On Theater, Acting and Actors

 

Charles Laughton

Carola Neher

Helena Weigel

Brecht wrote poems about his mileau, the theater, about his function as a playwright, in which he promoted his vision of a theater of clarity and rationality.  He also wrote poems about actors, and for actors, to praise and encourage them. Brecht and Laughton became friends in Los Angles.  Carola Neher was a star in the 1920's in Berlin, and acted the role of Polly in the movie version of Three Penny Opera.  Brecht's wife, Helene Weigel's best roles were ones that Brecht wrote for her, most famously, that of Mother Courage in the play of the same name.

Clock on title for German original

 

The Song of the Playwright

1

I am a playwright.  I show
What I have seen. At the market of humanity
I have seen how humanity is dealt with.  This
Is what I, the playwright, show.
How on entering a room, they approach each other with plans
Or with night sticks or with money
How they stand on the streets and wait
How they set traps for one another
Full of hope
How they arrange meetings
How they hang each other
How they love each other
How they defend their spoils
How they eat
All this I show.  
I report the words, that they call out to each other.
What the mother says to the son
What the entrepreneur orders the employee to do
What the wife answers to her husband
All the pleading words, all the imperious ones,
The pleading ones, the misunderstood ones
The lying ones, the ignorant ones,
The beautiful ones, the injurious ones,
All of these I report.
I see snowstorms appear on the stage.
I see earthquakes come to the fore.
I see mountains standing right in the way
And I see rivers breaking their banks.
But the snowstorms are wearing hats.
The earthquakes have money in their wallets.
The mountains just stepped out of limousines
And the torrential rivers command the police force.

2

In order to show what I see
I read the accounts of other peoples and other ages.
I have written a few plays in their manner, examining
Precisely each individual technique and imprinting on my mind
That which would stand me in good stead.
I have studied the accounts of the great feudal societies
Through English history, of rich figures
Whom history has served to evolve into great men.
I studied the moralizing Spaniards
The Indians, masters of refined sensibility
And the Chinese, who prized the family
And the checkered fates of the great cities.

 

(1935)
 

 
 

Click on title for German original

 

My Audience of One

 

A little while ago I met my audience of one.
On a dusty street
He was holding a pneumatic drill
For a second
He looked up.  Quickly, I set up my theater
Between two buildings. He
looked over expectantly.
In the pub
I met him again.  He was standing at the bar.
He was drinking, dripping with sweat, with a hunk
of bread in his hands.  Quickly, I set up my theater.  He
looked over, bewildered.
Today
I suceeded once more. In front of the train station
I saw him, chivied forward by rifle butts
with drum rolls to war.
In the middle of the crowd
I set up my theater. Over his shoulder
He looked my way,
And nodded.

Click on title for German original

 

Washing

                            for C.N.

The way I showed you years ago
How to wash up in the morning
Dipping your face into the small copper basin  
With ice cubes in the water, eyes open,
Drying off with the rough towel
Reading the hardest lines from the script
Pinned to the wall, when I said,
You are doing this for yourself,
So do it in an exemplary way.

Now I hear you are in prison.
The letters that I wrote for you
Go unanswered. The friends I approached
About your situation, have
Nothing to say. I can not do anything for you. I wonder
What your mornings must be like? Will you still do something
For yourself, full of hope and resolve
With strong motions,  in an exemplary way?

 

(1937)


C.N. is Carola Neher, the star of the film adaptation of Three Penny Opera.(1931).  She was a star during the Weimar era, a ‘new woman,’ who drove a motorcycle and took boxing lessons.  She died in Moskow, as did many German communists, who chose the Soviet Union as a refuge from Nazism. Stalin considered them all potential traitors and did away with them.  Neher and other German communists were accused of being Trotskyists, a subversive in effect. She was sentenced to ten years in prison and died of typhus in Orenburg in the Soviet Union in 1941 at the age of 41.  Brecht is accused of not having done enough to help her. 

 
 

Click on title for German original

The Actress in Exile

               

                                              (dedicated to Helene Weigel)

Now she’s putting on her make up. In the tiny white room,
She is sitting bent over on the shabby stool.
With light gestures
She applies the make-up sitting before the mirror.
Carefully, she removes from her face
Every trace of individuality. Now and then
She lets her slight and elegant shoulders
Fall forward, as do those who do
Hard work.  She is already wearing the coarse blouse
With the patches on the sleeve. Her bast shoes
Are still standing on the makeup table.
When she is finished
She asks eagerly, if the drum has already arrive,
The one for making the cannon thunder, and if the big net
Has already been hung.  Then she stands up, a small figure,
A great fighter,
To put on the bast shoes and present
The battle of the Andalusian fisherman’s wife
Against the generals.
 

 

Click on title for German original

 

Weigel’s Props

Look at the old mirror, and here the footstool
On which she sits, script on lap, where she chooses   
Among the liner pencils, pots of color, make-up tools
And here - for her fishwife role -  the net she uses!

From our time in Denmark where we had fled
Look at the worn down shoes, a five œr piece with holes    
The board she used to knead dough for our bread.  
And for cooking berries for the children, a big brass bowl.
        
Whatever props she used when times were good or hellish  
For your benefit or hers, let them stand here for all to see!
O great and precious treasure, that never self-embellished!
Woman, wife, maidservant, actress, refugee! 

 

(1940)

 

Click for German original

Laughton’s Belly

All of them carry their bellies off
As if they were loot and the cops were after them
But the great Laughton presented his belly up front like a poem
For his own edification and no one’s dismay.
There it was: not unexpected, but in no way ordinary
And built of fine food, selected
At leisure, for delectation
And with a solid concept, excellently performed.

(1944)


 

 

Click on title for German original

The Actor’s Funeral

After the mutable man died,
They lay him in a small white-washed room
With a view outside of the flowers for the visitors,
They placed a saddle and a book, a cocktail shaker
And a hand mirror at his feet on the floor
They hung an iron spike on the wall
For the slips of paper bearing notes
About unforgettable acts of friendship by the dead man
Might be fixed. Then they let the visitors enter.
 
And his friends came in
(And those of his relatives who held him in regard)
His colleagues and his students, bringing
Slips of paper bearing notes
About unforgettable acts of friendship by the dead man.

When they carried the mutable man to the mortuary
He was preceded by a procession of masks
Of the five greatest roles he had embodied  
The three exemplary ones and two contentious ones  
But he was covered with the red flag
A gift from the workers
For his immutability in the days of suppression
And his achievements in the days of the overthrow.

At the door to the mortuary the representatives
Of the councils read the text of his discharge
With a description of his achievements and the dismissal
Of any rebukes against him, and an exhortation to the living
To emulate him and fill the void he had left.

Then they buried him in the city park, where the benches stand  
Where the lovers sit.  

(1940)       
 

Click on title for German original
 

The Play is Done

 

The play is done.  The show has been acted out.  
Slowly
The theater empties, like a flaccid intestine.
In the dressing rooms
The nimble sellers are washing off their make up and sweat,
Hurriedly mixed facial expressions, rancid rhetoric,
Finally,
The lights, that divulged the whole miserable
Bungling production go out, leaving
The lovely
Nothingness of the ill-used stage in half light.  In the empty
Auditorium that still stinks just slightly, sits
The good
Playwright, unsatisfied, trying to
Recall it all.