Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, by Stephen Parker, Bloomsbury, 704 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-1408155622
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was fond of Marx’s favourite saying, de omnibus dubitandum (everything should be called into doubt). This naturally applies to him as well. And a great deal has been questioned, including his authorship. He has been criticised for supporting Stalin and accused of selling his soul for a theatre in East Berlin, where he preached to the converted. He is said to have “used and discarded” the women who wrote more than some of his work. He has even been called anti-Semitic, even though both of his wives were Jewish.
The doubts about his personality and politics also extend to the attendant scholarship. Studies of his work before 1989 have been called unreliable, since the Brecht archives are thought to have withheld crucial information. John Fuegi’s 1994 book, The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht, which appeared under different titles, literally compared him with the twentieth century monsters Hitler and Stalin, but some have discounted arguments based on its faulty scholarship as equally partisan. If you can’t really investigate the details, and see what’s right and what’s wrong, who can be believed? Uncertainties are still audible.
Numerous biographies, hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about his multifarious work. Given that interest has declined, partly due to these controversies as well as to political change, what can possibly justify yet another, and very lengthy, biography? It must seem impossible to say anything new. Against all such expectations, Stephen Parker’s account contains enough to surprise everyone. He has pulled together information from the vast literature on Brecht into a persuasive narrative that allows us to see what has never been so clearly shown and, above all, interconnected, and that is what makes the difference, in particular: the relationship between an extraordinary mind and, from first to last, a continuously threatened body, which he describes in revealing, truly forensic detail down to the last moments when, convinced his Berlin doctors were misdiagnosing him, he was due to leave next day for Munich; an unusually driven personality which, when certain of its own right-of-way, brooked no opposition, yet with an empathetic sense of frailty and difference that undercut self-righteousness; a self-confident director and performance theorist, who deferred only to Chaplin and to the idiosyncratic and brilliant Munich comic, who so impressed Beckett, Karl Valentin, with whom Brecht performed and from whom he learnt “the inadequacy of all things, including ourselves”; and a remarkable work energised by a struggle with himself, which is always the source of the greatest creativity, and fighting a diseased body politic in an attempt to “change the world” through the human need for material and aesthetic production.
A remarkable feat of concentration and judicious selection, given the overwhelming accumulated material, this story of a literary life is an astonishing achievement.
The ultimate double-bind, which encompassed this life, and certainly pertains to other lives today, can be deduced by juxtaposing two short last poems, which speak with characteristic clarity:
And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say how things are
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go under, if you don’t defend yourself.
Surely you see that.
If we lasted for ever
Everything would change.
But since we don’t
Many things stay the same.
Brecht did not succeed in changing the world, but he made a difference to how we see it. He certainly bore witness to a need for change. He did that through the theatre, in his poetry and by his thought. What matters most are not the particular solutions, but the questions that precede and the doubts that accompany them. For as times change, change changes too. To forget this is to look backwards, at yesterday’s solutions. For all that he took sides, his work is question- not solution-oriented. That is why it provoked and why it pointed ahead, even for those who disagreed with him.
There are two ways of engaging with a writer’s life and his work. One, biographical and historical, seeks to describe and situate both within the possibilities and limitations of their time, showing how the life was lived and what the work accomplished. The more complex the conditions, the greater is the task of describing them judiciously. Given the turbulent history of the twentieth century, the nature of Brecht’s engagement in its primary struggles, creating a work beyond the compass of “literary” criticism, in activities that literally reached round the world, this is the massive task of this magisterial biography. The other perspective, more critically inclined and riskier, in seeking to be predictive, asks how that work, and the life which realised it, relates to what matters today and for a foreseeable future.
Apart from criticism of his personality, the main accusation that affects interest in Brecht’s work is that it served an ideology instead of questioning a theory. In other words, when it thought to look forwards, it now looks backwards. It was, of course, caught up in ideology, in defending or advocating what now seems temporary and no longer defensible. That was inevitable, given the events and the nature of political engagement. But to assume so fixed a focus underestimates that work.
Its fundamental attitude was the act of questioning itself, the insistence that practice always trumps theory, and that practitioners and producers know better than those who control them. This is why Brecht had such trouble in Moscow and later in Berlin with what he called the “camarilla” who consistently opposed him. After leaving the USA in 1947 for Switzerland, which thought he was a spy and limited his visa, he hesitated before finally settling in East Berlin in 1949, while banned from the American Zone or Bavaria, where he came from, as the FBI turned up at the New York theatre where Charles Laughton was playing in Galileo, seeking to arrest him, and wisely acquired an Austrian passport, because Berlin was about to be ruled by his old enemies from Moscow, where friends and colleagues had been executed or simply disappeared. Returning “home” was to enter the maelstrom once again.
The detailed evidence in this meticulous biography is incontrovertible. He was, in fact, internal enemy number one for the group in power, who feared his popularity and influence, and did their best to grind him down and stop him in struggles that did not help his declining health. They only gave up after the triumphs at the International Theatre Festival in Paris of Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 1954 and 1955, which Sartre and Barthes described so admiringly. In 1955, politicians in both East and West Germany were denigrating him, so he must have been doing something right. The party finally allowed him the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, where The Threepenny Opera had been performed in 1928, for the Berliner Ensemble. They had planned to give it to the police.
What about those questions of cooperation and authorship, the entanglements between life and work? When Brecht was twenty-two, with a son whose mother he couldn’t marry, because her family forbade it, but for whom he felt responsible, his worried father approached the thirty-eight-year-old Lion Feuchtwanger, an established writer from whom Brecht had sought help, so far without success, in getting his work onto the stage, for an opinion about his gifted but idiosyncratic son’s prospects of earning any money, since he was giving up the idea of studying medicine to become a writer. Martha Feuchtwanger recorded what her husband told him: “I don’t normally think one should advise a young person to become a writer. But if Brecht were not to write – since he’s a genius – that would be a sin.”
That Feuchtwanger, apart from helping him get started, would then actually collaborate on projects with so much younger a potential rival says something about them both. They produced a play in 1924, “after Marlowe”, and far more than a translation, called Life of Edward the Second of England, in the Munich Kammerspiele, which caused a minor sensation. Brecht directed the performance, driving the experienced actors mad by insisting on quite different, externalising acting they neither liked nor understood. Valentin appeared, an unheard of thing, at a rehearsal. When Brecht asked him what soldiers felt before battle, he replied: “They’re pale, they’re scared.” They got white powder masks, the first sign of a style to come. Brecht found collaborating when writing and getting plays onto the stage, a practice he continued, more productive, and he started from the top of the profession.
After his death, the long-suffering and superb actress Helene Weigel, who could not work for fifteen years during their exile, and did not write, but later managed the Berliner Ensemble, said to his publisher, Siegfred Unseld, who told it to me: “I wasn’t his wife, but I am the widow.” She had kept the family together, created the conditions he needed, and put up with a great deal because she understood her husband’s needs and the primacy of creative work. She once explained to her daughter that he was “very faithful, but unfortunately to more than one woman”.
Parker’s description of the give and take in these relationships over many years also makes it impossible to accept the simplistic argument that he engaged in exploitative relationships where he “used and discarded” his collaborators. These relationships were fraught with personal problems, but that is something else. Three women in particular, Elizabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, and Ruth Berlau, were specially important. Parker does not gloss over these matters; he describes them and their circumstances carefully. The varying degrees of mutual dependency are set out in the context of their time, together with the conditions, psychological, economic, and of publishing and production, mostly difficult, and sometimes dangerous, in Germany and in exile.
In earlier years, Brecht often appears as a comic, even farcical, Don Giovanni, though his deceptions, deliberate or unwitting, were likewise not so funny for the women involved. He juggled his mistresses, keeping them onside with what sometimes became false promises of marriage, only Don Giovanni’s women did not have to conceal their pregnancies when they met on the street, nor were they expected to look after each other’s children.
But it is, likewise, impossible to read Parker’s account and not agree with Helene Weigel that he did indeed love them. Hauptmann and Steffin made substantial contributions. He was alarmed when Berlau went off to the Spanish Civil War without telling him or writing. Steffin was frequently hospitalised for TB, making Weigel very nervous for the children. Brecht was devastated by her death in Moscow on their way to USA. Berlau had a son in the USA who lived only a few days. In Berlin, she later became increasingly difficult, jealous, drunk and sometimes violent, so she was banned from the theatre, and he supported her financially. Hauptmann, who rightly felt she didn’t receive enough credit for her participation, wrote to him about his “emotional austerity” when they parted company, not that amicably, after neither could stay in Germany:
You are apparently happy. With a complete break from you I too, you can believe me, will find what I want: a great, natural and very tender relationship with a person in my work, too. Our relationship was somewhat austere, ungainly and not tender, but it was the greatest working friendship that you will ever have and which I will ever have. I will have a good heart again and perhaps we’ll see each other again some time.
And they did, both in USA and in Berlin. She later edited editions of his/their work. Hauptmann attempted suicide after learning that he had married Helene Weigel. Brecht tried to persuade the writer Marieluise Fleisser to leave Ingolstadt and come to Berlin. She stayed where she was but was shocked enough to also attempt suicide. All these women had other relationships and marriages. I met Hauptmann a couple of times in her Berlin apartment in the early 1970s to discuss her work with Brecht, and was impressed by her calm and her generosity. She gave no sign whatever of dissatisfaction, let alone of any regret.
As for what Fuegi called the “scam” with The Threepenny Opera, namely that Hauptmann wrote eighty per cent of it, it was always known she had translated Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. But it was then transformed, and the programme said: “Translation by Hauptmann. Adaptation by Brecht.” Fuegi asserted, against all the evidence, that she wrote the songs as well. She translated Gay’s, but none survived. The songs are Brecht’s and the archival evidence is incontrovertible. Fuegi, in thrall to an obsession, called The Jealousy Duet “an almost verbatim translation of Hauptmann of Gay’s original words”. That is also not true. Put side by side, the difference is obvious. The idea of the squabble between two women comes from Gay but has been so reworked that Hauptmann’s translation has disappeared. The sketches for this reworking are in Brecht’s handwriting. And Gay’s own “original” version was a pretty close adaptation of a popular English ballad, Good Morrow, Gossip Joan. The copyright lawyer is left with a problem. Hauptmann should probably have been paid more, but the songs and the music made The Threepenny Opera such a success.
Parker’s biography contains many unforgettable descriptions from all stages of Brecht’s unusual life, from his childhood dependency and lifelong fear of heart failure and emotional agitation, which governed so much of his psyche and determined his tastes. He was literally afraid of music that excited his emotions. From this compendium of insights, which reveals so much that cannot be paraphrased, I select two small eloquent incidents during the journey of escape.
In constant fear of a German invasion, Brecht and family left Denmark, where he could hear the German Navy’s firing practice over the horizon, for Sweden in April 1939, staying for one year. That invasion, together with Norway’s, happened on April 9th, 1940. Though it stayed neutral, selling to both sides, Sweden allowed the German army transit rights to Norway. Stockholm no longer seemed safe, and. Brecht had no passport. The Swedish secret service had begun checks on German émigrés. There was a warrant for Steffin’s arrest. Brecht’s visitor permit had not been extended. His house was searched by the police. Bedridden for three weeks with flu, which happened throughout his life, he said: “It’s better to have a Brecht on the outside rather than in a concentration camp.” They left Stockholm by ship for Helsinki on April 16th, 1940. He collapsed on the gangplank and had to be helped onboard. As the ship was travelling through the Stockholm Schären, the rocky islands leading to the Baltic, it suddenly stopped, Brecht records, so that a “young widow … can clamber aboard up a ladder from an ice-floe”.
In Moscow, friends helped them, who were later executed. He and his family embarked on the SS Annie Johnson in Vladivostok on June 13th, for a five-week journey across the Pacific. Nine days later, Operation Barbarossa began and the USA stopped issuing visas for German asylum-seekers. He had bought German editions of Lenin in Vladivostok. As the ship approached San Pedro harbour, he threw them overboard, a sensible act from the stateless, penniless German artist seeking sanctuary in the USA. Brecht admired the practical, tactical Lenin. But Lenin would have to go anyway. His power derived from the people’s weakness.
For those who believe Brecht willingly served the regime in East Berlin, ready to give them credibility in return for a theatre, Parker’s account of what really happened will be a wake-up call. In fact, he was engaged in a running battle with its representatives and their authoritarian attitudes. Preferring the fixed parameters of ideologically predictable socialist realism, they didn’t trust his art because it made people think. They banned his play about the Roman general Lucullus, whose main achievement was to introduce the cherry tree from Asia, as too pacifist and because it criticised a leader. He protested, arguing that the dictatorship of the proletariat was a bad time for art. The authorities therefore arranged a special performance for a selected audience, given free tickets, which was expected to condemn it. Instead they applauded wildly, some even standing on the seats, and obviously did not approve of attempts to censor him.
Brecht agreed to change the title to The Condemnation of Lucullus and made some minor changes to the text. He called the dispute “refreshing and instructive” and wrote a letter to the party and its leader, Walter Ulbricht, another Moscow enemy, praising them for allowing a performance before “the most progressive elements of our young republic”’ The party hierarchy was furious and determined to muzzle him. Anyone who does not appreciate the nuances and ironies in such exchanges, who reads everything literally, cannot understand what was going on.
The same applies to the letter Brecht sent to Ulbricht during the July 1953 uprising, which caused such a stir, later encouraged through the play by Günther Grass, The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, which attacked him. He had asked to speak on the radio but was denied permission. In the letter, he said the “great debate with the masses about the tempo of socialist construction”, (the last thing Ulbricht wanted) “will have the effect of testing and safeguarding the achievements of socialism”. In conclusion he assures him of his “allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany”. In effect, this letter says the party is endangering socialism. Ulbricht published only its last sentence.
Brecht was furious. He saw authoritarian, fascist tendencies everywhere and deplored the artificial feebleness of the working class, also highlighted in his version of Coriolanus, the play then in rehearsal, which argued that the Roman plebs only needed a strong leader because of their own weakness. For Brecht, the party was “governing against the population”. The poems he wrote about this are well known, especially “The Solution”, which concludes by asking if it might not be better for the government to dissolve the people and elect another.
After Stalin’s death, fearful of his views, the party’s campaign against Brecht and his supporters increased, and working norms were raised by ten per cent. Peter Huchel, a fine poet, and editor of the journal Sinn und Form, where Brecht could publish, was invited to resign and only Brecht’s protest protected him. Brecht’s student Martin Pohl was imprisoned. Brecht intervened and he was released after two years, but then left for the West.
Finally dismissed in 1962, persecuted and under house arrest, Huchel was not allowed to receive awards from West Germany and his letters were not delivered. The Berliner Ensemble was threatened. The “Jewish Eisler”, who was preparing the text for an opera on Faust, which did not suit the demand for socialist realism, was accused of expressing “a foreignness towards the German people”. Hanns Eisler, who wrote wonderful settings of Brecht’s songs, fell into a depression and never wrote the opera’s music.
What of Brecht today? The plays are still performed according to cultural needs and aesthetic and political expectations. This year’s response in Dublin to The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was obviously affected by contemporary Irish experience of the celebration and critique of appetite, under conditions close to criminality, before a devastating economic collapse. Kurt Weill’s music certainly helped. Let’s hope we won’t have to stage The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui about a dictator coming to power.
But there’s a different story worth telling for what it says, though not in any conventional way, about German history and contemporary culture. It needs some explaining since, as with any good story, we must know the circumstances, which include a special witness to Brecht’s effect in East Germany, Angela Merkel. Months after her birth, her father, a Lutheran pastor, moved from West to East Germany, where she grew up. Apart from being German Chancellor, she also leads the Christian Democratic Party. Unlike the earlier conservative politicians who denigrated him, Merkel said: “We appreciated Brecht because he didn’t fit into the narrow understanding of the official GDR.”
Apart from corroborating his role in East Germany, her assessment helps to explain an event in the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) on November 7th, 2014, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Describing it, I move beyond biography and criticism to Brecht’s legacy, which mattered to him more than individual works. The connections may appear roundabout, but they are certainly real. The legacy is embodied in Wolf Biermann. This is what happened.
The president of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, had invited him – an unusual enough occurrence ‑ to perform one of his songs in a full assembly session. After a disagreement over whether he could speak as well as sing with Herr Lammert, who said No, whereupon Biermann replied that he had not been intimidated in the GDR and would not be here either, he said what he wanted, and sang “Encouragement” (Ermutigung) to his guitar to great applause. A video shows that nobody applauded more than the chancellor. She then walked over to where he had sat down to congratulate him as they laughed together.
Who is Wolf Biermann, and why did he sing this particular song, and what has it all to do with Brecht? His father, Jewish and a Communist, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. Born in 1936, Biermann came to East Berlin aged seventeen. Others also expected that East Germany would be less contaminated by the terrible Fascist past. Born to dissent, Biermann then joined the party. That past proved a problem for all of Germany, as Brecht and Biermann discovered, but at the time those who had worked with the Nazi regime integrated more easily, if discreetly, into West German social and political life than in East Germany, whose political elite, as antifascist communists, had returned from the Soviet Union.
From 1957 to ’59 Biermann, as an assistant director in the Berliner Ensemble, was particularly impressed by Brecht’s The Mother, one of Helene Weigel’s best roles, whose songs by Hanns Eisler were unlike anything else in the repertoire, let alone in what passed for music with a socio-political address. Their narrative clarity and depth of feeling, a unique combination of simplicity and sophistication, which characterised all his work, was specially powerful when setting texts of the same quality. Part of their effect derives from a combination of determined hope and something close to nostalgia for what may be denied, tempering optimism with possible loss, or personal defeat, in a process longer than one life can manage to sustain. Some of these Brecht/Eisler songs are heart-rending. Eisler had studied with Schönberg, and it shows in the quality of his compositions. Like many others, Biermann was captivated by such aesthetic competence.
Officials, however, disapproved of Biermann’s writing and music, so he turned to Eisler for help. Asking him to sing some songs, an impressed Eisler invited people from the arts and theatre to a private performance. They offered to help. But help was delayed. The Wall went up in 1961 and everything changed. When Eisler died in 1962, Biermann lost his backer. Huchel, dismissed as editor, was put under surveillance and only allowed to emigrate after interventions from West Germany in 1971.
Like Eisler and Brecht, Biermann was contemptuous of the bureaucrats’ aesthetic standards and, above all, that they could impose their criteria, especially on young, unknown artists. Matters came to a head, and he was expelled from the party in 1963. This immediately led to restrictions, which became really severe when they declared him a “class traitor” in 1965, automatically denying him any opportunity to publish, perform publicly or record properly. He assembled a private recording system in his apartment in Chausseestrasse 131, just down the road from Brecht’s house and archives in No 125. Finally stripped of his citizenship in 1976, after a concert in Cologne Biermann was refused permission to return and, in effect, exiled.
For all that he turned against the East German regime’s notion of socialism – unsurprising after what it did to him – Biermann understands himself, rightly, within the tradition shaped by Brecht and Eisler, the outstanding cultural achievement of those years. He called himself a Brechtian and aspired to write songs in the style of Eisler, following the example of “The Mother”, then broadening into songs of protest and encouragement. “The bureaucrats,” he said, “regarded Brecht and Eisler with suspicion and that suspicion was justified.” They both had “too much impudence … too much of a subversive dialectic”. Eisler, like Brecht, “sat down between all the chairs”, Biermann said, using a German expression meaning that he set his own standards and could not be categorised or disciplined.
In 1968, he had dedicated “Encouragement” to Peter Huchel, a song about not being made hard “in these hard times”, or bitter, or frightened, or worn down, or silent, and about preserving a sense of cheerfulness, needed in these hard times, and which will survive them. It embodies the spirit of many Brecht/Eisler songs, and listening to it was like hearing them again. Prisoners, he told the Bundestag, sang it in their cells. He had composed it as much for himself as for others, so as not to lose hope or allow themselves to be crushed by their tormentors. He staged his performance, now sung by the invitation of a democratic parliament, as a memorial to the dissident values of that whole group around Brecht and Eisler, who were oppressed by the regime.
His performance drew on their practice, on that mix of ballad and cabaret song, intimately performed because each word counts and the music imbues thought and determination with emotion, keeping a balance between them. The style is sharp, taut, decisive and political, showing no regret and taking no prisoners, and not about personal feelings, or only indirectly. Biermann prefaced it with an unprecedented assault on one of the political parties sitting in front of him, which the prescient Bundestag president had tried to deflect but then did not attempt to stop. That was part of this extraordinary event, which concluded when he congratulated Biermann on his silver wedding anniversary which fell on the day the Wall opened. What would Brecht and Eisler have said to this? Biermann, of course, comes from a later generation, but much has happened since. His intervention raises that question about aesthetic intentions and the politics of Brecht’s art. It forces a choice, as he intended.
A divisive figure in many aspects of his life Brecht, love or loathe him, could not be ignored. His capacious activities are still misrepresented. There are many reasons for this. Some were politically detested across the political spectrum. Others depended on reading texts below the level of their complexity. Yet others followed theoretical descriptions too faithfully with arguments that reduced the subtlety of the representations, since literalists eventually turn originators into dogmatists.
When conservative West German politicians and intellectuals repeated what Ruth Fischer had called him, namely a “minstrel of the GPU” (State Political Directorate), a ludicrous accusation, conservative East German politicians and intellectuals considered him their most dangerous opponent as a writer. Brecht had supported “Stalin” in any contest with Hitler, but called him, parodying the language of the day, “the honoured murderer of the people”. He saw how cultural nationalism in the GDR echoed that of the Nazis, and had no illusions about Stalinism’s anti-democratic, authoritarian practices. The Berlin 1953 Stanislavsky Conference was organised to counter Brecht’s influence. He rejected their use of Stanislavsky as a means of manipulating audiences into accepting predetermined propositions.
In the Soviet Union, Brecht remained a mostly unwelcome dramatist, inimical to their concept of a socialist aesthetic (and ethic), until Lyubimov’s 1964 production of The Good Person of Szechwan in the Taganka Theatre reawakened interest in his work. Similarly, in China, interest in Brecht came from artists and writers, such as the later Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, who opposed the similarly dreary official aesthetic and its limitations of expression. In 1983 I was encouraged by Chinese friends to organise an International Brecht Society Symposium in Beijing, but it was frustrated by the Campaign against Spiritual Pollution. In March 1983 The People’s Daily published an article by Central Committee member Zhou Yang, suggesting that “alienation”, not just a capitalist phenomenon, was also possible under communism. Given the political paranoia, It was not the best time to discuss the A-Effect.
Talking with Walter Benjamin, Brecht recounted a dream in which a tribunal asked if he was “really serious”. He replies that he is not, being too concerned with aesthetic questions, but that this is permissible. He formed a “persona”, Me-ti, based on the name of a Chinese philosopher. His Me-ti was “against constructing too complete images of the world”. In the interest of socialism people should collect questions to which they did not know the answers. This raises the question of the so-called Alienation effect, about which much has been written but which is not always understood.
In naturalist acting, which extends beyond “naturalist” theatre, the figures’ very familiarity, the way they meet our expectations, offers psychological escape. While we empathise with their burdens, they relieve us of a repression as we project onto them what we otherwise hide from and deny in ourselves. At the very moment we identify with them, perhaps secretly pleased by our own sensitivity, they suffer for us and we scapegoat them. We both lose our self in them and, paradoxically, sever ourselves from them. This actual interrelationship between audience and character, reader and read, becomes opaque.
Brecht developed a dramaturgy, which sought in various ways to inhibit a once prevalent automatic identification by distancing representation through what came to be known as the alienation effect. Consistently singularised, this created the expectation of an applicable technique, a recognisable method, enabling the audience to see through whatever estrangement unmasked. When he first used the term, Brecht referred to alienation effects in Chinese acting, in which he also admired the gracefulness and subtlety of indirect emotional expression, without any yelling and waving of arms.
To “alienate” estranges what is taken for granted. It keeps thought on the move. It is inimical to, not the servant of, system. For all that he admired Brecht’s dramaturgy, even Barthes also thought that it fetishised ideal meanings, aligning it with Diderot’s Enlightenment tableaux, where the actor becomes “the master of meaning”, drawing attention to a character’s lack of understanding. As agent of the dramaturgy, distancing supposedly gives the actor sovereignty over the character. Prompted by the actor’s distancing, the audience, in Barthes’s view, is expected to withhold support from such opinions as Mother Courage’s maxim: “Whenever you find great virtues, you can be sure that something is going wrong.”
But Barthes misses the point of her remark. He takes it straight, as evidence of an ideal, if negative, meaning, of a Diderotian découpage, or singling out, that offers a morally reprehensible figure up to criticism. He does not see her observation as convoluted and challenging, and that it constitutes a deeper critique. Barthes simplifies Brecht’s discourse. Like the Chinese sage, Laozi (Lao Tse), probably the immediate and certainly the mediate source of this observation, Mother Courage criticises states that require an excess of virtue from their citizens. If only they were properly governed, ordinary virtues would suffice.
This example shows how Brecht’s dramaturgy was considered, even by so astute an interpreter, as ideologically pre-determined. But encounters with the unfamiliar offer different perceptual opportunities.
Estrangement may imply that behaviour is shaped by what a person does not know, but the audience can discover, about its cause, as the subjectively unknown is confronted with the objectively knowable. Erwin Piscator used such direct confrontations through film and statistical projections, but Brecht did not employ or much like them. Other estrangements reveal how what we think we understand may rest on an illusion, taking us from the supposedly known towards what is not understood, questioning the theories we have accepted, as Mother Courage does with her surprising maxim. Mother Courage’s tragedy is that she has to accept, or put up with, what she knows is wrong.
In all cases, what is not known lies, as it were, either inside or outside us, but the consequences are psychologically, epistemologically, and politically different. A theory either explains the purpose of estrangement, or estrangement reveals the insufficiency of a theory. The effect of this distinction is obvious and far-reaching. One offers the possibility of knowledge, the other confronts us with its uncertainty.
“The” alienation effect was mostly equated with what is easily aligned with a theatre of instruction: that is wrong, but this is right. If we know what has gone wrong, we scapegoat the character and neatly obviate further enquiry that might challenge us. Such estrangements merely separate actor and character. What matters more is separating the audience from themselves. The second estrangement leads to a more troubling analysis. The emphasis is not on the certainty of the observed but on awakening uncertainty in the observer.
Consider this example of such an estrangement in action. When Helene Weigel’s Mother Courage hears the shots that kill Swiss Cheese, she throws back her head in one long silent scream. For several seconds the action comes to a complete halt, the equivalent of an externalising gesture in Asian theatre. Because we need time to appreciate the moment’s complexity, it is prolonged, and we realise that we simultaneously see the pain and horror she feels upon the death of her son, together with the pain and horror over her own complicity in that death and, in addition, the pain and horror at the unavoidability, the social causes of that complicity.
At this moment of understanding we are both inside and outside the character. We are taken out of and put back into ourselves. This does not weaken, it compounds both horror and sympathy. We realise that our own subjectivity, our personality, our sense of self, is both inside and outside us, and where we think to govern ourselves, we are the expression of forces beyond our control. We realise that we are the object of structuring we have not calculated, and which we do not even see until it is perhaps too late. Creating such emotionally powerful experiences is the real goal of Brecht’s estrangements.
We do not just sympathise with Mother Courage, the tough mother, and thus get rid of a repressed emotional load. More complex than empathy, the process involves an emotionally energised understanding of our own complicity and endangerment. Realising that we are at the same time victims and accomplices in victimisation, we face ourselves in an experience that is seldom reassuring.
Another such moment fusing understanding and emotional intensity, also taken out of the flow of events, in effect creating a tableau, though not like Diderot’s, “under a single point-of-view”, occurs when the Old Peasant Woman in The Caucasian Chalk Circle complains to Azdak about the bandits. He listens to her and then sets her on his own seat of justice. Sitting below her on the steps, he looks up, as a vicarious spectator, and says: “Mother Grusinia … Be merciful to us, the damned.”
Brecht’s theatre is full of such effects and, of course, they can also be found in the poetry, as in “The Doubter” (1937), a poem about the Chinese painting he hung in his bedroom. Whenever a question seems settled, they unroll this portrait of the man “who doubted so much”. He questions everything, including what explains his activities. Their test is not theoretical coherence, but only ever practice: “But above all / Always above all else: how does one act / If one believes what you say? Above all: how does one act?” Reflecting on this advice, they “looked at each other and made a fresh start”.
In the painting, the artist, a high Qing dynasty official, Gao Qipei (1660-1734), queries the efficacy of his actions, through the figure’s hunched shoulders and outward-pointing feet, and in four verses written in the picture, which ponder the gap between Buddhist belief (or theory) and the difficulties of actual practice. As vice-president of the Board of Rites, responsible for morality in the bureaucratic state, Gao spoke and painted from experience.
Some lines in Brecht’s poem, “Are you truly in the stream of happening? Do you accept all that develops?” were read as supporting Stalin’s “theory”, but that “stream” is fed by other waters, including Nietzsche’s unceasing “river of events”, which Brecht quotes, and the Daoist flowing water that overcomes hard stones. About continuous change, precarious practice and theoretical uncertainty, “The Doubter” is also a self-portrait, and an estrangement par excellence.
Antony Tatlow is currently Honorary Professor in the TCD Drama Department, was Professor of Comparative Literature and Coordinator of the Graduate Centre for Arts Research there from 1996 to 2006 and before that Professor and Head of Comparative Literature in the University of Hong Kong. He has written about the relationship between East Asian and Western cultures mostly in respect of drama and poetry.