BACK STAGE WEST
February 05, 1998
Under the Influence
Quotes about Brecht's legacy among theatre artists
"Brecht was a strong personality, and I think it's that strong artistic personality that takes a hold of people. But I don't think of Brecht as a direct influence on me. I don't think influence is a good thing if what it means is people imitate. Imitating a Brecht play never works out, because his essential talent is a poetic one, and that can't be imitated. A lot of students are interested in Brecht's theories; I'm not sure why. I don't think his theories are all they're cracked up to be. The story about Brecht and theory is, When he was young, his plays weren't doing very well. To be taken seriously, you needed to have a theory; this was Germany, after all, and everyone had a philosophy. He went home and got a theory, and then his plays took off, you see. But I think of him chiefly as a poet, not in terms of special terminology."
Brecht translator, playwright, and critic
"The impact of Brecht on our work, first at the Yale Repertory Theatre, later in Cambridge at the American Repertory Theatre, has been prodigious. Not only have we staged and adapted a large number of his own plays and musicals, but we have often employed his non-illusionistic theatre practices in seeking a fresh approach to the classics. Brecht's rejection of Western realism, his cabaret style, his epic canvas, and his ironic view of human hypocrisy have all been important to us. Rarely has such an unpleasant human being been the source of so much intelligence, insight, yes, and pleasure."
Artistic director, American Repertory Theatre
"Brecht's work has shaped our theatre in the second half of the century, particularly for those of us who are political theatre workers. He was among the first theorists who focused on the context of theatrical performance, the nature of the audience/actor relationship. In this way, Brecht provided us with a starting point for postmodern political theatre and performance."
Head of directing program, Pomona College, and artistic director of West Coast Brecht Centennial Festival
"His influence is felt in this country less than in any other. Everywhere else in the world--Europe, Asia, Latin America--Brecht is regarded as definitely one of the big masters, if not the big master, of the 20th century. His work contains the clearest political arguments about property, power, class, but in very close-up and personal form. Although Brecht always talked against emotion, his plays are very emotional. They're very moving, but there's a larger meaning. That kind of larger meaning American theatre largely shuns. The only American playwright who's big and mainstage who could be called Brechtian is Tony Kushner.
"Formally, his theatrical discoveries--how you do crowd scenes, how you do narrative, how you teach lessons--he didn't invent these, but it's like he rediscovered them. Would there be a Les Miz if there hadn't been Brecht? Would anybody think you could those kinds of scenes? Brecht showed us you could do anything. But I think there was another artistic instinct at work, as well: the instinct to want to break out of that box of naturalism, out of the living room. American theatre has largely retreated back to the living room, or never really gotten out of it. Brecht remains as an example when people want to think bigger; when they want to break out of the box, the example of Brecht is there. He offers a treasure of techniques and inventions."
Artistic director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which staged and toured Brecht's The Mother in 1973
"I think his influence has almost disappeared. You don't hear about him anymore; in colleges, you do. On paper, his theories confused uneducated people--I don't mean that in a harsh way at all, but it's almost as if his theories took over from the presentation of his work, especially in America.
"Therese Giehse, who played the original Mother Courage, I asked her, 'What was it like working with him?' She said, 'Just like Stanislavski. He wanted a real experience onstage; he didn't want alienation.' The whole alienation theory comes from talking to the audience--when people ask how to do Brecht, they're always talking about the parts where the characters talk to the audience. They talk about this alienation as if it should be done distantly and coldly. That is a huge misunderstanding of his work. I saw productions of his work in Austria, and it was eerie--it was not false theatrics, not formalistic acting, not old-fashioned acting, but real acting.
"I wish he still did have meaning here. I think the reason he doesn't is because of those goddamned theories."
Actor/teacher, who starred in The Good Woman of Setzuan in 1956
"My work is very influenced by Brecht. I'm interested in the question: What is the thing that theatre can do? What is the dialogue that only theatre can have, that we can only conduct on the stage? What I take from Brecht, more than his politics, is the way he incorporated his politics into the theatre. His plays are not about pyschology of one man but the society in which a man lived. Brecht was really trying to understand how theatre works, and I think we still have to keep asking that. In fact, I find his ideas about theatre almost more interesting than his plays."
Playwright/director, "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde"
"Mabou Mines' main focus is narrative performance, and I guess you could say Mr. Brecht is one of the pioneers of narrative performance in contemporary theatre, so we steal a lot from him--that is to say, the idea that characters can be narrated, actors can narrate themselves, and so on. The great thing about the position of narration in Brecht's theatre, and therefore in contemporary theatre, is that it allows the actor to say things that are not necessarily an attempt to embody a role--it frees the actor from having to embody writers' ideas of character. So there are at least two lines moving simultaneously: an actor's opinions about the play, or the playwright, or the character, or the thematic notions of the play, or the politics of the play--and the character as written. Brecht was a genius at that."
Founding member and artistic director of Mabou Mines theatre company
"The themes that resonate for me are the same themes that got him into trouble with the House on Un-American Activities Committee--themes of class disparity--and though he placed them in other cultures, they translate for me in ways that are very parallel to some of what we see in today's society even now. And his style--surreal is what I would call it--makes it very entertaining and accessible so that he's not pounding you with a gavel with the points he's making. He makes the point very well while at the same time keeping an audience entertained, which I know I and some other contemporary playwrights have trouble doing. We forget that you can be profound and entertaining at the same time."
Playwright (The Central Avenue Chalk Circle, Private Battle)
"People make a big fuss about his theories, which of course are endlessly fascinating, but he was just a great playwright, also. He told really extraordinary stories, and really human stories, and that's what so great about his plays, I find--that what's happening politically and what's happening on a human scale are of equal excellence. I can say that the two Brecht plays that I've directed for Cornerstone in community settings are among the best productions Cornerstone has ever done, and I think that has a lot to do with Mr. Brecht."
Founding member and artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company, who directed The Central Ave. Chalk Circle and The Good Person of Long Creek
"I think he was one of the first to break out of that Stanislavski realist mold significantly, and in his own peculiar kind of way. What he often isn't given credit for is that he was a tremendous humanist--the humanism comes out in spite of himself. He wrote Mother Courage and thought we would hate her, but we don't. Also, he had a terrific theatrical brain. When I started reading his plays--sometimes they don't read that well on the page, but when one starts working with them, one realizes he knew what he was doing. He was one of thoese rare individuals who was not only an incredible writer, a poet, but knew a lot about directing. He was a renaissance man of the theatre."
Artistic director of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
"I suppose in some way, as with Artaud, it was the questions that Brecht asked about the medium that were important, probably not the answers that at different times he tried to provide. He was concerned with what theatre is: What is it? What are we doing? He asked those questions in his work by the way he did his work. Too often people compare and contrast film and theatre, or television and theatre. Theatre is a different medium. Unfortunately most mainstream theatre today is just bad television. In places where they're still doing real theatre, those isolated pockets of the planet, the effect of Brecht is pretty visible."
Playwright/director and artistic director of Empire Red Lip
"Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Shen Te/Shui Ta in The Good Person of Setzuan have been the most challenging roles I've ever played. Brecht's women are so complex; it takes everything you've got and anything you've ever learned to play these women. Right away, you need physical strength to do it, a major emotional life, and the courage to go there. I'd love to play these roles again and again, because it's like Shakespeare in a way: Every time you do it, there's something more to mine out of the role."
Currently starring in her one-woman show Neat at the Mark Taper Forum
"One of the earliest pieces I was ever exposed to was his trilogy of one-acts, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. They had a strong impact on me, and in a way enlightened me about how quote-unquote political theatre could work on a number of levels--viscerally, emotionally--by not talking down to audiences, always challenging audiences. His writing--it's just got bite, you know? It's never pandering. And utilizing what the theatrical context can mean really appeals to the best in what audiences can be, what we all can be--our strengths as thinking individuals and feeling individuals. I admire and aspire to that."
Playwright/director with the Actors' Gang