- Daring to Play: A Brecht Companion by Manfred Wekwerth
In his superb introduction to Daring to Play: A Brecht Companion, editor Anthony Hozier notes that almost none of the works by Brecht’s collaborator and champion Manfred Wekwerth are available in English. Thus non-German scholars and practitioners have had limited access to the thoughts and ideas of the man who worked directly with Brecht from 1951 until his death in 1956, directed at the Berliner Ensemble throughout the 1960s, has been linked to both the playwright and his theatre company for most of his career, and whom Hozier describes as “one of the most informed and articulate of all commentators on Brecht” (xii). Wekwerth’s writings are indeed absent from recent major English-language collections on Brecht, such as Martin and Bial’s Brecht Sourcebook, Mews’s A Bertolt Brecht Reference Companion, and Thomson and Sacks’s The Cambridge Companion to Brecht (although he is often mentioned in the latter), and therefore Rebecca Braun’s translation of Wekwerth’s commentary is a vital addition to Brecht scholarship. Daring to Play provides a deeply personal assessment of Brecht’s works and legacy, and the focus of the book is trained directly on the deliberately political nature of Brecht’s art, a facet of his dramaturgy that the author argues is once again relevant in the current global political scene. The key to Brecht’s theatre, Wekwerth argues with remarkable clarity in the preface, is his ability to cultivate curiosity: “the simple act whereby somebody wonders about something in the theatre is in fact the entire secret behind ‘Brechtian theatre’” (xvii).
As Wekwerth expertly demonstrates throughout his work, Brecht created this sense of wonder, particularly after his return to Berlin in 1948, by tapping theatre’s ability to entertain (4). The political, rational, and scientific Brecht, the academic Brecht that has become established in scholarship and criticism over the years, is almost a nonentity in Wekwerth’s writings. Tearing down this precious and carefully constructed façade, Wekwerth asserts that “Brecht was not interested—contrary to all rumours—in making theatre more academic, or more political; rather, he wanted to make more theatre. More specifically, he wanted to return to great theatre—with the help of scholarship and politics. He wanted to return to enjoyment” (5–6). This is a necessary and refreshing view of Brecht, and the author even goes one step further when he convincingly demonstrates how this point of view is found not only in Brecht, but also in Karl Marx’s writings.
Previously appearing only in German, Daring to Play is divided into five sections, each of which is composed of one to three essays. Section 1, “Brecht’s Theatre—An Extended Overview,” is by far the longest in the book and includes three extensive chapters, one of which derives from a lecture in the late 1970s, but all of which have been revised and expanded for the current publication. In terms of introducing Brecht, these essays are as useful as any contemporary textbook on the author. Section 2, “Political Perspectives,” contains two recent articles that address the current political Left in light of Brecht’s work, crafting a definition of cultural activity in the first and extolling the virtues of change and uncertainty in a socialist society in the second. The first essay in Section 3, “Theatre Making—The Fabel,” is centered on Brecht’s difficult-to-translate concept of Fabel, a word that remains untranslated throughout the text, since, as Braun maintains, “no English word—‘story’, ‘fable’, ‘plot’, ‘narrative’—is an adequate equivalent for Brecht’s concept” (151). Throughout this chapter and the next, Wekwerth uses specific and practical examples of how he employs Brecht’s focus on the Fabel in his own adaptation and directing work. Section 4, “Two Speeches—Two Moments of Change,” records Wekwerth’s public speeches on the reopening of the Berliner Ensemble in 1989, and on the dedication of a new theatre school in 2008. Section 5, “Enjoying the Final Fruits,” concludes...