Academic journal article German Quarterly

Brecht's GuterMensch in Sichuan: Recontextualizing China

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Brecht's GuterMensch in Sichuan: Recontextualizing China

Article excerpt

Introduction

Bertolt Brecht's fascination with China and the Far East is evident from the Chinese scrolls and Japanese Noh masks that hung from his walls; the plots of plays and novels including Die Massnahme, Der kaukasische Kreidekreis, and Me-ti, Das BuchderWendungen;his freely translated Chinesepoems; and histheoreticalessays onepic theater,particularly, "Verfremdungseffekte inderchinesischenSchauspielkunst."However, it is oftendifficult to see beyond the surface manifestations of such interests. Brecht, who took notes on Chinese philosophy and wrote approvingly aboutChinesepoetry,"nevertriedto justifyor explain his own relationshipto China or Chineseness" (Hayot 54). Nor does there exist a "metadiscourse on China with which to begin to think about not only Brecht's relation to China, but his own understanding of that relation" (Hayot 55). Critics such as Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Martin Esslin, and John Fuegi have been cited for dismissing Brecht's fascination with China as either superficial or as a form of exoticism.1 Conversely, critics such as Renata Berg-Pan and Yuan Tan have attempted to establish the importance of Chinese poetry and philosophy to Brecht's worldview by examining specific examples of overlap between them. Although oppositional in nature, these critical perspectives nevertheless elucidate Brecht's relationship to China in a similar manner: both camps assign fixed positions to China and Chinese culture in relation to Brecht's personal and professional work.

In contrast, I propose in this article that Brecht's engagement with China is far more variable, and that Brecht's worldview; his construct of China; and its referent, the historical, geopolitical entity of China, are not only closely linked, but also in constant flux. The depiction of China in texts such as Der gute Mensch von Sezuan suggests that Brecht's relationship to China is more nuanced and complex than has often been perceived. Brecht's utilization of Chinese markers and motifs in Dergute Menschandotherworksspeakstotheimportanceofforeigninfluence inthedevelopment and formation of new cultural, political, and historical perspectives. Focusing on the dynamics of cultural exchange, I situate Brecht and German literature in a broader globalcontext,andapproach hisoeuvre from multiple angles to examine cross-cultural mixtures across national discourses that were once considered separate and discrete.

The Development of Der gute Mensch von Sezuan

An oft-cited example of Chinese influence upon Brecht's thinking and worldview is Brecht's essay on "Verfremdungseffekte" from 1936.2 In this theoretical work, Brecht discusses how Chinese acting methods produce the Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect. According to Brecht, the alienation effect forces the audience to consciously accept or reject the actors' actions and utterances. In other words, the alienation effect deliberately distances the audience from both the actor and the performance. In his essay, Brecht suggests how the alienation effects of Chinese opera might be used to develop theater reform in modern-day Europe, and more specifically, "ein realistisches und revolutionäres Theater;" that is, Brecht's concept of epic theater (22.1: 206).

Although Chinese opera provides the basis for Brecht's essay, Brecht's attitude towards Chinese opera throughout the course of the text is alternately laudatory and dismissive.3 While he praises Chinese theater practices such as the lack of a fourth wall, the actors' method of self-observation, and their ritualistic and highly stylized movements, Brecht also downplays the distinct "Chineseness" of these methods by noting that such alienation effects were also found "auf primitiver Stufe schon bei theatralischen und bildnerischen Veranstaltungen der alten Volksjahrmärkte" (22.1: 200). Brecht goes on to equate Chinese theater with mysticism and primitivism, and views Chinese theater as incapable of containing or expressing worthwhile social, political, or ideological motives. …

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