Anthony Squiers

Anthony Squiers

Anthony Squiers is a political philosopher and poet. He is the author of An Introduction to the Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht: Revolution and Aesthetics and co-editor of Philosophizing Brecht: Critical Readings on Art, Consciousness, Social Theory and Performance.

Who is Bertolt Brecht? and Why We Should Care in our Dark Times
Thursday, 18 July 2019 15:48

Who is Bertolt Brecht? and Why We Should Care in our Dark Times

Published in Poetry

Anthony Squiers outlines the contemporary relevance of Brecht, especially for artists who seek to produce meaningful works of art in our own dark times. 

On February 27, 1933 the Reichstag building, which housed the German parliament in Berlin, burst into flames. Nazi leaders alleged this to be a Communist plot to unsettle the German government. Marxist playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht, a shrewd political observer, accurately anticipated the Nazis' violent and repressive response to the fire and, the following day, fled Germany with his wife, Jewish actor Helen Weigel, and their two children.

Brecht was only thirty-five at the time but was already established as an important literary figure, gaining notoriety for widely acclaimed and commercially successful productions like Drums in the Night (1922), Baal (1923) and The Threepenny Opera (1928). His early works expressed general discontent with the socioeconomic realities of the day, and explored class-based themes.

In this way, Brecht’s early writings are marked by proto-Marxist tendencies which subsequently developed into overtly Marxist sentiments when in the mid-1920s he discovered Marx and Lenin. In 1926 he wrote, “it was only when I read Lenin’s State and Revolution (!) and then Marx’s Kapital that I understood, philosophically, where I stood.”

Around this same time, Brecht began attending Marxist discussion groups and lectures hosted by philosopher Karl Korsch and sociologist Fritz Sternberg. Brecht considered these influential writers and public intellectuals to be his primary teachers of Marxism. Their gatherings had considerable impact on Brecht’s intellectual development. In them, he was introduced to Marxist concepts, critically explored ideas, and engaged with like-minded individuals.

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Babylon Berlin depiction of May 1, 1929. Blutmai (Bloody May) Photo: Sky 1

On May 1, 1929, Brecht was with Sternberg, in Sternberg’s Berlin apartment across from the Karl-Liebknecht-Haus, the headquarters of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands. The two watched from Sternberg’s window as police massacred protesting communists on the street below. Sternberg later reflected that witnessing this event drove Brecht even closer to communism and by the early 1930s he had established many long lasting and intimate friendships with prominent German Marxists. Among his confidantes were critical theorist, Walter Benjamin; novelist Bernard von Brentano; and composers, Kurt Weill with whom he collaborated on The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and Hanns Eisler his collaborator on The Measures Taken, The Mother, and the film Kuhle Wampe.

These associations, along with his theatrical successes and his reputation for an acute intellect, made Brecht an important and influential leftist in Germany and thus a potential target for the Nazis. In fear of their brutal designs during those, in his words, ‘finsteren Zeiten’ or dark times, Brecht spent fifteen years in exile. To stay ahead of the Nazi war machine, he first went to Denmark, then fled to Sweden, then again to Finland, and lastly the USA.

From 1941 to 1947 he lived in Santa Monica, California where he often associated with other exiled German intellectuals like Thomas Mann, Fritz Lang, Lion Feuchtwanger, Eisler, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. He awaited the conclusion of the war in California and in 1947, a day after famously testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)......

.....he returned to Europe, living in Switzerland, in preparation for a return to Germany. His exile was a long, financially and emotionally difficult period for Brecht and his family.

Nevertheless, he never lost his faith in, nor commitment to, Marxism and in late 1948, Brecht arrived in Berlin where, the following year, he established his celebrated Berliner Ensemble theatre company, with state aid from the newly formed German Democratic Republic (GDR). Brecht died in 1956, in the GDR leaving behind a formidable artistic legacy. He is perhaps best known for creating major theatrical works such as: Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Woman of Szechwan, Life of Galileo, and his theoretical writings on his ‘epic theatre’, which attempted to create a Marxist revolutionary aesthetic. Many excellent English translations of these works exist through a series published by Bloomsbury Methuen.

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Brecht and Weigel on the roof of the Berliner Ensemble during the International Workers' Day demonstrations in 1954

The questions he posed, and the insights he gleaned from creating his revolutionary, emancipatory aesthetic, make him an important thinker at the intersection of art and politics, and one who is particularly useful for artists who seek to produce meaningful works of art in our own dark times. From his theoretical writings, we can see that Marxism provided Brecht with two things: a framework for understanding the social world, and a purpose for his artistic expressions.

The framework was dialectical materialism, Marx’s theory of history positing that history moves predictably, as successions of contradictions (manifested as class-based social antagonisms) work themselves out. Dialectics served as the interpretive basis of social reality for Brecht and guided his approach to writing. Marxism also offered Brecht a clear purpose for his art. He adopted Marx’s view that history was moving toward communism; however, before that could happen, certain conditions would first have to be met. Specifically, the proletarian class had to become ‘class-conscious’ and recognise its economically exploited position within society.

Brecht spent considerable amounts of intellectual energy figuring out ways to reveal these sociological ‘truths.’ In order to be successful at this, however, he believed a sort of overcoming or subversion of the dominant (bourgeois) ideological order was required. What was needed, according to Brecht, was ‘de-familiarisation,’ something that would nudge the audience past the mystification of bourgeois ideology. Brecht attempted to achieve de-familiarisation through his famous estrangement effects (Verfremdungseffekte). These were techniques he hoped would produce a critical, cognitive detachment between the audience and what they saw represented. In short, the idea was to make the familiar world seem unfamiliar by turning the audience into self-reflective anthropologists who would ask themselves sociological and historical questions about the material conditions and social relations of their time. Ultimately, Brecht hoped that the audience would come to see these conditions and relations as mutable, and awaken a revolutionary impulse to change them.

According to philosopher Roland Barthes, the theorisation of these techniques allowed Brecht to divine “the variety and relativity of semantic systems,” which allowed the world to be shown as “an object to be deciphered.” This, in turned, opened the possibility for an understanding of how human action shapes reality, and that our reality is not independent of ourselves, but a product of our historically determined mental representations of the world. Brecht was keenly aware of the dialectical interplay between theory and praxis, the ideological and the material. He intuited that the way we conceive our world shapes our material realities, and that those material realities mould the way we understand the world.

In sum, Brecht’s representations of the material world were designed to undermine hegemonic ideology and produce cognitive uncertainty, which would force people to conclude that humans are largely responsible for the construction of their ideological and material reality and that they are not, therefore, bound to how things are currently. Alternatives are possible. This idea alone doesn’t make Brecht an important Marxist thinker because it isn’t unique.

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However, Brecht didn’t just make this argument. He developed novel approaches to going about changing the reality. He represents a materially transformative impulse which is exactly why he is relevant for revolutionary-minded artists today. He represents the un-foreclosed possibilities, liberating potentials which are rendered through a willingness to perplex and a practical attitude toward philosophy. This willingness to perplex is defined by a disposition to confront complexity, ask difficult questions and be ready for even more difficult answers. The practical attitude toward philosophy is defined by a readiness to engage in the material realm by making transformative artistic interventions into it.

It is precisely these types of interventions which point to the crux of Brecht’s usefulness in our dark times, curing the sickness. He compels us to undermine the ruling order that permits the atrocities and injustices with which we are plagued. He calls us to break open new possibilities, to make alternatives possible. At its essence, this is who Bertolt Brecht is and why we should care about him in these dark times.

Further reading:

Brecht, Bertolt, Marc Silberman, Steve Giles, Tom Kuhn, and Jack Davis. Brecht on Theatre. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

Glahn, Philip. Bertolt Brecht. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.

Roessler, Norman, and Anthony Squiers. Philosophizing Brecht: Critical Readings on Art, Consciousness, Social Theory and Performance. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill|Rodopi, 2019.

Squiers, Anthony. An Introduction to the Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht: Revolution and Aesthetics. Amsterdam: Brill|Rodopi, 2014.

It's the revolution or the doors: a review of an early Brecht play
Tuesday, 25 June 2019 20:59

It's the revolution or the doors: a review of an early Brecht play

Published in Theatre

Anthony Squiers reviews Trommeln in der Nacht at the Münchner Kammerspiele, which 'rescues the Tentative Brecht'

On September 29, 1922 the Münchner Kammerspiele premiered Trommeln in der Nacht, a play about a prisoner of war’s return to Berlin on the cusp of the Spartakusaufstand [Spartacus uprising] – the leftist insurgency of January 1919 which saw Rosa Luxemburg, the Marxist theorist and activist take a leading role for which she would be summarily executed. This was the first-ever staging of a work by the then-unknown playwright, Bertolt Brecht, which publicly launched a theatrical career few in the history of theatre have approximated.

In the near century which has passed since Brecht’s inauguration, his career, life, thoughts and works have been transformed into a behemoth, an extraordinary, and sometimes monstrous creature, which starting in the late 1960s, scholars and theatre practitioners have attempted to tame, to discipline-ise, rationalise, standardise.

This was a necessary task but came at an expense. It was necessary because the Brecht Business has its own needs and purposes: classroom materials, instructing students, selling tickets, paying the light bill. But, the cost was that the standardised Brecht (the Brecht of various estrangement effects and gest, Brecht the acting schools’ strawman against Stanislavsky, the Brecht of the standard texts) has increasingly negated Brecht the experimental, the innovative, the reinventor, overshadowing the always tentative, never foreclosed characteristic of his interventions.

The discipline-ised Brecht is a Brecht of the ‘what has been,’ boxed up and packaged neatly for ready consumption. The tentative Brecht is a messy and mystifying world of contradictions, incompleteness, unsurety, trial and error, the dialectical constantly in flux. But, this is an essential element of Brecht and I believe where Brecht’s relevance for today and the future is to be found. So, the question becomes: How do we revive or rescue the tentative Brecht while still making use of the discipline-ised Brecht?

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As the eve of the 100th anniversary of the start to Brecht’s theatrical career draws near Christopher Rüping, Director in Residence at the Münchner Kammerspiele since the 2016/17 season confronts this question head-on with two productions of Trommeln in der Nacht: one ‘von Brecht’ (from Brecht) and the other ‘nach Brecht,’ (after Brecht) a modified version that opens the text up to alternative explorations by playing with the question, „Was wäre wenn…?“—What if it were…? Although these are his first attempts with Brecht, in the ‘nach Brecht’ version, Rüping offers an inspired and credible answer to the question just posed.

His tactic is to estrange the audience from the mythologised Brecht by historicising the play and its creator. This is done with the addition of a theatricalised preface narrated by Murk (Nils Kahnwald), which discusses the play and its relation to the Kammerspiele from a historical standpoint while in the background the audience sees the prefabricated panels of a cityscape (a close approximation of what was used in the original production) being erected and coming together. At this moment, the audience is effectively told that this is a historical re-enactment, a re-enactment of a play that was performed there nearly a century ago. In this way, the play itself becomes a museum piece, which is put on display and the text essentially becomes an extended series of quotations of Brecht.

This move recognises the need for the discipline-ised Brecht through the preservation of original elements (textual, auditory, and visual). Furthermore, it’s done in a way that Brecht himself may have approved. It is reminiscent of Brecht’s discussion, in his Herr Keuner parables of “the Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu [who] composed a book of one hundred thousand words, nine-tenths of which consisted of quotations.” Pulling off something like this, we are told, takes “wit.”

However, the preface also creatively rescues the tentative Brecht. First, it eschews a rigid devotion to the original text in favour of what is needed and useful for the current days. Second, it makes use of the central Brechtian idea of historicising—"judging a particular social system from another social system’s point of view.” By taking us back to the provenance, to the myth of origin—The Birth of Brecht, we are compelled to see Brecht and the play as a product of its specific time, to see them “in historically relative terms” and thus we “keep their impermanence always before our eyes, so that our own period can be seen to be impermanent too.”

Of course, the concept of historicising is clearly part of the standardised Brecht; but, the process is not, nor can it be. It can’t be taught as a fixed series of steps to be taken. It defies standardisation because history is ephemeral. It is always tentative and therefore in any given time and place one must figure out how to historicise and not only that, one must work out how to do this effectively. This takes thoughtful consideration, sociological understanding and raw creativity, all of which were clearly demonstrated in this production.

For Rüping, the Kammerspiele and its central place in Brechtian lore provided the perfect opportunity to historicise Brecht and subsequently gave him an entry point to the production. As he explains, “I wouldn’t have done it in any other place…I didn’t know how to approach it” but the Kammerspiele “gave me…access to the play.”

As well thought out as this prelude was, the significant moments were not limited to the first ten minutes. Instead, others were built on the preface, organized around the idea of the gradual destruction of what had been built up in it. When the solider, Kragler (Christian Löber) returns from the First World War after being held prisoner of war for years, he finds that his girlfriend, Anna (Wiebke Mollenhauer) has just been engaged to Murk, something for which her bourgeois parents had been advocating.

Murk is a man of ambition, a man on the rise with financial potential. He is one of them. Kragler thus finds that he is as replaceable, as expendable at home as he was on the battlefield. This is captured perfectly in Anna’s parents’ attitude to the situation created by his return. Her father (Hannes Hellmann), a war profiteer tries to buy him off and her mother (Wiebke Puls) beseeches him to “learn to suffer without complaining.” Kragler pleas with them for justice; but, this is meet with indifference and even mocking. Murk refers to him repeatedly as a ghost—a dehumanised form—and sardonically starts bidding on his boots. In the final analysis, the circumstances are all about money. Kragler realises this and implores Anna to openly admit that she can’t marry him because of “his clothes,” an obvious reference to his economic position.

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Meanwhile, the set which was built up before our eyes slowly erodes, also as we look on. In the scene change between the second and third acts, for example, various elements of the set are stripped away and taken off stage. This is done with the curtain up and lights on, so the audience can bear witness to the deconstruction. For Rüping, this is “the most emotional part…The whole world goes away and there is only one table left…it was as if it was the last of the world that [Murk and Anna] was used to living…We build up a world and piece by piece, we destroy it…sweeping away everything that was there before.”

This unravelling of the world continues when, dejected, Kragler searches for meaning in his life and becomes committed to the Spartakusbund and their uprising. At this point, the intensity begins to build up, set to the pulsating rhythms of industrial music that engulfs the theatre, reverberates throughout it at elevated, thunderous decibels. The revolt is deafening, chaotic, cacophonous, a crescendo of maiming and bloodshed, an orgy of annihilation as it is being tamped down. „Glotzt nicht so romantisch!“— “Wipe that romantic look off your face!”

There are harsh economic realities at play here. There will be financial winners and losers. There are brutal, material forces to be dealt with, entrenched interests, militarised power. Suddenly, all the theatre doors are thrown open and the light from the corridors penetrates the dark rows of the Kammer illuminating the way to the exits. In this moment, we are given a choice. Here, “you must decide,” says Rüping. It’s the revolution or the doors. All the while, the world that was fashioned in the preface continues to be brought down, symbolically as well as its physical embodiment. Kragler sends one of the panels of the skyline crashing to the floor. He breaks it into pieces violently, pugnaciously and feeds the broken chunks into a woodchipper, decimating them.

In the final scene, we see Anna (who has left Murk for Kragler and the revolt) talking with Murk. He begs her to return to him. Not only has he lost his betrothed, the uprising is an existential threat to him and his class. But, Anna will not go back. She rejects her bourgeois comforts because she now sees what is at the heart of them. These happy bourgeois lives are predicated on force and violence wielded in the interests of the well-off. Anna now stands apart from her social class, a critical character willing to see beyond her narrow class Weltanschauung. She now sees not in spite of but because she has “blood in her eyes.”

Rüping has hit upon a resounding success with Trommeln in der Nacht, ‘nach Brecht,’ offering a plausible way forward in dealing with the tentative Brecht and discipline-ised Brecht. His approach is cerebral, self-reflective, thoughtful, and precise yet emerges from a pure creative, artistic instinct which has given us a Brecht we can use.