Has The Playwright of Our Moment Been Dead for 60 Years?
When I was approached in 2013 by director Eric Powell Holm to do an adaptation for his company (Bread Arts Collective) and space, it was an unthinking certitude that lead me to Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall (“of the City of Mahagonny”): this was the play of the moment. A play born of despair and rebellious joy, of the collapse of the Left, of the previously unthinkable marriage of Capital and the Far Right, of wo/men trying to come to terms with admitting an imminent future in which race had been built into the structure of the state itself, for whom terror was not a watchword but a daily reality. Even those who remained struggled to imagine any solution but flight; and those who did not imagine that paid terribly. For Brecht, there was no solution, the end had already come, and all that remained was response: if Michel Foucault looked to “philosophize with a hammer”, Brecht intended to go out of the Reich making theater with a sledgehammer. Bread’s production embraced this wildly, to the point that the script itself made little difference to their (and particularly the brilliant Katie Melby as Jimmy) perfect encapsulation of the play’s – and our moment’s, – Zeitgeist.
Perhaps it should be unsurprising, as too many of us have experienced, that Brecht’s greatest plays were written at the nadir of his life. There is something deceptive in the retrospective term that these plays, from 1930-33, were the Lehrstücke, the plays that “taught” their audience. How strangely self-effacing (and frankly slightly repugnant) is that, as a theatrical project? Like many of us, Brecht was not the first to suffer mighty underrating by trying to describe himself, as poet and playwright: indeed, his published self-narrations about this period look so little like his actual notes at the time and the productions themselves that it is difficult to imagine a man who believed they described the same thing. But still, these are the things we know him by – Brecht on “Epic Theater”, Brecht on “Theatrical Materialism”…Brecht on piety – and the things that pervade particularly American productions of his work, which are often (not always), as a result, abominable. Please resist the urge to Youtube the LA production of Rise and Fall; I have zero doubt that Brecht would be horrified by it, even having himself been a part of the LA scene for a time. I suspect many who read this will share my instinctive suspicion of any attempt I make to narrate my own work, and I suspect those who do not of having a perpetual sense of what Brecht called (roughly translated) “artistic self-dishonesty”. For Nietzsche and for Brecht at his most honest, it was not philosophers who were least known to themselves when they are at their greatest, but writers and all artists (and Nietzsche considered himself the latter, not the former) who could tear apart the moment, “unknown to themselves”. For both, we love “artistic agency” in politics too much. Our greatest agency is in our power of disruption and identification, not knowing. But that, in itself, is grounds for the answer that this post’s title asks. Perhaps it is the case that every political moment finds its greatest muse not in its own time, but in another. And perhaps the time of our Brecht has come.
There is a very simple reason for Brecht’s virtue when applied to our political moment, at least for the early ‘30s plays (it is not a coincidence that these are the ones rarely produced in this country). That simple virtue is that, in the crush of that moment of the rise of totalitarianism, he had no interest in capturing his time. His time had already shattered the meanings and virtues his generation were promised. Why capture something meant to horrifically eclipse? The best of his early thirties plays are precisely a rejection of that, of even the idea of a Lehrstück itself: they are plays written not to teach, but to elicit. Elicit from the audience not just one reaction, as a “teaching play” would, but a multiplicity of reactions, each specific to the particular socio-economic experience of the audience member themselves. This, perhaps, is the one thing Brecht always understood and articulated well about himself: that his works could only function in the way that they gripped and wrenched and pleaded to his audience. It is why he had no use for the fourth wall. It is why he built characters that were not only merely ciphers, but clearly not humans. And most of all, it is why he wrote plays to start riots: because all that mattered to Brecht was the terrible moment. And his plays from that time are exactly that: they are confrontations with moments, not times.
That inner kernel – that understanding that there is something different between hurling oneself against a moment and philosophizing the times – is what makes Brecht a writer who is perhaps more powerful in this moment of Ferguson and Charleston than many of our own. I have always been suspicious of my ability to diagnose the present; indeed, I am suspicious of anyone who believes they can write piercingly about the their own time. We must be strangers to ourselves…why deny that, as artists? For our desperate sense of self-control and presentation? Who could pretend that we cannot see better in the rearview mirror? My deepest memory is of my lover in the rearview mirror. No, this is what Brecht can teach us, when he is not preaching: that the greatest works are not works of knowledge, but works of a certain kind of genius-in-the-mirror, works that exist not by preaching a holy gospel but by forcing, sometimes violently, the viewer to confront themselves, and their own reaction, and why they are having it. Rise and Fall was a riotous, gleeful invitation to confront the nature of pleasure and capital, and I am grateful to Bread for that. The coming run’s adaptations, Antigonemodell and St. Joan of the Stockyards, will (I hope, little translator/adaptor to an extraordinary company), return that dimension of centering and confronting the reaction of the audience to themselves. As Rise and Fall puts it, and as the relentlessly tragicomic Ben Lewis portrays, “you can’t do shit for a dead man.” But we can still do something for the living. We can do many things for the living, and bring the dead back to life.
Ian Storey, professor/adaptor, will be unavailable for response until September for medical reasons. However, all feedback will be very much welcome when he is able to do so.