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Bentley on Brecht

Bentley on Brecht

by Eric Bentley

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Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) wrote the great plays of the twenties, thirties, and forties: Baal, Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage, The Good Woman of Setzuan, and more. In the generation that followed Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George, he was also the leading German poet. Eric Bentley met him in Los Angeles in 1942 and became a Brecht translator and a Brecht


Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) wrote the great plays of the twenties, thirties, and forties: Baal, Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage, The Good Woman of Setzuan, and more. In the generation that followed Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George, he was also the leading German poet. Eric Bentley met him in Los Angeles in 1942 and became a Brecht translator and a Brecht expositor almost at once. Since then, publishers have recognized Bentley's renderings of his works as authoritative and kept them in print for more than sixty years.

Bentley on Brecht is two books-first, The Brecht Commentaries, Bentley's comments on the plays and poems; second, The Brecht Memoir, in which Bentley tells the story of how he met Brecht in 1942, worked with him until Brecht's death fourteen years later, and worked for him (and sometimes against him) after that. Bentley's translations and adaptations became what he calls variations, influencing many of his own works, including Rallying Cries, The Kleist Variations, and Monstrous Martyrdoms.

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"An immensely valuable account of the interaction of two great personalities at a climactic period of history."—Martin Esslin

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Hal Leonard Corporation
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By Eric Bentley
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2008

Eric Bentley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2393-9

Chapter One Brecht's Reputation 1998

February 10, 1998, was the one hundredth anniversary of Brecht's birth. In a longish report published one day later, the New York Times announced that, after some bleak years, Brecht was now "back on his pedestal." And I was asked to write a follow-up piece for their Op Ed page. This piece (with minor changes) follows. The Times never ran it. Nor did The Nation or the New Republic to whom it was subsequently offered. It first appeared in American Theatre, May-June 1998.

ONE DAY WE READ IN THE PAPER that Bertolt Brecht's reputation-as playwright, poet, whatever-has sunk to zero. Next day, or maybe next year, we read that he is back up, or maybe higher than ever, the greatest writer of the century, or since Shakespeare. He always made bitter enemies and attracted doting admirers. I think sometimes that the world is divided into those who think Brecht was no good at all and those who think he was the best ever, even that he had a kind of greatness that goes beyond the greatness of other great writers.

He himself had created this last idea. The work of his colleagues in modern theater, such as Chekhov or Pirandello, had aesthetic merit, and that was all: that was their achievement and their limitation. They were not in league with history, nor was history in league with them: the history they were attached to was a history of failure, that of the Russian bourgeoisie (Chekhov), or that of Italian fascism (Pirandello). Brecht would not offer himself to the world as just an artist of genius (i.e. possessed of aesthetic merit) but was closer to the role of prophet and guru, and much better than those, for his work embodied no mere guesses about the future and no merely personal vision but the objective truth, the true and final truth, the truth on the march toward Utopia.

In the early forties, I was taken up by Brecht as a young critic who might well be the person to establish his reputation in the whole English-speaking world-I was a British subject living, like him at the time, in America. Although America and Russia had not yet emerged as the two superpowers, he always seemed to think that they would so emerge, and as rivals-indeed as hell and heaven. He liked individual Americans but had no doubt that theirs was the evil empire. Russia was the future, and if he hadn't seen it work he had seen, in the Marxist-Leninist classics, the proof that it was going to work, that its success was inevitable. Except as "socialism" succeeds, he told me, his works had no future.

I did not share his politics or the philosophy behind them. It is true that many people heard of Brecht through me, and that I ranked him among the half dozen great playwrights of the past century, in other words as the equal of Chekhov and Pirandello and the rest. But that any of them should be the single transcendent genius of the century was not, for me, in the cards.

It was in the cards for some people and remains so today. Although the Soviet Union never returned this ardent wooer's love, the left-wing intelligentsia of Western Europe did. To date, the most ardent support for the transcendent Brecht has come from Paris, but the cities of what used to be West Germany were not far behind, nor was London, with its two "royal" theaters which, politically, have often seemed Popular Front theaters dating from the thirties.

Stalin's proclamation of a Popular Front in 1935 was the greatest propaganda coup of the twentieth century. He thereby detached maybe half the liberals in the world from their liberal affiliations and affiliated them with Moscow-and against Washington. Brecht, for his part, had never been a liberal, but now, though Moscow hardly even smiled at him, he became the darling of the fellow travelers, a large worldwide following. By the time his Berlin Ensemble visited Paris-in the midfifties-this meant he had now attained a big reputation indeed. His own dream of being the poet of a new era and a new humanity seemed to be in process of realization.

One was conscious of this fact in the mideighties when the Berlin Ensemble visited Toronto. At the conference connected with this visit, a Canadian student asked the East Berlin big shots on the dais if other kinds of drama than Brecht, other views of life than communism, were offered in their theater: was there dissidence? The big shots went into a huddle. Was there a German word for dissidence? Ach, ja. Answer: "There is no dissidence because there is no need for dissidence." Ergo, there was no need for other kinds of dramatists, and one icon would suffice.

Then came 1989, and the end of the Soviet Union. Must it not be the end of Bertolt Brecht, even as it was the end of the German Democratic Republic? Brecht had told me: if socialism falls, I fall, and his daughter did fall-from her position as head of the Berlin Ensemble, the Winifred Wagner of East Berlin's Bayreuth (as I had called her).

For myself, I was hopeful. Perhaps we could now put politics, with the Soviet Union, behind us. Perhaps now my own vision of Brecht-as simply poet and dramatist, not theorist, philosopher, guru, prophet, icon-would be vindicated.

I had reckoned without the Popular Front and the fellow travelers. It turned out they had survived what they fellow-traveled with. What we meet with now, in Germany in the first instance, is the belief that Ulbricht and Honecker and their men had let communism down, and so Brecht and his Brechtians (Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau et al.) had only been let down, not discredited. This way Brecht is returned to his unique status as the transcendent one.

Not all Brecht fans talk this way, of course. The tone is different among, say, professors of literature in American universities and their student protégés. Yet the Marxism no European proletariat ever yet embraced is being desperately held on to by what one might call a cadre of American (and British and French) academics.

And there is an International Brecht Society. From what its members have published, I would gather that, though there is no commitment to Soviet communism, there is some not altogether vague acquiescence in Popular Front politics, in which the bottom line was always: no criticism of Soviet communism. Criticism of Stalin is allowed, now he is long dead and the Soviet Union has come to an end, but there is (in many quarters) still no criticism of Brecht's politics: he, too, can now be classed as anti-Stalinist. He is back on his pedestal because (in those quarters) Lenin is back on his.

The few Brecht scholars, such as Martin Esslin, who have been anti-Communist were always jumped on by the true-believing Brechtians, whose claim is implicitly to own Brecht and who automatically regard critics of his views as heretical and reactionary. Even exposure of the facts about Brecht's political career is often dismissed now as "cold-war scholarship."

But, you may interject, even if Brecht was wrong about the Soviet Union and so on, isn't it still possible he was a significant sage and theorist? For one of the most thoughtful and sensitive artists in our English-language theater, he was. In The Empty Space (1968) Peter Brook wrote: "Brecht is the key figure of our time, and all theatre work today at some point starts from or returns to his statements and achievement."

Read this sentence over a few times, and you will have less and less idea what is being said, other than that Brook thought Brecht had a lot of influence. Yet, looking back now from the year 1998, one looks in vain for any Brechtian elements in all the work of Brook himself.

In the second half of the twentieth century, even after 1989, Brecht has the reputation of a man of influence, but signs of that influence are often hard to seek and even more often are just the influence of Brecht the theorist-Brecht the Communist sage, head of a Marxist-Leninist think tank. In Koestlerian phrase, he is, for some, both yogi and commissar.

Still. In 1998. The other day I received a boxed set of twenty CDs from Germany: The Selected Works of BB. In the liner notes, a theater man is exclaiming that one must not make an aesthete of Brecht, one should not produce his plays as mere plays; they must have political resonance and urgency. Along with statements of this sort one might place the contention, often repeated over the years, that Marxism allowed Brecht to grow from the young decadent of his early twenties poetry and drama to the Stalin Prize-winner of the big plays carried across the world by the Berlin Ensemble.

Not all the people who parrot such statements are Communists, but I may be permitted to call them fellow travelers in that they decline to be critical either of communism or of Brecht. Now an uncritical attitude may be a service to a political cause, but it is not a service to a great artist. As Samuel Johnson observed long ago, we do our favorite (he had Shakespeare in mind) no service by ignoring or discounting his flaws and limitations. And to Peter Brook I would say: "No one person holds the key to our time; our theater knows no single key figure; and no single playwright has found an unum necessarium that all the others have missed." As to Brecht's "statements," under which heading Brook presumably includes the many theoretical volumes, there is indeed much of practical interest for the theater worker, but as to general ideas nothing there is world-shaking, unless you consider the world is still being shaken by Karl Marx. There are more profound thinkers than Brecht, even in the small world of German drama (such as Schiller and Hebbel).

I was reminded of all this when giving a graduate seminar on Brecht this winter [1998] at Hunter College. Before we even began, the students were throwing technical terms at me that they had picked up from old Brechtians or from the Meister's own essays-gestus, the alienation effect, epic theater, dialectical theater. They seemed to think that Brecht wrote plays to exemplify these abstractions. I told them a story I thought was well known, though they hadn't heard it. Back in the early twenties, Brecht plays were not getting much attention. "What you need," a friend told him, "is a theory. To make your stuff important." So Brecht went home and got himself a theory, which now is known to more people than are the plays. "We shall approach Brecht," I announced at Hunter College, "not through the theoretical essays but through the poems. This was a poet who proceeded from lyric to dramatic poetry. You can postpone your reading of the theoretical essays till later-or forever." Thus may my students discover the merit-the positive substance-of Brecht's works, as they might discover the substance of Dostoevsky's works despite his anti-Semitism and pan-Slavism or the substance of Ezra Pound's poetry despite his anti-Semitism and adulation of Mussolini.

The subject is not simple. The positive substance of such artists, as a recent writer on T. S. Eliot's anti-Semitism has been arguing, is not cut off from the negative substance. Recent biographies have been showing that every great artist you ever heard of had a Dark Side, be it Charles Dickens or Robert Frost. Let students learn that too. And Brecht's dark side was not the fact that he adopted an ideology different from yours or mine. Mere difference of opinion is not what is at stake: a whole cultural situation is involved. The context of Brecht, from the beginning, was an intelligentsia in extremis that found the most negative features of totalitarianism, of the right or of the left, highly seductive. Brecht did not have to abandon the nihilistic destructiveness inherent in his early work when he turned toward Moscow. Not only nineteenth-century Marxism but also twentieth-century Leninism-Stalinism was seductive-a proposition hard for American students of the 1990s to grasp, though they could easily find a neo-Marxist professor to explain it away for them.

And the man's reputation? Those who share his outlook put it excessively high. Those who don't share it put it excessively low. Perhaps such a good/bad reputation is what, as a historical figure, Brecht deserves. But if people would just see his plays and read his poetry, they would reach more interesting, more differentiated conclusions. And give him a new reputation.

Chapter Two The Trial of Lucullus 1943

This was the sequence. 1942: I met Bertolt Brecht and was given manuscripts of his to read. A little later I met a friend of Brecht's, Berthold Viertel, who was directing scenes from Master Race in German at the Barbizon Plaza in New York. I got closer to Viertel than one ever could to Brecht himself, and learned much, too, not only of Brecht but of Karl Kraus and others ... When, in 1943, a small book by Brecht was published by New Directions, I made sure that I got to review it in The Nation. It was The Trial of Lucullus, translated by H. R. Hays.

IT IS CURIOUS TO WATCH THE DELAYED and erratic flow of foreign literature into English translation. Rilke came in a few years ago like a tidal wave; then came Kierkegaard, nearly a century late; only yesterday Stefan George arrived; today it is the turn of Bertolt Brecht. This is an important event for all who are interested in present tendencies of poetry and the drama, though it means reopening all those problems of poetry and the left, poetry and propaganda, poetry and the people, which are assumed to have passed away with the red decade. As to the drama, it is not only the leftist brand that has disappeared; there is simply no drama at all these days with any quality or any future in it. That at least is one's general impression of the English-speaking theater, and that is why, not for the first time in theater history, one turns eagerly to translations from the German.

Bertolt Brecht is one of the best living poets and one of the very few living dramatists worth mentioning. Unfortunately, however, his lyric poetry is as unsuccessful in translation as George's, yet for precisely opposite reasons: George uses a kind of poetic diction that in translation is merely precious; Brecht uses a tricky kind of colloquialism that in translation is merely commonplace. The explanation seems to be that the German language and German literature are, in some respects, at an earlier stage than English and that therefore a German poet can still adopt either a traditional poetic diction or a traditional popular style without making a fool of himself. George is indeed the leading modern in the literary tradition of Goethe and Hölderlin; Brecht, the leading modern in a popular tradition that goes back to Luther and Hans Sachs. I emphasize the word modern, for Brecht is not a pure folk poet but also the parodist of folk poetry, a sarcastic mind, superficially anti-literary, fundamentally lyrical, tough, angular, righteously indignant, all that W. H. Auden in his satiric days tried to be. But Auden's wit was always that of a clever and rather priggish undergraduate, and since a poet cannot be perpetually precocious, one guessed that he would take to religion. Brecht, on the other hand, has always been an engaging blend of introvert and extrovert, never so tender-minded that the tough exterior looked like affectation. More successfully than almost anyone else he fused the idiom and rhythm of prose with a resilient verse. In his attempt to break down the disastrous modern antithesis of highbrow and lowbrow he created out of the vernacular something we are not often vouchsafed these days-a poetic style, firm, simple, and ironic.

In the course of the past twenty years Brecht has written some six kinds of drama. He began with plays that were at once expressionistic and psychological; second, he wrote the most telling satiric librettos (for Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler) at least since W. S. Gilbert and probably since John Gay; third, he invented a much-publicized didactic drama in which choruses, chanting to an orchestral accompaniment, purveyed a political gospel; fourth, he has scribbled some propaganda pieces close to the style and the level of current popular drama, such as Señora Carrar's Rifles and the script of Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die; fifth, he has attempted to present a composite picture of the Third Reich in his most ambitious project, in verse and prose, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, one scene of which is shortly to be published in The Nation; sixth, he has attempted several historical plays whose meaning is entirely contemporary. The Trial of Lucullus is one of these.


Excerpted from BENTLEY ON BRECHT by Eric Bentley Copyright © 2008 by Eric Bentley. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Eric Bentley was born in England in 1916 and became an American citizen in 1948. He has earned a reputation as a scholar, teacher, professional theatre critic, performer, and a playwright.  Recently, Bentley was honored with the 2006 Village Voice OBIE Awards Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2006 International Association of Theatre Critics Thalia Prize. He is the author of many major texts on drama including The Playwright as Thinker (Harvest, 1987), The Life of the Drama (Applause, 2000), and Thinking about the Playwright (Northwestern, 1987). He is also the author of several collections of plays including Rallying Cries (1987), The Kleist Variations (2005), and Monstrous Martyrdoms (2007), as well as the translator of Pirandello’s Plays (1998) and the author of  The Pirandello Commentaries (1986), all available from Northwestern University Press.  

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