The Currency of Bertolt Brecht

What a shame we still live in a world that the playwright would so readily have recognized.


I am sitting by the side of the road.
The driver is changing the wheel.
I don’t like where I was.
I don’t like where I am going to.
Why do I watch the changing of the wheel
With impatience?

Bertolt Brecht was a restless spirit, as he observes in this laconic poem of 1953 — near the end of his short life. He was apparently finally safe, back “home” in the Soviet half of the divided Germany, after years as a refugee from the Nazis and war-stricken Europe, and after especially uncomfortable years in the US, where he felt more culturally alienated than ever before, or after. But, back in Berlin, he was still impatient.

He had always been intellectually restless, happy to include Daoism alongside Marxism amongst his inspirations, fascinated by developments in modern physics (he contemplated writing a play on Einstein, as a kind of pendant to his Galileo), and intrigued by logical positivism as much as by contemporary theories of behaviourism and sociology. Famously, when asked as a young man which book had most influenced him, he answered, “You’ll laugh, the Bible.”

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In his own reading practice, he was an extraordinary magpie. He loved detective stories and the adventure stories of Karl May as much as he admired the German classics. He drew on Danish, Italian, Russian, Persian and Chinese literature. Amongst the English, alongside Shakespeare, he was an avid reader of Shelley and Kipling, loved Charlie Chaplin, and in the middle of the Second World War suddenly and surprisingly invoked Wordsworth as an exemplary model for the ethical value of poetry.

It comes as no surprise that his own writing practice was exceptionally wide-ranging and varied. No one, picking up his first play, Baal, say, and Life of Galileo, not to mention the “learning play” The Decision, would think they were by the same man. The same is true of the unfinished dramatic projects — some grand torsos of plays, some fragments — now grouped in the new volume Brecht and the Writer’s Workshop: Fatzer and Other Dramatic Projects. It is a trove of dramatic sketches spanning his whole writerly career. But Brecht was not just a dramatist. He wrote in almost every conceivable genre: novels, short stories, essays, verse epics and prose dialogues. His conspicuously topical Refugee Conversations are due out later this year, for the first time in English. And poems. The recent Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht, which runs to 1,300 pages, has sonnets, love poems and nursery rhymes set next to the marching songs, theatre songs and pointed political satires. Celebrations of all that makes human life worth living run alongside the excoriations of the powerful and corrupt, the piercing analyses of fascism and capitalism, the laments for all their victims:

In this country, I hear, the word “convince”
Has been replaced by the word “sell.” Of the young mother
Who holds the newborn to her breast, they say:
She sells him the milk. The local
Who shows the snow-topped mountains to the stranger
Sells him, so to speak, the landscape. The mission of the President
According to the newspapers, was to sell to the people
The war against the aggressor states. The battle cry
“Down with the crimes of the market!”
Is something, my friends tell me, that I shall have to
Sell to the exploited.

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History may not exactly repeat itself, but we have not come so far (as we might like to think) in the 80-odd years since that one was written. On the contrary, it is salutary to read our own present through the eyes of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — we may see things differently and, God help us, worse, if we take history seriously. At the same time, we may look on the first half of the 20th century, consciously and conscientiously, through the glass of the present. It is not a mirror, but there are patterns enough that repeat and modulate and evolve, so that Brecht’s writings still speak to us now with an urgency much as they had for his own contemporaries.

It is not, however, just for resonances and analogies, however precise, that Brecht’s writings are interesting. As commentators from Roland Barthes (writing on epic theatre in the 1950s) to Fredric Jameson (whose essay, Brecht and Method, appeared in 1998) have recognised, Brecht can teach us a “method”: an approach to understanding social phenomena by a process of estrangement and re-appraisal, deconstruction and reconstruction.

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In the great plays as much as in the unfamiliar poems and fragments, Brecht’s characters labour under social injustices of every kind, blind and illegitimate government, and posturing populist demagogy. They experience war, revolution and regime change, exile and every sort of displacement. But Brecht surprises us, time and again, by apparently taking the wrong side of the argument, by making victims of the victims, or by sympathising with the least sympathetic. By the use of what he called Verfremdung and Gestus, attitudes and “character” itself are revealed as socially constructed, our conventional understandings are unmasked as socially interested illusions, the seemingly “natural” appears as a trick of representation, and even our language is revealed as pre-programmed against us. When Mother Courage laments that peace has “broken out,” or when Fatzer (in the unfinished play of that name) observes that the war has not yet gone on long enough because not enough children have died of malnutrition to provoke the people to a more self-interested rebellion, then we begin to analyse and to glimpse alternative interpretations, alternative ways forward.

It is our shame that we still live in a world that Brecht would so readily have recognised, where persecution and mass refugee crises, economic migration and people trafficking, limping democracies and strutting dictatorships, bumbling bureaucracies and fake news machines, exploitative markets and financial crises are still the order of the day. But this is a writer we may still use to comprehend and resist our present disorders:

Reading the newspaper while making tea
Early in the morning in the newspaper I read of the epoch-making plans
Of the pope and kings, of the bankers and oil barons.
Out of the corner of my eye I watch
The pot with water for my tea
How it clouds and begins to simmer, then clears again
And overflowing extinguishes the flame.

A complete selection of volumes edited and co-edited by Tom Kuhn for Methuen Drama can be found here.