We have sat an easy generation
In-we think-indestructible houses
Thus we built Manhattan's tall boxes
And thin antennae to entertain the seas
Of those cities will remain the wind that passed through them
The house makes glad the eater: he clears it out.
We know we're only temporary tenants
And after us comes: nothing worth talking about
Thus read the lines which we have adapted from the 1925 poem "Of Poor B.B." written by Brecht in 1925, two years after he wrote his ferocious farce The Wedding and his curious piece of theatre poetry about annihilation The Beggar. It is also written eight years before the Nazi ascent to power, 1933, which is the year in which he and Margarete Steffin set his play on the totalitarian mind-set The Chalk Cross, from the cycle of plays about fascism called Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. At the time the poem was written, such sentiments might be all too easily ascribed to a "nihilistic sensibility," a reader of Nietzsche and poetic advocate of Villon and Rimbaud, whose ballad play Baal is described by one of the characters in The Wedding as "unadulterated filth" and "that new writing ... tearing down family life, which we Germans [.....]" In fact, there is an uncanny prophetic element to much of Brecht's early poetry, which foreshadows what was at that time the unimaginable decimation of World War II, and the nuclear age. On the one hand this might be attributable to the fact that, prior to becoming a Marxist, Brecht did not put human beings at the center of the universe, leading to his own sort of nihilist mysticism (Although as Max Frisch wrote of him, he was always a "poet without incense"). The same perspective is found in the plays. Yet there is a social component here. The plays show human beings busy making choices. Often bad ones. There are no morals to these stories. In fact, these plays are full of stories which are too paradoxical to interpret, they show human relations as microcosms of society in which ego, vanity, pride, and the compulsion for power win out. This is perhaps why the great playwright and Brecht student, Heiner Muller, before he died, was advocating a return to the early works of Brecht as works which could speak to our present without moralizing .
The Chalk Cross comes the closest to theatrical "realism" as any play in this cluster. Yet it portrays a surreal, Kafka-like situation in terms of the individual up against social powers that are bigger than him. Curiously, in this piece which describes the insidious onset of fascism in Germany-in which people have to play roles out of self preservation until they begin "living" those roles-is a remarkable study of the dynamics of totalitarianism of all kinds, of left or right (Whether or not this was Brecht and Steffin's original intention). It is there that it gets its prophetic power. The end of the so called "cold war" is not the end of this tendency in human societies. Our journey then begins with this chilling autopsy of a dead society, and works its way backwards to the festival of egos portrayed in farcical style in The Wedding: a battle of inflated moralism fighting with nihilistic decadence in which the center has ceased to hold for society. We then proceed perhaps backwards in time, or perhaps forward in time, to a great military conquest in which everything is laid waste, and the conqueror uses a beggar to reflect on his own greatness only to discover the emptiness of political power. If there is a note of redemption, it comes from the diversity of human voices, each singing from their spiritual core in their own tongues, mingling in the air of this existence. Djukic finds the spare, minimalist white and grey crosses of Malevich extraordinarily moving. Such crosses may signify a final destination. They also signify redemption, crossroads, resurrection, a new life.
August 14th this year marked the 40th anniversary of Brecht's death. The work of Brecht and his close collaborators were profoundly shaped by the events of the first half of the century?and have affected the arts, in return, just as profoundly: from Jean Luc-Goddard in film, to David Bowie in Rock n' Roll, from Edward Bond as a dramatist, to the theatrical design concepts of Robert Wilson, the impact is as strong as ever. But the content of this huge corpus of work is now beginning to show new facets. The early works, with their apocalyptic tones, and satirical incisiveness, have proven to be prophetic in several ways. It may be high time to explore them again. Zeljko Djukic has made his choice not simply to honor Brecht 40 years after his passing-but as an artist who had worked in both Belgrade and Sarajevo, before being compelled to leave his country behind as it descended into the maw of relentless, ruthless mutual destruction dictated by intolerant nationalism and self-aggranmdizement at the expense of others. These plays provide an incisive medium for exploring these pressing problems. Passing backwards over our devastating century may be the only way to get a perspective on the challenges we, as human beings, are preparing for ourselves. Human nature, by itself, promises nothing. All hope lies in learning more about ourselves: about the animalistic and "all to human" quest for power in the world; the domination of politics by ego; the way to end the need for murder by embracing rather than fighting all that is different from us.
- Joe Martin, Dramaturg