Pooja Iyer Mukherjee
The Politics of Theatre - 150 years of Brecht
“Poetry is not always like a canary bird’s nest. The song of this bird is beautiful, but nothing more. To bring out the inner beauty, poetry has to be read haltingly.“
Bertolt Brecht, a man who produced and directed plays, wrote poetry, novels, composed music, and became not an artist but a cultural activist, in the fifty eight years of his life. He picked his pen, less to exhibit art, more to speak up against injustice, war, and fascism.
At the tender age of sixteen, when the First World War started, in 1914, he wrote his first play. A one man play called ‘ De Bibel.’ His poems exhibited his anti war attitude and his championing for peace. His love for Germany and his patriotic spirit decided the tone of his work. The social and economic condition that his country or the world was in, resonated in his work.
When Brecht was twenty one, Germany was in a state of utter turmoil, both socially and economically. Right wing attacks on Jews and Communists were intensifying.
The government was trying to eliminate both of them. The right wing fascist began to misuse this opportunity. They were backed by Kapp and Ludwiz in Berlin and Hitler in Munich. Nazism was born. Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht were killed. Brecht attended their funeral. He then took to his pen , furiously. His play “BALL” was refused by publishers and he rose to number five on Hiler’s death list. Drums in the Night was staged in 1922.
He was joined by Piscator, a leader of the German Neo Drama movement. Between 1924 and 1926, when Germany faced the atrocities of the ruling class, in the name of patriotism and national defence, Piscator and Brecht staged play after play. They utilised their art forms against the so called patriotic war and mass cruelty.
The nineteen twenties and thirties witnessed the horrors of the Great Recession. The decline in production. Manpower crisis. Hangouts layoffs. Mass employment. Strikes and strikes.
On September 14 , 1930, 4.6 million people voted for the Communist Party against Hitler. The ruling party supported Hitler.
The culture of the Communist Party and the cultural consciousness of leaders resonated. They realised that it was important to inculcate the creative minds of people to save the country from irreparable doom.
During this time, in 1924, Brecht was reading Karl Marx’s “ Das Kapital”.
The impact of Marxist philosophies started shining through his poems and plays, as one witnessed his voice against fascism.
Then came the 1930s. The fascist autocratic class pounded the working class with all their might. Brecht jumped in as a comrade for the working class and their party. During this time his play, “De Mas Name” opened to resounding success in Vienna.
Brecht was taken ill. His success reached his ears through the famous musician Hans Eisler.
The date was February 27. The same night The Reichstag Fire happened.
Brecht left Germany with wife Helene and son Stefan.
He went to Denmark. He wrote several plays during this time, some of which like ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ and ‘Galileo’ went on to become iconic. He was not happy in Denmark. He went to Sweden. Then to Finland. In 1941, he left Europe and tried to settle down in Santa Monica in the United States. He produced landmarks like ‘Shwaik Gaye II Mahajudda’ and ‘ Caucasian Kharidar Gandhi’. He still didn't find his home.
He moved back to Europe, settled in Switzerland and then went back to Germany. ‘Mother Courage’ opened in Berlin. The leading lady was none other than his wife Helene Weigel. He founded his theatre group, ‘ Berliner Ensemble’
Wrapped in his artistic calibre was his belief in the Communist Party and his love for Germans and Germany. Against a mountain of hurdles, he never faltered to stick to his ideologies and voice them again and again through his work. To him his drama was his weapon.
He did not differentiate between politics and theatre. The line between them, to him, was blurry.
His voice then changed.
His drama transformed.
Epic Theatre was born.
Emotions ceased to be primary in his works. Logic took over. He asked questions through his plays, provoked the audience, left them with thoughts to ponder over.
He wanted to transform the common man, make them think about social change. He wanted them to focus on the logic behind the plays and not get swayed by the feelings of it.
So he layered his plays with emotions that were unrelatable to the common man. He did not want them to laugh or cry. He wanted them , only to think. This made for his Epic Theatre. His characters were unrelatable, the audience could not connect to them. He did not want his characters to distract them from the political messaging.
As a Marxist, his political position always towered over his artistic palette.
He experimented with drama and used Epic Theatre to reveal social forces at play, not recreate them realistically. His characters were animated. They were artificial. They were exaggerated.
His epic theatre brought forward the central theme of Marxian aesthetics, a rather unusual relationship between form and content, with a question raised in the context.
Like Brecht , Walter Benjamin also saw art as a vehicle for social activity and not literary dissection.
His work and approach always called for mixed responses. That however failed to change him or stop him. He stuck to his ideologies and his voice.
“ If art is a reflection of life , it must be said that it is helped by a very special kind of mirror. “ - Bertolt Brecht
Some of his most remembered :
The Rise and Fall of the Mahogany City
Die Mutter dramatisation of Maxim Gorky's 'Mother'.
Mother Courage and Her Children