TABLE OF CONTENTS
- BB in Context: German Studies Association (David Dunham)
- Panel Series on Brecht, Race, and Capitalism’s Global Crises: German Studies Association (Elena Pnevmonidou)
- Baustelle Brecht: “Wohnen in der leeren Mitte” (Matthew Hines)
The New Threepenny Opera at the Berliner Ensemble: A Collaborative Critique
By Matthew Cornish, Brigitte Jirku, and Marc Silberman
As chance had it, in fall 2021 the three of us found ourselves together in Berlin, and each of us had the opportunity to see and reflect together on director Barrie Kosky’s new production of Die Dreigroschenoper at the Berliner Ensemble, which – after nine months of pandemic-induced rehearsals – finally opened on August 13, 2021. Silberman saw the performance on September 3, Jirku and Cornish both on October 16. The comments below render our collaborative effort at comparing notes and bouncing ideas off one another. All quotes below are from the beautifully composed photobook The Threepenny Opera. Making of: Barrie Kosky stages Brecht/Weill at the Berliner Ensemble, with photographs by Jörg Brüggemann and texts by Marion Brasch and Juri Sternburg. Translation into English by Jan Caspers. Leipzig: Spector Books, 2021.
(p. 2): “In format, typography, and appearance this new book references Brecht’s original Model Books, but its intention is quite different from its historical counterpart. In Jörg Brüggemann’s photographs, the eventual performance is afforded the same space as the rehearsal process, the labour of the theatre. To allow the reader to distinguish between the journey and its destination while turning the pages, images of the rehearsals are kept in black and white, while images of the performance are printed in colour.”
Marc: It was an impressive performance with a couple surprises for me. It must be difficult to come up with a new production of this “classic” at this particular theater, the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm that became Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, after the wildly successful 1928 premiere, the critically acclaimed GDR production, the long-running Robert Wilson production (which some of us found boring!), and now this Barrie Kosky version. There were significant changes to the text and staging, but of course, there is some controversy about what exactly the text is because of last-minute changes in 1928 and later alterations and various versions Brecht produced, including the filmscript “The Bruise” [“Die Beule”] that Brecht produced for G.W. Pabst.
Brigitte: Obviously there were ghosts haunting the rehearsals, but also the pandemic seemed to haunt the rehearsals, with the opening twice being postponed. This long journey with an unusually extended pre-production time was able both to shake off the ghosts and to refine the scenes, stripping things down to the essentials.
Matt: I too felt the Dreigroschen ghosts when I arrived, riding my bike up Schiffbauerdamm and pulling into Bertolt Brecht Platz, with the neon spinning “Berliner Ensemble” sign above the theater. All these Dreigroschenopers! Still, when The Moon over Soho (Josefin Platt) stuck her sparkly, turquoise head out of the curtain to sing “Die Morität von Mackie Messer,” I felt those ghosts dissipate, or at least take their seats at the back of the house. Kosky, the guest director from the Comic Opera a few blocks away, did not seem disturbed by them. He went fully show-biz, full “Komische Oper” at the Berliner Ensemble.
[p. 110: Barrie Kosky (Director)] “We don’t just want to do ‘another’ Threepenny Opera, rather we are trying to find an altogether different theatrical form. With surprises. A Threepenny Opera that makes sense in today’s world, both musically and scenically. It takes courage, ambivalence, uncertainty – it’s a huge risk, but that’s a good thing. We are not trying to compete with the production of Robert Wilson, who has a very unique theatrical language. The challenge for us is more about the history of how Brecht was received and the fact that this is a flawed masterpiece – an ‘imperfect’ work of theatre.”
Brigitte: Due to health regulations the audience was asked to arrive an hour before the scheduled beginning to check our vaccination status and tracking information. This provided ample time to read the extensive program presented on cheap newsprint: “ein Groschenblatt für 3 Groschen.” “Ein Missverständnis” [a misunderstanding], “Der falsche Schein” [deceptive appearances], “Einsamkeit der deutschen Stadt” [loneliness of the German city] are only a few keywords that stand out.
Marc: Well, after waiting in line for at least 20 minutes to get through the “hygienic check-in,” what with the sold-out house, I didn’t have time to read the entire “newspaper”! But it is full of interesting photos and original articles, among others by the Dramaturge Sibylle Baschung, by our IBS colleague Patrick Primavesi from Leipzig, and short interviews, e.g., with a Berlin prostitute who comments on the rationale of the whore Jenny’s double betrayal of Macheath and why it makes sense.
The production’s focus is really on the songs and their music, which made for some striking disruptions and insights because the music is sung to emphasize the songs’ irony and the contradictions they establish between reality and the characters’ illusions about it. This, I would say, is how Kosky worked most clearly in bringing The Threepenny Opera to life in a new and compelling way. The small orchestra was excellent, seated in the pit, not on stage, yet the actors “interacted” with the orchestra members during the performance).
[p. 110: Barrie Kosky (Director)] “…as the director, I see the architectural shape of the evening – it’s a rhythm of music, light, movement, and images. It has nothing to do with text, but everything to do with music. For most directors, The Threepenny Opera is a Brecht play punctuated by a few Weill songs – not for me.”
Brigitte: Yes, the musical director (Adam Banzwi) and the orchestra members became an integral part of the performance, they were in between, “on stage” and at the same time part of the audience, and the singing voices of (almost) all the actors were great. The moment the lights went down, the orchestra launched into “Die Moritat,” I felt the opera coming to life and myself being part of the performance. Audience and actors were united by the orchestra, which was taking on multiple roles throughout the performance, drawing the audience into the play and at times establishing a clear distance. From the beginning, the “4th wall” had been broken down. No beggars, no gangsters on stage, instead the audience took on these roles, like extras invited to speak and to participate, yet held afar, invited to reflect. Here sensual, sensory experiences and not the intellect caused the estrangement of the Verfremdungseffekt.
Marc: Indeed, there was a consistent “breaking down of the 4th wall,” a convention that has been pretty much deconstructed on the German stage by now. For example, in the wedding scene, none of the gang members are on stage (to whom Polly sings), nor do we see stolen furniture and food; instead we hear only the dialogue about the party spoken by Polly (Cynthia Micas) and Mack (Nico Holonics) directly to the audience, who assume the role of the gang members. And when Polly sets up her bar and sings the “Pirate Jenny” song, she actually points to one or another of the audience in the house to ask her a question or respond, which they did! and the audience clapped, as did Jenny/Polly! Moreover, the reduction of props – there are basically no props in the entire show, except the noose at the very end – extends to Peachum’s remarkable description of the beggars’ costuming in five different designs. No mannequins or shabby clothing on display, just Peachum standing in front of the abstract stage set consisting of a scaffolding.
Brigitte: Kosky conceived The Threepenny Opera as a big-city ballade of the isolated individual [“Großstadtballade des einsamen Menschen”]. The stage design consists of a steel scaffolding of interconnected yet separate cubes of different sizes through which the characters move, unite, and yet are ultimately alone. Their only vis-à-vis is the audience, though not in the sense of a connection but as a mirror – these are the moments when the orchestra pit signals distance, keeps the audience at a distance. On a visual level the stage does not allow for compassion or hate. It signals that the motives of all the characters are personal interest, a desire for the spotlight. The moral of the play? All the characters are ultimately alone. Love seems to be a connection but reveals itself as another business transaction representing bourgeois/capitalist values. What momentarily unites them are personal interest and needs.
[p. 69: Rebecca Ringst (Stage Design)] “This is about people who can’t form relationships, who are always looking for something but never get anywhere, and who inhabit a world in which they have to sell themselves constantly. Everything is a business. Emotions are merely feigned. To put it bluntly: ‘everybody is a whore’… We ended up with the brightly lit cubicles in which each figure sits isolated. But that in itself was too simple for us in terms of a structure, and so we linked it to the idea of a labyrinth, a labyrinthine rat’s burrow that we observe from the outside… The steel scaffolding is complemented by the sequin curtains. The fabric of dreams. Which helps to “sell oneself” and to “present oneself” to great effect.”
Marc: I was surprised at Mrs. Peachum’s characterization (Constanze Becker), younger than I usually have seen her (although Mr. Peachum is played by the older actor, Tilo Nest) and portrayed as a lascivious, half-naked woman who needs sex, and even tries to seduce Macheath at one point!
Brigitte: Exactly. This function of “love” is also visible in the figure of Mrs. Peachum, dressed always and only in a luxurious fur coat. Sex translated as love and greed made her an equal counterpart to her husband as well as to the whore Jenny (Bettina Hoppe), standing alone and defending her interest in business transactions. Most entertaining and revealing in this respect is the competition between Polly and Lucy (Laura Balzer). The colorful costumes underscore each character’s part. The blocking or choreography ties Peachum and Macheath together within the abstract scaffolding in a unique way and, yet, signals Macheath’s superiority: He has no equal, moved by his narcissistic charisma (the rings on his fingers will be a legend in this staging) or the evil character of his honesty.
Matt: I agree, Brigitte, that Kosky leaves the characters isolated, and that that’s our moral here – amid the sizzle of love, money, business, sex, and song, the actors are left standing apart from one another on the scaffolding, in their own tiny cells. A bunch of individuals, and no community. What’s the bread they need? das Fressen vor die Moral?
[p. 34: Dina Ehm (Costume Designer)] “The Threepenny Opera always seemed strangely rigid to me. Barrie, however, liberates the play from its moralism. All he’s concerned with are the characters and their ambivalence; he homes in very closely on the individuals, on their relationships, and their stories. And he brings a comedy to it that I had never seen in the play before.”
Marc: Nico Holonics as Macheath creates a kind of punk-singer image, younger than one usually sees in Threepenny productions. Brecht described him as a “sober citizen” (“ein gesetzter Bürger”). In fact, the entire critique of art, love, morality, and laws as commodities is crystalized in Holonics’s characterization as a narcissistic “star,” whose value goes up and down depending on the conditions (“die Verhältnisse sind so”). I thought this was a great idea and especially relevant for today’s social media, influencers, movie stars, etc. Although I thought he rendered the songs well, I didn’t like Holonics’s nervous, errant embodiment of the character.
[p. 114: Sybille Baschung (Dramaturge)] “And it is not only Brecht and Weill who play with certain musical and theatrical forms, with certain ideas of romance or justice – time and again, the characters in the play also let it be known that they are involved in a play and that they are very much aware of this; and yet they can’t seem to stop deceiving themselves. What does this have to do with the conditions in which they live? How are viable relationships supposed to develop under these conditions, on a personal as well as on a societal level? For me, that is still the relevant crux of this play.”
Matt: Unlike Marc, Holonics’s performance very much worked for me. He made himself ugly and desperate: punk, yes, sexy, yes, but – especially as we got to the second and third acts – always despicable.
Brigitte: For me, I understood for the first time why women fell for Macheath – the jovial gangster who uses everybody stands out even in the scene of his hanging (Holonics floats over all those present), bringing a unique depth to his character, to the point where I sensed a “charisma of evil” in him. This is most remarkable in the scenes with police chief Tiger Brown (crossgender-cast with Kathrin Wehlisch). The genderbending in these scenes opens new dimensions in their relationship of interdependence. The irony and comic moments, perhaps even a Charlie Chaplin “palimpsest,” open the play to further subtexts. The music underlines the dissonance and dissent in an ironic, I would even call it cynical way.
Matt: Where Kosky failed for me, and it isn’t really his fault, was with the third act. The dramaturgy of Dreigroschenoper has always been unsatisfying for me. We reach a kind of culmination in the “Second Threepenny Finale,” after Mack is betrayed, caught, and escaped. We’ve heard the Pirate Jenny (here with too much music theater dazzle and too little cabaret danger), the Cannon Song (Wehlisch as Tiger Brown snarls her lyrics like a trapped dog), and the Jealously Duet in which Micas as Polly and Balzer as Lucy square off like boxers, holding each other close just to punch each other harder. Then there’s the intermission, and… the play continues, with the same action as before. Kosky spices up the end somewhat, hanging Macheath by the neck until he dies. There’s a long pause before Brown announces the clemency, and huge neon letters reading “LOVE ME” descend from the fly loft. Mack, stepping into a new, clean suit, looks like a politician or a banker. It’s flashy and fun and unsettling, but the action that precedes it in the third act is plodding and repetitive. We’ve seen all the tricks already.
[p. 112: Barrie Kosky (Director)] “Brecht can only live on if you allow him to be adapted. Of course, we want to honor him, nobody wants to stage a bad Brecht. But theatre thrives on new ideas and a new perspective…. Brecht and Weill’s work is ingenious. It’s interesting and quirky and new and ambivalent and incredible. But you have to dust it off and see what’s there.”
Marc: Well, maybe, Matt. From a critical perspective I too noted that the idea of an episodic structure for the epic theater was erased as the scenes pretty much bled into one another. The big interruptions were the songs themselves, often with special lighting or clambering around on the scaffolding to “visualize” the tension/attraction between actors. Nonetheless, the audience was really enthusiastic (me too) the evening I was in the theater, reacting quite a bit during the performance with laughter and with clapping after the songs; and there were endless curtain calls.
Brigitte: I agree. The actors on stage and the audience transmitted enthusiasm and joy, and the laughter, clapping, and endless curtain calls were proof of it. This is not the moment to pick up the “original” text and compare it to the evening’s script. Kosky and the ensemble have achieved a stellar performance, brought Brecht/Weill and The Threepenny Opera into the twenty-first century.
Matt: Definitely! This Dreigroschenoper will play for years, and it deserves to. It will haunt whoever comes next.
Information at the website of the Berliner Ensemble (accessed November 25, 2021)
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Bertolt Brechts Keuner auf Latein. Eine Erweiterung des Leserkreises?
Von Matthias Kubitz
Bertolt Becht: Fabulae de domino Keunorum. Ausgewählt und ins Lateinische übersetzt von Matthias Kubitz. Norderstedt: book on demand, 2019.
Ich bin nie ein großer Bertolt-Brecht-Leser gewesen, habe aber ein reges Interesse an seiner Kurzprosa gehabt – und mir bis heute erhalten. Das mag darin begründet sein, dass ich generell eine größere Motivation hatte und habe, kurze Texte zu lesen als lange, aber auch an dem lehrreichen Charakter der Keunerfigur, der mir sehr zugesagt hat.
Die rege Lesetätigkeit der Prosa Brechts wurde im Studium der germanistischen Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft neu entfacht, als ich einen Kurs über Kalendergeschichten (und Brechts Kalendergeschichten im Speziellen) besucht habe. Dort habe ich meinen ersten von wissenschaftlichen Fragestellungen geleiteten Blick auf Brecht bekommen. Dies hat dann etwas später dazu geführt, dass ich an der Universität schon als Student begonnen habe, einen ersten kurzen Text zu Brechts Geschichte “Maßnahmen gegen die Gewalt” zu verfassen, an dem ich zusammen mit meinem Professor Lutz Hagestedt in Rostock gearbeitet habe. Eine Publikation dieser Schrift steht zurzeit noch aus.
In der Zwischenzeit haben mich die Gedanken zu den Keunertexten nicht losgelassen, so dass ich recherchiert habe, ob man diese auf Latein übersetzt lesen kann. Bis zu meiner Publikation ist das nicht möglich gewesen. Mit meinen Lateinkenntnissen, die ich mir durch Ablegen des Latinums während meines Studiums angeeignet habe, habe ich dann eine kleine Auswahl an Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner ins Lateinische übertragen. Vorbild dafür waren mir von anderer Seite übersetzte bekannte Texte wie Wilhelm Buschs Max- und Moritzgeschichten oder die Asterix und Oberix-Comics. Das umfangreichste Werk neueren Datums in Latein ist nach meinem Wissensstand der erste Harry-Potter-Band.
Die Keunergeschichten haben neben der reinen Übersetzung für Interessierte an der lateinischen Sprache auch mein Interesse geweckt, da aus didaktischer Sicht die Kürze der ausgewählten Texte als geradezu ideal für den Lateinunterricht angesehen werden kann. Daher erfolgte meine Übersetzung immer auch mit dem Hintergedanken, dass man die lateinische Version in einem Buch mit zusätzlichen Vokabelhilfen für latein-lernende Schüler herausbringen könnte, was aber im professionellen Bereich von Schulbüchern oder Unterrichtsmaterialien erfolgen sollte. Dahingehende Bemühungen, meine Texte bei einem Schulbuchverlag zu publizieren, sind bis heute im Sande verlaufen. Dies gab letztlich den Ausschlag, meine Übersetzung unter Eigenregie bei einem Selfpublishing-Verlag (book on demand in Norderstedt) unterzubringen. Dabei versteht sich das Buch explizit als eine kleine Auswahl an Brecht-Texten, die meiner Vorstellung nach in Zukunft erweitert und im Idealfall auf alle verfügbaren Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner ausgedehnt werden sollte.
Daneben stehen aus der Literaturgeschichte bekannte Kürzestgeschichten deutschsprachiger Autoren, die meiner Meinung nach ins Lateinische in einer Auswahl übertragen werden könnten, um interessierten Lesern oder Lateinisch-Lernenden eine neue Hilfe an die Hand zu geben, die vor allem durch ihren Bekanntheitsgrad auf Interesse stoßen sollten. Dabei denke ich an solche Namen wie Johann Peter Hebel mit seinen Kalendergeschichten, an kurze Erzählungen Franz Kafkas (“Der Schlag an der Hoftor” etc.) oder die im Schulunterricht auch gelesenen Texte Peter Bichels. Eine Auswahl solcher kurzen Text auf Latein vorliegen zu haben könnte dazu beitragen, weitere Leserkreise für die lateinische Sprache zu erschließen.
Meine Auswahl an Keunergeschichten soll sich dabei als ein kleiner Anfang verstehen.
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BB in Context: Roundtable Discussion at the German Studies Association
By David Dunham
On October 1, 2021, the International Brecht Society hosted the panel Bertolt Brecht in Context at the German Studies Association annual conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The panel consisted of contributors to the recently published Bertolt Brecht in Context, part of the Literature in Context series of Cambridge University Press. Moderated by the editor Stephen Brockmann (Carnegie Mellon University), the panelists highlighted their main contributions to this work and discussed the relative strengths and weaknesses of this book as a guide to research on Bertolt Brecht. In opening remarks, Stephen Brockmann described the objective of the work as an accessible introduction for non-experts in the field. Consisting of a broad spectrum of short essays, Bertolt Brecht in Context aims for a world-wide context that places greater emphasis on the post-Brecht period. These considerations led to the culmination of this book, which gives English speakers an overview of the editorial situation of Brecht’s work in the German language.
In discussing the main points of their essays, the panelists discussed the strengths of the work and identified several areas for development in any possible future work on the subject. Marc Silberman (University of Wisconsin-Madison) discussed his essay “The Work of the Theater,” which addresses four key elements of Epik (titles, projections, songs, and distinctive lighting exposing the stage as a constructed space), Verfremdung (making the familiar strange), Gestus (the “showing of showing”), and Lehrstück (instruction in dialectical thinking). Silberman expressed a positive reception of the range of contributors but recognized that there lacks representation of younger scholars. Vera Stegmann (Lehigh University) discussed their essay “Brecht’s Work with Musical Composers,” which emphasizes the musical impetus as a more significant cause of his work than the visual. Paula Hanssen (Webster University) discussed their essay “’[She] made suggestions. We took them’: Bertolt Brecht’s Women Collaborators,” which shows the evolving relationship of Brecht to his women collaborators from a professional to a more personal one. Noah Willumsen (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) discussed his essay “Brecht’s Interviews,” which outlines his findings of interviews he researched in the Brecht archive, and he expressed his desire for a book with a history of knowledge framework highlighting what Brecht read. Helen Fehervary (Ohio State University) discussed their essay “Brecht and Feminism” and expressed desire for research showing the relationship of Brecht to English poetry.
In responding to the panelists, Stephen Brockmann concurred with many of their assessments of the work and discussed new approaches for any future work. Brockmann discussed the possibility of a work covering Brecht in different world regions, which would help address the relative lack of focus on Brecht in east Asia. Moreover, Brockmann defended the range of authors as leading experts in the field, which occasionally cites earlier research over newer citations. Finally, the panelists discussed lessons learned in publishing this major work and outlined ways to improve the process in future projects.
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Brecht, Race, and Capitalism’s Global Crises: A Two-Panel Series at the German Studies Association
By Elena Pnevmonidou
On October 1, 2021, the International Brecht Society sponsored two panels at the 45th annual German Studies Conference. The theme of both panels was Brecht, Race, and Capitalism’s Global Crises, there were six presenters in total, with Matthew Cornish (Ohio University) serving as commentator in the first panel and Kristopher Imbrigotta (University of Puget Sound) in the second.
Taking issue with Hannah Arendt’s contention that race was Brecht’s major blind spot that damaged him both politically and aesthetically, the aim of the panels was to explore the topics of race, racism, anti-racism in Brecht, but through the lens of the present COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic occurred against the backdrop of rising neo-fascist, far-right movements across the late-capitalist democratic Western world, and it has shown how even some of the most affluent liberal democracies are profoundly unjust societies. If the pandemic revealed the intertwinement of capitalism and racism, then it also galvanized democratic and anti-racist social justice movements.
Framed in this way, the panels thus aimed to draw attention to parallels between Brecht’s Weimar Germany and our world today.
The first panel began with the paper on “Race, Capitalist Crisis, and the Economy of Emotions in Brecht’s Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe” by Leonie Wilms (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill / Duke University), which focused on the emotional dimension of social and racial injustice. To that end, the paper discussed Sebastian Baumgarten’s 2013 production of Die heilige Johanna. While Brecht’s play does not explicitly address issues of race, Baumgarten attempted to bring into relief the systemic racist structures of exploitation in global capitalism through the use of whole-body blackface on stage. The production triggered heated public controversy, which Wilms brought into dialogue with the economy of emotions at play in Die heilige Johanna.
Matthias Rothe (University of Minnesota), in “The Class Question and Brecht’s Theater of Commitment (Rundköpfe und Spitzköpfe),” discussed the validity of Hannah Arendt’s take on Brecht through an exploration of Brecht’s political turn in 1931 and the development of his epic theatre. Rothe argued that, while Arendt may be right that Brecht speaks of class in generalizing terms that do not recognize anti-Semitism as a problem in its own right, Arendt’s approach does does not allow for a nuanced exploration of the limits and potential of Brecht’s epic theatre in aesthetic terms. He proposed that, instead of fixating on the overt political content, a more generative approach would be to examine Brecht’s creative process, which in the case of a play like Rundköpfe und Spitzköpfe underwent many transformations between 1931 and 1938, as Brecht was clarifying his own aesthetic response to fascism. Thus, Brecht’s relevance today may not consist so much in the specific content conveyed in any given play, but rather in what we can learn about the process of articulating an aesthetic response to a political circumstance.
Gad Kaynar Kissinger’s (Tel Aviv University) paper “Is Brecht’s Humane Dramaturgy ‘Inhuman’?” examined the critical potential of core rhetorical devices, such as Gestus, Haltung, historicization, distancing, etc., as well as Brecht’s deliberate use of reductive stereotypes in his theatre, especially the Lehrstücke. While not overtly racist, Kissinger argued, Brecht’s theatre is racial in an uncritical and unself-conscious way. Brecht’s theatre implicitly presumes a white, bourgeois spectator, and his reductive techniques saturate his theatre with colonialist, mythical, and romantic biases that appeal to this implicit spectator.
The discussion that ensued revolved around such themes as the legitimacy of potentially offensive dramaturgical choices, on the generative potential of emotions, on Hannah Arendt’s own blind spots with regards to race, as well as more generally on the utility of epic theatre and the Lehrstück today.
The papers in the second panel were themed around Brecht’s theatre methods as instantiated in his own Lehrstücke and in contemporary film and photography.
Kevin Amidon (Fort Hays State University) in “Brecht, Straub/Huillet, and the Edges of Performativity: Re-reading Race, Gender, and Jewishness in Moses und Aron and Von heute auf morgen,” examined the influence of Brechtian dramatic theory in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s cinematic representation of race-, gender-, and faith-based identity, specifically in the film-operas of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron and Von heute auf morgen. Amidon argued that the utility of opera in the context of an anti-racist critique of capitalism consists in the fact that opera, while subject to capitalist culinary dynamics, also pushes the boundaries of a performativity of identity, specifically by how it centers the sounding, communicating body as a site of negotiation. Coupled with the Brechtian techniques of Gestus and estrangement, Straub/Huillet’s film-operas prompt us to reevaluate Arendt’s critique of Brecht.
Using the case study of the Lehrstück, Soren Larsen (Cornell University) explored in his paper, “Brecht and Race,” the relevance of Brecht’s use of racialized material in his Marxist critique of capitalism. Larsen argued, contrary to Arendt, that, far from offering an apology for Stalinism and the show-trials of that period, the Lehrstücke, in particular Die Maßnahme, actually articulate an explicit anti-Stalinist stance. Moreover, though Brecht does not seem to make race visible as a distinct entity in the portrayal of capitalist class-struggle, his use of racialization demonstrates a keen sensitivity to issues of race and racism that makes his works relevant in our present context. Larsen argued that two features of Brecht’s use of racialization are especially relevant in today’s discussions on race and anti-racism: the intentional and self-aware use of racialized masks and the explicit rejection of performances of compassion. With these two mechanisms, Brecht, on the one hand, portrays race as a de-constructible construct while also, on the other, denying easy, mendacious, affect-driven identification with and appropriation of the racial other.
In her paper, “Primer for the Instagram Era: Brecht’s Kriegsfibel Today,” Stefanie Harris (Texas A&M University) juxtaposed Brecht’s Kriegsfibel with four contemporary examples of political photojournalism: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s reconception of Brecht’s work with their War Primer 2, which focused on the images of the treatment of inmates at Abu Gharaib prison in Iraq; examples of contemporary photojournalism of protest and political activism on Instagram; Richard Mosse’s photographic series of twenty-first century conflict; and Yannis Behrakis’s images of the refugee crisis in Greece. This juxtaposition demonstrated the acute relevance of Brecht’s Kriegsfibel today, indeed on two levels: as a historical document whose content resonates with racialized experiences today relating to war, oppression, and the rise of neo-fascism, as well as an instantiation of an aesthetical outlook and method that continues to be at play in contemporary photojournalism.
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Baustelle Brecht/Müller “Wohnen in der Leeren Mitte”
By Matthew Hines
The workshop on December 3, 2021, “Wohnen in der leeren Mitte”, part of the “Baustelle” series originated by the IBS at the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus, gathered presentations on the theme of living in Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller. Organized by Sophie König, Marten Weise, Noah Willumsen, and Christian Hippe, the event saw nine papers across three panels moderated respectively by Julia Weber, Cornelia Ortlieb, and Marc Silberman. On the evening prior to the workshop, participants gathered for a discussion with readings under the title “Ein Zimmer für sich? Wohnen und Schreiben in einer Stadt im Wandel” (novelist Anke Stelling, journalist Ilka Piepgras, and moderator Ulrike Vedder), and as the closing panel on the final evening “Das ‘Breadshop Dramaturgy Lab’: Ein Theaterlaboratorium zu Brechts ‘Brotladen’-Fragment” with Henrik Adler, Phoebe von Held, Lizzie Stewart, and moderator Marc Silberman. [Link to the taped panel discussion here]
The all-day workshop not only interrogated the concept of “Wohnen in der leeren Mitte” as a question of space, but also in the refractions and inflections of “living” as a material and artistic practice. The first panel – “Dazwischen wohnen” – provided three different spatial angles to the day’s theme, beginning with Fanti Baum’s presentation. Baum took an alphabetical approach to the topic using concepts from Brecht’s work (such as aufschlagen, geräumig, zur Ruhe kommen) that engage with the notion of living. Working towards the creation of an experimental text, the presentation revealed an instability within living and identified the “leere Mitte” as the hollow core of the bourgeois household, therefore potentially undermining the actual privacy of the “private” sphere.
Caroline Adler’s paper shifted this analysis to the streets of Berlin, adopting a triple perspective that considered Brecht’s work, the writings of Walter Benjamin, and Hito Steyerl’s 1998 documentary film Die leere Mitte. Adler took “Wohnen in der leeren Mitte” as a description of the former, so-called Death Strip between the façades of the Berlin Wall, which were featured in clips from Steyerl’s film. Interviews with those occupying the newly public land to proclaim it a socialist republic or to prevent its occupation by the newest private building projects alternated with expositions on Benjamin and Brecht to address the question of privacy. Where Benjamin’s flaneur erodes the separation between interior and exterior, Adler evoked post-1989 debates about the (dis)entanglement of public and private after the GDR’s demise, replacing the forbidden land beyond the Wall with new, walled-in housing complexes that arguably did little to change “die leere Mitte”.
Turning to the theatre and the stage, Shu Ishimi focused on Heiner Müller’s triptych Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten to ask how or if the play’s landscape might be performed on a conventional stage. In this paper, the questionable capacity of the stage to capture the ambiguous backdrop to Müller’s adaptation of the Medea story located the “empty center” on the stage itself – complementing studies on the material reality of Brecht and Müller, such as those in the second panel, by translating the workshop’s question onto the aesthetic realm.
The second panel considered the workshop’s theme as a question of material, be that the physical living conditions of Brecht, Müller, and their contemporaries, or of the materiality of the creative process itself. Lara Tarbuk detailed the treatment of furniture in Brecht’s early plays, comparing this at times anecdotally to Brecht’s own apartment in the Chausseestrasse, Berlin, which the workshop’s participants had the opportunity to visit with Archive Director Erdmut Wizisla on the previous day.
Brecht’s practice of filling his (Arbeits)Journal with cuttings – images, words, paragraphs – from printed sources formed the basis of Marie Millutat’s paper. By reading this collaborative but nonetheless private activity as an exercise in collage or montage that understands text as something to be read visually, Millutat emphasized the role of material in the production process for Brecht beyond his application of montage as an aesthetic form.
Stephan Strunz approached the question of living with research on the Berliner Wohnungsenquête, which took place between 1901 and 1920. Rather than a literary study, the paper provided textual and photographic evidence from a corpus of dwellings inhabited by chronically ill inhabitants from Berlin’s “Elendsquartieren”. Whilst the initiators of the survey successfully condemned the living conditions for the poor, their absence of economic wealth did not equate to a material lack, as images from the study depict dwellings overladen with objects and possessions, thus diversifying the “leere Mitte” beyond a question of mere absence.
The workshop’s final panel “Wohnen in Bewegung” brought together three presentations from contributors affiliated to institutions outside of Germany. Drawing both from Plato’s dialogue Apology of Socrates and on Brecht’s Keuner fragments, Luke Beller discussed the theme of belonging through the constant mobility associated with cosmopolitanism. In the discussion, the identification of Herr Keuner with Brecht himself, but also with “Keiner”, further displaced this fragmented character and with it the possible unifying connotations of “Wohnen”, which Beller associated with crises of living in the twenty-first-century present.
Katharina Schmid-Schmidsfelden’s presentation took as its object Müller’s Verkommenes Ufer Medeamaterial Landschaft mit Argonauten, which had already featured in the workshop’s first panel. Rather than asking about the location of the play’s landscape on a stage, the presentation addressed the shifting landscapes in the work’s (simultaneous) sections through the lens of migration, particularly the shifting identities of Medea herself.
The final paper, by Matthew Hines, interrogated the theatre as a space of state- or homecraft in the early GDR by comparing Brecht’s dramatic experiments and those of a young generation of playwrights, exemplified with Heiner and Inge Müller. Affirming the latter model’s heightened potentiality for addressing for the contradictions of the GDR present, the paper suggested that this reconception of the spectator’s role in the theatre could have served as a catalyst for the establishment of a “home” in the GDR. The ensuing discussion asked how “Lehre” – in the didactic sense – might interact with “Leere” in the context of the workshop’s topic.
To close the workshop, co-organizer Noah Willumsen provided extracts and insights into interviews given by Brecht between 1926 and 1956, which Willumsen has collated into a volume to be published in early 2023 under the title “Unsere Hoffnung heute ist die Krise”: Interviews 1926–1956 by Suhrkamp Verlag.
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