Bertolt Brecht: irresistible force or forgotten chapter in theatrical history?

Written on September 19, 2013 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Literature

Bertolt-BrechtBrecht’s belief that drama should present moral ideas through action is unfashionable, but as theatre becomes ever more narcissistic, audiences are seeking him out again.

It’s that man again: Bertolt Brecht. His early play, In the Jungle of Cities,is being revived at London’s Arcola, and later this month he’s back in the West End, as Jonathan Church’s Chichester production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui moves to the Duchess. It’s a production that won lots of praise when first seen last year, not least for the comic demonism of Henry Goodman’s performance as the eponymous Chicago racketeer who provides a metaphor for Adolf Hitler. But, for all its dazzling energy, I suspect the production will raise all the old arguments about Brecht’s standing today. Is he still an irresistible force or simply a chapter in theatrical history whose reputation has declined with the collapse of eastern European communism?

In weighing up the pros and cons, one has to start with a basic fact: as both a practising dramatist and visionary theorist, Brecht changed the face of modern theatre. Just to take Britain alone, I’d argue that the historic visit by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble to London in 1956 did more than any other single event – even than the premiere of Waiting for Godot a year earlier – to shake us out of our rooted complacency. The spare Brechtian aesthetic had a profound influence on the newly founded English Stage Company at the Royal Court, and the realisation of what a permanent company could achieve shaped the creation of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 and the National theatre in 1963.

Directors, designers and dramatists were all influenced by Brecht’s idea of an epic theatre in which narrative replaces plot, the spectator is turned into an observer rather than someone implicated in the stage action, and each scene exists for itself alone. Above all, Brecht’s belief that drama should present moral and political ideas through action left its stamp on a huge range of plays, from Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance by John Arden,Luther by John Osborne and Saved by Edward Bond in the 1950s and 60s, through to Fanshen by David Hare and Destiny by David Edgar in the 1970s. As David Edgar once said: “Brecht is part of the air we breathe.”

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