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  • Brecht’s Gestus: Brecht and C.P. Cavafy. 1 And Heiner Müller
  • Helene Varopoulou (bio)
    Translated by Regine Rosenthal

Among Bertolt Brecht’s late poems there is one pertaining to the vicinity of the Buckow Elegies 2 and probably dating back to around 1953. This poem displays in a particular way Brecht’s Gestus as a playwright and theatre director, which is undeniably present in the lyrical writer, too. The Gestus of the poet manifests itself both in the way he refers to antiquity and in his “address” to the reader, his semblable [fellow man], his frère [brother]. This Gestus becomes even clearer when comparing the text with the poem by C.P. Cavafy to which it “intertextually” 3 refers.

Cavafy ([1863–1933], born and died in Alexandria), is one of the most significant and world-renowned poets in modern Greek. Brecht, familiar with Helmut von den Steinen’s German translation of Cavafy’s poems (1953), had found the following poem: 4


Unsre Bemühungen, die von Schicksalsduldern, Unsere Bemühungen sind wie jene der Troer. Stückchen richten wir grade, Stückchen Nehmen wir über uns und beginnen, Mut zu haben und gute Hoffnung.

Immer doch steigt etwas auf und heißt uns stillstehen. Aufsteigt in dem Graben uns gegenüber Er, Achill, und schreckt uns mit großen Schreien.

Unsre Bemühungen sind wie jene der Troer. Kühn gedenken wir, mit Entschluß und Wagemut Fallenden Schlag des Geschickes zu ändern,e Und wir stellen uns draußen auf zum Kampfe.

Aber sobald die große Entscheidung nahkommt, Geht uns der Wagemut und der Entschluß verloren, Unsere Seele erbebt, fühlt Lähmung, Durch die Flucht zu entrinnen bestrebt. [End Page 60]

Dennoch ist unser Fall gewiß. Dort oben Auf den Mauern begann schon die Totenklage. Unsrer Tage Erinnerungen weinen, Gefühle weinen. Priamos bitter um uns und Hekabe weinen.

[TROJANS Our efforts, those of sufferers of fate, Our efforts are like those of the Trojans. We adjust small pieces, we reach up for Small pieces and begin To take courage and be hopeful.

But something always comes up and makes us stop. Achilles rises in the trench in front of us And frightens us with loud screams.

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans. Boldly we intend, with resolve and daring, To change the falling blow of fate, And outside we line up for battle.

But as soon as the moment of decision draws near, We lose our daring and resolve, Our soul trembles, paralyzed, And we run around the walls, Attempting to get away by escape.

However, our fall is certain. Up there On the walls the lament for the dead has already begun. Our days’ memories weep, emotions weep. Priam and Hecuba weep bitterly for us.]

Brecht’s poem reads:


In den Tagen, als ihr Fall gewiß war - Auf den Mauern begann schon die Totenklage Richteten die Troer Stückchen grade, Stückchen In den dreifachen Holztoren, Stückchen. Und begannen Mut zu haben und gute Hoffnung Auch die Troer also.

(BFA 8:208)


At the time when their fall was certain - On the ramparts the lament for the dead had begun - The Trojans adjusted small pieces, small pieces In the triple wooden gates, small pieces. And began to take courage, to hope. The Trojans too, then.

(in Willett et al. 1987:445)]

At stake is the author who goes back to the past, searches for the exemplary in people’s behavior, and seems to observe a resemblance to the present. Although at first glance Brecht is only repeating what the modern Greek poet said, there is a fundamental difference—in poetic disposition, tone, and perspective. Cavafy sets out from his time (“We are like the Trojans”); Brecht begins with the event in antiquity, the “anecdote” (“At the time when...”). For Cavafy tradition is a self-evident reservoir of images and examples in which [End Page 61] the poet may mirror his own time. This concerns him immediately. For Brecht there is surprise in what is transmitted from antiquity. He wonders, “The Trojans too, then.” He discovers a...

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