St. Joan of the Stockyards
St. Joan of the Stockyards by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Ralph Manheim. Directed by Lear deBessonet. Music composed and performed by Kelley McRae & Band. Choreography by Tracy Bersley; set design by Justin Townsend; light design by Peter Ksander; costume design by Clint Ramos; sound design by Mark Huang; dramaturg, Helen Shaw. Produced by Karina Mangu-Ward. Production company: Stillpoint Productions, by special arrangement with Culture Project’s Women Center Stage. With Kristen Sieh, Richard Toth, Kate Benson, Mike Crane, Jessica Green, Jonathan Co Green, Peter McCain and Nate Schenkkan. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one intermission). June 16-July 1, 2007 at Performance Space 122, 150 First Avenue, New York.
Bertolt Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards, written in 1932 as Brecht was in his most intense period of Marxist studies, wasn’t staged until two years after his 1956 death; its only public performance during his lifetime was as a short radio play in April 1932 (featuring Peter Lorre as Slift and Carola Neher as Joan Dark). Inspired, as were so many of his other plays of the period, by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Brecht fashioned the play from the wreckage of the disastrous Threepenny Opera “sequel” Happy End, and it has remained something of an odd-man-out in the canon. It was the first of two major Brecht plays written in a parody of Shakespearean blank verse (The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, his Hitler play, was the second), but the stridency of his politics, married to a materialist vision of tragedy, rendered it problematic in the geopolitics of the time.
And it remains curious. Brecht would flee Germany following the Reichstag fire the next year, with various possibilities for the production coming to naught, and in trying to establish a career outside the German-speaking countries Brecht turned to projects that he believed would be more commercially viable, which St. Joan certainly was not (its large cast and virulent politics rendered it practically unstagable). Lear deBessonet’s production of the play in Ralph Manheim’s translation at P.S. 122 (through this Sunday), I’m happy to say, makes an excellent argument for the centrality and importance of this play in the Brechtian canon, not only as part of the playwright’s more politically-engaged, explicitly Marxist plays, but also in the development of Brecht’s career itself. DeBessonet, in hewing close to the text which is here produced nearly uncut, demonstrates Brecht’s Shakespearean range in a pared-down urban lyricism more closely resembling his poetry than any of his other plays.
In determining a Marxist approach to the form of Shakespearean tragedy, Brecht made a variety of clever, witty substitutions. The Shakespearean letter that shapes the lives of its victims no longer arrives via a messenger, but via Federal Express (in this production); instead of the machinations of various members of a family (which in Shakespeare’s time meant machinations among geopolitical powerholders), the dynamics of the play are driven by industrial leaders, workers, unions, social service agencies. Here, Pierpont Mauler is the king — a leading Chicago producer of canned meat who, warned of an impending market collapse by his New York financial backers, makes plans to exit the business. In this he is stopped by the appearance of Joan Dark, a social activist investigating the condition of the working poor in Chicago. The play describes Dark’s growing social consciousness as well as Mauler’s vulnerability to economic forces and his own heart; ultimately, it leads Dark to the Communist Party and Mauler to a consolidation of all the social forces — his competitors, the workers themselves, the unions, social service organizations, the church, the media — that threaten the success of his capitalist profiteering.
Director deBessonet wisely lets the play speak for itself; no updating here, even for a play which must tempt updating, given its 1932 composition and its setting in Chicago in 1900. So far as its picture of post-capitalist society and industry goes, one only has to turn to work by Peter Singer and Eric Schlosser to note that St. Joan‘s concerns remain relevant in the early years of the 21st century. While deBessonet has dumped the Brecht-Weill songs in favor of a country-blues score by Kelley McRae, McRae’s songs have more of a Hank Williams/Jimmie Rodgers edge to them than a Billy Rae Cyrus pathos, and are appropriately reminiscent of 1930s country music. The set itself, of a stripped-down industrial simplicity, runs down the center of the large upstairs theatre space at P.S.122 (fine work here from set designer Justin Townsend and light designer Peter Ksander, who are now indisputably among downtown’s most exciting visual artists in the theatre, along with costume designer Oana Botez-Ban), all steel and metal sliding along hard plastic casters and metal cable strung along the flies, and industrial-strength barrels and grates providing necessary tables, chairs and walls.
As Iago often takes center stage in Othello, the manipulative Pierpont Mauler often takes center stage in St. Joan. Richard Toth plays Mauler as a man torn among various forces, not the least of which is his own heart; while trying desperately to feed the greed which is at the center of his business, he is drawn to compassion for the animals ritually slaughtered upon the floor of his factory, and recognizes in Joan Dark a human connection not unlike that between a father and a daughter (and this is one of the major parallels between this play and Major Barbara). Toth often plays Mauler as lost in a deep contemplation, a morass of doubt; as his sidekick Slift recognizes (here played with an insidious, malignant serpentine grace by Mike Crane), it’s the blood of meat that forms the center of Mauler’s soul. Toth handles this most Brechtian vacillation between sensuality and rationality with aplomb and a haunting deliberation.
As Joan Dark, Kristen Sieh develops a performance that moves from an alternately giddy and lachrymose naivete (her dances, when she scores a small victory for the poor, are buoyantly joyous but so unschooled and graceless as to resemble an epileptic fit at times) to a dark, hard-edged viciousness as she herself experiences first-hand suffering and hunger in the cold of a Chicago winter and, in her dreams (the voices of this particular Joan), begins to recognize the horrifying extent of the corruption that maintains Mauler and his colleagues in permanent power. Sieh herself is slight and waiflike, which testifies to the effectiveness of her transformation into a violent radical by the end of the play; semi-crucified in the play’s final moments, her final words drowned out in a raucous second-rate disco beat (delivered directly to the audience by the ensemble) by the corrupt society that surrounds her, her performance sears into the experience of the evening.
In terms of Brecht’s gestural theatrics, choreographer Tracy Bersley pursues a truly echt-Brecht visualisation of the play’s political components. Like the language itself, movement and gesture in this St. Joan is spiky and deliberate, demonstrative and pedagogical. In the brilliant staging of Joan’s dream that opens the second act of this production, the sleeping Joan is surrounded by the sharp, violent gestures of the workers, whose presence and motions in elevating her awareness of capitalist culture and the suffering of the poor provide the final physical and gestural impetus to Joan’s transformation into a violent revolutionary. Staged in a soft blue light, the ensemble’s sharp gestures play dialectically against the stage illusions of night and snow (which is thrown up into the air by the workers themselves before settling softly on Joan’s body). It is a beautiful and effective example of the possibilities of Brecht’s gestural theatre: eschewing sentimentality, its social relevance is as clear as day.
While religion forms a central theme of the play, Brecht’s target isn’t God Himself but the uses to which society and culture put the idea of a God. Eventually, Mauler buys God when he agrees to subsidize the play’s Salvation Army stand-in, the Black Straw Hats; in aggrandizing spirituality to the benefit of the status quo, he provides the metaphysical umbrella under which a capitalist society can rationalize its corruption. “[Joan Dark] is not speaking about God at all but about talk of a God, or, more precisely, about specific talk in a specific situation, and specific remarks about God,” Brecht wrote in his notes to the published play. “She is in fact speaking about talk to the effect that God need have no function whatever in social matters, and that those who believe in such a God are called on to accomplish nothing in particular. It is enough if they have certain inner sensations. The faith thus recommended is without effect on the world around us, and Joan defines such recommendation as a social crime.”
Stillpoint Productions’ staging of this rare Brecht play (more a discovery than a rediscovery; unless I miss my guess, this is the first professional New York production of St. Joan of the Stockyards) is a fine example of a poetic text shining through performance and production, revealing the text’s enduring power. It closes this Sunday.
As I noted above, Joan Dark’s final words are drowned in a pathetic, loud disco beat — an example of Adorno’s Culture Industry smothering deeper recognition of human consciousness. Below is the text of Joan’s speech, from the Manheim translation:
So anyone down here who says there’s a God
And that even if no one can see Him
He can, invisibly, help us all the same
Should have his head bashed against the sidewalk
Until he croaks.
And those preachers who tell the people they can rise in spirit
Even if their bodies are stuck in the mud, they too should have their heads
Bashed against the sidewalk. The truth is that
Where force rules only force can help and
In the human world only humans can help.
Mother Courage and Her Children
Mother Courage and Her Children. Written 1938-39; first production Zurich Schauspielhaus, 1941. Translation by Ralph Manheim in Bertolt Brecht: Collected Plays, Volume 5, Random House, 1972 (out-of-print); also by Eric Bentley in Mother Courage and Her Children, Grove Press, 1966. (British edition: Translation by John Willett in Brecht: Collected Plays 5, Methuen, 1995.)
The Thirty Years’ War rages through the 17th century. Mother Courage, a provisioner to the military and civilian populations, hopes to bring her three children through the conflict by shrewdly conducting her business regardless of which side her customer is on; through the course of the war she loses all three (her eldest son, Eilif, is recruited while Courage is bickering over the price of a belt; her youngest son, Swiss Cheese, is arrested while Courage is away purchasing meat; her mute daughter, Kattrin, sacrifices herself while Courage is restocking her wares). At the end of the play, Courage pushes on, bereft of her children, having learned nothing from her experience.
There are a few misconceptions surrounding this, one of Brecht’s greatest plays from his middle period. The first is that Brecht was floored by the audience’s identification with the tragic figure of Courage at the end of Mother Courage, and that he spent the rest of his life trying to rewrite the play to eradicate this pity. It’s clear from Brecht’s own notes that Brecht had no difficulty with the pitiable situation of Mother Courage, but that he was aware that, lost in pity, audiences would learn nothing from the play. While it’s true that in later revisions he added a final line, Courage’s “I must get back to business,” to the last scene to underscore the message of the work — that “war … is a continuation of business by other means” — these revisions weren’t intended to lessen the dramatic impact of the play; indeed, the deeper the audience’s reaction, the more likely they would learn that Courage has herself learned nothing about the nature of war, for small businesspeople like herself and the peasantry alike.
In Mother Courage (and in Life of Galileo) we have Brecht at his most Shakespearean: a broad canvas, a fairly large cast of characters, several subplots, even a saucy wench offered as comic relief (Yvette, who as a prostitute marries a general and ends up in the aristocracy). Also, like Shakespeare and unlike early Brecht, we have a sensitive depiction of complicated emotional events. In the play, Kattrin passes with great difficulty from girlhood to womanhood; Mother Courage is torn between the romantic attentions of the Chaplain and the Cook. Even in wartime, this sort of life goes on, but it leaves its participants deeply traumatized. Kattrin is scarred in a roadside attack and retreats from the world; Courage is unable to abandon her when the Cook offers refuge in Utrecht; she must pass up security and romance.
Most importantly, Brecht’s Mother Courage is a deeply humane play, rightfully considered one of his masterpieces. Now that we’ve fully ingested the techniques of epic theater, we’re not put off by the so-called “alienation effect” (always misnamed, especially in its English translation). This effect was never meant to “alienate” the audience or to place them in an antagonistic relationship to the events transpiring on stage. In fact, we can now recognize, now that our knowledge of theater history is deeper, that Brecht’s technique may come closest to Shakespeare’s own: a mastery of gesture and the performer’s bodily demonstrativeness to balance out a lack of realistic scenery; a fragmented series of discrete episodes that, eschewing the Aristotelian unities, requires the audience to fill in the blanks, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. These plays require a level of psychical and intellectual as well as emotional engagement; we must leave the theater with an idea of what caused Courage’s tragedy, as we leave the theater with an idea of what caused Lear’s; and we must try to learn not to make the same mistakes.
In the Jungle of Cities
In the Jungle of Cities. Written 1921-24; first production Munich Residenztheater, 1923. Translation by Gerhard Nellhaus in Bertolt Brecht: Collected Plays, Volume 1, Random House, 1971 (out-of-print); also by Anselm Hollo in Jungle of Cities and Other Plays, Grove Press, 1966. (British edition: Translation by Gerhard Nellhaus in Brecht: Collected Plays 1, Methuen, 1994.)
George Garga, a clerk at a lending library in Chicago, is approached by a Malayan lumber-yard owner named Shlink, who wants to purchase Garga’s opinion on a book. Antagonism rises until Shlink challenges Garga to a fight, and Garga accepts. Having gotten Garga fired, Shlink gives Garga his lumber-yard to even the battlefield; devoting himself to the fight, Garga abandons his family, in which Shlink immediately takes his place as breadwinner. As the motiveless fight wears on, Garga’s family is destroyed, his sister falling in love with Shlink, his fiancee turning to prostitution, his parents separating. In the end, Garga provokes a racist Chicago to sending out a lynch mob in pursuit of Shlink, who dies before the mob can do its work. Garga then leaves Chicago for New York.
“Nobody has yet described the big city as a jungle,” Brecht noted to himself in 1921, which as even Brecht knew wasn’t quite true; one of the conscious sources of the work was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle of 1906. However, the idea of the city before and after World War I changed radically. The sheer cruelty and bloodiness of WWI had given the lie to more optimistic conceptions of the human spirit, and cramming these individual instances of the species into a small area, in which they literally lived on top of each other, was a recipe for disaster. The arrangement courted violence and competition, bringing out the worst aggressive instincts in the race: hence motiveless cruelty and “fighting,” as Brecht put it in his pre-Marxist days, its violence almost sporting, as Brecht recognized.
The subtitle of the play changed over the various versions of its composition before Brecht settled on “The Fight Between Two Men in the Gigantic City of Chicago,” often emphasizing that the play depicted the disintegration of a family which had moved from the plains into the metropolis. This disintegration is central to the play in all its forms. To fight Shlink, Garga has to move away from his family and his fiancee; because Garga was the main breadwinner for his family, this has disastrous conseqences. Garga’s sister Mary and his fiancee Jane Larry ultimately turn to prostitution; his mother fades into obscurity as a charwoman.
It’s worth noting here, in anticipation of the female characters of Brecht’s later plays, the development of women’s characters at this stage of Brecht’s career. In Baal and Drums in the Night, they were little more than stage dressing; here the characters of Mary and Jane are considerably more complex, making choices for themselves (if not very good choices most of the time) for which they take ultimate responsibility. However, even Brecht’s prostitutes are more complex than one expects; none are exactly whores with hearts of gold. Mary here is an innocent, falling in love with Shlink, at the lumber-dealer’s side when he dies in a pit at the end of the play. She is, however, far from romanticized. “I’m not pretty any more,” Mary tells Shlink in the penultimate scene of the play. “Don’t look at me. The rats have gnawed at me. I’m bringing you what’s left.” The scene still retains a profound, complicated sadness.
Brecht’s language develops into its highest pre-Marxist form in In the Jungle; the bargain-basement-Büchner and borrowed Expressionist tropes of the early plays (and of most of Brecht’s 1927 Hauspostille, his first volume of poetry) are gone here, stripped of their more elaborate and emotional romanticism. Compare this speech from Baal, taken almost at random:
EKART: My body is as light as a tiny plum in the wind.
BAAL: The pale summer sky does that, brother. Shall we soak up the mild warm water of some blue pool? If we don’t, the white country roads will pull us up to heaven like ladders of angels. [Scene 8]
By In the Jungle, almost all of the nature imagery is gone, replaced now by a muscular concision and energy unique, even in translation, for the period and in German dramatic literature:
We’re none of us free. It starts in the morning with our coffee, and we’re beaten if we play the fool. A mother salts her children’s food with tears and washes their shirts with her sweat. And their future is secure until the Ice Age, and the root sits in their heart. And when you grow up and want to do something, body and soul, they pay you, brainwash you, label you and sell you at a high price, and you’re not even free to fail. [Scene 3]
The rapid juxtaposition of this spare, modifier-less imagery (not to mention the new emphasis on the ambivalence of free will) was uniquely new: a poetic correlate of the rapid, bitter pace of urban life. It’s worth noting its aesthetic parallel with the “New Objectivists” like Grosz and Dix, who also desired to reflect a world plainly, without expressionistic abstraction. For Brecht himself, it was preparation for the next phase of his career. He was subsequently to filter this linguistic construct through the Elizabethan world of Marlowe’s Edward II, setting the path for his future work and finally suggesting the outlines of the “epic” theater.
BRECHT-TO-BECKETT WATCH: “They’ve no more to say to a man than can be said in five minutes. Then they run out of lies. (Pause) Actually everything there is to say could be covered in two minutes of silence.” [John Garga, In the Jungle of Cities, Scene 7]
Drums in the Night
Drums in the Night. Written 1918; first production Munich Kammerspiele, 1922. Translation by William E. Smith and Ralph Manheim in Bertolt Brecht: Collected Plays, Volume 1, Random House, 1971 (out-of-print); also by Frank Jones in Jungle of Cities and Other Plays, Grove Press, 1966. (British edition: Translation by John Willett in Brecht: Collected Plays 1, Methuen, 1994.)
Brecht’s Andreas Kragler, returning from World War One to a Germany torn by revolution, may as well have been returning to America from Vietnam; the country he went to the battlefield to defend no longer exists, even after a few short years. Now at peace, Germany’s manufacturers are turning from the production of ammunition boxes to the production of baby carriages. Members of the radical left, under the Spartakist banner, are taking over the newspapers and the streets. Worse, his true love Anna Balicke, believing Kragler dead, has become pregnant by a shuffling petit bourgeois middle-manager who seeks to marry her, and she’s about to say “yes.” Little wonder, then, that Kragler spends much of the five-act play in one state of confusion and anxiety or another.
At first, he tries to regain his former girl, but her family and fiancee balk. Looking for something to do, he half-heartedly joins the revolutionary movement, but once Anna has a change of heart and follows Kragler into the bullet-ridden streets of the newspaper district, he drops his political mask and takes her back:
The bagpipes play, the poor people die in the newspaper district, the houses fall on them, the day dawns. They lie in the street like drowned cats, I’m a stinker and the stinker goes home.
Kragler’s anxiety is in many senses our own, especially in a fast-changing world in which all political and social participation seems compromised: Brecht pictures the revolutionaries here (at least, those that appear on the stage) as a bunch of craven journalists, drunks and marginalized misfits. Anna’s bourgeois family is little better, profiting from the war and on the backs of soldiers like Kragler, who has spent much of the years 1914-1918 in an African labor camp. Like Baal, Kragler is an ur-individualist; unlike Baal, though, Kragler seeks peace, much like many of the soldiers who returned from the War to End All Wars, and turns adamantly to an inward, insulated life. Brecht neither blames nor celebrates Kragler for taking this position, at least in the early versions of the play, which gave him no end of ideological trouble from the year of its composition through the rest of his life. In 1954, “I thought of suppressing the play,” Brecht says in his “On Looking Through My First Plays.” “The only thing that stopped me from erecting a small funeral pyre was the feeling that literature is part of history, and that history ought not to be falsified, also a sense that my present opinions and capacities would be of less value without some knowledge of my previous ones — that is, presuming that there have been any improvements. Nor is suppressing enough; what’s false must be set right.” What gave him no trouble, though, was the spot-on parody of neo-romantic Expressionist theater practices, a parody evident in photographs from the first production of the play (though it must be said that, according to contemporary reports of the production, Brecht’s collaborators in Munich often missed the parodic elements of Drums in the Night); his parodic intent is explicit in his writings on Drums, both at the time of its composition and later in his career.
Thirty years later, Brecht’s Galileo would face many of the same questions, but his true love would be science, not a pregnant young girl, and the great astronomer would need to decide between the comfort of compromise with the political establishment and the pain and certain death of resistance. That he ultimately chose a middle road, like Kragler, who settles into marriage and fatherhood (even of someone else’s child) and forsakes revolution, is no happy ending, regardless of the seeming redemption of the hero. But Brecht, who admits in 1954 that “there is a faint suspicion of approval on the part of the author,” could never entirely reconcile the violent needs of revolution and his natural antipathy to violence.
Readers of Superfluities who come here for the thoughts on Beckett and can’t understand my attraction to Brecht, who appears diametrically opposed in spirit and technique to the author of Endgame, be forewarned: in every Brecht play there seems to be an anticipation of Beckett. In Drums in the Night this anticipation is uncanny. In Act Four, Kragler sings a folk song:
A dog went to the kitchen
To find a bone to chew.
The cook picked up his chopper
And chopped the dog in two.
The other dogs came running
And dug that dog a grave.
They chiseled this inscription
Upon the stone above:
“A dog went to the kitchen …”
Sound familiar? It should; here’s Vladimir’s song from the beginning of the second act of Waiting for Godot:
A dog came in the kitchen
And stole a crust of bread.
Then cook up with a ladle
And beat him till he was dead.
Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb
And wrote upon the tombstone
For the eyes of dogs to come:
“A dog came in the kitchen …”
The same song serves the same function in both plays: as a dramatic correlation of the characters’ coming to grips with the cyclic, inescapable tendency of the universe to cruelty and suffering. Another indication, though, that Brecht and Beckett have more interesting similarities than is generally realized. But that’s for the book.
FOR THE ACADEMICS (PLEASE READ BEFORE YOU VOCIFEROUSLY EMAIL ME): The song appears in part in the 1922 version of Drums in the Night and in full only in the 1953 version, used as the basis for the Smith/Manheim translation I read; Godot had its premiere in 1952, so the slim possibility exists that Brecht filched the second half of the song from Godot for his own 1953 revision of Drums. There’s no proof of this borrowing, only a possibility, and since the song does indeed appear in the text of Drums in the Night published in 1922 by Drei Masken Verlag (reissued a few times in the 1920s by Ullstein), it’s safe to say that Brecht knew the rest of the song back in 1922 as well and found the song’s inclusion in the play appropriate at the time of its composition; his audience would have been familiar with the second half and completed the reference themselves, especially since it appears to have been a common folk song in several European languages.
Von armen b.b.
Whatever happened to Bertolt Brecht — aside, that is, from the occasional revival of The Threepenny Opera to suit Broadway’s flavor du jour Alan Cumming (physically far from the “short, stocky man of about forty with a head like a radish, a bit bald but not lacking dignity” that Brecht described) or a heavily-revised adaptation of Mother Courage to suit a film actress like Meryl Streep (and what was so wrong with the original version that Tony Kushner has to come in to fix it)? He and Samuel Beckett essentially defined the 20th century theater; without Brecht’s theatrical experimentation it’s likely there would have been no Our Town or Sweeney Todd. As a poet, Brecht scales remarkable heights as well: no less a critic as George Steiner has said, “There is no doubt that the two great German poets of the first half of this century were Rilke and Brecht.” Brecht’s vast achievement and huge body of work (at least 40 plays alone, not to mention a novel, dozens of short stories, and a book of collected poems that runs to 627 pages in my 1976 Methuen edition) provides a twentieth-century parallel to Shakespeare, exemplifying an extraordinary array of forms from ballet to the opera to the musical to spare agitprop to sprawling historical panoramas like Life of Galileo to parables like The Good Person of Setzuan.
Yet since the early 1980s his reputation in the United States has gone all a-fizzle, and this at the same time that the cultural and political polarization that started during the Reagan years re-introduced an explicit political aspect to all the arts, theater most definitely included. Here, too, one might have expected Brecht’s star to rise higher rather than set lower. In the twenty years before the collapse of the Soviet bloc, no fewer than four major biographies were published in English (including a translation of the standard German-language biography by the editor of Brecht’s collected works, Klaus Völker), the publication of an uniform English edition of Brecht’s work was underway, and the golden boy of pre-war world theater was the focus of intensive seminars even at the undergraduate level in America’s colleges and universities. (I took one of them at Bard College in 1980.)
What happened? Two things, not necessarily unrelated: First, the fall of the Soviet empire in the 1980s demonstrated the weakness and failures of Soviet-style socialism and Marxism; second, the socialist left in the American academy had to realign their perspectives to reflect this new world order, and if there was any playwright or poet associated with the left it was Brecht. In large part, Brecht would have had only himself to blame. Since the late 1920s, he had ideologically aligned his art with Marxism and Communism; his lehrstücke of the 1930s like The Measures Taken, interpreted solely through the lens of the radical left, become major embarrassments in the American college and university of the Reagan years. As theater itself became professionalized during the same time, Brecht’s presence in the academy waned.
And yet a tension between the poet and the ideologue was always a part of Brecht’s work. As his later plays like Turandot and Antigone demonstrated, Brecht himself was never comfortable as the star playwright of East Germany. Expected by the government (which funded his Berliner Ensemble) to represent the cultural richness of the Soviet left to the decadent west, he was a poor figurehead, constantly at odds with the East German bureaucracy. Whether through cleverness or cowardice, he spurned East German citizenship for an Austrian passport to guarantee his access to the west, and by the time of his death in 1956 Brecht himself seemed uncertain of the social philosophy to which he had devoted so much of his time and energy. His last poem, “And I Always Thought,” expresses this ambivalence eloquently:
And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.
My German is poor, but if Michael Hamburger’s translation is accurate enough, the tone of that last line sticks in the craw, as if Brecht were trying to convince himself as much as his listener of the sentiment of the penultimate line. For the tragedy of the human condition as Brecht the poet saw it was that, indeed, you’ll go down whether you stand up for yourself or not. This was a central issue of his Good Person of Setzuan: the gods do not help or redeem the clever but compromised Shen Teh after circumstances force her, the “good person,” to adapt the evil persona of Shui Ta just to survive, and Mother Courage is an ironic nickname.
In one of the first books on Brecht in English, Martin Esslin identified this central issue of Brecht’s work in the subtitle of his monograph, Brecht: A Choice of Evils. There, he saw the poet and the politician in constant tension and conflict, and that in Brecht’s case the poet ultimately won out in a Pyrrhic victory.
This is not a conclusion that will raise a revolution against the ruling class. It is, though, an excellent reason for the reconsideration of Brecht’s body of work. Now that the smoke of the Cold War is clearing and the political aspect of art is a topic of contention, we might be able to see Brecht whole for the first time, not through the prism of ideology or theory. For we have now, for the first time, a very nearly complete English edition of the works (drama, fiction, essays and poetry); primary sources such as Brecht’s letters, diaries and work journals are also easily got; and instead of coming to Brecht through second-hand reports in politically-skewed adapatations and “translations,” biographies and criticism, a Brecht for the 21st century is now available for our recovery.
I was very much a Brecht completist as a young man and read nearly all of his work, as hard as much of it was to find; coming back to it again now, twenty years later, I am astonished to see how much of it remains relevant. Indeed, the significance of his achievement seems to grow now that it’s moving clear of the theoretical and interpretive impediments that academics and critics have placed in front of it; his status as a major playwright of the modern world is growing more evident. It’s very hard to compare him to anyone but Shakespeare in the beauty of his dramatic poetry and lyricism, his broad imagination (for Brecht’s Victorian London in The Threepenny Opera is every bit as rich, exotic and evocative of 1926 Berlin as Shakespeare’s Bohemia and Venice were of 1600 London), and his effect on the future of drama and the theater. As Beckett explored the modern interior world with Shakespearean incisiveness, Brecht lent the death- and tragedy-ridden 20th century a Shakespearean consciousness.
Baal. Written 1918; first production Altes Theater, Leipzig, December 8, 1923. Translation by William E. Smith and Ralph Manheim in Bertolt Brecht: Collected Plays, Volume 1, Random House, 1971 (out-of-print); also by Eric Bentley and Martin Esslin in Baal, A Man’s a Man and The Elephant Calf: Early Plays by Bertolt Brecht, Grove Press, 1964. (British edition: Translation by Peter Tegel in Brecht: Collected Plays 1, Methuen, 1994.)
Written when he was all of 20, Brecht’s first play is a seemingly wild, sensuous, Woyzeck-ian tour through the life of a Bavarian poet in the early years of the 20th century. The world serves Baal as a sty in which he merrily rolls; a creature of consumption, he consumes women, schnapps and language with little care for consequences — which, after his own pleasure, usually turn out to be violence and death. The play is a response to the image of the nature-drunk German romantic poet, specifically Christian Dietrich Grabbe as depicted in the long-forgotten play Der Einsame by Hanns Johst.
The play opens and closes among woodcutters (a publisher in the first scene; lumberjacks in the last), appropriately enough for Baal, who sings hymns to trees. Baal believes that, like them, he is rooted in the earth, reaching up to a blank sky; one of the principal poetic dichotomies in his poetry is between earth and sky, burial or drowning and flight. And like nature, he consumes thoughtlessly. Before the play is half over, he’s cuckolded the publisher of the first scene, been indirectly responsible for the death of his friend’s lover, and abandoned another girl whom he’s impregnated; in all this, he retains an odd magnetism (despite his being described as ugly and dirty). But he lives as nature has allowed him, he says: he is all desire and all self.
In the second half of the play, he wanders the countryside with his new lover, the composer Ekart; his songs begin to take on the imagery of decay. Then, in a country tavern known as the Brown Wooden Bar, Baal and Ekart come across something they hadn’t expected. Its denizens, seemingly waiting for death (one has consumption, another ulcers, another is poor, another syphilitic), are nonetheless whiling away the time and, facing death, have a rather different view of the ideal life:
GOUGOU: It’s like the trembling air on summer evenings. Sunlight. But it doesn’t tremble. Nothing. Nothing at all. You just stop. The wind blows, you’re never cold. The rain falls, you never get wet. Funny things happen, you don’t laugh. You rot, there’s no more waiting. General strike. … Yes, that’s paradise. No more unfulfilled desires. All gone. You get over all your habits. Even the habit of desire. That’s the way to be free.
MAJA: And what happens at the end?
GOUGOU: (grinning) Nothing. Nothing at all. The end never comes. Nothing lasts forever.
BAAL: (has risen, to Ekart) Ekart, stand up! We’ve fallen in with murderers.
Murderers indeed, if your entire being is centered on the satisfaction of your every desire — the resignation and renunciation of desire that Gougou recommends has something strangely Beckettian about it. Soon enough, Baal kills Ekart in a fit of jealous rage over a bar girl, and not long after, he dies amongst a group of woodcutters whose schnapps he has stolen and consumed.
However magnetic Baal may be to the other characters in the play (and the audience; there’s something undeniably liberating about bearing witness to Baal’s unapologetic freedom), he is, ultimately, a villain — “an antisocial man” is how Brecht described him, both at the time and years later, when preparing his collected plays for publication in socialist East Germany. But at the time of the play’s composition, Brecht himself was, if a label must be applied, a nihilist if anything, and “antisocial” has a different meaning to a nihilist than to a socialist. But lacking in this play (as in Brecht’s other early plays) is any kind of authorial judgment of Baal’s character.
This play, though wild, does have a structure, a perspective, and a complicated one at that. That Baal (mythologically, the Canaanite god of fertility and storms) ultimately meets a bad end didn’t escape the notice of the Nazis, who themselves were intent on fulfilling the “natural” Aryan desire for world domination; Brecht was on their enemies list as early as 1923, when Baal received its stage premiere in Leipzig. (The Nazis were keen art critics, fully convinced that art had a political use and a function in society — and that some art had no place in it at all.) The attitudes of the individual man or woman and the artist to society would remain central aspects of Brecht’s work all the way through to his last original fully-completed play, The Days of the Commune (1948-49); nor would this ambivalence abate, even through Brecht’s changing conception of the artist’s role in the culture.
In the dark chaotic days after September 11, 2001, theater companies were hard pressed to respond adequately to the tragedy of the day and the changed American perspective. It occurred to me that they may have done worse than to begin staging Greek tragedies again. Not that they’d ever stopped, of course, but this pointed response would have emphasized the continuity of a theater tradition that recognized, communally, the intersection of the personal and the political, the burdens of political leadership and the seeming arbitrariness of fate, or the gods, or whatever cosmic perversity that led to such disasters.
In this respect Bertolt Brecht’s 1948 adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, first staged in Chur, Switzerland, was in parallel a response to the end of the Second World War. Working from a translation by Hõlderlin, Brecht like Jean Anouilh in 1942-44 approached the play as a comment on the forces that led to World War II and the ensuing crisis of personal responsibility in a fascist state.
Brecht’s peculiar revision in this case was to twist the end of the Sophoclean version slightly; in the Chur Antigone, the events of the play occur not at the war’s end but as the war’s end appears to approach. Creon has returned home in advance of his troops, proclaiming victory against Argos. He tells the chorus of Theban Elders:
… there is
No Argos any more. The settling up
Was total. From eleven townships
Few got away, oh very few! …
This is an outright lie: while Creon talks a good line about winning the war against Argos, Argos has other plans. (The Elders let that “very few” in Creon’s speech slip by, but Creon has given the game away: truth creeps through even in the midst of rhetoric.) Having proclaimed the end of hostilities, Creon goes about setting the Theban house in order under his sword, and Antigone is only the first of his victims, her sacrifice conducted in the shadow of the state-sanctioned bacchic revels celebrating victory.
Brecht’s genius is in his slight tampering with the Sophoclean chronology. In setting the action of Antigone’s rebellion prior to the end of a war against Argos, rather than just after a civil war, Brecht refocuses the social and personal elements of the play on their political significance; the consequences of Antigone’s and Creon’s conflicts are far more immediate. In doing so, he also robs fate and the gods of their significance. Responsibility for the conduct of the state rests solely on the shoulders of Creon, Antigone and the Theban Elders — petitioning non-existent gods and wringing one’s hands over a conveniently distant “fate” doesn’t wash any more.
It’s odd that in a way post-9/11 American and European theater has been echoing the form of Greek tragedy more than it had before. Michael Billington noted in the April 16 Guardian (UK) that the 90-minute play, adhering to the Aristotelian unities, is enjoying a renaissance, but he fails to note that this is the form of the great classical tragedies. Perhaps, without our knowing it, we are sensing some ancient human rhythms in our own world now, and the form naturally contains and expresses those rhythms. Certainly it was the case in the years during and after the Second World War, and it appears to be happening now. Reading Brecht’s dramatic response to the post-war situation may clue us in to at least one way of approaching the new Western perspective.
The Brecht Antigone is available in David Constantine’s translation in volume eight of the Methuen collected plays. A version by the Living Theatre’s Judith Malina, first staged in 1967 (the midst of the Vietnam conflict), is also available.
A visit to the Drama Book Shop — an odd second home on West 40th Street for theater types of all persuasions — produced two of the eight volumes of the UK publisher Methuen’s complete English edition of the work of Bertolt Brecht (currently available through A.C. Black).
Brecht’s star has been rather in eclipse over the past few decades. First there was the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which rendered Brecht’s political theorizing irrelevant; second, John Fuegi’s monumental though fundamentally flawed 1994 biography of the playwright posited a grossly abusive, dishonest and parasitic demon behind the plays. The book has been thoroughly and conclusively refuted by, among others, critic John Willett, who said, “In over 30 years in the profession I have not read an allegedly scholarly book on any subject I knew well that fell so short of minimum standards of serious scholarship. The evidence it presents is, for the most part, so flawed or unsustainable and the presentation of that evidence violates basic standards of accuracy and responsibility so egregiously that the book cannot stand up to careful scrutiny.” This didn’t prevent Grove Press from reissuing the book in 2002; at amazon.com, Fuegi’s travesty far outsells Frederic Ewen’s more persuasive 1967 Bertolt Brecht: His Life, His Art and His Times.
Finally there is the availability or non-availability in the United States of the plays themselves, at least in any reliable translation. With Shakespeare, editors have, at worst, three versions of any individual play — the first and second quartos and the first folio — from which to cobble a variorum edition: a cakewalk for any English-speaking reader who’s examined the bizarre field of Brecht translations and editions in the United States. Translations of Brecht have been appearing in the United States since the 1930s, when New York saw premieres of Brecht’s The Mother and The Threepenny Opera in translation, but trouble emerged even then: Brecht thoroughly disapproved of the Mother translation and production.
As John Willett and Martin Esslin issued pioneering studies of Brecht in the few years following Brecht’s death in 1956, Grove Press began to publish English “versions” of the Brecht plays in a series supervised by Eric Bentley, who for all his unquestionable scholarly dedication to Brecht’s work oversaw quite a curious edition. Taking to heart Brecht’s injunctions to re-vision each of his plays according to the politics and language of the time, Bentley revised many of the texts to the point at which they scarcely resembled, beyond broad outline, the German originals. (His version of A Man’s a Man is particularly egregious in this regard.) The series, many volumes of which are still commonly available, also includes the Charles Laughton/Bertolt Brecht “translation” of Galileo and Desmond Vesey’s version of The Threepenny Opera, a translation often unstaged because so unstagable.
At least Bentley’s edition had the imprimatur of Brecht himself. After Brecht’s death, and after the playwright’s posthumous star began to rise in the political ferment of the 1960s, Random House contracted with Ralph Manheim and John Willett to edit a multi-volume uniform edition of Brecht’s plays, poetry and prose, the first volume of which was published in 1970/1971. Supported with extensive editorial notes, variant readings and secondary material, the edition was poised to become the definitive English-language edition of Brecht’s work for the 20th century and probably beyond, leaving the admirable but in many ways flawed Bentley edition in the dust.
But then something happened, and in this there’s a book in itself, I’m sure. The Brecht estate apparently insisted on different translations of each individual play for publication in the United States and in Great Britain, a burdensome additional chore on top of what was already, given Brecht’s constant revising of every play in the canon, an onerous editorial task. Over the next six or seven years, squeezing additional volumes of the series from Random House was like pulling teeth. (I know; as a callow youth, I insisted that bookstore clerks scour the big, forbidding, pre-computer volumes of Books in Print for publication dates.) In the end, Random House published the first, second, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth volumes in the series before the effort ground to a permanent halt in the late 1970s; and seemingly as rapidly as they were issued, the individual volumes went out-of-print.
Then, in 1994, Manheim and Willett re-emerged as editors of a uniform edition, but for Methuen in England this time. Apparently there was some effort at Richard and Jeanette Seaver’s Arcade Publishing to import these plays into an American edition, but except for a few multi-play volumes these have been emerging in single-title editions instead: more expensive for completists and, as it happens, for everybody else; and certainly without the care of the Methuen edition. (Their volume of the lehrstücke is especially dreadful: poorly typeset with nothing more than a one-page introductory note to preface the plays, which, if you look closely at the copyright page, turn out to be the products of a thirty-year-old translation apparently prepared for the Random House edition. Ten bucks, huh? A crime, especially considering that these plays are essential for a full understanding of Brecht’s career and that they’ve never appeared in a proper, annotated edition until the new Methuen edition, and these most mutable of Brecht’s plays certainly cry out for such treatment.)
There’s some sort of epic (in both the Brechtian and traditional sense) story to be told here about ownership of literary property, exploitation of author’s rights, greed of publishers and estates, and the loss to the general community and the art form engendered by this politicking, and Brecht, bearing the Prudhonian assertion “Property is theft” in mind, must be giggling in his grave over all this. The American theater, which appears to be rediscovering the role of politics on the stage, could use a good edition of Brecht right now; ironic that they’ll have to go to London to get it. But it’s here, and as I settle in to read several Brecht plays never available in translation before, I can always hope for the wider dissemination of the Methuen volumes. The Drama Book Shop is a good place to start, if you’re interested.
NOTA BENE: John Willett’s pioneering study of Brecht The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Martin Esslin’s monograph Brecht: A Choice of Evils have recently been returned to print. Highly recommended, especially the Willett, which has some excellent photographs of Brecht’s own productions.
UPDATE: Methuen also informs me that, as an overview to the edition, they have published A Guide to the Plays of Bertolt Brecht by Stephen Unwin, the artistic director of the English Touring Theatre.