Some Reflections on Bertolt Brecht, on the Occasion of the 119th Anniversary of His Birth
“Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”
“Unglücklich das Land, das Helden nötig hat.” – Leben des Galilei, scene 13.
This line from Life of Galileo has come to mind lately. Somewhere inside I want a hero, but I know that’s a delusional hope. In fact, the reason I want a hero is because of people who think they have found their hero. I can’t think of anything that goes further to prove the futility of looking for a hero. Aside from, of course, most of the history of the Twentieth Century.
Galileo issues his pronouncement to his assistant Andrea, having been silenced by the Church because he published the inconvenient truth that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Power silencing scientists for publishing the truth? I’m so glad that doesn’t happen in this enlightened time. We then learn that Galileo was continuing his work, in secret. He’s a survivor, and so was Brecht.
So who was this Brecht guy, anyway? One of the Twentieth Century’s great dramatists and poets, a cutting critic of capitalism and colonialism, creator of “epic theater,” breaker of the fourth wall, originator of the Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect)? Or an ego-driven cynic, a political opportunist, and a betrayer of idealism? A bit of both, I think.
Brecht hastily fled Germany shortly after Hitler came to power, having received a discreet warning that he was about to be arrested. Brecht traveled around Europe, eventually making his way to Los Angeles via Trans-Siberian railway, stopping off in Moscow to pick up the Stalin Peace Prize. Now that’s cynical. Not that Brecht was above a little deception to save his ass. At the end of this time in the U.S.A., the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed this so-called Communist who never joined the party. Brecht testified, with his airplane ticket in his back pocket, as the legend goes. He disavowed politics on the grounds that his work was mistranslated. HUAC vice-chairman Karl Mundt (Republican, South Dakota) ended up complimenting Brecht on his cooperativeness. Brecht left the United States the next day, stopping off in Austria to obtain Austrian citizenship before settling in East Berlin, where the government gave him the Berliner Ensemble theatre. He was a survivor.
Brecht’s time in exile gave us Mother Courage and Her Children and Life of Galileo, among the more profound dramatic works of the Twentieth Century. Brecht’s work is always political, but it’s at its worst when it’s most political. The Galileo Brecht gives us is a hustler who sells knock-offs of Dutch telescopes to the Venetians, before he turns his instrument on the night sky. A far less profound work isThe Measures Taken, which depicts four agitators sent from Moscow to China, one of whom agrees to be killed to further the revolutionary cause. This poor fellow attracted attention by showing compassion to the workers he was attempting to organize; he gladly acquiesces in his demise. Brecht’s Galileo is human; Brecht’s agitators are robots.
Brecht’s poetry shows a similar range, from personal and moving to nauseatingly doctrinaire. Memory of Marie A. indelibly recalls a youthful romance and its distance. The Carpet Weavers of Kuyan-Bulak Honor Lenin celebrates pouring oil on a swamp to control mosquitos.
Brecht’s achievement was extraordinary; his opportunism commonplace. There are a million hustlers, but only one Bertolt Brecht. He may not be want we want, but he’s what we need. No one can save us, but if we observe squarely and unflinchingly what is happening, we have a chance.
When I was a kid, my parents had an LP of the Theater de Lys production of The Threepenny Opera. When I was 17, I purchased an LP of the 1976 Lincoln Center production, a better, harsher, dirtier production, and a far more accurate translation. The Threepenny Opera remains my favorite of Brecht’s works, and what’s not to love? It’s cynical, sexy, political, and lyrically and musically beautiful.
Brecht’s cast includes a charming and ruthless gangster, a conniving preacher with a daughter in love with a bad boy who cannot stay away from prostitutes, corrupt cops, and thieves. The cavalry even comes to the rescue, in a fashion, and The Threepenny Opera ends with a plea for the quality of mercy. You can’t beat that.
It’s impossible to discuss The Threepenny Opera without discussing the sinuous, innovative, sensual music of Kurt Weill. Theirs was a productive and difficult collaboration, producing seven works over almost a decade. As noted, Brecht was not easy to be around. When Brecht and Weill were both in exile in the U.S.A., someone suggested to Weill that he might want to work with Brecht again. Weill’s reply was extremely unenthusiastic.
Everyone knows Mac the Knife, but some of my favorites from this work include
- The Cannon Song, Brecht’s backhanded tribute to Kipling
- Look at the Moon over Soho, or the romance of doomed love
- The First Threepenny Finale, which thrilled this seventeen year-old
- Solomon Song, which explains how fame destroys all who achieve it
- The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, so inspiring to Nan Goldin
- And the song of the 99%, which ought to terrify the 1%, Pirate Jenny.
You can watch it all here:
And, by the way, Alabama Song, from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, was memorably covered by the Doors, David Bowie, Nina Simone, and Marianne Faithfull, among others.
I dare you to say that listening to those songs didn’t raise your spirit and give you something to think about. Not what we want, but what we need.