Guest post by Tom Kuhn
Bertolt Brecht was born on February 10, 1898. To celebrate the 122nd anniversary of his birth, Tom Kuhn explores a side of his work that is often less appreciated.
The most recent volume in the Bloomsbury Methuen Drama Brecht list may come as a surprise. Bertolt Brecht’s Refugee Conversations is one of his lightest, silliest, satirical works – not at all what one might expect from a serious German, a Marxist, a refugee on the run across Europe from the Nazis. It bears a motto from P.G. Wodehouse, of all people. The Refugee Conversations are not strictly a play, but a loose compilation of prose dialogues between two ill-matched refugees, the physicist Ziffel and the machine-worker Kalle, both of them likewise on the run from the Nazis. They meet for their regular meandering, serendipitous chats in the railway café of Helsinki Central Station. Despite the often outwardly cheerless subject matter, the work is remarkable for the lightness of tone and the agility with which Brecht manoeuvres his two speakers through their by turns grim and surreal conversations.
In fact, although this work is exceptional, it turns out that ‘lightness’ is something of a leitmotif for Brecht and something of an obsession of his aesthetic reflections. There is a passage in the second conversation, where we might read Ziffel’s remarks on food and clothes as an encoded comment on how art should be created, even how life should be lived:
It’s sad when a man has never seen the pyramids, but I find it even more depressing when he’s never seen a sirloin steak in mushroom sauce. A simple description of all the different types of cheese, written in a vivid and knowledgeable style, or an artistic depiction of a real omelette, would be highly educational. Humanism goes beautifully with a good beef consommé. Do you know what it’s like to walk in proper shoes? I mean light, bespoke shoes made of fine leather, that make you feel like a dancer, and well-cut trousers in soft fabric – which of you is familiar with these things?
Light shoes come back a couple of times later in the text.
This is a side of Brecht that tends to get lost in the English-speaking world, where we are obsessed precisely with the heaviness of the German intellectual and literary tradition.
But the Philosopher in Brecht’s compendium of writings on aesthetics and the theatre, Buying Brass (or the Messingkauf), which is published in English in another recent Bloomsbury volume, Brecht on Performance, is, like Brecht himself and so many of his characters, a wily, swift-moving, dancing thinker. He speaks again of the ‘lightness’ or playful ‘ease’, without which serious art is not possible:
Such ease makes any amount of seriousness achievable; without ease, none at all is possible. And so we need to put all our problems into a form which allows them to be performed and discussed, in a playful way. It’s a delicate balance we’re dealing with here – we have to make measured, elegant movements, oblivious to the ground burning beneath our feet. […] The urgency of our situation must not lead us to destroy the instrument we want to make use of. It’s a case of more haste, less speed. The surgeon who carries a heavy burden of responsibility needs to hold the small scalpel effortlessly in his hand.
Brecht’s subject matters are of course still very relevant to our own world, none perhaps more so than that of refugees and displaced populations: from South American dictatorships, from war, hunger and terror in Africa and the Middle East, from repression and persecution in the Far East. There are more people on the move than ever before, and they are treated ever more illiberally and inhumanly. So let us use all the arguments and all the weapons at our disposal to defend and support them, and to overcome the problems that have driven them from their homes. But let us not forget to wield our weapons with grace as well as with passion and precision.
Thank you Brecht! Happy Birthday Brecht!
Tom Kuhn is Professor of 20th century German Literature at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford, UK, and General Editor of Bloomsbury Methuen Drama’s Brecht publications. His book Bertolt Brecht’s Refugee Conversations is now available from Bloomsbury.
Read Tom’s previous post on Brecht here.