgen Holtz als den Verräter Debuisson besetzt. In der ersten Szene spielte Holtz auch den ehemaligen Jakobiner und Auftraggeber Antoine. In einer weiteren Hauptrolle trat Margit Bendokat als Erste Liebe auf.
 Das Pflichtmandat, nach dem Theaterstück The Dock Brief des britischen Autors John Mortimer, wurde im April 1972 unter der Regie von Ulrich Engelmann in der Kleinen Komödie des Deutschen Theaters uraufgeführt und im Februar 1973 als Fernsehsendung ausgestrahlt. In dem Zwei-Personen Stück spielte Jürgen Holtz den Rechtsanwalt Wilfred Morgenhall und Raimar Johannes Baur den Häftling Henry Fowle, der seine Frau ermordet hatte und den Morgenhall verteidigen soll. Holtz trat fast zehn Jahre lang in diesem für ihn offenbar längst altbacken gewordenen Theaterstück auf.
 Andrzej Wirth, „Erinnerung an eine Revolution: sadomasochistisch“, Theater heute 22 (Februar 1981), 6.
 Ginka Tscholakowa, geb. 1945 in Bulgarien, ist eine Regisseurin, Autorin, Filmemacherin und Übersetzerin. Sie hatte Müller schon Mitte der 1960er Jahre kennengelernt, war mehr als zehn Jahre mit ihm verheiratet und arbeitete während der Ehe und auch danach mit ihm zusammen. Auf ihre Regiearbeit im Jahre 1980 folgte ihre gemeinsame Inszenierung von Macbeth 1982 an der Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin.
 Margit Bendokat war seit Mitte der 1960er Jahre am Deutschen Theater in Berlin engagiert, wo sie mit führenden DDR-Regisseuren arbeitete. Zwischen 1976 und 1983 spielte sie viermal unter der Regieleitung von Alexander Lang: 1976 als das liebenswert aufmüpfige Dienstmädchen Pauline in dem gleichnamigen Stück des Naturalisten Georg Hirschfeld; 1980 als Helena in Shakespeares Sommernachtstraum; 1981 als die Dirne Marion in Georg Büchners Dantons Tod; 1983 in Brechts Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe. Ihr großer Erfolg in dem populären Berliner Volksstück Pauline und ihre Besetztung gleich danach in Gerhart Hauptmanns Michael Kramer, unter der Regie von Wolfgang Heinz, prägten eine Zeitlang ihren Ruf als „naturalistische“ Schauspielerin. Seit den 1980er Jahren hatte Margit Bendokat weiterhin viele Erfolge sowohl im Theater wie auch im Film. 2010 wurde sie mit dem Theaterpreis Berlin der Stiftung Preußische Seehandlung ausgezeichnet und von einer Jury im Auftrag der Zeitschrift Theater heute zur Schauspielerin des Jahres gewählt.
 Der Fall Gross von dem Expressionisten, Dadaisten und proletarischen Schriftsteller Franz Jung erschien 1920 in der Zeitschrift Die Erde. Die Erzählung, deren beklemmender Stoff auf einem authentischen Fall beruht, beschreibt einen Proletarier, der unter schwerem Leiden nach der Ursache seines Verfolgungswahns sucht. Damit gelang es Jung, die Existenzbedrohung des einzelnen in einem immer undurchschaubarer werdenden gesellschaftlichen System aufzuzeigen.
 „Jürgen Holtz: So spiele ich den Clown“, Theater 1980: Jahrbuch der Zeitschrift „Theater heute“, hg. v. Erhard Friedrich und Henning Rischbieter (Velber: Friedrich Verlag, 1980): 130-133, 136. Mit Fotos von Jürgen Holtz in vier Inszenierungen: Brechts Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg 1963 in Greifswald, Peter Hacks‘ Moritz Tassow 1965 an der Berliner Volksbühne, Strindbergs Fräulein Julie 1975 am Berliner Ensemble, Müllers Der Bau 1980 an der Berliner Volksbühne. Der Holtz-Text „So spiele ich den Clown“ wurde noch einmal veröffentlicht in Jürgen Holtz – „He, Geist! Wo geht die Reise hin?“ (Berlin: Verlag Theater der Zeit, 2015), 45-49.
 Theater der Zeit, die führende Theaterzeitschrift der DDR.
 Henning Rischbieter war 1960 der Gründer und bis 1977 Herausgeber der wichtigen westdeutschen Zeitschrift Theater heute. Er hatte darin viele Inszenierungen von Müllers Stücken dokumentiert und war in regelmäßigem Kontakt mit ihm. Zu Auftrag hat er sich vermutlich privat geäußert, vielleicht im Bezug auf die Rezension der Inszenierung von Andrzej Wirth, die für das Februar-Heft von Theater heute geplant war. Vgl. Anm. .
4. bild Wir waren auf jamaica angekommen Ein tunnel aus seide Die toten Galoudec + Sasportas in särgen über den zuschauern [Zeichnung der Särge auf den Zuschauer-Bänken, HF] Text zum bild Debuisson: Das ist der älteste sklave meiner familie (debuisson ist auch der sklave schwierigkeit der doppelten zeit)
Text: Das theater der weißen revolution ist zu ende wir verurteilen Dich zum tode victor debuisson . . . Das mädchen ist die sklavin von 1. liebe In der aufführung nackt, mit der tiermaske Beide erscheinen im schrank von pappa und mama (Hier ist er noch nicht aufgebaut) Sasportas wirft papa und mama aus dem schrank. Der henker wirft debuisson vom thron, auf dem er für das „theater der revolution“, 1. liebe als fußbank, vor den zuschauern zur bühne gewendet, gesessen hat.
Das „theater der revolution“ Robespierre an der guillotine Text: Seht den schmarotzer, der das brot der hungrigen verschlingt Die totenköpfe gleichfarben, aus gummi, also verformbar kostüme purpur und gold
Das silberne seidene kleid, das die gruppe erdachte hat der henker nach hinten weggezogen. Die titus-musik geht bis 1. liebe erwacht. Sie wird der anderen das kleid entreißen, mit unendlicher anmut hineingleiten und das spiel mit der sklavin vor debuisson beginnen.
6. bild 1. liebe eine sklavin spielt debuisson am munde halsband. Debuisson auf knien schaut zu. Text: nicht vor mir, nicht vor deiner 1. liebe
Debuisson hat sie aus dem auftrag entlassen. Ein fernseher läuft leer und rauscht (nicht zu sehen) Debuisson weint in den armen von sasportas. Galloudec wird sagen: das geht mir zu schnell ich bin ein bauer. Dann geht er auch in die umarmung . . . .
Debuisson erschöpft und gleichgültig Er hat alles gesagt, gebrüllt . . . . bis ihr, ihr habt kein messer Galloudec versucht ihn zu exekutieren. Er kann es nicht.
Debuisson allein Er sagt: der verrat tanzte. Debuisson langt mit der zerrissenen jacke sasportas (Callas singt ich will nicht sterben, manon lescaut in den sümpfen v. miami) ziemlich am schluß
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Brecht and Weimar Turmoil
Summary of the IBS session at the annual conference of the German Studies Association (held online) on Saturday, October 3, 2020. Moderator: Paula Hanssen (Webster University).
The upheavals of the Weimar Republic created a political dynamic that ultimately led to destruction of Germany’s first democracy, but they also represent a prime example of the heterogeneity of history because they resist being understood from any single retrospective point of view. As a “laboratory of modernity” the Weimar Republic fostered a vast array of political, social, and cultural models that competed and interacted with one another, and that were commented upon by cultural critics through the lenses of aesthetics, philosophy of history, and critical sociology. The presentations explored Brecht and his work in the context of these theoretical complexities.
“Brecht’s Study in Perpetual Terror: The Fatzer Fragment”
Astrid Oesmann (Rice University) examined how the fragment negotiates historical trauma and ideological conflict in the brutalized context of WWI. Brecht worked on Fatzer from 1926 until 1931 at which point he declared it unstageable and left it unfinished. He may have thought it unfit for the stage because of its formal heterogeneity, including elements of contradictory genres of writing that range from epic theatre to learning play, tragedy, and theoretical reflections. The paper explored how the text’s formal complexity contributes to its rich and deep exploration of the relationship between trauma and ideology in the historical moment that was Weimar. Brecht explicitly described the fragment as an appropriate form to capture contemporary historical experiences. He used the fragment to explore what he considered to be the most pressing political questions at the time.
“Der Detektiv-Roman: Kracauer, Brecht, and Modern Crime Fiction and Films”
Vera Stegmann (Lehigh University) compared Kracauer’s and Brecht’s interpretations of detective novels. The presentation also considered the question why this genre became so prevalent during the Weimar Republic. The golden age of detective fiction is internationally considered to have occurred and achieved its climax during the 1920s and 1930s, which in the German context represents the Weimar Republic. After understanding why this popular detective genre became a significant subject of philosophical and intellectual discussions in the Weimar Republic, the paper addressed some contemporary novels and films – Volker Kutscher’s novel Der nasse Fisch and Tom Tykwer’s television series Babylon Berlin – in which Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Dreigroschenoper figures prominently and which try to represent the period of the Weimar Republic through the detective genre.
“’Now I can see it crystal clear. The system is a seesaw.’ Saint Joan of the Stockyards and the understanding of the economic crisis”
Georgios Sarantopoulos (National University of Athens) discussed the depiction of the economic crisis in Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards in the context of the sociological core of Brecht’s understanding of crisis, as influenced by his Marxist studies. The presenter also referenced his experience of translating and staging the play in Athens/Greece (2008) and, on the occasion of the present conference, went on to consider how the participants in that stage production (about 40 university students, researchers, and artists) were affected by the play and the collective theatrical experience at a time when the capitalist economic crisis of the twenty-first century was emerging in Greece and worldwide.
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My Journey with Müller and Brecht
A Student Reflects on His Internship at the Universität Bremen
[Corson Ellis participated in the Dickinson College Study Abroad Program at the Universität Bremen in 2019]
From February 2019 till August 2019, I worked with Dr. Janine Ludwig, President of the Internationale Heiner Müller Gesellschaft (IHMG), helping with her work on female figures in the work of Heiner Müller. Before starting the internship, I had never heard of Heiner Müller. On my first day in February, Janine said “I’m going to throw you off the deep end.” In the coming weeks I had what can only be described as a crash course in Brecht, Müller, and the literary scene in the GDR. Over the course of my internship I attended two conferences, one in March 2019 of the IHMG, hosted by Professor Till Nitschmann and Professor Florian Vaßen at the Leibniz Universität Hannover, which I then wrote about for this publication. The other was a conference of the International Brecht Society at the University of Leipzig in June 2019. When I told my friends in the USA that I was doing an internship on an East German poet, writer, and dramaturge, my friends would ask “why?”
The answer comes from Müller himself: “man muss die Toten ausgraben, wieder und wieder, denn nur aus ihnen kann man Zukunft beziehen” (one must unbury the dead, again and again, because it is only from them that one can derive future). The process of facing the past, engaging in a dialog with the dead, is the exact opposite of the environment in which I was brought up. When I was in high school, the Cold War was presented as ancient history that ended with the victory of the good democratic USA over the evil, communist USSR. I remember being taught that socialism brought not just economic misfortune, but also cultural stagnation, in contrast to the USA, where artists were free to express themselves. In German class, we watched the 2006 movie Das Leben der Anderen, which was the extent of my understanding of East Germany, and what twentieth century socialism was like more broadly, that is, until 2019 when I started my internship. I became politically aware in 2015 as Bernie Sanders became the only challenger to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. That was the first time that I really saw the term socialism being used in a positive context, and like many in my generation, a lot of what Sanders said resonated with me. In 2019, when Janine offered me the chance to engage more seriously with the history of socialism, specifically in the realm of theater, I was eager to accept.
In hindsight, this rigid idea of what I would learn from the internship was undercut almost immediately, and my understanding of Müller’s importance, and also of Brecht’s, expanded beyond just learning about history. This change began when I went to the IHMG conference in Hannover. I remember being deeply intimidated, as it was both the first academic conference I had ever attended and also entirely in German. In the ensuing four days, I listened to numerous panels and presentations that analyzed and investigated his works, while also presenting new areas for research, like into Müller’s work as a dramaturge. The conference’s most impactful parts were the debates and discussions about how Müller’s works were just as relevant, perhaps more relevant, today as they were when he wrote them. One discussion that I found particularly memorable was how Müller’s writings about the irruption of the so-called Third World in the so-called First World were related to the migration crisis in Europe. In my undergraduate studies of international politics, borders are treated as facts of life and naturalized. In contrast, the discussion about Heiner Müller’s treatment of borders and transition forced me to look at the issue from a completely different point of view. In the same conference, I was able to hear B. K. Tragelehn recount both his experiences working with Müller and the connection between Müller’s theater and Brecht’s, and I had my first chance to watch a Müller work performed, Der Auftrag. By the end of the conference, I was both extraordinarily exhausted and also deeply stimulated.
Attending the IBS conference in Leipzig in June 2019 solidified my belief that ignoring the GDR’s cultural heritage was mistaken. I listened to various panels, which ranged from talking about Verfremdungseffekt in the context of protest in the Netherlands to how to translate Brecht’s works to examining Brecht’s time in exile. The wide variety of presentations and workshops impressed upon me that Brecht’s legacy is more important, not less, despite the distance from the time and place in which he worked. As a part of the conference, I partook in the performance/experience called “Lass mich/dich verführen.” At first, when we were in a dark room listening to the students of the Leipzig University perform, I thought that I was a part of the audience, but we were later handed props that we held as we progressed through the streets, even as we continued to follow the students. I clearly remember descending the escalator into the train station along with the group, holding our props and a large sheet that was folded in half, when a passerby asked what we were doing. Jürgen Kuttner responded, saying “wir machen Theater” (We are creating/doing theater). Who is the “we”? Does it include the passerby or not? The tension between observing and being observed and the alienation from myself was the first time that I experienced Verfremdungseffekt while also being aware enough to identify what it was.
I went into this internship expecting to deepen my understanding of socialism and its history. I did come to have a more nuanced understanding of the GDR, but more importantly, I was able to see that Müller and Brecht are important to learn about not because they were writers in the GDR. Listening to the discussions and debates about Müller’s and Brecht’s work, participating in unique theatrical experiences, and learning about how Brecht’s and Müller’s works still have international and transcultural influence to this day, it is clear that they continue to have an impact on how theater, and society at large, is developing. The lessons I learned influenced how I look at not just theater and media, but also monuments and the way that we interact with the past. I used the idea of Verfremdungseffekt when writing my final essay on the anti-colonial monuments in Bremen, and I think about Der Auftrag and Debuisson’s betrayal when I am at the protests against police brutality in the USA. But the most productive part of my internship has been how it helped me take a critical look at the mythologies I encountered when I was young.
My journey with Brecht and Müller was only possible because of the generosity and openness of both the IHMG and the IBS, as well as the universities and theater groups they worked with to add depth to both conferences I attended, and for that I am very thankful.
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Wait Till a Man is Out to Have His Fun: Exploring Brecht in the Anthropocene
This article explores the relation between the work of Bertolt Brecht and the pressing questions faced in Anthropocene Studies concerning climate change and economic development. My aim is to underline how the depiction of capitalism and the employment of Brecht’s distinctive V-effect can impact consciousness in a politically progressive way about overexploitation of natural resources in late capitalism and its bond with the new forms of class division and social inequality created by late liberalism.
What is the Anthropocene? Politics and the Biosphere
The term Anthropocene has an articulated genealogy. Because natural scientists tried to describe the growing capacity of human beings to impact the natural world in the last two centuries, Eugene S. Stroemer and Paul J. Crutzen already had a strong basis to propose the term “Anthropocene” as a substitute for “Helocene,” which had been the standard term since the second half of the twentieth century to define the contemporary geological epoch. Whereas the latter term describes the earth’s geological and meteorological evolution only in terms of relevant natural events that took place after the last ice age, the term “Anthropocene” aims at emphasising the centrality and negativity of human action in modifying the evolution of the ecosystem: increasing pollution, global warming due to CO2 emissions, and the impoverishment of flora and fauna. Stroemer started employing the term in the 1980s; Crutzen popularised it during a conference in Mexico in 2000. However, the two scientists came to employ the word “Anthropocene” with the current definition in a joint article that they published in the newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program later that year, which launched a firm call for intervention in environmental issues.
Despite originating in the hard sciences, the Anthropocene was from its birth a rather political concept due to its implicit criticism of every human activity affecting natural life, which inevitably raises the question of economic development and environmental impact. Therefore, the new scientific concept generated animated debate and different stances towards the implications of the Anthropocene in terms of political and economic practices and the response required in the hard sciences, humanities, and popular culture – a problematic relation between scientific information and political power that may not surprise readers who are familiar with Brecht’s Galileo. On the one hand, voices in both the natural sciences and humanities have sought to undermine the gravity of the matter, either by dismissing the validity of the term Anthropocene or by reducing the scale of its nefarious nature, proposing a “good Anthropocene.” These tendencies clash with the broad evidence of the negative effects of the Anthropocene. More relevant concerns were raised in the definition of the Anthropocene crisis as something caused by the Anthropos, the human being as such. Critics have underlined that the Anthropocene was not generated by human activity itself, but rather by the activity of Western, industrial, colonialist powers and the modus operandi they adopted in the last two centuries. This led to the question whether climate change is somehow an endemic consequence of industrial civilisation or should rather be identified with the reckless practices of the capitalist West, which are to blame for the great economic and political apparatus that generated most of the problems. A group of scholars, whose most representative name is Jason W. Moore, even proposed the term “Capitalocene,” emphasising the responsibility of Western capitalist liberalism for the current climate crisis. Ultimately, the Anthropocene – or Capitalocene – has led to a profound revaluation of nature within political discourse, showing how talking about the weather is not a trifle anymore, but a matter of the greatest political urgency.
For the purpose of this paper, I will rely on Elizabeth Povinelli’s analysis of the intersections between the practices of late liberal capitalism and the question of the Anthropocene – or Capitalocene, as she endorses this definition – in her 2016 book Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. As Povinelli argues, the conflict about regulating life and, consequently, society is always based on a conflict among actant bodies coexisting in space and striving for access to natural resources. Through case studies collected from her interaction with Northern Australian indigenous communities, Povinelli exposes how our relation to geological and non-conscious natural bodies (geos) ultimately effects the forms of social and economic organisation (bios) employed by Western late liberalism, distinguishable as consumerism in Western countries and the exploitation of natural resources and labour in the economic South. As she concludes, late liberalism is incapable of conceiving its relation to natural space outside of capitalist overexploitation, thus marking its incapacity to address the pressing issue of climate change and its disastrous effects that will be experienced first (but not exclusively) in the economic South. It is capitalism and its incarnation in politics as liberalism that generated the Anthropocene: class inequality and environmental issues emerge from the same root. Hence, we can start talking about Brecht.
Brecht and the Anthropocene? Modernity and Capitalism in the Theatre
As I will argue, the work of Bertolt Brecht assumes a particular relevance in regard to the question of the Anthropocene thanks to its inherit potential to reconfigure the pressing question of climate change and the struggle for physical space of the Anthropocene within the terms of political intervention and class struggle championed by Marxism. As Frederic Jameson argues in his study Brecht and Method, the value of the Verfremdung-effect lies in its capacity to present simultaneously a performance that acknowledges a mimesis of reality – or at least is capable of inducing a degree of identification in the audience – and questions whether the events performed are in fact the only possible way an event can happen in reality. The process of Brechtian distancing frames the performed event as the product of a certain social organisation that results in a specific phenomenon, taking place in a specific historical frame. Thus, spectators are led to question their own role in the social mechanism that generates in them the perception of familiarity with the performance. Furthermore, Jameson underpins how the performative methodologies of epic theatre cannot be separated from the narrative themes of Brecht’s work: the instances of casus that define the dialectical space of distancing and critical positioning towards bourgeois society and the practices of capitalism. Capitalism, as Jameson reminds us, is always articulated by Brecht within the opposition of the pre-modern dimension of a rural peasantry that lives in harmony with nature and the figure of the greedy and libidinous entrepreneurs who constantly aim at swallowing the resources around them in order to enhance the production of capital. In order to investigate the relation between the theatre of Brecht and the Anthropocene, I will focus my analysis on two plays from Brecht’s Berlin years: Man equals Man (1926) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1927). The criterion that led me to select these two plays is their thematisation of the two principal mechanisms of late capitalist liberalism as Povinelli identifies them. We are talking of imperialism and militarism in Man Equals Man and consumerism as a form of social organisation in Mahagonny. Thus, the two plays are placed in a dialectical relation as representative of the two defining economic and political practices of late liberal Anthropocene.
Man equals Man: Embodying Capitalism
The main theme of Man equals Man is the transformation of the Irish porter Galy Gay into a merciless soldier achieveded by three privates of the British army on duty in India, who lost a member of their squad during a robbery in a Bhuddist temple. It has been extensively argued that the transformation of Galy Gay can be compared to a process of industrial assemblage in which the Irish porter’s personality is first demolished and then rearranged to create the perfect war machine, turning him from colonised subject into coloniser and from civilian to soldier. As this point has been thoroughly discussed in critical analyses of the play, I focus my analysis on the role Brecht reserves for the British soldiers in the context of colonisation.
The soldiers are described as a group of alcoholics who roam the streets of the Indian city of Kilkoa, dedicating themselves to drinking, smoking cigars, and engaging in criminal activity, like the robbery of the temple, when they lack money to buy alcohol. In the productions that were staged between 1926 and 1931, the four privates wore costumes that disproportionately enlarged the actors’ physical appearance and applied extremely heavy make-up, characterising them as bestial beings in accordance with the clown aesthetics Brecht employed for the play. In the play’s conclusion, the assault on the Tibetan fortress of Sir El-Djowr, which leads to the killing of thousands of harmless civilians, is conducted with machine guns that make the entire fortress collapse, completely reshaping the landscape. As throughout the play the soldiers disinterestedly agree that a war can be started anywhere depending on the needs of the British Empire, one of them, Polly, makes clear that: “Just as the powerful tanks of our Queen must be filled with petrol […] so can the soldier only function if he drinks beer” (4). The soldiers do not resemble normal human beings, but rather beastly creatures; their behaviour is determined by their alcoholism and the uncritical pursuit of their duty as a violent force of the empire. Rather than people, they appear like uncontrolled war machines employed to safeguard British economic interests in colonial territories. Not only are they unconcerned about the damaging consequences of their behaviour for colonised communities, but they barely seem to perceive that their behaviour will have such catastrophic effects. If this is already a denunciation of the nature of capitalistic expansion through colonialism, an issue at the heart of the Anthropocene, the very performative process that leads to the transformation of Galy Gay into a soldier in the scene nine (38-63) is revelatory of how the process of militarisation is a process of embodiment of this form of capitalistic expansion.
During the five sub-scenes of the sequence, the three soldiers and the prostitute Begbick convince Galy Gay to sell a puppet elephant, persuading him that the animal is real because there is a buyer for it; subsequently, they take him into custody for stealing the elephant, put him on trial and stage his execution, so that the man convinces himself of his own death and starts thinking that he is Jeremiah Jip, the fourth, missing soldier of the squad. The sequence consists of short sub-scenes structured like clown numbers in which the farcical tone is produced by the act of mocking a character as naïve and intellectually passive as Galy Gay, repeatedly described as “someone who cannot say no” (36). This process of transformation through a clown routine is critically framed, thanks to techniques of Verfremdung. The song of the widow Begbick presents the events by saying that “Tonight you are going to see a man reassembled like a car” (38), and Uriah, another soldier of the platoon, introduces each sub-scene by listing the actions that will lead to Galy Gay’s transformation. The “assemblage” of the Irish porter into a soldier is a commented process in which the mechanisms that induce Galy Gay’s transformation are clearly described within specific terms. Some significant elements emerge. First, alteration of the senses through the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Second, pressure from the milieu around him in which everyone confirms that the fake elephant is a real animal. Last, the enactment of a performative sequence in which Galy Gay becomes a market agent in possession of fictitious capital, the fake elephant. The following series of fictitious conventions establishes the illegitimacy of his ownership, and the intellectually passive protagonist accepts them for real, leading him to believe his utterly unreal trial and execution. It is through the convention of the capitalistic market, namely a system of fictitious values imposed by the milieu around him, that Galy Gay is put to death and forced to accept his new identity as a soldier, enacting a physical transformation on stage through which he assumes the same bestial persona of the other privates. Thus, the mechanism of capitalistic fictitious value determines the coming into being of the new Galy Gay, who embodies it and starts operating in the interests of British imperialist forces, becoming a violent agent of the capitalistic Anthropocene.
Mahagonny: Pleasure, Consumerism and Space(s)
From its very opening, the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, with music by Kurt Weill, presents a scenario of interaction with the natural environment pertinent to late liberal Anthropocene. Three outlaws, Ladybird Begbick, Trinity Moses, and Fatty, are stuck in the desert: their lorry cannot move forward, and they cannot go backward as they fear legal persecution. Therefore, on Begbick’ initiative, they decide to establish a new city, Mahagonny, in which every man will be allowed to live a hedonistic life for as long as he is able to pay for it. As Adorno suggested in his review of the opera, Mahagonny is instituted as a utopian space entirely devoted to pleasure; at the same time, this utopia is modelled within the ideological frame of bourgeois capitalism. Therefore, the interaction between nature and man comes about as the establishment of a city entirely devoted to consumerism: a desert space is turned into a social space whose regulating laws are consumption and the capitalistic system of economic exchange that enables it. The city grows exponentially, as masses of men move there in search of pleasure, including the play’s central characters, Jim, the lumberjack from Alaska, and his three colleagues. However, Brecht shows us in scene 7 (186-188) that this growth brings turmoil rather than prosperity by presenting statistics on signs around stage about the rise of inflation and crime to which the city is constantly subjected.
At this point, the problem with Mahagonny seems to be that the necessity to preserve social order clashes with the encouragement to consumerism at the foundation of the city’s social life. If Ladybird Begbick and the other authorities in Mahagonny want people to indulge in sexual activity, alcoholism, and gluttony, they are also unable to control the material outcomes of the lifestyle they encourage in the city, such as inflation and the rise of violent crime. In this context, Jim the lumberjack, a prole who arrived to dissipate his savings and buy as much pleasure as possible, provides an exemplary model for the inhabitants of Mahagonny by expressing his disappointment to which the excessive limitations the city of pleasure is subjected. The events escalate in scene 11 (195-201) when a hurricane is about to destroy the city and kill its inhabitants. As the people of Mahagonny fall into desperation, Jim proposes to abandon all rules with the exception of the pursuit of pleasure, winning consensus from the entire community. As he argues:
You think that typhoons are shocking? Wait till a man is out to have his fun. […] You may build a tower taller than Everest: Man will come and smash it to bits. […] We need no raging hurricane We need no bolt from the blue: There’s no havoc which they might have done That we cannot better do (196-197).
This idea of indifference to natural phenomena and the capacity of men to reconfigure space in accordance to their own will, almost an ante litteram description of the Anthropocene, is readily confirmed by a deus-ex-machina that Brecht places in scene 12 (201-202): the hurricane suddenly changes its trajectory, leaving the city unscathed. Mahagonny is now in the realm of the capitalistic Anthropocene in which human agents and their social behaviour rather than natural phenomena determine its existence.
Henceforward, the play consists of scenes where the same dynamic of uncontrolled consumption that eventually degenerates in self-destruction is performed, as the banners that introduce each scene exemplify. The vicissitudes of Jimmy Gallagher and his friends are presented as iconic cases. Guzzler Jake in scene 13 (203-204) dies by eating too much, and Jimmy himself in scene 16 (213-219) drinks more than he can afford and is put on trial by Ladybird Begbick for not paying the bill. These scenes highlight the opera’s didactic component by focusing more clearly on the text’s main theme: the depiction of pleasure induced by capitalistic consumerism and its outcomes. Mahagonny’s structure favours this dialectical relation with capitalistic pleasure thanks to the banners that, in epic fashion, instruct the viewers on the nature of the scene that is about to take place. Furthermore, the songs achieve a similar effect. However, Brechtian didacticism must be realised on its own term, i.e., as a process of critically framing the social reality presented on stage.
In his analysis of Mahagonny’s songs, Hans-Thies Lehmann notes that the music aims at simultaneously presenting the pleasure created by capitalist consumption and framing it within the social structures that enable it. Pleasure is never condemned in itself, as the songs rather celebrate it; instead, the text highlights the tension between the pursuit of pleasure encouraged in this capitalistic utopia and the material impossibility of this very pursuit. Lehmann underscores that the major theme of Mahagonny is the implosion of the capitalistic system that employs pleasure as a means to generate surplus value, along with the modalities of socialisation it encourages, to the point of turning Mahagonny into a dystopia. Mahagonny’s songs have the function of celebrating the indulgence in pleasure depicted on stage and, in the same instance, of uncovering the mechanism of capitalistic overexpansion that leads to its negative effects. Weill’s music contributes to enhancing this performative mechanism thanks to its constant framing of appealing motifs constructed within the schemes of popular music in sequences that lead to oppositions in tone and rhythms, ultimately creating an estranging effect. Both Guzzler Jake in scene 13 and Jim in scene 16 succumb not so much to their pursuit of pleasure in itself but to the social mechanism of capitalistic consumption that leads them to self-destruction. The real target of Brecht and Weill’s critique are the capitalist forms of sociality. During the scene of Jimmy’s trial, this critique tackles the institutions of Mahagonny more directly, i.e., the regulatory apparatuses of capitalism.
In the trial scene 18 (221-227), Brecht shifts his focus to the institutional order of Mahagonny. We understand that the city’s authorities, Begbick and her fellow outlaws from the first scene, regulate justice as a market transaction. Whereas at the beginning of the scene it is shown through a pantomime that another man on trial for murder can buy his freedom by bribing Begbick, Jimmy is unable to pay his debt to the woman and is sentenced to death. Violence is accepted as long as the capitalist market is safeguarded. The administration of justice that culminates in Jimmy’s death in scene 19 (227-232) is problematised in the following, concluding scene (233-235) in which we see that Mahagonny has come to self-destruction because of the lack of rules and the growth in antisocial behaviours. As in the preceding scenes, it is the tendency to excess that ultimately determines this dynamic of self-implosion. Yet if in the other scenes this dynamic was associated with the performance of pathological consumerism, in scene 18 and 20 the mechanism of capitalistic social order enhancing consumerism is performed in its extreme consequences. Thus, the strategies of social regulation through consumption adopted by capitalist society and located within the realm of the Anthropocene ultimately lead to the complete and irreversible destruction of Mahagonny and its inhabitants.
Brecht and the Anthropocene
As demonstrated in my analysis of the two plays, Brecht’s dramaturgy deconstructs through performative mechanisms those structures of late liberal capitalism that are responsible for the central issues of the Anthropocene. In Man equals Man, imperialism and its effects in the Anthropocene are thematised through the process of transformation, or industrial assemblage, of Galy Gay into a military agent whose identity is constructed in accordance with the rules of the capitalistic market. In the opera Mahagonny, the process of implosion of consumerist society, underlined by the epic songs composed by Kurt Weill, is framed within the terms of the Anthropocene. Additionally, it is important to note that both plays thematise capitalism through a dynamic of dislocation and abstraction. In the early 1930s, Brecht planned to stage Man equals Man in a German setting, with the four soldiers being members of the Nazi militia. Both Brecht and Weill stressed that Mahagonny had to be located within a dimension of abstraction in order to underscore its status as a utopia of capitalism, rather than a historically and geographically defined reality.  Adorno also registers this intent in his review. Consequently, the main theme of the two plays is the depiction of mechanisms of capitalistic expansion, which are mapped onto performative dynamics and framed critically through techniques of estrangement.
Although this dynamic of critical framing of capitalistic expansion holds central relevance, another important component lies in showing how the effects of these mechanisms of capitalistic expansion are ultimately harmful to a rural, pre-modern world which they corrupt. It is the case of colonised India and Tibet that are subjected to a violent invasion and colonial exploitation; and it is the case of the Alaska from where men migrate to Mahagonny in search of a life of pleasure after many years of hardship but are ultimately swallowed up by toxic consumerism. According to Jameson, Brecht juxtaposes pre-modern peasant life as realm of the oppressed to one of capitalistic modernity – a realm of oppressors who aim at an infinite capitalistic expansion. Yet, this image of rural pre-modernity functions as a dialectical antithesis to modernity aimed at making the new forms of oppression of bourgeois capitalistic society manifest, rather than expressing nostalgia towards a world untouched by technological development or reconstructing real historical evolutions. Brecht’s theatre is ultimately aimed at performing the mechanisms of capitalistic expansion in order to estrange and historicise them and underline how they are but a possible way to structure social and economic relations in modernity, neither the only one nor a desirable one.
Brecht’s epic theatre pushes the spectator to see capitalism as a mechanism that operates within modernity, from which critical awareness and a sense of resistance can emerge. Therefore, despite being conceived in a time in which there was no awareness of climate change or the Anthropocene, Brecht’s work nonetheless offers an extraordinary dialectical means to explore and question the issues of the Anthropocene and its relation to the forms of political dominance of late liberal capitalism. It opens a discussion on modernity and the Anthropocene that problematises the simple dichotomy between economic development and environmental sustainability, a space where the forms of capitalistic overexploitation of resources and labour are finally shown in their contingent nature as a form of social order, where the struggle for the Anthropocene is ultimately one with Marxist class struggle.
Another Conclusion: Brecht in the Anthropocene
What has been argued in this article is questionable. Whereas I provided insight on the potential of Brecht’s work in relation to the issue of the Anthropocene and capitalistic expansion, the two case studies have been analysed only in their historical dimension, not in relation to contemporary practice. It is possible to talk about the value of Man equals Man and Mahagonny as two Brechtian plays that are theoretically relevant in a discussion on the Anthropocene; yet, I have no evidence to argue that these works have been employed in contemporary artistic practice for a significant thematisation of the Capitalocene. If a conclusion on “Brecht and the Anthropocene” was found, another question on “Brecht in the Anthropocene” arises.
The question is whether Brecht plays a part in contemporary theatre practices that tackle the Anthropocene and its political implication. A positive answer can be found in a further case study: Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, produced by Berlin’s Schaubühne in 2012. The dramatic material employed in the production already presents a significant connection to the topic of the Anthropocene. Ibsen’s work is dominated by the motive of economic development, political power, and the treatment of natural resources, as the play’s plot revolves around the decision of a small-town mayor to ignore the fact that a local factory is polluting the community’s water resources. A major political decision is taken not for the benefit of the entire community and with attention to the preservation of a sustainable relation with the natural environment, but rather for the benefit of a capitalistic model of economic development and the consequent social hierarchisation deriving from it, which will affect individuals both in terms of wealth and sanitary conditions. The production follows the play up to the end of the fourth act, presenting the political stance of opposition between capitalistic development and community welfare already central in the play. At this point, the actors interrupt the performance to address the audience directly and inquire whether general social wealth should be prioritised over economic productivity. Audiences throughout the world have been surprisingly keen to engage in the debate, extending the discussion on problems experienced in their geopolitical realities. After a more or less long debate, ranging from a few minutes to a long series of interventions, the staging of the play is resumed, and its problematic finale staged.
The production, as Ostermeir himself acknowledges, is indebted to the Brechtian Lehrstück. A significant political stance is exposed, and the spectators are encouraged to participate in a debate about it, positioning themselves in favour or against a certain opinion or deliberately choosing passivity. As in a Lehrstück, the participants to the performance, including the audience in this case, are included in the dramatic action within a specific positioning in regard to the conflictual stance the play thematises. Furthermore, the conflict between capitalistic development and community wealth is reconfigured by Ostermeier’s choice to substitute one of the central speeches of Dr. Stockmann, i.e., Ibsen’s character who discovers the pollution in the water, with fragments of a text published by a group of French anarchists a few years before the production was first staged. The text is a strong denunciation of late liberal capitalism, emphasising the social inequality it generates and its disastrous environmental effects. As the speech is placed right at the end of the fourth act, therefore just before the open debate, this straightforward statement on the toxic nature of late capitalism becomes the leading motif of the discussion: the instant at which spectators are invited to express an opinion. A conflict inscribed within the nature of late liberal Anthropocene, such as the clash between capitalistic expansion and community wealth, is first presented through dramatic performance and then becomes the direct concern of the audience members who are actively involved in its problematisation, in fact becoming performers themselves. If some may correctly describe this Schaubühne production as a piece of post-dramatic theatre, it certainly is an example of an artistic practice that derives from Brecht, providing a relevant example of an epic theatre for the Anthropocene.
In her book on the intersections between theatre and political protest, Lara Shalson criticizes Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People for failing to deliver a defined message on the issue it thematises and giving too much space to spectators’ individual opinions and concerns. According to her, this would lead to the simplification of the production’s political stance, moving the focus on excessively localised and fragmented problems audience members may perceive as more relevant in their private dimension. However, Shalson’s commentary overlooks the political potential that spectatorship holds in this production of the German director. As the performance clearly presents the conflict between capitalistic expansion and its negative effects on the environment and on communities, a central issue in the Capitalocene, the audience is not led to accept a conclusive statement made by the artists on stage. Instead, they are involved in the process of decision making and pushed to analyse the incarnations of the problem within their daily experience and their sphere of individual action. Rather than seeing the theatre as a space for political lecturing, Ostermeier employs a performative form derived from Brecht’s practice to achieve Brechtian didacticism, i.e., a didactic process enacted via theatre that leads to questioning the mechanisms of daily (capitalistic) reality and discussing social inequality and the possibilities of political intervention within late liberal Anthropocene. Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People is an example of relevant political theatre in the Anthropocene (pace Shalson) and provides a hint of the enormous potential that Brecht’s legacy, extending to both his theory and dramatic writing, still holds in inspiring political theatre in the age of late liberal Anthropocene.
An Actual Conclusion: Towards a Dialectical Theatre for the Anthropocene
As much as this essay has two separate conclusions, one concerning the employment of Brecht to discuss the Anthropocene and the other the employment of Brecht in the Anthropocene, a final word may be spent on the potential – or perhaps the necessity – of Brecht in the Anthropocene. Whether approached as a writer through his plays or in an exploration of his methodologies of performance construction, e.g., the Lehrstück, what always emerges as appealing and useful in Brecht’s legacy is materialist dialectics. In his book Brecht in Practice: Theatre, Theory and Performance, David Barnett underlines the role of Brecht’s dialectic of contradictions in enabling performance to find a political momentum by exposing the social order that frames the phenomenon of theatrical (re)presentation. As he argues, Brecht offers a dialectical method rather than a style, thus allowing practitioners to develop an artistic practice that places the performance in a position of critical dialogue with the audience, whether this material may be a dramatic text or the rich variety of performative practices that fall under the umbrella of the post-dramatic. Theatrical performance, subsequently, becomes a question rather than a statement: the first step of a dialectical process starts by defining a problem from social reality and presenting it on stage (Thesis); then, the spectator is led to evaluate this problem with critical detachment (Antithesis); and finally, the solution elaborated by spectators is not aimed at the conflict enacted on stage, but rather at the social reality that awaits outside the theatre (Synthesis). Thus, in a world where capitalism and the Anthropocene crisis it generated seem to be on a path of inevitable doom, “Brecht allows us to challenge the view that ‘there is no alternative’ to contemporary capitalism by teasing out the processes it uses to establish such opinions.” As the imperative of the Anthropocene becomes more and more inevitable, Brecht’s legacy, regardless of its nature as dramatic material or performance practices, offers us a dialectical tool to think of a theatre that can uncover the historical mechanisms of late liberal Anthropocene and its social stratifications, maintaining a firm and loud call for intervention.
 Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The Anthropocene,” IGBP [International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme] Newsletter 41 (2000): 17-18.
 For a thorough analysis of the history of the Anthropocene and its impact in the humanities and hard sciences, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Anthropocene Time,” History and Theory 57.1 (March 2018): 5-32. Most of the information on the development of Anthropocene Studies detailed here comes from this insightful article.
 See also Tadej Troha, “The Age of H: Towards the Anthropocene Imperative,” Filozofski vestnik 39.1 (2018): 121-134.
 See, for example, Jason W. Moore, Capitalism and the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (London: Verso, 2015).
 Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
 Frederic Jameson, Brecht and Method (London: Verso, 1998).
 For a more recent and insightful analysis of the V-effect as a performative mechanism, see also David Barnett, Brecht in Practice: Theatre, Theory and Performance (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
 For my analysis, I employed the English translations of the two plays available in Bertolt Brecht, Collected Plays: Two, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim (London: Methuen,  1998. Man equals Man (1-76) was translated by Gerhard Nellhaus and Bertolt Brecht (only scene 1). The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (171-236) was translated by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. All page references for quotations from these plays are in parentheses in the text.
 Jameson is an example, see Brecht and Method, 96-97.
 Joel Schechter, “Brecht’s Clowns: Man is Man and After,” in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, edited by Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 92-93.
 See ibid., 92-96. The scene has also been described as a parody of Greek tragedy in which the intellectual passivity of the hero Galy Gay and the farcical sale of the puppet elephant ridicule the narrative’s dramatic pathos. See James K. Lyon, “Brecht’s Mann ist Mann and the Death of Tragedy in the 20th Century,” The German Quarterly 67.4 (Autumn 1994): 513-520.
 Theodor W. Adorno, “Mahagonny,” Discourse 12.1, translated by Jamie Owen Daniel (Fall-Winter 1989–90): 70-77.
 Hans-Thies Lehmann, “Newness and Pleasure: Mahagonny Songs,” The Drama Review 43.4, translated by Regine Rosenthal (Winter 1999): 16-26.
 Robert Hunter, “The Music of Change: Utopian Transformation in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Der Silbersee,” Utopian Studies 21.2 (2010): 293-312. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/utopianstudies.21.2.0293. See also Theodor W. Adorno, “Mahagonny.”
 See the “Notes and Variants” appendix in Brecht, Collected Plays: Two, respectively 271-272 for Man equals Man and 349-357 for Mahagonny (“Notes by Weill and Neher”).
 Adorno, “Mahagonny.”
 Jameson, Brecht and Method.
 An Enemy of the People. Script by Henrik Ibsen adapted by Florian Borchmeyer, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, Festival d’Avignon, July 2012. After being presented at the Avignon Festival in 2012, the production toured worldwide.
 Thomas Ostermeier has extensively documented the production by recording performances. I was able to access some of the video material and listen to Ostermeier’s commentary on the performance during his presentation “Mapping Democracy” at the symposium Bertolt Brecht: Contradictions as a Method (Prague, 8 November 2019).
 Ostermeier mentioned this during his presentation in Prague (see the previous note).
 Lara Shalson, Theatre & Protest (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
 Barnett, Brecht in Practice.
 Ibid., 209.
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Hitler’s Deputy – A Brief “Communication”
When reading Brecht’s Arbeitsjournal (edited by Werner Hecht, Aufbau, Berlin, 1973), I found a surprising montage that surely wasn’t created by Brecht himself.
In the sequence of pictures which show Adolf Hitler’s victory dance after he learned that Paris had fallen, a well-known but unexpected face appears. The editor (or somebody else?) has been highly creative with scissors and glue on picture no. 20, the last one in the sequence: on Hitler’s body, from the waist upwards, a smiling man dressed in a tuxedo appears – Richard Nixon.
Nixon was re-elected as president 1972 and he held his Inaugural Ball in 26 January 1973. He is photographed as he gives a double V-sign and the photo surely found its way to East Berlin. The montage is not elegantly done, and the message cannot be considered as very subtle: Nixon’s politics in Vietnam and his election victory is compared to the Nazis’ conquering of Paris.
But the montage can also be considered as an ingenious comment on Brecht’s aesthetics and ethics: the values found in copying, quoting and bricolage, in the same spirit as his Kriegsfibel. Moreover, was the 1973 montage done with the consent of Werner Hecht? – it is in any case an obvious falsification of the original document.
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Žižek, Wagner, Brecht
Ever since Brecht published his “Notes on the Opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” in 1930, Bertolt Brecht and Richard Wagner have been regarded as aesthetic antagonists. Brecht set up his proclamation of a new form of opera, “epic opera,” with its radical separation of the elements – text, music, and visuals – and its epic principle of montage, as a direct juxtaposition to traditional “dramatic opera,” to Romanticism, and to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.
More recently, scholars in literature and musicology such as Joachim Lucchesi and Joy Calico have fine-tuned this widely held notion. Following Alfred Kerr’s observation on Brecht, “Er bemängelt, wen er eigentlich bewundert,” Lucchesi notes that Brecht devoted many more pages to writing about Wagner than about his declared favorite composers Bach and Mozart (Lucchesi 169, 172). Despite Brecht’s frequently critical and satirical comments on Wagner, both artists share noticeable commonalities: They were widely talented in many arts, wrote their own texts, libretti, and music (Brecht, admittedly, less so), and also directed their own stage works following their own ambitious acting and directing practices that have since become part of the canon. They both dreamed of their own theater, which Wagner received in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and Brecht in the Berliner Ensemble and which allowed both to create artistic “empires” that influenced developments in music and theater for decades and centuries to come (Lucchesi 173). Both artists were revolutionaries and highly critical of the existing operatic establishment of their respective era and developed models of writing and composing that in different ways can be described as “gestisch” and epic (Lucchesi 177).
In her article “Epic Gesamtkunstwerk,” Calico also engages with the complex relationship between Brecht and Wagner. She views Brecht’s reception of Wagner as part of the modernist struggle with Wagner and observes that it is filtered through Nietzsche. Many of Brecht’s arguments against Wagner can be traced back to Nietzsche’s 1889 essay “Nietzsche contra Wagner” and reflect Nietzsche’s interpretation of Wagner, rather than Wagner’s own view of his “Gesamtkunstwerk,” as he described it in his earlier work Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, which was published in 1849. While Nietzsche, much like Brecht, decried the “anesthetizing” effect of Wagner’s operas, Wagner had in his earlier theoretical work insisted that the three sister arts of poetry, music, and dance retain their artistic individuality within the total work of art (Calico 83). Brecht and Wagner share an “aesthetic of totality” (Calico 82). In looking at Brecht’s early operas and his Lehrstücke, Calico perceives similarities in the didactic impulses of both artists and in their desire to negotiate a new audience contract with theater and opera, which for Brecht symbolized the citizen’s contract with society (Calico 85). Both Brecht and Wagner were intensely interested in the connection between physical gesture and musical expression. Brecht’s theory of “Gestus” is fundamentally grounded in the body onstage, and like Wagner, he favored movements of deliberate stylization over spontaneity (Calico 89-90).
Writing from a very different perspective, the Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher and Marxist Slavoj Žižek has also contributed thoughts on the connection between Brecht and Wagner. Žižek’s work is influenced by diverse movements such as the German idealist philosophy of Hegel, Kant, and Schelling, Marxist thought of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, as well as psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan. It may be less widely known that Žižek is also an avid lover of music, theater, opera, and film. Many of his writings attest to his knowledge of music and theater: Among them are his books Opera’s Second Death (2001), written in collaboration with Mladen Dolar, and The Wagnerian Sublime: Four Lacanian Readings of Classic Operas (2016), his essay “Why Is Wagner Worth Saving?,” published independently in 2004 in Journal of Philosophy and Scripture and a year later, slightly revised, as the preface to Theodor W. Adorno’s In Search of Wagner in Rodney Livingstone’s translation, and his extensive afterword, entitled “Wagner, Anti-Semitism, and ‘German Ideology,’” to Alain Badiou’s book Five Lessons on Wagner. The 2006 documentary film The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, directed and produced by Sophie Fiennes and scripted and presented by Žižek, also contains insightful and provocative observations on music. Žižek, well-known not only for his films and philosophical books but also for his frequent interviews and journalistic writings, has stated in a conversation with Liza Thompson that Brecht/Eisler’s Die Maßnahme is among his favorite plays, together with Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, William Shakespeare’s Richard II, Paul Claudel’s The Hostage, and Samuel Beckett’s Not I – an eclectic mix of plays. In a 2009 interview with Thomas Lindemann on Fiennes/Žižek’s film The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema Žižek declared his love of Wagner and, in a different context, his love of Brecht. About Wagner he states: “Deswegen liebe ich Wagner. Seine Helden wollen in Frieden sterben, können nicht.” In Žižek’s view, following Lacan’s theory, Wagner’s heroes are being denied their “second death,” which follows upon their biological demise and which would allow them to disappear and die in peace, with no symbolic debt hanging over their memory.
In this same interview Žižek asserts his admiration for Brecht: “Ich liebe Brecht. Er reduziert Menschen auf ihre Maske. In der Maßnahme reißt der Soldat sich die Maske ab und ruft, wir sind alle Menschen! Aber die Maske ist echter als die dümmliche Psychologie, die man sich von sich selbst macht. Ich glaube an Masken” (Lindemann). Žižek proposes that Brecht may be viewed as a continuation of Wagner, specifically that Brecht’s early learning plays build on Wagner’s last opera Parsifal. At a conference on Wagner in 2006 at the École Normale Supérieure, organized by Alain Badiou and François Nicolas, Žižek delivered a lecture under the telling title “Parsifal, a Piece of Didactic Brechtian Theater” (“Parsifal, une pièce du théâtre didactique brechtienne,” available for viewing on YouTube) (Badiou 137). In contrast to Wagner’s contemporary image, which is frequently based on his antisemitism and the appropriation of his work by the Nazis, Wagner also was a political revolutionary for a period in his life. He befriended the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and was influenced by and friends with some of the 1848 revolutionaries, for which reason he had to leave Dresden in 1849. Wagner shares with Brecht a long exile period away from Germany. Brecht’s exile lasted 16 years, from 1933 until 1949; Wagner’s exile, which he spent in Zurich, Venice, and Paris, lasted 13 years, from 1849 until 1862. In several of his writings, Žižek emphasizes precisely this revolutionary aspect of Wagner’s creation:
Wagner a proto-Fascist? Why not leave behind this search for the ‘proto-Fascist’ elements in Wagner and, rather, in a violent gesture of appropriation, reinscribe Parsifal in the tradition of radical revolutionary parties?“Why is Wagner Worth Saving?” (23)
Žižek tries to salvage the revolutionary potential of Wagner’s musical aesthetics and sees especially Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, as a precursor to Brecht/Eisler’s Lehrstücke. “What if Parsifal also points in another direction, that of the emergence of a new collective?” (“Why Is Wagner Worth Saving?” 22). Žižek compares the role of the collective, the Grail, in Parsifal with that of a revolutionary party. Both Parsifal and Die Maßnahme address the topic of sacrifice and of learning – learning how to help people in their suffering – although the outcome in each play is very different: in Wagner compassion, in Brecht/Eisler the strength not to give in to one’s compassion:
The true “Grail” are the people, its suffering. (…) So what if the NEW collective is something like a revolutionary party, what if one takes the risk of reading Parsifal as the precursor of Brecht’s Lehrstücke, what if its topic of sacrifice points towards that of Brecht’s Die Maßnahme, which was put to music by Hanns Eisler, the third great pupil of Schoenberg, after Berg and Webern? Is the topic of both Parsifal and Die Maßnahme not that of learning: the hero has to learn how to help people in their suffering. The outcome, however, is opposite: in Wagner compassion, in Brecht/Eisler the strength not to give way to one’s compassion and directly act on it. However, this opposition itself is relative: the shared motif is that of COLD, DISTANCED COMPASSION. The lesson of Brecht is the art of COLD compassion, compassion with suffering which learns to resist the immediate urge to help others; the lesson of Wagner is cold COMPASSION, the distanced saintly attitude (recall the cold girl into which Parsifal turns in Syberberg’s version) which nonetheless retains compassion.“Why Is Wagner Worth Saving?” (22-23)
Within the oxymoron “cold compassion” it seems clear for Žižek that in Brecht the word “cold” predominates, whereas in Wagner “compassion” remains the stronger sentiment. Žižek points to further Brechtian moments in Parsifal: Gurnemanz’s two long narratives that take up most of the first half of Act I and Act III. Despite the breathtaking beauty of the music of Parsifal, these long narratives are frequently perceived as a weak point in Wagner, as a recapitulation of past and known events, lacking dramatic tension. Contradicting these critiques, Žižek takes Gurnemanz’s two sung narratives as a point of departure for a Communist reading of the opera:
Our proposed “Communist” reading of Parsifal entails a full rehabilitation of these two narratives as crucial moments of the opera – the fact that they may appear “boring” is to be understood along the lines of a short poem of Brecht from the early 1950s, addressed to a nameless worker in the GDR who, after long hours of work, is obliged to listen to a boring political speech by a local party functionary:
The speaker is repeating himself His speech is long-winded, he speaks with strain Do not forget, the tired one: He speaks the truth. (“Why Is Wagner Worth Saving?” 23)
Brecht’s original poem, a fragment that he wrote in East Germany around the year 1952, is the following:
DU BIST ERSCHÖPFT VON LANGER ARBEIT Der Redner wiederholt sich Er spricht lang, er spricht mühsam Vergiß nicht, Müder: Er spricht die Wahrheit. (Brecht, Werke 15,261)
Brecht alludes to the practice of GDR functionaries to deliver long speeches. The word “Müder” in Brecht’s text refers to the listener, while “the tired one” in Žižek’s translation (probably his own, since his notes refer to the original) seems to assume that the speaker is implied. Brecht’s original text might also contain a note of irony, while Žižek emphasizes the truthfulness in the words of the longwinded, exhausted speaker. Žižek uses Brecht’s poem to rehabilitate a frequently criticized passage in Wagner and perceives the role of Gurnemanz as the agent or the mouthpiece of truth. The predicate “boring” here becomes an indicator of truth, as opposed to the dazzling perplexity of superficial amusements, the digital phantasmagoria of Klingsor’s Capitalist kingdom, as Harry Kupfer’s 1992 staging in Berlin, with Daniel Barenboim as conductor, has famously represented it. In Opera’s Second Death, Žižek discusses the Wagnerian death drive (Wotan, Tristan/Isolde), followed by a chapter entitled “The Forced Choice” in which he elaborates on Brecht and the coexistence of choice and necessity in his learning plays: In Der Jasager, “a young boy is asked to freely go along with what will in any case be his fate (to be thrown into the valley). As his teacher explains to him, it is customary to ask the victim if he agrees with his fate, but it is also customary for the victim to say yes” (112). In subtle ways, Žižek equates the notion of freely choosing what is inevitable with the Wagnerian death drive.The same argument returns later in his book on opera, when Žižek discusses the cinematic aspects of opera:
Do not Brecht’s three versions of his first great learning play, Der Jasager, also point forward toward such a hypertext/alternate-reality experience; in the first version, the boy freely accepts the necessary, subjecting himself to the old custom of being thrown into the valley; in the second version, the boy refuses to die, rationally demonstrating the futility of the old custom; in the third version, the boy accepts his death but on rational grounds, not out of the respect for mere tradition. (There is an unexpected ideological link between Brecht and Wagner here: For both, the highest, true freedom is the freedom to freely assume and accept what is necessarily imposed on us, that is, the freedom to choose the inevitable.Opera’s Second Death, 198-9.
This freedom to choose the inevitable, the art of “Einverständnis,” links Brecht and Wagner in Žižek’s view (“Why Is Wagner Worth Saving?” 23). Under the heading “Run, Isolde, Run,” Žižek compares Brecht and Wagner to cinematic works like Tom Tykwer’s modern popular film Run, Lola, Run (Lola rennt), which also presents three different outcomes of the tense dilemma in which the racing Berlin punk girl Lola finds herself. Tykwer’s three different possible developments and endings can be likened to Brecht’s three versions of Der Jasager. The cinematic nature of opera, especially Wagner, has frequently been noted. In his book Five Lessons on Wagner, for which Žižek wrote an extensive afterword, Alain Badiou described opera as “an extremely impure art form,” “a fantastical, nineteenth-century proto-cinema” (135). Badiou describes one further characteristic of Parsifal that brings him closer to a Brechtian character: He is less an individual character than a type, a signifier:
Parsifal is not really a character at all. As soon as you try to imagine him as a character you run into trouble. The fact is that this story of a virgin seduced by the image of his mother in Act II, who then gets lost for an indefinite period of time (no one is really sure why, incidentally), does not add up to much. Ultimately, Parsifal does not do much of anything; in fact, he basically does nothing at all. He says ‘no’ at a certain moment, and that’s about it. As a character, he is flat. What’s more, he has very little singing to do. He sings for a total of twenty minutes in the whole opera – he could almost have done it all in one go.(Badiou 139-40)
Parsifal as a signifier embodies the image of ‘rein’ or ‘pure’ or pure innocence, “der reine Tor” or “the pure fool.” Similarly, the boy in Brecht/Eisler’s Die Maßnahme can also be described as a type or a signifier, since we know little about his personality beyond his connection to the community. Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel (“A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”) thus shares elements with Brecht’s Lehrstücke, his learning plays. Mythological and ceremonial aspects are obviously much stronger in Wagner than in Brecht; but Badiou dismisses their importance when he states that “the subject of Parsifal is the question as to whether a modern ceremony is possible,” especially a “ceremony without transcendence,” which distinguishes it from religion (Badiou 147). The boy’s death in Der Jasager might denote such a “ceremony without transcendence,” but Brecht clearly resisted conscious attempts at mythology in his work.
Slavoj Žižek, in collaboration with Alain Badiou and Mladen Dolar, added provocative interpretations to the long debate on the comparison of Brecht’s and Wagner’s musical and theatrical aesthetics. Originating less from a strictly musicological perspective and more from a philosophical Marxist and psychoanalytical background, Žižek’s seemingly idiosyncratic juxtaposition of Wagner’s Parsifal with Brecht’s Der Jasager and Die Maßnahme helps us understand some commonalities between Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk and Brecht’s Episches Theater, especially in its early form of the Lehrstück.
Badiou, Alain. Five Lessons on Wagner. Trans. by Susan Spitzer. London: Verso, 2010.
Brecht, Bertolt. Werke: Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe. 30 Volumes. Berlin: Aufbau and Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988–2000.
Brown, Hilda Meldrum. Leitmotiv and Drama: Wagner, Brecht, and the Limits of ‘Epic’ Theatre. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
Calico, Joy H. Brecht at the Opera. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Calico, Joy H. “Epic Gesamtkunstwerk.” In: The Total Work of Art: Foundations, Articulations, Inspirations. Ed. by David Imhoof, Margaret Eleanor Menninger, and Anthony J. Steinhoff. New York: Berghahn Books, 2016. 81-94.
Görner, Rüdiger. “Über die ‘Trennung der Elemente’: Das Gesamtkunstwerk – ein Steinbruch der Moderne?” Maske und Kothurn: Internationale Beiträge zur Theaterwissenschaft 29 (1983): 98-122.
Hillesheim, Jürgen. “’Ja, die Liebe hat bunte Flügel…’: Der ‘Liebestod’ der Carmen in einer Ballade Bertolt Brechts.” Wirkendes Wort: Deutsche Sprache und Literatur in Forschung und Lehre 61.2 (August 2011): 247-257.
Kesting, Marianne. “Wagner/Meyerhold/Brecht, oder: Die Erfindung des ‘epischen’ Theaters.” The Brecht Yearbook / Das Brecht Jahrbuch. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977. 111-130.
Lindemann, Thomas. “’Kino ist perverse Kunst’, meint Slavoj Zizek.” Welt Online. 22.09.2009.
Lucchesi, Joachim. “‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’: Brechts Wagner.” Verfremdungen: Ein Phänomen Bertolt Brechts in der Musik. Ed. by Jürgen Hillesheim. Freiburg: Rombach, 2013. 169-178.
Minou, Arjomand. “From Bayreuth to Mahagonny: Brecht and Wagner at the Kroll Opera.” The Brecht Yearbook 38. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2013. 192-207.
Stegmann, Vera. “Brecht contra Wagner: The Evolution of the Epic Music Theater.” A Bertolt Brecht Reference Companion. Ed. by Siegfried Mews. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997. 238-60.
Thompson, Liza. “Slavoj Žižek on His Favorite Plays.”
Vadén, Tere. “Between Žižek and Wagner: Retrieving the Revolutionary Potential of Music.” The Wagnerian, 20 August 2015. 1–8.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Parsifal, a Piece of Didactic Brechtian Theater.” Lecture at the Ecole Normale Supérieure on 6 May 2006.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Why Is Wagner Worth Saving?” Journal of Philosophy and Scripture 2.1 (Fall 2004): 18-30.
Žižek, Slavoj, and Mladen Dolar. Opera’s Second Death. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Žižek, Slavoj, and Sophie Fiennes. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. DVD, 2006.
A Brief History of the International Brecht Society, 1970–2020
[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), Karl-Heinz Schoeps (2019), and Antony Tatlow (2020)]
The origins of the International Brecht Society (IBS) go back to the late 1960s when a group of young Germanists in North America organized for two years consecutively well-attended seminar sessions on Bertolt Brecht at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, a professional organization that represents the interests of all language and literature scholars and teachers in North American institutions of higher learning (www.mla.org). The momentum and energy gathered at these seminars (“Brecht Research,” organized by John Fuegi and Reinhold Grimm in 1969, and “Brecht’s Prose from the Beginnings to 1928,” organized by Gisela Bahr in 1970) led to the first Brecht Congress in Milwaukee (Wisconsin), organized by John Fuegi with support from Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand. A highpoint of the gathering was a staging by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller of Eric Bentley’s translation of Die Maßnahme (The Measures Taken) by the Milwaukee Theater X, including the original music by Hanns Eisler.
At least initially, the IBS may be considered an offshoot of the MLA because these activities led to its founding as an organization. After extensive discussions among the participants of the first two seminars and the Congress, Reinhold Grimm and John Fuegi drafted a set of bylaws for the society. These provisional bylaws were published in the first issue of what became the organization’s newsletter: Communications from the International Brecht Society (December 1971), and were discussed and passed by both members and prospective members. The membership amended the bylaws by a vote on 30 April 1977 and again on 9 March 1985; the language of the bylaws was updated once again on 19 May 2010 at an IBS business meeting during the 13th IBS Symposium in Honolulu. On 1 July 1980 the IBS was incorporated as a non-profit, educational organization in the State of Maryland. In 1989-90 its federal non-profit status was extended to tax-exempt status as well. The history of the IBS, which can now look back on five decades of activities and publishing, is closely related to the MLA in that the Society’s members have continuously sponsored scholarly sessions and business meetings at the annual conferences and was recognized as an official MLA affiliate organization in 1978, with that status being reviewed and renewed every seven years since 1999 (most recently in 2016). The list of IBS sponsored sessions at the MLA and other organizations’ conferences provides some insight into the ups-and-downs of Brecht research and topicality during these decades. [see appended list of IBS sessions]
As stated in its bylaws (Article II: Objectives), the IBS aims:
to encourage the international study of all aspects of Bertolt Brecht’s life and work and (modeling itself on Brecht’s own plans for a Diderot-Gesellschaft) the inter-disciplinary study of the interrelationship of the modern arts and society at large. To these ends the IBS will encourage scholars and scholarship of every political persuasion and without regard to national and traditional boundaries of purely literary or aesthetic study. The IBS will also endeavor to consistently encourage people working in the arts, particularly theater performance.
Brecht formulated his ideas for a Diderot Society in 1937, envisioning a network of corresponding members who would systematically collect and organize the exchange of reports by working artists and intellectuals. The international exchange of scholarly and experimental work across aesthetic and political boundaries remains the goal of the IBS, striving to maintain an open network of communication and to create opportunities for exchanging ideas through publications and regular meetings and symposia. [See the IBS Constitution and Bylaws included below]
From its outset the IBS produced two different publications with contributions solicited internationally from scholars and theater people at all stages of their careers. Communications from the International Brecht Society (edited by Gisela Bahr from 1971–77) was originally conceived as a newsletter “for the exchange of ideas and information pertinent to [the IBS members’] ‘common cause.’” The mimeographed brochure of a few pages generally appeared three times a year, but this rhythm was not always maintained. It expanded to a journal format in 1982 under the editorship of Marc Silberman who also reduced the publication schedule to two issues per year; since then it has featured, besides IBS news and reports, short essays, performance reviews, and bibliographical information. In 2000 the publishing schedule shifted from biannual (with an average of 80 pages) to annual (with over 100 pages). The last print issue appeared as vol. 43/44 (2014–2015). In 2016 Communications became an online journal with 2 or 3 issues each year: https://e-cibs.org/
The IBS’s second publication, The Brecht Yearbook, is devoted to the results of scholarly research. The Yearbook was titled Brecht heute / Brecht Today from 1971–73, then Brecht-Jahrbuch from 1974–80, and finally The Brecht Yearbook / Das Brecht-Jahrbuch (with individual, monographic volume titles from vol. 11 / 1982 until vol. 39 / 2014). The fact that it was published in Germany and (mostly) in German during its first ten years gave rise to criticism and complaint among IBS members who were either not academics or not proficient in German, especially from non-German theater practitioners. When in 1980 Suhrkamp Verlag in Frankfurt am Main cancelled the publication under the editorship of Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand, John Fuegi became the managing editor and shifted the production to Wayne State University Press in Michigan under a new editorial board and with a commitment to publish in German and English as well as Spanish and French. During the 1980s the widespread interest in Brecht’s writings that had launched the IBS in 1970 was diminishing, and despite a generational shift in leadership this affected the society’s membership numbers and the frequency of its publications. The Yearbook no longer appeared annually, so that libraries and institutional subscribers began to cancel. When the publisher demanded a very large publication subsidy in 1987, the IBS leadership decided to shift to independent desktop publishing with vol. 14 (1989), and up to 2014 The Brecht Yearbook continued to appear annually, distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press. In 2016 production shifted to Camden House Publishing with vol. 40. Meanwhile, free access to digital versions of past volumes (with a five-year “embargo” of the most recent volumes) is available online here. In addition, the entire run of print issues of Communications from the IBS from 1971 until 2014 is also freely accessible online here.
The IBS has been at the forefront of Internet communication. Its website (www.brechtsociety.org) was launched in 1997 to supplement Communications and has developed into the largest and most informative portal on Bertolt Brecht. In 2010 the IBS launched its Facebook page for topical announcements as well. The IBS also supports an online bibliography of Brecht’s works in English translation with over 4200 entries (and is regularly updated).
The IBS is committed to sponsoring major international symposia that bring together scholars and performing artists from all over the world. Between 1970 and 2019 it has organized sixteen such conferences in Germany, Canada, the USA, and Hong Kong (see list of IBS congresses and symposia below). Finally, the IBS maintains contact with other organizations that focus on Brecht’s work, including the Bertolt Brecht Archive in Berlin and the Stadt- und Staatsbibliothek Augsburg.
While the following numbers may not be exact, they reflect the general trends in membership over the past decades:
IBS-sponsored Sessions at Major Conferences
(names in parentheses indicate organizers / moderators)
- 1969 MLA Seminar (Denver): Brecht Research (John Fuegi, Reinhold Grimm)
- 1970 MLA Seminar (NYC): Brecht’s Prose from the Beginnings to 1928 (Gisela Bahr)
- 1971 MLA Seminar (Chicago): Kunst ist Waffe: An Aesthetics of Protest as Exemplified in the Poetry of Bertolt Brecht (John Lyon, Grace Allen)
- 1972 MLA Seminar (NYC): Kunst ist Waffe: An Aesthetic of Protest as Exemplified in the Poetry of Bertolt Brecht (David Bathrick, Betty Nancy Weber)
- 1973 MLA Seminar (Chicago): Die Mutter – Ein Lehrstück (Jost Hermand, Emma Lew Thomas)
- 1974 MLA Seminar (NYC): How to Teach Mother Courage (Patty Lee Parmalee, Evelyn Beck)
- 1975 MLA Seminars (San Francisco): Brecht Plays in Performance: A Practical Approach (Lee Baxandall, John Fuegi); Brecht and Film (Rainer Friedrich, Renate Berg-Pan)
- 1976 MLA Special Session (NYC): Women Figures in Brecht (Christiane Keck)
- 1977 MLA Special Session (Chicago): Brecht’s Theater as a “Collective of Independent Arts” (Thomas Nadar, Helene Scher)
- 1978 MLA Session (NYC): Brecht and the GDR (Betty Nance Weber, Jost Hermand)
- 1979 MLA Session (San Francisco): Brecht and the Soviet Union (Henry Glade, Duncan Smith)
- 1980 MLA Session (Houston): The Forbidden Brecht (Gisela Bahr, Marc Silberman)
- 1981 MLA Sessions (NYC): Brecht and Psychoanalysis (Arnold Heidsieck, Sara Lennox); Brecht and Music (Jost Hermand, Ronald K. Shull)
- 1982 MLA Sessions (Los Angeles): Brecht and Socialism (David Pike, John Fuegi); Brecht and Women (Emma Lew Thomas, Gisela Bahr)
- 1983 MLA Sessions (NYC): Brecht and Performance (Wal Cherry, Wolfgang Roth, Carl Weber), Brecht and Women (Patty Lee Parmalee, Janelle Reinelt)
- 1984 MLA Double Session (Washington, DC): Revisions of Brecht: Adaptations and Radical Productions (Michael Evenden, Merle Krueger, John Rouse)
- 1985 Association of Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE, Toronto): Brecht’s Legacy (Janelle Reinelt)
- 1985 MLA Sessions (Chicago): Brecht and Poetry (Johannes Maczewski), Brecht in Latin America (Marina Pianca)
- 1986 Association of Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE, NYC): Brecht and Performance (John Rouse)
- 1986 MLA Sessions (NYC): Brecht in Latin American (Leslie Damasceno); Bertolt Brecht 30 Years after His Death (Michael Gilbert)
- 1987 MLA Sessions (San Francisco): Re-Presenting Brecht: Poststructural Readings (Janelle Reinelt); Brechtian Discourses in the Americas (Beatriz Rizk)
- 1988 MLA Sessions (New Orleans): Brecht and His Biographers (Siegfried Mews); Brecht and the Other Theatres of the South (John Rouse)
- 1988 Association of Theatre in Higher Education: Reconsiderations in Marxist Aesthetics (John Rouse); Feminism, Brecht, and Artaud (Panel discussion with Reinelt, Dolan, Diamond, Case)
- 1989 MLA Sessions (Washington, DC): Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Freire and Brecht (ATINT); Is There a Brechtian Semiology? (John Rouse)
- 1989 Association of Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE, NYC): Brecht and the Art of Scenic Writing (John Rouse)
- 1990 MLA Sessions (Chicago): Die grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe (Siegfried Mews); Brecht and the Media (Marc Silberman)
- 1991 ATHE Sessions: Brecht and American Theatre; Brecht and the Actor; Brecht / Theory / Social Intervention I and II
- 1991 MLA Sessions (San Francisco): Rethinking Revolution: Brechtian Theory and the New Order (E. Robin Jackson); Brecht and American Music, Musicians, and Musical Traditions (Michael Gilbert)
- 1992 ATHE Sessions (Atlanta): Theater and Revolutionary Change; Documenting Performance
- 1992 MLA Session (NYC): Brecht and Benjamin (Carrie Asman)
- 1993 ATHE Session (Philadelphia): Varieties of Epic Drama (Ralf Remshardt)
- 1993 MLA Sessions (Toronto): Fleisser, Steffin, Brecht (Marc Silberman); Brecht and the Dialectics of Cognition (John Rouse)
- 1994 ATHE Session (Chicago): Weimar Cabaret and Performance (Leigh Clemons)
- 1994 MLA Sessions (San Diego): Brecht, the Dramatic, the Ideological (Jan Mieszkowski); Brecht and Modern Poetry (Siegfried Mews)
- 1995 ATHE Sessions (San Francisco): Decoding the Theatre Styles of Current Directors from the Former GDR (John Rouse), Theatre and Activism: Changing Minds / Changing the World after Brecht (Ralf Remshardt)
- 1995 MLA Sessions (Chicago): Teaching Brecht I: Texts (Marc Silberman); Teaching Brecht II: Theater (Vera Stegmann)
- 1996 MLA Sessions (Washington, DC): Brecht in Translation I: The Threepenny Opera (Siegfried Mews); Brecht in Translation II: Poetry and Drama (Siegfried Mews)
- 1997 MLA Sessions (Toronto): Queering Brecht (Vera Stegmann), Brecht, Utopia, Postsocialism (Siegfried Mews)
- 1998 ATHE Session (San Antonio): Brecht in Latin America
- 1998 MLA Sessions (San Francisco): Women and Performing Brecht (Vera Stegmann); Brecht, Jews, and Judaism (Guy Stern)
- 1999 MLA Sessions (Chicago): Brecht’s Theater as Philosophical Innovation: Brechtian and Post-Brechtian Theory and Practice (Siegfried Mews); In Brecht’s Footsteps: Drama/Theatre, Poetry, Prose, and Film since the 1950s (David Robinson)
- 2000 MLA Sessions (Washington, DC): Brecht, Politics, and the Avantgarde (Gudrun Tabbert-Jones); Brecht and/in the Avantgarde (John Rouse)
- 2001 ATHE Session (Chicago): Brechtech: Technology and Brecht (Ralf Remshardt)
- 2001 MLA Sessions (New Orleans): John Willett: Politics, Theater, Criticism (Marc Silberman); Brecht Cineaste: Scripting and Making Films (Dorothee Ostmeier)
- 2002 MLA Sessions (NYC): Laughing with Brecht: Humor, Satire, and “Witz” in Brecht’s Texts (Astrid Klocke); Eric Bentley: Translator, Dramatist, Poet (Vera Stegmann)
- 2003 20th Century Literature Conference (Louisville, KY): Brecht and Performance; Brecht, Politics, and Transcultural Memory (Alexander Stephan)
- 2003 Kentucky Foreign Language Conference (Lexington, KY): Bertolt Brecht (Alexander Stephan, Linda Worley)
- 2003 MLA Session (San Diego): Brecht’s Essayistic Writing (Jonathan Skolnick)
- 2004 ATHE Session (Toronto): Revisiting / Revising / Revisioning Brecht’s Theatre (Ralf Remshardt)
- 2004 MLA Sessions (Philadelphia): Brecht and Post-War Popular Music (Norman Roessler); Brecht and Violence (Astrid Oesmann)
- 2005 20th Century Literature Conference (Louisville, KY): Brecht and His Composers (Gudrun Tabbert-Jones)
- 2005 German Studies Association Conference (GSA, Milwaukee): The Early Poetry of Bertolt Brecht: The Figures of God, the Criminal, and the Corpse
- 2005 MLA Sessions (Washington, DC): Brecht and/on Television (Gudrun Tabbert-Jones); Brecht, Anti-fascism, and Postmemory (Marc Silberman)
- 2006 MLA Sessions (Philadelphia): Brecht and Masculinity (Vera Stegmann); Brecht Is Dead – Long Live Brecht! The Fiftieth Anniversary of Brecht’s Death (Marc Silberman)
- 2007 MLA Sessions (Chicago): Brecht and Film Today (Barton Byg); Staging Brecht in Chicago Theaters (Julie Jackson)
- 2008 MLA Sessions (San Francisco): Brecht on/and Censorship; Kafka, Brecht, and Labor, and Brecht and Kafka: Clashing Modernisms? (both co-sponsored with the American Kafka Society)
- 2009 MLA Sessions (Philadelphia): Brecht, Marxism, and Ethics (Marc Silberman); Postcommunist Brecht (Vera Stegmann)
- 2011 MLA Sessions (Los Angeles): Brecht and Exile (Janine Ludwig), Epic and Ethics in the Brechtian Mode (co-sponsored with the Divison on 20th Cen Ger Lit, Claudia Breger)
- 2012 MLA Sessions (Seattle): Multi-mediated Brecht (Kristopher Imbrigotta); Brecht Reading / Reading Brecht (co-sponsored with the MLA Drama Division, Marc Silberman)
- 2013 MLA Sessions (Boston): Brecht and Celan (Friedemann Weidauer); Brecht – Müller – Language (Paula Hanssen)
- 2014 MLA Sessions (Chicago): Fifty Shades of Brecht: Vulnerability versus Autonomy among Brecht’s Female Collaborators (co-sponsored with Women in German, Julie K. Allen); Brecht and the Century of War (Marc Silberman); Teaching Brecht (co-sponsored by the MLA Divison on the Teaching of Literature, Per Urlaub)
- 2015 MLA Sessions (Vancouver, CA): Brecht, Protest, Youth (Theodore Rippey); Brecht, Music, Opera (Elena Pnevmonidou, co-sponsored with Discussion Group on Opera as a Literary and Dramatic Form)
- 2015 GSA Session (Washington, D.C.): Roundtable on Translating and Transforming Brecht (Marc Silberman)
- 2016 MLA Sessions (Austin, TX): Brecht, Surveillance, Visibility (James Harding); Relations and Legacies: Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno (Robert G. Kaufman, co-sponsored with Forum on Teaching Philosophy and Literature)
- 2016 GSA Sessions (San Diego, CA): 1956 – Brecht, Death, and Socialism (Stephen Brockmann); Brecht and German Studies (Marc Silberman)
- 2017 MLA Session (Philadelphia, PA): Brecht, Affect, Empathy (Theodore Rippey)
- 2017 Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus Workshop (Berlin): Baustelle Brecht / Working with Brecht (Marc Silberman)
- 2017 GSA Sessions (Atlanta, GA): Radical Event Contra Dogmatic Event: Brecht’s Images of Lenin (Ben Robinson); Turning Points and Their Axes: Change and Resistance in Brecht and Company (Ben Robinson)
- 2018 MLA Sessions (NYC): Brecht in the Middle East (Ela Gezen and Hatem Akil); “Totally Epic”: Brechtian and Wagnerian Aesthetics Today (Jack Davis)
- 2018 Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus Workshop (Berlin): Baustelle Brecht II / Working with Brecht II (Stephen Brockmann)
- 2018 GSA Sessions (Pittsburgh, PA): Time to resist. Is this a Brechtian moment? (André Fischer); Brecht and Music (Ellen Chew and Heidi Hart)
- 2019 MLA Roundtable (Chicago, IL): Brecht in Chicago / Brecht and Chicago, with four Chicago directors (Marc Silberman)
- 2019 GSA Session (Portland, OR): Brecht and the Public Sphere (Hunter Bivens and Marc Silberman)
- 2020 MLA Session (Seattle, WA): Brecht as Dataset (Evan Torner and Marc Silberman)
- 2020 Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus Workshop (Berlin): Baustelle Brecht III / Working with Brecht III (Matthias Rothe)
- 2020 GSA Session (Washington, D.C.): Brecht and Weimar Turmoil (Astrid Oesmann)
IBS Congresses and Symposia
[1st] IBS Congress, Milwaukee, 1970 (organized by John Fuegi); including a staging by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller of Eric Bentley’s translation of Die Maßnahme (The Measures Taken) by the Milwaukee Theater X, including the original music by Hanns Eisler.
2nd IBS Congress, Rutgers University, 1-3 April 1971 (organized by Claude Hill with Gisela Bahr and Ralph Ley); Eric Bentley, John Ewen, John Fuegi, Patty Lee Parmalee, John Willett, Victor Lange, Walter Sokel, Andzrej Wirth, Erika Munk, Lee Baxandall, John Bettenbender, John Simon, Carl Weber, Wolfgang Roth (NB invitee Ernst Schumacher from the GDR was denied an entry visa to the USA).
3rd Brecht Congress, 2-6 October 1974 at McGill University (Montreal): Weltanschauung und Theaterarbeit; Siegfried Unseld, Sander Gilman, James K. Lyon, John Willett, Darko Suvin, Peter von Matt, Robert Conrad, Siegfried Mews, Betty N. Weber, Janet King, H. J. Schrimpf, Gilbert Badia, Leonard Lehrman, R. Friedrich, Roman Szydlowski, Bernard Dohr, Lee Baxandall, Jost Hermand, Reinhold Grimm, Walter Hinck, Iring Fetscher, Antony Tatlow (NB invitee Ernst Schumacher from the GDR was again unable to get an entry visa to Canada)
4th Brecht Congress, Austin, TX, 17-20 November 1976 (organized by Hubert Heinen, Janet King, Betty N. Weber): Bertolt Brecht and The Creative Link between Knowledge and Society [Repeated efforts by Walter Hinck to organize a Bertolt Brecht congress in Frankfurt am Main (with Suhrkamp Verlag’s support) – remained unsuccessful, no funding from the city]
5th Brecht Congress, University of Maryland, College Park, 28-31 March 1979 (organized by John Fuegi): Brecht and America, Brecht and Philosophy, Brecht and Contemporary Theater and Film [plans for the 6th International Brecht Symposium, Fall 1981, University of California, Los Angeles (organized by Emma Lew Thomas) were cancelled]
6th International Brecht Symposium, 28-31 May 1982, Reed College, Portland, Oregon (organized by Laureen Nussbaum)
7th IBS Symposium, 8-13 December 1986, Hong Kong (organized by Antony Tatlow), Brecht in Asia and Africa
8th IBS Symposium, 8-13 December 1991, Augsburg, Germany (organized by Hans-Thies Lehmann, Renate Voris, Bernd and Sylvia Mahl), The Other Brecht / Der andere Brecht
9th IBS Symposium, 10-11 March 1995, Augsburg, Germany (organized by Siegfried Mews and Marc Silberman), Brecht und die kollektive Produktivität, Brecht und die Musik
[Symposium of the short-lived IBS partner, the European Brecht Society (EBS), Helsinki, Finland, 23–25 August 1998 (organized by Kalevi Haikara, Pekka Lounela, Ralf Langbacka, Anneli Suur-Kujala)]
10th IBS Symposium, 28–31 May 1998, San Diego, CA (organized by John Rouse, Siegfried Mews, Marc Silberman, Florian Vaßen), Brecht 100-2000: Culture and Politics in These Times
11th IBS Symposium, 26–29 June 2003, Berlin, Germany (organized by Alexander Honold, Klaus Siebenhaar, Marc Silberman, Florian Vaßen), Mahagonny.com
12th IBS Symposium, 12–16 July 2006, Augsburg, Germany (organized by Jürgen Hillesheim, Stephen Brockmann, and Mathias Mayer), Brecht and Death / Brecht und der Tod
13th IBS Symposium, 19–23 May 2010, Honolulu, HI, Brecht in / and Asia (organized by Eiichiro Hirata, Hans-Thies Lehmann, Markus Wessendorf, Marc Silberman, Erdmut Wizisla)
14th IBS Symposium, 20–23 May 2013, Porto Alegre, Brazil, The Creative Spectator: Collision and Dialogue (onsite organizational committee: Joao Pedro Alcantara Gil, Marta Isaacsson, Mirna Spritzer, Patricia Fagundes, Silvia Baelstreri Nunes, Suzane Weber da Silva; scholarly committee: André Carreira, Antonio Hohlfeldt, Florian Vaßen, Hans-Thies Lehmann, Jorge Dubatti, Luiz Fernando Ramos, Marc Silberman, Marta Isaacsson, Sérgio de Carvalho)
15th IBS Symposium, 25–19 June 2016, Oxford, UK, Recycling Brecht (organizational committee: Tom Kuhn, Charlotte Ryland, Hannah Vinter, Marc Silberman, Erdmut Wizisla; program committee: David Barnett, Stephen Brockmann, Stephen Parker)
16th IBS Symposium, 19–23 June 2019, Leipzig, Germany, Brecht among Strangers / Brecht unter Fremden (organized by the Centre of Competence for Theatre at the University of Leipzig; program committee: Gerda Baumbach, Micha Braun, Stephen Brockmann, Jeanne Bindernagel, Günther Heeg, Veronika Darian, Eiichiro Hirata, Patrick Primavesi, Florian Vaßen)
IBS CONSTITUTION AND BY-LAWS
As amended by membership vote on April 30, 1977 and March 9, 1985, and updated by consensus on May 19, 2010
Article I: Name
The Society shall be named in English “International Brecht society” (hereafter IBS), in German “Internationale Brecht-Gesellschaft”, in French “Société Internationale de Brecht”, and in Spanish “Sociedad Internacional Brecht”. The IBS is a non-profit, educational organization, incorporated in the state of Maryland (USA).
Article II: Objectives
1. The aim of the IBS is to encourage the international study of all aspects of Bertolt Brecht’s life and work and (modeling itself on Brecht’s own plans for a Diderot-Gesellschaft) the inter-disciplinary study of the interrelationship of the modern arts and society at large. To these ends the IBS will encourage scholars and scholarship of every political persuasion and without regard to national and traditional boundaries of purely literary or aesthetic study. The IBS will also endeavor to consistently encourage people working in the arts, particularly theater performance.
2. The IBS will specifically support the following objectives:
(a) To hold international symposia. A conference committee, in conjunction with the President of the IBS, shall make the necessary arrangements for the organization of these meetings. The President of the society will normally preside at these conferences.
(b) To publish annually a Brecht Yearbook, to be distributed without further charge to the dues-paying members of the society. The responsibility for the yearbook rests with its Managing Editor, who shall be assisted, at his/her discretion, by further editors or consultants. The Editor will be appointed by the Steering Committee upon recommendation from the President, and will be accountable to the Steering Committee for any IBS funds expended for the Yearbook.
(c) To publish a bulletin, Communications, to be distributed without further charge to the dues paying members of the IBS. Primary editorial responsibility for the bulletin shall rest with the Editor elected for this office.
(d) To cooperate, whenever possible, with the furthering of Brecht’s work at the Berliner Ensemble and other theaters.
(e) To support and contribute to the Brecht Archive in Berlin, and also to help in the establishment or extension of a number of additional major collections of Brechtiana in several widely separated geographical locations.
Article III: Membership
Membership shall be open to anyone upon annual payment of dues.
Article IV: Officers
The officers of the IBS shall be: a President, a Vice-president, a Secretary-Treasurer, and the Editor of the bulletin.
- The officers shall be nominated at suitable business meetings or by letter to the bulletin, and elected by electronic ballot vote of the membership, for a two-year term of office.
- Anyone already holding an office in the IBS shall not be simultaneously eligible for any other office in the IBS.
Article V: Committees
- The IBS shall depend increasingly for the furtherance of its aims upon such committees as the members may choose to form.
- Any ten members may elect a special interest committee.
- Each interest committee will elect its own leadership and have its own communications and meetings. It will report regularly to the IBS bulletin and at business meetings.
Article VI: Steering Committee
- The elected officers of the IBS shall serve as the general Steering Committee of the
- Among the responsibilities of the Steering Committee will be to integrate and coordinate the work of the various committees and to advance the agreed tasks of the IBS, making the decisions necessary to that end, and presenting all matters appropriate for vote to the membership, either by electronic ballot or at business meetings.
Article VII: Meetings
- Business meetings shall normally be held at each annual MLA (Modern Language Assn.) meeting and at such congresses as the IBS convenes.
- All official business shall be conducted either according to Robert’s Rules of Order or the national equivalent of these rules in the country where the official meeting is to be held.
Article VIII: Dues, Audit
- The right to vote and hold office in the IBS shall be contingent upon the annual
payment of payment of dues.
2. The annual dues shall include the following membership categories: Student Member (renewable for a maximum of three years) and Low Income or Emeritus Faculty Members;
Full-time Employed Members; Sustaining Members and Institutional Members (libraries, universities, etc.), and Lifetime Members (for retires only). The annual dues are to be paid to the Secretary-Treasurer of IBS upon notification each year when the Yearbook is to appear. European payments may be made directly to the society’s European account, the number of which is available upon request from the Secretary-Treasurer.
- Honorary members of the IBS, to be elected by a simple majority on a electronic ballot, are exempted from paying dues.
4. Annual dues may be changed by a majority vote of the membership.
- Checks on the account or accounts of the IBS may be drawn by the President and the Secretary-Treasurer. The Secretary-Treasurer shall report annually to the membership on the stewardship of IBS funds for the previous year. At the discretion of the other officers or upon request of the membership at large, the IBS may appoint a firm of accountants to audit the financial records of the society.
Article IX: Amendments
Voting on amendments of the Constitution and By-Laws of the IBS shall be by electronic ballot and will require a two-thirds vote of those responding to the mail ballot.
[Back to TABLE OF CONTENTS]
The Brecht Project’s The Private Life of the (Not So) Master Race
Directed by Susan E. Evans and Scott Munson
October 27-29, 2020
By Margaret Setje-Eilers
From Oct. 27-29, 2020, in three live online productions, Susan E. Evans and Scott Munson co-produced five new plays inspired by Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, spearheading a new venture they call The Brecht Project.
They called on five playwrights to reimagine Brecht’s playlets and a large cast of actors to play some familiar roles and many new ones. Susan came to Brecht with substantial experience in directing (including We Won’t Pay, We Won‘t Pay, Dividing the Estate, All My Sons, Eurydice, An Ideal Husband, The Skin of Our Teeth, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Sense & Sensibility, The Revolutionists, The Cherry Orchard). She had already co-directed eighteen scenes from Brecht’s Fear and Misery in 2007 with Eastenders Repertory Company, along with Charles E. Polly, the company’s founder. Ten years later, Susan, then Artistic Director at Town Hall Theatre, suggested to her colleague and past collaborator, playwright Scott Munson, that they update and re-envision some scenes in the play, setting them in the contemporary United States. They selected these five scenes, two written by Scott, and three others commissioned from other playwrights:
The Informer by Christine U’Ren (Inspired by The Spy)
I’m With Her by Scott Munson (Inspired by The Chalk Cross)
The People Upstairs by Scott Munson (Inspired by A Case of Betrayal)
Judicial Process by Reg Clay (Inspired by Judicial Process)
Judith by Denmo Ibrahim (Inspired by The Jewish Wife)
In the following two interviews with the co-producers Susan E. Evans and Scott Munson, conducted before and after their three live Zoom performances, they discuss this production and their open-ended creative model for future productions. For these Brecht-inspired scenes, their website confronts and posits an answer to the question: How is America today similar to or dissimilar to Weimar Germany?
Pre-Production Interview: The Brecht Project
Susan E. Evans and Scott Munson: The Private Life of the (Not So) Master Race
Interviewed by Margaret Setje-Eilers on October 20, 2020
Susan E. Evans: SEE
Scott Munson: SM
Margaret Setje-Eilers: MSE
MSE: First of all, let me thank you for talking to me today, and for producing this play The Private Life of the (Not So) Master Race. It is very exciting. Your website The Brecht Project aptly answers the question, why this play now, but I would also like to know, why Brecht now? Do you think Brecht in general is especially suited for these chaotic times?
SEE: I think that this play has been underestimated, frankly. I was reading an interview with Tony Kushner some years ago, and he’s a Brecht admirer, but he really doesn’t care for this play and was talking it down. To me, this is the first piece of documentary theater that is a real precursor to Anna Deavere Smith and Anne Nelson’s The Guys, the one about the twin towers, and even The Laramie Project. Brecht used real newspaper articles and extrapolated. Some of them are real stories, some are partial real stories, and that seems particularly apt today. You can’t make this stuff up! You pick up the paper and some of it seems as if it would be fictional. But also, I think for me stylistically, making a distinction between Brecht and, say Odets – because I directed Odets years ago, coming out of similar periods more or less, Brecht a little bit later I think, correct me if I’m wrong – Odets being so strictly agitprop, and Brecht is not agitprop, and the way he was able to take these little people, and make their stories, these tiny stories, extremely interesting and extremely simple, simple but complicated. To jump off from that, the piece that Scott did, “The People Upstairs,” which is one of the first pieces in Fear and Misery, “A Case of Betrayal,” it’s only about three paragraphs long. It’s very simple, but it covers a lot of ground.
SM: That’s true. I am a little hesitant to say anything because I spent the day at the Gettysburg battlefield, believe it or not, and the amount of mansplaining that I heard was horrible. Everywhere I went, there would be some guy saying, “Now, here is where Pickett charged on the left flank,” and some suffering spouse [Scott covers his ears with his hands]. Oh God, I feel like putting a Band-Aid on my mouth and taking a vow of silence for the next hundred years. But if I may speak a little, I think I always have been inspired and interested by Brecht and in this piece in particular because it seemed like he was trying to figure out what was happening, how fascism, Nazism, was impacting ordinary people, in a way that I find really liberating and non-dogmatic. I don’t feel at all reading Brecht’s pieces that he says, “Oh, these are the heroic workers, these are the bad Nazis.” You have the feeling that he is trying to figure out how people are reacting to this, and why they all have such complicated, mixed feelings. And I think in our plays we are trying to capture that feeling of ambivalence and uncertainty. What’s really happening, what’s going on, and how are we supposed to react? I find that really fascinating in Brecht’s works, and in these pieces in particular. They seem to be sketches, or essays in the old sense of the word, as an attempt at something, rather than completely finished, polished works of theater, and it is wonderful for living playwrights to take inspiration from that. Well, what if we take roughly the same kind of experience and the same kind of situation and apply it to our age, where people are very ambivalent and uncertain about what this means exactly? How are we supposed to behave? I find it inspiring and helpful to try to see it through Brecht’s eyes.
MSE: You’re right, he is extremely subtle. You have to read the subtext.
SM: Very much so, I agree.
MSE: The subtext is louder than the text, sometimes.
SEE: Yes, I agree. When Scott and I were envisioning this, the fact that there are no real boundaries to it, that we anticipate adding playwrights, I was thinking about this the other day, there is nothing to stop a playwright from taking the same piece that has already had one version of it, and having another version, not that they have to be one of the other twenty-four scenes. What you were saying, Scott, is really interesting because it didn’t get “finished.” Willett’s version has twenty-four, but he wrote twenty-seven plus. It was like they were outtakes or something, but he didn’t finish it. To be political about it – why now and why these pieces? – is that so many people joke about waking up in 2016 and saying, “I don’t understand how this happened, how did this happen?” To me, that particular kind of question, positing that, which was one of the things that Brecht was trying to deconstruct, this did not happen just out of nowhere. Hitler being in power did not just happen. One day we did not wake up and Hitler was in power. There was this whole confluence of events. I am always extremely reliant on my mother, who is a European historian. She specializes in German history, a little earlier than this generally. One of her particular periods was the 1860s to the early 1930s, before the war. I always get her notes. She’s about to turn 90. Her parents worked in Germany after World War II. She always told me that when she was trying to decide in graduate school what period of history to concentrate on, she was so struck by the question, being among the ruins where her parents were living, how did this happen – how did such a wonderful people who created Mozart and Bach and Beethoven, etc., and Goethe – how did this [fascism] happen? She said this was a question she felt compelled to answer. She went back all the way to the year 200 or something. She actually wrote a course called “The German People and How They Got This Way” or something like that, I’m paraphrasing a little bit. That to me is the crux of the play, that kind of unravelling of how you get to where you are. Another thing Brecht does so beautifully in not just this play but many of his plays, is the layers. There may be the anger on top, then the fear and then the misery. Digging down to what is underneath.
MSE: I have a wonderful quote that I’m going to read a little later. I want to save it. But first, Susan, you directed this play before, in 2007, with eighteen scenes, and now you are doing five. What is the most important thing you learned from doing this play in 2007?
SEE: Well first, I always like to give credit where credit is due. I co-directed this with Charles E. Polly, the founding artistic director of the company, so we split the chore because it is a big one, and we each took two of the larger pieces. He had “The Chalk Cross” and “Informer,” I did “Judicial Process” and “Jewish Wife,” and then we divvied up the small pieces. What did I learn? I actually have been thinking how my directing style was completely influenced by doing that in 2007, and I didn’t even realize – until going back to my notes preparing for this production – how much I believe in balancing entertainment and education. It’s something I’ve struggled with as an artistic director because I have board members coming back and saying, “People don’t want to be educated. They just want to sit back in the chairs and be entertained.” And then of course I have plenty of audience members who say, “No, no, we don’t want that. We would actually like to carry something out the door.” But it is a really interesting balance, and – although I am not a Brecht scholar – from what I’ve read, he really emphasized the importance of also entertaining people. So that influenced me in all of my further directing, that balancing, but also even more than that, I was trained as an actor in British technique, and the idea is we do not care if you are identifying with your character. You’re communicating something. And Brecht also really didn’t care about the level of identification or empathy that an actor was going to have. In fact, at the beginning it was like empathy could be a dangerous thing. And I have always kind of felt the same way. With my actors, whether I am doing Chekhov or Tennessee Williams or a very contemporary play, I don’t really need to know if they are relating to some event in their childhood. But I do want to know that they’re communicating the words and communicating the thoughts. And so, I took that from co-directing Brecht’s play in 2007, and I realized just recently that it has influenced everything I’ve directed since, as I talk to my actors. Because a lot of modern actors assume that it is an inside-outside philosophy, which I don’t have.
MSE: Well, then you are basically Brechtian.
SEE: I guess so. The last thing I directed right before everything hit the fan this year was The Cherry Orchard, and I think it is probably one of the best things I’ve ever done. You would think that that wouldn’t be applicable, but indeed it is. I use Brechtian exercises all the time. I had forgotten about switching roles and making the actors characterize their lines or speaking their stage directions, but going back to my notes, I said, oh yes, that’s where I got it. Brecht did that at all his rehearsals.
MSE: Did you choose these five scenes together or did the writers, the authors? How did you choose them?
SM: Oh, for this particular project, everyone looked at the Brecht original and decided what resonated with them. For this first production there was some sense of making it an evening, so alternating longer and shorter pieces, pieces that had a more overtly comic element to them, pieces with a larger cast and a smaller cast. Kind of like you are putting together any show of one-acts or ten-minute plays.
SEE: I think we directed a couple of the writers to certain of the short playlets, like Christine U’Ren, who was actually an actor in the original production of “The Informer.” I knew she is also a writer and siphoned her to that play because I knew she knew it so intimately. Reg Clay, who wrote “Judicial Process,” also acted in “Judicial Process” in 2007. He actually took a stab at another one too, but I thought he did a superior job with this one because it is his life. He works in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. He is really in this world. And then Denmo Ibrahim, we very specifically gave her “The Jewish Wife” to look at because we knew we wanted that piece to be in this production. I think the only one of the five core pieces we didn’t tackle this time is “Occupational Disease.” That was one of the first ones. So that might be the next. I already have a playwright who is interested in that one.
MSE: That brings up a question that I wanted to ask a little later on, but I will ask it now. You call this The Brecht Project, so are you going to add more scenes or more Brecht plays to The Brecht Project and continue to expand it?
SM: Very much so. That is the intention. This is the first draft, the first attempt. And I want to reiterate what Susan was saying, that if somebody else wants to look at “The Chalk Cross” for example and has a completely different take on it than I did, then more power to them. It is really an invitation to artists to start with a similar idea or situation, so you can see some connection with Brecht. But if they end up going someplace different, so that even that limited association can become really blurred, that’s fine with me, too. To me, it is mostly a jumping off point, a point of inspiration.
MSE: That leads me to ask why did you call it The Brecht Project and not The Brechtian Project?
SM: (laughs) I have no idea. Do you remember anything, Susan?
SEE: That’s a good question, I suppose. It made me think that in our past, among other projects that Scott and I have done with a couple of other playwrights, we have done festivals where we took an original piece and new playwrights riffed off of that, and we usually did a pun on their name. We did a Harold Pinter and we called it Pinteresque. So, this maybe should be retitled, The Brechtian Project. That’s true. It just sounded kind of crisp. Now that I know that there is another Brecht Project out there with exactly the same title, maybe we will retitle it.
MSE: You rewrote the scenes, but you didn’t choose a completely different title. You added parentheses: The Private Life of the (Not So) Master Race. That brings me to Brecht’s title, and what I wanted to say before, but I didn’t want to interrupt. The subtitle to Brecht and Bentley’s translation was “A Documentary Play.” And of course, Brecht is well known for his own adaptations, most famously The Threepenny Opera from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. There is a whole series of plays that Brecht adapted, like his Antigone from Sophocles. So, Brecht went merrily on his way adapting from other works, and even his title, so I read in Jamie Lyon’s article about Fear and Misery in the Third Reich in the Brecht Handbuch [edited by Jan Knopf and published by the Metzler Verlag] that Brecht and Bentley took inspiration for the title of the English translation from two other works: a 1930 play, the comedy Private Lives by Noël Coward and the 1933 film, The Private Life of Henry VIII with Charles Laughton [Lyons 342]. So, you are right in there with the idea of adaptation. Do you have any comments about adaptations? You said you have done this before, with Pinteresque.
SEE: Yes, we did it with a couple of them. We did it with Dario Fo as well, which was great. That one we called – that was most clever of all – Fo/Faux! That was quite brilliant (laughs). And I would like to say, and on the record too, because there have been a couple of questions about that: these are not adaptations of the plays. They are plays inspired by the other play in the sense that it is not Brecht’s text and it is not Brecht’s story. Some of the characters are similar. Some of the playwrights followed a similar arc and others went a little further afield. For example, the woman who was inspired by “The Jewish Wife,” her play embeds some of “The Jewish Wife” but in fact it is a very different story about a contemporary woman whose ancestor was the character Judith in “The Jewish Wife.” It’s very moving because she is addressing these things in her past and deciding what she needs to do with them. And how she has internalized a certain kind of refugee mentality in the present day. So, inspired by as opposed to adapting a play. Someone brought that up and asked, oh did you contact the Brecht Estate? We had discussed it and we had said, well no, these are new plays, they are all new plays. And the titles, we had lengthy discussions about that, but titles can’t be copyrighted. I think that is pretty hardline law. In fact, Scott, you were mentioning “The Informer.” There are a trillion things called “The Informer.”
SM: Right, the John Ford movie.
SEE: Yes, John Ford. Actually, “The Informer” was called “The Spy” in Willett’s translation. But I think that Christine liked the title “The Informer,” the sound of that, better. We liked Bentley’s title, although I read the Private Life of the Master Race and I didn’t care for it actually, because he picked and chose, and kind of rearranged things. I remember when we were looking at Fear and Misery, I said no, I really like what Willett has done and find that it is a lot more faithful to the nature of it. But I love the title, The Private Life of the Master Race.
MSE: Well, you know that the copyright runs out in 2026 on Brecht’s works in German and becomes public domain in 2027. In the US, it mostly depends on when the translation was published. But you have organized your thoughts around being inspired. So on to my next question, which is a little tricky. Your website explains: “ […] this play shows us how fear and intimidation can impact a society – how thought and action can become paralyzed in a fascist state – and it urges us to resistance and action.” So, my question is, is the US currently in a trajectory to become a fascist state?
SM: I’m not sure I am qualified to answer that. When I rewrote “The Chalk Cross,” I felt we are in a transitional phase, where all of the traditional rules of politeness that have informed political discussion vanished. I was looking at the Kennedy-Nixon debates just for fun and I was struck by how civilized they were, and everyone showed a measure of respect for their opponent. “Oh, those were some excellent points you made there, Mr. Nixon.” “Oh, Mr. Kennedy, thank you.” And then you contrast that to the screaming hissy fit that went on between Trump and Biden: “Shut up!” “No, you shut up!” It seems like everything is unhinged and uncertain. And in “The Chalk Cross,” which I’m calling “I’m With Her” it’s a Trump supporter who is reveling in the fact that everything is coming unwound. This anarchic… there is no politeness, there are no rules of discourse anymore. There’s just whatever you can get away with. Some people are energized by that, and they say, well, the old system was rigged so we couldn’t succeed, so we are going to create a new system, and we’ll see who comes out on top. I spent a considerable part of 2020 living in a trailer in the company of people who are somewhat of the Trump persuasion. I probably spent more time with people like that than most people in theater tend to do. It was interesting to see their points of view up front. They see themselves as being the victims and they are sick and tired of being victimized, and now they’re going to take control. And if you try to say, well gosh, there is something kind of crazy about that, they don’t hear you. They look at you and say, hey, are you one of them or are you one of us? And “one of us” means you are a white male, and it’s time for you to choose which side you are on, isn’t it? That’s the kind of environment I am curious about exploring because it struck me so vehemently. That has informed a lot of my writing. How about you, Susan?
SEE: Well, again, I am not qualified to speak about whether we’re going to turn into a fascist state. On the website you can read the first blog – and she has asked to remain anonymous – but this was written by my mother because I asked her to weigh in from a political and historical perspective about this, could this happen. And her response is: no, because politically our system is completely different, because of our systems of voting and elections. She said even Mitch McConnell, when pushed against the wall, is going to say: “I’m following the rule of law, the rule of our country and elections, etc.” Her response was that Germany did not have that system. Hitler was elected and all of a sudden he is an extreme dictator. But because our country is set up differently, her response is, no I don’t think it could happen. I like to believe that. Where I see the similarities is exactly what Scott is saying, the polarizing of race and class in this country, and there seems to be no end to it. And of course, if you have someone who is in a position of power who is aware of the potency of using polarization to get what he wants, that is where the similarity lies. I’m not sure if I would say it was Hitler as much as it might have been Goebbels who really caught it: “This is what I need to do to keep people afraid, to keep people hating the other.” If our leadership continues in the direction it has been going, that’s what is frightening because there will be more and more people in the government who are of that persuasion. I won’t call them fringe people because I don’t know if it’s fringe people. So, I don’t know if we will turn into a fascist state, but there are elements of fascism that have been happening, for sure, right?
SM: One thing that I would like to add because I have been driving across the country and I cannot begin to tell you how segregated we are politically in this country. I go through neighborhoods, and it is all Trump. If you thought OK, Trump is in the minority, nobody votes for Trump, then you drive through this neighborhood, and you see nothing but Trump signs. And just when you are ready to cut your head off in despair, you drive into another neighborhood and it is nothing but Biden signs. And the old environment where the next-door neighbor leans across the fence and says, “Well, you know I really believe in tight money policy.” “No, no, no, we have to have cheap money.” “Well, I disagree with you, but come on over and have a beer, and we’ll talk about it.” That’s gone. You have the feeling all the liberals are living here, all the Trump supporters are living here, and they are totally in their own bubbles, and there is no communication. Each side is looking at the other side like they are from Mars. When you work in theater, you tend to work with people with a much more progressive and humane point of view. And the old joke – “I can’t believe that Trump was elected. No one I know voted for him” – you can feel the truth behind that joke because I can’t tell you how depressing it’s been to see how segregated we’ve become politically in this country.
MSE: Well, I can’t wait to read you (Scott laughs) a section of John Willett’s notes to his translation from 2001 which includes some of Brecht’s remarks about Fear and Misery. When I read this to prepare for this interview, I was completely dumbfounded by how well Brecht’s description of Germany in the late 1930s fits the US today.
SM: Oh no!
MSE: I just want to read you a couple of sentences: “Undoubtedly the sight of Germany, our home country, has today become terrifying to the rest of the world: that is, in so far as the world is bourgeois, to the bourgeois world. Even among the Third Reich’s friends there can hardly be one that has never been terrified by Germany as it now is.” [Bertolt Brecht, Collected Plays, Volume 4, ed. by Tom Kuhn and John Willett. London: Methuen, 2001. 323] Brecht goes on to answer the question as to how barbarism in Germany is possible, and he argues against the idea that it has always been there in the German people. He continues, “They fail to understand that barbarism in Germany is a consequence of class conflicts, and so they cannot grasp the Fascist principle which demands that class conflicts be converted into race conflicts. They can keep their parliaments, because they have parliamentary majorities.” [Willett 324] And a little further on, he asks a question about culture: “Is it really possible that culture might become the ballast that has to be jettisoned so that this particular balloon may rise?” [Willett 324] I’d like to hear your reaction to this. I was just completely floored by the comparison – I mean my comparison – of Germany and the US today.
SEE: Again, I go back to my mom’s note because I don’t know as much about it historically, but people’s relations with each other and the manipulation of fear and both class and race are going to continue. Unfortunately, it seems to permeate humankind. Maybe I’m being cynical, but the difference is, as my mother was saying on our website blog (9/11/20), “the Weimar Republic’s Constitution was brand new and very unpopular […] The US has regular elections; in Germany, the Chancellor could call an election when he thought it was advisable – he was terribly wrong in 1932 when the Nazis won big. The new cabinet headed by Hitler was limited in what he could do – until he persuaded the Reichstag to pass the Enabling Act – giving him total power. I don’t think that could happen here […].” So that’s where the hope lies, that the governmental system, our government is not set up so you could have one man in power, and this could happen. In terms of the ugliness? Yes, what’s the difference? I don’t mean to be blithe about it. I was thinking about that poor teacher in France who was beheaded.
SM: Yes. It’s funny that you should mention France because my wife is French, and it is just taken for granted now that every presidential election will be between somebody and one of the Le Pens. A fascist candidate will always be in the finals, and so the question then is, who do we all have to line up? To the people in France, for example, Macron was seen as a total careerist. A Wall Street Democrat was how we would characterize him. A little bit liberal on social policy, but basically give the financial services industry what it wants. And so we have got to vote for the guy, and even in a country like France, which has far more robust left-wing parties than we ever had, it’s now evolved into “if it is Le Pen, you are going to vote for anybody besides Le Pen.” At the time, I know Americans were saying, that would never happen to us. Well, what have we got now?
SEE: That’s really true. Again not being a scholar in this area, but in terms of what Brecht was saying about class, Americans seem to have some strange conception that we don’t have classes in this country, when in fact, to me that is at the root of almost all of it. And yes, you are right, this very clever merging of class hatred and race hatred. When are we going to wake up and understand that there are classes in our country? I’m not saying anything particularly profound, but nobody talks about class in this country.
MSE: Yes, exactly. I want to go on now to ask a question about the scenes that you chose, many of which seem to deal with conformity, and how to adjust to threats in difficult situations. You don’t have to answer this question because I might want to interview you briefly again after I’ve seen your production if you agree. But I want to get the question out there. I wonder if the rewriting of the scenes has incorporated any resistance and opposition because there is very little in Fear and Misery and The Private Life, for example in Brecht’s “The Chalk Cross,” Scott. Maybe when the cook’s brother leaves, he is going to build more radios to distribute. We don’t know that. I wonder if everyone’s new writing deals with resistance in any way. Maybe just a yes or no answer is good, and I can talk to you again about this.
SM: I would say, yes.
SEE: I would say, yes, too, but with the proviso that I’ve been telling all the cast that the order of the plays is extremely important, just like in Fear and Misery. In fact, Scott, you are looking at one of the last two, which are some of my favorites of the scenes. First there are just glimmers of resistance, and then they grow, just a little bit, and just a little bit more. And so, we are not actually producing them in the order, but all these plays are in the first section really. Of the 5 pieces we are doing, “The Informer” is the last in sequence in Willett’s version.
SM: Yes, mine, “The Chalk Cross” and “A Case of Betrayal,” are really right at the start.
SEE: So that is my next thing I’m trying to commission with Scott. I want to inject that note more because I think that is important. It is there now, but as we expand, it is an important piece of the story.
MSE: Don’t give away too much, please! I just want to mention that the last scene of Bentley’s translation (and also of the play in Brecht’s Works) fits into our discussion. The woman in “Plebiscite” suggests one word for the leaflet of the plebiscite: “NO!” [Bentley 92]. And that is the end of the scene. That goes with your idea of progression toward resistance.
MSE: I also want to ask you to what extent you found it useful to incorporate Brechtian techniques into your new plays. By this I mean aspects like the narration of epic theater, the A-effect, in other words estrangement or distanciation – for example making something familiar look strange – and the unusual concept of Gestus that especially comes out in your play, Scott, “I’m with Her.” Well, I need to qualify that, since I don’t know if it comes out because I haven’t seen your version. It comes out in the German version, in Brecht’s “The Chalk Cross,” when the worker tells stories to show what could happen, and in showing the events he demonstrates attitudes and certain recognizable patterns of social behavior. Another example is when the SA man slaps the unemployed worker on the back, leaving a chalk cross that marks him as subversive. Is there room on Zoom for these qualities of epic theater, estrangement, and Gestus? Ways to keep the audience aware that they are watching a play in the theater, and space for social critique?
SM: As soon as you asked that question, I feel the ice cracking under my feet. Because with all of Brecht’s concepts and categories like epic theater, first of all I feel to a certain degree that it would be a little pretentious of me to comment on Brecht’s categories, and also I am not always entirely sure I understand them. There is something about his theorizing that I’m not sure I entirely agree with or connect to or completely understand. I love his work, and I sometimes wonder if Brecht the theorist and Brecht the playwright were completely in sync with each other. I’m not an academic, and I don’t read German, so I’m dependent on looking at translations and people who are fluent, and again I’m thinking of my wife because she is fluent in German. She would think it is hilarious if I would start saying, “Well, let me comment on this to you” (laughs). So, there is a certain uncertainty. Susan, do you feel more confidence in taking on that question?
SEE: It’s a hard one, but I also want to say…
SM: Am I weaseling out of this one?
SEE: A little bit, but first it is important to say that we are doing these as virtual performances, which is not where they want to end up. We want to do these on stage. But as a director, I use a lot of gesture work – I always have in my work – which I can’t use. The format doesn’t work in Zoom boxes. So I have to put that in another box for the next time. What you say, though, Scott is interesting. There is a real distinction. Brecht was not Stanislavsky. His theories were put together – Willett put that big book together, Brecht on Theatre – but Brecht wrote an essay here and an essay there, and twenty years later an essay here, revising the Organum. He didn’t have a theory like Stanislavsky, but people asked him to write down his theory. And that’s why I think it kept changing. It is really interesting to hear about Brecht the director because Brecht the director contradicts Brecht the theorist. You can hear him saying, oh yeah, you can empathize, but just don’t do it too much. Whereas you can read in the Organum you should never empathize, no actor should ever have any empathy. But then later on he is saying, well of course, you have to have some empathy for your character in order to play this part. He wrote about theory because he was asked to write about theory, not because he was developing a theory of acting.
SM: There is something I really connect with and empathize with, but I am not sure how you would categorize it theoretically or in Brechtian terms. If you are talking about a medieval theater troupe that comes to a town square and puts up a minimum of costumes and props and says: we are going do the play of “The Death of John the Baptist” today, and with minimal props suggesting this. Nobody actually believes you are John the Baptist. You are doing something that is commenting on humanity’s cruelty and the closeness of sexuality and death, in a way that is not subterranean, that is here for you to think about and discuss. We are totally committed to doing it. It’s not a cartoon – we are trying to do it as richly as we can, but it’s not like we’re pretending that I am John the Baptist, and we want you to forget that I am an actor and be fooled into thinking I am John the Baptist, because that’s television and movies. What I love about theater is that you can get into this kind of area. If that is what Brecht is after in some ways, then I am totally on board. But again, you’ve got to go easy, because I am not quite sure. Is that epic theater? I don’t know.
MSE: Well, I think those are definitely qualities of epic theater. You’ve just described aspects of anti-illusionary epic theater and the estrangement effect pretty well. Gestus is a little trickier, for example, showing a social attitude or class by using the body, like I said before, when the SA man slaps the worker’s back with his chalked hand in “The Chalk Cross.” The gesture demonstrates superiority and power relations – the SA man’s position in society – and opens him up to critique. It can show a relationship between two people, for example, the dominance or trickery in the slap. Or a single character can work with a prop in a way that shows a certain class or social behavior, an attitude. Like the fur coat – how the physician hands the fur coat to Judith in Brecht’s “The Jewish Wife.” It’s making actions observable to show how society functions. The end goal is social critique and change.
SM: I think Susan, you have a better handle on this. I’m sure there is a German word for this, Gestalt, is that the right word?
MSE: Well, Haltung. The German word for “attitude.” Externalizing a social attitude, showing a typical form of behavior, those are aspects of what is called Gestus, which is really an untranslatable word.
SEE: I’m not sure we will be able to explore that thoroughly until we are on our feet in real time with real people because to me that element is also expressed through the picturization of the entire stage picture, not just the one actor, but using the entire picture, as I understand it.
MSE: I could ask you instead for now, what common attitudes do you see in all the scenes that you selected? Besides fear and misery. What qualities do the characters show?
SEE: Paranoia. Paranoia is big. Of course, it is just the element of fear. Again, this is a little bit simplistic, but always in these there is surface anger. Sometimes it’s sort of trivial, like the dad saying, “Turn off the radio,” in our case, “Turn off the tablet” in “The Informer.” So he is irritated, he’s just irritated, but underneath is fear, underneath is always fear. They always tell you that in acting school too, that anger is never the end. There is always something underneath. So, that quality. There is also something that we have been exploring using a little bit of Brechtian philosophy because of Zoom, and that is the distancing of the narrator. That was one of the exercises Brecht used about having the actors characterize themselves. In Scott’s play – partly because we cannot physicalize some of the things that are in the play – we have created a kind of an omniscient narrator who is directing them, and they are acting out. And in “Judith,” she’s done something very interesting, which is that the characters are characterizing their own narration and/or talking about their partner and narrating not just their gestures but also their feelings. And so, you have this kind of stepping away.
MSE: Ahh, great!
SEE: Which, you know, I’m not sure we totally tackled, we’re going to still be exploring it, but it is really interesting. The actors are enjoying that aspect of going from saying “Judith sat down in the chair” to talking to someone, or to Stanley. She’s created other characters, but she’s got two stories going on, the story of Judith thinking about her grandmother, in which there are sections of “The Jewish Wife” and then Judith’s current marriage, what she is deciding to do there. But in all that we’ve come to this interesting use of the narrator or stage directions as becoming a Brechtian device. That’s been an interesting thing we are still working with. That’s most evident in “Judith” and in Scott’s play, “I’m with Her.”
MSE: That’s very exciting to hear. So Covid-19 has enabled something entirely new with theater – a new way to incorporate Brechtian techniques into Zoom. It seems like such a treat to see live theater, even if it is on Zoom. I’m so excited about that. I just want to add, you see anger and paranoia, and after reading what Walter Benjamin says in Jamie Lyons’s article on Fear and Misery, that everybody lies in the play, I noticed that as well. Benjamin even calls the lie the common theme of all the scenes, which fits so well in our political scenario today, and he also claims that the play shows how social conditions of terror force all relationships “under the rule of the lie.” [translation MSE: Lyons 347-348].
SEE: That’s a great quote.
MSE: Onto something else, you talked about Covid-19 enabling certain aspects of your production. Do you think that you are going to produce these plays post-Covid-19 on real stages? What do you see in the future? Because The Brecht Project does not have to end when Covid-19 ends.
SEE: Right. I’m just going to circle back, apologies, but I just had a thought. You asked about a common theme. One thing is choice. The characters have a choice. And that is definitely the other Brechtian thing, the if/then. If not this, then this. So, I have been talking to them about, think about the thing you are choosing to do and then the thing you are choosing not to do. That is something that runs through all of the plays, too. The characters are presented with a choice, and in some cases, it is left open-ended. “The Informer” is the great example. Did the kid inform or not? But in all of them, they all have a choice, and they are making a choice as they are working through the play. Yes, this play, for sure. We are going to do it in real time, right, Scott?
SM: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I was thinking of earlier when you were talking that we had the same actor in the early rehearsals of my play who played the Nazi in “The Chalk Cross.” He’s a really good-looking, charismatic, sexy guy. And he comes into his performance. He’s not some dumpy little dweeb who can’t get a date. It gives his fascism a much more sexual charge. It makes him in one sense repellant and in another sense attractive. I remember when you did the original, he was in “The Chalk Cross” when you did it at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley. There were Holocaust survivors in the audience. I’ve never seen anything like that production. That’s one thing I love about Benjamin – Benjamin Boucvalt is the name of the actor. He totally commits fearlessly to something. You know how actors will say, “You know, I’m not really a Nazi,” winking at the audience. “I’m really a nice guy.” He totally commits to, “If I’m playing a Nazi, I’m playing a Nazi.” The combination of sex appeal and danger and braggadocio and all those things really, really brought it over. And I think that only happens in a live performance. The physical intimidation when he stood over the smaller characters and said, “Do you want to make something of this? Do you want to throw it down right now?” Well, you do that on the TV screen, who cares? But when you see the actor is right next to the person and towering over him – Benjamin is a tall, strong guy – you can see why the character, you don’t need any dialogue like, “Please don’t hit me.” You don’t need any of that. As you say, the physical intimidation of it. It plays so beautifully on stage. [MSE: post-production note: Because Benjamin Boucvalt had internet connection problems during rehearsals, Craig Souza jumped in to play the Trump Supporter.]
SEE: We definitely have that goal, to expand it and do it live, post-Covid-19. And the other thing – and Scott and I haven’t delved too much into it – but I have always been fascinated with showing things side-by-side. So, it would be very interesting in some cases to perform “The Chalk Cross” and “I’m with Her” in an evening, and of course we’d pay the royalties for the Brecht one. To really show the changes, in “The Jewish Wife” and “Judith.”
MSE: That’s an idea! Yes.
SEE: That’s really, really interesting, to see how new playwrights have taken something and made it their own.
MSE: Yes, that would be excellent. I just thought of a question that I wanted to ask before. Are the actors all in different places, different locations? Or are they together in one screen Zoom box? Don’t tell me too much, because I want to be surprised.
SEE: You’re not going to see fancy things like people trying to turn and talk. We’re not going there. They’re clearly in different locations, however, we’re trying to make certain things look the same, the background, and they’ve got a certain amount of costuming and a modicum of props. But yes, they are all in their own locations. I really hoped at one point that we could stage it in one space, but it just didn’t look practical.
MSE: Zoom does have the advantage that the actors don’t all have to be in the same city.
SEE: It did enable us to connect with this actor from 2007, for goodness sakes. I’d lost contact with Benjamin, but Scott and Benjamin had kept in touch. Because I was kind of stuck on who to cast as the Trump Supporter. It is the SA guy in “The Chalk Cross,” and he has to be very sexy and charismatic and be able to embrace it. There was at least one actor who just said, who had Scott’s reaction: “I cannot do this. I cannot say these lines.” Because the Trump Supporter, if I can say this, has the exaggerated characteristics of horrible white supremacism. I mean, he’s a horrible person. There’s no question. Right, Scott? He’s not a good person.
SM: No (laughs).
MSE: I just had an idea, if I may interject. When you are on a real stage, you could project the Zoom version on a screen at the back of the stage, the way it has been done in Germany, in Berlin anyway. Frank Castorf did that a lot. He had a cameraman run around on stage, filming the production, which was simultaneously projected on the back screen, and then you could choose to watch the giant mediated, media-influenced, version, or the tiny live actors that you see on the stage in front of you. Of course, you look at the big screen. You could do that, reminiscing about Covid-19-productions, but with the live actors in front of the projection.
SEE: I don’t think so (laughs), I don’t think so, Peggy. There is nothing like directing actors in real time and space because there is a piece, there is an entire piece of the equation that is not the same, and that is the communication with the audience. The audience is the other part of the triangle. We’re missing a piece. It works to a certain extent, certain actors are better at using the camera and really relating to it. But it is still not the same as having them in real time with that audience member.
MSE: But in its current Zoom state, it certainly is true that your production challenges the restrictions of lockdown in the age of Covid-19: theaters are closed, cinemas are closed, the National Endowment for the Arts is endangered, so it is really a wonderful thing that you are doing. I’m so glad that you got this together and that it is open-ended, that it will go on. I think that will make all the Brechtian people happy. If you still have some time, I’d like to ask you about other plays you’ve done. Both of you have Brecht-influenced plays in your background. Scott, you did Dearest Frank Lights a Cigar, which I know nothing about, which is about Brecht’s life, and Susan, you already mentioned Dario Fo’s play We won’t Pay, which seems to be a hilarious play. And Dario Fo was strongly influenced by Brecht. I’d love to hear any comments about those two productions.
SM: Well, we worked on Dearest Frank together if I remember right. We did a reading of it in San Francisco a few years back. It was enough of Brecht’s life so that a Brecht scholar could see the connections. The element of the situation that I was most interested in was the way that at the same time you can be oppressed yourself by a larger political system, and then at the same time you can also be oppressing the people who love you and depend on you. So you are looking both ways, as oppressor and oppressee. There were certain elements of Brecht’s life and his relationships with women where I thought, we all want to see our creative heroes as being flawless. It also goes back to the mansplaining thing. It is really easy for guys to say, “Well, I’m the serious person here, I am the player, the one that counts.” I am going to visit Scott Fitzgerald’s grave tomorrow. I love Scott Fitzgerald, but I’ve been thinking about Scott and Zelda a lot, too, in that context. It’s so easy to say, well, he’s the one who’s the world-changing genius and she’s kind of off to the side… neglected… and so, the play was about trying to examine how it is very easy to fall into that way of thinking, and how toxic it is. I know we worked on doing a reading of it together. I actually don’t remember when. It was in San Francisco, wasn’t it? What was that theater called, the one on Jackson Street, do you remember? The Eureka Theatre.
SEE: Yes, in what was the Eureka Theatre. I intend to keep pushing you on that one. Dearest Frank, has it never had a full production?
SM: It has had so many near misses. The story of that play is that the dramaturge and the literary management say, “Oh, I love this” and then it goes to the person who signs the checks and they say, “This is so depressing and gloomy, I don’t want to do this. Can’t we do the Sunshine Boys?” “Plaza Suite! Let’s do that.”
MSE: Well, the Bentley translation has no mention that Brecht worked with Margarete Steffin, his collaborator, who collected the newspaper clippings – over a four-year period – for Brecht to work on. You said before the scenes were drawn from real newspapers and events in the news, and Margarete Steffin was the one who worked with Brecht on this, but she is not mentioned at all in Bentley’s translation [Samuel French edition].
SM: Yes, how many theater people could tell you who she was?
SM: We all know who Brecht was, but if you mention her: “Margarete who?” Unless you are a Brecht scholar. Most people, theater people – I’m not talking about people watching wrestling on TV, I’m talking about theater people – they ask, “Who?”
SEE: That’s true. There are so many writers that, when you delve into them, you really wish you hadn’t quite heard so many things about them. I don’t know why my mother knows this, but she said, did you know that Bertolt Brecht had the worst breath? Why do you know this? Well, apparently he did. Apparently it was absolutely horrendous because of the cigars. And he didn’t have any dental repair and he constantly smoked cigars. Why she knows this? I don’t know.
SM: How can I get these factoids out of my head?
SEE: Oh, you can’t, you can’t. She’s full of these little things. Dario Fo. Oh, I love Dario Fo. We did We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay. Oh my gosh, I would love one of these years to do Accidental Death of an Anarchist as well. That’s another brilliant one. He’s so funny, and then he is really not so funny. That’s what is interesting about Dario Fo. Funny in one way and so serious. We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay is about people starving, so they are stealing groceries out of the grocery store. It’s hysterically funny. But it is very reliant on physical humor. I don’t know, not much similarity. I’m trying to think about any similarity in directing the Dario Fo. Just in the social consciousness. This may seem like a side note, but it is not. Actors who do Brecht and actors who do Dario Fo, it’s a very particular kind of person. You don’t get a – and this is not exactly the word I want but – a dilettante. You don’t get somebody who is just walking in and just doing a play. If they want to do a Brecht play, they want to do a Brecht play because they are believing in something about what is being said. And that is really true with Dario Fo as well, I think.
SM: I agree with that, Susan.
MSE: They both have a real historical-social background. I read a little about the Dario Fo play, with the strikes and riots at the time.
SM: Yes, very much so. I love them both because they conceive of theater as being something other than just television without a camera. So many actors come out of schools now with so much of their training being camera oriented. And if you say, “Do you know how to juggle? Do you know how to dance? Do you know how to sword-fight?” They say, “I think that maybe they covered that. Gosh, eh, did I take that course?” “Do you know how to take a fall and not get hurt?” All these things that actors of an older generation going back to Shakespeare and beyond would say, “Of course I know how to take a fall. What do you think I am? I’m an actor.” Partly it’s a stylistic thing and partly it is just having some experience with it. I often find frustrating that when you deal with an actor who is talented and you ask them to do things, they say, “You want me to do what? I don’t know how to do that!” With the kinds of budgets and rehearsal schedules we typically have, you don’t have the time to train them.
MSE: I got to know a lot of the Berlin Ensemble actors from the GDR.
SM: Oh man, really?
MSE: That was when I spent a lot of summers with students in Germany, and I went to the Berlin Ensemble every night.
SM: Oh my gosh, wow.
MSE: Now many young actors at that theater use microphones without wires [microports], and the actors from GDR-times told me, we had voice training as part of our acting training at the Ernst Busch-Schule, the acting academy in the former east. So, we learned to project our voices, we don’t need these microphones, which are now used most of the time on stage. That’s just an example of the old way.
SM: That’s right on the money. That’s a perfect example.
MSE: Well, I’ve come to the end of my questions. I just hope that you will continue to choose and produce and direct Brecht’s plays. I’m excited to be seeing it on Tuesday, your opening night. Maybe we could have a post-production conversation about how you have changed these scenes.
SM: I’d be open for that. What about you, Susan?
SEE: Sure. We’ll wait until all three nights are over. (laughs).
SEE: All three nights. For sure. I’ve never been involved in a project where it hasn’t had a period to it, and that makes this all the more exciting. Scott and I know that our work is going to be intrinsically linked, I think. Right? We’ve talked about this. What that means, I’m not sure. And what The Brecht Project means, it is a lot of things, but he and I have always been on the same page about the importance of and what theater can do. It can have an effect so much beyond the immediate “take-away.” The breadth of theater is very important to both of us. And yes, the idea of the roving troupe that doesn’t need the bells and whistles but is able to go from town to town. That is something we have talked about with The Brecht Project as well, that it is not geographically bound. Even when we are live, I hope there will be productions of this and that all over the place. That would be our ideal situation. It is not limited by one space, one theater at all.
MSE: Well, that’s what Brecht said about this play in particular, that you could choose certain scenes or just one, and put them on in any kind of worker or proletarian setting and take what you have at hand for props. That is what he said about The Private Life, so you are in good company. I am so grateful to you and all your writers and actors for producing real live theater during the era of Covid-19. It is certainly an act of opposition and resistance itself. Thank you very much for all your comments. I hope my questions weren’t too difficult.
SM: No, it was really interesting. Thank you for your interest in this project. I really appreciate it. I look forward to chatting with you after next week is done.
SEE: Great. Peggy, I hope you enjoy it on Tuesday.
MSE: I am so excited!
SM: Good night from Rockville, Maryland. Goodbye, everybody.
SEE: Goodbye, thank you very much.
Post-Production Interview: The Brecht Project
Susan E. Evans and Scott Munson: The Private Life of the (Not So) Master Race
Interviewed by Margaret Setje-Eilers on November 17, 2020
Susan E. Evans: SEE
Scott Munson: SM
Margaret Setje-Eilers: MSE
MSE: Let me begin by saying thank you for talking to me about your performances of The Private Life of the (Not So) Master Race, this time post-production. It is the first time I’ve done a “before” and “after” interview, so this should be fun. I’m going to make a Brechtian announcement soon, but I have a few questions before that.
SM: Oh no, are we under arrest? Do we have a right to an attorney?
SEE: We did it, Scott, we did it! We actually made the resistance.
SM: They’ll put us into separate rooms and try to get us to turn on each other. (laughter)
MSE: No! (laughs) Before we get into that, what went on from day one to day three? Because I noticed a couple of changes. They were truly three live performances. For example, a little detail as proof, on day three I could read the Corona label on the beer bottle in “The People Upstairs.” (laughter)
SEE: The Corona bottle was always in the play. I said he’s got to be drinking a Mexican beer. It’s too easy a prop trick. He probably realized himself that he wanted to show the label. He’s a clever actor, so it was not any brilliance on my part.
MSE: I was trying to figure out if it was Corona or not before day three. I noticed a few glitches on day one, like the microphone was turned off in two cases. That was fixed. Did you have any catastrophes that we didn’t know about?
SEE: We had a near catastrophe, which you have with every theater project. I think it was the first day, the actress playing the cook and a couple of the voiceovers, Suzan Kendall, has some connectivity issues occasionally, and she did that day. And she vanished and had to keep rebooting. And so at least at one point she didn’t appear. I was on standby. I was waiting in the green room to come on as the cook, but they were able to get her back. I was sitting there, ready to go. “OK, I’m ready,” in case they entered me because that particular program has the ability to put you in a green room. We were texting back and forth because I could see that she had problems and had disappeared. And so they said, you better be ready. Come back on StreamYard in case we need to stick you in. But they got her back in. The format is new and sometimes challenging, and if we continue with it, there are some adjustments we know to make.
MSE: Oh, do you have a different program to manage the entrances and exits? That seemed to me to be very tricky. It’s my next question, actually. Who controlled all that? It seemed like it was very complicated.
SEE: Indeed, especially in Scott’s play. StreamYard, the program that we used for the production, allows someone else essentially to serve as the stage manager, who also happens to be probably the best stage manager I know, Michelle Hoselton.
SM: Yay, Michelle!
SEE: Yes, yay, Michelle. She was back there, she and also my technical director, Del Medoff, who was running the sound cues and title cards. In a way it functions more like a live stage show because you have those people basically in the booth. She was controlling taking people in and out, she was controlling their microphone access because in a couple of cases, a couple of the shows had voiceovers. She was controlling that. And that’s pretty critical because if an actor thinks they can control their own mic, they often either turn it on too soon, in which case all kinds of excess noise is going to come in, and interference. Or else they forget and don’t take it out, or whatever. She is very adept at that. And in Scott’s play of course, as people are popping in and out, she had it pretty carefully orchestrated.
MSE: Right, when I thought about it, I wondered who is the Wizard of Oz there? Great. The next thing I want to ask about is if you know that Brecht wrote short songs – it looks like poems – before each scene. It’s another aspect of epic theater that breaks up the narrative and it can comment on what’s going to happen. The songs are in the Willet translation, not Bentley’s. If you produce the Brecht plays, which I really hope you do, are you going to include the songs?
SEE: That is a really good question. And Scott, do you remember what we originally were going to do?
SM: Yes, vividly.
SEE: Because I wrote one. I used to write quite a lot of poetry, Peggy, years and years ago. Originally, I thought that’s what I would take on, the prefatory poems. I did one (laughs). I did the opening one, but we didn’t use it, and then I got distracted or what have you. I didn’t pursue that. But either myself or someone else – and Scott and I haven’t had this conversation – but that’s yet a different kind of way to get a different kind of artist involved, either a lyricist-composer, which would be fascinating, or else a poet, and get them involved in the project. That’s what’s so wonderful about this, I don’t see any boundaries in terms of the art form either.
MSE: Great. Someone I communicated with after the performances suggested that you might rap the songs.
SM: That might be fun.
MSE: I also wanted to mention that I have been reading about Gestus in Fear and Misery in the Third Reich and watching some of Di Trevis’s workshops online. I found that Brecht called this play a “table of Gestus” [“Gestentafel“]. Especially all the attitudes of being afraid, like the paranoia we discussed last time, turning around and looking, checking everything, being almost physically paralyzed with fear. You had a lot of that in your production. I wanted to make sure you knew that Brecht singled this play out in terms of Gestus in 1938. Last time you talked about having a narrator in two of your plays. You already lifted that curtain, so I knew about that ahead of time. It’s a major part of epic theater, interrupting the storyline, which keeps you aware that you are not supposed to believe that everything happening on stage is real life. As Scott said last time, it’s like the medieval staging aspect of setting up a space for acting in the town square. This anti-illusionary quality, which defines epic theater, Gestus, which defines the social dimension and suggests alternate ways of behaving, and the A-effect, estrangement, making something familiar look unfamiliar or strange – we know those elements are the foundation of Brechtian theater. Brecht’s Weimar Germany looked like the beggar scene in London in The Threepenny Opera, and in Mother Courage, World War II looked like the Thirty Years War. Now for what you’ve done: I noticed a lot of incidents in your production that took Zoom into a new dimension of estrangement. I think we can call this new variation the Z-effect, for Zoom.
SM: (laughs) I love that!
MSE: And this is my announcement: I think your production may have made Brechtian history because you may be the first ones to use this new type of estrangement. Zoom makes what is actually very strange and unfamiliar to first-time users – everyone in their little box – look familiar after we have gotten used to it after months of the pandemic, and now it has become the main way of communicating with several people at once. We know that everyone is in their own box and we can’t reach out and touch anybody or offer anyone a drink. But after this unfamiliar scenario becomes so familiar that we are used to it, and then someone actually looks like they are passing a piece of paper from box to box, and you see the paper in the other person’s box, that is what I call the startling Z-effect. Because it crosses the boundaries of this familiar setting and makes it strange again, and you think: “Oh no! How did Liang pass the piece of paper – the birth certificate – in “Judicial Process?” Now that I know you used StreamYard and not Zoom, I guess we could call it the S-effect, but I like the Z-effect more, from the A-effect to the Z-effect. Or, Susan, did you use both StreamYard and Zoom? You managed in quite a few cases to transgress the limits of the boxes. I think those were some of the most interesting moments. Like the arm wrestling in “I’m With Her,” Scott. Did you think of this as a Brechtian device?
SEE: Actually – I’ll jump in, Scott – We actually used Zoom for rehearsals and then a program called StreamYard for the performances. First, I always want to give credit. Kimberly Ridgeway, my assistant director, who is also in a couple of the pieces, specifically said, I want to learn about Brecht from you, but I can help you with Zoom, because she has already directed a number of pieces on Zoom. She is the one who said, particularly with pieces of paper, if you are passing it – (Susan demonstrates how to pass the paper). She was able to instruct the performers about that particular technique. Other things I think I came up with or the actors came up with: the arm wrestling [“I’m With Her”], going for the tablet when they dropped the tablet in the first piece [“The Informer”] and they both dive to the floor to get it and he picks it up. Generally, it’s this idea: I’m passing to you and it’s always screen-forward and then the other person pulls it back. Or giving the kid the money [“The Informer”], which I believe was also Kimberly’s idea.
MSE: Can we practice that? So I learn how to do this.
SEE: Sure. You hand it to me. Go from your chest. Hand it that way. No, forward. Straight ahead.
MSE: Ah, forward.
SEE: And then I pick it up.
SM: That’s right. It’s nicely coordinated, so it seems like it is falling out of your hand and it’s coming into hers.
MSE: Do I quickly pull it back? Or I drop it?
SEE: It disappears. So if I’m handing it to you, I go like this.
SEE: I give it to you, so you see it and then it goes under. And if I’m picking it up – I pick it up.
SM: As the person watching, it only matters to me if the image is no longer in the first person’s screen.
MSE: Let me try it again.
SEE: (laughs) So you pull it down out of screen, and then I pick it up.
SM: Exactly. It’s just coordinating that little split second. It’s quite fun!
MSE: It’s not very easy!
SM: Oh, it’s just like everything else, you just need a little rehearsal and then you get it down.
SEE: Exactly, it is one of these little tricks. And some of the things the actors came up with on their own. But yes, we coordinated the bits that we decided were important to have some kind of physical action that we could do in them, and that’s one small one. You know, it’s interesting about the alienation effect. I mean, I did think about it quite a lot because I find Zoom very alienating, mostly because of eyes.
MSE: Right, I see that I am not focusing on anything.
SEE: And actors know, to be looking at the screen, they are looking at a space, oh I don’t know, about a quarter inch – does it look like I’m looking at the screen right now?
SEE: OK, I’m not. I’m looking a third of an inch under the green dot [the camera].
SEE: That’s the trick. You don’t look at the green dot, you look just a little bit under it. Again, this was something Kimberly assisted me with understanding. Then it looks like I’m looking directly at the screen. Anyway, the whole kind of interaction of the recipient of a Zoom performance and the performer and then the person who is actually in the scene with them, as I described it to the actors, that to me seems like a loop. A loop situation versus when you are in a theater, where everything is happening simultaneously. The actors are interacting on stage and the audience is there. Everyone is in the same picture, in my boat. But on Zoom it is not. It’s a kind of loop effect.
MSE: I guess it is different for the actors, just looking under the green dot, but now I’m trying to look at both of you on my monitor screen, and that skews it.
SEE: That’s right. You do not look like you are talking to us because you are looking at us on the screen. It you look at the dot, or right under the dot, you’d look like you are actually looking at us. So there you go! That is somewhat of a divorcing effect.
MSE: That is one thing that I didn’t even think of.
SEE: I will tell you one other trick, and if I pursue these on Zoom, I would do it with each of the plays. But we were only able to do this exercise with the shortest piece, Scott’s “The People Upstairs.” Because it was so short, we had the time to do it, which was turning off the camera of one of the actors, so that that actor could see the reactions on screen of what they were saying, much like a live performance. And then they reversed it, so that the other person could be talking, but off camera, and not be looking at themselves, but be looking at the other person, and just see reactions. And that was really useful.
MSE: The camera is a dimension I didn’t consider at all.
SM: You are the German person, so you have to make it longer than just the Z-effect. That is too short. “Zoom, effects of which are felt by others as they listen to you.” Make it at least a fifteen-syllable long German word. Because we want to make this real.
MSE: But it is short in German, the A-effect is the V-Effekt in German! I want to get back to what we said before. The term alienation is out. Estrangement is in. It has been renamed in the Brecht world, estrangement or distanciation. It’s still called the A-effect for short. In spite of Willett’s term, the Brecht people decided that what happens is not alienation. It’s not alienating anybody. That was not really the right word to describe what goes on, or not a particularly good selection way back when Brecht was being translated into English.
SEE: I agree. I read actually a different word, now I can’t remember. For me, I’ve always thought of it as a distancing effect or an objectivity effect versus a subjectivity effect. Not alienating, it’s not that you are alienating the audience, it’s that you are allowing them more objectivity.
SM: Exactly. I think that’s right.
MSE: That’s a good observation. But anyway, it is called estrangement now, not alienation. And you did it so well, but you didn’t overdo it. If it is overdone, you are not going to have that reaction, “Oh, wow, how did that happen? Those are Zoom boxes!” Now I would like to ask certain questions about each play. Is that OK with you?
SM: Oh, absolutely.
MSE: Good. Here goes. Even though the theme was quite serious, “The Informer” staged the Z-effect almost as a kind of slapstick because of the Echo. The Amazon device appears in the boy’s screen first. Later, the mother grabs it, puts a pillow over it to quiet it, and then it appears again in the boy’s box – and I don’t know how it could just pop up again – and the father shouts at it from his Zoom box, when it starts talking about active shooters, “Will you shut up?” And then it stops talking. (Susan laughs) How did it hover there on the boy’s screen? I have no idea how that happened.
SEE: (laughs) It’s the magic of technology! I found the image – I captured the image – and sent it to my technical team Del and Michelle. We were able to isolate the image. Oh, and Kimberly assisted because you have to make the image appear in a certain place. I don’t know how to explain this. A kind of transparency issue with the image, so that it appears correctly in the box, so you have to make it that kind of image. Kimberly helped with that piece. Everybody was involved with that, but mostly my technicians. And then we decided it was so perfect that it popped right in. We had made a conscious decision, or I had made a conscious decision. We wanted the boy’s space to be visible throughout. Because we could have taken it out. We could have had it be just the mother and father talking. But we wanted to have his empty chair there, and the doors there throughout. It was maybe just serendipity when we first put the Amazon device there: Boom! It appeared in the space of the boy. That was perfect. But yes, once again, that was Michelle and Del. I don’t remember which one of them was controlling the images, but one of them was doing that on cue, and bringing it in as a character. And then we had the actor as a voiceover brought in. They were brought in, but their camera was off, doing the voiceover.
MSE: That was so astonishing. Woah! The startle effect, a true Z-effect. And the dollars transferring from the mother to the son to go buy his tea. I missed that in the first two nights with my notetaking. I watched all three nights, and I thought it was new on day three. That was the first Z-effect that really caught my attention and got me thinking. I realized that something fascinating is going on here that needs attention, my attention. That was just brilliant. Also, there was an old phone on the wall. Is that just in the actor’s apartment?
SEE: Yes. (laughs)
MSE: Because I was trying to see if it played a role, since one theme is communication, or the lack of real communication. And the last thing about “The Informer” I would like to mention is that I really enjoyed looking at the gap in the door. That was sort of where my attention was, in the center of the screen. When the boy comes back, he closes the door. He also could have left it open a little bit, as if it were his habit to leave the door open, and maybe he did go away completely, and he was not listening at the door.
SEE: I think part of that was technical because he was actually listening for his cue, which is why it was ajar. But I think we also liked the gap. We asked them to darken the space behind because it was a nice visual.
MSE: It was perfect, powerful.
SEE: Yes, it was. That was a tricky bit. The sound was not quite right until the third performance. We were having trouble because there was a lag, if you noticed, in his speech, the last few lines. We finally got that right, but that was very tricky, and don’t ask me what caused it, but we figured out a way to lessen the lag. I told the young actor, who is a remarkable young man, remembering back to when we did the Brecht, I don’t need to know whether you informed or not. That’s your decision. I don’t know whether he did. I don’t know what he decided.
MSE: That’s a good idea, that you had him make a decision as to whether he informed or not. I thought it might be good if we were left wondering whether he listened for a bit at the door or not, so we think, maybe he didn’t listen at all, but he did or did not go to inform on his parents if it is just his habit of leaving the door open. He came back with the bubble tea, so he did go to the shop. Just a thought. Now, on to your play, Scott, “I’m With Her.” The Hillary sticker “I’m With Her” surprised me, since I connected it to the Trump supporter’s relationship with the waitress at first. Maybe I should have figured that out earlier. I wonder, why did you choose that sticker, Scott?
SM: Well, I was looking for an equivalent to the target in “The Chalk Cross” where he literally draws a cross on the guy’s back, so the SA can identify him. I was thinking, what would be the equivalent of that? In both the Brecht piece and in my piece it does bring up the question, if you start to think about it realistically, what, he is not going to take his jacket off? Or are they going to knock him off as soon as he walks out the house? And I kind of had the same feeling about the Hillary sticker. As soon as he notices it’s there, he is going to take it off. To me, the more telling point is when he says the line, “It is like these guys have a target on their back.” You can just tell. I think in the future– we can talk it over, Susan – I would suggest just dropping the physical nature of it and keeping it completely metaphorical. “It’s like these guys have an “I’m With Her” sticker stuck on their back. You can tell who they are for.” I would just go with that. I love that Brecht is always asking you to question what’s happening on the stage. But I don’t think he means to question a bit of physical business as to whether or not it would work in the real world. That also brings up the issue that now Biden has won, and that in January we have a new president inaugurated, I wonder about the whole thing. Is the play supposedly in a historical setting of 2017-2018, where it is unclear who the next president is going to be? Or do we just want to rewrite it and have the character say, “OK, you guys won this one.” It’s something I have been brooding over because I think if you are a Trump supporter you can take much comfort in the fact that there wasn’t a blue wave. It wasn’t a tidal wave of Democratic votes. If you want to subject yourself to reading the rightwing press, you can see they have already constructed a stab-in-the-back myth. It’s like the German army in 1918. “We didn’t lose. We were betrayed by the liberals.” They’ve already got that going. It took them about thirty seconds to come up with it. I’m wondering if in further productions of the play I would want to move it to a post-Biden era, because most of what he says is still valid: “I think the books are cooked. I think you guys cheat.” The whole paranoid worldview very easily survived this election, the feeling of, “Well, yeah, you know.” I don’t want it to be dated, I don’t want to set it in 2017. I want it to feel like it is mine.
MSE: You could have the Trump supporter be an election denier.
SM: Yes, exactly. He doesn’t have to be a Trump supporter, although in my moments of real paranoia, I think that in 2024, Trump’s going to be back.
SEE: I want to jump in on two things. One is the sticker and the cross issue because I actually think the symbols are important, whether it is the sticker or the cross.
SM: Oh, OK.
SEE: They are actually a distancing device because if you parse it out, you say, oh that’s not realistic. Well, to me, that’s not the point. The whole play isn’t realistic. That’s one thing. So, Scott, what I would – and Peggy, you have to know that Scott and I have not talked since the production was over (laughs). We haven’t decompressed or talked about how we felt about it. I’m always trying to put little things into Scott’s brain. So, here’s what I put into your brain, Scott –
SM: Oh, no, no, no!
SEE: Get ready, get ready! No, I would not rewrite it, I would write another one. Chapter one, chapter two. Because there is a continuation here, the element of Trump the winner and Trump the loser, or whatever. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, if you guys can bear with me for one second, because I was visiting with my mother recently after the production and she handed me her folder of notes on the definition of fascism – which have been very enlightening. I’m trying to process all of it. One thing she says: “Trump is not a movement. Trump is not the leader of the movement.” He’s been to me an opportunist who has bought into the white nationalist movement. That is a movement, unfortunately, but he’s an opportunist. It’s not like he has created this movement. He says, “Oh, I’m going to get these people from here – these people who’ve been living under this rock, and I’m going to get all this hatred and energy and I’m going to be the opportunist that sails it, sails that on in.”
SM: Oh, absolutely.
SEE: So, I don’t know. I’m going on about this, but I think that there is a good reason to have a chapter one and a chapter two.
MSE: A fascinating idea.
SM: Let’s talk about that further after I have a chance to brood on this a little. It is not just the right wing. It’s funny because Susan and I both ended up being in opposite ends of Virginia at the same time. Were you in Virginia when the election actually happened?
SEE: Oh yes. I was in Trump country – Charlottesville is a bit more liberal, well, a lot more liberal. Wise, Virginia, where I was to start with: total Trump country, total. Wise county was 80% for Trump.
SM: I’ve noticed it too, Susan, when I’ve been driving around. Virginia was truly a battleground state. It depends on where you are. When I was in Richmond and Charlottesville, it was very Biden, and then, you’re right, I was driving in some of the more rural areas, I thought, everyone’s voting for Trump! It was so dramatic. I’m going to have to brood some more about this. It also brings up the issue about the A-effect because there’s an expression – I grew up in Hollywood, I was born in Hollywood, and they have an expression – “It took me out of the movie.” That’s a bad thing because movies are supposed to totally capture you and make you think you are on an alien planet, and blah blah blah – so, if something takes you out of the movie, it’s a bad thing. That is Hollywood speak for the A-effect. But there are ways – when it takes you out of the movie – that you are supposed to think about it and not get absorbed in it.
MSE: Well, I think Brecht’s A-effect had a final objective – when he staged the familiar Weimar Germany as a strange version of London for example in The Threepenny Opera – his goal was bringing the spectators to realize that what seems unchangeable about the world is really changeable, so that the audience members realize that they can change their own world. But about the sticker, I had an idea what you might do.
MSE: Why couldn’t you use BLM, Black Lives Matter, or POC, People of Color, or BIPOC? Because that is more about this election.
SM: I love that idea! I think that is much better.
MSE: And the resister – the brother – could have had the sticker on his back the whole time, and then turned around before he left. The narrator says the sticker is there, but he could actually show us. He does not turn around, but he could. He does not get up, he just stays there, I think.
SM: I really like that for a couple of reasons. One, it gets to the racism, which I think is really at the heart of the issue. It isn’t Democrats versus Republicans. It’s white supremacy. And the other thing is unless we have the unlikely event that white supremacy goes away in the near future, it’s not like an election. Black Lives Matter is going to continue to be an issue for as long probably as I am alive. You wouldn’t have the feeling that it is dated. I’ve been thinking about that all day today, Susan, just this whole issue. I read the article that you sent us, that Jeremy O. Harris is doing this exact show and is starting it in 2015. [Jeremy O. Harris announced in an interview with Variety on Nov. 13, 2020 that he was writing an adaptation of twenty-three scenes from Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, which will probably be performed at New York’s Lincoln Center. His play, Fear and Misery of the Master Race (of the [sic] Brecht) will take place from June 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy for US president, to November 2016]. And there is part of me that was thinking, well that is cool, but is that really what we want it to be? Something that has such a fixed place in history, as opposed to something that is fear and misery in America that has very little to do with who is in the White House at that particular moment.
SEE: You can also look at the original play in Fear and Misery, for example, called “The Old Militant” in Willett’s translation, the scene where the man who hangs himself in the shop window, which I guess was based on a true story. It’s dated in the sense of the sign saying, “I voted for Hitler.” But is it dated in that we don’t understand it and can’t completely relate to it? No. So there’s that. I believe that Denmo Ibrahim, who wrote the last play, “Judith,” set it a couple of years in the past, which might not have been evident from the production. But that was important to the playwright, not to set it in 2020. She wanted to set it a few years ago. It’s an interesting thing, but I understand wanting to make “The Chalk Cross” or “I’m With Her” completely contemporary. It’s unfortunately all too relatable, even though we are supposedly in a different set of circumstances. Well, we are not. Seventy million people voted for Trump.
SM: And if you say places like California that have large populations overwhelmingly go for the Democrats, and if you take those votes out of the equation, you see in the other 48 states, it’s pretty much fifty-fifty. And it’s really been drummed home in me by traveling. The other thing is: this is all individual decisions by individual playwrights. Jeremy O. Harris’s production of Fear and Misery in the Third Reich in New York is going to be informed through one person’s point of view. That reminds me of our original mission statement, that if somebody wants to take one of these plays and write and set a play in 1232 medieval France, knock yourself out. There is no rule about what it should be or what it should look like, aside from the fact that it should have some starting off point or connection point with Brecht’s work.
SEE: Thank you for clarifying that, Scott, because it is really important to the origins of our entire project. Indeed, not just the setting, but we would both agree that if somebody took one of the plays and stylistically made it more of a parody or completely torqued it out into a different style, that’s fine, too. I would find that fascinating, right?
SM: Also if someone wrote in another language, if we contacted people in France and Germany or Italy or Spain. If people wanted to write things. It doesn’t even have to be in English.
MSE: Oh. Well, I’ll tell my German friends.
SM: Please do. I would love that.
MSE: Back to your “I’m With Her,” I first thought you were going to have the setting in the 50’s or 60s because of the photo of the diner and then the music, “How much do I love you,” that seemed old, too, so I was open to what kind of time setting we were in until I saw the Trump supporter. I have to say that Craig Souza did a really good job of jumping in for the celebrated Benjamin Boucvalt. Congratulations to Craig.
SM: Yes, he did a remarkable job.
MSE: The arm wrestling and the high-five between the resister brother and the Trump supporter were Z-effect moments for me. There was also the A-effect, estrangement, because the narrator says they clink glasses and they don’t even have glasses, or the narrator says the two guys kiss, and they do not kiss at all. It was the contradiction: the narrator tells us something is happening, something rather stereotypical, and it doesn’t happen at all. Brecht loved contradictions of text and image, or lyrics that don’t fit with the music or the action on stage, so they lead us to think critically. I also noticed that with the cook plunking down the plate in front of the bus driver and placing it nicely for the Trump supporter, the plate – the simple object – reveals the cook’s social behavior, and it is the way we observe what she thinks of both of them. Also, the cook’s ballet-like arm dance for Trump. That’s Gestus. Craig Souza also had an intimidating and arrogant posture, leaning back in his chair. And the waitress handling the pencil, putting it in her mouth.
SM: I think it was her pencil for writing the orders.
MSE: Right, it was the object that showed her flirtatious character. The waitress and the Trump supporter both had ear buds. I didn’t really understand that. Was that just a sign that they were connected? They both wore what looked like their iPhone ear buds.
SEE: That was the only way they could connect technically to the sound. It was purely a technical choice. In their respective spaces, it was the best sound. Now the narrator, that was a very conscious choice. We were asking her what kind of headphones she had, and when she pulled out these white ones, I said yep, that’s it. You look like you’re in the booth of a football stadium calling the plays. And I said that’s exactly what we want: “I’m calling the plays, and now here I am.”
MSE: Yes, they were huge. That was a great power prop. Now, moving on to “The People Upstairs,” I thought now they are in two completely different rooms because there is the husband with the water boiler or water heater in the background and the woman is in her kitchen, and they talk to each other as if it is one room. I thought it was a good Z-effect because it seemed like one space. I guess you could have the water heater in the kitchen, but it seemed like his basement.
SEE: No, I think that is part of their kitchen, and I loved it because when he introduced that space and she was in her space, I actually thought it was – it looked to me like one room. I felt like it was a cohesive space. I think that is in Gene’s kitchen [Gene Mocsy]. I’m not sure, but I think it is.
MSE: Were they in one space on the Zoom?
SM: No. He’s in Berkeley Oakland, isn’t he? And Carolyn [Doyle] is in San Francisco.
MSE: Oh! Very clever, then. So, it is not clear if he will leave or not in the end and go to the police station.
SM: That’s also true to Brecht, I think, if I remember right. You’re just not sure what he is going to do.
MSE: The dialectic at the end – the typical example is Mother Courage, when she says she has got to get back into business again. You know that is the wrong thing for her to do, and the audience must decide on their own whether to view her critically. In your play, you gave us a little more of a hint that he might go. But maybe not.
SM: That’s the feeling I had, and correct me Susan, if I’m off base here, but that’s the feeling I had. He’s kind of standing there with his, I’m half out the door, but I am still half in the room, and I’m not sure what to do. I don’t think he has any illusions that this is going to do any good.
MSE: Yes. And it was a nice touch that she was discovering how these neighbors were like her, with her finding the Bible.
SM: That came from being here in the South, the feeling about being a Pentecostal. I went to an exhibit on my way east – I forget where it was – but I had never known that there had been really vibrant Protestant Church missionary movements in Mexico. There were Mormons and Pentecostals. You tend to think of Mexican Christianity as being Roman Catholic – that’s what he says, “But they’re all Catholics.” And you realize, no, there were lots of missionary movements.
MSE: That was a good idea. The Pentecostal Bible was the equivalent to the jacket in the Brecht play.
MSE: Next, I would like to talk about “Judicial Process.” I thought using ICE was an excellent way to present this material today. The A-effect, the estrangement, was so strong that I kept thinking, this piece is Kafkaesque. The rhythm of the piece – the judge becomes more and more flustered and confused. The actor did that very well.
SM: I totally agree. He played the bottom out of that part. It was Tom Reilly, right?
SEE: Yes, Tom Reilly was the actor. I worked with Tom on many, many plays. Most recently he and a number of these actors were in The Cherry Orchard, in a very different kind of thing. He played Firs, the old servant in The Cherry Orchard. And Tom used to practice law. He’s no longer a practicing attorney, but he definitely gets the whole thing.
MSE: Absolutely. And each further piece of evidence gets discredited. If you think of Gestus in terms of an object that reveals social behavior and interactions, that’s what the various pieces of paper in this play did for me. And the effective Liang [Sharon Shao], the defense attorney for Arroyo, used her legal props like her pen and pad of paper to show us her power. The way she held these objects, combined with her body posture – self-assured compared to the judge’s flustering, misplacing and waving the papers around.
SEE: Actually, she is the prosecutor, not the defense. That’s the weird thing about this case, is that you can’t tell who is being prosecuted and who’s defending.
MSE: Well, she was prosecuting against ICE then.
SEE: Yes, and it is significant in the language of the investigator. Actually he posits that the storeowners who have been beaten up are actually the ones on trial. I forget which word he uses, but he turns it around. They are actually the plaintiffs.
MSE: ICE is on trial, right? Oh, I thought she was defending Arroyo.
SEE: She is prosecuting ICE. I’m parsing it out. Yes, she is representing Arroyo for the people, yes. That actually was an interesting touch. I think I told you that Reg, the playwright, works for the DA’s office. And he made a suggestion at one point. He said, I know an attorney who – I don’t know whether it was to intimidate people – would come in and sit there and she would write down everything that the other person would say, as a tactic, to make them nervous. And so I suggested that she try that, and I think it is true.
MSE: Exactly. That was what I was calling her Gestus. Plus, all the paper going back and forth, and passing the birth certificate. I have to practice that again (laughs). And you have a lot of humor in there with the cleaning lady who tells it like it is, and the discussion about who is the U.S. Attorney General and nobody can remember who it is now. What I loved was the last visual. It was so perfectly wrapped up with the music, “This land is my land, this land is your land,” and the image of the empty courtroom after all the talk about how the courtroom is just overflowing with ICE people. That was a really effective Brechtian move because we see that nobody is there except us. It is like we are there, all alone. One voice says, “All rise” and another says, “You may be seated.”
SEE: There is a voiceover that Kimberly did of announcing the name of the case, the Honorable Judge so and so presiding. She announces the name of the case and introduces the judge. Then it is Tom Reilly’s voice – the judge’s voice – that says, “You may be seated.”
MSE: The effect is brilliant, the empty courtroom at the end, the gaping emptiness, like looking into the judge’s mind. That image sticks in my mind. Now on to “Judith.” It was very complex. And it looked like one space since they both had black backgrounds. Were they actually in one space? How did they do that? Did the program StreamYard do that?
SEE: No, they were in different spaces. We made a decision for that play in particular that we wanted a black background because of the way it looked, the visual, and what it did in that play. Damaris [Divito] who played Judith had a black background, and we brought something to Tim [Holt Jones] so that he could hang it, a black background and produce the same effect. That was a physical thing that they put up behind them. The last image where she has the black coat – again she just happened to have this black fur – her disappearing, almost disappearing into the picture was a very beautiful image to me.
MSE: Absolutely. I almost thought the last bit was a movie. This play especially would be enriched by having Brecht’s original play side by side. All of them would be, but this one in particular because of the in-depth changes. And when Judith’s grandparents suddenly appear near the end, I think I could take the shift to the ancestors – when Stanley puts glasses on and suddenly we hear a German accent – in two different ways. It could be a citation of Brecht’s play or it is something that Judith does to work through her decision.
SEE: It’s a citation. It’s a memory. It’s one of the Proustian moments of the objects. I talked to them a lot about the Proustian moment, the madeleine moment. Well, not a lot, but I talked to them about how an object can be not just a remembrance, it’s more than a remembrance. It takes you right back to the immediacy. Because she is going through the objects, the scarf and the jewelry, and actually the apple and other things from Rosh Hashanah, these take her back immediately to that moment. So these are flashbacks of a kind.
MSE: I thought of this moment as helping her work through her decision. Maybe my interpretation is off, but it seems like Stanley is really in her way. He forgets Rosh Hashanah and invites his friends for cards. He tells her not to feel guilty about throwing these things away, where I say, what’s wrong with memory and tradition? He is also playing what I think is an inappropriate game with the scarf, asking her does this bring you joy? “No? Well, into the donation box.” It seems like Stanley is showing us how insensitive he is to her.
SEE: This is an interesting question. It’s definitely a conflict in the play, and it is a conflict in the observer. Do you believe in the benefits of keeping the objects and “never forget, never forget”? But there is also the conflict of the refugee mentality, sitting there in that space and not moving forward. That play in particular will go through some changes because she was commissioned last in this project, so she was kind of catching up with the rest of the playwrights, and there may be some changes, in particular in the interpretation of Stanley. I know that one of the last notes she gave me was that she wanted to make sure it was clear that they do love each other. He’s a good husband. They have a good marriage.
MSE: Oh! I have him down as bordering on horrible.
SEE: (laughs) But there are resonances of the husband in “The Jewish Wife,” who is questionably not a good husband. So yes, this is a play that I think we will perhaps change a bit and that the playwright is still exploring, that relationship – in particular the contemporary Judith and her husband, as we were, too.
MSE: There were two quotes from the Brecht play. One was when Judith says, “What’s a future if you don’t know the past?” It seems that she was in conflict with herself when she talks about the trap of the past.
MSE: She really does not know how to react. Keep or get rid of – and wearing the coat seems to be the magical way to make her decision that the past is worth keeping. That’s how it seemed to me.
SEE: I think that the contradiction is a good one. Again, I always have to preface by saying I am certainly not a Brecht scholar, but from what I do understand, he relished contradictions.
MSE: Oh yes, that’s right.
SEE: And so there is a contradiction there. She is giving away these things, but she is keeping the coat. She is conflicted about remembering in the sense that she does not want it to keep her from living her own life, and not understanding what the purpose is, and on the other hand, she definitely doesn’t want to forget. It enriched her life, it enriched her mother’s life. It’s important to remember, but she is conflicted. I think Denmo carried that contradiction right there to the end.
MSE: That’s certainly true, yes, but Stanley – I’m not sure of him. In terms of the narration, it was very good to have them both narrate and read the stage directions in the third person and also have them speak in the first person. That was Brechtian distancing and interrupting of the narrative. I think that also influenced me against Stanley. The narrator says Stanley kisses her, and he doesn’t. He just munches on his apple and honey. It is a Brechtian move, the contradiction, but I didn’t think he was a nice person.
SEE: Well, no, no. As I said, this is a play where we are still solving some things and thinking about some things. That is one of them, that relationship. Who is Stanley?
MSE: I didn’t have this strong a feeling about the physician husband in Brecht’s play. Stanley seemed to have more demerits. Maybe because the physician in “The Jewish Wife” just comes in at the end. And the quote from Brecht’s play, when Judith says in her monologue: “Yes, I know I’m being unreasonable, but what good is reason in a world like this” – Brecht’s Judith talks about people’s attitudes in the political situation, her packing and leaving as “unreasonable,” but I think she is being smart. Judith’s decision to keep the coat is not really that reasonable. There were a lot of moments that confused me in “Judith.” But the transfer of the scarf and the one black space, those were well done Z-effects, since we are used to seeing separate boxes. It seemed to me at least that they were living quite disconnected moments in the play even though the spaces were united.
SEE: That did work really well in that play. Again, embracing the confusion and contradiction was part of the point. I felt that when I was directing “The Jewish Wife.” There are contradictions in that play. She is conflicted and presumably he is, although he doesn’t say anything, he lets her go. There is a kind of a tired old Tennessee Williams play – Scott do you know this play, Something Unspoken?
SM: I’ve never even heard of that play.
SEE: It was written in the 40s. And it perhaps has a somewhat lesbian undertone to it, the something unspoken. But that’s the name of the play, all that is unspoken. “The Jewish Wife” has a lot of that, what is unspoken.
MSE: That’s right for Brecht’s play. When the physician hands the coat to Judith at the end he demonstrates his weakness, his complicity – Gestus. He is not resisting in any way. And he uses the word “spineless” to describe the neighbors. And though he says it is for two or three weeks, he knows she will need the coat for much longer.
MSE: Thinking of all your plays together now in this virtual live production, they were connected not only by the fear and the misery, but also with the estranging Z-effect that anchored them in the Brechtian world. I hope you do follow up and produce the original Brecht plays. Each one of the new plays would benefit. Maybe you could put a summary of each one of Brecht’s scenes in the program – if it is live on stage.
SEE: Well, again, Scott and I eventually – soon maybe – will have a big discussion of next steps. What’s so interesting is that there are so many ways that I can see putting things together and taking them apart. That’s the wonderful thing about them, putting them with the Brecht originals, but different combinations. It’s nice to have a project that’s open-ended like this. It’s unusual because theater usually does have your beginning and your end, but I don’t see why.
MSE: Congratulations, you’ve really added to the Brecht world.
SM: Well, thank you.
SEE: Peggy, I want to say, and I think Scott would concur, if you know friends and colleagues who would like to be involved in the project, as writers, as whatever. We really want to be inclusive and expanding. We want to get the word out about it.
MSE: Thank you for agreeing to have these two conversations with me, pre-production and post-production. That is quite unusual.
SM: Thank you. It has been delightful, and I certainly hope this isn’t our last exchange.
SEE: Yes, me, too. Goodbye, thank you very much.
Innocent Bystanders? Brecht’s Subtle Fascism in Trump’s America
A Review of Fear and Misery in the Third Reich by The Brecht Project (directed by Susan E. Evans and Scott Munson)
Zoe A. Welch
University of Puget Sound
The recent English-language adaptation of a selection of Brecht’s 1938 playlet collection, Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, by The Brecht Project (dir. Susan E. Evans and Scott Munson), which ran from October 24-27, transposes glimpses of daily life under the Nazi regime onto life in Trump’s America today. With five scenes pulled from this collection, The People Upstairs (inspired by A Case of Betrayal, written by Scott Munson), I’m with Her (inspired by The Chalk Cross, written by Scott Munson), Judicial Process (inspired by Judicial Process, written by Reg Clay), Judith (inspired by The Jewish Wife, written by Denmo Ibrahim), and The Informer (inspired by The Spy, written by Christine U’Ren), this adaptation draws on the chilling parallels between Brecht’s depiction of Nazi Germany and modern-day America. While some scenes are more successful in this than others, this adaptation (which uses a slightly modified version of the alternate English-language title of Fear and Misery, the rather pointed The Secret Life of the (not so) Master Race) tackles the very same questions that Brecht did in his original: how did the Third Reich come to pass? How do individual actions (or inaction) allow the regime to thrive? How and when will the resistance manifest itself?
Performed as a livestream in what resembled a Zoom-style meeting, the production naturally eschewed most aspects of traditional theater in regards to props and staging. This hindered the emotional impact of the scenes surprisingly little—it took a moment to generate the suspension of belief needed to connect the actors’ disparate Zoom backgrounds with characters meant to be in the same room together, but the characters interacted smoothly. The actors delivered solid performances that made the most out of their small range of visible movement. While most of the performances didn’t suffer from the medium, the only one to really take advantage of it was Judith, which with the help of a dark backdrop and strategically dramatic lighting almost made me forget I was watching a stream at all.
The alternate English title of this production (“The Secret Life of the (not so) Master Race”) is a variation of the title used by Eric Bentley in the first English translation of Fear and Misery (“The Private Life of the Master Race”). Its use in a modern English-language production is a noteworthy artistic choice in and of itself. The assertion that the characters in the play are part of the so-called “master race” is an explicit acknowledgement of their involvement with fascism—that the actions of everyday people uphold systems of oppression. The addition of the “not so” is also a significant choice. It suggests that reactionary politics in America have become something of a laughingstock, belying typical American assertions of greatness with clumsy and contemptuous grandstanding. At their best, these scenes expose signs of fascism that are all too easily passed off as a quirk of daily American life. For the most part, with the exception of Judith, the setting of each episode is vague enough that each could be happening in Anywhere, USA. Given the short runtimes of the scenes, this is a smart choice. Much like in the original, these are stories that have probably happened a thousand times over, in a thousand different ways.
The playlets draw on a cast of characters just specific enough for the audience to immediately identify as a modern American archetype. While some are pretty obvious—the militant social justice warrior, the grinningly misogynistic Trump supporter, the “bro”-type liberal with big ideas but no follow-through—some are more subtle. Given the natural limitations of the Zoom format, these characters are really where the production shines. Tom Reilly’s character in Judicial Process, a bumbling, seemingly well-meaning, likely centrist-Democrat judge who doesn’t seem like a bad guy, per se, but is more concerned with his retirement than the real-life consequences of his rulings, is a familiar type to many of us with tax-obsessed older family members. Brecht has many such characters, in Fear and Misery as well as other works like The Chalk Circle, who straddle the line between innocence and culpability. Judith’s dismissive husband recalls the concept of the Mitläufer—someone who goes along with the status quo as an act of self-preservation or apathy. It’s a potent figure to evoke in the context of modern-day America. How liable is the average citizen for the ideological splintering of the country? Is “not being one of the bad guys” enough?
Ironically enough, the weaknesses in the production tend to lie with these same “bad guys.” At times it felt as if hot-button topics were being shoehorned in to manufacture relevance to contemporary life. The Informer brought up a scattered variety of tech references and current events that did not always line up with each other, although the clumsy understanding of social media and its consequences may have been a conscious choice on the part of the writer to emphasize the technological illiteracy of the parents. I’m With Her, the adaptation of Brecht’s Chalk Cross, was extremely provocative and successful in its portrayal of white outrage and violence, but the scene often felt like it was trying to juggle too many issues at once. The antagonistic character of the Trump supporter escalated wildly from just a guy with some scattered racist opinions to a card-carrying Nazi rapist at the end. That’s not to say that those characters are unrealistic or unconvincing, but it seemed like the character morphed to fit the issue of the minute, and there were a lot of minutes. Bold but inconsistent, the scene might have been served better by an antagonist with less changeable beliefs. Craig Souza’s performance was stirring and convincing, however. Despite the issues I’ve highlighted, I found I’m With Her to be viscerally frightening in its most intense moments.
Much like the other strong positive characters, the most compelling “bad guys” were more understated. The irritated man in The People Upstairs, who appears at first to be intolerant to the extreme, wavers and backtracks when confronted with the very real, very human consequences of him calling ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) on his neighbors. The audience isn’t quite convinced that we should forgive him, but he seems… remorseful, at least. In The Informer,the Big Brother-esque surveillance state that causes two seemingly rational adults to completely collapse down a conspiracy-laden rabbit hole is invisible but made threateningly present and relevant through the up-to-date references that the audience immediately recognizes within their own lives. The production shines in these aspects—the subtleties of how fascism worms its way into our structures of though, how it bleeds through the edges of “normal” life until it is too late to notice. It brings Brecht’s original point bluntly to the audience: fascism does not just live in military parades and ethnic cleansings. It lives in our everyday lives, in the things we see, the things we accept and allow.
While it may seem like a step too far to describe modern-day America as a direct analogue to Nazi Germany, this adaptation manages to reveal some darkly striking parallels between the two. It makes the audience sit back and wonder just how much of what we consider to be the unremarkable but inevitable realities of American life are actually symptoms of encroaching fascist ideologies. You walk away wondering if there is truly such a thing as an innocent bystander, and if not… what does that make you?