The Recent Explosion of Brecht Publications in English
The AHRC-funded Writing Brecht project, of which I was a team member, is winding down after several years’ service. Now seems like a good time to celebrate its achievements by picking out four of the highlights that emerged over the years.
This is perhaps the most significant publication of the project in that it not only updates the translations of the existing essays John Willett collected in 1964, but adds significantly more material to the original volume. There are over forty new essays and reflections on theatre for readers to engage with. The rigorous editing and overhaul of the terminology makes this a reliable treasure-trove for those wishing to engage with Brecht’s evolving theoretical positions on theatre.
This new volume collects important material, some previously unavailable, and puts it together in one place. The book re-presents Brecht’s Messingkauf Dialogues and translates them more literally and accurately (by deleting the ‘dialogues’) as Buying Brass, but does considerably more than just that. The editors add the ‘Practice Pieces for Actors’ and organize the fragmentary material in such a way that its lack of connectedness is made clear, but through lines can nonetheless be traced. Extracts from Brecht’s ‘modelbooks’ follow. They show how the director sought to document his theatre work and to comment on it as an active way, reflecting on his own practice and passing it on for further critical evaluation. Other valuable material taken from the probably never-to-be-translated Theatre Work and the ‘Katzgraben’ Notes 1953 complete a sustained survey of Brecht’s more practical meditations on the processes of making theatre (politically).
This collection of thoughts on politics, dialectics and the political conditions of Brecht’s times has never been available in English before. It’s title alludes to the Chinese philosopher sometimes transliterated as Mo-di or Mo-zi. Brecht never organized the many bite-sized items into a definitive order, and so Me-ti offers the reader a string of surprises page after page. The writings look to Chinese forms of expression and actively undermine Western approaches to philosophizing; the fragmentary form is a deliberate attempt to frustrate systematized thinking. The quality of the material itself is mixed, but there are so many gems in there that dipping in and out can be most rewarding. (This is one of my favourite books by Brecht.)
Another first for the Anglophone reader. This volume collects the most significant incomplete works by Brecht, the ones that he was not only unable to finish, but, often, unable to conceptualize and structure into a playable form. Such a stumbling block indicates just how radical Brecht’s approach to theatre could be: he was struggling with new forms that often left him at a loss to suggest a practicable solution. The most well-known fragments in this volume are perhaps Fatzer, The Bread Shop and the Fleischhacker material that would inform the play St Joan of the Stockyards. The translations are great testaments to the artistry and seriousness of Brecht’s attempts to approach material that his contemporary theatre simply wasn’t able to represent. The plays are a series of glorious defeats and have previously provided experimental theatre companies with textual provocations for new productions. Perhaps this new publication will open the door on more of these in the English-speaking world…
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