Continuing my respectful filleting of Ronald Hayman’s ‘Brecht’ bio, it’s time to speed through the playwright’s first wave of productions – staggered over a few days and set in a city increasingly filling with Nazis… He spent full days with other theatrefolk who “push each other about, write about each other” and, initially at least, the enemies he chose for himself were other playwrights:
“The compassion of the dramatists (Hauptmann, Ibsen) was the beginning of the end. The plays are all two-dimensional… There’s only one view to be taken of the characters and events – the writer’s. The stalls are taught to be ‘understanding’ about everything.”
‘He was glad that he had not imposed his own views…did not want to interfere with the spectator’s “splendid isolation” or invite them to identify with the hero’; “There’s a higher kind of interest: in making comparisons, in recognising what is dissimilar, incomprehensible, inexplicable.” His first chance to express his beliefs would be in directing current closest collaborator Arnolt Bronnen’s Parricide, but his methods caused the cast to mutiny – “It would never have been any good with them in it,” was his sarcastic verdict when they walked out, but it was he who was replaced.
There was no money, but it all to do. ‘Many of the images and some of the theatrical ideas he was evolving derive from the need to economise. When power was in short supply, he saw a production lit with headlamps intended for cars. Having fallen in love with the effect, he never used coloured light in his theatre’.
Brecht’s first play to be staged was Drums in the Night. The audience ‘…was totally unprepared for the downbeat ending. Expressionist plays usually end with ecstatic defiance, and it looked as though Brecht’s sympathies were with the rebels: no one was expecting Kragler to lose interest in them and reach out shamelessly for the pleasures his pregnant girlfriend could provide’. The critics saluted his audacity, with the same good humour they’d stiff his next, In the Jungle of Cities.
Next, he would produce a silent film with Karl Valentin (Mysteries of a Barber Shop) before moving on to an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II – ‘a play which shows a king losing his dignity – a spectacle then rare on the German stage – and pivoting on a relationship in which two male lovers destroy each other… With Neher as his designer, he evolved a simple visual style, dressing the lords and even the king in sackcloth’. Rehearsals became a necessary ordeal for the actors – he made them ‘repeat over and over again gestures and inflections that seemed important: he wanted each piece of stage business to be expressive of the whole character’.
When Valentin observed soldiers should be afraid before a battle, “as white as cheese”, ‘…they were given white make-up to wear, which made them indistinguishable from each other…it was one of Brecht’s first alienation effects’. Additionally, Asja Lacis, the assistant director who’d studied with Meyerhold, picking up the idea of making ‘actors puppet-like’: “I tried to choreograph the extras to a strong thythm. Their faces should be immobile and expressionless. They knew neither why they were shooting nor where they were going.”
Baal belatedly followed, to no coherent reception. Brecht settled full-time in Berlin in 1924. Many felt the Nazis were already finished after their abortive putsch. Elisabeth Hauptmann was now his closest co-worker, and Man Equals Man the next original script.