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August 5 : Why diarize? — Martin Esslin on Brecht  


The question of why I am writing this is often present in my mind. It's not for enjoyment, though some enjoyment comes of it. And not to avoid embarrassment, the exposing of a flawed personality and soul; every posting risks that. I am using the public tableau to speak to someone, a person perhaps, who is interested in the stuff I am, and to keep my hand in. I’ve never had the discipline to keep a journal, so this published journal — live in the world and therefore, for reasons partly narcissistic — is attractive to the part of me that would rather not record daily thoughts and impressions. Somehow the shop window aspect of the web diary fluffs this writer’s ego, which, as Tynan said, you need enough of a dose of to believe that what you intend to write will be of some value.

The value for now is for me to judge. If I worried about what people will think of these entries I’d probably not do them (my chagrin at the harsh eye of some imagined person I respect shaking their head frequently nudges me to keep it all private.) And, the value I put on them is about my life (keeping track of a personal period in time) and work (getting better at making thoughts concrete). By showing up every few days for my appointment, by forcing myself to attend, I will get something written, worthy or not. It is also about sharpening my dull blade of critique and opinion, which devigorates me when it can’t carve out a decent strong view — one strong enough to bring with it a position: that sense of being somewhere as a thinking person, as opposed to all over the place. Tynan helped me see this: that by deciding what was good or bad in theatre or right or wrong in politics was a smart citizen’s and a creative person’s duty.

Finally, to be make use of our artistic abilities we must do to see why. The doing, whatever it is, leads us to an unknown place, maybe useful, maybe not. The labour invites the Muse. She is aroused by the Eros of even the smallest talent’s workmanship and dedication.  


Plodding through “Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays” (1962). Other than the brilliant and partly inscrutable “The Poet Bretolt Brecht” by Hannah Arendt that I’ve already spoken of, there two essays essay I've found valuable. The first one is about Brecht’s contemporary and brief collaborator Emile Piscator (a sort of Weimar Diaghilev), “Piscator’s Political Theatre.” In it Ernst Schumacher discusses, among other things, the conundrum faced he and other artists who try to do “direct (political) action” under the hairy eyeball of purist proletarians. This essay helps to explain the war between the bourgeois illusionist theatre versus the stark tendentious theatre that Brecht learned from and galvanized, and how the roots of the latter style is crucial to understanding him as a dramatist.

The second one, and the best essay in the book, is “Brecht’s Language and Its Sources”. It is by the remarkable Martin Esslin, the man who coined the term “Theatre of the Absurd” and wrote a great book about it. I love reading Esslin; he is the Jim Hall* of literary criticism: clear, sensible, dense but light, grounded but capable of beautiful little flights up there and back again, elegant in his instruction, creating reader headroom so that the information and wisdom he gives us is easy to absorb, analyze and get remembered. I wish Martin Esslin had written more books about the great theatre artists.** The happy event is that this wonderful essay is attached to a whole book: “Brecht: A Choice of Evils — A Critical Study of the Man, His Work and His Opinions,” (1959).

There is a whole world contained in this essay, about the various aspects of the German language available and unavailable to the poet, and how Brecht’s language could be divided up into four sources: daily speech of his local dialect, anti-metaphorical poetry of colours, textures, and other concrete images, bureaucratic jargon, and Anglicisms and exotic expressions. Reading this makes me delightfully aware of English equivalents.

Not unexpectedly, today’s micro-epiphany is a wish to learn German. Esslin strongly and graciously implies what Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” and that the non-German speaker who doesn’t read Brecht in the raw, so to speak, is missing the real Brecht. Since my wife could benefit from learning German for her work, it just might happen, though I suspect it’ll just be too much darn work and I’ll resign myself to checking that beautiful literary place off my list.

I remember a TV interview with the great Washington newsletter publisher I. F. Stone. He said that he taught himself Greek partly for the sublime joy of reading Sappho (in her case not so much “so to speak”) in the raw.


* Jim Hall is a U.S. jazz guitarist who, not only plays in a way that is at once beautiful, soulful and effortless, but plays unlike anyone else before him. He seemed to figure it out on his own, like Bill Evans, and therefore created an extremely distinctive voice and style. He is perhaps the Bill Evans of the guitar, but unfortunately I don't think Bill Evans is the Martin Esslin of jazz piano. Not everything is circular, nor should be, though a lot of it is fun. Read G. K. Chesterton to get a good example of this point: at times every phrase is a modificatin of the previous phrase or idea.

** Esslin’s other books include The Anatomy of Drama (1965), The Peopled Wound: The Work of Harold Pinter (1970), Artaud (1976) and The Age of Television (1981). He also was a prolific writer of essays, articles and reviews.