13 February 2014

Happy Bertolt Brecht's Birthday

Happy (Late) Bertolt Brecht's Birthday, everyone. (It was February 10th.)

It is entirely arguable that, although Bertolt Brecht was considered one of the most important German poets, playwrights, and theater directors of the first half of the Twentieth Century, in the second half he became the most influential dramatist and theater practitioner in the world. 

Meine Damen und Herren, Madames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen, he died. All people die. Mortality is part of what defines our precarious humanity. It keeps us from being gods. Except, not always. He became a god after he died, but because gods are ideas, he had no way of ever enjoying it. And the idea that he became was a diluted idea of his work and thought, a less nuanced, demanding, and radical Brecht that was the result of a dialectical encounter with the mainstream via incomplete and compromised translations into English. This was the god that became so popular.

Yes, for all of his posthumous success, exposure, influence, and adoption--everything from Oh, What a Lovely War! and Cabaret to Peter Brook's famous 1970 RSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream to Hair, Marat/Sade, Godspell, Company, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Chicago, Little Shop of HorrorsEvita, and Sweeney Todd, to Angels in America, All That Jazz, many of the films of Sirk, Godard, Fassbinder, Pasolini, and Todd Haynes to the plays of Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter to Dogville, and the Atlantic Theater Company's enormously successful musical adaptation of Wedekind's Spring Awakening (the list is, for all practical purposes, endless)--Brecht remains deeply misunderstood in the international theatrical landscape, despite the monumental wake cast by his work, misrepresented by longstanding, received accounts--oversimplified, incomplete, humorless, and doctrinaire accounts--of, and prejudices against, his dramaturgy.

He is the troubling, insoluble, and almost completely forgotten conundrum of Twentieth Century theater. An unruly, mischievously critical, complicated, subversive, and often contradictory-seeming figure from the start; a rebellious enfant terrible/Wunderkind/eminence grise, simultaneously considered a rejuvenating pioneer of contemporary theater as well as its most reviled, bloodless, and overly-intellectual sidetrack; a Marxian revolutionary and a survivor who is often cast by his detractors, and many of his champions, as an apolitical opportunist, sellout, and plagiarist; an admirer of such varied cultural forces as Marx, the Marx Brothers, Japanese Noh theater, Shakespeare, Goethe, Marlowe, Kaiser, Kipling, Gay, Büchner, and Chaplin; a constantly evolving and unsentimental thinker and theorist on the place and function of theater in society; a practitioner who deplored the denigration of entertainment, humor, and slapstick in any art form as superficial and useless instead of essential and central; a cultural giant whom it should not be difficult for the critically open-minded and persistent investigator to admit that Brecht--and perhaps he alone--offers the most sustained, supple, sophisticated, useful, and nuanced engagement with the question of the political in art and the question of art in the political and social spheres.

Brecht's example, far from being a barbaric, anarchic, naïve, slapdash attack on popular or bourgeois culture, employs juxtaposition, tension, resonance, reversal, contradiction, comedy, irony, expectation, surprise, and sympathy to articulate the barbaric, anarchic, naïve, slapdash attack of culture on the individual, the gendered body, the couple, the family, the community, and the very idea of the just and the possible. But. And this is the most important, and challenging, ingredient missing from almost any production you've ever seen of any piece by Brecht or from any piece you've ever seen presented in what is referred to as a "Brechtian" mode or style: you must find a way to make the piece an entertainment--theater must be entertaining--or you've wasted the audience's time and everyone else's.


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