Monday, January 19, 2009

History Maker Mondays-02

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.
--Robert F. Kennedy

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

Bertolt Brecht is one of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century. He may also have been the greatest writer emerging from the confusing cultural milieu of Germany’s Weimer Republic.

Writing his first plays in 1920s Germany, set against the backdrop of the economic deprivation visited upon the nation post-WWI, Brecht’s plays were not known, and their influence negated, until much later. His theories on stage presentation would find an audience in the west mid-century, when Brecht’s theories, in direct contrast to the dominant realism of Stanislavsky and the "well-made play" construction that had dominated playwriting, was embraced.

Born in Augsburg, Germany, February 10, 1898, and given the name Eugen, Brecht later attempted to detach himself from his childhood by using his other name, Berthold, and hardening it into Bertholt, or Bert.

While the Bavarian city of his birth was 75 percent Catholic, young Eugen attended a Protestant elementary school beginning at age six. He later claimed he was bored during his four years there, the bible lessons—and the stories his mother regularly recounted from her own Lutheran Bible—influenced the young Brecht. That knowledge of the bible, and in particular, its parables, would show up when he first began writing plays, and in the way that he framed his themes.

An experience with an early form master, assigned to teach German and Latin, left his mark on young Brecht. Franz Xaver Herrenreiter was a strict teacher, regularly springing unexpected tests on his young pupils. Failing earlier in his career to be a professor, Herrenreiter couldn’t conceal his pleasure when his questions defeated them. He’d also regularly disappear behind the blackboard and come out munching on a piece of cheese, in front of his hungry students.

Once per year, the headmaster sat in on an instructor’s lessons, observing their work. On one visit in Herrenreiter’s classroom, the students responded to each one of their teacher’s questions with a dull silence. As Brecht recounted later, “This time, the man took no pleasure in our failure. He contracted jaundice and, when he came back, was never the same voluptuous old cheese-chewer he’d been.” The lesson learned for Brecht, the student—the many had power over the one, however superior his position.

By his teens, Brecht was already writing regularly and hosting other literary aspirants to his attic “dungeon,” or meetings by the city moat, or riverbank, where they would read poetry, or excerpts from their plays. He was already developing his collaborative style, by loaning drafts of works-in-progress, for friends to make notes and welcoming their suggestions, in the margins. Early influences on Brecht were Rimbaud, Villon, Buchner, and Verlaine.

Later, Brecht would gravitate towards Marx, Shaw, and Upton Sinclair as prime influences. In fact, in his 1925 play, Im Dickicht der Staadt (In the Jungle of Cities), Brecht focused on the Chicago stockyards of Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Marx influence shows in Brecht’s embrace, and lifelong commitment to Marxism, and would show up in Brechts theory and practice of “epic theater.” It also resulted in having his German citizenship stripped in 1933, when the Nazis seized power, in Germany, requiring Brecht to go into exile for the next 15 years.

Brecht’s politics and religious ambiguity were on full display in an unfinished play, The Bread Box, when he states that “capitalism relies upon Salvationism (orthodox Christianity) to maintain the status quo.” Another common theme in Brecht’s plays was that of judgment. Courtroom scenes recur regularly, with audience members drawn into taking sides and reaching a political judgment of their own.

Brecht's most important plays included Leben des Galilei (The Life of Galileo), Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children), and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Szechwan, or The Good Woman of Setzwan), were written between 1937 and 1945 when in exile from the Nazi regime, first in Scandinavia (Denmark and Norway), and later, in the United States.

It was Brecht’s belief that theatre should appeal not to the spectator's feelings but to his reason. While providing entertainment, the performance should be strongly didactic and capable of provoking social change. This stands in stark contrast to much that passes for entertainment in today’s profit-driven world of corporate entertainment. Brecht’s Marxism seems like an anachronism, when placed side-by-side of the current U.S. political landscape, where a pawn of corporate power is called a “Marxist” by those who haven’t a clue who Marx was, and haven’t read anything approaching Marxist thought.

In the 40s, Brecht, along with his wife Helene Weigel, moved to Southern California. Many German Jews and other intellectuals fled Nazi Germany during the 1930s for religious, or political reasons, often to neighboring countries. However, as the National Socialists expanded their control throughout Europe, it became necessary for these same exiles to seek safety elsewhere during the late 1930s, and early 1940s. Those who were able to escape across the Atlantic finally found safety in the United States. Some of these writers, artists, and intellectuals gathered in New York; however, Southern California's warm, Mediterranean-like climate attracted many to live on the West Coast. Brecht and Weigel lived in Hollywood, and later, Santa Monica.

During his time in the U.S., Brecht’s politics would once more find him at odds with those in power. Since the Cold War was escalating and the country in the clutches of the "red scare", the House Un-American Activities Committee called Brecht to account for his communist allegiances. Soon finding himself blacklisted by movie studio bosses, Brecht, along with 40 other Hollywood writers, directors, actors and producers, was subpoenaed to appear before the committee, in September 1947.

Initially, Brecht was one of 19 witnesses who declared that they would refuse to testify about their political affiliations. Eleven members of this group were actually questioned on this point but, as Brecht later explained, he did not want to delay a planned trip to Europe, so he followed the advice of attorneys and broke with his earlier avowal. On 30 October 1947, he appeared before the committee and testified that he had never actually held party membership.

This decision by Brecht later led to criticism, including accusations of betrayal by fellow communists.

The day after his testimony, on October 31, Brecht flew to Europe, after being invited to return home, by the newly formed East German government.

Upon his return, he founded the Berliner Ensemble in 1949 with Weigel, as leading actress. It was only at this point, through his own productions of his plays, that Brecht earned his reputation as one of the most important figures of 20th-century theatre.

Brecht died on August 14, 1956 of a heart attack at the age of 58. He is buried in the Dorotheenst├Ądtischer Friedhof on Chausseestra├če in the Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin, overlooking the residence he shared with Helene Weigel.

[Most of this material on Brecht was drawn from Ronald Hayman’s excellent biography, simply titled, Brecht. Additional info was gathered from the Brecht entry at Wikipedia, and information found via a link, at this Brandeis University site.—JB]

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