Brecht and the Writer’s Workshop
There can be few theatre practitioners who have been responsible either directly or indirectly for the publication of more books than Bertolt Brecht.
In his own right, the German produced plays, poetry, handbooks, novels and so much more. He is also a darling of academics, the subject of numerous tomes covering his life and work, not to mention theories and methods.
Even so, this new book edited by Tom Kuhn and Charlotte Ryland is almost certainly unique. While the writer’s published and produced works have proved to be rich sources of inspiration for his fans, nobody so far has thought about producing a collection of non-existent plays.
To be more precise, Brecht and the Writer’s Workshop comprises a series of six “plays” that have been built up from fragments created over years by Brecht and, in almost every case, colleagues from his circle. Each was left incomplete by his early demise and might easily have remained in drawers, cupboards or archives ever after.
Instead, a group of academics has worked very hard to create reasonably representative if not always fully coherent versions to give readers an impression of what might ultimately have come about had the great man lived a decade or two longer.
In the various ways, each is characteristic of Brecht’s work at the relevant time, covering a period from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s. His interest in the downtrodden is a common factor, along with a Marxist or Communist view of economics particularly when it comes to difficulties faced by dispossessed individuals.
Without going into massive detail, Fleischhacker centres on an individual who attempts to get rich by playing the wheat futures market in Chicago during the days when gangsters ruled the city.
Fatzer follows the fortunes of a quartet of German deserters who escape the army during the First World War but end up fighting amongst themselves as they had towards what is an increasingly inevitable and worthless destiny.
The Bread Store is almost a complete play that observes a rather circular series of events as greed overwhelms citizens who might have achieved far more by working in harness rather than attempting to improve their own situations by diminishing their fellows.
The Real Life of Jacob Trotalong is a comedy that has actually been produced in a number of different versions. On one level, the protagonist who works as a waiter is afraid to stand up for a colleague raped by rich customers. A vein of incipient heroism only emerges in dreams, when the downtrodden worker who dares not risk losing his job transforms into The Black Knight donning shining armour to rescue the damsel in distress.
The Judith of Shimoda is a tragic tale based on a Japanese play, in turn drawn from real life, then mixed with obvious biblical associations. It paints neither the Japanese and Americans as honourable as they joust in the mid-19th century. The starting point is a threat to Japan which is headed off when a geisha is persuaded to sacrifice her virtue to humour the American general consul. Rather than becoming an instant heroine, Okichi is shunned as a prostitute by those whom she has saved, driven into drunken escapism and only achieving mythical status long after her death.
Garbe/Büsching, the final, short sliver, explores the impact when a “working hero” in the newly established GDR manages to save his factory vast amounts of downtime and money. Rather than pleasing the people as political doctrine would lay down, he risks being branded as a traitor.
While this is undoubtedly a tome published with academics and Brechtian completists in mind, the plays themselves are insightful and readable. As such, general readers and students also have a chance to get a further insight into the brain of a unique genius and, who knows, perhaps at some point a reader might be inspired to produce one or more of these plays?
Reviewer: Philip Fisher