Playwright Bertolt Brecht, new film

This 23 March 2019 German video is about Heinrich Breloer on fusing documentary and drama to tell the story of ‘Brecht’ [TV Show].

By Stefan Steinberg in Germany:

69th Berlin International Film Festival—Part 4

Brecht: A new film about the famed left-wing German dramatist

5 March 2019

Interest in the famed left-wing German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is undergoing something of a revival. Recent signs of that renewed interest include the 2014 publication of the important biography of Brecht by Stephen Parker and the 2018 movie Mack the Knife—Brecht’s Threepenny Film, directed by Joachim A. Lang.

And now, this year’s Berlinale featured a new film biography of Brecht by one of Germany’s leading directors, Heinrich Breloer (Die Manns—Ein Jahrhundertroman [The Manns—Novel of a Century], 2001; Speer und Er [literally, “Speer and He,” released as Speer and Hitler: The Devil’s Architect], 2005; and Buddenbrooks [based on the Thomas Mann novel, released as Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family], 2008).

Breloer makes films on historical subjects in the manner of so-called documentary dramas. He combines documentary material with dramatic scenes and superimposed comments in a dynamic fashion. In so doing, Breloer has been able to win large television audiences for films dealing with key figures and epochs of German history. He has adopted the same approach for his new work about Brecht.

As Breloer (born 1942) explains in the introduction to the book published to accompany his film, his fascination with Brecht began when he was a student. Already in the summer of 1963, just seven years after Brecht’s death, the young Breloer worked together with an individual who was to become one of Germany’s most outstanding theatre directors, Claus Peymann, on a production of Brecht’s Antigone, an adaptation of German poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation (1804) of Sophocles’ tragedy.

Some years later, in the summer of 1977, with a copy of the material assembled about Brecht by Werner Frisch and K.W. Obermeier (published in 1975) in his rucksack, Breloer travelled to Brecht’s birthplace, the city of Augsburg in southern Germany, to track down and conduct interviews with those who had known Brecht personally, including the first love of his life.

Then again in 2010, Breloer undertook what he describes as another journey toward Brecht and began a second round of interviews with those who had worked with Brecht after his return in 1949 to East Germany (GDR) following his flight from Hitler’s Germany and 16 years in exile.

These interviews with some of Brecht’s closest friends and collaborators determine the modus of the new film, with interview clips juxtaposed with key episodes in Brecht’s life.

Breloer’s Brecht is divided into two parts. The first 90 minutes deal with the writer’s early life in Augsburg, his move to Berlin and his later success as a dramatist. In 1914, Brecht, aged just 16, was a strong supporter of Germany’s aggression in World War I. He quickly turned against the imperialist war, however, as news of its horrors emerged, particularly in the form of the letters sent him from the front line by his childhood friend, Caspar Neher. Neher later became a famous stage designer, who worked on many of Brecht’s productions.

In one early scene in the film, we witness the young Brecht (Tom Schilling) denouncing the war in a school classroom to the horror of his teacher, who immediately threatens the young “traitor” to the German national cause with retribution.

After the war, Brecht was present in Munich when nationalist Freikorps mercenaries brutally crushed the Bavarian Soviet Republic in April-May 1919. At the time, Brecht was closely following the activities of the Independent Social Party (USDP), which had broken from the main body of the Social Democratic Party in 1917. These two events—German capitalism’s role in the horrific war and the defeat of the uprisings in 1919 (including the murder of Rosa Luxemburg in January of that tumultuous year)—were to play a decisive role in Brecht’s political and artistic development, along with the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In Munich, Brecht turned to the then well-known writer Lion Feuchtwanger, who took him under his wing and helped him in his first stage successes. Breloer then follows Brecht’s move to Berlin where he begins to achieve considerable success as a playwright. The pinnacle of this success in the Weimar Republic comes with the triumphant response to the first production of his (along with Kurt Weill) The Threepenny Opera in 1928.

During the late 1920s, Brecht began to study Marxist literature and came increasingly under the influence of the German Communist Party, along with dissident leftist intellectuals such as Karl Korsch. The Stalinisation of the Communist Party and the disorientation of figures like Korsch did not assist Brecht’s political development.

In a number of interviews, Breloer refers to Brecht’s concern with concealing his private life and persona. Instead, the playwright wanted to be remembered only in terms of his work. “He loved the masks of the classics,” Breloer notes. In his new film, Breloer seeks to look behind those “masks” and throw light on Brecht’s personal life. He explores in some detail Brecht’s complex relations with a number of his closest female co-workers. In so doing he makes clear that Brecht, in his literary and dramatic work, was always intent on collaboration, in developing his ideas as the leading figure of a team.

Breloer’s film largely skips over Brecht’s period in European exile with his wife Helene Weigel (Adele Neuhauser). In its second half, we see the much older writer, now played by Burghart Klaussner, in the US in October 1947, where he appears before the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the witch-hunting, anti-communist outfit set up by the House of Representatives.

The day after the HUAC hearing on October 30, during which he declared he had never been a member of the Communist Party (which was true, strictly speaking), Brecht returned to Europe. He ultimately moved to Stalinist East Germany two years later, where he was able to recommence his literary and dramatic work. In 1953, he finally received his own theatre, the Berliner Ensemble.

Brecht’s Faustian bargain with the Communist Party had profound consequences for his artistic development. In his book, Breloer notes that the Stalinist archives in Moscow described Brecht in the 1930s as a “Trotskyite”, based on the playwright’s links to co-workers such as the actress Carola Neher, who, along with her husband Anatol Becker, was denounced as a Trotskyist. …

In fact, although he admired Trotsky’s writings highly, Brecht rejected the latter’s analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy as counter-revolutionary. While he continually came into conflict with the nationalist-philistine Stalinists in East Germany after the war, Brecht repeatedly sided with the GDR and Soviet bureaucracy at crucial junctures … Having provided the bureaucracy vital public backing, Brecht, at the same time, drafted notes criticising Stalin and his policies. …

The Ulbricht regime was well aware that Brecht’s work did not fit into its repressive, anti-Marxist straitjacket of “socialist realism”, but decided the playwright and his theatre company—always under close observation from the state security service—could function as an important safety valve to prevent social layers disenchanted with the system from challenging it head-on. Brecht, in turn, was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in Moscow a year before his death. Breloer’s film depicts these events very well.

Equally, Brecht also made artistic compromises—such as shifting the action of his plays to past centuries and other continents and creating “fables” or allegories—so as to avoid a direct confrontation with the bureaucracy. Important sequences toward the end of the film show Brecht in the process of rehearsing a number of his later works, including Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Life of Galileo.

Breloer’s film implies that Galileo most closely resembles the trajectory of Brecht’s life and career: Galileo (1564-1642), the outstanding astronomer and physicist, who strikes a pact with the Papacy and renounces his scientific discoveries to avoid punishment by the Church, on the one hand, and Brecht, a remarkable poet and dramatist, who cut his own deal with the Stalinist bureaucracy to continue his work, on the other.

Breloer’s film and accompanying book provide an opportunity for a younger generation to acquaint themselves with a key literary figure of the 20th century. The film is due to be shown on German television on March 22 (Arte) and March 27 (ARD).

The revived interest in Brecht, who has been treated as a “dead dog” or worse by the academic and official intellectual world for decades, is another indication of a growing radicalisation.

Brecht anti-Hitler play Arturo Ui on stage

This video from the USA says about itself:

8 April 2017

Performed by Colorado State University‘s Department of Theatre students. Directed by Walt Jones. WARNING: ADULT LANGUAGE CONTENT.

Bertolt Brecht’s shudderingly accurate parallel between Hitler and his henchmen on the one hand, and the old crime lords of Chicago on the other, is a vigorous eye opener that was produced on Broadway with Christopher Plummer. The Cauliflower Trust in Chicago is in need of help and turns to a racketeer by the name of Arturo Ui to begin a “protection” campaign. His henchmen look astonishingly like Goebbels and Göring. Their activities include “accidental” fires and a St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

The performance was recorded by the RAMProductions student live event production team. RAMProductions was created by the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University with support from Campus Television (CTV), the College of Liberal Arts, and CSU External Relations.

By David Walsh in the USA:

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: Bertolt Brecht’s parable play about the rise of Hitler

17 October 2017

Left-wing German dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a parable play about the political ascension of Adolf Hitler, was staged this month by the Department of Theatre and Drama at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Brecht, a refugee from Nazi Germany, wrote the play in several weeks in March and April 1941 while he was in Finland, awaiting a visa for the US. Arturo Ui was not produced until 1958, two years after Brecht’s death, and not in English until 1961—although it was originally intended for the American stage.

The Ann Arbor production took considerable and conscientious care with Brecht’s play and its concerns. The present world situation and the situation in the US in particular were clearly on the minds of the director, Malcolm Tulip, Assistant Professor of Theatre, and the student-actors.

The satirical play creates a parallel between the career of the Nazi leader and the rise of a fictional Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui. In a note in his journal for March 10, 1941, Brecht observed that he was “thinking of the American theatre, again struck by the idea I once had in New York, of writing a gangster play, that would recall certain events familiar to us all (the gangster play we know).” The latter of course referred to the career and coming to power of Hitler.

Although the play—divided into 15 scenes, a prologue and an epilogue—is designed to bring to mind specific historical events, the dramatist took pains to give “the ‘masking’ (which is an unmasking) some life of its own, i.e., it must … also work independently of its topical references,” otherwise “people would constantly be looking for the ‘meaning’ of this or that move, and would always be looking for the real-life model for every figure.”

Brecht succeeded to a considerable degree, although Nazism and Germany are never far from view, nor intended to be.

The play follows the efforts of Ui, a thug down on his luck, to worm his way into and eventually dominate the vegetable trade in Chicago, and beyond. Times are hard for the “cauliflower trust,” a group of businessmen (Flake, Caruther, Butcher, Mulberry and Clark). “It looks as if Chicago/The dear old girl, while on her way to market/Had found her pocket torn and now she’s starting/To scrabble in the gutter for her pennies.”

The trust members succeed in getting the widely respected—but corrupt—businessman, Dogsborough (“The good old honest Dogsborough!/His hair is white, his heart is black”), to help obtain a loan for their business from city hall. Arturo Ui uses his knowledge of the illicit practices to make a deal with Dogsborough: Ui and his men will shield Dogsborough from an investigation, and the latter will protect the gangsters from the local police.

Once he has taken over the vegetable trade in Chicago, and rubbed out a malcontent in his own ranks, Ernesto Roma, in an evocation of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, Ui sets his sights on Cicero. Ui has journalist Ignatius Dullfeet murdered, out of fear of his muckraking articles, and proceeds to woo Dullfeet’s widow, Betty (“Now you stand defenceless/In a cold world where, sad to say, the weak/Are always trampled. You’ve got only one/Protector left. That’s me, Arturo Ui.”).

Having won out in Cicero, Ui has plans to expand rapidly his operations all over the country:

“Peace in Chicago’s vegetable trade
Has ceased to be a dream. Today it is
Unvarnished reality. And to secure
This peace I have put in an order
For more machine-guns, rubber truncheons
Etcetera. For Chicago and Cicero
Are not alone in clamouring for protection.
There are other cities: Washington and Milwaukee!
Detroit! Toledo! Pittsburgh! Cincinnati!
And other towns were vegetables are traded!
Philadelphia! Columbus! Charleston! And New York!
They all demand protection! And no ‘Phooey!’
No ‘That’s not nice!’ will stop Arturo Ui!”

If Ui corresponds to Hitler, his henchmen Giuseppe Givola, Emanuele Giri and Ernesto Roma suggest Nazi leaders Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring and Ernst Röhm (murdered on Hitler’s orders in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934), respectively. Dogsborough stands in for President Paul von Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany in January 1933, and Dullfeet represents Engelbert Dollfuss, the right-wing Austrian chancellor assassinated by Nazi agents in July 1934.

The plays also includes an episode that alludes to the notorious Reichstag fire, the “terrorist” arson attack on the German parliament in February 1933 that the Hitler regime used as a pretext to institute dictatorial measures and carry out mass arrests of Communist Party members.

Its rich, captivating language is one of Arturo Ui ’s great strengths. As Stephen Parker in his recent biography of Brecht notes, “There are echoes of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Julius Caesar, and of Goethe’s Faust, as well as of Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator. Brecht’s use of roughly hewn blank verse in the grand style of the verse drama brilliantly counterpoints the sordid content of the dialogue.”

At any rate, the savage irony of gangsters declaiming in high-flown fashion, while plotting arson and murder, is only a slightly exaggerated and “unmasked” expression of the everyday reality of bourgeois political life, especially in our day.

It is all very amusing and very sinister at the same time, including the scene in which a second-rate actor tutors Ui on how to walk, stand, sit and speak (based on an actual incident). The scene concludes with Ui reciting Mark Antony’s speech over Caesar’s body in Julius Caesar, “a model of demagogy.”

The play makes a strong impression, much stronger, in my view, than the works of that period for which Brecht is far better known, Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, all of which suffer from political discouragement and an artistically pat and ultimately unconvincing approach. Arturo Ui is something of a revival of the sort of bitter, lively satire to be found in Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1929-31) and other earlier works.

The epilogue, spoken by the actor who plays Ui, is powerful and memorable (in any of the various translations):

“Therefore learn how to see and not to gape
To act instead of taking all day long
The world was almost won by such an ape!
The nations put him where his kind belong.
But don’t rejoice too soon at your escape
The womb he crawled from is still going strong.”

In the recent Ann Arbor production of Arturo Ui the décor was minimal, with few props or concrete references to Chicago or Germany. “We’re putting canvas on the floor,” director Malcolm Tulip told journalist Hugh Gallagher. “Brecht loved the idea of theater being like a boxing ring.”

The actors, all in white face, threw themselves into the work. Clearly, the present political and social conjuncture was a factor. Tulip told Gallagher, according to the latter, that “last year’s presidential campaign rhetoric made Brecht’s play appropriate for the times and the early stages of Trump’s administration have only increased the play’s immediacy.”

The director himself explained: “When Charlottesville happened, it was really out there with the Nazi symbols, the far-right symbols, it became more and more relevant. … People say, ‘Well, you’re doing this because of Trump,’ and I say, ‘No. We’re doing the play because we’re asking the question ‘how does a mass of people put a person in power when that person might not work in the best interests of the mass of people?’ I think Brecht was looking at that, too. It wasn’t just about Hitler but about the people who put Hitler in power.”

Jesse Aaronson, who does an excellent job as Ui, told the same journalist, “I spent a lot of the summer researching Hitler … I read parts of Mein Kampf, which was very difficult reading—one, because it’s poorly written; the translation I read focused on how Hitler wrote it, which was mad scrawlings.”

Aaronson added, “With Hitler, you can’t pass him off as a madman. … He was very successful, he had the support of the people most of the time, and figuring out why that happened and how it happened has been a really interesting part of the process for me.”

“He was going to make Germany great again, he was the original make-the-country-great-again, he really was. … He toured the country and said to the people, ‘I’m the guy for you.’” Aaronson wears a long red tie at one point.

The recognition of the threat represented by Donald Trump, Steven Bannon and the extreme right is entirely legitimate, and it is critical that students and young people are turning to a study of the historical issues and parallels.

However, the allusion to Hitler’s popularity and similar views underscore weaknesses in Brecht’s play and political standpoint.

When he portrays the support of big business for Hitler and the cowardly response or complicity of petty bourgeois layers, Brecht was on the mark. However, when the playwright moralized, “The play is not so much an attack on Hitler, but rather upon the complacency of the people who were able to resist him, but didn’t,” he was leaving out the decisive issue: the role of the parties that supposedly represented the German working class and were charged with defeating fascism through the socialist transformation of society. Hitler was only able to come to power through the bankruptcy, impotence and betrayals of those organizations.

Hitler’s horrible rise was indeed “resistible,” but Brecht’s remarkable play provides only a portion of the answer as to who was responsible for its coming to pass.

Anthony Scaramucci’s new media organization is sparking outrage for a poll question asking readers how many Jews they thought had been murdered during the Holocaust. Tweeters accused The Scaramucci Post, which President Donald Trump’s former communications director launched in September, of pandering to Holocaust deniers by asking its 24,000-plus Twitter followers this question on Tuesday morning: here.

Thursday, January 10, 2019. Interview: ‘It’s high time he got read and enjoyed as he deserves’. Writer and translator DAVID CONSTANTINE talks to Meic Birtwistle about the long overdue publication of Bertolt Brecht’s collected poems in English.

Bertolt Brecht on nazi Germany

This video is called Poem From A German War Primer: Bertolt Brecht.

By Andy Croft in Britain:

Instructive indignation

Saturday 1st April 2017

The biting satire in Bertolt Brecht’s German War Primer is a lesson from history we can’t ignore, writes Andy Croft

THE CRIMES of the Third Reich were so great, wrote Bertolt Brecht in 1945, that the nazis had even succeeded in giving war a bad name.

“I am told that the best people have begun saying/How, from a moral point of view, the Second World War/Fell below the standard of the First. The Wehrmacht/Allegedly deplores the methods by which the SS effected/The extermination of certain peoples…

“Even the bishops/Dissociate themselves from this way of waging war; in short the feeling/Prevails in every quarter that the Nazis did the Fatherland/A lamentably bad turn, and that war/While in itself natural and necessary, has, thanks to the/ Unduly uninhibited and positively inhuman/Way in which it was conducted on this occasion, been/Discredited for some time to come.”

This tragic, mocking irony sets the tone of Brecht’s extraordinary War Primer, translated and edited by John Willett, which is republished by Verso Books at the beginning of next month.

Brecht started the book in 1940 when he was living in exile in Finland. Sticking photos from newspapers and magazines into his journals, he soon found he was adding short satirical verses to the photographs.

Many of the images are propaganda photos from what Brecht called “the Bayreuth republic, featuring Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Noske. Like John Heartfield’s AIZ photomontages, the effect is to subvert the original meaning of the images by suggesting their real context. Beneath a propaganda photo of Hitler in a trance-like oratorical ecstasy, Brecht wrote: “Like one who dreams the road ahead is steep/I know the way Fate has prescribed for us/That narrow way towards a precipice./Just follow. I can find it in my sleep.”

Because Brecht kept adding to this scrap-book until the end of the second world war, it serves as a kind of running commentary on the conflict, generals and politicians, the dead and the wounded, soldiers and civilians and the terrible destruction of European cities.

A military photograph of a German firing squad in France in 1944 appears above the following text: “And so we put him up against the wall:/A mother’s son, a man like we had been/And shot him dead. And then to show you all/What came of him we photographed the scene.”

To the photograph of a Russian woman grieving for her son, one of 7,000 Soviet civilians shot by German forces in Kerch in 1942, Brecht added: “I say all pity, woman, is a fraud/ Unless that pity turns into red rage/ Which will not rest until this ancient thorn/is drawn at last from deep in mankind’s flesh.”

First published in book form in the GDR in 1955, some of these poems were set to music by Hans Eisler, while others later turned up as part of longer poems by Brecht. None are great, but there is a greatness to the whole project in the “savage indignation” with which Brecht tried to address the brutality of WWII.

War Primer is comparable to the work of Goya, Kathe Kollwitz, Vassily Grossman or Tony Harrison, whose A Cold Coming about a dead Iraqi soldier clearly echoes Brecht’s verse here about a dead Japanese soldier.

And, although the book ends with victory in 1945, it also looks beyond the defeat of fascism in Europe.

Beneath a press shot of Hitler raging on a platform towards the end of the war, Brecht wrote: “That’s how the world was going to be run!/The other nations mastered him, except/(In case you think the battle has been won) –/The womb is fertile still from which that crept.”

Fittingly, the final photograph is of university students in the GDR. Brecht wrote beneath the photo: “Never forget that men like you got hurt/So you might sit there, not the other lot./ And now don’t hide your head, and don’t desert/But try to learn, and try to learn for what.”

War Primer, price £12.99, is published by Verso Books on May 2

Bertolt Brecht play on nazi Germany

This video from Britain says about itself:

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

1 July 2014

Drama Unit 2 2012, King Edward VI College, Stourbridge.

By Len Phelan in Britain:

More light on the darkness

Wednesday 13th January 2016

A revival of Bertolt Brecht’s chilling portrait of life under the nazis needs a clearer focus, says LEN PHELAN

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich
Union Theatre, London SE1

BERTOLT BRECHT’S reputation in this country rests largely upon productions of plays such as The Life of Galileo, Mother Courage or The Caucasian Chalk Circle, works in which he employs epic theatre techniques to “make the familiar strange” and thus lay bare the underlying contradictions of societies based upon ruling class exploitation and the ideological mechanisms underpinning it.

Written in the same period as these great works, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich is something of an exception in its abandonment of parable and historical revisionism to speak directly to audiences about contemporary events.

Premiered in 1938 in Paris, when Brecht was in exile from the Hitler regime in Germany, it’s a series of scenes which deliver short, sharp jabs at the nazi solar plexus and lay bare the brutality of national socialist reality.

It depicts a Germany which from the top — the judiciary, scientists, the teaching profession — to the bottom — the poor and the unemployed — is riddled with poverty, violence and the ever-present fear of betrayal.

Phil Willmott’s production at the Union Theatre effectively conveys the horrifying bleakness of that era, not least the consequences for those who openly resisted, and it points up the virulent strain of anti-semitic scapegoatism nurtured by the regime.

Thus we see a judge driven to distraction in his attempts to square the circle in the case against an innocent Jewish shop owner but who has to come up with a verdict which will satisfy the conflicting demands of the nazi hierarchy.

In another emotionally charged scene at the conclusion, a Jewish woman decides to tell her husband she is leaving to save his career as a clinician, while he assures her that her self-imposed exile will only last a few weeks as he hands her the fur coat she won’t be needing until winter.

That malign motif of the most intimate personal betrayal runs throughout. A school teacher and his wife whip themselves into a frenzy of paranoia over whether their son will betray them to the Hitler Youth, while a maid wonders whether her brownshirt boyfriend will use the same deceitful trick he employs to identify the “grumblers” in the dole queues on her.

Yet however laudable the efforts of cast and director are in realising Brecht’s dark and sardonic vignettes, this production doesn’t really answer the question Willmott poses in his programme note as to whether Fear and Misery is now nothing more than a “period piece.”

Rather than drawing on unattributed quotes from the Guardian facilely bemoaning the impotence of silent majorities in the face of motivated violent minorities in “Hitler’s Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China and Cambodia under Pol Pot,” he might find Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov’s definition of fascism worth considering.

As early as 1928, he viewed it as “the dictatorship of the most reactionary elements of financial capitalism,” which not only carries out “an organised massacre of the working class” but in its foreign policy “cultivates zoological hatred against other peoples.”

As a Marxist, Brecht understood this definition of fascism and it implicitly underpins this hugely important play, with its depiction of war abroad and repression at home in pursuit of the nazis’ “guns before butter” policy.

And without it, his work does indeed come across as a period piece and the uncomfortable resonances it has with the rise of the ultra-right in France, Germany and Ukraine, or indeed this country, can only appear to be the consequence of inexplicable and irresistible phenomena rather than as the extremes resorted to by the ruling class to maintain their dominance.

Any interpretation which ignores that analysis ultimately confuses rather than clarifies understanding — but that shouldn’t stop you from going to see a well-produced piece of work and drawing your own conclusions.

Runs until January 30, box office:

Several of us from the World Socialist Web Site, Sybille Fuchs, Stefan Steinberg and myself, spoke for some time to Stephen Parker, author of a new biography of the German playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life. We posted a review of the work yesterday: here.

Exile as an Intellectual Way of Life: The collaboration of Lion Feuchtwanger and Bertolt Brecht: here.

Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle on London stage

This 8 October 2014 video from London, England says about itself:

An insight into the Unicorn Theatre’s ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’

Blood runs through the streets and the governor’s severed head is nailed to the gates of the city. A young servant girl must make a choice: save her own skin or sacrifice everything to rescue an abandoned child…

A time of terror, followed by a time of peace. Order has been restored and the governor’s wife returns to reclaim the son she left behind. Now the choice is the judge’s: who is the real mother of the forgotten child?

A bold and inventive new production of Brecht‘s moral masterpiece, accompanied by a live and original soundtrack.

By Mary Adossides in England:

All-round excellence: The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Wednesday 28th January 2015

MARY ADOSSIDES recommends a vibrant new production of Brecht’s timely parable on war and justice

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Unicorn Theatre, London SE1
5 stars

DIRECTED by Amy Leach, with a rich and powerful translation by Frank McGuinness, this visually arresting production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is unmissable.

Written by Bertholt Brecht in 1944, when he was in exile from the nazis, it recounts the “nature v nurture” parable of maidservant Grusha who rescues a governor’s abandoned child during a bloody civil war and becomes a better mother than his wealthy natural parents in the process.

A sequence of short tableaux shows Grusha’s escape through the mountains as she flees the soldiers to save the young heir, finally leading her to accept marriage with a supposedly dying peasant to provide the child with a roof over his head.

The story culminates with the judgement of Azdak, humorously portrayed by Nabil Shaban, who in typically Brechtian fashion turns concepts of ruling-class justice on their head, accepting bribes from the rich and giving justice to the poor because he “always helped those with nothing to get away with everything.”

In the original Chinese play which Brecht used as a source, the birth mother gains custody of the child but Brecht, who often put the plight of women centre stage, turns nature’s laws on its head.

To demonstrate that Grusha is the true mother, the child is placed in a chalk circle and both Grusha and the governor’s wife are required to pull on its arms.

If they tear the child apart, they will get “half each” — such is Azdak’s justice. “I reared him, I can’t pull him apart!” Grusha declares and Azdak rules that she is the true mother.

Brecht adds a socialist twist to the play’s conclusion, with Azdak confiscating the estates of the governor’s wife so they can be transformed into a children’s garden.

Greatly influenced by Marxist dialectics, this play perfectly demonstrates Brecht’s theory and practise of epic theatre.

His masterly montage of dialogue, songs, tableaux and devices such as props used visibly, costumes on display in the background and songs and chants break up dramatic illusion to encourage the audience’s focus on issues of social justice.

There’s a memorable example of this in the poignant song sung by storyteller and musician Dom Coyote as the two women fight over the child, reminding the audience of Grusha’s anger at the injustice of her fate.

Yet, contrary to perceptions that Brecht’s plays make no emotional connection with the audience, there are many moving scenes, as when Grusha meets soldier Simon Chachava (a touching performance by Caleb Frederick) by the river who declares his love and commitment to her.

This politically nuanced play was very well received by a young audience, who no doubt related to the contemporary references such as terrorist soldiers, an iPod and contemporary costumes.

In my view, these add little to a production performed by an outstanding cast, with Kiran Sonia Sawar giving a memorably spirited portrayal of Grusha.

An excellent production of an exceptional play.

Runs until March 21, box office:

Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan on stage

This video from the USA says about itself:

The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht. Performed by The Falcon’s Eye Theatre at Folsom Lake College in November 2011 in The Studio Theatre at Three Stages Performing Arts Center in Folsom California.

Bertolt Brecht wrote this play, in collaboration with Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau, from 1938 on. He finished it in 1943, as a refugee in the United States from nazi Germany. A theme in this play is how morality, ideas about what is good and what is bad, functions in an unequal class society. Then, how can one continue to be a good person in an environment which often looks like punishing rather than rewarding goodness?

This is a version of The Good Person of Szechwan, with subtitles in Chinese and English.

This Dutch video is the trailer of Brecht’s play, as performed by the Toneelgroep Maastricht.

Earlier, the Toneelgroep Maastricht has performed another play, The Rising Sun, by Dutch playwright Herman Heijermans. Both plays are about a small business, threatened by pressures of the society around it. In both plays, Arie de Mol was director (he translated Brecht’s text as well). Actress Jessie Wilms played the small shopkeeper’s daughter in Heijermans’ play; and a prostitute-turned-small-shopkeeper in Brecht’s play.

Both Heijermans and Brecht are authors, critical of capitalist society. There is a difference in their styles, however: while Heijermans’ plays are “realist”, Brecht‘s works are “epic theatre”, seeking to disturb audience illusions that plays are real life.

On 18 December 2013, the Toneelgroep Maastricht version of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Good Person of Szechwan was on stage. The director had introduced an “epic theatre” element by having stuffed dolls play minor non-speaking roles like children or factory workers.

Establishment morality often describes sex workers as the worst people imaginable. It also sometimes describes women who are not prostitutes but who have sex outside of marriage (like the young women in the Profumo scandal) as prostitutes; implying they are very bad persons.

The irony in the play is that in Sechuan province in China in the 1930s, the best person, arguably the only good person, is Shen Teh. She is a prostitute. Three Chinese gods come to her city, in a quest whether there are any good people. Rich people refuse the gods hospitality because of selfishness. Poor people refuse hospitality because they have very little space. Only “bad” Shen Teh turns out to be kind-hearted, providing the gods with a roof over their heads for the night. Though this good person has more than enough on her mind, as next morning, she is expecting her landlord whom she will probably be unable to pay.

In this Dutch version, one actor played the three gods. However, people address this one actor in the plural. An allusion by the director to the Roman Catholic Trinity dogma.

Thanking Shen Teh for her hospitality, the gods give her a thousand silver dollars. This enables Shen Teh to change from a non-respectable profession to a respectable profession: buying a small shop, she becomes a tobacconist.

In the days of Bertolt Brecht, medical information about harmfulness of tobacco was not yet at the level of today. Selling tobacco may be more respectable than selling sex; but one may ask now whether it is really a good profession for a good person.

Very soon after acquiring her small shop, Shen Teh finds out it is threatened from all sides: the ex-owner, the rich landlady, her ex-landlord who made her homeless and now wants to profit from her, and others abusing her goodness. To survive, Shen Teh invents an alter ego, her male cousin Shui Ta. Shui Ta is Shen Teh in men’s clothes. The same actress plays both roles. Contrary to Shen Teh, so full of goodness that she is unable to say no to any request for help, Shui Ta is an unscrupulous businessman.

Shen Teh meets Yang Sun. Yang Sun is a pilot, on the verge of committing suicide because of unemployment. Shen Teh saves Yang Sun’s life. She remembers that as a child she had a crane with a broken wing. Whenever other cranes were flying during their migration in spring or autumn, her crane, unable to fly along, would get restless. Shen Teh decides that she wants to enable the jobless pilot to fly again. She falls in love with Yang Sun.

Yang Sun gets a new chance of working as a pilot. In Brecht’s text, that opportunity is in Hong Kong. In this Dutch version, in Beijing. When Brecht wrote the play, Beijing was occupied by Japanese invaders.

Yang Sun will only be able to get the pilot’s job if he pays the employer five hundred dollars. Shen Teh is willing to sell her shop to pay that money, as she is a good person who loves Yang Sun. However, Yang Sun does not love Shen Teh like she loves him. Shen Teh gets big problems as she wants to help both Yang Sun and an elderly couple in financial trouble.

Yang Sun and Shen Teh have a wedding party. In the Dutch theatre show, with klezmer music. Music often played at weddings; but at Jewish ones, not Chinese ones. In this Dutch version, the songs by composer Paul Dessau in Brecht’s version are replaced by spoken word. Actress Gitta Fleuren plays four roles: not only pilot Yang Sun’s mother, but also landlady Mi Tzu, a carpet trader’s wife, and a policewoman. Other actors have multiple roles too.

Though they have a wedding party, Yang Sun and Shen Teh don’t marry. Shen Teh transforms into her unscrupulous alter ego Shui Ta. Eventually, everyone hates her/him. Maybe, the reason why people don’t see Shen Teh anymore is because her cousin has murdered her?

Finally, “Shui Ta” takes of “his” men’s clothes, revealing Shen Teh. She asks the gods to solve her insoluble problems that she got into for obeying the gods’ rules of what a good person should do. The gods go away, saying they can’t help her.

The final words of the play say that there is no happy end. In order for other good people not to end up as badly as the good person of Sechuan, an actress says, you, the audience, should make an happy end.

The audience applauded enthusiastically.

In a review of the Toneelgroep Maastricht performance, the Dutch blog Live Like Tom wrote (translated) about the impact of this play now, over seventy years after Brecht wrote it:

At a time when banks and governments suck common people dry, there is a lot of temptation not to behave well oneself.

Fortunately, the final words give some hope, that blogger writes.

Brecht’s, Weill’s opera Der Jasager on stage

This video, in Japanese with English subtitles, is called Bertolt Brecht in Tokyo (1) Der Jasager ブレヒト 「イエスマン」 (Yes Sayer).

Der Jasager (literally The Yes Sayer) is an opera by German author Bertolt Brecht (after Elisabeth Hauptmann‘s translation from Arthur Waley‘s English version of the Japanese drama Taniko).

The music is by Kurt Weill. It was first performed in 1930.

The opera is about a school. One of the pupils wants to join a dangerous journey across mountains to get medicine for his sick mother. However, during the mountain crossing, the boy gets ill. An old Japanese Shinto religious custom says that if during a pilgrimage, a pilgrim gets ill, then that is a sign from Heaven that the pilgrim is unclean. His fellow pilgrims then have the religious duty to kill the ill person by throwing him into an abyss.

Today, Der Jasager was on stage in the provincial archive hall in Haarlem in the Netherlands. The performance was by the local choir Puisque tout Passe; three solo singers for the three roles of the teenage boy (played by a thirteen-year-old), his mother and his teacher; and the local amateur symphony orchestra. The opera had also been played yesterday; both times for a sold-out hall.

The play is credited to Bertolt Brecht. However, 90% of the words are by Elisabeth Hauptmann. How much of Brecht’s works are really by Brecht and how much is by women in his life is an issue. An issue which Brecht has in common with other famous men, like scientist Albert Einstein, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

In Hauptmann’s and Brecht’s text, the central theme is whether or not individuals should sacrifice themselves for a supposed higher social need.

Interpretations of Der Jasager vary. Some, like literary scholars Sabine Kebir and Erika Hughes, say it is a warning against acting uncritically according to ancient customs.

This interpretation points in the same direction as a line of Brecht’s poem Lob des Lernens: “Don’t accept things uncritically, investigate them yourself!” Brecht wrote Lob des Lernens in the same year 1930 as Der Jasager. In the Haarlem performance, the choir sang Lob des Lernens, set to music by Hanns Eisler, before the opera performance proper started.

After Der Jasager, Brecht wrote a twin play, to be played along with it, called Der Neinsager (the No Sayer); as he thought audiences had not understood his criticism of the killing of the boy enough. The more openly critical Der Neinsager is not often played along with Der Jasager, because Weill never wrote music for it. Der Neinsager was also not performed in Haarlem today.

To find out the meaning of the Jasager’s authors, we should also look at the social contexts of the original medieval Japanese play, and of Germany in 1930 when the opera was written.

Fifteenth-century Japan, when Taniko was written, was a class society; like twentieth-century Germany. On the top of the social pyramid was an emperor; like in Germany until just 11 years before Der Jasager was written. After the German empire lost the first world war, “the Kaiser went away, his generals stayed”. There were powerful feudal landlords in fifteenth-century Japan. There still were in early twentieth-century Germany, though the capitalist class was already eclipsing their feudal predecessors. And there were ancient religious and other customs individuals were supposed to obey; also if that meant oppression or even death.

So, though five centuries and over half the globe separated the Japanese original from Brecht and Hauptmann, the problems which Taniko discussed were still relevant.

Taniko is a pro-feudal, pro-Shinto religious tradition play (Nō is an aristocratic tradition within the evolution of Japanese theatre). Its moral was that its protagonists should fulfil their religious duties; even if that meant killing a well-intentioned teenager.

My view is that Brecht and Hauptmann inverted the original Nō moral.

That they pointed out how dangerous it is to uncritically follow ancient religious or other traditions. And that tragedies are not just caused by evil people; also by good people who do not dare to resist traditions if necessary.

Hauptmann and Brecht grew up during the slaughterhouse of World War I.

As a schoolboy, Brecht was

very nearly expelled from Augsburg Grammar School for taking a dismissive, anti-patriotic tone when given an assignment to write an essay with the title “It is a sweet and honourable thing to die for one’s country.”

So, teenager Brecht was in many ways the opposite of the teenage schoolboy character in Der Jasager, who, contrary to Brecht, accepts traditions even if they mean his death.

During World War I, the slogan of imperial Germany was Gott mit Uns, With God on our side. Another slogan was God strafe England; May God punish England. So, to kill English people and to risk being killed by them was a religious duty, rather: a state religious duty, in 1914-1918 Germany. Like killing ill pilgrims was a religious duty in fifteenth-century Japan.

Not all people in Germany in 1914-1918 wanted to kill and die for Kaiser Wilhelm II. Not all people in Germany in 1914-1918 wanted to kill and die for the emperor’s generals. Not all people in Germany in 1914-1918 wanted to kill and die for the noble landlords. Not all people in Germany in 1914-1918 wanted to kill and die for Krupp and other capitalist war profiteers. Not all people in Germany in 1914-1918 wanted to kill and die for a God who supposedly had enlisted into the armed forces of Germany and its allies: some because they were not Christians; some because they were Christians, but thought that religion should not be abused for war propaganda.

For people in Germany in 1914-1918 who did not want to kill and die for any of the above reasons, the pro-war establishment offered other motives. Similar to ideas which would later be called “liberal hawkish”. And here, we have the point which I named about good people who do not dare to resist if necessary, thus causing tragedies.

In Der Jasager, all three main characters are basically good people. The teenage boy loves his mother and wants to help her to recover health. He is willing to obey Shinto tradition and even to get killed for that. But we don’t know if the boy’s fellow pilgrims, as he asks them before dying, will succeed in getting medicine for the mother. And we don’t know if, if the medicine reaches the sick mother, it will manage to cure her. The boy’s self-sacrifice may have been completely in vain.

The mother is a good person, who does not want her son to risk her life for her. However, she allows herself to succumb to custom. Her son is dead. Will she get back her health? And even if she does: will she feel guilty for the rest of her life for her son’s death?

The teacher at first refuses the boy’s request to go along with the dangerous journey. Later, when the boy admits that he is ill, he asks his pupil to be silent to prevent their fellow travellers from hearing him and killing him. When the other pilgrims say the boy is ill, the teacher lamely tries to save the boy’s life, saying that he is just feeling a bit unwell, not really ill. Finally, he does what Shintoism says that he has to do. Will he feel guilty for the rest of his life for his pupil’s death?

During Hauptmann’s and Brecht’s World War teenage years, as I wrote, the pro-war establishment offered also other motives than obviously bloodthirsty ones to support the war effort. Similar to ideas which would later be called “liberal hawkish”. And here, we have the point in Hauptmann’s and Brecht’s lives about good people who do not dare to resist if necessary, thus causing tragedies.

There was revulsion in Germany in 1914 against oppression in czarist Russia, and against the British empire’s wars. Revulsion which was not wrong in itself. Like revulsion in France or Britain against authoritarianism in the German and Austrian empires was itself correct. Very incorrect, criminal, was the abuse of these feelings of revulsion by warmongers of both warring sides for the World War One bloodbath.

In Germany, even some young people from Left socialist families allowed themselves to be swept along with “liberal” sounding war propaganda. Peter, the son of socialist visual artist Käthe Kollwitz, joined the German army and was killed soon. It made Kollwitz, politically close to Brecht, a lifelong opponent of war and of uncritically obeying authority.

In 2003, revulsion against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq was not wrong in itself. In 2012, revulsion against the theocracy in Iran is not wrong. It was and is criminal, however, to use those revulsions for bloody war in Iraq from 2003 till now. And maybe now for bloody war against Iran from 2012 till only God knows when.

Before Weill’s opera was performed in Haarlem, the choir sang eight songs by twentieth-century composers.

First, two songs by Edward Elgar (a World War I opponent).

Then, Gerald Finzi.

Then Elliott Carter, with an Emily Dickinson poem set to music.

Then, two songs by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, including the poem Y Despues by Federico Garcia Lorca set to music.

Finally, as I noted earlier, Brecht’s poem about thinking critically for oneself.

Then, the opera.

In their booklet on the performance, the Haarlem organizers noted that in the present economic crisis, Der Jasager really is relevant. They also criticized the policies of the present Dutch Rightist government which cuts arts funding.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle: Brecht’s parable on “the temptation to do good”: here.

Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, at the Classical Theater of Harlem, February 4-29: here.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night: Eugene O’Neill’s dramatic protest at middle class hypocrisy: here.

Brecht’s opera Mahagonny in Los Angeles, USA, and on TV

This video from Los Angeles in the USA is about

Weill’s Rise & Fall of the City of Mahagonny performance featuring Audra McDonald, Patti LuPone, Anthony Dean Griffey, John Doyle and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

From Art for a Change blog in the USA:

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

The opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, is a razor-edged critique of capitalism, and considered by many to be the greatest collaboration between music composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht. On March 4th, 2007, well over 3,000 people packed the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to see the seventh and final performance of the L.A. Opera’s English-language production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Augsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny). It may come as a big surprise to some people that I’m a fervent opera enthusiast, but I was one of those in attendance, and that very performance was filmed for broadcast by PBS.

Now, millions of Americans will finally be able to see the remarkable opera when PBS Great Performances broadcasts it nationally. Its televised premiere begins on Monday, Dec. 17, 2007, when it’s shown on New York’s WNET-TV, at 9:00 p.m., and again on Friday, December 21, at 12:30 a.m.

Brecht also wrote The Good Soul of Szechuan.

Brecht’s theatre play Arturo Ui: here. And here.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Brecht: here.

Christa Wolf or Freedom at the Risk of Being Misunderstood: here.