Brecht – Tom Kuhn

Interview with Tom Kuhn

Tom Kuhn is Professor of Twentieth-Century German Literature and Fellow of St Hugh’s College. His main research interests are in political literature in the 20th century. He has worked particularly on Bertolt Brecht, and is the series editor of the main English-language edition of Brecht’s works.

email:   tom.kuhn@st-hughs.ox.ac.uk

Brecht on Theatre and Brecht on Performance, both coedited with Marc Silberman and Steve Giles (London: Bloomsbury/Methuen Drama 2014)


Part 1: Introducing Brecht’s Ideas 

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Artistic intentions
  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Theatrical style
  • Theatrical purpose

PC: How would you introduce Brecht’s ideas?

TK: Brecht is, of all writers, somebody who wouldn’t have said there was a right answer to a question. So it is sad to reduce it to just the famous ideas and terminology about the theatre. I think it is much more useful to think about where he was historically. There were very pressing contemporary political concerns, above all to do with resisting Nazism. In addition, Brecht was reacting against the then dominant tradition of the theatre, Naturalism. In a production of an Ibsen play, for example, a living room needs to look as much like a living room really might look and the actors play their roles as ‘real people’, as if the audience were not there. If you just start with two things like that: the desire to engage with contemporary politics and the boredom with that sort of theatre, that’s almost enough to develop a whole set of new ideas about the theatre. You don’t need words like Epic and Verfremdung and things like that, although yes, maybe you could introduce those as well.

PC: Do you think rooting Brecht in that context means that students can begin to think like him?

TK: Yes. If you set out with the idea of a theatre which doesn’t depend on pretence. On the pretence to be something enclosed, which it isn’t, but seeks to engage the audience, then you can quite quickly get through to an understanding of an ‘Epic Theatre’, which is mediated: where the stories are told by somebody for a purpose. It’s not just that you go to see a world created for you, but you go to see a world created for you by somebody who has a reason for doing it. So there is always that sense that you are being shown something by somebody, for a purpose, which is really what the Epic means.

Grunewald_Isenheim1

This is one of my favourite ways of understanding the Epic. So this is a famous late medieval altar piece known as the Isenheim Altar, it’s by Matthias Grünewald. And we know that it made a huge impression on Brecht when it came to Munich in the First World War, because he mentions it in his diary. Not only he, but also his school friend Caspar Neher writes about it.

PC: Who went on to be his designer?

TK: Who went on to be his designer. And here you’ve got the crucifixion, and we have the historical participants in that scene: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Christ being comforted by John the Evangelist. On the other side we have John the Baptist, but he was supposed to be long dead by the time of the actual historical event. So what is he doing in the scene?

Grunewald_Isenheim1 John the Baptist

There he is, holding the book of the prophecy of what is going to happen and pointing backwards. And he has his own speech bubble which is a Latin quotation from John the Baptist saying that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” With his symbol, the lamb and cross, at his feet. This part of the picture belongs on a different time scale, a different sort of level altogether from the crucifixion itself. And he’s also, well, he is not exactly looking out at the audience, but he is looking away from the scene, out into the world. He is mediating the scene behind him and explaining the importance of it and by his presence saying: this isn’t just a man on a cross, this is part of a bigger story.

Grunewald_Isenheim1 point

One of his later designers, I think it was Karl von Appen, said that all of Brecht’s theatre was basically designed to bring this pointing finger into the theatre. It’s a slightly elongated and exaggerated finger. That’s what he wanted to bring into the theatre. That sense of mediation, of the peculiarity of the events he shows, of the potential greater significances, that, for example, Mother Courage is not just Mother Courage but is part of a bigger story (in this case the story of capitalism and war).

PC: So you think you could start with this image when teaching about Brecht, rather than the terminology?

TK: Yes, absolutely. And Brecht encountered this picture long before he formulated any of his famous ideas.

Summary

  • Start with Brecht’s social, political, cultural and historical context when looking at his work for the first time.
  • Brecht lived in exile when Nazism took over Germany so he wanted his work to engage with contemporary politics.
  • Brecht was bored with the Naturalism that dominated theatre in Europe during the later 19th Century and early 20th Century.
  • Brecht’s response to his historical context was to develop theatre that engaged the audience directly.
  • Brecht’s theatre is mediated: someone is telling a story for a purpose – Stories are narrated or the audience knows the actor is acting.

 

Part 2: Brecht: The Practical Man of the Theatre

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing

PC: The idea of mediating: guiding the audience to a message, often leads people to think of Brecht’s theatre as quite straight-laced and dull.

TK: No playwright can afford to be a dull teacher. No one is going to listen to your messages unless you can get them into the theatre in the first place. Lots of people tend to treat Verfremdung as ‘alienation’ in the sense of putting people off. Avoiding emotional engagement and entertainment. Just dull rationalism. But there is nothing in Brecht that is about that. I mean most Brecht is colourful, funny, lively stuff; but people overlook that because they come so blinkered by all these ideas.

PC: So you think an emphasis on facts and terminology can hinder a student’s understanding of Brecht?

TK: Obviously there are facts. There are things that you can get right and things that you can get wrong. I wouldn’t want to banish that from teaching, quite the contrary. But the facts are much more to do with historical circumstances. Knowing a little bit about the life and context in which he worked. It is, for example, a fact that Brecht never used the word Verfremdung when directing his own plays. That’s a useful fact. That perhaps suggests that we shouldn’t start reading Brecht by starting with that word or starting with those theoretical ideas. He was much more a practical man of the theatre and the relationship between the theory and the practice was always one of:

  • Let’s do it like this and see if it works.
  • Let’s reflect on how we’ve done it and see if we can explain how we’ve done it.
  • Let’s use that explanation and try it again.

So there is a back and forth between the ideas – I might prefer not to say theory at all – the ideas about the theatre and the practice of the theatre are a continual back and forth. Whereas so often it is taught or presented in books as if there was “A Theory” and that the plays are a realisation of the theory, and that is simply nonsense.

PC: Could the reasons behind the misunderstanding lie in his context as well? Is it tied in with his exile? Because he wasn’t able to gain popularity in the USA, so he had to communicate his ideas in written words, through the Organon and the Modelbooks.

TK: I don’t want to go to far the other way. He was a man who had a theoretical bent. He liked to reflect upon how he did things. But it’s not completely systematic: he doesn’t create a theoretical grid which you can then place over his work to explain it. It’s much more a back and forth approach between the his ideas and his practice.

PC: Would you agree that Brecht has quite a scientific approach to theatre then?

TK: The word ‘scientific’ is always a bit difficult. The German word can mean ‘to do with knowledge and understanding’. But ‘scientific’ is the only word we really have. For Brecht it is above all a sort of experimental method. I think that is also something that people overlook or underestimate. That nearly every one of Brecht’s works is a different sort of experiment. They’re not all the same, and he is not always trying to do the same thing. It depends on his own circumstances, but it’s also just that he is always testing things. It is a creative inclination: let’s try and see what happens if we do it this way.

Summary

  • Brecht is colourful, funny and lively. No one is going to listen to your messages unless they come to the theatre in the first place.
  • Brecht never used the word Verfremdung when directing his own plays.
  • Brecht thought of the practice of the theatre as a continual back and forth between experiment and theory. He did not have one set theory.
  • Nearly every one of Brecht’s works is a different sort of experiment.

 

Part 3: Brecht’s Ideas for a Post-War European Theatre

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Innovations
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Influence
  • Use of theatrical conventions

PC: Can we talk about Brecht’s Short Organon, which is the most distilled collection of his ideas for the theatre?

TK: Yes. So, when the war ends he starts to think much more seriously about returning to Europe. That’s when he formulates his ideas in this most complete way. I think that is because he has the sense that culture has been derailed in Europe. There is a need to rebuild the theatre houses physically but also to rebuild the content of the theatres. He wants to put his mark on that process, and so the Short Organon is his calling card: “Look. I’ve got some ideas, these are my ideas, lets do it this way.” That’s why he formulated it all so clearly. That is all it is, if it hadn’t been for those circumstances he might not have written his ideas in such a way. We do him a disservice by taking the Short Organon out of that context and treating it as though it was somehow a Brecht bible. It’s much more a template in response to the conditions of post-war European theatre.

PC: Does the importance of his context and circumstances pose difficulties for replicating his ideas?

TK: Yes. It is very hard to think in terms of replication, simply because we can’t go back to that historical moment. Some of the basic outward features of Brechtian theatre – the visible theatre apparatus, changing the scene in such a way that we can see, and actors stepping in and out of role, they are pretty commonplace. Anyone who goes to anything serious in the theatre would probably see an example of that, maybe even in a production of Ibsen and certainly in lots of other theatre productions. That is partly because Brecht just won that argument and nobody really tries to create a complete illusion of reality any longer. They do in film, although film goes in both directions in a quite confusing way and is difficult to generalise about, but some film tries to just create the world as perfectly as possible. No theatre really does that any longer. This is partly because films supplanted that function of the theatre and partly because Brecht showed us a different way of making theatre. So then, if students already have that sense that if you go to the theatre of course you know you’re in the theatre and you don’t have an illusion of reality, then Brecht doesn’t seem anything special or particular, you can’t replicate the historical impact of Brechtian theatre, simply because it has become the new normal, it is just what you see all the time anyway.

PC: I think a lot of young people don’t have that experience of the theatre. What they do have is the experience of the cinema that you talk about. So Brecht still has that feeling of something quite revolutionary. That’s why his ideas are so attractive to teachers: they don’t need a lot in the way of resources and they challenge young people be more analytical and reflective about the process and content of their work.

You mentioned the basic outward features being quite commonplace would you also agree that lots of his ideas were in existence in Ancient Greek theatre, Büchner’s Woyzeck and Shakespeare?

TK: Yes. It is indeed all there in Shakespeare. But everything is all there in Shakespeare! Shakespeare has plays within plays, he has prologues, he has singers, as it were at the front with their fingers pointing, that say “Oh for a muse of fire …”: all of these sorts of things point out the particular constraints and potentials of theatre:

Can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The beginning of Henry V has the same sort of self-conscious reflection that Brecht is saying: “Let’s make it all clear that we’re in a theatre and this is pretence.”

Brecht is eclectic, he draws on the idea of chorus in particular from the Greeks and he draws on the early-modern, Shakespearean theatre. What he doesn’t want is the 19th century. Woyzeck is a bit of an exception in that it doesn’t look like other 19th century plays, and of course Woyzeck is an unfinished play and there is an extent to which you can project on to it whatever you want. So that when the play was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century, first of all the Naturalists thought that they were following Büchner, then the Expressionists thought that they were following Büchner, then Brecht thought that he was following Büchner. They all took what they wanted from Büchner.

PC: And it was the only external text referred to by Antonin Artaud.

TK: Yes. I think a lot of Germans and especially Brecht thought that it was a way of saying, we’re not being Schiller, and putting down a marker: we’re not trying to do Schillerian theatre here. I think Büchner is wonderful, and Woyzeck a great play. We’ll never know how much of the sort of fragmentary and broken nature of the text (which obviously appealed to Brecht, with his idea of the scenes not being fluidly arranged in a compelling plot) how much of that is down to the fact that he didn’t finish it, and how much of it is down to a really rather revolutionary dramatic imagination?

PC: It is almost the opposite of the theatre maker who has the inclination to write their thoughts and ideas down. Do you think that Brecht wished he could have been that enigmatic?

TK: No. I think, for Brecht, the alternation between rationalising reflection and much more unfettered creativity, that back and forth, is an essential part. You can’t imagine the one without the other. But Büchner was also a young man, he wasn’t really practiced in his art, he didn’t know what worked so he produced things that didn’t work. That didn’t work then. Which later generations discovered as a revelation for the modern theatre, it is a bit of a historical accident. A wonderful historical accident.

PC: It is interesting to think about that in the secondary school classroom: drama teachers aim to cultivate the environment for creativity and reflection, the back and forth. But they also believe that young people can challenge ideas of theatre by creating things that seem, at first, not to work.

Summary

  • Brecht’s Short Organon a template in response to the conditions of post-war European theatre.
  • Nobody really tries to create a complete illusion of reality in the theatre any longer.
  • The lack of illusion in modern theatre is because Brecht won his argument but also because film and television serve that purpose now.
  • Brecht’s ideas for theatre can still seem revolutionary for young people who are more exposed to film and TV than theatre.
  • Brecht’s ideas were heavily influenced by Ancient Greek theatre, Shakespearean theatre and Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck.
  • Brecht was eclectic and drew from almost everything, apart from 19th century Naturalism.

 

Part 4: Brecht’s Dramatic Structure and Design

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Key collaborations with other artists
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Theatrical style
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice

PC: What were Brecht’s ideas for structure and flow?

TK: If you were to ask another, more conservative early 20th century theorist for an account of drama I suppose they would give you a vision of classical drama with an exposition, a development, a crisis and a dénouement. And that sweeps you through as an emotional experience to probably some sort of catharsis at the end. Brecht wants to interrupt all of that and make that impossible and he does it in big ways and in little ways. The Caucasian Chalk Circle gives that wonderful example of a big way saying, “we’re going to interrupt the story here and give you the back story of this other character, Azdak, whose relevance at this point is completely obscure.” That’s a big interruption in that flow. But there are also little ones simply when characters step out of character, step forward and address the audience directly. That is also a sort of break in the flow, giving us a different perspective on events.

PC: So there were multiple perspectives in his plays?

TK: Yes. Brecht liked Chinese art, as well as late-medieval/early Renaissance art, and one of the things he liked about Chinese art was that it doesn’t give you a single perspective; Chinese art tends not to give a single focal point or a point of view. Instead you get these landscapes with multiple perspectives. Brecht quite liked that, and perhaps you can understand some of the interruptions in his plays, for songs and other character’s points of view, as a sort of perspectival interruption in the action. He wanted us to suddenly see something from a different point of view. A good example in Mother Courage is when her son is executed and she has to deny that she recognises him. It is a completely heart-rending moment, a very emotional moment. People sometimes think there is not much emotion in Brecht. They are wrong. There’s loads. This is a very emotional moment, but then immediately afterwards we get a scene that changes the point of view entirely. Mother Courage is trying to get back into business, so rather than carrying that emotional charge forwards, the emotional charge is broken off and we suddenly see her life from a different point of view. Brecht enables us perhaps to reflect on what has happened in a more intelligent way than we would do if we were emotionally caught up with it. So those emotional moments aren’t carried forward, they are not intensified by the action, they are rather interrupted and broken off by it.

PC: How about medieval tapestries with their collection of stories on one fabric?

TK: Absolutely. Late medieval religious art was very important for Brecht. He was brought up in Augsburg which is a predominantly Catholic but also a Protestant town. He was of mixed parentage himself so he had access to both but was brought up as a Protestant. So he saw the Catholic church from outside which is interesting.

PC: How did Brecht use visual art to trigger ideas for productions?

TK: Caspar Neher is the childhood friend and collaborator who developed the whole look of the Brechtian theatre. What we think of as the Brecht Curtain – the light half curtain – Brecht himself called it the ‘Neher Curtain’. You really need the two of them together when you think about the visual image of what Brecht’s theatre looks like. Neher worked on nearly all, maybe 90% of Brecht productions until 1933. Then Neher stayed in Nazi Germany and continued to work as a director, and Brecht of course left. When he returned to Switzerland, the first person he got in touch with was Caspar Neher. Neher is absolutely central.

Summary

  • Brecht doesn’t want his audience to be carried through a story on an overall emotional journey. He wants to make catharsis impossible.
  • Brecht wants to present emotion but then interrupt it.
  • Brecht was influenced by multiple perspectives in Chinese art and late medieval art.
  • Brecht’s childhood friend and designer, Caspar Neher is absolutely central to his idea of theatre

 

Part 5: Brecht: Verfremdung is a Funny Word

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical purpose
  • Influence
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice

PC: Brecht took many ideas from historical theatre conventions and experimented with them in his own work. Many of the conventions have a connection with this elusive and somewhat confusing term: Verfremdung. My definition is: the process of moving an audience from identification to detachment. What do you think of this definition?

TK: Yeah, using identification is perhaps a little over-stating it. But I don’t think it is completely wrong. It is rather more from sympathy than from empathy. I would say that Brecht is quite wary of identifying with a character. But yes it is taking you from something recognisable to moving outside. Or the other way round as well: showing you something which seems completely strange and then suddenly you recognise things and think, “hang on, this isn’t different to the world I know.”

But Verfremdung is a funny word. People make the mistake of thinking Brecht is a systematic thinker, a philosopher, but Verfremdung is a word that he starts using before he has actually entirely decided what it means, and then he gradually tries it out. It is experimental again. How am I going to make this word do some work for me? And then eventually, and this is terribly important, it starts to crystallise absolutely around social phenomena. People also sometimes forget, when they’re talking about Brecht, with all this talk about epic theatre and songs interrupting the action and being able to see the lighting in the theatre and all of those sorts of things, they forget that the whole purpose of this is to analyse social phenomena. Brecht is interested in politics and society, so to call a modern production of something ‘Brechtian’ simply because it uses some of those outward characteristics is really missing the point, unless it has that social/political edge. That was what it was all about as far as he was concerned. So Verfremdung came to mean not just that alternating experience of sympathy and distance, of the strange and the familiar, but was absolutely a path to understanding the social condition that we are in, the social circumstances of his characters and actions.

Summary

  • Brecht wasn’t a systematic thinker or a philosopher.
  • Brecht started using the word Verfremdung before he had decided what it meant for the theatre.
  • It came to mean understanding the social condition by moving an audience from something they recognise to a state of detachment. Or the other way around.
  • The whole purpose of Verfremdung is to analyse society.
  • Theatre that is described as ‘Brechtian’ must have a social/political edge.

 

Part 6: Brecht and Emotion: His Ideas on Acting

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice
  • Key collaborations with other artists
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing

PC: I think it is a fundamental misunderstanding of Brecht to say that there is no emotion in his theatre.

TK: Yes, that’s something that really annoys me.

PC: Could you tell me a little about how emotion was created by Brecht’s actors through the observation of the social condition? How does that differ from Stanislavski’s work on acting?

TK: The distinction that the director Di Trevis made when I worked with her, and the distinction that her actors understood from the work that they were doing, was the distinction between working from the outside in, and working from the inside out. What they understood as Stanislavski’s method was to imagine a psychology of a character, providing a back story in psychological terms for an individual, so that you have an individual psychology in your head and you try to act out of that. Whereas what Di was trying to persuade them to do was to observe the way in which people behave and hold themselves and physically interact. So very much the outside. To observe people as examples of a particular social situation and to act out of that instead. Now of course the two meet in the middle, but I think that is the distinction. So that if you start from the outside you don’t end up with a character that has no psychology, and you don’t necessarily end up with a caricature either or a stereotype, although I think types and caricatures are much closer to the Brechtian understanding and they’re not out of place in Brecht’s theatre at all. Whereas they are completely out of place in a Naturalist theatre. And if you start from a psychology then you may also start to discover the social conditions which create that psychology. So the two can meet, but it is those very different starting points which seem to be the key to the work that she was doing. Does that make sense?

PC: Absolutely, it makes sense. I think that the distinction is clearest with earlier Stanislavski theory, the ones that had such an influence on Lee Strasberg’s Method acting. However, it is fascinating to see the similarities with Stanislavski’s later ideas for physical actions being the starting point for character. His idea was that the actors started with the observable, outside actions, even before reading the text. But like you say the distinction is clearest in the outcomes: Stanislavski used observable, outside actions so that the actor could inhabit the role. Brecht used observable, outside actions so that the actor could capture an accurate social condition, even a stereotype, as long as it served the social/political purpose of the play.

TK: Yeah, but I think there is a definite a distinction. I don’t think the difference is that huge and obviously both men shifted their ground. The idea that there is such a big conflict between them is strategic for Brecht. He wants to be different from Stanislavski. What is more, by the time of Brecht’s work with his newly founded Berliner Ensemble at the beginning of the 1950s, Brecht was a suspect thinker for the authorities of the German Democratic Republic. They needed to think of themselves as followers of the Russian model, and they even staged a big Stanislavski conference in Berlin with part of the motivation being to knock Brecht into shape and get him to toe the line. Therefore, in the context, insisting on the difference became very important, whereas in another context that might not have seemed so important.

PC: And this desire to be different influenced Brecht’s ideas on acting.

TK: Yes. Brecht is always warding off the psychological. His plays are full of spilt characters and slightly caricatured characters. Quite the reverse of psychologically realistic characters. He quite liked comic actors as well, because they don’t get caught up in the psychology of their characters so much. They are much more likely to act slightly over the heads of their characters, to insist on a distinction between actor and character. He loved Charlie Chaplin because he demonstrated the little man rather than being the little man. And that idea that there is a divorce between the actor and the part he’s playing is quite important for Brecht’s ideas. Ernst Busch is one of his favourites, and Helene Weigel of course. Both gave us archetypal demonstrations of the sorts of people they are playing, rather than becoming those people. It’s much more about showing than being. I think part of that comes again from this attention to external movement, behaviour, posture and things like that as an expression of something social rather than just of something psychological.

PC: Did he achieve this by getting his actors to observe people?

TK: Yes. Getting back to the pictures, Brecht’s files for his plays are full of pictures, mostly cut out of newspapers, and press photographs of the sorts of people he has in mind when he is writing. So amongst the materials for The Caucasian Chalk Circle he has a whole page stuck in an album of pictures of women refugees with babies or children slung over their shoulders. There is an archetype: of the woman with a bundle on the run; and the actress playing Grusha has to become that, rather than being a completely singular individual. You see them again crossing the Mediterranean. Brecht would have been writing about refugees again. Grusha is a refugee.

PC: That idea of collecting pictures is exactly the kind of task that students are encouraged to do in preparation for their portfolios. How did these photographs have a direct impact on actors like Helene Weigel?

TK: Well, for example: Brecht assumes that Helene Weigel had the image of a woman after the bombing of Singapore (Singapore Lament, Life Magazine, 23.03.42, photo license pending) in her mind when creating Mother Courage’s ‘silent scream’. It is a picture that he kept in several contexts, in his published collection of war time photographs – War Primer (http://goo.gl/r91UUf) and in his work journal in a different version.

Summary

  • Brecht wanted his actors to observe the way in which people behave and hold themselves and physically interact.
  • Actors should use people as examples of a particular social situation.
  • Characters can still have a psychology if you start from the outside.
  • Stereotypes and caricatures are not out of place in Brecht’s theatre.
  • Brecht wanted to position his ideas as different from Stanislavski.
  • Brecht liked comic actors and admired Charlie Chaplin because they don’t get caught up in the psychology of a character.
  • Brecht kept files and notebooks filled with photographs that influenced his productions.

 

Part 7: Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Set text for GCSE and A level
  • Theatrical style
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing

PC: Brecht’s theatre is often mediated: the stories are told by somebody for a purpose. Is that most clear in The Caucasian Chalk Circle?

TK: Yes. It is strikingly clear there because you’ve got the singer, who is on the stage, mediating the story: mediating between the outer story and the inner story of the play. Also between that and the audience, which he does explicitly when he says things like, “Here is what she thought but could not say” and he speaks her thoughts. And we’re told explicitly that he is holding a book of the story in front of him much like John the Baptist in the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald that we discussed earlier. Like John the Baptist, the singer comes from a different time frame, he’s on the stage throughout, he has a book with him, it’s described as a small book, not a big book. But in other ways it is so remarkably similar that you can’t help thinking that Brecht still had this image in mind when he was writing The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Grunewald_Isenheim1 Grunewald_Isenheim1 John the Baptist

PC: You have spoken about every one of Brecht’s plays being a new experiment, what was the experiment with The Caucasian Chalk Circle?

TK: Well, I think The Caucasian Chalk Circle is interesting in lots of ways, but partly he started off trying to write a play that would be a star vehicle for a Hollywood actress who he had met that might actually get him success in the States. That had been something that had escaped him so far. He always wanted to be a success (that is absolutely clear), he was vain about his own ability. Okay with some justification. But he was frustrated that he couldn’t get through to a bigger audience in the States. So that was maybe where it started off. But then it soon drifts away from that and the actress never took any interest in the play. So it becomes an experiment in thinking about the world after the war. It’s almost the only one of Brecht’s plays that almost ends optimistically. You have to have those ‘almosts’ in there because they’re in the play as well. I mean the singer says we’ll look back on this as ‘the golden age nearly of justice’ or ‘which was almost just’. So that ‘nearly’ sense is very important in the play. It is also an experiment in looking at how a world can pick itself up, or what prospect there is for the future after cataclysmic historical change. That’s what happens in the play, you know, there is a revolution, a war, all of these things going on in the background, and in the end we have a society that is brought back together again; the old order has been deposed. But the new order looks like it is going to be just as bad as the old order was, possibly. What are the hopes for the future? Of course the hope for the future is the child, the symbolically adopted child of the peasant and the returning soldier, and that is the hope for the future.

PC: Does the child represent the connection between the two worlds: the wealthy and the poor?

TK: Yes. The child is a child of aristocracy but has become a child of the people. So that is part of the experiment of the play. I think it is also a quite serious attempt to get back to the basics of Epic Theatre, which is why I think it has the singer and the framework and so many things that we think of as features of the Epic. Because The Life of Galileo had been a little bit, well Brecht himself describes it as retrograde in technical terms: ‘technically a great step backwards’. The Caucasian Chalk Circle is more of an open attempt to engage with the idea of Epic Theatre, and to engage with an audience in that way.

PC: The way you describe it as ‘almost optimistic’. That word ‘almost’ is a good way to sum up his work. His plays challenge the audience with an ‘almost’ and tease you into engaging with them.

TK: You always have to see with Brecht what the alternatives might have been and how it might have all gone wrong (or right, or in any case differently). There is none of the inevitability of the traditional theatre. The traditional ending to comedy is a wedding and The Caucasian Chalk Circle has a happy union of the lovers. But it is not an unambiguously celebratory moment. There is a dance at the end, but it’s a dance that isn’t just a glorious dance of “now the rest of life will be wonderful”. There is a much more threatening undercurrent in the background: the sense that this is also a historical moment which may pass and difficult times may come again.

Brecht talked about this in his acting theory as well. You’re meant to see that characters make choices and it could have gone the other way. That triggers in the audience a reflection on their own choices and what would happen if … I think that is very much the spirit of the ending of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

PC: It is interesting that Brecht chooses to put the ‘what would happen if …’ on the audience. In the theatrical context he reacts against that question is the actor’s: the magic if of Stanislavski. The “what if…” is swallowed up and digested by the actor and then presented to the audience. Brecht makes an interesting and striking shift away from his theatrical context: refocusing what theatre is.

Summary

  • The singer in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle is strikingly similar to the mediating role played by John the Baptist in the Isenheim Altarpiece.
  • The Caucasian Chalk Circle is an experiment in thinking about the world after the war.
  • It is also an experiment looking at what prospect there is for the future after cataclysmic historical change.
  • The ending of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is almost optimistic.
  • Brecht thought that actors should show that characters make choices and it could have gone the other way. That triggers in the audience a reflection on their own choices and what would happen if …

 

Part 8: Brecht’s Legacy and Influence

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Influence
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice
  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing

PC: What or who has Brecht influenced?

TK: Is it in the making of theatre or in the writing of plays that we’re looking for the influence or is it specifically in politics? I would say politically he has had the least influence. But in the making and writing of theatre he has had a huge influence. Okay, the making of theatre perhaps we should leave to one side as we have talked a bit about that already. And we shouldn’t just be British in this, we should look more widely. In Germany, a generation of writers like Dürrenmatt, already in the 1950s and 60s, but then later figures like Heiner Müller above all, are obviously very explicitly influenced by Brecht. They tried to take Brecht a stage further, with greater or lesser success. I mean I am not a great fan of Dürrenmatt, I think of his work as sort of a sub-Brecht rather than a next stage. Then in Britain the wave of influence comes a lot later, but you could say the whole generation of Howard Brenton, David Hare and David Edgar, people like that, are influenced by Brecht’s plays and to a certain extent by the idea of a political theatre of that nature. Hare said that he didn’t like Brecht but there are nonetheless similarities. And all of them have done translations of Brecht’s plays or adaptations at sometime or another. In the next generation, Tony Kushner in the United States says that he always goes back to Brecht and thinks of Brecht as a huge influence. Mark Ravenhill who wrote Shopping and Fucking also thinks of Brecht as a sort of father figure of his own theatre. You can also look beyond Britain, Germany and the US: Brecht’s influence on the writing of drama and the making of theatre is huge in India and in South America and in parts of East Asia. To a certain extent his politics are more readily accessible and his models of society make more sense in a developing economy than they do in a very advanced capitalist economy. You can see the contradictions and the conflicts more directly in developing economies, so he is popular there.

PC: Augusto Boal?

TK: Yeah Boal is another very important example.

PC: Boal is interesting as a kind of collision with naturalism as invisible theatre is almost uber-naturalism: spectactors become performers in reality. He represents a cross over.

TK: Brecht was also already interested in this kind of ‘spectactor’ with the Lehrstück experiments around 1930. In The Decision or The Measures Taken the chorus was all 400 members of the audience who were coached in the songs before the play started, so they were spectactors.

PC: That reminds me of some verbatim theatre at the moment – Little Revolution by Alecky Blythe. It is a response to the London riots. They had members of the community caught in the events that were performing in a play where all the words were verbatim from the community.

TK: Brecht’s theatre is very experimental and he takes experiments in different directions. All the plays are extraordinarily different in their structure, their dramaturgy, their whole texture and feel, one rich in its language the other deliberately pared down and impoverished in its language. He is always trying different things and in a way you could look for a legacy as vague as: intelligent socially engaged experiment; anyone who is engaged in intelligent socially experimental theatre is carrying Brecht forward in some way or another. And of course there are lots of different versions of that, and if he were still around he would be practicing lots of different versions of that too.

PC: I know you are more textual scholar but do you ever get theatre makers to respond to your research?

TK: I have very little experience of working in the theatre at all. The only person I have really worked with is Di Trevis. I have known her for years. She has been very amenable to trying things out for me. The most recent thing that we have done was realise a production of a play which Brecht himself never finished, which is just a load of fragments, but really a load of fragments, a pile of mess in the archive, hardly any worked out scenes, it is not an unfinished play, you can’t even see what the plot was supposed to be. I tried to make it into a play and she tried to make it into play in the theatre, and that is a very recent experience. It hugely informed the way I will write about that play – it is called Fatzer by the way – in future; well I’ll be doing an English edition of it for a start, which will be informed by the script that we arrived at. I’ll also be writing about it as a project that failed and why it failed and what we should draw from its failure. Because lots of sort of more sophisticated literary critics write about it very much as a post-modern fragment, as if Brecht were deliberately sitting down to write a fragment, whereas I think the practical work in the theatre brought out absolutely clearly that in 1926, when he started working on it, he sat down to write a play but it got derailed and fell apart.

PC: Forced Entertainment are a company working currently that explore the fragmentary nature of storytelling and society. Their work is sometimes deliberately unfinished and actively presents failure. But you don’t think that Brecht himself had such post-modern intentions with the play you have worked on?

TK: It is clear that Brecht was always aiming for something much more finished. Whatever we may think about Brechtian form, although it is different from play to play, once he began he mostly had a pretty strong sense of the direction in which something was going to develop. He was very dependent on the big speech really. His dialogue is not very fragmented at all, in comparison with some modern playwrights, certainly in comparison with Tony Kushner – he can write amazing scenes in which nobody ever finishes a sentence – Brecht never did that – his is much more a literary enterprise tied to the traditions of the time.

Summary

  • Politically Brecht has had the least influence. But in the making and writing of theatre he has had a huge influence.
  • You can see the contradictions and the conflicts more directly in developing economies, so Brecht is popular there.
  • A kind of ‘spectactor’ found in Augusto Boal’s work can be found in Brecht’s Lehrstück experiments around 1930.
  • Anyone who is engaged in intelligent socially experimental theatre is carrying Brecht forward in some way or another.
  • It is clear that Brecht was always aiming for something much more finished rather than exploring what leaving something unfinished means.
  • Brecht was very dependent on the big speech. He takes a literary approach tied to the traditions of the time.

If you would like more on Brecht check out our feature on David Barnett’s Brecht in Practice.