BACK STAGE WEST
February 05, 1998
THE BRECHT EFFECT
A centennial consideration of his work and his influence.
by Rob Kendt
One hundred years ago, two coincidentally significant births occurred--births without which Western drama as we've known it in the century that's now almost over would not exist. In Czarist Russia, the actor Konstantin Stanislavski and the playwright Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko formed the Moscow Art Theatre, and in Augsburg, Germany, Bertolt Brecht was born. Each would come to represent a concerted effort to dismantle the conventions of 19th-century bourgeois theatre, and each would apply a kind of methodical, "scientific" approach to the task.
But the legacy we inherit from each is radically disparate, perhaps even more distinct than they ever seemed when they were in a pitched battle for the future of the theatre--a battle between the politically invested narrative or "epic" theatre of Brecht and the psychological naturalism of the Muscovites, their great guru Stanislavski, and their American descendents in the Group Theatre, who adapted Stanislavski's system into the Method. This battle, which more or less raged from the 1930s to the early 1970s, is over, and by most lights naturalism has won, not least because film and television command the world entertainment market, and that market seemingly demands ever more "realism" in its escapist fictions.
Realist fiction? It's a contradiction Brecht, whose first play was produced in 1922, harped on insistently: that audiences are hypnotized by the illusion of verisimilitude, lulled into a kind of pleasant sleep by even the "grittiest" naturalism, when what theatre and drama should do is wake audiences up, make them witness the world anew in all its complications--in short, to see the familiar made strange and the strange familiar. This is roughly the translation of Brecht's notorious formulation Verfremdengseffekt, or "V-effect," though it's more often translated as "alienation effect" and interpreted in practice as approaching even the most emotional scenes in Brecht's plays with cold or strident detachment. It's a pernicious misunderstanding of Brecht's work --but try explaining all this to an actor pounding the pavement in L.A., who's already concerned that even a stage background in kitchen-sink domestic dramas will make him "too big" to be considered for film roles, and you'll see how much ground Brecht has lost at this century's end.
"Showing life as it is" could be the motto of the naturalists and their vaunted Method, but that was Brecht's aim, as well. The difference springs from what is meant by "as it is," because for the Marxist Brecht, the way things are is fundamentally a social and political reality, not a psychological or emotional issue, as it tends to be for the naturalists.
And what was most radical about Brecht's work was that his politics didn't just shape the content of his theatre but its form, as well. Like the socialist Shaw before him, Brecht openly wanted to change the minds of his audience; unlike Shaw, though, who used the form and attitude of comedy and demanded little more of his actors than linguistic facility and charm, and little more of his audiences than that they keep up with his brilliant dialectical dialogue, Brecht wanted to create a revolutionary popular theatre whose every discrete element--performances, music, sets, lighting, dramaturgy--was transparently designed to show not only how the world works but how it could work differently. Brecht's theatre dramatized not universal truths but what is changeable in human society.
From his early 30s on, Brecht was a doctrinaire Marxist, and later a staunch Stalinist who spent his most productive years leading the Berliner Ensemble in postwar East Germany (though his defenders have labored to point out his growing disillusionment with Moscow, especially in the years before his death in 1956). The Soviets' tragic experiment in changing human society is thankfully extinct and thoroughly discredited. But while Brecht's own experiments in altering the practice of theatre-making have been similarly buried or forgotten, they survive like sleeping dogs in unlikely ways to the present: His non-realist innovations, which borrowed eclectically from Asian, Elizabethan, and Expressionist theatre, have served as touchstones in the crafts of dramaturgy and stage production, even for artists with few if any political agendae.
The American musical theatre, for one, may have benefited most from Brecht's formal influence. No less a property than the multi-million-dollar Broadway megamusical Ragtime incorporates so many "Brechtian" devices--slide projections, skeletal stage pieces within a generally unchanged scenic design, direct address to narrate swathes of third-person past-tense exposition, political speeches, carnival tricks, even the Mother Courage image of a gypsy pulling a wagon and a child--that one could see it as a fin-de-sicle summation of Brechtian stagecraft. Except that all these devices are by now commonplaces in the musical theatre--not to mention in most revivals of classical plays, as well as in the work of a respectable handful of genre-bending non-musical playwrights and companies.
Indeed, Brecht's aesthetic innovations survive not only because of their innate strengths but because of two economic ironies he might appreciate (ironically, of course): the poverty of most theatre outside Broadway's golden circle, and the competition for audiences from other media.
Simply put, Brecht's emphasis on bare scenic design and uncolored lighting--on conjuring, as did the Elizabethans, battlefields and stormy heaths with little more than poetry and conviction--well suits the resources of many a cash-strapped contemporary stage production. And in the increasing pressure to draw paying audiences away from the relatively cheap diversions of film and television, even the most staid suburban regional theatres have grasped to provide an alternative--and in many cases this has meant producing plays and musicals with real theatrical ambitions, in marked contrast to the comforting living-room naturalism of TV or the mindless escapism of film.
Brecht's plays themselves are another matter. They are seldom produced anymore, at least in the U.S., apart from the beloved perennial The Threepenny Opera, and that more for Kurt Weill's popular score than for Brecht's gritty, parodic book. There are at least two reasons for this near-neglect: the ossification of Brecht's theories into a ridiculous orthodoxy which has confused and alienated far more people than it has enlightened, and the strident leftist politics not only bound into the majority of his plays but, rather more sadly, associated with all his work as a general reddish taint. There are other reasons that can be cited--the disarray of many of his plays in their various translations and revisions, the large casts required--but the centrally forbidding challenges that have kept Brecht at the margins of the repertory have to do with style and politics.
These fears are not easily dispelled, despite the noble efforts of many Brecht scholars, visionary directors, and brave actors. But on the style point, it is perhaps most instructive to note that Brecht was without a regular stage or company with which to try out his ideas during his self-imposed exile from Nazi Germany (roughly 1933-1947, the last six years of which he spent in Santa Monica, Calif.), and that he therefore spent this time writing plays and developing theatrical theories in a kind of vacuum--but that once he came home to a working ensemble in East Berlin, he did not only his most extraordinary work as a director and theatrical creator but, in rehearsals, tinkered endlessly with every element of a production without consulting or referencing his large and evolving body of theories. In short, he and his work thrived in experimental practice, and it has been pointed out that to follow any hidebound orthodoxy with Brecht's plays is essentially anti-Brechtian. The best clues on how to do his plays are in the plays themselves, not in the theories.
His politics are a tougher nut. Clearly, his openly didactic, pro-Soviet plays (The Mother, The Measures Taken) are of historical and literary interest only, but even his towering masterpieces--Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Setzuan--can ring hollow to contemporary ears in their insistently Marxian view of a social hierarchy in which the underclass is as debased as the gangsterish bosses and bureaucrats by the cruel Darwinian logic of market capitalism. These plays are infinitely more complex and, yes, universal than that, but their didactic overtones remain unmistakable and integral.
The answer for many contemporary artists has been to rediscover Brecht's early, pre-Marxist plays--the fascinating, quasi-metaphysical fables Drums in the Night, The Jungle of Cities, Baal, A Man's a Man. Another impulse not inconsistent with Brecht's intentions is to mount free adaptations with contemporary references--Tony Kushner's Good Person of Setzuan and Lynn Manning's The Central Avenue Chalk Circle are recent examples.
But there is no good reason that Mother Courage, which has been compared favorably to the tragedies of Shakespeare, or Galileo, with its complicated skepticism about scientific progress, do not get more productions--no good reason except time. Though the era of Brecht's trendiness ended with the radical political ferment of the 1960s, and the impact of his own productions is more distant still, it is perhaps too soon since the fall of communism for a reconsideration of Brecht's politics as they function in his plays.
Not to be glib about it, but to stage a Greek play these days, one need not worry that the audience doesn't believe in Greek gods and their oracles, nor is one required to share Shakespeare's militaristic patriotism to appreciate his histories. The Oresteia and Henry V don't survive for their eloquent defenses of these faiths; they persist as theatre of human struggle and striving, albeit with reference to larger forces and fates.
So should Brecht's, once we can hear about the "workers" and the "bosses" without rolling our eyes. For while Marxist revolutionary prescriptions as carried out by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Castro have proven a disaster, Marx's analysis of unfettered capitalism remains a valid critical model, and as such still functions brilliantly in Brecht's plays. As history bears out this distinction, and distills Marx's value from the evil done in his name, we may glimpse the forest of Brecht's larger insight past the trees of his wrongheaded political allegiance.
It is possible, though, that U.S. audiences will never embrace Brecht as they could, absent a strong tradition of political theatre--indeed, absent a coherent Left. It would not have much bothered Brecht, who wrote his plays in the midst of economic depression, war, and upheaval, that they continue to find their most receptive audiences in parts of the world more openly riven by class war, outright war, and scarcity than our own privileged, complacent consumer democracy.
Yes, Brecht staged the first premiere of his mature period, Galileo, at the Coronet Theatre in Beverly Hills with Charles Laughton in the lead--but American audiences didn't get it then, and despite his posthumous chic among students and the avant-garde, Americans still largely don't get Brecht.
It is our loss. For as we hurtle to the end of another century with that great invalid, the theatre, showing few signs either of dying or of reclaiming the center of our popular arts, there is much theatre artists could learn about the unique potential of their medium, not to mention about the unfolding drama of the human condition, from the poet/dramatist born in Augsburg a hundred years ago this week. Not universal truths, perhaps, but universal quandaries played out on a minimal stage with consummate poetry and conviction.