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July 23 : Filling gaps in one's education — Hannah Arendt on Brecht the Poet & Political Animal  

Further motivations mined from the Tynan diaries.

This one is a determination to fill some embarrassing gaps in my education, a sort of adding of bricks, and some full-scale pointing, upon my shifty wall of masonry. Discovering these holes is the downside of choosing to bypass higher education in favour of the path of the learn-on-the-job auto-didact. This was a common approach for me and my fellow artists in the late sixties and early seventies in Toronto. Many of us felt that instead of going to university we could be producing art, and while doing so could read what needed to be studied. This approach was not impossibly a partial result of the drug-taking of the time, but it was definitely a function of the rebellious and DIY mood. I would never recommend this tact to a young person because the more I study the more I wish I had submitted myself to some smart person’s authority, for guidance if nothing else. I don’t beat myself up about it either because I thought I knew everything then, no one could tell me what to do, and if they did I’d usually do the opposite. So true it’s a mind-numbing cliché.

One of these knowledge gaps — quite gaping for someone working in the performance art and literature — is my superficial understanding of the plays, poetry and dramatic theories of Bertolt Brecht. What I did know of him only came indirectly: through studying Kurt Weill’s music for The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The part of Brecht that I did gather from listening to Weill’s music was that everything about the musical composition and song lyrics and dramatic landscape sounded and appeared starkly naked, and indeed unlike any musical I had ever heard before: vide, the American Broadway musical.

If you’re like me and know little of Brecht, getting a clear sense of him requires a fair bit of reading. His life and career were deep, rich, complex and contradictory, and hugely influential, which means there’s the whole influence literature that springs up, often greater than the work of the person himself. Since Tynan was one of his English champions in the 1950s, his essay, Bertolt Brecht, written for the New Yorker in 1959 and reprinted in his book Profiles, is a perfect place to start. Possibly more than any subject (other than spanking) that Tynan wrote about, this is one that he feels in his bones; it was sort of his raison d’étre: to promote the radical political artist who was changing us and therefore society. Also, Tynan has a way of saying important things in whatever space he uses to talk about something, and writes exquisite prose, blah, blah . . . (Evidently the Tynan blush has no plans of leaving me this month.)  

A few days after the hole in the brick wall realization, completely by accident I came across a book in my local second-hand bookshop, Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Demetz (1962). Every essay, including a transcription of Brecht’s 1947 testimony before the House of Un-American Activities, gives credence to his artistic and intellectual multi-dimensionality, and, what a difficult task it is to sift out the contradictions in the man. That said, what could be more rewarding than to explore one of the century’s rare jewels? 

The densest essay in the collection so far, and one that penetrates these contradictions with eery and brutal precision (like the tyrants she attacks), is Hannah Arendt’s "The Poet Bertolt Brecht". It was published in German in 1950, before what I believe to be Brecht’s second most productive decade (after the Weimar years, 1925-33). The essay is at its best utterly brilliant and at its worst sloppily-written (something Arendt was known for), but the great effect of it comes from how inspirationally and unnervingly she penetrates the issue of the artist seeking a political result from his art. To give you an idea, from the first sentence she questions Brecht in terms of “the difficulty of knowing what attitude to maintain towards poets [who involve themselves in politics],” and in the same breath she also mentions another troublesome practitioner: Ezra Pound. She continues through the first half of the essay exposint Brecht as an artist who, through his work, tries but fumbles to achieve direct political effect; what he does well, she says, is bear witness to political events.

What is compelling about this essay is how the Poet’s role and general aspirations for society are placed under her political eye, which is also some sort of uber-human microscope. Not surprisingly, given all his contradictions, he comes off poorly in her analysis in her eyes. I say not surprisingly because to take on Hitler and be a good Communist under Stalin such judgments might come back on you. Again, these questions about him are labyrinthine; they require a map and lots of time.

My purpose here is to structure my thoughts, as a neophyte, about Brecht, and maybe encourage you to join me in reading this essay, and more. “The Poet Bertoldt Brecht” you won’t regret because of how Arendt dissects him; however, be prepared for the writing will annoy in places. Arendt is in some ways Bakhtin’s counterpart, another relentlessly probing and super-intellect that wasn’t known for the clarity of his prose. Michael Holquist, the translator of Bakhtin’s “The Dialogic Imagination”, puts it this way: “Bakhtin is not an efficient writer, but we believe he pays his way.”

The post-script is this quote*, providing another little window on Brecht, from Erwin Piscator  He was a successful Expressionistic theatre director and producer during the Weimar Repulic, and with Brecht a prime exponent of “epic theatre”.

“For us, man portrayed on the stage is significant as a social function. It is not his relationship to himself, nor his relationship to God, but his relationship to society which is central. Whenever he appears, his class or social stratum appears with him. His moral, spiritual or sexual conflicts are conflicts with society.”


* From a speech given on 25 March, 1929, and reproduced in Schriften 2 p. 50; Quoted by John Willett, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects. 1978, p. 107.