Monday, April 2, 2018

Bertolt Brecht

Although the playwright Bertolt Brecht wasn't Russian, the life and art of this important German playwright help to illuminate many of the twentieth century themes that help to shape the Soviet political and cultural experience from the early 1920s right through to the 1950s. Coming of age as a playwright in the early years of the Weimar Republic, Brecht quickly became immersed in radical politics.  He also quickly became a cultural figure of international importance. Brecht lived and worked in Denmark, Finland, America, and East Germany, and always remained in contact with leading directors, writers, and musicians from multiple nations.  Over time, Brecht became one of the most influential theorists of radical, didactic, and revolutionary theater.  Bruce Book's collection of essays on Brecht, entitled Brecht in Exile, illustrates the impact of Brecht on global culture. Specific chapters in Cook's book deal with Brecht's often turbulent relationships with Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Kurt Weil, and Fritz Lang.  While critical of Brecht's sometimes self-centered personality, and unconvinced that Brecht's theories of political theater actually influenced his masterpieces, Cook's book demonstrates that the best international art of this period of exile was often a product of a dynamic if contentious dialog between democratic and communist systems of thought.  Of course, if one reads only Cook, one might not get the true measure of Brecht's genius.

To read Brecht's diaries from the period of 1920-1922, one sees a young man vitality, poetic talent, and vast creative energy.  The plays themselves offer the ultimate testimony to Brecht's fertile imagination and powerful drammaturgical impulse. Jungle of Cities, for instance, is an elliptical but nevertheless profound treatise on tragic love in the midst of interpersonal struggle and class conflict. This Chicago story of underworld despair is both morbidly funny and existentially depressing.  As its title Chicago, Brecht envisions capitalist Chicago as a squalid place of exploitation, prostitution, thuggery, and gangland conflict.  Unlike the kinder flat lands that surround Chicago, the city itself is a "cold place."  In Chicago, people learn that "in its natural state human skin is too thin for this world." 

Set in Finland, Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti's setting is slightly more appeal than that of Jungle of Cities, but once again it is a location filled with exploitation and bitterness.  Bruce Book's essays on Brecht imply that Brecht never quite found a way to integrate Marxism with theater.  But Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti in particular seems to demonstrte that Brecht really did find ways to lend theatricality to capitalist exploitation.  For Puntila exploits Matti in extremely comical ways, and Matti resists this exploitation in similarly funny ways.  Neither landowner nor wage slave loses his humanity to impersonal economic forces, but both the fate of both characters is shaped by the logic of the economy.

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