Thursday, November 19, 2009

Good souls

Back in May Nick Cohen wrote a piece about seeing a performance of David Harrower's new translation of Bertold Brecht's play, The Good Soul of Szechuan, at the Young Vic. His line was that Brecht was "a communist writer, not a writer who happened to support communism", a political propagandist, and the play was there simply to say, "individual morality will only be possible when the collective morality of communism comes".

This week I saw the same translation beautifully performed in rep in the more humble surroundings of Manchester's Library Theatre. And did I see the play differently! I suppose you could read it the way Nick Cohen did, but I found that, rather than being didactic, the play was discursive, layered and complex. It is set amongst the underclass of an unjust society and the destructive effects of poverty were played out to the full and condemned. Yet this was a very un-heroic proletariat. The play, like so much Brecht, was about survival, this time amongst a 'low life' that clearly fascinated him.

The drama centres around the question of whether a bad society creates bad people or bad people create a bad society. It is about the possibility or impossibility of altruism. I found no conclusion. There is much more besides, with a range of existential dilemmas presenting themselves to the characters. Certainly the propagandist element was present, though only briefly and unconvincingly. At times virtue was punished and vice rewarded, at others it was reversed. And who were the three Gods who could find good only in the poor, never in the rich, but could still find only one virtuous person on earth? Whoever they were, they couldn't solve the conundrum so they made their excuses and left, abandoning humanity. There was no resolution. We were offered ambiguity rather than certainty.

That Brecht had been an apologist for Stalinism is well known, that he was a brute who insisted on being buried in a steel coffin with a stiletto through his heart is equally known. Neither are appealing. But his art stands, and did for me on Tuesday, because he asked questions, rather than provided answers, and used drama as a vehicle for depicting and discussing human imperfection. My answers were probably not the ones that he would have given.

I really can't make up my mind as to whether Brecht was too good a playwright to be a good Stalinist or too bad a Stalinist to be a bad playwright. And just as I was thinking that his picture of humanity was too bleak, I came back from the interval to find that someone had stolen my programme. Last word to Brecht I suggest.

8 comments:

Will said...

According to fucking blogger shite i have to break my comment into two parts -- worra cuntjob piece of shit... here goes...
Pt1:

"The drama centres around the question of whether a bad society creates bad people or bad people create a bad society. It is about the possibility or impossibility of altruism. I found no conclusion."

It is about the Hegelian Dialectic -- and the fucking dialectic itselfof -- that is what the fuck it is on about of and shit!
...

Will said...

FUCKING HELLLLLLLL!!!!!!!! it seems i will have to break it up into three fuckking parts -- FUCKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!

BRECHT, B., FLÜCHTLINGSGESPRÄCHE (REFUGEE CONVERSATIONS)

"Ziffel:
On humor, I always think of the philosopher Hegel, by whom I got a few books out of the library, in order to get to your philosophical level.

Kalle:
Tell me about it. I'm not educated enough to read him myself.

Ziffel:
He has the makings of one of the greatest humorists among the philosophers, like only Socrates otherwise, who had a similar method. But he apparently had hard luck and had to get a job in Prussia, so he sold himself to the state. But a twinkle in the eye, as far as I can see, was inborn in him, like a congenital defect, and he had it until his death without becoming conscious of it, he was always winking with his eyes, as another has an irrepressible St. Vitus' dance. He had such a sense of humor that he couldn't think, for example, of order without disorder. It was clear to him that directly in the vicinity of the greatest order the greatest disorder resides, he went so far that he even said: at one and the same place! Under the state he understood something that comes into being where the sharpest antitheses between the classes appear, so that, so to say, the greatest harmony in the state lives off of the greatest disharmony of the classes. He disputed whether one equals one, not only in that everything that exists passes irresistibly and tirelessly over into into something else, specifically its opposite, but because nothing at all is identical with itself. As with every humorist, he was particularly interested in what happens to things. You know the Berlin exclamation: "But you've changed, Emil!" The cowardice of the brave and the bravery of the cowards occupied him, altogether that everything contradicts itself and especially volatility, you understand, that everything goes along peaceably and calmly and suddenly the explosion comes. His concepts have always been rocking on a chair, which at first makes a particularly comfortable impression, until it falls over.

I once read his book The Great Logic when I had rheumatism and I couldn't move. It is one of the greatest humoristic works of world literature. It is about the customs of the concepts, these slippery, unstable, irresponsible existences; how they insult and fight each other with knives and then sit down together to supper as if nothing had happened. They enter so to say in pairs, each is married to its opposite, and they take care of their business as pairs, i.e. they sign contracts as a pair, sue as a pair, attack and break in as a pair, write books and make depositions as a pair, specifically as a totally quarrelsome, disunited pair! Whatever has asserted order, quarrels, in the same breath if possible, with disorder, its inseparable partner. They can live neither with nor without each other.

Will said...

Kalle:
Is the book only about such concepts?

Ziffel:
The concepts that one talks about are very important. They are the handles with which one can move things. The book is about how one can intervene among the causes of the occurring processes. He called the wit of a matter dialectic. Like all great humorists, he adduced this with a deadly serious expression. By the way, where did you hear of him?

Kalle:
In politics.

Ziffel:
That too is one of his jokes. The greatest agitators characterize themselves as the pupils of the greatest champion of the state. By the way, it speaks for them that they too have a sense of humor. I've yet to meet anybody without a sense of humor who understood Hegel.

Kalle:
We were very interested in him. We got excerpts from him. We had to hold ourselves to the excerpt like a crab. He interested us because we've seen so much that was a joke, as you call it. That for example among those of us who were of the people and got into government, that such comical changes occurred, so that in government they were no longer of the people, but were in the government. I saw that for the first time in 1918. Ludendorf's power was greater then than ever before, he could have stuck his nose into anything, there was iron discipline, everything looked like it would be so for a thousand years, and just then in only a few days he put on the blue-blood's glasses and crossed the border, instead of raising a new army, as he had planned. Or take one of the farmers during the movement for land reform, that we led. He was against us, because he said we wanted to take everything away from him, but then the banks and property owners actually took everything. Somebody said to me: those are the worst communists. If that isn't a joke!

Ziffel:
The best school of dialectics is emigration. The most acute dialecticians are refugees. They are refugees as a result of changes, and they study nothing but changes. Out of the tiniest signs they conclude the greatest events. When their opponent wins, they calculate how much the victory cost, and for contradictions they have a refined eye. Dialectics, here's to you!"

...

Peter RyLeY says and that: "That Brecht had been an apologist for Stalinism is well known, that he was a brute who insisted on being buried in a steel coffin with a stiletto through his heart is equally known. Neither are appealing."

The fucking steel coffin and stiletto shit is very fucking appealing indeed -- are you on wobbly eggs or summit like?

Fuck me -- and i thought you were the last sane fucking cunt with a blog that was left on planet eartH and that.

Standard.

You can do university degrees in it and shit these days.

The Plump said...

Yes! I have become RyLeY! An achievement.

Will said...

By D. J. R. BRUCKNER
Published: November 3, 1987, Tuesday

LEAD: ''I AM sick of all the virtues,''

''I AM sick of all the virtues,''

Bertolt Brecht's businessman, Ziffel, declares in ''Conversations in Exile.'' But he has faith in ''the heroism of survival,'' and that faith engenders a frail hope that the world might be made safe for the ordinary and the weak. However, Ziffel is a true Brechtian, and anyone who thinks he is even a little bit noble has not been paying attention.

''Conversations'' is a prose dialogue written in 1940 when Brecht was in exile in Finland, modeled loosely on a similar work by Goethe. A British playwright, Howard Brenton, has constructed a dramatic piece out of it, which the New Theater of Brooklyn is presenting in a slyly entertaining production under the direction of Clinton Turner Davis.

Mr. Davis's choice of black actors - Helmar Augustus Cooper as Ziffel, an exile from Hitler's Germany, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Kalle, a young Socialist who has also fled the Nazis - does not really confer on this little play the wider scope the director wanted. But that hardly matters; Mr. Cooper makes a cunningly amusing businessman who becomes a convert to disorder and even cowardice, and Mr. Santiago-Hudson's Kalle is a fine Brechtian pessimist, a Socialist who despises benevolence and ends up going into the roach-exterminating business.

The delight these actors take in Brecht's jabbing lines is infectious as the dialectic progresses from a consideration of whether mankind is useful for anything but serving machines in a world which, ideally, ought to be completely evacuated to make room for war, to a final ironic toast to idealism by apostates from conflicting faiths. As they talk, they play a game of pool in a Finnish bar, and the game is an obvious but unobtrusive reflection of their intellectual sparring. They let you feel as well some of Brecht's pain, for ''Conversations'' was written at a time when this dedicated Marxist watched the Nazis conquer Europe, free of any Russian threat after Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler.

David Dollenmayer's translation of the text often fails to convey the subtleties of Brecht's German, and naturally it is unable to suggest the echoes of Goethe that give the Brecht text a rich resonance. And Mr. Davis's use of projected pictures on the backstage wall, not only from World War II, but also from Vietnam and other conflicts, along with occasional intrusions of recorded voices (such as a Watergate-era Richard M. Nixon protesting he is innocent while Ziffel and Kalle talk about Hitler) are distracting. But these are not overwhelming problems; nothing short of an earthquake would divert one's attention for long from the sizzle and crackle of Brecht's seductively subversive ideas. ''Conversations'' is a delight to watch, to listen to and to think about. SPARRING PARTNERS - CONVERSATIONS IN EXILE, by Bertolt Brecht; directed by Clinton Turner Davis; adapted by Howard Brenton; translated by David Dollenmayer; set by Daniel Conway; lighting by John Gisondi; costumes by C. Jane Epperson; sound by Tom Gould; production stage manager, Debora E. Kingston. Presented by the New Theater of Brooklyn, Deborah J. Pope and Steve Stettler, artistic directors; Lillie Bellin, managing director. At 465 Dean Street, off Flatbush Avenue. Ziffel...Helmar Augustus Cooper Kalle...Ruben Santiago-Hudson

http://www.nytimes.com/1987/11/03/theater/the-stage-conversations-in-exile.html

The Plump said...

Of course you are right about it being dialectical (I had mentioned it at first and then cut it cut when I shortened the post, thought it spoke for itself, he said vaguely defensively).

I also cut out a mention of the Shakespearian structure that seemed to me deliberate - it uses so many devices of Shakespeare's plays (identity, gender shifts, the wise fool etc) bar one. It doesn't offer the neat resolution, a reconciliation, then transformation is not reconciliation.

He is drawing on a long literary tradition - even the Gothic - think of 'Justine'.

The other thing that I originally mentioned is that the play is blindingly funny. And I had never heard of the Refugee Conversations. Fascinating.

This is wonderful - and I hadn't seen it before, it explains much.

But a twinkle in the eye, as far as I can see, was inborn in him, like a congenital defect, and he had it until his death without becoming conscious of it, he was always winking with his eyes, as another has an irrepressible St. Vitus' dance.

That one sentence is all that is needed.

This too from the review, ''the heroism of survival,'' and what follows, yep, spot on.

Much, much for me to think on.

And as for me being sane?? Come on Will.

The Plump said...

And finally after a break for some sleep - this is the nub of our different readings.

That Brecht used Hegel's dialectic as a method of analysis is clear (and made clearer by your extract, as is his specific thinking about it, for which I am extremely grateful).

Does this then also mean that the play is about the dialectic? Or is it a device to enable an audience to think about long-standing human dilemmas in a dialectical way?

In other words is it a play about philosophy or a philosophical play?

I would go with the latter, certainly I would think that was what a playwright would be expecting of an audience, which is why I was taking issue with a range of reviewers who see Brecht purely as a writer of agit prop soiled with totalitarianism.

For me, this was mistaken because Brecht was not writing to lead an audience to a predetermined conclusion, but to invite an audience to reach their own conclusion about najor political and existential issues using the methods and literary reference points he was giving them within the play.

mikeovswinton said...

Why is not possible that Brecht was both a good playwright and a 'good' Stalinist?