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International Socialism, November 1977


Ian Patterson

Brecht Boshed Up


From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht
John Willett
Eyre Methuen. £2.95

This is a useful book for anyone who wants to go on Mastermind with The Works of Bertolt Brecht as their specialist subject. It fits confidently and efficiently into its niche in the contemporary cultural world. After all, the book was first published in 1959, only ten years after Sir John Gielgud had written, ‘Mr Brecht presumably writes his own scripts, and it might be interesting to see a performance of one of them,’ which gives some indication of how things have changed in the culture industry over the last twenty years. And a lot of people have seen Brecht productions since then (some of them quite good), and his presence has enabled much of the revolution in political theatre that has happened over the last ten years to take place.

So there’s a market now for a new, updated edition of the old introduction. What’s it like? It’s unsatisfactory. For example, his last chapter is about the response in this country to Brecht. But he doesn’t mention anything outside Sunday-paper-reviewing territory, and he ignores a lot of what gets even that far. Not a word about the development of our political theatre. Just stuff about whether John Osborne was influenced by Brecht. Brecht has become a ‘subject’, a commodity for display, and all Willett is concerned with in this book relates to that central tenet. His horribly blinkered view of what has happened in poetry and theatre since the 1950s (probably a necessary qualification for his job on the Times Literary Supplement) effectively reveal his scope and purpose. The book is a compendium, written without any engagement with Brecht’s real concerns, and aimed at a readership created by our stifling and monopolistic education system.

I don’t think there’s another European country where a book as bad as this could have the kind of influence this has, and will continue to have. The extent to which we suffer cultural and intellectual emasculation, even suffer it gladly, is one of the seven wonders of modern capitalism.

By revising a twenty-year-old text, Willett and his publishers are trying to reassert control over ‘Brecht’, put the subject back in the past, dressed up in a bit of trendy political history, and swamped with good intentions and easy material. The recuperation job is not even a good one, either. A book Willett describes as being by the ‘latest historian of the [Russian Formalist] movement’, for example, was published in 1955, which is not likely to increase the reader’s confidence, nor give him or her much help. No, this is a pocket guide to Brecht, a tourist’s handbook, sprinkled with anecdotes, larded with information for eager Brecht-consumers to consume. What do you do about a book like this? Some of the information – chronologies, lists of written works, dates of first performances etc. – is really useful. The pictures are well-chosen, and some of them are extremely helpful (though they’re all too small). And you find out things that seem interesting as you read through it. On p.199 I discovered that Brecht once told an English interviewer he thought Orwell ought to have been exterminated. But then, however much you may sympathise with Brecht’s distaste for Orwell’s tortured posturings, the remark is not really characteristic, nor very useful. It’s just more local colour. Even the chapter where Willett discusses Brecht’s use of music, and his relationships with musicians, which is – I think – centrally interesting, is too summary and schematic to do more than point the way to a few landmarks and some further reading. There is, typically, no analysis.

And without doubt, the worst thing in the book is the forty page ‘analysis’ of the plays. Despite a prosaic and reasonably clear explanation (on p.173) of what Brecht meant by gest and gestural theatre, the summaries ignore that crucial perspective, and offer us instead a bare narrative of events in the play. So, for example, the summary of Mother Courage offers an account of her character, but ignores the social gest of her self-delusion represents – the meaning, as the audience receives it, of her belief that she can live off the war.

Brecht wanted his plays to be acted in the space between the audience and the text. (Which is why he liked old-fashioned theatres – they suited his sentimental brand of subversiveness.) Despite any better intentions on the author’s part the effect of this book is to reduce that space by enclosing all three as text-as-commentary, and packaging it all for consumption. And consumption is what people used to die of.

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Last updated on 5.1.2008