He was born 100 years ago (February 10, 1898), and in the U.S. the celebrations have been minimal: If the Drama League hadn’t elected to fund seven Brecht productions by young directors for this year’s Fringe Festival, New York would have taken virtually no notice of poor B.B. It seems odd. After all, Bertolt Brecht is a byword as well as a classic. Virtually every American theater artist knows his major plays, and the number who use tactics learned from him is at least a million times the number who can spell Verfremdungseffekt. Like him or not, Brecht is one of the geniuses who made the theater what it has been in this century. What’s not to celebrate?
Well, lots. First, he was a political dramatist, sometimes noisily dogmatic, and after 1929 his politics were (dirty word) Communist. Most great modern artists have political skeletons in their closets, but Brecht’s is a virtual ossuary, cluttered with items like “The Carpet Weavers of Kujan-Bulak Honor Lenin.” Like many such lives, his now embarrasses us a little. What the Fringe directors chose to omit was telling: There was politics, but no talk of mass movements or class wars.
In most people’s minds, Brecht’s politics get muddled with his theories of theater, which need more words than one page of the Voice can hold, but three simple points should be stressed: (1) There’s no particular link to the politics. Brecht’s attempts to codify his aesthetics began well before his conversion to Communism. (2) Like his politics, Brecht’s aesthetics was always under construction. It changed with time, situation, atmosphere, and even impulse. (3) Most importantly, Brecht’s theory was only a theory. He was an artist, not an intellectual, and a theory to any artist is just a provisional guideline for finding a path through the work.
From this angle, it pays to view Brecht’s politics as an extension of his aesthetics, not vice versa. In both, the point is to keep the work alive, to startle the audience into staying alert. Taking the word alienation literally, Americans too often start with the attitude and omit the passion that’s meant to provoke it: The implied premise of the alienation effect is a tale so involving that the audience will need to be distanced from it.
On the personal level, of course, Brecht’s passions have come under critical attack too. Again, there’s no dodging the truth: His conduct, especially towards women, was one long parade of offenses. Little could be said in favor of Brecht the man, except for the one tiny point his detractors always overlook: Despite every dreadful thing we know about him, hundreds of people, many among the best and brightest of his time, willingly befriended him, worked with him, helped him, and clamored for his attention.
Which suggests that his attackers must have left out some mitigating factor. It’s too easy to say that he was obeyed as a man and a famous artist; it was an era of disobedience, and Germany had no dearth of artists. Brecht & Company, John Fuegi’s massive collection of half-truths and hysterical accusations, would like us to believe that the women who served Brecht as secretaries were plagiarized as well as emotionally abused, that in effect they wrote his plays for him. Evidence suggests that the women themselves, barring occasional flashes of bitterness, knew better. They may have wanted and deserved more money, credit, or affection, but they made no notable efforts at authorship without him, and Germany had no dearth of women writers, either. I don’t mean that Brecht was entitled to maltreat women, just that his having done so is irrelevant to the quality of his work. If we rated artists by their personal rectitude, reading lists would be a lot shorter, and many eminent writers besides Brecht would be landfill.
When we do look at the work, in German, what we find is an extraordinary theater poet, whose eminence doesn’t need a boost from any system, political, aesthetic, or gossip-peddling. He may have used what his secretaries drafted, just as he used everything that came to hand–Kipling and Goethe, folk songs and Salvation Army hymns. Few playwrights since Shakespeare have ingested so much material, and fed it back so distinctively transformed. As with Shakespeare, the recurring themes are treated with a variety that makes their scope seem enormous; the writing has a supple tang that makes the plays seem vast wonder boxes of poetic treasures.
The two achievements, of substance and of style, are inseparable, which is where translation becomes a problem. English gives a clear view of Brecht’s dramatic scope, but only a faint glimmer of the verbal beauty in which the original comes wrapped. Brecht began to write just as two centuries of poetic tradition collapsed in the dismal aftermath of World War I. His triumph was to have revived it with the breath of modern life. Even in translation, you can hear the surge of freshness that animates an early play like Baal or Drums in the Night, the easy assurance that gives a late work like Antigone its fervent lucidity.
One key is Brecht’s equal openness to “low” and “high” diction–another way in which his politics was a device to expand his aesthetic horizons. Even in naturalism, German stage speech had maintained a stuffy dignity. Brecht loosened its stays with the speech of the cabaret, the pop tune, and the gutter rhyme. Not that his approach is ever merely coarse–another American misunderstanding. His aim was to show that we could find value in both Goethe and gutter.
Translating Brecht–having done six of the plays, I know–is a hell with exceptional torments even for that tormenting line of work. Though the tone may be lofty, the words are of the simplest. And as a character in Roundheads remarks, “Einfach ist nicht billig“–simple doesn’t mean cheap. In English, translation has let Brecht down more than most European authors precisely because the challenges he offers are wider ranging as well as more difficult. Adaptors who catch the theatrical saltiness unwittingly strain out the poetic pepper; academics, busily measuring the exact ingredients, often omit the flavor altogether. The metaphor may seem ironic, given Brecht’s famous hatred for “culinary” theater, but that’s precisely the point. Where the usual play is either greasy junk food or overcooked banality, a Brecht play should always be a memorable feast.
As the six Fringe Brechts I sampled tended to demonstrate, feasts aren’t easy to prepare; translators aren’t the only ones whose fussing can spoil the broth. Academia has done its evil work brutally well with Brecht: With few exceptions, the young directors neither heard nor saw his dramatic poetry, viewing him alternately as a fount of sacred abstraction and a swinish rub-your-noses-in-it thug.
Not that good things weren’t scattered about: The two most obfuscatory productions, Versuche Ensemble’s Drums in the Night and Caucasian Chalk Circle,had cool, spidery music by Derek Bermel; four or five good actors weren’t totally lost in the shuffle of Ted Shaffner’s self-upstaging direction. Matthew Earnest’s Puntila, a mishmash that took far too much of its tone from the director’s last name, had fine a cappella singing (though in Finnish!) and some strong acting, notably William Cook’s Matti. Tentatively staged and weakly cast, Elizabeth Bell-Haynes’s Antigone sustained a dignity through which the text could speak, in Judith Malina’s good, feisty translation. Leland Patton’s Roundheads,in contrast, began with a text doubly maimed–by translator’s ineptitude and Moscow 1930s censorship–and systematically made it worse with bad cuts, foolish interpolations, and the trashiest playing style of the lot, though even this didn’t conceal two or three budding talents.
Paul Zablocki’s Baal, in the goodish Bentley-Esslin version, came closest to a sustained performance. He underscored too heavily, let his lead pontificate, and too often settled for caricature. But his was the only company that looked cast rather than scraped together, and the only staging, except for Antigone, in which event came first and attitude later. Baal is a young writer’s fantasy that predates the theories. “Bad” and “asocial” like its poet-hero, it matches the Fringe spirit, and the young cast caught its feelings, especially Sarah Roberts as Sophie Barger. Brecht’s theories may be dead; he, at 100, never seemed more alive.