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International Socialism, Spring 1961


Ioan Davies

Brecht and Socialism


From International Socialism (1st series), No.4, Spring 1961, pp.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Proofread by Anoma Cartwright (April 2008).


Four plays (The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Galileo, The Trial of Lucullus, The Threepenny Opera)
Bertolt Brecht
Methuen. 1960. 25s.

Suddenly Brecht has become the centre of the modern drama. Strange though this is, it’s basically the technique that has been borrowed, and the schools of thought that have flowered under his name have been rarely Socialist. What of Brecht himself? This new Methuen series allows us to begin our own work on the plays and make our own assessment. The introduction of scientific thinking into dramatic art is an obvious progression – but for once knowledge is treated as based on doubt (Galileo, scene 14 for a quote) and that doubt is based on the contempt of the people for the myths and perversions of their rulers. And the use of legend as analogy rather than a basis for culture is important – as in Trotsky’s theory that after the Revolution the existing material must be used as a reference-point, the new literature being developed from there. The main element in Brecht’s dramatic theory and practice is the treatment of historic flux, indicating that nothing is static and that clashes and contradictions of opposing forces are central to action. In this he used the Marxian dialectic and the theory of class war. Galileo is a struggle between the progressive forces of science and worker discontent on the one hand, and the reactionary powers of the church and the Italian autocracy on the other: in the Threepenny Opera the satire is on the controllers who keep the social order in such condition that the underworld of Soho is forced to develop as a concomitant.

A second element, that of justice, is equally important. The struggle to be ‘good’ is frequently stressed, but it is a fatuous struggle if it is not linked with the struggle to live – ‘Food’, he says in the Threepenny Opera, ‘is the first thing, morals follow on’. No matter how much individuals aim to be just, justice and morality are only possible if the social conditions are just. In fact the attempt is only worthwhile under such conditions: otherwise it becomes blind to the injustice of others.

The four plays included in this volume are essentially at the centre of Brecht’s political dramas. Apart from Lucullus, which seems to me a particularity ineffective piece of work with its obvious technique of a post-mortem on the death of a tyrant, the plays include all the important technical devices and portray Brecht’s dialectical method. At the same time they display his weaknesses. Although the contradictions of capitalism must play an essential part in a drama that aims at accurate portrayal, these are frequently confusing. Even if the meaning of the plays is clear to a student of Brecht, on the stage there are frequently unsolved ambiguities. In the Caucasian Chalk Circle, for example, the themes of myth and reality, romanticism and formalism, morality and pure entertainment are so interwoven that the idea of flux seems to become more important than the lesson of the play. Though this is honesty of a sort, and though the play itself is particularity successful, the purpose is blurred in the process.

Galileo is in many ways a more direct and compelling play – but even here the speeches made at the end on the ‘ethics’ of the recantation are not immediately clear in purport. Although Brecht obviously cannot excuse the recantation, the play is inconclusive because Andrea is confused by Galileo’s previous ethical attitudes. Brecht’s mental versatility leads him to consider every issue – but what is important as philosophy can be inadequate as drama.

However, the case for Brecht need not be made. His drama is the beginning of a critical theatre, introducing scepticism to socialist literature and avoiding the turgid jargon of the Soviet ‘realists’. If he occasionally seems esoteric or confusing, this is often because of the undeveloped consciousness of the audience. And Wesker, Osborne, Kopps and all have managed little to date that is comparable.

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