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Colin Barker

Bert’s Art

(Spring 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.28,Spring 1967, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Messingkauf Dialogues
Bertolt Brecht (translated by John Willett)
Methuen, 8s 6d (paper)

More of Brecht’s writings on the theatre, here in the form of a number of fragmentary dialogues between a Philosopher, a Dramaturg, an Actor and (occasionally) an Actress and a Worker. Once again, Brecht’s central concern is with the social purpose of the theatre, the ends to which its techniques are turned. All representations of human life contain some purpose, however implicitly; for Brecht the Marxist the purpose must be that of assisting the audience to examine its own existence critically. From this central concern everything else flows: the concern with acting styles, with scenic effects, with the interpretation of the classics, the ‘Alienation effect,’ etc.

In particular, Brecht is again at pains to assert that the intellect has a place in the theatre, an intellect that is naturally involved with emotions:

‘You provoke all sorts of passions (in the contemporary theatre), but a passion for an argument – oh no. Indeed, you don’t even satisfy it when it’s there.’

The dialogues are in a very fragmentary form, and switch from topic to topic without any clear development of the argument. This is a minor work in the Brecht canon, with little that is not more easily said elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is often witty and provoking, and always interesting. Brecht’s lack of dogmatism and his real delight in everything to do with the theatre make him essential reading for anyone concerned with the rediscovery of Marxist method in aesthetics – if not for all the answers, at least for many of the right questions.

‘The art of acting is one of society’s elementary capacities; it is based on a direct social asset, one of humanity’s pleasures in society; it is like language itself; it’s really a language of its own. I propose we rise to our feet to make this tribute stick in our memory (All rise) And now I propose we should take advantage of the fact that we’ve risen to our feet, to go and relieve ourselves.’

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Last updated: 6 May 2010