February 10, 2010
As seen from the 21st century, BERTOLT BRECHT (1898-1956 ) looks a bit like Sleeping Beauty, dreaming on his bier behind an impenetrable thicket of Marxism and theory. Even his concept of the Verfremdungseffekt (“alienation effect”) promises a tangle of thorns, because — watching the great cultural flywheel turn over — Brecht the Arch-Modernist Dramatist begins to look like the Brecht the Postmodern Punk. Don’t be fooled by his godlike status in the theater; his import is not limited to the most recent production of Happy End, The Good Person of Szechuan, or The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The counter-weighted ironies that crank and jerk at Brecht’s plays have become a common tongue for filmmakers: there’s no Fellini and no Godard without Brecht; nor does Scorsese open Mean Streets with “Be My Baby” or Todd Haynes cast six different actors as Bob Dylan. But I don’t mean to argue that Brecht’s strategies are more important than his plays. Light a candle at a lesser shrine, then, for Brecht’s bruising intelligence; his steadfast, illusion-free humanism; and for his song “Mack the Knife,” which saved Bobby Darin from a lifetime of performing “Splish Splash” at oldies shows.
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