- Eighteenth-Century Brechtians: Theatrical Satire in the Age of Walpole by Joel Schechter
Joel Schechter may have written the perfect book for this historical moment. His purpose is "a mapping of paths to future theatrical satire and activism, through a survey of earlier routes explored by Brecht and his precursors in England" (3). Schechter locates these precursors, as his title suggests, in the eighteenth century. He offers a framework for evaluating British theatre artists like George Farquhar, John Gay, Henry Fielding, and Charlotte Charke, among others, as pioneers of the techniques that Bertolt Brecht would later use in forging his Epic theatre. Combining methodological approaches from theatre history, literary studies, performance studies, and historical fiction, Schechter clearly demonstrates Brecht's debt to the eighteenth-century British stage as he forcefully advocates for the importance of today's theatre drawing on the same techniques in service of speaking truth to power.
Schechter brings a lively and highly readable style to Eighteenth-Century Brechtians, which makes the daunting task of teasing out the parallels between two seemingly disparate aesthetic movements easy to follow. The breadth of the connections that Schechter makes is impressive: he weaves together Brecht with eighteenth-century satirists like Fielding and Gay, performers like Charke and David Garrick, later twentieth-century writers like Dario Fo, Vaclav Havel, and Carl Grose, and the contemporary social protest of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The most successful section of the book, and one that illustrates Schechter's methodology clearly is chapter 21, where Schechter puts James Boswell, William Hogarth, Garrick, and the comic book artist R. Crumb into creative tension with one another. Beginning by discussing Hogarth's prints of Macheath, Schechter then positions Crumb as a latter-day Hogarth whose comics are a similar type of visual satire. Examining Crumb's pornographic comic illustrations of Boswell, Schechter discusses the idea of extra-theatrical social performance before transitioning to the debate between Boswell and Johnson over Garrick's relative merits as an actor. Schechter concludes by reading Boswell's defense of Garrick as an early example of Brechtian Epic theatre wherein the actor's presentation of the character is meant to disrupt a total identification. Throughout, Schechter makes a complex thread lively and easy to follow, and uses the Brechtian theory to enhance his readings of each object.
Another similarly successful case study, chapter 5, details the relationship between John Gay and his patron, the Duchess of Queensberry, as she champions his work and becomes, in Schechter's estimation, a real-life Polly Peachum. Chapter 9 positions Fielding's work with his Great Mongol company at the Haymarket as analogous to Brecht's Berliner Ensemble, while chapter 10 uses the Brechtian conceit of the book to offer novel readings of The London Merchant and Fielding's The Covent-Garden Tragedy, concluding that Fielding's satirical take on domestic tragedy prefigures the ways in which late capitalism will commodify human beings. Finally, chapter 16 uses both Brecht and Marx to analyze the precarious nature of the acting profession in the eighteenth century through a number of labor disputes. Obviously, in each of these chapters, he teases out a number of threads; nonetheless, Schechter's writing remains lucid throughout. The result is a clear, [End Page 147] nuanced, novel reading of theatrical events and plays that demonstrates their vitality and relevance today.
The most striking feature of Eighteenth-Century Brechtians is the frequent historical fiction interludes that Schechter employs. These serve both to creatively fill in gaps where the historical record is incomplete, and to offer an example to practitioners interested in taking up the mantle of the eighteenth-century Brechtians. Seven of the chapters are imaginative reconstructions of various items, including "lost" Messingkauf Dialogues, the fictional memoirs of Macheath, imagined diary entries, and dramatizations of the historical personae going about the business of mounting productions. One additional piece is a fictional future press release that hopefully imagines a day when the National Theatre—under the command of Cate Blanchett—stages Gay's Polly and prepares...