early brecht: berlin 1928-1933

In classics long after on November 20, 2009 at 7:31 pm

Brecht: A Biography

Today’s post takes us to the end of Brecht’s first flush in Berlin – again, all props to Ronald Hayman for source material (single quotes – from his text, double – those he quotes himself). Precisely because this is his most formative phase, I’ll be moving on after – there may be a post touching on his years of exile (inc the incongruous Hollywood years) and more on the Berliner Ensemble – but expect less of a chronology in favour of splintering through posts on individual plays, collaborators or tactics/teachings.

Rejoining our hero in the afterglow of The Threepenny Opera‘s success found him materially more comfortable, but still looking to progress closer to life: ‘The activities reported in contemporary newspapers could not be dramatised through forms like Ibsen’s:

“Petroleum cannot be manipulated into five acts…fate’s no longer an integral power but more like fields of force to be observed as they send out currents in opposite directions.”

Under Brecht’s tutelage, Helene Wiegel, one of the faces of his theories, ‘called out her “Dead, dead” in a totally emotionless, penetrating voice…without any grief, but so firmly and irresistibly that at this moment the naked fact of her death had more effect than any private pain could have evoked…she used white make-up to indicate the effect death has on all who are present at it’.

Simultaneously work resumed on musical follow-up The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and the first Lehrstucke – agit-proppy ‘instruction plays’. ‘During the projection of a film…showing stills of dead bodies’ in the first’s debut,  ‘the audience became restive. Brecht ordered the speaker to announce: “Repeat showing of the badly received portrayal of death”. The sequence was then repeated’. A balancing act ‘…between Marxist didacticism and showbiz’.

By the time Mahagonny arrived, Nazis were demonstrating outside the opera house. Weill had been denounced, and Brecht was working with a more radical composer, Hanns Eisler. Riots and police finished the finale. ‘At the following night’s performance, policemen lined the walls of the auditorium and the houselights were left on’. In response, Brecht drew up a table, bulleting and contrasting epic and dramatic theatre.

“…some irrationality, unreality and frivolity should be introduced in the right places to assert a double meaning.”

He found unlikely support via a chance encounter of traditions: ‘The stylised story-telling of Noh drama offers a means of alternating between action and choric comment without any loss of clarity or intensity’. For ‘The Decision’, ‘…an important mission is endangered by one person: unless he dies, the others cannot go on… In re-enacting the events that led up to their decision, they take it in turns to play their victim – an ingenious dramatic device which deprives him of individual character while implying that each of them sympathises with him’.

1930: the Nazis, who Brecht had long mocked when he noticed them at all, were voted into opposition. Perhaps coincidentally, Brecht’s characters were depicted as increasingly twisted and grotesque, in the manner of Kabuki – ‘masks, padding and stilts…overgrown fingers…exorbitantly wide shoulders which made his arms look short…progressively dehumanised…Galy Gay had four successive masks…greasepaint and powder’.

Up next: St Joan of the Stockyards + the screenplay for Kuhle Wampe. ‘In the final scene [Joan’s] declaration of her newfound faith in violence is outshouted by the capitalists and salvationists [in league], who can now afford to canonise her because she has [inadvertently] helped preserve the status quo’ (Tretiakov’s ‘factographic’ technique had been an influence). Then: The Mother. And Measure for Measure remade into Round Heads and Pointed Heads – an allegory on Hitler’s rise (‘Racism as…diversionary strategy’).

‘Judgement is always of the essence in Brecht’s plays… One of his ideas was that a new theatre should be built in Berlin, constructed like a lawcourt, and each evening two famous trials would be recreated’ (Socrates, witch trials, Grosz…) It wasn’t to be. Back at The Mother, ‘Questionnaires were distributed at each performance, and changes made to the text according to points which arose’. Also contributed to anti-Nazi revue as it became the largest party. It was titled Oh Yes We’re Sooo Satified.

‘…on 27 February 1933 the Reichstag building was burnt. During the night…4000 communist officials and Party members were rounded up, together with writers and intellectuals who had resisted Nazism. Brecht was clever enough not to be home. He was in the clinic of a friendly doctor…’ From there – without returning home – to Prague: ‘It was obvious that none of them could go back to Berlin in the near future; it was not obvious that Brecht would stay in exile until he was fifty’.

Reichstag fire

The Reichstag fire


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