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Post-Imperial Brecht
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  • 20 b/w illus.
  • Page extent: 414 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.72 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 832/.912
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: PT2603.R397 Z74446 2004
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Brecht, Bertolt,--1898-1956--Criticism and interpretation
    • Brecht, Bertolt,--1898-1956--Political and social views
    • Brecht, Bertolt,--1898-1956--Appreciation--South Africa

Library of Congress Record


 (ISBN-13: 9780521817080 | ISBN-10: 0521817080)


At the height of the Cold War, in August 1961, as the Berlin Wall realized in concrete the ideological, political and economic barriers that already separated Eastern from Western Europe, the “communist” from the “free” or “imperialist-capitalist” world (depending on point of view), Bertolt Brecht figured alternately as hero and villain of the political melodrama unfolding in its shadow. In articles published in the West German magazine Der Monat, which was funded, like its English equivalent Encounter, by the CIA-sponsored Committee for Cultural Freedom, Brecht was cast as equal to the “immediate threat of the Red Army.” Anti-communist ideologues charged him with delusional attachment to Communism; even the critical theorist T. W. Adorno accused him of “glorifying the Party,” or, more subtly, of “oversimplifying” artistic form in favor of political content.1 In the other camp in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany, the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) was stirred by campaigns in the West to boycott Brecht to abandon its Stalinist denunciation of his experiments as “alien to the people” to attempt after Brecht’s death in 1956 to claim him and even his most experimental form, the Lehrstück or learning play for worker-players, as its own. Even though it had criticized Brecht while he lived, the SED used Brecht posthumously as the guarantor of the party’s legitimacy as the true inheritor of the anti-fascist and anti-imperialist tradition of the German left.2 On the basis of this claim, the SED continued until the late 1980s to cast Brecht as a “fighter against capitalist exploitation” whose work contributed to “mobilizing reason in the struggle against irrationalism, imperialism, and SDI [the United States’s Strategic Defense Initiative].”3

   In claiming Brecht as the representative of the anti-fascist legacy of the 1920s, the SED sought to shore up its own inheritance of the German Communist Party (KPD)’s opposition both to residual imperialism left over from the Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm in the army and police of the Weimar Republic and the ruling Socialist Party (SPD), and to the rise of the National Socialist Workers Party or Nazi Party (NSDAP).4 The SED claimed to have cleared away Nazi remnants through systematic denazification, while blaming the Western Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) for failing to prosecute Nazi war criminals and for retaining symbols like the imperial Deutschlandlied (“Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles”) as the national anthem.5 Especially at a time when the GDR was recognized officially only by the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies, but not by the FRG, which granted automatic citizenship to refugees from the GDR, every test of legitimacy took on global proportions.6

   Brecht was not ideally suited to the role of anti-fascist mascot since his political actions were not always consistent with his stated convictions. His plays, prose, and drama exposed the contradictions of capitalist society and bourgeois mores, yet his personal relations with his family and (especially female) collaborators have been described as exploitative. Moreover, his creative appropriation of found material contrasts with his vigilant defense of intellectual property. Although anti-communist commentators from the House Un-American Activities Commitee (HUAC) through Martin Esslin to John Fuegi have used these inconsistencies as the basis for a cold-war melodrama in which Brecht appears as a Stalinist or, more recently, sexist demon, the influence of Brecht and his collaborators – writers like Elizabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Günter Weisenborn, Lion Feuchtwanger; designers like Caspar Neher. John Heartfield, Teo Otto, Karl von Appen; composers like Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, Hanns Eisler, Paul Dessau; photographer Ruth Berlau, and actors Helene Weigel (also his wife), Ernst Busch, Carola Neher, Erwin Geschonneck, Renate Lutz, Käthe Reichel, and others – remains unparalleled. While the work of these collaborators should be acknowledged, Brecht was both catalyst and director, without whom this extraordinary output would not have been possible.7

   Although he moved from an anarchic anti-bourgeois attitude in the early 1920s to an affiliation by the late 1920s with Communists such as film maker Slatan Dudow and composer Hanns Eisler, with whom he produced the controversial Lehrstück/chorale Die Massnahme (Measures Taken, or The Expedient, 1930) and the film Kuhle Wampe, oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or to whom does the world belong?, 1932), Brecht was never a Communist Party member. Conversely, although he spent the Second World War in the United States, his commitments were leftist enough to provoke HUAC’s investigation in 1947 and the subsequent refusal of visas for travel to West Germany under US control. Brecht received support for his theatre in East Germany but he expressed private reservations about SED policy, especially after the workers’ uprising on 17 June 1953 challenged the party’s claim to lead a “workers’ and peasants’ state.”8 The SED’s attempt to subordinate Brecht and the legacy of experimental leftist performance (pioneered by KPD members like Eisler and Busch, who returned to the GDR, or director Erwin Piscator, who went to West Berlin) to Soviet norms of orthodox “socialist realism” promulgated by Stalin’s Minister of Propaganda, Andrei Zhdanov, remained at best incomplete. The contradictory claims of this orthodoxy were to be undermined by critical heirs of Brecht, especially Heiner Müller, whose work from the 1950s to his death in 1995 invoked the legacy of the Weimar left to challenge the SED’s exclusive claim to represent anti-fascism and anti-imperialism in Germany and beyond.

   Far from the Berlin Wall but still caught up in the Cold War melodrama, the newly declared Republic of South Africa attempted after its abrupt departure from the British Commonwealth in May 1961 to establish its credentials as a “young country” representing “Western civilization” on the African frontier. Among other institutions borrowed from Europe, the Afrikaner Nationalist government founded and subsidized Performing Arts Councils to display its Western aspirations. Although Brecht had been boycotted in West Germany – a key model for South African cultural policy – The Caucasian Chalk Circle opened in 1963, the inaugural year of the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT), albeit without Brecht’s controversial prologue of 1951, in which Soviet peasants discuss land redistribution. Alongside Shakespeare and patriotic Afrikaans drama, this production appeared as evidence of the “European” aspirations of white South Africa as a loyal ally of the West in the battle against Communism, which had been banned in South Africa in 1950.9 In contrast, in 1964, the not-yet-famous playwright Athol Fugard staged a South African interpretation of the play with the Serpent Players, a group of black performers with whom he went on to create theatre that deployed Brechtian techniques in the critical representation of South African reality, from The Coat (1966) to Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island (1972).

   South African engagement with international anti-fascist culture began well before Fugard, however. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) became the most integrated political organization in the country and supported anti-fascist cultural activism, albeit on a much smaller scale than the communist and socialist movements encountered by Brecht in Berlin. To be sure, Fugard and the Serpent Players stimulated the growth of anti-apartheid theatre that drew on Brecht’s example to produce the distinctively South African genre of the workshopped testimonial play, from Workshop ’71’s Survival (1976) to the collective creations of the Market Theatre, such as Born in the RSA (1985), and the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, best known for Sophiatown (1986). But, two generations before the leftist revival of the 1970s and one generation before the National Party banned the CPSA and any remotely related organization in the 1950s, associations with implicit or explicit socialist programs, from the CPSA through the socialist but non-communist Garment Workers’ Union to the African National Theatre, promoted anti-segregationist and anti-fascist cultural, political, and social programs from the 1920s to the 1940s.10 In forms from May Day parades and agit-prop skits on picket lines to formal performances of written drama for mixed (union/non-union, black/white) audiences, cultural production addressed not only the travails of local actors but also, as the Bantu Peoples’ Theatre put it in 1940, “economic disintegration, the breakdown of tribal economy, and the impoverishment of Europeans, the massing of classes in their trade unions and employer organizations,” as well as the “emotional complications of race and colour.”11 Personal and institutional links between South African activists and international socialist movements were forged, for instance, by CPSA members in Moscow from the 1920s, and by visitors to South Africa, such as André van Gyseghem, author of a book on Soviet theatre and animator of local events such as the Bantu Peoples’ Theatre’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Hairy Ape, or by emigrés such as Kurt Joachim Baum, whose Johannesburg Art Theatre influenced unionist Guy Routh. Over and above these links, the iconographic and performance forms of international socialism, from the Red Flag to the raised fist whose origin historian Eric Weitz traces to the KPD in 1926 and the agit-prop performance honed by workers’ groups not only in the Soviet Union and Germany, but across the world from the United States to Japan, permeated South African activism in this period, until the banning of the CPSA in 1950, and of most other mass organizations including the African National Congress (ANC) in the early 1960s, drove this legacy underground. From the 1970s, with the revival of mass opposition to apartheid, this legacy resurfaced in the form of anti-apartheid performance as well as of posters and publications of the movement.12

   The juxtaposition of these different inheritances of international socialism in performance – the official anti-fascism of the GDR as against the anti-apartheid activism of the outlawed CPSA and ANC and internal opposition to apartheid – might seem tendentious, were it not for the concrete historical links between the GDR and liberation movements like the ANC and SACP. Building on ties with the Soviet Union, which dated back to individual CPSA members studying in Moscow in the mid-1920s and the Communist International’s (Comintern’s) promotion of a “native republic” for South Africa, the SED set up a Solidarity Committee in 1960.13 In keeping with its memorialization of former Nazi concentration camps on GDR territory as sites commemorating the “victims of fascism . . . in many countries” (my emphasis), the SED promoted a foreign policy of “solidarity and support [solidarische Unterstützung] for the . . . liberation movements against imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism” in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.14 In the early 1970s, Western governments treated the ANC and SACP as little more than communist outlaws. Before the Basic Treaty between West and East Germany in December 1972 paved the way for the admission of both German states to the United Nations, the SACP and ANC delegations came to East Berlin in May to set up diplomatic missions-in-exile. This occasion, and GDR support for Southern African liberation movements more broadly, gave the government an international stage for proclaiming not merely solidarity with third world liberation, but also an “organic” link between the socialist tradition of international anti-fascism and the struggle against racism. Even though the very different experience of solidarity among exiles and solidarity among grassroots activists at home has led to tensions in post-apartheid South Africa, many ANC and SACP members bear witness to this link as they continue to speak the language of socialist solidarity.15 On the cultural front, GDR solidarity took the form of guest appearances of troupes from socialist countries from Cuba to Angola, and publication, in English and other languages alongside German, of the writings of exiles banned in their home countries.

   More surprisingly perhaps, this solidarity also included staging in translation the works of non-communist non-exiles such as Fugard. An admirer of Brecht, Fugard was an avowed liberal rather than a socialist. His plays spoke to GDR audiences interested not only in solidarity with the oppressed majority in South Africa, but also in the local resonances of his depiction of dissidence and oppression in the most intimate as well as the public sphere. The scale and intensity of racialized brutality perpetrated by the apartheid state far exceeded the oppressive measures of the SED, and this should alert readers against premature generalizations about undifferentiated “totalitarianism”, popularized more by ideologues’ manipulations of Hannah Arendt’s influential concept to fit the hardened polarizations of the Cold War than by her cogent analysis, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, of the dangerously unstable totalitarian movements unleashed by Hitler and Stalin a generation earlier.16 Nonetheless, the impact of Fugard in the GDR highlighted points of comparison between the infiltration, disinformation and detention operations of East German and South African institutions of surveillance, respectively the Ministry of State Security or Stasi and the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) and its successors, in two otherwise differently oppressive societies, and the capacity of theatre in each environment to constitute as a virtual public sphere the rehearsal of a potential alternative rather than a merely substitute form of public life.17

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