Brecht, A Choice of Evils, Martin Esslin. Eyre & Spottiswoode. 36/-.
it may seem foolhardy to criticise a book which Eric Bentley has called “the best thing that has yet been written about Brecht in any language”, and Ken Tynan “a brilliantly perceptive study of the most ambiguous and perpetually fascinating figure of the 20th-century theatre”. Messrs. Bentley and Tynan are, after all, men of the Left. Both knew Brecht personally; and both know as much as anybody about Brecht’s significance for the modern theatre. Why, then, have they followed the ‘bourgeois’ critics in praising a work that, in effect, contradicts all that Brecht stood for?
The most charitable explanation, of course, is that they did it for love of Brecht, believing that any kind of publicity for Brecht and his ideas is better than none. And it should be said at once that there is a great deal in Mr. Esslin’s book to which nobody could take exception. About half the book consists of biography; this is extremely interesting in itself, and is a useful supplement to Mr. Willett’s largely nonbiographical The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht (Methuen, 36/-). Most of it is, inevitably, political biography; and there is no doubt that this part of the book will be deeply resented by Brecht’s friends and pupils in East Berlin. They will take it as Cold War propaganda of the most vicious kind. Whether they will be right, I’m not sure—since I’m not sure what Mr. Esslin really intends with his many ‘revelations’ about Brecht’s troubles with the Party. These troubles are not just a chimera of Mr. Esslin’s imagination (I heard something of them myself in East Berlin). But what do they prove? If Mr. Esslin is telling us that the Communist Parties are the modern strongholds of Philistia, do we still need to be told that? Brecht anticipated trouble in East Berlin, and got it: but he also got, what nobody in the West had offered him, a theatre of his own where he could work out his ideas. In choosing the East, Brecht would have said he was choosing the greater, because the more practical, freedom.
I don’t think Mr. Esslin would deny this. And in so far as Mr. Esslin gives a detailed documentary account of what it is like to be a creative artist in a Communist society, the facts he has gathered are of enormous interest, not least to readers of NLR. It can hardly be a full portrait, of course, because so much of Brecht’s work remains unpublished, and because to so many of Brecht’s closest friends loyalty to him is still synonymous with loyalty to the Ulbricht régime. Nor is it always quite accurate. Mr. Esslin states, for instance, that Brecht is widely known in the West, and almost unknown in the East. This was perhaps true at the time of his death; but it is not true now. His plays are performed as much in East, as in West, Germany at the present time; and he is very well-known in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland. The visit of the Berliner Ensemble to the Soviet Union in 1957 may not have been a great success; but Mr. Esslin does not allow for the general cultural backwardness of a country that had liquidated its most brilliant men of the theatre—Tairov, Meyerhold—20 years before. The point I am trying to make is that the reasons for official Party suspicion of Brecht may not be as political as Mr. Esslin supposes. Picasso is, after all, in a similar position.
At times, Mr. Esslin seems to be out to prove Brecht’s unorthodoxy by means of his ‘revelations’. The logic runs: no great artist can be a good Communist; Brecht was a great artist; therefore Brecht was not a good Communist. This kind of argument is very popular in West Germany, for obvious reasons. It enables West Germans to enjoy Brecht without feeling that they are taking part in subversive activities. But it is quite false: Brecht was a subversive. And you can’t get round Brecht’s Communism as easily as that. The fact that Brecht wrote—and published—squibs at the expense of the Party bureaucracy does not prove that he was not ‘a good Communist’. Nor does Harich’s claim (made three months after his death) that Brecht had been one of his supporters seem quite convincing: Brecht was a sly fox, he would hardly have committed himself if he had known how far Harich was prepared to go in his ‘revisionism’. The truth is, as Mr. Esslin seems at other times ready to admit, that Brecht thought of himself as a much better Marxist than his Party critics. He claimed that his theatre was superior to Soviet theatre, because he claimed that it was more truly Marxist. This is a claim that ought to have been investigated. Mr. Esslin does not do so; and his careful (though necessarily incomplete) documentation of Brecht’s political misadventures is no sort of substitute for a critical analysis of Brecht’s oeuvre and dramatic theory.