The Playgoer: Cut Bertolt Some Slack

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Cut Bertolt Some Slack

"If we can reconcile ourselves to Richard Strauss and - alarmingly - Leni Riefenstahl, surely it's time the Brecht-bashing came to an end."

-UK playwright Mark Ravenhill, offering a heartfelt plea against the increasing trend in critical and intellectual circles to write off Brecht as just some Stalinist hack. Of course, this will always be the simplistic argument from the right. And even leftists should not overlook the, um, complexity of the compromises Brecht had to make in his East Berlin final days.

But as with all undue hero-worship, we should be focusing more on the work than the man, anyway. (At least that's how I deal with Ezra Pound, Wagner, etc.)

Here's Ravenhill:

[Brecht] may well not have been a trustworthy or noble man. But there are many Brechts, not just the monolithic communist his detractors portray. The early Brecht was a wild, anarchic poet. Productions of his 1928 Threepenny Opera often struggle to find in it a consistent political line. And yet it's a brilliantly confused collage of rage and cynicism with lashings of cruel, sexual poetry.

For a short time in the 1930s, as German society became more divided, Brecht's plays took a decidedly Leninist turn. His play The Mother shows a working-class woman struggling to reconcile individual needs with the demands of a political cause. It's a beautiful, moving piece, painfully ignorant of the horrors of Stalinism that were to follow. How strange that this play is considered beyond the pale in Britain and no longer performed - yet the Economist can declare, in 2003, that Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, marks her out as "the greatest female film-maker of the 20th century".

Brecht was very clear about one thing: his resistance to fascism. Before the Nazis came to power, Hitler's brownshirts were disrupting performances of Brecht and Weill's 1930 opera Mahagonny, claiming that it brought the contamination of black and Jewish musical influences into the German opera house. Brecht dedicated the next 15 years of his writing - plays, film scripts, poetry - to the anti-fascist cause.

Reminds me of how often I still--amazingly--hear Brecht described in the media as "humorless." Reporters who've never read any of his work just assume he was some commissar.
Also, one would think BB's anti-Hitler credentials would redeem him in the West. But his problem was just that he was what the McCarthyites would later call a "premature anti-fascist." Because only a vicious commie would have a beef with Hitler before he started treading on other countries' turf.

Correction: Dummkopf that I am, I misspelled BB's first name initially in the subject heading. So much for late Friday afternoon blogging...

1 comment:

frank said...

There's been an excruciating conversation on the dramaturgy listserv about this topic recently.