Bertolt Brecht - his Poetry & Period - his Politics & Person
The term Brechtian has entered the English language and is in wide use as a connotation for a startling, or estranging instance or effect either in art in general; in theater and in films, novels and even in advertising, estrangement effects are now common.
Many writers, artists and critics are familiar with Brecht and prize his work. They view him a great dramatist who was a social thinker. The following is a typical example. Adam Gopnik in an article entitled 'The Caging of America: Why do we lock up so many people?' ( New Yorker January 30, 2012) writes:
"No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these [for profit] firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men:
Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional detention facilities..The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
Brecht could hardly have imagined such a document: a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery."
In the theater others have taken the mantel from Brecht and carried on. The list of writers, playwrights and film directors who have studied Brecht and learned from him is a long one. Foremost in the United States is the playwright, Tony Kushner, who has studied Brecht extensively and applies his insights to his scripts. The movie Lincoln, for example, forces us to watch the gears of politics at work in the proces of slave emancipation.
A search for Kushner’s indebtedness to Brecht yields many results, the best being an interview in Text and Performance Quarterly (Vol. 24, No. 1, January 2004, pp. 38–54) available in PDF form.
A new biography published in the Spring of 2014: Brecht, A Literary Life by Stephen Parker, a professor at Manchester University (UK), will likely set a standard for a generation. It is a most welcome work, despite its ultra-linear style. Parker traces the course of Brecht’s childhood illness and its effect on his work throughout each stage of Brecht’s life. He demonstrates convincingly that Brecht combined in his person a frail body and a tenacious mind. He was convinced of his own talent and the power of his intellect, strengths that helped him overcome his own weaknesses by producing works of world standing under difficult conditions. denied access to his medium, the theater, and to the very country of his native language.
A review in The Times Literary Supplement by Michael Hofmann of Parker’s Brecht biography makes an excellent starting point for those interested Brecht’s current standing and relevance. “England and America are, if not quite Brecht-free zones, nevertheless territories where he has persistently been misunderstood, unappreciated, unloved and under suspicion....The poems remain absurdly little known; and the man and his ideas are routinely and casually butchered. He may just about exist as a name, but he is not accorded any warmth or respect. He is certainly not (as he was in his own half-ironic stylization) “der Klassiker”: an example, and an object of fascination and utility.” Michael’s Hofmann summary of Brecht’s reputation in the U.S. is correct.
This site is an attempt to make a portion of the poetry accessible to readers of English, in particular readers of American English.
Trying for years to find a hero I could claim,
(Not someone better, because I myself am good -
I’m not good, as I have no sense of shame)
A live one or in a book, ah, if I only could.
It was impassivity I looked for in the main,
But if I found one who didn’t lose his poise,
He was deaf, and would not hear the noise.
If he could not lose his heart, he felt no pain.
Only those who had no water had no tears
(Hunger gnawing stones - That’s what I’ve seen!)
None I found were happy, just content.
In the end I thought those whom it appeared
I might hold superior and in high esteem
(It seems they knew me well) avoided me by intent.
Click on poem title for German original.