Brecht Today

Marc Silberman

"Brecht today" sounds like a wake-up call or a polemical assertion, reassuring us that indeed Brecht’s works are still relevant today.  Yet, one might just as well imagine the rising intonation of a question - “Brecht today?” - expressing doubt as to whether Brecht’s writings can still generate interest beyond their historical value.  Who or what is Brecht today? Thinking in a Brechtian way, we would have to consider first what is meant by “Brecht” as well as by “today,” who is asking the question and for what reason.  Do we specify Brecht the playwright, the theater theoretician and stage practitioner, the poet, the prose writer, or the intellectual critic and modernist thinker? Are we referring to the Brecht read and received in Germany (East vs. West), with the ups-and-downs of his popularity there, or to the Brecht translated into other languages and known in different socio-cultural contexts? Are we pointing to Brecht the person or to the collective practices and collaborative productivity, which he coordinated throughout his life?  These are not idle questions but indicators of an ongoing interrogation into the nature and limitations of understanding Brecht's creative work.  The following comments will be divided into three sections that expand the title into Brecht yesterday, today, and tomorrow.[i]  Part I traces the contours of Brecht’s reception over the past 50 years.  Part II outlines the major contributions identified with Brecht’s enormous intellectual output.  Finally, Part III speculates about the ongoing relevance of Brecht’s work or a Brechtian approach.  In other words, I will focus less on specific texts than on our work as readers, asking where or whether Brecht fits in the current intellectual context with its shifts and adjustments.


Brecht Yesterday

Has Brecht become boring, antiquated, and anachronistic?  In 1964 the prominent Swiss author Max Frisch expressed probably for the first time the frustrated accusation of “Brecht exhaustion” when he spoke of the “striking ineffectivity of a literary classic.”[ii]  Frisch was not referring to Brecht’s own works but to the dull reception of his plays among theater critics and to the resistance among theaters to his dramaturgical innovations.  In other words, he was summarizing the attitude of those who treated Brecht as if he were a classic writer, thereby robbing him of his effect.  If in 1964 Frisch had perceived Brecht exhaustion, by 1994 Brecht was declared by a German critic to be “dead as a doornail” and mummified, while his status as a literary classic advanced to a point where the controversial Brecht biographer John Fuegi could be criticized in turn as a “defiler of monuments.”[iii]  Naturally there was no lack of confidence in 1996 (the fortieth anniversary of his death) and again in 1998 (the centenary of his birth) that Brecht had definitively become a classic (i.e., meaningless), just as the defiled monument had finally fallen from its base.  The compulsive repetition of these judgments suggests the extent to which this person still occupies us as intellectuals, and here I mean not the real person but rather Brecht as the sum of a contradictory life’s work and its reception.

Today Brecht may indeed strike us as a classic in the traditional sense as far as his popularity is concerned.  For over thirty years his plays have dominated the statistics as the most produced in Germany, and outside Germany he is counted together with the classical Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, and Chekhov among the most frequently staged dramatists.  These are remarkable statistics, since Brecht’s kind of theater is an intellectually ambitious one that aims at undermining the relationship between a complacent audience and a dramatic tradition based on entertainment.  Brechtian techniques of distanciation, the rupturing of realist illusions, and the notion of gestus based on the constructed relation between performer, spectator, and author have become familiar elements not only in the theater but also for the aesthetics of the cinema, television, and even advertising, albeit without his political aim of interventionist thinking, of “changing the world because it needs it.”[iv]

Who, then, was this Brecht?  There is no essential Brecht to be distilled out of his critical writings or to be carved out of his oeuvre, which was in any case a work in progress.[v]  One answer to this question emerges from a consideration of the ways in which Brecht has been instrumentalized for various agendas.  Brecht scholarship and Brechtian theater practice have a history in the postwar period with identifiable ideological commitments, shifts, and revisions both in the East and the West.  In the divided Germany this reception followed fairly clear but countervailing patterns.  His return to East Berlin in 1948 and the establishment of the Berliner Ensemble were celebrated by the East German government as a major public relations coup, since he represented a strong line of cultural continuity with left intellectuals of the Weimar Republic.  Nonetheless, in the course of the fifties until he died in 1956, Brecht's politics and aesthetics were treated by the government's cultural functionaries with suspicion because his "formalism" did not fit the orthodox image of Socialist Realism.  After his death and with the international success of the Ensemble’s tours to Paris (1954) and London (1956) Brecht’s work became acceptable as a model of political theater when applied to the fascist past and to western capitalism, but not to real existing socialism.  Here, then, are the seeds of separating the political person Brecht from his artistic texts and playing the two off each other.  Much of the subsequent reception in both East and West suffered precisely from this dogmatic definition of “the political” which sustains narrow and polemical positions either for or against the playwright's politics.  Such positions tend to close off the innovative, experimental energy of Brecht's project before it even begins to develop.

Meanwhile, in a world sundered by the Cold War the development necessarily took a different course in the West.  Esteemed or even venerated by a select few in the fifties - and this actually more often in Western European countries like Italy, France, and England than in the former Federal Republic - Brecht's choice for the "other," socialist Germany led to a virtual boycott at all publicly subsidized theaters in West Germany until his death.  By the mid-sixties Brecht had become petrified in the East as an official icon of Socialist Realism, while in the West he was on the verge of being discovered by the young generation of politically motivated students as an alternative to the stuffy and dominant heritage of middlebrow humanism.  For some he became the springboard to an alternative, critical form of thinking, for others, a weapon in the left's factional battles.  During the seventies a renewal took place: a generation of younger writers in East Germany schooled in Brecht's dialectical thinking and language extended his legacy into the present (e.g., Heiner Müller and Volker Braun); in West Germany the initial enthusiasm for the classical Brecht of the Berliner Ensemble had paled and the early Brecht and his learning plays - largely ignored in the East - dominated the attention of progressive theaters and scholars.  By the eighties Brecht had become in both Germanies part of the respective, but different canons.  His work had become professionalized, institutionalized, and specialized, ironically now part of a system of ideological authorization and legitimation in the universities and subsidized theaters.  His stories, poems, and plays were anthologized in school readers.  Literary scholars and theater historians focused attention on their object of interest, comparable to other privileged writers who had achieved the status of “poets and thinkers” in the German pantheon.  A new 30-volume edition of Brecht’s complete works, the first such East-West German collaboration, was launched in 1988.[vi]  No wonder, then, that a full-blown case of Brecht weariness set in.  Embedded in a context of competing and contradictory discourses, a Siamese image of Brecht flourished among the East-West tensions.  A sometimes aggressive rhetoric of accusations and self-righteousness marked the opponents: on the one side the political Brecht, on the other the poet Brecht; here the rebel Brecht, there the Stalinist Brecht; here the antiquated Brecht in the museum, there the totalizing critique of the status quo.

The stagnation of global as well as German-German political relations in the eighties did not simply consign such an eminently political artist to the dustbin of history.  Translations into all the major languages and the magnetism of a non-dogmatic thinker made Brecht into a favored object to be deconstructed from a critical distance by scholars and directors from other countries.  In Central and South America, Asia, and Africa Brecht's work has played and continues to play a vital role for articulating the emancipatory political process of national transformation.  Similarly underground, fringe, and avant-garde theaters "read" Brecht against the grain through various filters: feminism, performance theory, the body, humor, etc.[vii]  After the end of the Cold War, interest in new Brecht images revived, even while it once again brought forth falsifying assessments: Brecht the chauvinist, who bought text for sex, the totalitarian Brecht, Brecht the anti-Semite.  It is unnecessary to stress that this has nothing to do with the person Brecht, but rather he has become a projection screen.  Brecht passed away long ago and does not need to be protected like a relic in a shrine.  An ongoing interest in Brecht cannot be motivated by nostalgia for the apparently clear lines of distinction in the past nor is it simply a matter of turning the canonized Brecht back on his feet as an iconoclast.  The pre-Classic Brecht, the student movement’s Brecht, the Brecht "against-the-grain" were historically mediated and now obsolete responses to present challenges, while the widely acknowledged Brecht "exhaustion" or the museum-quality Brecht simply refers to the half-life of much intellectual reasoning.


Brecht Today

What is Brecht’s relevance today?  The ever expanding forces of global capitalism, the hegemony of commodity market mechanisms, the growth of communications technologies, the tendency to move from class-based to identity and life-style politics, all these factors demand new conceptual and analytical tools if we are to understand where and how the cultural terrain is today being contested.  Meanwhile traditional conceptual categories such as enlightenment, pedagogy, progress, reason, and historical agency - all fundamental tenets in Brecht's vision of transforming society - have been called into question by postmodernist theories as being universalist and therefore oppressive master narratives in the service of dominant elites.  On the one hand, this relegates Brecht's oeuvre to a historically superseded period of modernism while on the other it echoes the crisis in representation that grounds Brecht's entire aesthetics.  The historical illusions of modernism have become in the postmodern age a problem of positioning oneself as subject in radically discontinuous realities.  The momentous changes in the map of Europe over the last decade of the past century suggest that this problem of positioning is one of practical politics as well, for the intersecting demands raised by local, national, and international entities are becoming visible as functions of the increasingly complex multinational space we inhabit.  Meanwhile the substitutes for the disintegrated utopias of modernism (nationalism, regionalism, ecology, a renewed awareness of tradition, etc.) must still prove themselves as more than apologies for a new hierarchy of authoritarian or totalitarian relations between the particular and the plural.  With our distance to the person Brecht and to his political reference system, it ought to be possible to read his texts without his ideological blinders in order to discover how he used and transformed the material out of which he constructed representations of reality.

To answer the question whether Brecht is relevant is to consider whether political art is (still) possible.  For this it is helpful to explain what Brecht meant by interventionist thinking (“eingreifendes Denken”), a central category in his own conviction about the need to change the world.[viii]  Not surprisingly, it is no simple task because, like so much in the thinking of this pragmatist, his suggestions were oriented toward concrete historical conditions and situations.  Interventionist thinking - a concept that arose in the early thirties during what perhaps was Brecht’s most productive work phase - was realized in various forms and with differing goals in the time of exile and after his return to East Germany.  First, it is important to establish the oxymoronic connection between “intervention” and “thinking.”  Thinking describes a contemplative relation to an object, to an event, or to the world; it marks above all a distancing process between the subject and object.  Thinking about something triggers analysis and logic, which deconstruct and then reconstitute this “something.”  In the long tradition of Enlightenment philosophy, cogito (“I know”) is the point of departure and essence of the subject.  Brecht, who directly experienced the vicissitudes of the “dialectic of the Enlightenment,”[ix] found this definition of human existence too limiting.  Intervention is the opposite of thinking, since it describes an act.  From the perspective of the subject, intervention refers to changing the object, the course of an event, or the condition of the world.  In short, interventionist thinking is typical for Brecht’s antagonistic world view.  His creativity lived off crises and found its most productive inspiration from the intensification of contradictions.  For this he devised ever new, dynamic poetic and aesthetic forms.  The concept of interventionist thinking abstracts from such a dynamic; it signifies an attitude which demands not only contemplation and cognition but also application and effect.  Interventionist thinking is, then, a result of specific aesthetic forms that set in motion the addressee (e.g., the reader, the audience, the participant) by means of an analytical, distancing process.

Based on this definition I maintain that political art and interventionist thinking in Brecht’s sense is still imaginable.  Many or even all of his plays are directly political, that is, they address specific political themes (e.g., The Rifles of Senora Carrar, 1937, is set during the Spanish Civil War, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, 1941, takes up Hitler’s ascent to power, The Days of the Commune, 1949, treats the Paris Commune of 1871), but this is a very narrow idea of the political.  Brecht’s political interest did not exhaust itself in the specifics of a historical juncture, rather he used topical events to generate a political attitude on the part of his readers and audience: the desire to change things.  Moreover, in a broader sense politics in the theater was for Brecht the opposite of boredom and lethargy.  All his plays and theoretical writings are aimed against the institutions of art, which he considered to be essentially conservative.  His practical work consisted in producing contradictions, revising texts, and breaking through the passivity of audience consumerism.  As an abstraction, then, the concept of interventionist thinking is still viable, but it becomes problematic when we attempt to define its content.  Which aesthetic forms are today still usable?  Is there a set of “Brechtian techniques” or stylistic elements devised by Brecht in the thirties, forties, or fifties for specific social situations and institutions that are today still valid?  Such questions can not be answered abstractly and universally, that is, interventionist thinking will be engaged differently in Germany than in the United States, for it is not a formula but an attitude toward experience and imagination.

Can Brecht still be relevant if he failed in his project?  For he certainly did fail, at least in Walter Benjamin's sense of history, which moves forward by means of failure rather than triumphs.[x]  Brecht was a radical partisan of change, and the way he envisioned and represented change relates to the constraints of his experiments in imagining something different from the historical reality in which he lived.  Here we must consider Brecht's utopianism, since this is where the very capacity to imagine change reveals its own absences, its historical limits and systemic repressions.[xi]  With its utopias modernism sought to rehabilitate the subject in its anomie and alienation by imagining a non place outside of space in which the ideal of unity reigned between work and life, the individual and the collective, art and politics, economy and morality.  In the twenties German novelists like Alfred Döblin and Hermann Broch developed exemplary techniques for creating a timeless space in their prose by running together mythic and contemporary time and by dissolving specificities of place into allegorical, universal space.  Brecht too is on one level indifferent to time and place, shifting from a mythic Chicago to the Caucasus or to China and playing with anachronism in Mother Courage, 1939, St Joan of the Stockyards, 1932, or in his adaptations.  Yet, he insists precisely on difference in order to produce new insights into structural relations and between historically mediated specificities.  Distanciation (e.g., the alienation effect, Epic theater, gestus) is Brecht's primary means of historicizing perception, of demonstrating that the past was different than the present and that, because the past has changed, the present is changeable.  Undoubtedly this is related to a deep empathy for the struggle to survive, one that he faced existentially as an exile during the Third Reich.  But it is also an imaginative space shared by modernists in their response to modernization and industrialization, whose effects of alienation became the trope of utopian thinking.  Brecht's plays, especially the mature parable plays, construct situations that show the transition from historically outmoded time and the contradictions between still functional old behavior and new situations.  This disjuncture between historical time and the time of the subject is mediated by utopia with the intent not to reform an oppressive system but to transform it, to empower people so that they understand their present in order to change it.  This, then, is Brecht's dialectic, his effort to imagine something that is not yet possible but already inevitable.  Its negative moment is the critique of bourgeois forms and their reactionary consequences, and its positive, most problematic moment is utopianism.

The absence of the ideal condition produces utopian energy in the modernist project.  Yet here the other side of utopianism becomes visible.  Modernist art and literature is characterized by negativity, by the fundamental gesture of representing the unrepresentable ("ou" + "topos" = no place, absence of place).  Shock, revolution, and the "new man" describe aesthetic strategies for this impossible function.  Modernist utopias were motivated by the idea of harmonizing or bringing together art and life.  In this equation art was considered to be the paradigm of non-alienated labor in which individual self-determination and control are most fully realized.  Committed to the political avant-garde, Brecht aimed at a different kind of utopia, which would integrate art and social praxis.  Of course, this vision emerged from a particular social situation and was subject to important shifts in emphasis over time.  Witness to the collapse of the old order and to the problematic constitution of an increasingly unacceptable new one during the twenties in Germany, Brecht was attracted to the idea of redemption through the negation of self.  The excess and isolation of the asocial antiheroes of the early plays (Baal, Garga, Kragler, Fatzer) express his critique of the bourgeois subject without slipping into the modernist solution of escaping the masses through hyper individualism.  In the late twenties and in particular with the experimental learning plays (Lehrstücke) of the early thirties Brecht sought to formulate an alternative to this subjectivist, antibourgeois stance.  It takes the form of a collectivity that derives from the consciousness of individual subjects transformed into a class identity through the dynamics of mass struggle.  The earlier social chaos and individual rootlessness give way to a consensus model of obedience to the collective (Einverständnis) and to a new individual who is defined not in opposition to but through the masses.

This collectivity had not only aesthetic but also biographical consequences in Brecht’s practice of collaborative authorship.  One of the distinctive features of the modernist crisis in Germany during the Weimar Republic was a rapid shift in the conditions of cultural production.  The increasing commercialization of leisure-time activity with the rise of popular entertainment (cinema, sports, dance revues, jazz, etc.) and the commodification of cultural relations that accompanied it marked the social crisis in the function of traditional cultural institutions.  The educated, bourgeois audience was dissolving, and taking its place was a much broader audience of consumers with new demands for imaginative and recreational activity.  This tendency toward cultural democratization also affected the role and the self-identity of the writer.  On the one hand, the avant-gardists as well as the traditionalists sought new, distinctive ways of asserting their elitism; on the other, writers like Brecht embraced modernity's tendency toward social disintegration and massification as liberatory.  The constraints of bourgeois individualism were falling away.  Working with Lion Feuchtwanger on the adaptation of Marlowe's Life of Edward the Second (1924) and with Elizabeth Hauptmann on Man Equals Man (1926), Brecht began to develop a habit of production that submerged the author's subjectivity within a collective.  The very notion of aesthetic activity as "production" (rather than creation), theorized by Brecht in his book-length essay The Threepenny Lawsuit (1932) indicates this fundamental shift.  Indeed, Man Equals Man thematizes a sociological model of identity constitution based on exchange value and collective need.  The demystification of the bourgeois notion of the individual is equally pertinent for the demystification of the bourgeois notion of the author.

This collaborative practice has led to accusations that Brecht suppressed the autonomy of his collaborators, in particular of his female collaborators.  Such critics misapprehend the fundamental response to and intervention in the modernist crisis as well as the fact that he worked closely with male collaborators.  At the same time, the issue of gender oppression - the “price” that Brecht's female collaborators paid to be used by him - needs to be historicized.  History has not made it easy for women to develop their artistic creativity, and many women have found it productive to be connected to a literary environment controlled by male writers.  Brecht certainly no longer fit the traditional model of the poet and his (female) muse.  That he could bind women to himself on the condition that their love too was to be socialized in the context of creative productivity was an innovation within the context of German society in the first half of the twentieth century.  Historically, then, the scale was weighted in Brecht's favor; his women worked on his material and were his material.  In a very real sense they served at times as the medium of his productivity.  Yet it is foolish to assert that women's creativity could or did exist outside of the history of patriarchy.  Thus, to understand the role of Brecht's female collaborators and to identify who was responsible for what, is part of the process of historically defining the constraints and the possibilities of women's creativity.

Brecht's vision of a more humane society altered with the threat of new forms of domination during the thirties, specifically with the rise of fascism.  It became more and more abstract.  He tried and failed for the most part to represent convincingly the alternative order that could confront contemporary fascism.  The denial of the part for the whole, the elimination of the individual for the sake of the collective in the learning plays, reverted in Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (1938), in the historical novel fragment The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar (1938/39), and in the fragments in the Book of Changes (1935-42, also known as Me-ti) to a contemptuous analysis of the collapsing old order.  Forced into exile and faced with the horrors of National Socialism, Brecht focused on new possibilities of representation rather than on constructing a new order.  On the one hand the formal reductionism of the parable plays from this period seems to function as a kind of protective shield against the impossible contradictions of reality, but on the other the shift in subject and technique to more deliberate forms of distancing decenters the text-audience relation by transferring the utopian imagination into the spectators themselves.  The prologue to The Caucasian Chalk Circle (written in 1944, first published in 1949) suggests succinctly the political and poetic utopia Brecht envisioned in his mature plays.  The members of the collective farm represent an anticipated collective destiny in which art and labor have both become equally valuable forms of production for them as free subjects.  Not among the pleasures rationed in wartime, the narration of a story (like work) is a necessity despite the existential threat they face.  Representation, aesthetics, and the work of imagination become political acts with a use value comparable to labor.  In his theoretical writings of the forties Brecht characterized this collectivity as living together (“Zusammenleben”), and after the war his endeavors at the Berliner Ensemble comprised the practical model in the theater for such a collective, at least in a rough, imperfect form.[xii]

Brecht studied and then became a Marxist in the late twenties.  Like the early Marx, his critique of capitalism was not anti-capitalist but rather posited it as a material force, as a motor that leads to ever more complex relations of production.  Yet there is an idealist continuity in Marxist utopian thought that adheres to Brecht's as well.  It presumes that everyone shares the imagined collective's interests because of a fundamental class identity, whereas the highly differentiated interactions in such a social constellation suggest a much more complex intersecting of needs, demands, fears, and desires.  Brecht, too, insisted on a political and sociological definition of class as the primary or hegemonic articulation of subject identity, although he was not oblivious to the complexity of the subject in other ways.  His entire poetic model, for example, undermines the strong tradition in Marxist understanding of the dialectic as a movement towards the resolution of contradictions (“Aufhebung”).  The definition in the thirties of the Epic Theater - with its separation of elements and stress on the positive quality of the fragment owing to its openness to the audience - as well as the later revision in the fifties of the "cofabulating" audience in the Dialectical Theater are examples of his view of contradiction as a productive moment rather than one of closure.  Moreover, Brecht's reformulation of the collective as the intersubjective "living together" of a community stresses the positionality of the subjects who are constantly producing themselves as subjects through conflict and contradiction with one another.  Clearly he understood the idea of the subject as construction, something he demonstrated in the transformation of dramatic characters like Jeraiah Jip in Man Equals Man, Fatzer, and the Pope in Life of Galilei (written in 1938/39, revised in 1955/56) and something he tried to conceptualize as the gestus, which problematizes the relation between the self and history.

Brecht was no rosy-eyed utopian but an intellectual who developed his critical faculties through the experience of personal gains and losses, of political reversals and historical ruptures.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ossified socialism identified with it is a powerful indictment of traditional left utopianism.  But Brecht’s project of a more just, egalitarian society never sought to provide answers on how to make the world better, rather his writings are scripts for how to ask questions, how to formulate the right questions for a given situation that is untenable and therefore must be changed.  While he believed in the power of reason that enables people to recognize the problems around them and to solve them, he was neither a narrow-minded rationalist nor a naive believer in the inevitability of progress and human emancipation.  Thus, his critique of emotions, which is frequently misunderstood or implemented as a dramaturgy of “coldness,” was not directed against feeling or spontaneity as such but rather against the function of emotions in traditional theater.  Like interventionist thinking, Brecht’s belief in reason is a functional concept that enables individuals to determine this interest and to act on its behalf, in other words, a principle of reasoned action excluding neither passion nor emotion.


Brecht Tomorrow

Our image of Brecht is a mediated one, constructed from biographical and historical facts, from interpretive readings and polemical speculations, from instrumentalized needs and utopian desires. This Brecht-in-process, whose image is never finally established, contributes precisely to its quality that can still provoke us.  Yes, Brecht is a classic today, recognized as a canonical thinker and artist in the modernist, Enlightenment tradition who reflected on and wrote about some of the major catastrophes in the past century.  In a world governed by media and technologized communication, the voice of Brecht sounds strangely old-fashioned, while simultaneously Brechtian practices - like vandalizing world literature, mixing poetry and kitsch, using mass culture positively, and "complex seeing" in the presentation and reception of art - have not only been coopted by the market economy but have been integrated into its very functioning strategies.  In the age of television flow, virtual internet identities, and Benneton advertisements featuring aids victims even the alienation effect can be used to sell commodities more efficiently.  Yet, this nihilism validates a part for the whole in a system that raises media images to the definitive experiences in advanced capitalism.  For those still committed to Brecht's critical project, seeking forms of pedagogy and communication that encourage thinking and undermine merely contemplative attitudes is the goal.

Brecht was a cunning master of throwing “sand in the gears” of institutional hierarchies.  In this respect he is a particularly relevant example for the public intellectual today.  He lived at a time when the self-image of the artist and thinker as a socially and politically engaged person corresponded to the expectations of the public; today, however, the autonomy and self-preservation of artists and thinkers seems more important.  In a historical situation that threatens critical thinkers and devalues strategies of critique, we need models of oppositional voices, lest we forget the necessity of protest.  Brecht is such a model.  Partisan without being bound to a party, independent of official institutions yet experienced at surviving within institutions, again and again prepared to entertain risks and undertake unconventional attempts: this was how Brecht accommodated a world which he envisioned as changeable.  In our times, when media consciousness shapes the values of public opinion, attempts and strategies to throw “sand in the gears” become quite useful, even if the global media culture has already long since forgotten the plays and poems of a Brecht.  In a world of simulations, where everything is communicated through codes, and where social life is characterized by dispersion and stress, tools are useful that can strengthen insight, render visible human relations, and destabilize habits of seeing.  For we are witnesses to how new technologies displace familiar securities and identities.  Here aporias and new feelings of insecurity emerge, which in turn necessitate new strategies of distanciation, that is, methods of un-learning in order to learn anew.  To maintain this attitude, even when stagnation, paralysis, reaction, and regression are the order of the day, is no small feat.

Brecht’s main contribution, then, is to be found in the innovative ways he devised for examining history and making the processes of history visible as changeable ones.  While his means may themselves no longer be usable, the search for ways of historically anchoring meanings - even the multiple meanings of a postmodern age - is modeled for us in Brecht’s work.  Inscribed with the collisions and ruptures of the century in which he lived, his significance as a writer and thinker will become relevant whenever his sort of vision becomes necessary, whenever a situation conducive to ideological unpredictability allows for ideas to be criticized, radically, without worrying about re-establishing certainties.  In short, Brecht’s impact is not to be found in any recipes he may have provided but rather in the possibility of his writings to enable our own creativity in thinking about historical truths and processes.



[i] This essay is an expanded and updated version of ideas I developed in two earlier essays: "A Postmodernized Brecht?" Theatre Journal 45:1 (March 1993), 1-19, and “Brecht-Ehrungen: Eine Übung zur Vorschau auf einen Rückblick,” in Thomas Jung, Hrsg., Zweifel - Fragen - Vorschläge: Bertolt Brecht anläßlich des Einhundertsten (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 1999), 13-29.

[ii] Frisch made this comment in a speech he gave at a theater conference in Frankfurt am Main in 1964.

[iii] See Willi Winkler in Die Zeit, 12. August 1994 and the review of the English-language edition of John Fuegi’s The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht (London: Harper Collins) in Der Spiegel 38 (1994).

[iv] See the song by this title in Scene 5 of The Decision (1930, also known as The Measures Taken).

[v] Typical for this misunderstanding is the status of model books ("Modellbücher") with photographic sequences and explanations for some of Brecht's most important and successful productions at the Berliner Ensemble.  They have led to the unfortunate misconception among some directors that Brecht intended these as authoritative paradigms which should be reproduced.  In fact, they offer a fascinating documentation of the work process Brecht engaged as a director rather than a prescription or recipe.

[vi] The "Grosse kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe" of Brecht’s Werke, published together by the West German Suhrkamp Verlag (Frankfurt am Main) and the then East German Aufbau Verlag (Berlin and Weimar), was originally expected to be completed in 1993, whereas in fact the final index volume appeared only in May 2000.

[vii] See Brecht in Asia and Africa, Brecht Yearbook 14, eds. John Fuegi et al. (Hong Kong: International Brecht Society, 1989) and Brecht then and now / damals und heute, Brecht Yearbook 20, eds. John Willett et al. (Waterloo, CA: International Brecht Society, 1995).  The International Brecht Society (IBS) was founded in 1969 in the United States and publishes the Brecht Yearbook as well as the journal Communications. See the IBS website at:  For a guide to English language translations, see “Brecht’s Works in English - A Bibliography”:

[viii] The concept of interventionist thinking comes up repeatedly in Brecht’s writings of 1930-33.  See, for example, “Eingreifendes Denken” (1931), in Brecht, Werke (Berlin and Frankfurt am Main: Aufbau and Suhrkamp, 1988ff), 21:524f, and “Anmerkungen zu Die Mutter” (1933, published first in 1938), 24:188.

[ix] ”The Dialectic of the Enlightenment” is the title of a series of essays authored by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno while in exile in the United States and first published in German in Amsterdam in 1947.  Their thesis traces the sources of fascist violence to the processes of rationalization and alienation set in motion by the Enlightenment.

[x] See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” especially Thesis XIII, in Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 253-264.

[xi] On Brecht’s utopianism, see Klaus-Detlef Müller, “Utopische Intention und Kritik der Utopien bei Brecht,” in Gert Ueding, ed., Literatur ist Utopie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978), 335-66, Friedrich Dieckmann's incisive "Brechts Utopia. Exkurs über das Saturnische," in Sinn und Form 5/1987, as well as Barbara Buhl's longer investigation concentrating mainly on the early and middle works, Bilder der Zukunft: Traum und Plan. Utopie im Werk Bertolt Brechts (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 1988). 

[xii] On “living together,” see Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, ed. and trans. by John Willett (London: Methuen, 1965), where the notion is introduced by the "The Philosopher" as the very material of theatrical representation, as well as the last entry (No. 77) in A Short Organum for the Theatre, in Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. by John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 205.