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St. Brecht and the Theatrical Stock Exchange

This is an abridged version of an article by the same title published in Review1, launched in 1965 as Monthly Review’s literary supplement. Eleanor Hakim was the managing editor of Studies on the Left in its first few years. At the time she wrote this article she was teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Her essay dealt with Brecht’s theory of the subversive role of the artist in confronting what he conceived as the “cultural apparatus”and how this affected his theory of epic theater. Hakim was particularly concerned with demonstrating that Brecht’s critical outlook was confirmed by the way that, after his death, the U.S. cultural apparatus (“the theatrical stock exchange” of her title) was manipulating and de-radicalizing his drama. In this context, she drew out the significance of Brecht’s revolutionary humanism.

This abridgement retains Hakim’s more general analysis, while removing most of the content related to the specific theater productions of the 1960s related to the dramatization of Brecht’s plays—since these specific productions, now almost fifty years later, are no longer of direct relevance to most of our readers. (Click here for the full article in PDF format). —Eds.

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the radical nature of art—in this case, drama—and the way in which it is utilized in present-day American society. The plays of Bertolt Brecht provide a particularly fruitful test case for this study insofar as his works, which were explicitly intended to function as more than “culinary” entertainment, are today becoming hot commodities on the theatrical stock exchange. During the past decade, what might be called market research in the off-Broadway and university theaters, and, more recently, in summer stock, has primed and whetted Broadway audiences for a slew of prestigious productions of the most radical plays of the twentieth century.

Left-wingers and left-liberals alike have drawn comfort from the box-office appeal of Brecht’s plays, interpreting the emergence of a Brecht cult as a liberalization in the prevailing ideology. Left-wingers, feeling a vicarious stirring of a revolutionary fervor, take delight in the promulgation of a socialist message on the American stage, while tired radicals and left-liberals support these plays out of nostalgia for a cause presumably lost. However, both responses are no more to the point than those of the Establishment liberals who view the productions strictly in terms of their formal characteristics, and who later announce proudly that they weren’t moved in the least; that it was harmless, unrevolutionary fare after all.

Attitudes of either praising or blaming a work of art according to the extent of its social impact derive from the erroneous expectation that the work of art, in itself, can countervail existing political and ideological values. But the social organization which generates these values, now relatively stabilized, is capable of accommodating perspectives which are at variance with it. Today, instead of revitalizing society, art is devitalized by the social use—specifically as commercial entertainment—to which society reduces it. And such changes in the social utilization of a work of art result in a change in its meaning—which is accomplished by a subtle manipulation of the cultural apparatus, that is, of the very process and means by which a work of art is brought to the public in this era of speculators, promoters, and middlemen.

Unlike his well-meaning champions, Brecht understood that a commodity-oriented society does not allow its cultural apparatus to be appropriated for a radical function; rather, the apparatus appropriates, distorts, nullifies, and uses art for its own ends. “The apparati do not work for the general good; the means of production do not belong to the producer; and as a result his work amounts to so much merchandise, and is governed by the normal laws of mercantile trade. Art is merchandise.1 Brecht realized that although the artist is “theoretically in a position to appoint a new function for the theater,” in fact “the theater itself resists any alteration of its function”: “This apparatus resists all conversion to other purposes, by taking any play which it encounters and immediately changing it so that it no longer represents a foreign body within the apparatus.2

To counteract the neutralizing effects of a theater apparatus that disseminates hypnotic illusion like a dream factory, Brecht developed such innovations in the drama and opera as epic theater techniques, the alienation-effect, music as gestus, and parable treatment to demonstrate the contradictions inherent in contemporary social institutions.i But despite his efforts to inculcate a “critical attitude” in the spectator, the audience remains free to evade a confrontation with the “historical” view, by occupying itself with no more than the formal aspects of the theatrical experience. Brecht, a genuine artist, did not attempt to infiltrate the mind with ideology; rather, he attempted to create a theater of consciousness, reason, and choice. And this is precisely why it is possible for the audience to get the message, and to choose to reject it.

To be sure, Brecht wanted the actor to use the alienation technique to effect social consequences: “He prompts the spectator to justify or abolish these conditions according to what class he belongs to.”3 But there remains a third alternative: the spectator can acknowledge the truth of the demonstration and then choose neither to justify nor to abolish these conditions. Rather, he can choose to ignore the social application of the lesson; the spectator can refuse to apply the logic of art to altering the chaos of life. The point then would be at least to make the spectator aware that his choice is conscious.

But spectators whose interests have been conditioned in terms of an apposite value system cannot be radicalized merely by exposure to a radical play. In a society where art does not play a vital role in life, and where learning has been reduced to a commodity, the audience as a whole will choose to respond by being “refreshed” rather than by being moved to make new social choices.4

However, this reflects upon neither the failure of the play nor the failure of the playwright’s methodology and technique; rather, it reflects upon the failure of a specific society or segment of society at a particular point in time and conditioned by a particular set of circumstances. That is to say: the qualities which constitute the artistic value of the play remain inherent in it, and the artist cannot be held responsible for the limitations of his audience—particularly when his audience is viewing his work in a period and milieu different from that in which the work was created. Brecht’s understanding that “the radical transformation of the theater” has to “correspond to the whole radical transformation of the mentality of our time” remains perhaps more tragically true for us today than it was for German society in 1927.5

The onus then is not upon the artist, but upon the society which, when exposed to new points of view and fresh perspectives that may illuminate the fabric of its life, rejects this plane of encounter and focuses its interest on peripheral and superficial value fragments of the whole. In terms of the social psychology of audience responses, can it not be said that such an audience is reacting in an inflexible, unhealthy, stultified, and ultimately neurotic manner? And does not the repetition of such an inadequate response indicate a failure in the vitality of the democratic spirit which implies the ability to make new and meaningful choices commensurate with the new situations and changes occurring in an ever evolving reality? Furthermore, if culture is defined as the enlightenment and refinement of taste and understanding acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training and experience, it can be said that such audiences which refuse to expand their social viewpoints and value systems or to learn from the experience with which the drama confronts them, remain uncultured, no matter how often they are exposed to the works that are currently in vogue. In this respect, they remain essentially philistine, no matter how many theatrical performances they religiously bring their bodies to, and no matter how many titles and artists they are capable of naming.

As a prerequisite for creating a healthy, flexible, and democratic society, the artist must be reinstated in his socially regenerative role. To this end the critic should apply himself. We must restore to the cultural process its inherent function: that of providing an existential consciousness of oneself and of reality which may enable the individual and the social unit to be open to change, development, and growth in making effective and authentic choices—be it personal, psychological, philosophical, social, or political.

The task of the critic today should be to aid the audience in articulating and comprehending the dynamics of the work of art and the aesthetic and intellectual value-system of the artist inherent in it. Instead, the relationship between present-day American theater and society is such that the critic performs the function of public relations man, making the work of art palatable by presenting it in superficial terms which fit the narrow perspectives and status-quo values of the audience, rather than educating the audience to grasp the essential dynamics of the work of art, and the way in which such dynamics may expand the limits of the current mode of perceiving reality. Moreover, the critic today serves the function of providing elaborate rationales and mechanisms by which the audience can evade a confrontation with what may be innovating and unsettling in the work of art.

The point to be made here, particularly as it applies to the production of Brecht’s plays in America, has to do with the manner in which critics and promoters attempt to mediate between art and the audience—not in order to increase the audience’s comprehension of the nature of the work of art, but in order to make the work of art adapt to the tone and temper of the audience. By this means, art is prevented from expanding the horizons of the society. The work of art and the subsequent response to it is emasculated, devitalized, rationalized, so that conformity to the limitations of the society is retained. People are encouraged to see no more than they want to see; they can be safely entertained without being enlightened.

We might well ask, now that Brecht is in vogue, just what is it that liberal New York audiences have been seeing and acclaiming? For the apparatus of the commercial theater has succeeded, by and large, in de-radicalizing the essential dynamics of his plays. Brecht, after his death, has been appropriated and canonized by those very same manipulative forces that he depicted in St. Joan of the Stockyards and against which he dedicated a lifetime of opposition. Thus, the personal mechanisms by which an individual avoids a confrontation with the essentials of a drama are augmented by social mechanisms of defense and by rationales provided by the mediators of drama. These mechanisms deserve to be categorized.

Brecht Among the Moguls

A play is promoted as exotic, chic, intellectually “in” and “avant-garde” to give it snob appeal. The audience is conditioned to have an ego-stake in simply attending the performance, with the corollary of being challenged to feel that they are equal to if not above it. There is no incentive to understand the play, but merely to be able to say something about it—either by praising or deprecating it—which asserts the playgoer’s Brahmin status. The philosophic, stylistic, or political radicalness of the play can be made to seem tantalizingly daring; the audience is permitted to limit its response to self-congratulation at exposing itself to “dangerous” drama without changing its day-to-day consciousness of human and social reality.

Harold Clurman, writing in the New York Times Magazine in an effort to drum up trade for the 1963 Broadway opening of Arturo Ui, began his generally informative article with the question: “Have you ever heard of Bertolt Brecht?”—adding that such a question might be considered as an insult by the “English, French, Swiss, Scandinavian, Israeli, or even Japanese playgoer.”6

As for Brecht’s social and political views, Clurman writes: “During the early thirties, Brecht sought a discipline to counteract both the turmoil within him and the external public breakdown. He found it in Marxism.”7 (The reader with a vital sense of history will realize that the phrase, “external public breakdown” is a gloss for Nazism, the Second World War, concentration camps, and crematoriums.) But Clurman coyly adds that even those “didactic” plays “rose above politics through a subtle artistry which always says something more than, and different from, their presumed ‘lesson.’” Surely, this is a back-handed compliment, when it was exactly this synthesis between concept and subtle artistry that Brecht, like any other engaged artist, was striving for.

Again, in regard to the plays of Brecht’s mature period, written between 1943 and 1949 (The Good Woman of Setzuan, The Private Life of the Master Race, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mother Courage and Her Children), we are assured that, “What distinguishes them is not what they ‘preach’ but their universally human import and their theatrical originality.”8 Universalizing in such a spirit is a typical expression of what Sartre terms the “abstract liberalism” which acknowledges the outsiders under the general category of being men, but at the price of denying them as “concrete and individual products of history.”9

Brecht sans Bite

Production values can sentimentalize the play and reduce it to the lowest common denominator of entertainment. Using an analogy aptly suited to the mores of a sophisticated summer colony, the reviewer of the East Hampton Star found the road version of Brecht on Brecht, “soporific,” complaining that

what little is left of him has been house-broken like some embarrassingly large poodle, powdered, put on a leash and muzzled down to a small bark and no bite. Bertholt Brecht was a man, however, not a dog. A man who tried to achieve humanity and freedom for himself and others through political action: every play, poem, or song was an act of agitation propaganda. To perform Brecht for purely aesthetic qualities is not performance but denial.10

Writing of the [New York] revival of the socially and politically emasculated Brecht on Brecht, Saul Gottlieb in the Village Voice astutely commented that

the Brecht that this show gives us is not only partly Brecht, but a Brecht that never was, a Brecht that fits in neatly with the liberal self-image: anti-Nazi, pro-poor, Broadway—clever, intellectual, disdainful of actors, sentimental about prostitutes, and a man of good will. Well, the Brecht boom is on, and there’s no sense rocking the boat, especially if you want a full house every night. It’s no accident that much of the show is a reprise of the Marc Blitzstein version of “Threepenny Opera,” which translated the bite of the original text down into the sardonic mood of American ex-radicals of the 50’s.11

Furthermore, as the Threepenny Opera ground its way into its second and third years (with many cast changes), increased emphasis was put upon its raciness and leering shock value for the benefit of those who were now coming from the backwaters of the outerlying boroughs to witness its libertine naughtiness.

Brecht as Brechtii

Unlike today, the European drama of the twenties was avant-garde in the full sense of the term. The ideological framework of industrial bourgeois complacency, nationalism, sentimentalism, and laissez-faire optimism was belied by the horrors inflicted upon individuals in the first of the great capitalist wars. Inflation was rampant; the social organization was obviously unstable despite the euphoria; everything was permitted. It was the social chaos that preceded and precipitated individual chaos. Men of sensibility were in revolt against the myth of the nation-state, of a place for everyone in this best of all possible social organizations. The individual’s alienation from an integrated literature, the theater and the arts, experimental forms—attesting to the anguish of man in modern, industrial, capitalist society—mirrored, indicted, and lashed out against the bourgeois lie that had caused the death and dislocation of so many talented and innocent people. Men, women, and children had suffered and died in vain. The only honorable stance possible against the perpetuation of the bourgeois myth was that of rebellion, rejection, and the attempt to shock people out of this most dangerous complacency.

To say “no” to an inhuman social anarchy masquerading as absolute laws of social organization was a moral stand. Rebellion against, and rejection of, such chaotic values was a pointed nihilism. The First World War had proved that the human will was “weak and malleable,” and that it could be “savage, brutal, and uncontrolled.” But men like Brecht did not condone the conditions by which “man is forced to conform by a cruel, oppressive society.” Rather, they illustrated the methods by which this was accomplished—as a means of unmasking them. And it was not so much that man “must conform in order to suppress the murder in his heart”; rather it was a protest against the fact that man, in order to survive, was forced by the society to suppress his humanity and to take murder into his heart.12 Furthermore, Brecht illustrated that it was bootless to attempt to transcend the hypocritically concealed, and spirit-deadening bourgeois social anarchy by means of the anarchy of a self-defined code of romantic individualism, when the only way to achieve such transcendence is through those very social mechanisms and milieu against which one is rebelling.

Romanticism and rigidity rest not with Brecht but with the social psychology of our times, and, unfortunately, with those criticswho entertain “ambiguous feelings” towards Brecht’s demonstrations, even going so far as to regard Mother Courage as an expression of Brecht’s “death-wishing.”13 However, the play is not so much a didactic exposition of the pacifist doctrine that “War is evil,” or even “a relentless Marxist indictment of the economic motives behind international aggression.”14 It is less a matter of Marxism than it is of sociology. The play is actually a demonstration that Mother Courage “has learned nothing”; that the store of shrewd tricks which the peasant and small tradesman have traditionally used to insure their survival, like the crackpot realism of our present day, is inadequate and outmoded as a means to transcend the upheavals and conflagrations of total warfare.15

For Brecht was less concerned with teaching us what to think than he was with illustrating the necessity to think in fresh and meaningful ways commensurate with dealing with the complex social forces that threaten our very lives as well as the fundamental values of human existence. As Karl Mannheim, a leading non-Marxist sociologist and contemporary of Brecht, put it:

It is clearly fallacious to regard reflectiveness—as many romantic thinkers do—as being under all circumstances a life-extinguishing force. On the contrary, in most cases, reflectiveness preserves life by helping us to adjust ourselves to new situations so complex that in them the naive and unreflective man would be utterly at a loss.16

By illuminating the dynamics of such complex new situations in all of their subtle variations, Brecht makes it possible to grasp objectively the neurosis and waste of a social organization which allows, necessitates, and in fact, institutionalizes such conflict, such irresolution.17 And from this springs the conclusion that man must collectively change the social organization in order to make it possible for him to fulfill his human potentialities. One either changes oneself rather than the world, or one changes the world rather than oneself. But, when society has reached the point where to conform means to deny one’s own most human instincts, and to adopt a schizophrenic mode of coping with its conflicting platitudes and dicta, then it is a suicide of the spirit not to attempt to change the world. Furthermore, to fail to recognize such a truth about the epoch in which we live in itself represents a neurotic and inflexible response to reality which, as happened in Germany in the late twenties, we can afford to ignore only at our own peril.

Brecht tried to create an “objective” theater of learning and choice, to which the spectator would bring a “passionateattitude of criticism,” and where he would see “models of men’s life together such as could help the spectator to understand his social environment and both rationally and emotionally to master it.” This too, was less a matter of Marxism than of sociology.18

Brecht well understood that to write in the tradition of the “eternally human” and “universal situations”19 of the bourgeois theater of his time would ultimately result in dispensing a dangerous, narcotic rationalization of fascism. Instead, Brecht attempted to have his “art try, by its own meansto further the great social task of mastering life,” by inculcating a reflective, “historical way” of thinking in humanistic terms of “man as a function of the environment and the environment as a function of man, i.e., the breaking up of the environment into relationships between men.”20 The technique by which he attempted to accomplish this dramaturgically—the “alienation-effect”—is, in this sense, akin to Mannheim’s concept of social “distantiation,” so necessary to being able to orient oneself rationally to the changes and complexities of the modern world.21

The essential value and significance of Brecht’s drama is not that he is radical in a politically proselytizing way, but rather that he has succeeded in demonstrating in aesthetic terms an existential concern for the individual, which has been integrated with sociologically scientific insight into the roots of the fundamental contradictions and pressures of modern society and history. Therefore, in order to comprehend fully his drama, and indeed the artistic output of our period, it is necessary for the critic of culture also to display a more scientific and sociological attitude.

It is important that we understand the culture of our times and where each of us stands in relation—often contrapuntal—to these complex moments in history in which we are immersed and which art most comprehensively manifests and, intentionally or not, documents. A community of existential and socio-historic understanding is necessary before we can begin to comprehend the values fundamental to creating a genuine social community.

Footnotes

  1. On the techniques in Brecht’s dramaturgy, including “alienation effect” and “gestus” see Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theater (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 91–106.—Eds.
  2. This subtitle, not in the original article, has been added in this abridgment. —Eds.

Notes

  1. Bertolt Brecht, “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre” (Notes to the opera Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny), in Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theater, ed. & trans. John Willett (Hill and Wang: New York, 1964), 35.
  2. Ibid, 43, “The Literarization of the Theatre (Notes to the Threepenny Opera).”
  3. Ibid, 139, “A Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which Produces an Alienation Effect.”
  4. Ibid, 72, “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction.”
  5. Ibid, 23, “The Epic Theater and its Difficulties.”
  6. Harold Clurman, “Brecht is Global, Except Here,” New York Times Magazine, November 3, 1963.
  7. Ibid, 30.
  8. Ibid, 33.
  9. Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 117.
  10. D.G.R., East Hampton Star, July 18, 1963.
  11. Saul Gottlieb, The Village Voice, July 18, 1963.
  12. Robert Brustein, “Brecht on the Rampage,” New Republic, October 1, 1962, 28.
  13. Eric Bentley, Introduction to Seven Plays by Bertolt Brecht (New York: Grove Press, 1961), xliii.
  14. Robert Brustein, “Brecht on Broadway,” New Republic, April 13, 1963.
  15. Brecht, Brecht on Theater, 221.
  16. Karl Mannheirn, “Rationality,” Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1940), 57.
  17. Karl Mannheim, “The Age of Planning,” Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), 259: “Indeed, it is not wholly wrong to speak of our times as a ‘neurotic age,’ neurosis being its characteristic illness, provoked by a series of institutionalized conflicts.”
  18. Brecht, Brecht on Theater, 133, 227.
  19. Ibid, 96.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Karl Mannheirn, “The Problem of Democratization,” Essays on the Sociology of Culture (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956), 207.
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