From International Socialism (1st series), No.22, Autumn 1965, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Brecht on Theatre
Translated and edited by John Willett
Oh What A Lovely War
Methuen, 8s 6d
Brecht’s reputation as a dramatist has been fiercely disputed. Some, including the present reviewer, consider him the greatest playwright of the century; others are repelled by his ‘didactism’ and profess themselves bored by ‘propaganda on the stage’. Generally Brecht’s supporters have been found on the Left of the political spectrum, his most enthusiastic denigrators on the Right. This volume of essays is unlikely to heal the split. Brecht insists that the theatre, like all art (but especially the narrative arts), must be treated seriously, must be regarded as a political force that reinforces or questions men’s assumptions about social life: ‘There is no play and no theatrical performance which does not in some way or other affect the dispositions and conceptions of the audience. Art is never without consequences, and indeed that says something for it’ (p.151). Those who are concerned about the quality of a society must also be concerned about the quality of its artistic activities, both their content and their form.
At the basis of Brecht’s aesthetics lie two simple and interconnected theses: the theatre must be consciously instructive, and the theatre must be fun; the one presupposes the other. For behind Brecht’s complaints against the contemporary bourgeois theatre lies the basic charge that it makes a false distinction between learning and fun. As a Marxist Brecht was concerned to provide a theatre that would continually criticise and instruct, which would show reality in its complexity and with its contradictions and stimulate judgement on it, and which would excite the audience’s reason as well as its emotions. But his ‘didactic and pedagogic’ theatre was also meant to entertain – something little appreciated in Britain, where as fine a company as the Royal Shakespeare could present his comedy Puntila in the style of a pontificating Chekhov gone suddenly coarse (an effort as extraordinary as attempting to produce a circus in the style of Swan Lake). Hence Brecht’s great admiration for Chaplin, and hence the brilliance of the recent visit of the Berliner Ensemble, whose productions (in German) were more fun than anything else in London.
The need to bring the intellect back into the theatre is a theme that runs through all the essays. But what is meant is not that the theatre should be ‘highbrow’; more simply, Brecht expresses a belief in the intelligence of his audience, and refutes the extraordinary assumption of much contemporary theatre (and television, etc.) that learning is not enjoyable. Why, after all, should an explanation of the scientific reasons for believing the earth goes round the sun be out of place in the theatre? In Brecht’s Galileo it occupies a whole scene; the explanation is interesting and amusing, and education and entertainment are united. The theatre, radio, film, etc., ought to be able to ‘master the presentation of modern events and themes, and overcome the problems of showing them’, without just using them as background to ‘a son of background to a sentimental “magazine story”’ (p.77) in which the focus falls on the unchangeable individual. All the discussions, of acting styles, verse forms, lighting techniques, textual adaptations, etc, demonstrate a clear social purpose – how best can the theatre communicate to people, how best can it help critical thought to continue, how can it be most interesting, amusing and effective?
It is impossible to do justice to this book in the confines of a brief review. More than a book about the theatre, it is a continually stimulating discussion of the place of the arts in contemporary society, an approach to a Marxist aesthetics, and highly entertaining too. For those who are put off by (or can’t afford) the theatre, and depend on TV, radio or film, this book is equally relevant. John Willett’s editing and translation are excellent. Very highly recommended.
Judged by Brecht’s criteria, Oh What A Lovely War is mostly success, but partly failure. Presented in the form of a series of loosely linked revue sketches, interspersed with the songs that were sung on the trenches and the contemporary music halls, the Theatre Workshop production was, on one level, a blistering attack on the First World War. It was also one of the most lusty and entertaining pieces of theatre of recent years. But often it worked by means of purely emotional responses; the horrors of war and the stupidities of the jingoistic songs and slogans were conveyed by counterposing them with scenes illustrating the realities of the trench war, but because the whole process was presented as entirely stupid and incredibly funny, the intellect was left almost untouched. A truly revolutionary theatre is one that presents alternatives, that stimulates judgement and action as well as delight. Brecht’s theatre was a didactic one; Oh What A Lovely War preached too convincingly, and thus not well.
John Arden’s adaptation of Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen is, like all Arden’s work, technically brilliant. The language sparkles, the characters and scenes are boldly and strongly drawn. In many ways his plays have the technical mastery and sheer theatrical excitement of the best of Brecht or Shakespeare, qualities all too often missing from the work of his contemporaries. His theatre is, in the best sense, poetic; it is fun. His plays delight the senses, surprise and disturb. But, like sensuality without love, they are all groin and no head. The social background (Germany in the peasants’ war) is a series of dramatic events; against this background the representatives of the various classes are similarly dramatic; but the logic of background and character is missing, the events of the play remain essentially incomprehensible. Arden writes excitingly about historical subjects, better certainly than anyone else in England; he does not fall into the Weskerian trap of presenting neat and unconvincing socio-political formulae to the audience; but he does lack a sense of the sense of history.
Last updated: 14 April 2010