Other than William Shakespeare, is there any playwright who has shaped modern theatre more than Brecht?
I had the great pleasure of seeing the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan last Friday night. It wasn’t a flawless production (it’s certainly not a flawless play). The first scene of the play fumbled awkwardly to keep the audience’s attention. But the second half, after intermission, was a truly evocative piece of social critique, and went down like a warm glass of milk. The story of a hooker with a heart of gold who struggles to stay good under the stress of economic pressure, but can’t find stability without creating a male alter-ego, is not something from an understated drama. In fact, it’s incredibly didactic, bludgeoning you with its “ideas” and “themes” and “messages”. But it works because that’s Brecht’s intention. He asks us difficult questions but is smart (honest?) enough to know he doesn’t have any answers. Despite the fact The Good Soul of Szechuan isn’t much more than a parable, it manages to be heartfelt and humanistic, much to the credit of Robyn Malcom’s performance in the central role.
For all the “distancing effects” and ideas of “epic theatre” Brecht and his practitioners apply, there is an undeniable empathy in his works. They might be political works that attempt to make us think. But the personal is political, as it is often said. We cannot separate the two. And if we dare to turn theatre into pure spectacle and mere entertainment we do a great disservice to the medium.
If you had told me I would one day consider Brecht to be one of my favourite writers just a couple of years ago I’d have laughed and rolled my eyes at you, sarcastically retorting, “Yeah, right, mate,” in an intensely dismissive and glib fashion.
But Brecht will never be out of fashion. His messages are as pertinent as ever.
I’d like to wrap up this little tribute with a quote from the man himself. I feel Brecht’s fingers pointed directly at me as I read these words. No doubt they will only mean more to me as I grow older, echoing in my mind:
“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”