Bertolt Brecht: Politics and Epic Theater

Bertolt Brecht

From “To Posterity”
by Bertolt Brecht

2.
I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger ruled.
I came among men in a time of uprising
And I revolted with them.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

I ate my food between massacres.
The shadow of murder lay upon my sleep.
And when I loved, I loved with indifference.
I looked upon nature with impatience.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

In my time streets led to the quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure. This was my hope.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

3.

You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking,
Think --
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth.

For we went, changing our country more often than our shoes.
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance.

For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
Too harshly.


translated by H. R. Hays (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/to-posterity/)

Bertolt Brecht was born February 10, 1898, in Augsburg, Germany, a time of great political and cultural upheaval in that country as well as in much of Europe. Brecht’s family was fairly affluent, and in the period prior to World War One, German politics were dominated by the aristocrats and the middle classes, although the real political power was controlled by the upper class. Urbanization was expanding with only about 40% of the population living in a rural area by 1910. The end of the 19thcentury was marked by a strengthening socialist movement. An interesting shift in party enrollment numbers is observed in the following chart which shows the growing number of Social Democrats, a growth that no doubt had an impact on Brecht.

 



Party

1887

1890

1893

1898

1903

1907

1912

German conservatives

80

73

72

56

54

60

43

Free conservatives

41

20

28

23

21

24

14

National Liberals

99

42

53

46

51

54

45

Centre

98

106

96

102

100

105

91

Left Liberals

32

76

48

49

36

49

42

Social Democrats

11

35

44

56

81

43

110

Minorities

33

38

35

34

32

29

33

Right Wing Splinter Parties

3

7

21

31

22

33

19

Total

397

397

397

397

397

397

397

Source: European History for AS Level, Edited by Steve Lancaster, Causeway Press

(http://www.schoolshistory.org.uk/ASLevel_History/secondreich_society.htm)

 

When Brecht was sixteen, the First World War broke out in Europe involving all of the world’s great powers, among them Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States, and once their various colonies got involved, the conflict spread around the world. In 1918 the Treaty of Versailles ended the war and imposed some difficult terms on the German Republic, but despite those, the arts and sciences prospered during the years from 1919 – 1938, the period of the Weimar Era, so named for the city where the post war parliamentary republic held its constitutional assembly. During the early years of this period, which lasted until 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power, a young Brecht was influenced by progressive ideas and a great concern for the common man. His early poems, which were written beginning at around age sixteen, evidence this.

After finishing secondary school, Brecht went to Munich to continue his studies in medicine and natural sciences, and then during the war was pressed into a year of military duty which he served in a military hospital. War and its effects had a powerful impact on young Brecht, and after completing his military service, he devoted the rest of his life to his poetry and his plays, all of which reflect his social concerns and his anti-capitalist views. His career as a writer developed quickly, and he became widely known in Berlin from about 1924 to 1933 for his work as a dramatist with the Deutsches Theater. It was during this time that he studied Marxism in depth, and came to believe strongly in it. Because of his Marxist and anti-fascist beliefs, Brecht fled Berlin and the Hitler regime and lived in exile from 1933 until 1949, during which time the Nazi’s targeted him, burning his books and revoking his citizenship. When he returned to his native country in 1949, it was the German Democratic Republic, and he resettled in Berlin where he continued to produce his plays and deliver lectures. There he wrote his last play “The Days of the Commune,” a dramatization about The Paris Commune, a government that ruled Paris very briefly from about March 18, 1871, to May 28, 1871, after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian war. It was widely celebrated as the first government controlled by the working class during the Industrial Revolution.

Karl Marx wrote that in the past “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it.” (http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUmarx.htm) Brecht’s conviction to Marxism lead him to develop a form of alternative theater known as epic theater which was in sharp contrast to dramatic (Aristotelian) theater. Brecht wanted his plays to appeal to and influence the thinking of the audience. In epic theater, the audience is never to become involved with the story in a way that lets them forget that they are watching a play. To this end Brecht insisted on such effects as sources for light and sound being visible; elimination of a curtain; actors coming out of character to address the audience; actors delivering their lines in the third person past tense, and other anti-illusionist techniques. Additionally, scenes can exist independently without the need to be connected to each other. By using this rather didactic method of presentation, it was Brecht’s goal that thought and reason might lead to transformation and change.

The theme and tone of Brecht's theater reflected his Marxist convictions. His characters were morally divided and complex, but not sympathetic. “Threepenny Opera,” an early success, was a morality tale about gangsters and capitalists. Most of his best known and most successful plays were written during his time in exile from Germany and included “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” about maternalsacrifice, “Galileo,” about a persecuted intellectual, “Good Woman of Setzuan,” and “Mother Courage and Her Children.”

The “Good Woman of Setzuan” is a parable about society and morality, and the setting is representative of any place where people exploit each other. The story line is that three gods arrive in the city searching for honesty and goodness but instead find evil, dishonesty, and greed. The exception is a prostitute, Shen Te, who gives them shelter and to whom, in gratitude, they give money to purchase a tobacco shop. However, once Shen Te has some wealth, she becomes a victim of the greed and selfishness of everybody around her. To escape this, shemasquerades as a male cousin. The good Shen Te is lost to her male counterpart, Shui Ta, who is not so kind and giving. At the play’s conclusion, in keeping with epic style, one of the actors steps to the front, out of character, and delivers the closing epilogue directly to the audience, an epilogue Brecht actually added after 1947.

Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be angry! Please!
We know the play is still in need of mending.
A golden legend floated on the breeze,
The breeze dropped, and we got a bitter ending.
We wished, alas! Our work might be commended.
We’re disappointed too. With consternation
We see the curtain closed, the plot unended.
In your opinion, then, what’s to be done?
Change human nature or – the world? Well; which?
Believe in bigger, better gods or – none?
How can we mortals be both good and rich?
The right way out of the calamity
You must find for yourselves. Ponder, my friends,
How man with man may live in amity
And good men – women also – reach good ends.
There must, there must, be some end that would fit.
Ladies and gentlemen, help us look for it!
 

“Mother Courage and Her Children,” usually considered Brecht’s masterpiece, was inspired by the 1939 invasion of Poland and is set during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The principal character, Anna Fierling, known as Mother Courage is a canteen woman with the Swedish Army. In a complex plot that covers twelve years (1624-1636) and includes all three of her children, she seeks to make a living from the war, bargaining first with one side and then the other as she deems necessary to survive and to profit. The theme of this piece revolves around the devastating effects of war and the futility of trying to benefit from it. Over the course of the twelve years Mother Courage loses her children one by one to that war even as she continues trying different business scenarios for her monetary benefit.

Brecht did not intend Mother Courage to be a sympathetic character, but rather to challenge the audience to see the stupidity of both war and the notion that it can be a profitable venture, and to identify with the plight of the suffering masses of the lower classes. Despite losing all of her children, the play concludes with Mother Courage pulling her cart on to her next destination, a much lighter cart now that her daughter is dead and she has very little merchandise to sell, but seemingly unchanged by all that has happened to her life, and unaware that the second of her sons has also perished in the conflict.

The final lines of the play are delivered as a song sung by marching soldiers. “Dangers, surprises, devastations – /The war takes hold and will not quit,/But though it last three generations/We shall get nothing out of it….” This conclusion illustrates again Brecht’s intentions to make his audiences think and learn fromwhat they have just watched. Of all his plays, this one may be his strongest commentary on capitalism and its evils and on the suffering of the common people. Mother Courage is a business woman at heart, and no amount of internal conflict and personal loss can change that. Her character isegocentric and selfish, and even when she realizes that her war business is putting her children in jeopardy, she is unwilling to give it up. Everything is a commodity.

As a writer, both poetry and drama, and as a director and innovator of epic theater, Brecht’s creations can be said to be socialist realist art. The influence of the major historical events of his life is unmistakable in his politics and in his writings and productions. His vivid impressions of war are there as are his concerns for the simple people who pay the price of war and of aggressive capitalism. He did not live to be an old man (1898-1956) but his years were productive indeed, working steadily at his craft from the time he was a young man until the time of his death and leaving an extensive legacy of creativity which illustrates his belief in a Marxist society. It is no surprise that not only his writings, but indeed the intentions of the philosophy of epic theater, cannot be separated from his strong political beliefs.

Bibliography

Ewen, Frederic. Bertolt Brecht His Life, His Art, His Times. New York: Citadel Press, 1967.

Masters of Modern Drama. Ed. Haskell M. Block and Robert G. Shed. New York: Random House, 1962.

The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. Ed. Peter Thomson and Glendry Sacs. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Commune

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weimar_Republic

http://kirjasto.sci.fi/brecht.htm

http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/L/A-Robert.R.Lauer-1/Brecht.html

http://www.revolutionarydemocracy.org/rdv4n2/brecht.htm

http://www.schoolshistory.org.uk/ASLevel_History/secondreich_society.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUmarx.htm

http://www.wbenjamin.org/weimar.html