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 It can hardly be a full portrait, of course, because so much of Brecht’s work remains unpublished, and because to so many of Brecht’s closest friends loyalty to him is still synonymous with loyalty to the Ulbricht régime.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.
So far, Mr. Esslin’s book simply has the defects of any biographical approach to literary criticism: mere piling-up of biographical facts helps little, and can hinder fatally, a critical understanding of the works themselves. But I can’t say that I find even Mr. Esslin’s strictly literary criticism very satisfactory. Take, for instance, his remarks on Brecht as a ‘poet’: “. . . without the stamp of greatness impressed on them by their poetry these plays could never have exercised such an influence. They would not even have been noticed . . . ” What does this mean? Since Brecht’s greatest plays are written in prose, “poetry” must here imply some quality added to “heighten” the language, and separable from it. This would be a devastating criticism of Brecht, if it were true. And if by “poetry” Mr. Esslin means no more than ‘mastery of language’ (which is what he does mean, I suppose) then he is simply telling us that Brecht’s plays would not have been noticed if Brecht had not been a great writer.
But it is when Mr. Esslin attempts a systematic interpretation of the plays that I find myself disagreeing most profoundly. This occurs in the final section of the book, entitled, somewhat presumptuously: ‘The Real Brecht’. A few quotations will give the general pattern of thought: “The tension between the poet’s conscious aim and the subconscious, emotional content of his work of which he himself is unaware, is in Brecht’s case the source of its poetic power.” “. . . the conflict between the rational and the instinctive was itself one of the main themes of Brecht’s poetic work. His very denial of the emotional factor is an indication of his constant preoccupation with this subject . . . (sic!) . . . the most obvious outcome of Brecht’s refusal to admit the irrational was his blindness towards the real meaning and content of some of his best work . . .” There we have it: Brecht was blind to the real meaning of his own work, but Mr. Esslin is here to give us the inside story. By this method, both Brecht’s theories and the dictates of common sense can be safely ignored. The plays are not at all what they seem to be. Mother Courage, Galileo, The Good Woman of Setzuan are not ‘about’ War, or the conflict between New Science and Old Church, or the predicament of the good man in an evil world: they are about the eternal struggle between Reason and Instinct. Mr. Esslin claims that his interpretation actually enhances the significance of the plays: it would seem to me to diminish their significance radically, and make Brecht look a fool into the bargain. But the question is: is Mr. Esslin’s interpretation right?