- Brecht’s Modernity: Notes on a Remote Author
In Search of an Opponent
The current pictorial biographies miss a photo that preserves a memorable moment: The young poet Brecht imagines himself as a future legend by standing in the empty alcove of the Schiller monument at the front of the Augsburger Stadttheater. The statue of Schiller, which has been taken to a munitions factory to be melted and recast into cartridge cases, performs a hopeless duty at another front.
As yet, the young Brecht is known only as a songmaker. Reaching for the guitar in dank cellars, and with the great sources [Georg] Büchner and [Frank] Wedekind at hand, he ventures to carry over into high art the aesthetic of a people’s theatre, which, although waning in the onrush of show business, at this time still exists in many forms in southern Germany. That is one movement. The other, folded into it, aims to make the aesthetic and technique of the new entertainment, the silent film, serve the theatre. In this way vital currents are introduced from two sides into an art, which, because of its manner of cooperative craftsmanship, belongs to the old, preindustrial time: the theatre. Brecht intends to resuscitate this theatre in the new era with plebeian energies.
The great humorless comedy, the Beggar’s Opera of 1728, will 200 years later be adapted by Brecht and become his greatest success. Even in Baal (1919) as well, his first piece for the theatre, he walks in the tracks of restoration comedy by adapting Thomas Shadwell’s play The Libertine Destroyed (1676). The ineffectualness in the play is due to the hero’s intransigence: he is an unenthusiastic exploiter of women who finds no adversary, no one who will oppose him, as father, rival, ghost. Baal goes down in an uneventful way, which is as much torture for the reader/spectator as it is for him. This vainglorious lyric theatre, drama without a reacting force, arises out of vital necessity, not coquetry. It signifies a poet’s exceedingly difficult state of mind, which he himself sees through, suffers, and at the same time savors. For him the taedium vitae—distaste for life, world-weariness—is associated with fantasies of boundless power and exploitation. While he has no dramatic opposition, ontologically speaking Baal does have an adversary: the painful experience that man, the knowing creature, might not be almighty, all-enacting. This problem, which has beset humankind since the end of the Renaissance, in our day becomes visible— [End Page 12] perhaps too late—as mankind’s usurpation of the earth [Erdbemächtigung des Menschen], which, intended to be boundless, is now reaching its limit.
The Berlin version of Galileo (1955), Brecht’s last theatre work, addresses—through the figure of the quasi grown-up Baal—the ethical setting of limits on scientific inquiry and human mastery over nature, returning to the geocentric and anthropocentric orientation that the historic Galileo left behind him in his fight with the church.
Brecht’s second piece, first named Spartakus, then Trommeln in der Nacht [Drums in the Night, 1919], shows his hero in search of an opponent. But this opponent is not to be found, not in anyone else, because it is he himself. The third piece, Im Dickicht [In the Jungle] (later Im Dickicht der Städte [In the Jungle of Cities], 1922) thematizes the impossibility of finding an adversary other than oneself in the two men, Garga and Shlink. They are not interested in the woman; but rather, in the other man—the dubious self in the other that is never reachable except through collective decline, which this piece enacts. The three pieces are slowly ripening show-plays [Schau-spiele] of a self-portrayal—every time reworked with new approaches—that seize on the existing materials of society, a society which by the end of the war had forfeited not its fundamental capitalistic form but its authoritarian guises, and thereby its psychic credit.
Betrayal: The “Leid” [Suffering]-Motif
Constellations of betrayal run throughout Brecht’s entire work for the theatre. In Baal, betrayal is the by-product of a gluttonous...