Presentation on theme: "Bertolt Brecht | The Threepenny Opera. Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) 1917-8Enrols as medical student at Munich University; conscripted into German army as."— Presentation transcript:
Bertolt Brecht | The Threepenny Opera
Bertolt Brecht ( ) Enrols as medical student at Munich University; conscripted into German army as medical orderly. Writes first play, Baal Writes such important early works as Man equals Man (1925) and The Threepenny Opera (1928). Studies Marxism in the early ’30s. 1933Nazi’s seize power in Germany. Brecht flees the country, eventually settling in Denmark In exile, writes the plays for which he’s best known: The Life of Gaileo (1938), Mother Courage and her Children (1939), The Good Person of Szechwan (1941), The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944) Returns to Germany (the DDR) and establishes the Berliner Ensemble Mourns the death of Stalin in 1953; awarded and accepts the Stalin Peace Prize the following year.
Brecht’s collaborators Elisabeth Hauptmann: typed his manuscripts; helped him to write his plays before Translated Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera for Brecht. Margarete Steffin: worked with Brecht on the mss of most of his finest works. Helene Weigel: Brecht’s second wife; the original Mother Courage; ran the Berliner Ensemble after Brecht’s death. Kurt Weill: a composer who worked with Brecht from ; wrote the music for The Threepenny Opera. Caspar Neher: celebrated stage designer. Produced the set for The Threepenny Opera.
Brecht’s epic theatre: an overview TWO NOTES OF CAUTION! 1.Brecht is a notoriously difficult theorist to follow. His ideas developed and changed significantly over the course of his life and his various pronouncements often seem to contradict one another. 1.Brecht’s turn to Marxism largely postdates his writing of The Threepenny Opera. Some of his later statements about the play might be understood as trying to give it, post hoc, a more rigorously Marxist message and structure to the play. EPIC THEATRE? For Brecht, “epic” theatre was the opposite of “dramatic” theatre. DRAMATIC: Brecht identified this with Aristotle’s emphasis on climatic structure, noble characters, fatalism, and catharsis. Naturalism (think Ibsen) and expressionism (think Strindberg). EPIC: Brecht looked back to Homer and his representation of history for a vision of a theatre that engaged with larger social, political, and historical realities.
Brecht’s epic theatre: an overview (Brecht on Theatre, 37) DRAMATIC THEATREEPIC THEATRE plotNarrative implicates the spectator in a stage situationturns the spectator into an observer wears down his capacity for action (the world as it is) arouses his capacity for action (the world as it is becoming) provides the audience with sensationsforces the audience to take decisions communicates experiences to the spectatorscommunicates insights/presents a picture of the world the spectator is involved in somethingspectator is made to face something suggestionargument instinctive feelings are preservedbrought to the point of recognition the spectator is in the thick of it, shares the experience the spectator stands outside, studies the human being is taken for grantedthe human being is the object of the inquiry he is unalterablehe is alterable and able to alter eyes on the finisheyes on the course growthmontage linear developmentIn curves man as a fixed pointman as a process thought determines beingsocial being determines thought feelingreason
Brecht’s epic theatre: key concepts GESTUS The most difficult of all Brechtian words. A term coined by Brecht which combines the senses of ‘gesture’ and ‘gist’. The Gestus materializes the social attitudes and relationships of the characters. Gestus is not only about movement; language, music, even an entire scene, can sometimes be said to be gestic. “Gest is not supposed to mean gesticulation: it is not a matter of explanatory or emphatic movements of the hands, but overall attitudes.” (BoT, 104) VERFREMDUNGSEFFEKT A tricky word to translate. Variously translated as the “alienation effect” and “the estrangement effect”. Often abbreviated to “the V-effeft”. The conscious attempt to prevent the reader from identifying with, or empathizing with, or taking for granted what’s happening on stage. Not just about preventing empathy but also about denaturalizing – making strange – what is familiar to the audience as a means of exposing the ideological underpinnings of bourgeois capitalism. First described by Brecht in his essay “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting” (1936).
Key influences on the development of epic theatre ERWIN PISCATOR AND AGITPROP If Brecht was one key personality in the development of epic theatre, then the German director Erwin Piscator ( ) was the other. Agitprop = agitation and propaganda. Partisan political theatre. Picscator’s agitprop productions made use of bold but simple narratives, documentary material (posters, projections etc.), narration, song, cartoon-like stereotypes. Piscator’s The Political Theatre (1929) outlined his theory of epic theatre. Differences from Brecht: where Brecht moved increasingly towards parable as a means of exposing the inner workings of capitalism, Piscator always took the grand view. “Where agit-prop theatre’s task was to stimulate immediate action (e.g. a strike against a wage-cut) and was liable to be overtaken in the political situation, Die Mutter [Brecht’s 1932 play] was meant to go further and teach the tactics of the class war … play and production showed real people together and a process of development, a genuine story running through the play, such as the agit-prop theatre normally lacks.” (BoT, 62) Brecht sought a theatre that was dialectical rather than didactic.
Key influences on the development of epic theatre GREEK TRAGEDY Brecht adapted Sophocles’s Antigone in “The Antigone story … unrolls the whole chain of incidents objectively … Greek dramaturgy uses certain forms of alienation, notably interventions of the chorus…” (Brecht on Theatre, 210) ENGLISH ELIZABETHAN AND JACOBEAN DRAMA Brecht directed Marlowe’s Edward II (1924), and adapted Duchess of Malfi (1946) and Coriolanus (1951) “Take the element of conflict in Elizabethan plays, complex shifting, largely impersonal, never soluble, and then see what has been made of it today … Compare the part played by empathy then and now. What a contradictory, complicated and intermittent operation it was in Shakespeare’s theatre!” (BoT, 161) Brecht was also influenced by Japanese theatre, cabaret, the fairground, music hall entertainment, and silent films (of Charlie Chaplin esp.).
Key influences on the development of epic theatre MARX AND DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM Brecht began studying the works of Karl Marx in 1926 and in 1932 received instruction in Marxism by his friend Karl Korsch, a Marxist theoretician. Marxism gave Brecht’s ideas – and his critique of capitalism – new theoretical force and precision. Dialectical Materialism The philosophical spine of Marxism and its understanding of history. United materialism, the philosophical belief that the universe is composed only of matter –a philosophy that embraces nature and science… With the Hegelian notion of dialectic: the historical force that drives events (and thought) onwards. This process is one of overcoming the contradiction between thesis and antithesis that inheres in each historical epoch, by means of synthesis. The synthesis in turn becomes contradicted and the process repeats itself – until final perfection is reached. Where, for Hegel, the dialectic was spiritual or logical, for Marx it was properly material.
Key influences on the development of epic theatre DIALECTICAL THEATRE Brecht sometimes called epic theatre, “dialectical theatre” (and late on entirely abandoned the former for the later). Epic theatre might be thought of as dialectical in two ways: 1. It pits two forces, ideas etc. against one another. Not only its ways of understanding and presenting society but also its very structure is dialectical. “The new school of play-writing must systematically see to it that its form includes ‘experiment’ … it needs equilibrium and has a tension which governs its components and ‘loads’ them against each other.” (BoT, 210) 2. It seeks to engage the audience dialectically. Rather than preaching to them – forcing them to swallow a particular message (agitprop) – dialectical theatre presents contradictions that spectators, rather than the drama itself, must confront and overcome.
Techniques of epic theatre No attempt to conceal the illusion of theatre Curtains should not hide scene changes; lights and other technological apparatus should be exposed. Use of history Setting a play in the past (such nineteenth-century London) makes the situations remote from the audience. Use of the latest stage technology Screens, projectors, revolving stages (most famously used in Mother Courage) enable the theatre to present a dynamic – and scientific – theatre. Episodic structure A lesson borrowed especially from Elizabethan theatre. Abrupt shifts not linear progression (think of the tight structure of Hedda Gabler). Influenced by the montage technique developed by pioneer filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein. This episodic structure is emphasized by…
Techniques of epic theatre Titles and screens At the beginning of each scene, a placard or projection offers spectators a summary of what is to be shown. There are rarely neutral, offering the audience an attitude as much as a synopsis. Before the Coronation bells had died away, Mack the Knife was sitting with the whores of Turnbridge! The whores betray him. It is Thursday evening. (Threepenny Opera, 2.v) Set for the 1928 production of The Threepenny Opera, showing the curtain and screens. “The screens on which the titles of each scene are projected are a primitive attempt at literalizing the theatre … As he reads the projections on the screen the spectator adopt an attitude of smoking-and-watching” (BoT, 43-4)
Techniques of epic theatre Music
Techniques of epic theatre Music Music used to disrupt or juxtapose other elements of the performance. “When an actor sings he undergoes a change of function. Nothing is more revolting than when the actor pretends not to notice that he has left the plain of speech and started to sing … The actor must not only sing but show a man singing … As for melody, he must not blindly follow it: there is a kind of speaking-against-the-music which can have strong effects.” (Threepenny Opera, 86-7) The music for The Threepenny Opera was composed by Kurt Weill. He created a score that mixed modernist and contemporary popular idioms, particular jazz and ragtime. Deliberate anachronism between the setting of the play (nineteenth century) and the music (emphatically twentieth century). As Weill wrote: “I had before me a realistic plot, and this forced me to make music work against it if I was to prevent it from making a realistic impact.” (Threepenny Opera, 90) Songs always come with lighting/scenic change: “Song lighting; golden glow. The organ is lit up. Three lamps lowered on a pole, and the sign says…”
John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) Purports to have been written by a beggar (hence the title), who introduces the play at the start. Gay stages the criminal underworld – whores, thieves, highwayman, pickpockets, informants and so on – in the gin-soaked streets and taverns of 18 th -century London. Invented the new genre of the ballad opera: spoken dialogue interspersed with songs set to popular tunes and folk songs. Satirized the vogue in London for Italian opera (introduced by Handel). Satirized Robert Walpole, the leader of the government (often called the “first prime minister”) – especially in the character of Peachum, a a receiver of stolen goods and, at same time, an informer (he impeaches others, hences his name).
The Beggar’s Opera: high life and low life Throughout The Beggar’s Opera, Gay points to vices and crimes that are as rife in the higher orders as in the lower – the only difference being that the lower classes face punishment for those transgressions while the wealthy have enough money to be above the law. BEGGAR: Through the whole piece you may observe such a similitude of manners in high and low life, that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen. Had the play remained, as I at first intended, it would have carried a most excellent moral. 'Twould have shown that the lower sort of people have their vices in a degree as well as the rich: and that they are punished for them. (3.xvi) JEMMY TWITCHER: Why are the laws levelled at us? Are we more dishonest than the rest of mankind? (2.i) As William Empson wrote: “The main joke is not against the characters of the play at all …it is against the important people who are like the characters” (Some Version of the Pastoral, 159).
How does Brecht adapt The Beggar’s Opera? Relocates the play to nineteenth-century. Peachum now in charge of a network of professional beggars, whose outfits and narratives are carefully designed to elicit sympathy from the rich. Lockit – the corrupt jailor of Gay’s play – becomes Tiger Brown, London’s police chief and one of Mac’s long-time associates. Macheath the roguish highwayman becomes Mac the Knife, a vicious gang leader and pimp. Like Gay’s Macheath Gay’s play, Mac can’t resist the allure of a brothel who is arrested, escapes, and is arrested again; unlike Gay’s Macheath, who is relatively harmless, Mac the Knife is openly callous and quite untroubled by the violence and murders perpetrated by his gang. Brecht retains Polly and Lucy (though Lucy now only pretends to be carrying Mac’s child). Brecht also retains, and revises, the ironized happy ending of Gay’s play, where the Player intervenes to request that the Beggar spare Macheath’s life. In The Threepenny Opera, Brecht posits this change in classical terms – as a “deus ex machina” – and also overtly politicizes it (Mac is pardoned by the Queen … think back to Tartuffe).
Bourgeois bandits In his notes to the play, Brecht stresses the importance of representing the respectability of the criminal world he depicts. “The bandit Macheath must be played as a bourgeois phenomenon. The bourgoisie’s fascination with bandits rests on a misconception: that a bandit is not a bourgeois. This misconception is the child of another misconception: that a bourgeois is not a bandit.” (Threepenny Opera, 82-3) Macheath is the quintessential bourgeois man: A businessman. A creature of habit. A man who claims cultural sophistication: “A rosewood harpsichord along with a renaissance sofa. That’s unforgiveable.” (1.ii) But who will prioritizes economy and utility: “Get the legs sawn off that harpsichord” (1.ii). “Between ourselves it’s only a matter of time before I go over into banking altogether. It’s safer and more profitable.” (2.iv) “The qualification ‘peaceable’ normally attributed to the bourgeois by our theatre is here achieved by Macheath’s dislike, as a good businessman, of shedding blood except where strictly necessary – for the sake of business.” (Threepenny Opera, 83)
Sympathy and theatricality: The Beggar’s Friend Ltd Peachum states: “my business is arousing human sympathy” (1.i). In his notes, Brecht states that the character isn’t “wicked” but is simply “following the trend of the times” (Threepenny Opera, 80, 82). Through Peachum, Brecht offers a critique of the commodification of suffering … and also of the theatre of sympathy. Peachum understands that reality of deprivation and misery doesn’t elicit sympathy – only disgust and shock: “nobody can make his own suffering sound convincing, my boy. If you have a bellyache and say so, people will simply be disgusted” (1.i) So he specializes in a theatre of fake poverty: suffering is presented in a moderated, sanitized, and narrativized form. Using costume and the bible he turns misery into art. Sympathy offers the conscience an escape route.
Cynicism and the language of class warfare Characters repeatedly make political statements. Peachum: … I discovered that the rich on this earth find no difficulty in creating misery, they can’t bear to see it.” (3.vii) Macheath: … We lower middle-class artisans who toil with our humble jemmies on small shopkeepers' cash registers are being swallowed up by big corporations backed by the banks. What's a jemmy compared with a share certificate? What's breaking into a bank compared with founding a bank? What's murdering a man compared with employing a man? Fellow citizens, I hereby take my leave of you. (3.ix) Important to distinguish between these statements (which are true) and the characters speaking them (who are being disingenuous). Macheath isn’t a “lower middle-class artisan” but – as he faces the scaffold – he cynically mobilizes the language of class to elicit sympathy and outrage from others. Victimhood is mere rhetoric. The Threepenny Opera shows how adept are the bourgeoisie at appropriating the language of class and injustice whenever it serves their needs.
Happy Endings “The Threepenny Opera is concerned with bourgeois conceptions not only as content, by representing them, but also through the manner in which it does so.” (81) Brecht insisted that the finale – the deus ex machina that spares Macheath - ought to be play seriously. The satire emerges because it’s played straight. “There is no avoiding the sudden appearance of the Royal Mounted Messenger if the bourgeoisie are to see their own world depicted.” (87) The happy ending is a bourgeois form. It offers the fantasy of resolution – but a fantasy that is robust precisely because it recognizes itself as fantasy. Photograph of the 1928 production. At the close, Peachum states: “In real life the fates [the poor] meet can only be grim. Saviours on horseback are seldom met with in practice.” (3.ix) “Injustice should be spared from persecution: | Soon it will freeze to death, for it is cold.” What does this mean?