21st-Century Brecht

By Glahn, Philip | Afterimage, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview

21st-Century Brecht


Glahn, Philip, Afterimage


Seventy years ago on July 21, 1941, Bertolt Brecht landed on the shores of California to commence the last stage of his exile in a country that was keen on his innovations in dramaturgic form, yet less than enamored of his politics. Indeed, the German playwright's most impressive and final performance of his six years in Hollywood was his notorious 1947 display of theatrical wit and playful insight into the art of representation when summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It would seem that his theories of social commitment and pedagogy are more enthusiastically received today two decades after the end of the totalitarian experiment in socialist and communist life and well into the age of the global information network. What does Brecht's work offer contemporary makers of culture--visual artists and new media activists in particular? How do Brechtian notions of estrangement and distanciation resonate in today's world of accelerated private consumption of knowledge as virtual spectacle? What could Brecht's strategies of collaboration and participation achieve in an era of seemingly unlimited voices and opinions, fantasies and products, in which every tool and application promises greater access to and control over an incomprehensible amount of creative space and social time?

Studies of Brecht's influence are largely restricted to theater studies and, interestingly enough, confined to geographic and cultural areas with a historically genial relation to socialist politics, such as Latin America and Asia. Tracing his role in other areas, scholars such as Sylvia Harvey and Griselda Pollock have assessed Brecht's influence on the making and study of British film in general, and feminist practice in particular. The ongoing validity of Brechtian methods at least as long as there is any shred of modernity left in the project of perceiving the world around us as a space to act within and beyond--has most pointedly been articulated by Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton. Yet, as Harvey points out in her 1982 "critical recovery" of Brecht, "Whose Brecht? Memories for the Eighties," (1) history's contexts change, and undertaking the Brechtian task of "knowing the world" as a step toward critical intervention and transformation means first acknowledging the contingency of both the world and the task. The "questions that enable actions," as Brecht put it, are always asked from positions specific to their circumstances of formation--so the inquiry must begin with, "Who is asking, and when?"

Brecht struggled with the clash between his own politics and their "actuality": an important term employed by Jameson in Brecht and Method (1998) that refers as much to the material praxis of Brecht's theories as to their timeliness (Aktualitat). Meanwhile, in the United States, his work has been received in cycles of adoration and hostility, instrumentalization and misunderstanding. In the socially and politically engaged countercultural climate of the 1960s, Brecht's dissolution of canonical ideas concerning the place of stage and audience, performance and reception; his introduction of the "everyday" as a political and social concept; and his attempts to turn "oil, inflation, war, social struggles, the family, religion, wheat, [and] the meat market [into] subjects for theatrical representation" gained great popularity. His works and theoretical writings were published in translation, and his plays were frequently performed both on and off Broadway. The San Francisco Mime Troupe "sought direction from Brecht" and performed The Mother and The Whitewashes' Congress; Bob Dylan declared that after attending the Threepenny Opera, "My little shack in the universe was about to expand into some glorious cathedral"; (2) and a quotation from Brecht's poem, "To Posterity," is appended to one of Gilbert Shelton's "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" comic strips. Brecht was discussed in publications such as Studies on the Left, Partisan Review, Aspen, Evergreen Review, Studio International, and Artforum.

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