Notes from The Complete Brecht Toolkit

The Complete Brecht Toolkit by Stephan Unwin
Nick Hern Books. London, 2014

page 3

Even in his lifteime, however, Brecht was widely misunderstood. This is partly his own fault: his views were frequently contradictory and he could be willfully obscure.

page 5 (quoting Brecht)

“The modern theatre mustn’t be judged by its success in satisfying the audience’s habits but by its success in transforming them. It needs to be questioned not about its degree of conformity with the ‘eternal laws of the theatre’ but about its ability to master the rules governing the great social proccesses of our age; not about weahter it manages to interest the spectator in buying a ticket – i.e. in the theatre itself – but about whether it manages to interest him in the world” 

In other words, like Hamlet, Brecht didn’t just want his theatre to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’, he insisted that it should ‘show virtue of her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure1. Adapting a famous phrase from Karl Marx, he declared that ‘the theatrehas hitherto interpreted the world, the point is to change it’, and this central imperative (‘Change the world, it needs it!’) runs through all his work. 


page 2

Brecht devised his theatreical style as a way of engaging with the world in which he found himself, what he memorably called the ‘dark times’, and we cannot appreciate the first unless we accept its intimate connection with the second. 

Brecht didn’t intend his work to be applicable at all times and places, and refused to set in stone things that were intended to be provisional, and so it’s essential that we approach his work historically, as the product of a particular time and place. 


page 15 

With the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933, Brecht’s work was immediately banned. One of the world’s most sophisticated societies was sinkinginto barbarism and Brecht fled into exile. 

Brecht went first to Vienna, and then Zurich and Paris, […] He eventually joined his family – and Steffin – in Denmark, where he met the talented but troubled phtographer and actress Ruth Berlau. 

Brecht’s eight years in Scandinavia were characterized by enormous creativivity […]

page 16 

In 1940 Brecht moved to Finland […] Finally, with most of Europe under Nazi rule, Brecht’s party lefto for Moscow, where Steffin died of tuberculousis. With Weigel, Berlau and the two childre, he made his way to Vladivostok and boarded a ship for Los Angeles. 

page 17

[…] for the most part, Brecht was a fish out of water during his six long years in the USA. […]

Having mistified the House Un-American Activieis Committee, Brech went to Switzerland, the only country in Europe that had produced his work during the war. […]

Brecht finally arrived in the ruins of East Berlin in October 1948, and set about preparing his magnificent production of Mother Courage: with Weigel in the title role.  […] As a result of its huge success, Brecht and Weigel secrured funds for a new company, The Berliner Ensemble, with Weigel as Intendant (Cheief Executive) and Brecht as Artitistic Director. 

page 19, 20 

[On how he was influenced by the Bible] – […] The Bible’s emphasis on ordinary people offered Brecht a sense of how to combine the ordinary with the sublime, the earhy withthe grand, and the pragmatic with the visonary. […] Brecht grasped that they show change and development through a series of gestural actions: instead of trying to explain causality through psychological or social analysis, they declare ‘this happened and then that happened’ and leave us to come to our own conclusions. 

Brecht wanted to acheive a similar simplicity. His preductions concentrated, above all, on the human figure and a few telling objects, set against an emty background and under brilliant lights. And he used short dramatizations of episodes from the Bible in actor training. Brecht hoped tha tthis emphaisis on pure action, unmediated by morality or explanation, would guide the audience inexorably towards the play’s pedagogical purpose, even after event, action by action, moment by moment.

page 21

[on his attitude towards Aristotle’s Poetics]

He ignored Aristotel’s emphasis on the story and failed to recognise that thought and dramatic irony limit – and occasionally deny – empathy. […] What Brecht was really doing was rejecting ‘the well-made play’ – a kind of bourgeois drama he despised – and the histrionic and overemotional acting that was dominant in the German theatre of his time. 

page 27 

Emile Zola declared that ‘there is more poetry in the little apartment of a bougeois than in all the empty, worm-eaten palaces of history’. Naturalism, the movement that he launched, argued tha tthe everyday — money and work, food and drink, marriage and divorce, childbirth and death – were all suitable subjects of art, which could describe reality with the same level of objectivity that was being acheived in science. The naturalists argued that an individiual’s actions were the product of his environment, and saw the study of the material surfaces of the world as essential. This had enduring consquences on all those who followed, and Brecht’s work – so often though of as the antithesis of naturalism – was impossible without its pioneering acheivements. 

Brecht, of course, had a complex relationship with naturalism, and his reaction against it needs to be seen as a rejection of its subject – bourgeois life – rather than as a disapproval of its artistic form. 

page 34 

Expressionism was the leading progressive artistic form in Brecht’s yought and he found it difficult to escape its influence. Indeed, it could be argued that Brecht’s youthful theatre is nothing less than a working-out of his complex relationship with it. But his reaction was more than merely formal: he challenged its solipsistic self-indulgence and exalting of the mythological above the concrete, the individual over the social. 

page 35

NB! (some Norwegian teachers teach that everything between Stanislavski and postmodernism is “modernism”. I don’t like to lump the early modernists with those who came after formalism. They are too different. There are theorist who model it in different ways – almost all sources I know distinguish modernism from modern theatre clearly and do not put Brecht in with moderism because he is technically not a formalist. This quote explains my choice to teach this way, and it also explains why I put Oscar Wilde in with the early modernists:) 

‘Modernisme wish the other dominate cultural movement of Brecht’s youth. Inspired by Rimboauds dictum that ‘one must be absoltely modern’, it insisted that all aspects of contemporary experience could – and should – be expressed in art. 

Modernism’s reaction against ‘historicism’ was largely a middle-class phenomenon and, at times, strikingly reactionary – even militaristic – in its tone. So it’s hardly surprising that Brecht’s view was complex. He tended to dismiss its self-consciousness because of his desire to create socially useful drama: but, at the same time, he opposed narrow definitions of artistic form, and rejected hte claim that only the ‘realist’ novel could proved a model for working-class art. 

With his particular combination of political commitment and radical form, Brecht occuspies an duncomfortable lniche in modernism’s hall of fame. […] For many reasons – above all, the collapse of hte political causes that Brecht championed – a kind of apolitical and fequently modish modernism has triumphed in theater. And when Brecht’s work is praised, it’s usually for its quality of modernism, not its political lor social content. What’s overlooked, perhaps, is Breche’s commitment to certain enduring values – 

page 36 

peace and social justice. If we are to learn from Brecht’s example, we lmust see how he subjected even the most contemporary of artistic form to these overarching imperatives. 

page 38 

[regarding existentialism following World War II]

Brecht regarded this movement with distain, preferring a fuller engagement with the turmoils of society. Nevertheless, his late poems betray a growing disallusionment with Soviet Communism and, occassionally, touch on the despair that was the basis for existential thinking.