The Ghost of Brecht

Bertolt Brecht was always in love with the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, home of the Berliner Ensemble. It is more than a hundred years old, and has an odd, lozengeshaped tower. Inside, there is an air of seedy elegance and periodpiece antiquity, echoes of a gilded German age when Prussian subalterns fondled their mistresses in the loges. Or of those days, long ago, when the Kaiser announced that Germany was heading for wonderful times. It was here in still another vanished age, 1928, that the young Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill had their great critical and box-office hit, The Threepenny Opera. Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, sang Jenny.

Five years later, a man with the ethical slant of Mac the Knife — “First comes the grub, and then morality” — became Chancellor of Germany. The day after the Reichstag went up in flames, Bertolt Brecht packed his bags and began his melancholy world trek — from Berlin to Prague, to Paris, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, across the Soviet Union to Manila, on to Los Angeles, to New York, to Switzerland, arriving back in Berlin again in 1949. In his trunk was the microfilm of more than a dozen plays of which the world still knew little, or nothing.

When Brecht, after some hesitation, opted for East Berlin, there was loud chagrin among his admirers in the Western world, admirers who made the mistake of taking Brecht’s political pot of message less seriously than the poet himself did. And there was general bemusement about the slyboots way he did it, like a cat measuring a cranny with his whiskers. Before he entered East Berlin to stay for good, in 1949, Brecht hedged the move artfully. He was using American-issued travel documents with a Czech visa. He had a Swiss bank account, a West German publisher, and soon wangled an Austrian passport. In dealing with the authorities, West or East, Brecht had become as canny as the Czech Good Soldier Schweik, one of his favorite “nonheroes.”

Berlin was the place for Brecht. For all that the scenes of his more than thirty plays are invariably set in outlandish, faraway places — Kiplingesque Kilkoa, Benares, Burma Bar and Mandalay, Chicago, and the Klondike and the Caucasus, this is illusion. Berlin was his Globe Theater, and all the world was a Berlin stage. The electric ambience, the exhilarating, if slightly sinister, atmosphere, of a good Brecht play is Berlin air. It smells of asphalt, wet pine trees, and bread that has been baked in the dark. Like Brecht’s tarts, it is the city with a golden heart and an iron snout.

When he was only fifty-eight, in August, 1956, Bertolt Brecht died in Berlin. Those last years, spent furiously producing plays he had long before written, he lived in a pleasant in-town flat at 125 Chaussee Strasse, just a few minutes up the Friedrichstrasse from his theater. It is less than a block away from what has since become the Berlin Wall. Just across the street, at number 126, is the Dorotheen Cemetery, a seventeenth-century Huguenot burial ground, long closed. From the second-story window Brecht could look out at the tombstone of the philosopher Hegel, a fellow South German. And often did.

Hegel, the professor’s professor, enthralled Brecht — not only because Hegel had written so much about theater, and the cosmic spirit of history, but because he was the true father of modern dialectics. Hegel, a profound Greek scholar, got the idea from Heraclitus — “Struggle is the father of all things” — and built a whole philosophy of history on the dynamic confrontation of opposites. Hegel portrayed, in prose on horseback, a series of cosmic clashes, the eternal spectacle of ideas wrestling to catch the imagination of the world. Today Brecht lies buried in the plot next to Hegel’s, in a steel casket. Last spring two owls were nesting there, Minerva’s birds of wisdom, and Hegel’s too, because “they first fly in the twilight of a civilization.”

Karl Marx, although he was churlish about admitting it, also got his inspiration from Hegel, the great mover and shaker of German thought. Brecht, in his mature years, was working his way back through Marx to Hegel. What so obviously fascinated the playwright in Brecht was the drama of Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel, like Brecht, delighted in the cunning tricks of reason, in ambivalence and contradiction, in the heady proposition that the opposite of a truth may not be a falsehood, but another truth. Hegel extolled the power of negative thinking. Brecht put it more simply: “Doubt moves mountains.”

Perhaps this is why many critics in the West have been baffled or bamboozled by Brecht, and put off by his brazen raising of the red flag, even in a play about Saint Joan. Blasphemous, yes; illogical, no. Brecht, the boy from Augsburg, whose “pregnant mother brought me from the black forests,” was a prodigal son of the West. He was greatly given to making faces in church, other peoples’ churches. There is more than a touch in him of the American village atheist secretly reading the Bible in an outhouse.

Like the blue young men in the painting of his friend Picasso, Brecht taught himself to look at the world with two left eyes. This discipline heightened his vision in some directions, but blinded him in many others. His Marxism took him on silly sorties into sophomore economics — “What is the difference, really, between founding a bank and robbing one?” This nonsense mars several of the didactic plays that he wrote while holding a wooden hammer in his left hand.

But when the Plegelian mood takes over, Brecht’s poetic insights have the cutting quality of a diamond. Here lies the exciting contradiction of his whole career. His eclecticism gets him a hearing in the West, whereas the Communist East long viewed, and still views, Brecht and his works with glowering suspicion. Brecht loved to play the subversive, whether in Hollywood or East Berlin. While directing, he would sit in his leather chair, in front of the stage, telling his actors and disciples, “We should use the tool of Marxism not to prove that we are right, but to find out if we are.”

Brecht the poet loved masks, and always had a Japanese one hanging on his study wall. One thinks of W. B. Yeats here, and his belief that all poets wear masks; his own was a curious delight in astrological lore. Yeats’s Byzantium symbolism, derived from astrology, gave his lyrics a special tone of authority. For the Frenchman Paul Claudel, the mask was conversion to Catholicism. Brecht, who resembles Yeats in one way and Claudel in another, had the gift of tongues, but he needed a corset for his intellect. Hence, the hard-nosed mask of Marxism.

But often the voice emerging from behind the mask is not Brecht the dramatist, but Brecht the lyric poet, asking himself trap-door questions:

And yet we know
Even hatred of meanness distorts the visage.
Wrath at injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Alas, we
Who wished to prepare the ground for friendliness,
Could not ourselves be friendly.

Out of this constant struggle with himself he made great poetry and ennobled the German language. Today his reputation as poet, as dramatist, as theater man has gone into world orbit. And yet too often in the West, even in West Germany, one of Brecht’s fears seems coming true. He is being “theatered down,” played as a conventional classic like Schiller, reduced to what he himself derided as “culinary theater.” For to ignore Brecht’s politics is to leave the vermouth out of the martini.

At the same time, all over the Communist East, the official culturevultures, who never trusted the living Brecht, are now slowly converting him into a pillar saint of the established orthodoxy. As Brecht also feared: “And even after my death, there must remain some prospects for bugging the authorities.”

Bertolt Brecht was born in February, that most Brechtian of months. Last year, on what would have been his seventieth birthday, his Berliner Ensemble troupe put on an eightday “Brecht Dialogue” — discussions all day, and theater and opera in the evening. Only a special elite were invited to the panel discussions, “progressive critics from progressive journals.” The critic from the Neue Züricher Zeitung went back to Switzerland. It was only later that Westerners present surmised that, even in February, the East German Communists had compelling reasons for not wanting other Eastern Europeans, above all Czechs and Poles, mixing Brechtian cocktails in public.

And anyway, the plays turned out to be the thing. The Ensemble did seven Brecht pieces — Man Is Man, The Preventable Rise of Arturo Ui; The Brass Purchase; The Bread Shop; Days of the Commune; The Yes-Sayer and theNo-Sayer; The Exception and the Rule; plus Brecht’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and Gorky’s Mother. What was to have been the premiere of St. Joan of the Stockyards was canceled at the last minute. The leading lady, Brecht’s daughter Hanna Hiob, fell ill. (The play, in rehearsal a full year, finally opened in June.) In addition, the Staatsoper, on nearby Unter den Linden, sang Herr Puntila and His Servant Matti, Lucullus, Mahagonny, and the Seven Deadly Sins. In Potsdam, an outskirt of Berlin, the local company did The Caucasian Chalk Circle. And finally, up from Weimar, the National Theater Company put on Galileo Galilei and Brecht’s adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward II.

This is more Brecht in a week than most theater towns have seen in a decade. Real Brecht buffs based in New York, and other cities, have probably already spotted one serious criticism that can be made of the Berliner Ensemble — a fault perhaps inherent in all repertory. Like Shakespearean companies that are always doing Timon of Athens and Cymbeline, at the expense of Lear and Othello, the ten to twelve Brecht masterpieces are slowly yielding to his bottom-of-the-drawer stuff, which can be stretched to thirty theater evenings.

Back in the mid-1950s, the British critic Kenneth Tynan called this Berliner Ensemble the most exciting theater in the world. He was not alone in his hyperbole. For Brecht was still alive, directing, writing (or rather rewriting), changing, experimenting, theorizing, and giving off sparks of genius with the flick of his cigar. He was Mr. Epic Theater himself, and the inspirer of it in others. The German poet had his cantankerous moments, but perhaps the finest thing one can report about Brecht the man is the love and devotion he inspired in friends and co-workers. Since his death, at least half of the Ensemble have defected to the West.

Thus, when one enters the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm today, one detects a certain musty odor of incense and too much cult paraphernalia — dusty playbills of old triumphs, photo model books, postcards of casts, a bust of B.B., even miniature sets on the spiral staircase. For a nickel or a dime you can buy all back programs of the last nineteen years. (Brecht had many commonsense ticks about theater, and one of them was that a program should be cheap, well written, informative, something to reread when you get home. They are the best buys in all of East Berlin.) Over the coffee counter in the foyer, there is a map of the Ensemble’s many journeys, cast and west, to London and Moscow, Paris and Milan. In this house, Brecht has been succeeded as “leader of the collective” by his widow, the actress Helene Weigel, who presides like a Communist Clytemnestra. La Weigel was always more of a red-hot party-liner than Brecht. One hears murmurs, backstage, that there is something to be said for the old Hindu custom of suttee.

Still in all, once one has reached those cozy seats, under a ceiling full of alabaster tritons and dolphins, muses and cupids, Apollos and caryatids, the expectant atmosphere of the good old days returns. The choice front boxes are always empty, reserved for an eleven-piece jazz band, and for the appearance of actors. Klieg lights poke out from every elevated spot. Brecht insisted they be visible, and that his stage be bathed in light like a prize ring. German fire law requires that every theater have an iron curtain. And so there is one, with Picasso’s murderous dove.

But when this goes up it reveals the now classic Brecht curtain, of white burlap-like linen, pulled by hand over a steel wire on curtain rings, “light Buttering.” Lantern slide subtitles will be flashed on this curtain, songs sung before it. It is only seven feet high, so that the audience will see all the shifts and mechanics of the stage, the “work being done.” Gimmickry? Not really. Rather, the studied efforts of a great playwright to destroy bogus illusion, dubious naturalism, and a too intense identification of the actor with his role. Brecht was simply bringing back to the modern stage what the Greek choruses knew, what the Elizabethans practiced, and indeed what the circus does. He turned his actors back toward the audience and thus abolished the “fourth wall” of Stanislavsky and the slice-of-life Method madmen. From faraway Stratford, one hears the applauding murmur of the master. (Brecht, with unusual reverence, always called Shakespeare “William.” And he had really read Hamlet’s speech to the players.)

What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba? Brecht taught his actors, sometimes against mulish resistance, to “distance” themselves from their roles, to comment on the character by voice, asides, and gesture, to “act in quotation marks,” Although whole volumes have been written about it (including seven by B.B. himself), this is all the famous “V-Effect” really means. And all that Berlin epic theater is. Epic in the sense of narrative, episodic, nonclimactic, always taking place in the past. Brecht wanted the audience to see familiar things in this “new light.” And it was the audience Brecht was really after.

Did he succeed? Yes and no. No theater lover who has ever watched the Ensemble perform can deny that it has created exhilarating new drama. The real argument begins with Brecht’s anti-empathy and antihero leanings. He set out to kill Aristotelian “empathy” in order to make people think in the theater — “I don’t write for slobs who want me to warm the cockles of their hearts.” Brecht wanted to make people think in the theater - here he is close to Shaw — because he then wanted them to go out and help “change the world.” In a good Brecht play, the propagandist is often wrestling with the poet. The delightful, Hegelian paradox is that the poet, who controls the undertones and dramatic asides, invariably wins. Brecht’s nonheroes — Mother Courage, Grusche in the Chalk Circle, Shen Te in The Good Woman of Setzuan — most surely do evoke empathy in the audience. But if Brecht failed here, right in his own theater, what fine failure.

As part of the drive for recognition of their state in the West, the Communist rulers of East Berlin still subsidize the Berliner Ensemble to the tune of one million dollars a year. And they are happier when it is on tour in the West. Let the Brecht mood spread to Eastern Europe, or filter back to the East German provinces, and this theater could close — and before the break of dawn.