Brecht, Modernism, and the Danger of Reverence

Bertolt Brecht has been described so disparately to me that I can hardly keep the two constructions of his identity in the same headspace. On the one hand, you have the WWII-era creator of Epic Theater, the revered theorist famous for the Vermaschlermadingdong Effect (at least, that’s what I heard when my teachers said Verfremdungseffekt). The man who said that he didn’t want the audience to feel when they came to see theater, but rather to think about the issues that were being raised. Who accomplished this by creating a separation between actor and role, script and production, story and audience. 

The Brecht plays I read in college I frankly disliked. They seemed overly pointed, stodgy, and favored making a point over creating a piece of entertaining theater. This, coupled with the foreboding picture of a stuffy old dude with tiny glasses and a big cigar staring pensively out of a window that pretty much every Brecht source uses, was enough to alienate me from the guy. I didn’t give him much thought until the idea for BrechtFest came along.

When we decided to embark on our quest to create dynamic breakfast theater with three vastly different Brecht plays spanning his entire career (I just wish we were more ambitious…), I found myself desperately needing to reconcile what I want to say - my rage as a young artist, my bafflement at the current American system - with the way Brecht was portrayed to many of us in school. If we wanted to create revolutionary theater, why dredge up a dated German academic? 

Well, we did it anyway. And we’ve discovered that Brecht was nothing like the stodgy old theorist I thought he was. 

He was first a young Expressionist revolutionary, railing aggressively against the social restrictions of the Weimar Republic with Baal. Then, he was an avid fan of seedy cabaret theater, with its rampant sexuality, innovative performances, and boundary-pushing music. He himself performed in cabarets, and was by many accounts one of the most charismatic people in show business at the time. It was then that he created his own cabaret, The Threepenny Opera. And finally, after pissing off first Germany, then 

America, then East Germany all over again by being too Communist for the capitalists and too forward-thinking for the Communists, he wrote masterful epic pieces that railed against the flaws of the system and spoke to the impossibility of getting it right. The Good Person of Szechwan came out of this burning dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, which Brecht protested against all the way to his grave.

Now, I like this man a lot better – the hyper-charismatic, revolutionary, broke performer who tried his hardest to make a difference with the thing he did best: theater. The man who managed to piss off virtually every authority figure he came across, who loved to collaborate with as many different artists as possible, who could play the tuba. This man sounds like us. So why were we told something so different about this crazy German in our American university?

This is in no way a reflection on the classes we took at UW. After all, I learned who Brecht was, which is in itself a triumph. It has to do, rather, with the danger of revering a dead white male theorist simply because he is old, and dead, and white. Because Brecht created a methodology, and because his plays are brilliant, we fell into the trap that we do with so many old dead white men – we forget the men as people, and instead canonize their work, until the original point of what they were trying to do becomes obscured under lectures about their significance and examples of their notable productions. The irony is that the representation of Brecht in modern American academia is antithetical to the points he made.

Personally, I think Brecht would be furious if he knew that the system against which he was protesting had characterized him as a professor-type who formally passed down his ideas in cold, alienating theater. Instead, let’s do him a favor by looking at his work through the lens of experimentation, revolution and color. Focus on the cabaret performer, the young outspoken rebel, the radical kicked off of two continents before he died. By respecting Brecht in this way, perhaps we have a chance of doing his plays “as he meant them to be done”: throwing out the rule book, getting passionate about the state of the world, and having some fun.

Mary Hubert is a company member of the Horse in Motion and associate director and dramaturge for BrechtFest. In her spare time she writes for the South Seattle Emerald, power lifts, and is the Development Director of Annex Theatre.