When Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play The Good Soul of Szechuan was revived at London’s Young Vic Theatre in 2008, not everyone was delighted. One newspaper’s drama critic lamented that he had thought that the German playwright’s “cruelly punishing plays” and “wearisome alienation techniques” had been “consigned to the dustbin of history”. The playwright Mark Ravenhill returned fire in the press, arguing against the “Brecht-bashing”, and there followed a heated debate about Brecht’s political views, personal ethics and dramatic merits on the newspaper’s website.
Now Ravenhill is matching words with actions. His new version of A Life of Galileo for the Royal Shakespeare Company opens in Stratford-upon-Avon this month. And for a writer dismissed by some as didactic, Brecht has a remarkable knack for survival: Mother Courage is about to haul her cart on to the stage again in Salford, Manchester.
Both plays are 20th-century masterpieces: restless, epic, vivid works wrestling with vast themes. But do his critics have a point? In a rehearsal break at the RSC, I join Ravenhill and his director Roxana Silbert to ask them. Are Brecht’s plays dogmatic? Do his politics and personal behaviour diminish his validity as a writer? Does he have anything to say to us today?
“I think with the distance of time you can remove the plays from their immediate political context,” replies Ravenhill. “And Brecht’s politics were complex anyway ... There are plays that are very hardline Marxist, but by the time you get to Mother Courage, Galileo and Szechuan they are much less party line. He never joined the Communist party and became privately very disenchanted with the regime. His politics were changing year by year and play by play – so the monolith image of Brecht and his politics is not true.”
Ravenhill adds that, contrary to the view of Brecht as a dry old bore, his greatest challenge as translator has been to convey Galileo’s wry humour and poetic quality. “Brecht was a poet: he wrote a poem almost every day. So there’s a simplicity and an elegance of expression in the language. And his poetry has a springiness and a wryness. I had to find a way to allow that spry twinkle to come through. It’s different, but there is definitely a comic sensibility in Brecht.”
Brecht’s reputation in Britain, Silbert suggests, may have been coloured by early productions. “Brecht was done in British theatre at a time when the taste was very agit-prop,” she says. “Brecht served that purpose [but] I’d suggest that what he’s writing is much more complex.”
A Life of Galileo, surely Brecht’s greatest play, certainly fits this description. Its trajectory is simple, chronicling Galileo’s life as his scientific work brings him up against the Inquisition. But the questions it poses are far from easy, ranging intellectual honesty against expediency, the pursuit of scientific truth against social responsibility. Galileo capitulates to the Inquisition, buying himself time to study in secret. Brecht’s attitude to that choice seems to have been ambivalent and he wrote several versions of the play.
“It was written in three different countries, pre, during and post the second world war, with Hiroshima at the centre of it,” says Silbert. “It was a time when he went through tremendous personal change. And that change is written into the play.
“It is thought-provoking and political,” she adds. “But it is also funny and sensual, theatrical and entertaining. There’s a great energy and life to Galileo at the beginning. And there’s nothing dour about the writing. The writing is like the man. I think Galileo [the character] had more to do with Brecht than the historical Galileo. Brecht was all those things: sensualist; amazing mind; really difficult; incredibly truant.”
Chris Honer, directing the Library Theatre Company’s Mother Courage in Salford, agrees that Brecht’s own life and wily pragmatism coloured his plays. “He’s a very good writer on survival. It’s a key theme and of course he spent a lot of his time surviving – whether in a Germany that was becoming fascist or in the US where eventually he was up before the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
For Honer, Brecht’s continuing appeal lies in his storytelling. “Some of the plays are didactic, no question. But Mother Courage is a much richer play than that – it’s really about people in a very difficult situation trying to make the best of it. There is a kind of myth that Brecht didn’t want you to get involved: that he wanted to alienate the audience from emotion. But here he writes a play about a woman determined to protect her three children from the dangers of the war who ends up losing them all. That final image of Mother Courage harnessing herself to her cart, alone this time, and yet again going off to join another army, is emotionally very powerful. That is what he wanted. But he also wanted you to think.”
One complication of staging Brecht’s work is how to handle his famous Verfremdungseffekt, or distancing technique, designed to encourage a critical perspective. Explanatory placards may no longer startle an audience used to watching news bulletins while simultaneously engaging with instant commentary on social media. Honer argues that directors have to find fresh stage images that “make the audience see things in a way they maybe haven’t before”.
But perhaps the biggest question is what these plays, written in a specific political and theatrical context, have to say to us now. Silbert suggests that Galileo, written during one period of momentous upheaval and dealing with another, grapples with pressing questions for our own age.
“It’s a moment of great change – and social and ethical values can’t keep up with the pace of technological change,” she says. “The play discusses the conflict between technological advancement and concerns about what kind of society we want to be. And that’s the sort of thing we’re dealing with now. You know, the Pope’s just gone on Twitter.”