Bertolt Brecht, who died 50 years ago this week, was one of the most influential playwrights of the last century. His life and art will be celebrated all around the world by re-enactments of his plays.
Brecht was also a Communist. This has led to numerous attempts by the mainstream art world to degrade his legacy - either by claiming that his plays are worthless Stalinist propaganda, or by claiming that they are worthwhile despite the politics.
Depoliticising Brecht, however, is a difficult job. After all, we are talking about the man who wrote plays with titles such as The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie and Days of the Commune, and poems like The Song of the Class Enemy.
Just as difficult to maintain is the notion that Brecht was a committed Stalinist, despite his longstanding association with the German Communist Party (KPD).
Brecht was one of the most gifted children of the struggles that tore Germany apart in the first half of the 20th century. In a school essay of 1915, at the height of the First World War, he doubted whether it was honourable to die for your nation. His feelings were strengthened when he had to serve in the last months of the war in 1918 as medical orderly.
Around this time Brecht started writing plays. The working title of one of his first plays was Spartakus, after the organisation of the German revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It was later published as Drums of the Night.
Brecht clearly was a radical. His early plays are about the decay and decadence of the bourgeois society that, as a young and successful artist, he felt himself part of. But at that point, Brecht was a bohemian rather than a Marxist. It was the polarisation of Germany’s inter-war Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism that led him to deepen his politics.
The transition came in late 1920s with Saint Joan of the Stock Market, an allegory on the workings of the stock exchange. In order to better understand the boom and bust dynamics of the economy, he started reading Karl Marx. As Brecht himself put it, he found out that “this chap Marx was the first person to really understand my plays”.
Brecht was taught Marxism by his friends Karl Korsch and Walter Benjamin, both highly original thinkers and staunch anti-Stalinists. Through them, he acquired a love for dialectics, confidence in the working class’s ability to liberate itself, and a marked distrust of official Communist leaders. In the 1930s, he even read and grappled with the ideas of Leon Trotsky.
However, Brecht could not stand the indecision of much of the anti-Stalinist left. He once described Korsch as “a guest in the house of the proletariat, who always had his suitcase ready to leave”. Throughout his life, Brecht stressed the need for taking sides.
Sadly the anti-Stalinist left did not provide him with much opportunity to influence events. At this point, the main Trotskyist organisation in Germany had only 50 members in the whole of Berlin. Thus Brecht was pulled towards the KPD, a mass party that to him and many other committed revolutionaries seemed the only force capable of confronting Hitler.
Brecht’s turn to Marxism also changed his way approach to theatre. He had always rejected naturalistic theatre style that tried to present the audience with a perfect illusion of reality. For productions of Drums of the Night he recommended hanging a banner above the stage saying “Don’t Stare So Romantically!”
Paradoxically, the need for a radically new form of theatre became most obvious to him after his biggest financial success. In 1928 The Threepenny Opera made him into a world star. This musical play depicted begging as an organised trade, with criminals working hand in glove with the chief of police.
But rather than shocking bourgeois audiences, the play was a huge success. Theatregoers loved its impudent songs, while Brecht’s stinging critique of capitalism did not attract much attention.
Brecht developed his theory of “epic theatre” as a response to this. His aim was not to entertain, or to draw the audience into the action - these approaches merely turned them into passive consumers.
Rather, he wanted to transform audiences into conscious and critical observers of the events developing on stage. He was always looking for ways to pull people out of “illusionism” and make them realise and think about the fact that they were watching an artistic performance.
In order to achieve this, he ripped up the traditional five act structure of static drama. Inspired by Russian revolutionary theatre, he looked for ways to interrupt the main plot. This he called the “alienation effect”.
For example, he used comments on the action directed to the audience, songs in between and projections of text with extra information. To undermine the natural curiosity of the audience, he used an announcer to summarise the scene before it was shown.
This allowed him to show that the course of events - either in drama or in the real world - is not simply given. It is wrought with contradictions, and therefore demands choices and active intervention.
Now the political side of his plays became harder to ignore. A good example is The Mother, which is set during the Russian 1905 revolution. Based on a novel of Maxim Gorky, it shows a mother who wants to free her Bolshevik son from jail - and how by doing so she gradually becomes convinced of Communism herself.
Often, Brecht chose historical settings as another means of creating a distance between the viewer and the play. In Galileo Galilei, the struggle between the scientist and the Catholic church served as the scene for a debate on the tensions between individual beliefs and the way our rulers try to control our thoughts.
Mother Courage, arguably one of the greatest anti-war plays ever, is set during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. It shows a mother who tries to profit from the war in order to help her family, but loses all of her children in the attempt.
None of those plays put simple answers to the moral questions they raise, and none of them are simple propaganda pieces. Rather, they show how the possibilities of the individual characters are limited by social conditions, and they force the viewer to think about the limits of “common sense” moral judgements.
With his plays and songs Brecht was at the very centre of the conflicts in the last years of the Weimar Republic. One month after the premiere of The Mother in 1932, the police ordered that the play could only be recited but not played. The production of another play had to be stopped because the Nazis were beating up actors.
When the Nazis got in power, Brecht went into exile and his books were burned. Brecht stayed close to the German border in Denmark and Finland in order to support the anti-fascist struggle in Germany, until the war forced him to leave for the US.
Brecht is often criticised for returning to East Germany after the war and working under the wings of the Stalinist regime there. In fact, exile gave Brecht first hand experience of the alleged “freedom” of the West.
He was effectively blacklisted - out of over 40 scripts he wrote, only one was accepted for filming - and even this was cut so severely by Hollywood that Brecht withdrew it. Shortly after the war, Brecht was put before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He took a plane back to Europe the day after his hearing.
In 1949 Brecht opened his own theatre in East Berlin, the Berliner Ensemble. But he soon came into conflict with the Stalinist cultural bureaucracy. They forced him to make changes in several productions and even stopped two of them.
The editor of East Germany’s most influential theatre magazine led a campaign against Brecht. Clinging to the artistic conservatism of Stalinist “socialist realism”, they accused Brecht’s epic theatre of being nothing more than formalist experimentation.
Brecht’s relation to the East German regime always remained contradictory. 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 disliked 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 published.
In private, Brecht was even more outspoken. In his unpublished poem The Solution, he ironically asks, “If the people had forfeited the confidence of the government, would it not be easier to dissolve the people and elect another?”
One year before the East German Revolution in 1989 the government built a Brecht monument in front of the Berliner Ensemble. The memorial demonstrates how the East German dictatorship read Brecht. There is a quote from The Mother:
Wer noch lebt, sage nicht niemals!
Das Sichere ist nicht sicher
So, wie es ist, bleibt es nicht
Who still lives, should not say never!
The secure is not secure
So, the way it is, it will not remain
But Brecht’s concluding two lines are missing:
Wenn die Herrschenden geprochen haben
Werden die Beherrschten sprechen
After the rulers have spoken
The ruled will speak
In the end, Brecht’s conclusion outlasted the East German rulers - and it is this Brecht that we should read today.