06 November 2008

Bertolt Brecht Collected Short Stories

Bertolt Brecht has also written short fiction. Not much is written about this (after all Brecht is mostly known as a playwright and a poet), but this facet of Brecht’s talent came to my attention when, a week ago, I picked up a copy of his Collected Short Stories. Brecht’s collection contains 37 short stories in the main section of the book, plus a ‘fragment’ of a novel in the Appendix. The short stories are grouped in three sections, in a linear fashion, pertaining to critical literary periods in Brecht’s life.

The first group, called The Bavarian stories (1920-24), contains 11 stories and represents his early writings. The second group, called The Berlin stories (1924-33), contains 14 stories and probably represents Brecht’s most productive years in Germany before WW2 – thanks mainly to Elisabeth Hauptmann, whom Brecht’s publishers had sent to help him complete a book of poems. The third group, called Stories Written in Exile, contains 12 stories and mainly represents the period of his fight against Fascism (which dominated Germany at the time) from the outside.

I loved the stories for their purity and non-political nature. For, it seems to me that, while Brecht was establishing himself as a playwright and a poet, he used his short stories to experiment with the plots and the parables he used so effectively later in his plays. Brecht’s stories, particularly those from his years spent in exile (when he fled Germany during Nazi rule and moved from one country to another before returning to East Germany after the War), some of them with their remote historical settings, are perhaps his most accomplished.

What is common in all these stories, and what makes them good reads, is Brecht’s story-telling ability. He uses a straight-forward narrative prose, telling the story as it is, without adding any undue artifice to stimulate the reader’s attention. It’s as if Brecht is trying to say, “this is what happened and that is exactly what I’ve reported here.” Hence, the stories are crisp and to the point. There are no overt political messages as there are in his plays. Yet, the stories are engaging, and a few, quite entertaining.

[Citation: Bertolt Brecht Collected Short Stories, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, translated by Yvonne Kapp, Hugh Rorrison and Antony Tatlow; Methuen 1999 paperback edition.]

04 November 2008

The politics of the auditorium

Bertolt Brecht’s theatre was intellectual. He believed that, to induce social and political change, the audience needed to be incited and aroused intellectually. In other words, theatre had to appeal to the audience’s powers of reason rather than to its emotions – which is what the earlier schools of theatre (for instance, Shakespearean theatre) depended on.

Whereas, in a Shakespearean play, people in the audience would feel for the fortunes or misfortunes of the characters because they identified themselves with the characters on stage, Brecht would find ways to alienate the actors from the characters they played, stirring up audience consciousness through techniques and practices such as songs, talking to the audience through the actors, projecting messages on screens, or actors carrying placards with messages.

Brecht laid bare a situation – usually a social ill – on stage, inciting the audience into thinking about the problem, unemotionally (i.e. by developing a critical attitude), and formulating their own solutions in their minds. He believed that people, essentially, were capable of thinking their way out of problems and improving their lives – which is what, he believed, was needed to induce social change and fight capitalism.

“Brecht thus sought to alter not only theatre’s representation of reality but also the politics of the auditorium, encouraging in the spectator an active, interrogative attitude to what is presented.”

[Citation: Quote from The Politics of Performance, Performance Analysis: An Introductory Coursebook, edited by Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolf, Routledge, 2001.]

01 November 2008

Keeping the audience tuned in

Bertolt Brecht is considered to be one of the greatest playwrights and dramatists of the 20th century. So highly is he rated in the literary world that some intellectuals and scholars have described him as “a literary-theatrical equivalent to Picasso.”

Brecht’s dramatic style was somewhat unique. He relied more on the actors and their performance, switching their roles from time to time, testing the audience, forcing them to stay alert, almost as if he was asking the audience to participate in his plays along with the actors.

I remember several such trying moments while watching Brecht’s plays. If I were to take my mind off the stage, I missed a lot. And, if I hadn’t read the play earlier (which was usually the case) and, therefore, weren’t privy to Brecht’s treatment notes and scene descriptions, I really needed to stay alert.

That’s probably why, in order to keep the audience tuned in, Brecht’s plays have a lot of action on stage. With actors moving about, singing, choreography and text messages like newspaper headlines projected on screens as backdrops (there are very few stage-props), the audience just can’t take its mind off the stage.

Fortunately, directors of Brecht’s plays still follow his dramatic style today, keeping their audiences conscious of – and committed to – what is happening and what is being said on stage. Considering the fact that Brecht’s plays also force its audience into thinking during the play, the mind does wander, thereby requiring considerable effort on the audience’s part to stay tuned.