125th birth anniversary of Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht was one of the most original and creative dramatists, poets, and thinkers of the twentieth century. An unorthodox Marxist who pioneered forms to integrate art and politics, during his lifetime he was often considered a menace in the side of more traditional communist theorists and cultural policy-makers, but also one of the most innovative modern writers. He pioneered a new form of theatre art that gave a mortal blow to traditional bourgeois theatre and stirred the souls of the common man. On February 10th, this year, we commemorated this icon’s 125th birth anniversary. No playwright in his era so daringly and unflinchlingy confronted the tide of fascism or as tenaciously and creatively upheld the banner of Marxism. His works were like a very sword of the spirit of liberation from capitalist oppression.

Background

Brecht was born February 10, 1898, Ausburg , Germany—died August 14, 1956, East Berlin), Until 1924 Brecht lived in Bavariia where he was born, studied medicine (Munich, 1917–21), and served in an army hospital (1918).  From this period date his first play, Baal (produced 1923); his first success.

During this period he also developed a violently antibourgeois attitude that reflected his generation’s deep disappointment in the civilization that had come crashing down at the end of First World War. Among Brecht’s friends were members of the Dadaist roup, who aimed at destroying what they condemned as the false standards of bourgeois art .The man who taught him the elements of Marxism in the late 1920s was Karl Korsch, an eminent Marxist theoretician who had been a Communist member of the Reichstag but had been expelled from the German Communist Party in 1926.

In Berlin (1924–33) he worked briefly for the directors Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, but mainly with his own group of associates. With the composer Kurt Weill he wrote the satirical, successful ballad opera Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera) and the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1930; Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny). He also became a Marxist.

In 1933 he went into exile—in Scandinavia (1933–41), mainly in Denmark, and then in the United States (1941–47), where he did some film work in Hollywood. In Germany his books were burned and his citizenship was withdrawn. He was cut off from the German theatre; but between 1937 and 1941 he wrote most of his great plays, his major theoretical essays and dialogues, and many of the poems collected as Svendborger Gedichte (1939). Between 1937 and 1939, he wrote, but did not complete, the Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar (1957; The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar). It concerns a scholar researching a biography of Caesar several decades after his assassination.

Nature of Work

Today Brecht may shimmer like a colossus in the traditional sense, as far as his popularity is concerned. For years, his plays have dominated the statistics as the most produced in Germany, and in the Anglophone world he is counted together with the classical Greek tragedians, Molière, Ibsen, and Chekhov among the most frequently staged dramatists in translation. This is remarkable given the intellectually ambitious character of Brecht’s theater, aimed at undermining the relationship between a complacent audience and a dramatic tradition based on entertainment.

There is no essential Brecht to be distilled out of his critical writings or to be carved out of his creative practices, which were in any case a work in progress. The person and his writings have, however, been instrumentalized for various agendas. The postwar history of Brecht scholarship and Brechtian theater practice is marked by recognisable ideological adaptations  in both East and West.

. His return to East Berlin in 1948 and the establishment of his own theater (the Berliner Ensemble) were celebrated by the East German government as a major public relations coup, since he represented a strong line of cultural continuity with the left-wing intellectuals of the WeimarRepublic  Nonetheless, in the course of the 1950s, up till his death in 1956, Brecht’s politics and aesthetics were treated by the government’s cultural functionaries with suspicion, because his “formalism” did not fit into the pattern of orthodox image of Socialist Realism. After the international success of the Ensemble’s tours to Paris (1954) and London (1956), and then Brecht’s own death, his work became acceptable as a model of political theater when applied to the fascist past and to Western capitalism, but not to actually existing socialism.

In this we can see seeds of the demarcation between the political person Brecht and his artistic texts, and of the playing-off of the one against the other. Much of his subsequent reception in both East and West suffered precisely from this dogmatic definition of “the political,” which projects narrow and polemical positions either for or against the playwright’s own politics, which bangs the lid on the innovative, experimental energy of Brecht’s project before it even begins to develop.

Interventionist Thinking

The ascendancy of global capitalism at a height unprecedented,, the hegemony of commodity market mechanisms, the growth of communications technologies, and the tendency to ascend from class-based to identity and lifestyle politics, all demand new forms of analysis…

The historical illusions of modernism have now become a problem of positioning oneself as a subject in radically discontinuous realities. At the same time, the substitutes that are replacing modernism’s disintegrated utopias (nationalism, regionalism, ecology, a renewed awareness of tradition, etc.) are mere rituals or gratuitous steps to build for a new hierarchy of authoritarian or totalitarian relations between the particular and the plural. Given our distance from Brecht the person and his political reference system, it would be useful to endeavour to read his texts without his ideological moorings  and thus unravel how he used and transformed the material from  which he carved manifestations of reality.

Interventionist thinking — a concept that arose in the early 1930s during what perhaps was Brecht’s most productive work phase — was something he imbibed in various forms and with differing goals in exile (1933–1948) and after his return to East Germany. Thinking about something sparkles analysis and logic, which deconstruct and then reconstitute this “something.” Intervention is the opposite of thinking, since it describes an act. From the perspective of the subject, intervention refers to changing the object, the course of an event, or the condition of the world. In short, interventionist thinking characterised Brecht’s antagonistic worldview.

His creativity thrived off crises and based its highest inspiration from the intensification of contradictions. For this he devised original, dynamic poetic and aesthetic forms. Interventionist thinking is, a product of specific aesthetic forms that set the addressee (e.g., the reader, the audience, the participant) in motion through an analytical, distancing process.

Modernism’s utopias aim to revive to the subject from its anomie and alienation by imagining a non-place, outside of space and time, in which the ideal of unity between work and life, the individual and the collective, art and politics, economy and morality, would prevail. Brecht created such non-places in his work, shifting the settings of his plays from a mythic Chicago to the Caucasus or to China and playing with anachronism in plays like Mother Courage or St Joan of the Stockyards. Yet, he insists precisely on difference in order to produce new insights into structural relations and between historically mediated specificities.

Committed to the political avant-garde, Brecht had a goal of a utopia that would integrate art and social praxis. Of course, this vision had roots in a particular social situation and was subject to important shifts in emphasis over time. He championed idea of redemption through the negation of self. The excess and isolation of the asocial antiheroes of the early plays in the 1920s express his critique of the bourgeois subject without slipping into the modernist solution of escaping the masses through hyper-individualism. In the late twenties and in particular with the experimental learning plays (Lehrstücke) of the early thirties Brecht constructed an alternative to this subjectivist, anti-bourgeois stance. It took the the form of a collectivity that is planted in the consciousness of individual subjects transformed into a class identity through the dynamics of mass struggle. The earlier social chaos and individual rootlessness was converted into a consensus model of subservience to the collective (Einverständnis) and to a new individual who is defined not antagonistic to the masses but thir vry manifestation

Utopian approach

Many or even all of Brecht’s plays are directly political, addressing specific political themes. Yet his interests looked beyond historical specificities to seek ways of presenting problems that reveal the context and relations of power and thus awaken the desire to change things. In a broader sense his “politics” was aimed against the institution of art, which he considered essentially conservative. Brecht’s practical work consisted in producing contradictions, revising texts, and penetrating the passivity of audience consumerism. As an abstraction, then, the concept of interventionist thinking is still viable, but it becomes problematic when we attempt to define its content.

Committed to the political avant-garde, Brecht had a goal of a utopia that would integrate art and social praxis. Of course, this vision had roots in a particular social situation and was subject to important shifts in emphasis over time. He championed idea of redemption through the negation of self. The excess and isolation of the asocial antiheroes of the early plays in the 1920s express his critique of the bourgeois subject without slipping into the modernist solution of escaping the masses through hyper-individualism. In the late twenties and in particular with the experimental learning plays (Lehrstücke) of the early thirties Brecht constructed an alternative to this subjectivist, anti-bourgeois stance. It took the form of a collectivity that is planted in the  consciousness of individual subjects transformed into a class identity through the dynamics of mass struggle. The earlier social chaos and individual rootlessness was converted into  a consensus model of subservience to the collective (Einverständnis) and to a new individual who is defined not antagonistic  to the masses but thir vry manifestation.

Championing Collective spirit

This collectivity had not only aesthetic but also biographical impact in Brecht’s practice of collaborative authorship. One of the distinctive features of the modernist crisis in Germany during the Weimar Republic was a rapid shift in the conditions of cultural production. The increasing commercialization of leisure-time activity with the rise of popular entertainment (cinema, sports, dance revues, jazz, etc.) and the commodification of cultural relations that accompanied it defined a social crisis in the function of traditional cultural institutions.

The educated, bourgeois audience was diminishing and replacing it was a much broader audience of consumers with new demands for imaginative and recreational activity. This tendency toward cultural democratization also affected the role and the self-identity of the writer. On the one hand, the avant-gardists as well as the traditionalists found new, ways of proclaiming their elitism; on the other, writers like Brecht embraced modernity’s tendency toward social disintegration and massification as emancipatory.

The constraints of bourgeois individualism were dissipating.. Brecht began to cultivate an approach to production that immersed the author’s subjectivity within a collective. The very notion of aesthetic activity as “production” (rather than creation), theorized by Brecht in his book-length essay The Threepenny Lawsuit (1932) indicates this fundamental shift. Indeed, his Man Equals Man (1926) expreses a sociological model of identity constitution based on the protagonist’s function as a material object in the socioeconomic process of a business exchange. The demystification of the bourgeois notion of the individual is equally pertinent for the demystification of the bourgeois notion of the author.

With the ascendancy of fascism in the 1930s, Brecht’s vision of a more humane society was appealing but became more and more abstract, whereas his attempts to represent a compelling alternative order to contemporary fascism largely failed. Forced into exile and faced with the horrors of Nazism, Brecht focused on new possibilities of representing the old rather than on constructing a new order.

On the one hand, the formal reductionism of his parable plays from this period seems to function as a kind of insulation against the impossible contradictions of reality, but on the other the shift in subject and technique to more deliberate forms of estrangement decenters the text-audience relation by transferring the utopian imagination into the spectators themselves. The prologue to The Caucasian Chalk Circle (written in 1944, first published in 1949) gives an insight political and poetic utopia he foresaw in his mature plays. In the play the conflict of maternal instinct versus blood ties crystallises  in the scenario  of inequality and injustice when, during a war, a noble lady abandons her child, who is then raised by a servant girl until peace returns and the child turns out to be the heir to a fortune. The prologue raises the question of how a society can rebuild after the Nazi disaster. The setting of the prologue, in Soviet Georgia, was the first region to be liberated from the occupying German army, and the dialogue pits two groups of farmers (goat herders and fruit growers) against each other, vying for control of the fertile land. Projecting his own fears of a resurrection of nationalist and racist ideology, Brecht shows how an awakened attitude toward reasoned argument could be a model for postwar Europe. The anticipated collective destiny of the two cooperating groups of farmers who reach a resolution of their conflict through the Singer’s narration of the main part of the play demonstrates how art (the Singer’s narration) and labour (the collective farm project) are equally valuable forms of production for free subjects.

Representation, aesthetics, and the work of imagination become political acts with a use value comparable to labour. In his theoretical writings of the forties Brecht characterised this collectivity as the way people live together (“das menschliche Zusammenleben”), and after the war his endeavors at the Berliner Ensemble comprised the practical model in the theater for such a collective, at least in a rough, imperfect form.

Brecht’s Marxism

Brecht became a Marxist in the late 1920s. There was a streak of idealist continuity in Marxist utopian thought that also adheres to Brecht’s own. It assumed that everyone shares the imagined collective’s interests because of a fundamental class identity, whereas the highly differentiated interactions in such a social constellation suggest a much more complex intersecting of needs, demands, fears, and desires.

Bertolt Brecht was one of the most important dramatists, poets, and thinkers of the twentieth century. An unorthodox Marxist who cultivated new ways to integrate  art and politics, during his lifetime he was often considered a threat to not only the  more traditional communist theorists and cultural policy-makers, but also one of the most innovative modern writers.

Brecht, too, insisted on a political and sociological definition of class as the primary or hegemonic articulation of subject identity. but yet his  entire poetic model, undermines the strong tradition in Marxist understanding of the dialectic as a movement towards the resolution of contradictions.

Brecht was no abstract utopian, but an artist-intellectual who cultivated his critical faculties through the experience of political reversals and historical ruptures. Brecht’s project of a more just, egalitarian society never aimed to provide answers on how to transform the world, but they posed questions, of how to formulate the right questions for a given situation that is untenable and therefore must be changed.

While Brecht had strong conviction in the power of reason that enables people to identify the problems around them and to solve them, he was neither a narrow-minded rationalist nor a dogmatic believer in the inevitability of human emancipation. Thus, his critique of emotions, which is frequently interpreted as coldness was not directed against feeling or spontaneity as such but rather against the role of emotions in traditional theater. Brecht’s belief in reason is a functional concept that fosters a principle of reasoned action excluding neither passion nor emotion.

Committed to the political avant-garde, Brecht had a goal of a utopia that would integrate art and social praxis. Of course, this vision had roots in a particular social situation and was subject to important shifts in emphasis over time. He championed idea of redemption through the negation of self. The excess and isolation of the asocial antiheroes of the early plays in the 1920s express his critique of the bourgeois subject without bein trapped into the morass of the modernist solution of escaping the masses through hyper-individualism. In the late twenties and in particular with the experimental learning plays (Lehrstücke) of the early thirties Brecht constructed an alternative to this subjectivist, anti-bourgeois stance. It took the form of a collectivity that is planted in the consciousness of individual subjects transformed into a class identity through the dynamics of mass struggle. The earlier social chaos and individual rootlessness was converted into a consensus model of subservience to the collective (Einverständnis) and to a new individual who is defined not antagonistic to the masses but their very manifestation.

Brecht although being a great admirer of Stalin and USSR,was not a staunch Stalinist and was highly critical of the bureaucracy. In my view he remained silent on the purges to defend Socialist ideology, but deep inside was critical of them. Brecht’s relation to the East German regime always remained in state of flux. On the one hand, he said it would be better to have a bad socialism than to have none. On the other hand, he severely resented the dictatorship. When the Berlin workers uprising of 17 June 1953 was brutally repressed, he wrote a letter to the general secretary of the Communist Party in which he called for dialogue. Only his last sentence – backing the government – got unfortunately published. The pre-war disagreements between Brecht and the Stalinist political and artistic authorities were merely a “prologue to what took place in East Berlin, and some of the same political-cultural figures were involved. The recent publication of letters to Brecht demonstrates just how far the editors in Moscow were pursuing the campaign against Brecht and which figures recur in postwar East Berlin.

I would have loved Brecht being a witness of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, particularly is reactions to the theatrical and artistic innovations. In my view he would have admired it, but still  been critical of sectarian practices prevailing. Overall I infer Brecht was resentful of Orthodox Leninism or vanguard party system.

Quoting journal Revolutionary Democracy on his birth Centenary “Brecht was a son of his time. He lived and fought in a definite society, in definite historico-social conditions. The work of Brecht is better understood if his critical thought on the art and literature of socialist realism is borne in mind.

“Brecht did not reach his communist convictions about the art of the working class by accident, but by taking part with determination in the hard class struggle of the society of the time, according to his militant motto: “

“The Marxist world outlook gave Brecht a correct understanding of and a clear orientation towards, the classes and social relations of his time, the origin of fascism and its significance for the future of society when the working class would be master of the country.”

“In his critical thought, Brecht was concerned with some of the principal questions of socialist realist art. This was the concrete expression of his conscious participation in the class conflicts of the time. Conditions had matured, and the working class of his country sought to have its spokesmen, its artists, express the content of its class struggle in a new art. And this art could be nothing but that of socialist realism.”

Relevance

Brecht is a classic today, recognized as a canonical artist and thinker in the modernist, Enlightenment tradition who reflected on and wrote about some of the major catastrophes in the past century.

In a world monopolised by media and electronic communications, the voice of Brecht sounds strangely old-fashioned, while simultaneously Brechtian practices — like vandalizing world literature, mixing poetry and kitsch, using mass culture positively, and “complex seeing” in the presentation and reception of art — have not only been integrated by the market economy but have become part and parcel of the very strategies of functioning.

In the age of television streaming and virtual internet identities, even the estrangement effect (Brecht’s famous V-Effekt) can be used to sell commodities more efficiently. Yet, this kind of pessimism takes a part for the whole, in a system that raises the images in the media to the definitive experiences in advanced capitalism. For those who share Brecht’s critical project, the goal is to adopt forms of instruction and communication that patronise critical thinking and discourage contemplative approach.

Partisan without being committed to a party, independent of official institutions yet experienced at surviving within institutions, he repeatedly prepared to entertain risks and undertake unconventional steps : Brecht’s pioneering contribution was in investigating  history and projecting  the malleability  of the processes of history. In short, Brecht’s impact is not to be found in any formulas he may have provided, but rather in his writings’ scope  to sharpen  our own creativity in analysing  truths and processes of history.

Approach to art  

Quoting Marc Silbermna in Jacobin in 2019 “Brecht rejects both the Aristotelian notion of linear universality and the postmodernists’ embrace of meaningless and their belief in aesthetics as political resistance. Instead, he establishes a firm material-dialectic approach to art making, creating one of the most coherent theories on political art yet put forward.”

“Brecht once said that it was only after reading Marx that he finally understood his own plays. Indeed, Brecht’s theater is firmly dialectical both in content and in form. Rejecting Aristotle’s concept of linear storytelling, he developed the Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect). The Verfremdungseffekt was based on intentionally distancing the audience from the work they were seeing on stage to force them to think about the events of the play in context. To do this, Brecht would have actors break character to address the audience and briefly describe what would happen in each scene before playing it out. Actors would also change costumes in full view of the audience, and they were directed to act in a way that highlighted the performative elements of the play. Through these decisions, Brecht sought to remove catharsis from his theater. By denying the audience what Aristotle held sacred, Brecht effectively told his audience that they were there to think, not just feel.”

“Brecht views the role of a political artist not as an activist but as an agitator who uses art to inspire the audience to adopt certain political struggles or points of view. The audience, which was essentially absent from both the Aristotelian and postmodern concepts of art, is now the center.”

Most notable plays of Brecht

The Exception and the Rule 1933

The play itself is short, and lasts no longer than 60 minutes if performed in its entirety. It tells the story of a rich merchant, who must cross the fictional Yahi Desert to close an oil deal. During the trip the class differences between him and his working-class porter (or “coolie” as he is called in most English language editions) are shown.

Mother Courage & Her Children 1941

Following Brecht’s own principles for political drama, the play is not set in modern times but during the 30 Years’ War of 1618–1648. It follows the fortunes of Anna Fierling, nicknamed Mother Courage, who is determined to make her living from the war. Over the course of the play, she loses all three of her children, Schweizerkas, Eilif, and Kattrin, to the very war from which she tried to profit.

The Good Person of Szechwan 1943

Brecht’s interest in historical materialism is evident in the play’s definition of contemporary morality and altruism in social and economic terms. Shen Teh’s altruism conflicts with Shui Ta’s capitalist ethos of exploitation. The play illustrates that economic systems determine a society’s morality.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui 1958

It chronicles the rise of Arturo Ui, a fictional 1930s Chicago mobster, and his attempts to control the cauliflower racket by ruthlessly disposing of the opposition. The play is a satirical allegory of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany prior to World War II.

The Threepenny Opera 1928

The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) is a “play with music” by Bertolt Brecht, adapted from a translation by Elisabeth Hauptmann of John Gay’s 18th-century ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, and four ballads by François Villon, with music by Kurt Weill. The work offers a socialist critique of the capitalist world.

The Mother 1931

Based on Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel of the same name, the play suggests that to become a good mother involves more than just complaining about the price of soup; rather, one must struggle against it, not only for her and her family’s sake, but for the sake of all working families.

Conclusion

Breacht’s theatre forms are relevant today, in day and age of globalisation, where the working class has been alienated at a level unprecedented and social inequality perpetrating heights not traversed. Today art and culture manifests the prosperity or monopoly of the very few .No doubt they have to be adopted in forms suitable, to the present hour. Brecht was the master in making aaudience detached, and think for himself, rather than being carried away.

A critical look at Brecht’s career reveals that he over projected the power of art. Although Brecht centres the audience as the agents of change, His art basically casts as denunciations. He illustrated to the audience that capitalism was the primary root of evils and effectively argues that this system can (and should) extinguished.. Still he does no project a picture of the model of an alternative world  or how one could construct it. Brecht makes an important rupture from postmodernism — but no picture of what that liberation would appear like or how it would come into being.

Still overall I feel he championed the spirit of liberation and admire his unflinching resilience against Trotsykism in Stalin’s era r counter revolutionary forces. I admire him more than am critical of Brecht for mainly defending Stalin, unlike many critiques .Brecht withstood the most tortuous paths, and would on countless occasions resurrect from the most dire straits.

I recommend readers to read the essay ion ‘Bertolt Brecht and Socialist Realism’ in issue on Birth centenary of Brecht in1 998 in journal Revolutionary Democracy.

Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has extensively studied Marxists personalities .Owes highest gratitude for inputs from article by Marc Silberman in Jacobins blog   and information from Left Voice, Socialist Worker and Revolutionary Democracy journal..

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