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Reviewed by:
  • Bertolt Brecht’s Dramatic Theory
  • Steve Giles
John J. White. Bertolt Brecht’s Dramatic Theory. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004. Pp. 348. $90 (Hb).

This meticulously researched study is the first in English to deal exclusively with Brecht's writings on theatre and is the first monograph on Brecht's dramatic theory in any language to take full account of the new Berlin/Frankfurt edition of Brecht's complete works, which appeared in Germany between 1988 and 2000. As such, Bertolt Brecht's Dramatic Theory is essential reading for all Brecht scholars, whatever their disciplinary affiliations, and establishes a benchmark for all future research in this area. White analyses Brecht's major writings on theatre from 1930 to 1956, starting with the "Notes on the Opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" (previously known to aficionados of Brecht's work as "The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre") and finishing with the "Short Organum for the Theatre" and the Messingkauf project. White also discusses essays from Brecht's exile period and his otherwise neglected dramaturgical poems. Readers should note, however, that Brecht's work is referenced and cited in German throughout, with no translations of German texts and few cross-references to the standard English translations of his theoretical writings – in view of the large number of Brecht teachers and scholars who do not have fluent German, this is rather regrettable.

In his introduction, White addresses a series of methodological issues raised by any attempt to deal with the full range of Brecht's writings on theatre: do they constitute a coherent corpus of theoretical statements or are they simply occasional notes functioning as appendages to his practical work? do they display any consistent historical or evolutionary development? should they be [End Page 124] construed as aesthetic or anti-aesthetic interventions? and how do they relate to the Marxist category of the unity of theory and practice? These traditional concerns in Brecht scholarship are then overlaid with further problems posed by the new Berlin/Frankfurt Brecht edition. The four volumes devoted to Brecht's "theoretical" writings – 3,800 pages in all – bring together some 1,700 items, only 300 of which were published in his lifetime. Moreover, these writings deal not only with theatre but also with sociology and politics, philosophy, film and mass media, and Marxist aesthetics and cultural theory. White's solution to this textual and methodological conundrum is to home in on Brecht's most significant and influential theoretical writings on theatre – which explains the familiarity of the texts he highlights – but at the same time to subject them to rigorous close analysis, reading them intertextually in relation to other essays from the same period. This original and challenging approach works particularly well with the "Notes to Mahagonny," the "Short Organum," and the Messingkauf, where White's detailed and deftly argued analyses richly reward the concentration and attentiveness required of his readers.

Although Brecht had produced some three-hundred theoretical notes and essays prior to 1930, White's study begins with the "Notes to Mahagonny." This, White observes, is because the "Notes to Mahagonny" have a special status in Brecht's Weimar work. They represent his first major published account of epic theatre and are possibly his single most influential theoretical statement. Yet the "Notes to Mahagonny" have never been subjected to detailed textual critique, a scholarly oversight that White proceeds to remedy with considerable acuity and wit. He skilfully disentangles the ambiguities and inconsistencies in Brecht's theoretical writing, notably in his penetrating critique of the dramatic theatre / epic theatre schema in the "Notes to Mahagonny," reading Brecht's texts resistantly and showing how they generate a sense of estrangement and critical distance.

One of White's key concerns throughout his study is to engage with the complexities of Brecht's shifting accounts of audience response from the 1930s to the 1950s, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between emotion and critical distance. White resolutely rejects the cliché view (a view attributed to him, somewhat bizarrely, in the publisher's blurb advertising his study) that Brecht does not want his audiences to feel but to think and queries the simple opposition...


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pp. 124-127
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