early brecht: berlin 1924-1928

In classics long after on November 20, 2009 at 2:40 am

Another instalment in my series boiling a biography into barest posts – we’re up to the third, 1924, Berlin, and page 105 of the original book, which it would be fairly graceless of me not to recommend, considering.

Back to Brecht, writing Man Equals Man, and his lead character, Galy Gay:

“Here is the donkey who feels inclined to survive as a pig / The question is: is he living? / He is lived.”

Peter Lorre in 'Man Equals Man'

Peter Lorre in 'Man Equals Man'

For all of which, he was ‘defiantly optimistic’ that human personality was malleable by technology, and this was not some mystic reverse but an opportunity. For Brecht, this was a “new human type” – ‘mendacious, optimistic, flexible’ (“…it is only seldom he can afford an opinion of his own”), but the play would also feature ‘the first of many trial scenes in which justice is not done, and is seen not to be done’ (‘active’ Nazis including Hitler were escaping with similarly slight sentences during this period).

‘When G.F. Hartlaub originated the phrase die neue Sachlichkeit in 1924, he applied it to the new realism with the socialist flavour, but as the phrase became fashionable, it was associated with…Bauhaus art, George Grosz’s caricatures, the abolition of upper case letters in typography, Hindemith’s music and Max Beckmann’s paintings’; Grosz & Herzfelde: “the artist would no longer be the Bohemian, sponge-like enemy of society…but a healthy, clear-thinking worker in the collectivist society”. Brecht was in synch:

“I feel no need for a thought of mine to achieve immortality. I’d prefer everything to be consumed, rearranged, used up.”

To pass his feelings to his actors: ‘Stanislavsky had had encouraged them to think of their character in the first person; Brecht forced them to stand back…by interpolating “he said” or “she said” when rehearsing dialogue’. Elisabeth Hauptmann: “Brecht finds the formula for ‘epic theatre’ – play from memory (quoting gesture and posture) – “demonstration scenes” (as B. calls them) emerge.” – ‘Instead of pretending that something was happening in the present tense, the actor would visibly be reproducing something from the past’ (“I give the unvarnished events, so that the audience is left to think for itself”).

Similarly epic, but non-Brechtian productions around this time: Piscator’s Flags, and Engel’s version of Coriolanus – and preceded by Gerhard Hauptmann’s Before Sunrise + The Weavers. The latter, writing in 1912: “The modern dramatist…may sometimes work toward a drama which like a house, an architectural creation, never moves from where it is situated.” Brecht would talk about favouring “roots” over the “dramatic event” (side-note – Meyerhold’s criticism of Piscator: “made a new theatre, but used old actors”).

“…no innuendoes, secrets, ambiguities, twilight; but facts, clear illumination of every recess, impartiality, no combination of comedy and pathos.”

Brecht now underwent a political education – ‘Marxism satisfied him as Christianity never had… His commitment was to looking at life from beneath…Brecht would argue that Shakespeare’s plays had been followed by “300 years in which the individual [having emerged from ‘feudal anonymity”] evolved into a capitalist”. ‘ Soonafter, he would meet Kurt Weill, and the two would create the Mahagonny Songspiel, with projections, placards, ‘real, unmistakable tunes’. The set? A boxing ring (Sternberg: “You don’t think in straight lines, you think in knight’s gambits”).

He would work with Piscator for the next year, and learn much about staging in the process (conveyor belts, grotesque masks, marionettes, ‘the human face blown up gigantically’ – ‘a complex theatrical counterpoint to expose the disparity between subjective impressions and objective actualities or between private ambitions and historical events…while the obsequious minister reassured the Tsarina that everything would turn out all right, a list of lost battles was projected…and a film sequence showing her being shot’). ‘Piscator wanted a functional theatre that could speak not just through the actor’s mouth but through each of its component parts… The main weakness was the texts he used’.

Original Threpenny Opera Poster

Original Threpenny Opera Poster

Elisabeth Hauptmann translated and introduced Brecht to The Threepenny Opera, which would be the next production (that they could interest a producer in). The rehearsals were beset by personnel problems, but the first night was a palpable hit with both critics and crowd (‘heralding a new world in which the barrier between tragedy and comedy is removed. This is a triumph of the open form.’ – Ihering; ‘it’s the fashionable show, always sold out’ – Kessler). So: ‘…for the first time he had a very large income’.

One shouldn’t assume that such success means the production had been compromised, and mimesised his nemesis, ‘culinary theatre’ – ‘Disliking empathic acting, Brecht incorporates scenes in which characters perform: this makes the actors act, as it were, in inverted commas. Disliking linear narrative and loving ballads, he writes digressively, extravagantly taking space for songs which are relevant only thematically…rancour is balanced by Weill’s catchy music…by the song’s irrelevence to the on-stage situation’.

Brecht had another five years in Berlin, but they would be increasingly difficult and conflicted. You know who. Coming soon.


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