No one’s to blame for crises!
Over us, changeless and inscrutable, rule
The laws of economics.
And natural catastrophes recur
In dreadful cycles.

Bertolt Brecht, Saint Joan of the Stockyards

How relevant is Brecht today? Put another way: how severely has the closure of capitalist horizons affected the unique combination of political convictions, aesthetic theses and literary methods that compose the texture of his art? The foregrounding of artistic artifice was a general method of the avant-garde, of course, part of its determination to tear away the sanctifying veil of aesthetic form by attacking reverential attitudes, de-automatizing the audience’s attention, dulled by habit, or highlighting the material aspect of the artist’s work, to align it with other forms of production. All of these dimensions existed in the Brechtian method, yet there they also underwent a change of purpose through being directly inscribed within the turn from capitalism to communism.

The link between provocative experimentalism and the struggle for the political transformation of society conferred on Brecht’s work a peculiar type of relevance, not to mention authority. For the same reasons, it would become more vulnerable than others to the denial that history inflicted on its expectations. In exploring the complex ways in which different aspects of his multi-dimensional project have resonated with specific historical and social experiences, I want to begin by playing devil’s advocate—explaining the grounds for thinking that Brecht today has no relevance whatsoever.footnote1

Although he considered himself the creator and theoretician of a new theatre, Brecht insisted on the antiquity of anti-illusionist drama. It had been practised by the Chinese and Japanese, by Elizabethans and Spaniards of the Golden Age, not to mention the medieval mystery plays and the didacticism of Jesuit priests. His representational techniques became modern in a strong sense only when they were taken up again within the horizons opened up by the revolutionary movements, around the time of the First World War. Under those circumstances, several societies—perhaps more accurately, several cities—began to develop a political theatre.footnote2 Brecht would describe its public as ‘an assembly of world transformers’: proletarian in character, critical in spirit and equipped not only with a well-formulated dissatisfaction but with subversively practical proposals.footnote3 If it is not a retrospective illusion, this audience, tailor-made for political theatre, existed during a brief period, in a few places, attached to special conditions. It was the result of the junction between the ‘free theatres’—an important experiment, affiliated with literary naturalism, in which the voluntary contribution of its members removed business considerations from the scene—and the historical advance of autonomous workers’ organizations; within its limits, the alliance would produce a ‘popular appropriation of the means of cultural production’.footnote4 By the 1930s, however, with the imposition of Soviet national interests onto the workers’ movement, the picture changed. The critical dimension of Brechtian estrangement no longer had the winds of history in its favour, especially in the socialist camp; it became an exercise in style, or in nostalgia.

His trademark, of course, was ‘narrative’ theatre. As against conventional ‘dramatic’ staging, in which the actor identifies himself with his role and tries to live it in the flesh, here he would consider the role from a distance, as if he were narrating it from the outside, in the third person. Anti-illusionist staging would lay bare the methods of theatricalization: the audience would become aware of the constructed quality of the figures on the stage and, by extension, that of the reality they imitate and interpret. In underlining the pretence involved in theatrical action, the extent to which it is a made thing, Brecht wanted to demonstrate that actions of everyday life also have a representational aspect: the roles played there could be different, too, for social processes were mutable. This was in contrast to the ‘Aristotelian’ theatre which, through catharsis, helped men to discover an equilibrium in the face of the eternal and immutable nature of human affairs.

These themes are summarized in the 1930 Prologue of The Exception and the Rule, where the author-narrator addresses the students for whom the play is intended:

We are about to tell you
The story of a journey. An exploiter
And two of the exploited are the travellers.
Examine carefully the behaviour of these people:
Find it surprising though not unusual
Inexplicable though normal
Incomprehensible though it is the rule.
Consider even the most insignificant, seemingly simple
Action with distrust. Ask yourselves whether it is necessary
Especially if it is usual.
We ask you expressly to discover
That what happens all the time is not natural.
For to say that something is natural
In such times of bloody confusion
Of ordained disorder, of systematic arbitrariness
Of inhuman humanity, is to
Regard it as unchangeable.footnote5