Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898. To celebrate the 121st anniversary of his birth, Tom Kuhn explores some of his unfinished works.
On Brecht’s birthday let’s remember how contentious, how provocative and just how contemporary his writings are! Most people know him above all as the author of The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and Life of Galileo, but there was so much more: poems galore, wry stories, witty dialogues, ground-breaking theoretical essays … AND our new volume: Brecht and the Writer’s Workshop: Fatzer and Other Dramatic Projects.
Four deserting soldiers hide from the war in a cellar and debate their future, the future of their society, the future of humanity. A family move into the city from the devastating poverty of the plains, only to find that life here is even more cut-throat and demands heavy sacrifices. A waiter in a would-be posh club lives a fantasy life where he can forget the exploitation and bullying of his workplace and rise again as an avenging knight in shining armour.
All of these are play projects worked out in considerable detail but never actually ‘finished’ by Brecht. Our new volume offers a fascinating insight into the playwright’s working kitchen, and at the same time provides theatres and drama students with some wonderful and completely new material (most of which has never been published before in English).
In fact the idea of the ‘unfinished’ is central to Brecht’s whole aesthetic. As his ideas about literature evolved through the 1920s he came to think of contradiction, which by its nature could not be resolved, as the key to a productive engagement with the world. Neat conclusions, resolutions, denouements could only ever be ironic. It was crucial to leave the audience, or the reader, with work to do. The learning plays of the later 1920s were the first radical experiments in realizing a model of theatre in which either the participants were at the same time the audience, or else the wider audience’s participation was absolutely integral to the experience. The ‘completion’ could happen only outside the theatre, in the wider social world. In 1929 Brecht wrote a poem entitled ‘On the making of longlasting works‘:
So too the plays we invent
Are unfinished, or so we hope
And the tools that serve our playing
What would they be without the indentations, the
Result of many fingers, those signs, seemingly of damage
Which beget the nobler form
And the words too that
With their users so often
Changed their meanings.
These sinuous and impressive ‘fragments’ may yet prove as ‘noble’ and as productive as any of his other plays!
Brecht’s voice in these pieces – sometimes rough and ready, sometimes ambitiously poetic – is always extraordinarily current. The four soldiers might have run away from any war in the Middle East. The family end up entangled in a drama of financial crisis that could have been yesterday.
It is a shame on us that we still live in a world that Brecht would so very easily have recognised: where hopeless wars, forced migration, trafficking and slave labour are common, where state violence, strutting populist leaders and rampant corporate capitalism are all the order of the day. ‘Late capitalism’ proves adept at inventing ever ‘later’ and more awful forms. ‘The great day when I become useless’ has not come to pass: ‘That will be a glad day when one can say: Put away the weapons, they are not needed!’
We still need you, Brecht!
Tom Kuhn is Professor of 20th century German Literature at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford, UK, and General Editor of Methuen Drama’s Brecht publications. He is the co-editor of the new collection Brecht and the Writer’s Workshop: Fatzer and Other Dramatic Projects , now available from Methuen Drama.