Bertolt Brecht

By: David Smay
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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What do you think?

  1. Lovely piece, David. But don’t forget his poems! It’s pretty commonly overlooked that he was one of the century’s greatest poets, since he was plainspoken and immediate and earthy as well as lyrical. You could almost say that as a poet he wasn’t a modernist at all–but that just might indicate that he was far ahead of his time.

  2. That’s funny, my new year’s resolution was to be as cool as Ingrid.

    Luc, the reason I didn’t mention Brecht’s poetry relates to that “commonly overlooked” thing. But no more! My wife informs me that we have a volume of his twisted children’s rhymes and I will address my ignorance.

  3. I haven’t checked the Poetry League standings lately, but–greatest poets, really? I don’t know enough to agree or disagree, but it surprises me to hear this, because everything I’ve read (in translation, of course, so who knows what sort of violence has been done) has been kind of… prosaic. Can you give a pointer to some of his major work?

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