Brecht is there for the taking
So Brecht is left to David Hare, below
Wednesday 08 November 1995
Since Brecht remains the world's fourth most-performed playwright, we must assume that the Telegraph, in this matter at least, is not getting its way. Yet, if we are honest, those of us who love Brecht's work will admit that it presents a particular challenge. When Tallulah Bankhead was asked why she went on the stage, she replied: "To get out of the audience." All too often Brecht belongs to that special category of playwrights - others are Webster, Buchner and, I fear, Chekhov - who seem to give more pleasure and interest to those of us who put them on than they do to the people who come to see them.
Mother Courage and her Children has a uniquely uneven production history. It is a play more honoured in the study than on the stage. Even if you are 50, you are too young to have seen the author's own legendary version for the Berliner Ensemble. Yet its reputation as one of the great 20th- century productions still casts a long shadow over anyone who attempts the play. If, as has often been said, The Threepenny Opera survives however badly you do it, then the unhappy converse has also seemed to be true: that Mother Courage empties theatres, however brilliantly it is performed.
When Jonathan Kent and I first discussed the idea of an intimate Life of Galileo at the Almeida Theatre a couple of years ago, we were both convinced that it was the stale trappings of so-called "Brechtian" productions that stood in the way of the audience's access to the play. When I had seen John Dexter's faithful staging of Galileo at the National Theatre in 1981, I had admired Michael Gambon's excellent performance and Howard Brenton's supple text. But I found the elaborate paraphernalia of Brechtianism - the placards, the announcements, the Forties German music - an impediment to my enjoyment rather than an enhancement of it. Self-conscious mid-century modernism did not help me to the Renaissance. You did not need to travel through Berlin to reach Rome.
For this reason, Jonathan commissioned new music from Jonathan Dove, while I tried, in the stage language I used, to rid the text of all its most Germanic traits. But if we were both sure that Brecht's plays did not need to be mediated through the aesthetics of a particular period in theatre history, we were equally certain that the last way to make them work was by ditching their politics. Pretending Brecht is some kind of "universal" writer - just one more humanist among many - is not just wrongheaded, but inevitably doomed. The purpose of sandblasting away some of the layers that now cover these plays is not to soften their politics but to reveal them.
Mother Courage and Galileo are twin plays, both written by a man as far away from the dogmatist of popular caricature as you could get. Conceived during the period of his enforced exile in Scandinavia, they both draw on the profound sense of compromise that comes to be at the centre of his increasingly uneasy and disturbing art. Both take place at the beginning of the 17th century. One is set in Catholic Europe, the other in Protestant Europe. Both concern that moment in history where man first realises that he is alone in the universe. He ought to find hope, but instead sees that hope betrayed.
In both, the central character does terrible things, then tries to learn to live with the consequences of what they have done. If we can present these plays as portraits of people struggling with the devastating effects of bad faith in a fast-changing society, how can we doubt they will survive... yes, even the eventual fall of the Daily Telegraph. The subject of both is silence and survival. What on earth could be more timely?
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