Theatre in Wales

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Summer Theatre Book (3)- digging into Brecht

Theatre Writer Book

Stephen Unwin , Nick Hern Books , June 18, 2015
Theatre Writer Book by Stephen Unwin Stephen Unwin makes reference at one point to his book as a sketch. He does himself a disservice. A book of two hundred and twelve pages may be taut, compressed and filed with sense. Just as equally it can be baggy, hollow, bulked out with padding. This toolkit, a companion to the same publisher’s Stanislavsky toolkit, is very much of the Nick Hern stable. It is authored by a seasoned theatre-maker, it is compact and nimbly edited, it is surefooted in knowledge of its audience. Both theatre professionals and theatre-goers, those who look to a guide to Brecht through the adumbrations of myth, legend and ideologically grounded wrong-headedness to the art’s centre, will benefit from its reading.

As a toolkit it is comprised of five sections. “In Context” tackles the life and the influences, intellectual and aesthetic. Unwin deflates the notion of his subject as ideologue on his first page. “A man with one theory is lost. He must have several, four, many!” declares Brecht. The influences on the voraciously reading young writer are manifold. His enthusiasm for Shakespeare is as great and as genuine as that for popular culture. Among the classics of the German theatre his preference goes to Kleist. Unwin links Azdak back to the corrupt Judge Adam of “the Broken Jug.”

Brecht read Karl May and Jack London. Like Picasso, Joyce and Stravinsky, says Unwin, he was “drawn to the cabaret and circus in search for a unique kind of modern energy." Brecht loved the satire of Kraus, Tucholsky and Mehring. He himself appeared on stage with Karl Valentin.

Unwin looks to Walter Benjamin for an early understanding of the Brechtian theatre. “Epic theatre...advances by fits and starts, like the images on a film strip.” The film analogy links Brecht to his contemporaries. The radically anti-classical Expressionists were located in Munich, the city adjacent to Brecht’s native Augsburg. Doeblin of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was among his Berlin circle. John Heartfield, a few years his senior, was similarly to meld political purpose to innovative form.

Unwin is a director and devotes three pages to his own directing of “die Massnahme” for the Almeida, timed ominously for the night of 1987’s General Election. As a maker he recognises “Brecht’s theatre- and his theory- is exceptionally eclectic”. The corollary of this eclecticism is that “we'd best approach Brecht's theoretical writings with some caution.” He admits that the very concept of alienation is misleading in English. It is a lousy translation of the word “Entfremdung”. If the word were recirculated in its true sense of “enstranging”, admittedly a neologism, it would get Brecht off that pedestal of chill, dogma and uniqueness. All art of consequence carries within it a distancing, the shock of the new.

The legacy of Brechtian encrustation carries an unhelpful weight of baggage. Like so many established dichotomies the one set up between Brecht and Aristotle does not stand up to much testing. French classical drama travels rarely to Britain and rarely successfully. It is questionable whether a Racinean protagonist invites empathy and the whole issue of empathy or otherwise is in any case located within the domain of cognitive psychology. Theatre commentators, rather than creators, are liable to make occasional declaration as to what is occurring inside the collective mind of the audience. Since the consciousness of a stranger is unknowable such declarations are ignorant and impertinent.

Similar difficulties with notions of character arise as to whether indeed personhood is “the result of social conditions and not the other way round “ Look to the under-appreciated George Herbert Mead and the Social Interactionists and it is questionable how much essence remains in character that is not expressed via social relation. “The Complete Brecht Toolkit” comes with the great advantage of an author who is a person of the theatre.

Makers of theatre have to know language. In his chapter “In Practice” Unwin looks, and cites in full, four different translations into English of the opening of “Mother Courage”. The translators are John Willett, Michael Hoffmann, Eric Bentley and Unwin himself. He concludes on the scale of variation that “the exceptionally rich texture of Brecht’s language is hard to render into actable English.”

Unwin’s six pages on the approach to acting Brecht look exemplary. Given that the term that Brecht himself used was “Versuche” or “attempts” “this sense of the provisional is fundamental to Brechtian acting”. Avoid solemn, says Unwin, “an inner optimism is the key.”

The last quarter of the book is given to exercises, fifty created by Julian Jones of Rose Bruford College. The approach to “gestus” starts with Grandmother’s Footsteps. Other exercises are called “the Hand Tower”, “the Baton of Truth”, “Jekyll and Hyde” and “A Hat Full of Archetypes”.

Unwin approaches Brecht as artist rather than seer or ideologue. If consistency is indeed the last refuge of the imaginative Unwin hails “the unique mixture of radical innovation and classical restraint, scepticism and hope, deep seriousness and anarchic wit.” This is a book to be highly recommended.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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