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Reviewed by:
  • Proletarian Performance in Weimar Berlin: Agitprop, Chorus, and Brecht
  • Donna Harsch
Proletarian Performance in Weimar Berlin: Agitprop, Chorus, and Brecht. By Richard Bodek (Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House, 1997. xiv plus 184pp.).

The centerpiece of this pithy book is a path-breaking examination of Communist agitprop theater in late Weimar Berlin. Richard Bodek looks at agitprop from many angles: its social roots among young unemployed Berlin proletarians; its (repudiated) politico-cultural heritage in Social Democratic performing groups; its daily operation and the sensibilities of its participants; finally, its penetration of avant garde culture via the drama of Bertolt Brecht. In his introduction, Bodek promises to demonstrate that in Weimar Berlin there occurred a cross-fertilization of high culture, left-wing cultural production, politics, and everyday life. His multi-sided treatment of agitprop theater is an imaginative and effective method of making this argument.

Bodek begins with a vivid and moving survey of the social world of young proletarians, the Berliners to whom the theater of the Communist party (KPD) was especially directed and who became its most active participants. Chapter 1 richly evokes the sights, sounds, and smells, the squalid quarters, and the tawdry entertainments of the city’s working-class districts. Bodek considers, next, the differences between Social Democratic culture and its Communist variant, comparing their aesthetics, vision of a new, socialist culture, and understanding of the relationship between culture and politics. In Chapter 2, Bodek looks at Social Democratic workers’ choruses—who sang what and to whom—and discusses the attitudes of Social Democratic choir directors and cultural commentators towards classical music and revolutionary song. They believed, on the one hand, that “the great artists of the past had much to say to the proletariat” (43) as [End Page 215] demonstrated by the festival program of the Workers’ Choral League in 1928 with its concerts devoted to works by, among others, Bach, Beethoven, and Verdi. They were convinced, on the other, that song could inspire political activism as demonstrated by the program of the impressive Festival of Red Song, held in Berlin in 1931. This massive, complex affair presented revolutionary works and placed a premium on audience participation, whether as red-flag-wavers, marchers, or singers. It attested to the continuing socialist fervor and proletarian tenor of Social Democratic cultural organizations and to their struggle to fashion a choral medium that was artistically distinguished, aesthetically innovative, and politically committed.

As the singing societies walked their precarious line between respect for bourgeois tradition and desire for proletarian fervor, Communist theater, as Bodek demonstrates, headed off in a different direction. Chapters 3 and 4 detail its defiant repudiation of Social Democratic ambivalence toward inherited conventions. Agitprop theorists insisted that art must be not only political but also experimental if it was to construct a dynamic relationship between performer and production as well as between audience and act. Relying on the abundant evidence he found in memoirs and the contemporary press, Bodek pieced together a portrait of the working world of agitprop, including information on their intense and peripatetic schedule as well as the constant police harassment that forced them to move about even more than planned and to perform under deceptive auspices. He discusses the hectic, collective creative process that lay behind each piece and considers the musical and dramatic training, or lack thereof, of proletarian participants and the on-the-job education provided by the schooled bourgeois artists among them. Very interesting are Bodek’s comments on the tension between the party’s leaders and its “cultural workers.” The KPD leadership criticized the allegedly faulty political understanding of young proletarian performers who drew copiously on their own social experience to analyze the crimes of the capitalist world. I would liked to have read more about such conflicts. Bodek’s evidence shows, certainly, that the agitprop groups were quite independent from the party, bolstering recent scholarly work that questions the older assumption that the KPD was thoroughly Stalinized by 1930. Up to the end of the republic, agitprop performers developed their own material and kept well-attuned to their class origins. Simultaneously, they gazed longingly at the socialist star to the East whose brilliance guided them, producing skits...

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pp. 215-217
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