Posts Tagged ‘brecht’

lines from mr puntila and his man matti

In classics long after, quotables on January 24, 2010 at 2:51 pm

“It’s a very human habit, discussing. It’s one great advantage we have over the animals. If cows could discuss, for example, there’d soon be no more slaughterhouses.” – Matti (5)

puntila book

If the good person of Setzuan is the self split in search of maintaining material success, Mr. Puntila is a parallel archetype – the functional capitalist who requires regular lapses into serious intoxication to enjoy the advantages their everyday persona wins them. As in Chaplin’s City Lights – the device’s obvious precursor – we spend much more time with the drunken version of Puntila than we do the other. This ups the carnivalesque entertainment value but also allows typically Brechtian defamiliarisation as he regards his periods of sobriety: “…you’d never believe the sort of things I get up to in that state… [with horror] …I become fully responsible for my actions.”

“Say no more about that Puntila who was drowned in a bowl of punch this evening, the wicked fellow. Look at me now, I’ve become human, all of you drink too, become human, never say die!” – Puntila (9)

His servant, Matti, is another of Brecht’s survivors, albeit uniformed in a rather hardbitten, taciturn manner, and it’s his ultimate unromantic realism which reveals what could be a harmless comedy of follies cloaks something harder and sadder. In refusing a love match with Puntila’s daughter, he flips the convention of class conversion (the corrosive comedy of laughing at lessers attempting to pass as ‘betters’) by demonstrating what a poor wife to a working man she’d be, adding how their children would patronise their humble father. Eva, the daughter, is herself a strong counterpoint, dismissing Matti’s materialism in a way only those whose needs are secure can and realising the threat to the ruling class in a meritocracy is not that the ruled may doubt their morals – that’s obvious – but their competency.

Puntila Berlin

Likewise, the play ends with him leaving Puntila’s employ – though there is some fondness between them, he realises there can be no genuine friendship between master and servant.

“I want to be sure there’s no gulf between us… Tell me there’s no gulf.”; “I take that as an order – there’s no gulf.”


lines from fear and misery of the third reich

In classics long after, quotables on January 24, 2010 at 11:15 am

“Not my stomach.”; “Flog his stomach.”

‘Fear and Misery…’ is an unusual play within Brecht’s body of work, consisting of a series of sketched situations lacking recurring characters or a strictly developing narrative other than growing ambient menace as the Nazis consolidate their stranglehold on the Fatherland. Brecht digs for small moments in everyday lives where the oppression solidifies – or, even more interestingly, sometimes briefly liquefies.

fear and misery book

So:  in the scene quoted above, an exhausted torturer makes his victim fake it while he takes a rest. Hearing an inspector approaching, they resume just as the ‘superior’ looks in, giving the order. Elsewhere, an increasingly terrified judge not knowing which branch of the government he must appease in a case wherein they clash, the doctor who trains juniors to diagnose through questioning the patient – except, it turns out, when they’ve been beaten half to death for politics. Most uncomfortably, a man on his death bed demands the priest list the ways in which Heaven will be different – despite his SA son at the bedside.

It’s a tactic which pays off – such was the brutality of the regime, any art attempting to capture its extemes in full frontal would look hopelessly, offensively bathetic held up to real events – and, worse, unrealistic, since the Nazi’s crimes were so black and white, so widescreen.

The last sketch features rebels listening to the radio: “It really does sound like a single people, wouldn’t you say?”; “It sounds like twenty thousand drunks being stood free beer.”

lines from schweyk in the second world war

In classics long after, quotables on January 23, 2010 at 11:33 pm

“A collaborationist doesn’t work for nothing, just the opposite, he even gets paid more these days because his own people despise him, I have to be compensated for that, why else do it?” – Schweyk (5)


Brecht adapted the work of others throughout his career – from looking-glass revisions of ‘The Threepenny Opera’, ‘Turandot’, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’,’ ‘Edward II’, and ‘Round Heads and Pointed Heads’ (based on ‘Measure for Measure’) to this later play, which marches Jaroslav Hašek’s novel onto the stage (updating from WWI to II in process). Its central character, either an innocent incompetent or a trickster playing the part as a one-man passive resistance, is a readymade Brechtian survivor, whose feints, tangents and allusions are too slippery for the literalism of the Nazi occupiers. He routinely over-praises these latter, inflating them into ridiculousness, a burlesque of obedience (thus, in a disapproving speech about his less vocal countryfolk: “When he hears he’s to die for something great, he doesn’t like the taste of it, he picks at it and pokes it around as if it was going to stick in his throat.”)

“In times like these, you’ve got to crawl. I licked his hand.”

Even this submissiveness becomes a weapon – volunteering to help a soldier remember which train carriage to send, he succeeds in utterly befuddling him, and elsewhere outflanks the party’s inbuilt racism with a speech on mongrels being the cleverest dogs.

Much of the play is set in ‘The Chalice’, a local bar which becomes a liminal space as natives and invaders intermingle and drink, thus risking losing control. The regulars exchange black market goods, unsettle soldiers by telling their future (“a hero’s death” predicted as something to be proud of) and – brilliantly – buy ‘postcards of German towns’. Initial scepticism over these – with a caption ‘Hitler is one of the great architects of history’ dissolves when they’re examined: “That looks dreadful. I’ll have that one. Nothing but craters.” In the final scene, Schweyk remembers the place fondly, its hospitality open to all who can pay, wandering through the snow – exchanging pleasantries with deserters, a murderous chaplain, and Hitler, now facing defeat – still looking for the front.

schweyk book

lines from the visions of simone machard

In classics long after, quotables on January 22, 2010 at 10:37 am

“The civil population seems to be a great liability in this war. It ought to have been shifted to another planet before they started.” – Pere Gustave (1)

Brecht’s updating of Joan of Arc has as its pinion a young girl, Simone, reading a book on the heroine as France is conquered by the Nazis. In a typical Brechtian refusal to simplify, she’s been given it by the buffoonish owner of the hostel where she works – consistency is seen in its most concentrated form in fiction – and the owner and his mother will shift from grudgingly giving food to their own army to absolute co-operation with the feared Germans: “Their first announcement on the radio was ‘Those who respect law and order have nothing to fear’.”; “They’re sniffing each other and each seems to find the other’s smell all right.”


“Are you trying to teach us to be patriotic? The Soupeaus have owned this hostelty for two hundred years.” – Madame Soupeau

Simone is one of Brecht’s most delicately drawn characters – lacking confidence, she repeats others’ opinions and judgements – her emotion is all her own, though, and it’s this she proves unable to control. Driven by apocalyptic, surrealistic dreams of her absent, enlisted brother (“Pour all your milk away, bury each crust of bread… Till he’s eating: ashes. Till he’s living in: debris…your town must be a memory, from the map let it fade…”) she begins a personal, instinctual scorched earth resistance.

simone book

The co-operative owners make an easy translation to the new regime. It ends badly for Simone. And in between, others fall between what appear binary extremes – most notably the wounded soldier George who, in failing to assist Simone when he can, relegates himself to the role of a minor character. Beautifully, though, both he and the owner do try to – gently, non-violently – help her when she is captured, and these useless sparks of goodness show how Brecht rejected impermeable heroes or villains – his characters always have a spectrum of choice – things/people could/can always be different.

Small PS: pretty certain this is where Au Revoir Simone got their name from – that phrase appears in the text, anyhow.

“Everybody’s exploiting the refugees down to their last sou…only a miracle can save France now. She’s rotten to the core.” – Mayor (1)

lines from the days of the commune

In classics long after, quotables on January 21, 2010 at 10:30 am

“We must smash their unwashed faces on the cobbles, in the name of culture.” – Thiers (2)

days of the commune

A later, perhaps lesser Brecht, ‘The Days…’ dramatises the Paris Commune more as a Babel of ideals than a heroic bubble. He’s most interested in dramatising how the newly liberated debating chamber, in indulging those voices so long suppressed so long, fails consensus, thus collective will, thus collective action, and so eventually destroyed by a well-drilled reactionary bloc (as their bourgeois owners employ opera glasses to watch the characters we’ve lived with for the length of the play butchered in their own streets).

“I’m not talking about me and you. I said ‘we’. ‘We’ are more than me and you.” – Genevieve (13)

commune stamp

There is an attitude – prevalent even among revolutionaries – that leaders should be trusted (“They must know what they’re doing, after all”). In this play, the rebels are not undone by corruption or brutality but through sticking too closely to their ideals – they retain their purity, but it becomes the blamelessness of a sacrifice rather than a new power. Even as enemy forces are recapturing the city, the central committee continue with polite, officious peacetime business: “Citizen Delegates, we shall continue with the business at hand. The next item is the organisation of a commission for the education of women…” As such, the feelings of frustration are pushed onto the audience, who are helpless – but if they carry the grievance out into the world with them…

“Smash the enemy within today or you will be no match for the enemy outside your forts tomorrow” – Ranvier (9a)

lines from the caucasian chalk circle

In classics long after, quotables on January 21, 2010 at 9:25 am

“Isn’t the stabbing dangerous for the knife?” – Simon (1)

Another of Brecht’s most exuberant plays, and written while in wartime exile, ‘Tha Caucasian Chalk Circle’ looks constructively to the future, applying a parable of contested motherhood to lands emerging from Nazi occupation. And while the backdrop of regime change (materialised unforgettably by the former Governor’s head re-entering stage left on a drunken soldier’s lance) is dramatically dark, when peopled with quarrelling doctors, inhuman aristocrats and separated lovers, it’s played as Breughelian adventure. That said, this being Brecht, it takes strength from upending romantic expectations. Even when fantastical, he can attain a realism precisely through disregarding stock responses based on the knee-jerks of normative psychology – when the Governor’s Wife ignores the threat of capture and death to make sure she packs her finest finery for the flight, it roots deeper than comedy.

caucasian chalk circle

“You have perpetrated an unpardonable error in the practice of your profession: you are acquitted. Next cases!” – Azdak (4)

Most notably, despite the play’s episodic pace, stock characters are rejected in favour of mixed personalities – kind cowards, over-formal sweethearts and – dominating the stage from his entrance – Azdak, the corrupt, charismatic judge whose elevation to power embodies a celebratory Saturnalian spirit. Brecht used and reused through the trial-as-dramatic form – from austere to ad hoc, but in making the judge themself a trickster, this is by far his funniest (he routinely works acceptance of bribes into his opening remarks, prefers to conduct two cases at once, and enquires as to lawyer’s fees because “I listen in quite a different way when I know you’re good”).

“Take note of what men of old concluded: That what there is shall go to those that are good for it.”

lines from the good person of setzuan

In classics long after, quotables on January 20, 2010 at 10:01 am

“The little life boat is swiftly sent down / Too many men too greedily  / Hold on to it as they drown.”

the good person again

There’s plenty competition, but I think ‘The Good Person…’ shades it as my most favoured of Brecht’s plays – the fond exoticism (itself a kind of picturesque alienation) of the Chinese setting frames a narrative which demonstrates trials of altruism that seem counter-intuitive when compared to almost any post-Christian (often Manichean) ‘spiritual progress’ but ring depressingly true with modern society.

“I haven’t eaten for two days. I couldn’t love you if I tried.”

Only when the titular good person invents a ruthless cousin to protect her interests (herself in drag) can she maintain the business she inherited, but as the play goes on she has to spend more and more time as her alter ego, the desperate measure becoming the dominant personality – a formally elegant and deeply resonant metaphor for the changes those who would be successful must enforce upon themselves.

“I want your water, Wong / The water that has tired you so / The water that you carried all this way / The water that is hard to sell because it is raining.”

Not so long ago, I watched ‘The Trap’, Adam Curtis’ brilliant doc on game theory, which emerges as a system posited on seeing everyone in the world around you as a rational, selfish agent (its populariser, John Forbes Nash, Jr. was quite literally having a paranoid breakdown at the time). Disastrously, this has become the ‘realistic’ default for how we – individuals and organisations – see each other, despite it proving a pretty unsatisfactory prediction tool – spontaneous kindnesses or any changes of heart are beyond it. Incidentally, I include artists in that – when was the last time you saw altruism represented as above without it then being rationalised for some ulterior motive (or pathologised as a kind of irrational love that’s like living with a pleasant but self-destructive sickness)..? What does it do to a society when reflexive kindness is represented as ‘unrealistic’? (Edward Bernays should also take some blame, the fink).

“Your injunction / To be good and yet to live / Was a thunderbolt / It has torn me in two… Why are bad deeds rewarded / Good ones punished? …I became a wolf / Find me guilty then, illustrious ones / But know: / All that I have done I did / To help my neighbour / To love my lover / And to keep my little one from want.”

Also: most narratives, being simplistic depictions, operate via potlatch – favours for favours, etc – but Brecht knows debts accrue interest, gifts (even noble sacrifices) can lose value, people will usually pay the minimum they can for services and, when one can’t pay in full, there will be consequences (those who’ve been good will not be magically luckier than those who have not).

“You’re thinking, aren’t you, that this is no right / Conclusion to the play you’ve seen tonight? …You write the happy ending to the play / There must, there’s got to be a way!”

good person

lines from the mother

In classics long after, quotables on November 30, 2009 at 11:53 pm

“Whatever you do / You’ll still have to struggle / Your position is bad / It’ll worsen. / This cannot go on, but / What is the answer?” – Palagea (1)

The Mother somehow manages to be among Brecht’s warmest plays despite being contained entirely in the thankless task of agitation with no historic shifts, and no exotic transpositions across time or space. The explanation is found in the characters that people the piece – not the frozen grandeur of iconic heroes and their grand gestures but the everyday graft of an inexhaustible rabble many of whom we see before/after being revolutionised (the mother – Palagea – of the title, losing her family in the process, Nikolai, the squeamish teacher drawn ever closer without ever growing less insufferable). That human nature is changeable is one of Brecht’s greatest, deathless assaults against traditional drama, where personality is destiny, and people are sorted by virtue, generally having two modes at most (villains who prove heroes, or vice-versa – but the final position considered as their ‘true self’).

The Mother

“Reading is class war” – Palagea (6c)

Just how much Palagea has changed is underlined toward the finish as she proves unable to relate with other mothers. She rejects their religion, and when she minimises mourning her son (a revolutionary) for the revolution, defends her pragmatism: “It wasn’t reason that made me weep. But when I stopped, reason had something to do with that.” (10) She is even reconciled to his executioners: “…in being against him, they were against themselves.” And: “There’s not an animal would surrender its young as you do.” (13) The play ends without resolution, but the struggle is ongoing.

lines from st joan of the stockyards

In classics long after, quotables, video on November 30, 2009 at 1:30 am

“People don’t move me. They are not guiltless.” – Mauler (3)

St Joan of the Stockyards

St Joan of the Stockyards (1974 production)

Very much an ensemble piece, with large parts of the action being conducted between choruses representing meat-packers, stock-breeders and wholesalers (in a business-class manner Caryl Churchill would later echo with Serious Money), St Joan has at its heart a strange dance between Mauler, a meat trader stricken with doubts (“Oh, what a bloody business we are in”) which may or may not be tactical, and Joan, from the Black Straw Hats (akin to Salvation Army) who confronts him (literally) with the “invisible people” he exploits.

In an attempt to counter her idealistic onslaught, Mauler’s serpentine assistant, Slift, shows her how lowly-paid workers exploit each other, but she sees through crime to the logic of need: “You have shown me not / The baseness of the poor but / The poverty of the poor.”

“The cruel thing about hunger is that / However often you satisfy it, it always comes back again.” – Mrs Luckerniddle (7)

“…nothing, however good it looks, should be termed good unless it / Really helps, and nothing counted honourable but what / Irrevocably changes the world, which is in need of change. / I was just what the oppressors wanted. / Oh, inconsequential goodness! / Oh, negligible virtue! (…) Take care that when you leave the world / You have not merely been good, but are leaving  / A better world!” – Joan (8)

Joan exploits the curious hold her innocence has on the softening Mauler by sitting down in solidarity with the jobless from his plant (“The snow will be falling on someone you know”) but, in her heroism, she refuses to compromise herself with pragmatic matters, and the workers lose out as a result of her negligence. She dies, still preaching, pure and useless, canonised by her movement, who have been bought out / ‘supported’ by Mauler (“We’ll promise them that the rich will be punished – after death, of course.”)

“For there is a gulf between the top and bottom, wider / Than between the high Himalaya and the sea / And what gos on at the top / Is not known at the bottom / Nor on top what goes on at the bottom / And top and bottom have two languages…” – Joan (8)

Brecht’s real heroes are ‘flexible’ tricksters or unromantic pragmatists, and his happy endings, few – the frustration of seeing how the world really – mostly – works is supposed to send the audience out at the final curtain wanting to change it. But this play has what is maybe his most enduringly hopeful exchange – between workers who have tried and failed to convince the police that they are equals and should unite. One turns to the other: “Will it always be like this?” The audience considers the tragic conception of the human race, so endlessly fallible, the good intentions gone awry, original sin, hubris and nemesis. And, as they are taken away: “No,” answers the other.

lines from the threepenny opera

In classics long after, quotables, video on November 30, 2009 at 1:00 am

“In five minutes, I can turn any man into such a pitiful wreck it would make a dog weep. Is it my fault if people don’t weep?” – Peachum (1:3)

Threepenny Opera poster

Brecht’s early spectacular (which was spectacularly successful – not often the case for his work in his lifetime) features crime and punishment as close friends, a beggars’ bureau, a kind of anti-wedding burlesque, ballads including ‘…of Immoral Earnings’ and ‘…of Sexual Obsession’, all building to a public execution that’s aborted for the audience’s sake (stage-signposted: ‘THE APPEARANCE OF THE DEUS EX MACHINA’).

“Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance / In keeping its humanity repressed / For once you must try not to shirk the facts / Mankind is kept alive due to bestial acts.” (Second Threepenny Finale: ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive’)

See video above for taster trailer of what happened when Robert Wilson joined forces with the Berliner Ensemble for a recent production.

“The law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don’t understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it.” – Peachum (3:7)

Peachum, the king of the beggars, may have the quotes here, but Macheath (who would enter popular culture as ‘Mac the Knife’) has a hell of a black wit, and Polly, Peachum’s daughter, delivers an antisocial star turn with her song (and imagined alter-ego) ‘Pirate Jenny’ (“As they ask which has got to die / And you’ll hear me as I softly answer: the lot!”).

“Our judges are absolutely incorruptible: it’s more than money can do to make them give a fair verdict.” – Peachum (3:7)