THEATRE / The notebook's the thing: A new Brecht opens next week. He might not approve. Irving Wardle explains

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The Independent Culture
ONCE the most admired theatre company in Europe, the Berliner Ensemble went into an irreversible decline after the death of its founder, Bertolt Brecht, in 1956. Visitors to this former place of pilgrimage found an empty shrine, recycling past productions and the same old plays as an act of barrel- scraping piety. The theatre was dedicated to Brecht, but Brecht was no longer writing. No wonder the place was going artistically bankrupt - it had run out of text.

So it seemed until last year when Heiner Muller, East Germany's best-known playwright, took over as the Ensemble's director and launched his regime with a Brecht play Berlin had not seen before. Or, more accurately, a hitherto unseen character: the hero of an unpublished 550-page manuscript, The Downfall of the Egoist, Johann Fatzer, which occupied Brecht in varying ways from 1927 until the end of his life. From this mass of dialogues, monologues, dramatised scenes, choruses and scenarios, Muller assembled a text of his own, Fatzer Material, which also forms the basis of an English production by Marc von Henning's Primitive Science company, opening at the Gate next week.

The key question is not whether these edited versions do justice to the original, but whether the text should be performed at all. Brecht wrote it as an essay in self-understanding: fur Experiment, ohne Realitat. In his journal entries from the 1930s to the 1950s he repeatedly refers to it as a source for his other plays. In his preliminary notes for Galileo, for instance, he speaks of the need to go back to the Fatzer fragment as a model 'of the highest technical standard'. Galileo was duly completed and performed: Fatzer remained a fragment - a fluid, continually evolving private exercise which enabled him to write other things for the public.

At least it has a story to tell: a First World War fable of four deserters who abandon their tank and go to ground in Mulheim, waiting for a revolution that never comes. Everything that happens to his three comrades is initiated by Fatzer, but he refuses to act as their leader. He is interested in learning: leaders are interested in preventing people from learning. One thing he has learned is that the real enemy is not in front, but behind him.

The story develops so as to show its lead character persistently contradicting narrative expectation. Fatzer finds meat for his starving companions, but then gets into a fight and fails to deliver it. Then he misses another meat rendezvous by going to bed with a woman. Food is important, he agrees; but there's also the question of who's doing the eating. His comrades cower in hiding while Fatzer is brazenly walking around town. They are entirely dependent on him. He is their saviour. He is also a menace: and finally they kill him, before being caught.

Fatzer's main adversary in the group is Keuner (who later took on a life of his own in the Anecdotes of Herr Keuner). And, as von Henning puts it: 'Keuner wants to eliminate the element of risk. For Fatzer, risk means being alive.' What is the point of having a Utopia tomorrow if you cannot satisfy your appetites today? How can future self-respect grow out of present humiliation?

Brecht began exploring these questions during the years of his Marxist conversion: and Fatzer is only one instance in his writings of the transformation of an individualist into a social being. What makes him unique is his Janus-like position, looking back towards the anarchic past and forward to the principled future. Baal, the poet-hooligan of Brecht's first play, and the ambiguous protagonists of his later parables - Azdak, Mauler, Mother Courage - all meet in the figure of this greedy, womanising fighter who walked away from the war. And of whom the Chorus rightly say that he is haunted by the future as well as the past.

Fatzer has been likened to Buchner's Woyzeck; but that is not a comparison from which actors can take much encouragement. However fragmentary, Woyzeck always deals in specifics, whereas Fatzer achieves its range of references by non-specific allusion. The poetry strikes me as magnificent, but I do not envy anyone trying to translate it. The language looks simple, but its meaning evaporates unless you grasp each precise grammatical nuance. Von Henning, who has collaborated with Muller in Berlin, and directed his work in London (Medea Material 1990, Quartet 1993), specialises in translator-defying texts: and for anyone who has put Howard Barker into German, maybe Fatzer is a pushover. Here is a specimen of the original. One deserter remarks that the war hasn't killed them, but, left alone in a quiet room, they are killing each other. In Brecht's hands this becomes: 'Die Schlacht hat uns/ nicht umgebracht aber/ bei ruhiger Luft im stillen Zimmer/ bringen wir uns selbst um.' I wait with interest to see how those chilling lines come over at the Gate.

'Fatzer Material' previews 15 Jan only, opens 17 Jan at the Gate, Pembridge Road, London W11 (071-229 0706).