Borrowings

Mei-Fanfang, the Chinese actor, whom Brecht saw in Moscow in 1935.

 

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Brecht appropriated freely from other cultures and times. This is no where more apparent than in his borrowings from the Chinese arts tradition. On a visit to Moskow in 1935, Brecht saw a performance by the great Chinese actor, Mei-Fantang, with which he was deeply impressed.  In his biography Brecht, A Literary Life (2014) Stephen Parker explains the matter thusly: Brecht identifed in the highly conscious attitude of the Chinese actor the awareness that he was performing a role, not embodying it, and that his intention to appear strange, indeed disconcerting to the audience, lent his presentation of everyday actions a truly arresting impact.  It was important to Brecht to differentiate a Distancing Effect from Stanislavsky's mode of acting, which was based on the actor's intense identification with his subject.

Similarly, Brecht borrowed from the Chinese tradition to offset criticism of the Moskow clique of György Lukács, Alfred Kurella and others, who were plainly out to nail him as not being a true enough Marxist, but a revisionist and Trokskyist. The accused him of being a ‘formalist,’ an artist who uses avant-garde forms, and does not promote true Marxist virtues in his art.  In terms of his dramas, Brecht outflanked them by writing pieces such as The Private Life of the Master Race, (Furcht und Elend des dritten Reiches), which because of its quality, and its impeccable anti-fascist theme, put an end to this discussion, one that might have had serious repercussions for Brecht’s career and life.   Similarly, his borrowings from the tradition of Chinese verse were not arbitrary and casual, but had the intention of making pointed comments on existing political problems in his own life.  Again, Parker: Po Chu -I, who twice sent into exile, considers appropriate forms of social behaviour, combining observation and reflection with a sharp eye for  social injustice and paradox.

 

Many of these poems are translations of translations, namely material that was brought to Brecht's attention by Elizabeth Hauptmann from the classic work by Arthur Waley,  A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems  (1918).  Brecht translated them into German with Elizabeth Hauptmann's help.  He revistited all of this after WWII as well.

Click on title for German original

 

The Flower Market

In the Imperial Capital, spring is almost past
When the streets are filled with coaches and riders: it is peony
Time again. And we join the people
Who are jostling on to the Flower Market: ‘Step right up!
Choose your flowers for the year!  Big price spread!
The more flowers, the higher the price, of course.
These white ones, five pieces of silk.
These red ones - twenty ells of brocade.
Protect them from the sun with a little paper umbrella,
Against frost with a little basket of cotton.
By watering and covering the roots with mud,
They will keep their beauty when you transplant them.
Without thinking, each household follows the expensive custom.
But we heard an old farm hand, one who came to the city
To take care of business at two or three offices, shake his head and sigh.
He probably was thinking: 'One bushel of those flowers,
Would cover the taxes of ten poor farms.'


(1938) Brecht's re-working of Arthur Waley’s translation from the Chinese of Po Chü-yi  (772-846)

 

Click on title for German original

On the Birth of a Son

(After the Chinese of Su Tung-p’o, 1036-1101)

Families, when a child is born to them
Wish that it be intelligent.
I, who with my intelligence,
Have ruined my entire life
Can only hope, my son
Will prove ignorant and slow.
Then he will have a quiet life
As a minister in a government cabinet

(1938)

 


Click on title for German original

The Big Blanket

The Governor, when I asked him, what would be needed
To help the freezing souls in our city
Answered: A blanket, ten thousand feet long
that would simply cover the entire outskirts.

Po Chü-yi  (772-846)

(1938)

 

Click on title for German original

The Friends

If you were to come riding by in a coach
And I were wearing a peasant's smock
And if we met so one day on the road
You would get out and bow to me.
And if you were selling water
And I came by on horseback riding to a picnic
And we met one day so on the road
I would dismount before you.

Unknown author  (700 B.C.E.)

 

Click on title for German original
 
The Black Pool Dragon


Deep are the waters of the black pool,
The color of ink. It is said a very holy dragon
Dwells here. No human eye
Has every seen him, but next to the pool
They built a shrine and the officials
Have instituted a ritual. A dragon
Remains a dragon,  perhaps, but people
Can make a god of him. The villagers
See good harvests and poor ones,
Locust swarms and imperial commissions,
Taxes and plagues as visitations of the very holy dragon.
All of them bring offerings of piglets and flasks of wine,
In accord with the advice of one of their number,
Who has second sight. He sets the morning prayers
And the evening hymns.
       Greetings unto you, O Dragon, bringer of plenty!
       Hail unto you in your laurel wreath
       Savior of the fatherland, you are the chosen
       Among all the dragons and chosen above all wines
       Is the wine that we offer unto you!
Bits of meat lie on the stones of the pool.
The grass in front of the shrine is flecked with wine.
I do not know how many of his offerings the dragon eats.
But the mice of the woods
And the foxes of the hill are perpetually drunk and stuffed to the gills.
     Why are the foxes so happy?
     What was it the piglets did
To be slaughtered year after year only to
Court the foxes?  The very holy dragon
In the nine-fold depth of his pool, does he know
That the foxes are stealing from him and eating his piglets,
Or doesn't he?

Po Chü-yi  (772-846)

(1938)
 

 

Click on title for German original

A Protest in the Sixth Year of Chien Fu

The hills and streams of the plain
You have turned into your battlefield.
How, do you think, will the people who live here
Provide themselves with 'firewood and hay?'
Please spare me your claptrap
About appointments and grand titles.
What the reputation of a single general
Comes down to is ten thousand corpses.

Ts'ao Sung (870-920)

(A re-working of Arthur Waley’s translation of 1948)



 

 

Click on title for German original

 The Politician

As usual, I went to the city to bring
My freshly picked greens to the market.
Since it was still early in the day
I caught my breath under a plum tree
At the Eastern Gate.
It was there that I noticed the cloud of dust.
Up the street came a rider on a mount
Probably friends and relatives, waiting
For him at the gate, half-asleep,  distraught,  pushing
About him to say farewell, but he
Did not dare to stop.  Astonished, I
Asked what had happened to him. They told me
He was a state councilor, one of the great ones.
Ten thousand Tong Bao per year. Twice a day
throughout the autumn the Emperor
Came to his house. Yesterday evening
He dined with the ministers. Today
He has been banned to the farthest reaches of Yai-chou.
It is always the same with advisors to the ruler:
From favor to disgrace between twelve and noon.
Green, green the grass of the eastern outskirts
Through which the stone path leads into the hills, the peaceful hills
Beneath the trains of clouds.  

Po Chü-yi, Tang Dynasty
 

 

Click on title for German original

 

THE PEASANT ADDRESSES HIS OX

 

(After an Egyptian Peasant song, 1400 b.c.e.)

O great Ox, divine Plow Puller
Deign to plow straight!  Please be so kind
As not to  bring the furrows into confusion! It is
You who walks on ahead, dear Leader, haw!
We stood bent to the ground to cut grass for your feed
Deign now to eat it, dear Provider!  Do not worry
About the furrows while you are feeding, eat!
For your stall, you Protector of our family,
With groans we dragged the beams.  We
Lie in the rain, you beneath a roof.  Yesterday
We heard you cough, dear Pace-Setter
We were besides ourselves.  Are you
Going to croak before the spring sowing, you dog?

 

(1938)

 

Brecht told Walter Benjamin that this poem referred to Josef Stalin.

 

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