30 October 2008

Bertolt Brecht: still socially relevant

If not anywhere else, you can be certain that German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s plays have a place in Kolkata, the capital of the Marxist-ruled state of West Bengal in eastern India. There, I remember my college days spent watching Brecht’s plays staged (usually) at the Max Muller Bhavan, as well as in other theatres, both in English and in the Bengali vernacular, with various contemporary interpretations.

Of all of Brecht’s plays, his The Threepenny Opera was the most popular, with Galileo coming in a reasonably-sound second place, both of which had us thinking in our seats during the play and on our feet while walking back home. For, such were – and still are – typical responses to Brecht’s plays. Brecht didn’t just entertain you, he set you thinking about what’s happening around you.

Even his greatest detractors couldn’t deny the fact that Bertolt Brecht delivered a balance of entertainment and instruction. Because, at the heart of every Brecht play and/or production was the belief that the audience had to be entertained (using ‘devices’ such as songs and humour), as well as moved to thinking about the theatre on one hand and, on the other, the society people were living in there and then – making his plays socially relevant with the times.

Commenting on European drama in the first quarter of the twentieth century, in an essay titled On Experimental Theatre, Brecht (1898-1956) wrote:

“For at least two generations the serious European drama has been passing through a period of experiment. So far the various experiments conducted have not led to any definite and clearly established result, nor is the period itself over. In my view these experiments were pursued along two lines which occasionally intersected but can none the less be followed separately. They are defined by the two functions of entertainment and instruction: that is to say that the theatre organized experiments to increase its ability to amuse, and others which were intended to raise its value as education.”

Bertolt Brecht believed these two functions of entertainment and instruction can – and need to – be married to produce the perfect play. But even more, Brecht believed that theatre had to make sense to people – to be relevant and contemporary to its audience.

To achieve this, Brecht wrote copious notes on his plays, giving directions to himself, the actors and directors, and even rewriting his plays, introducing his thinking, his responses to and his beliefs about the social and political happenings of the time. For instance, although he had written Galileo (one of his most famous plays) prior to the Second World War, he changed the ending and several other sections of the play after the United States dropped the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

So, in reality, there is a Galileo I (Galileo Galilei written in 1937-38) and a Galileo II (Galileo re-written in 1945-46); although, today, what is accepted and staged as Galileo is actually Galileo II, Brecht’s later version. The effort Brecht put in to make his plays socially and politically relevant to the present times is a practice that is still followed by producers and directors who stage his plays today.

[Citation: 1. On Experimental Theatre by Bertolt Brecht, translated by John Willett, quoted from The Theory of the Modern Stage, edited by Eric Bentley, Penguin Modern Classics, 2008. 2. The Science Fiction of Bertolt Brecht by Eric Bentley in the Introduction to Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, English version by Charles Laughton, Grove Press, 1966.]

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