Bertolt Brecht : So where do I start?
April 22, 2016 3:24 PM   Subscribe

Bertolt Brecht : So where do I start? and why do I start where you suggest? Caveat: English language kindle or pdf only as books aren't going to make it through the postal system.
posted by adamvasco to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Brecht is best known for his plays, of course, but you might start with his collected stories. I see an edition from Bloomsbury Methuen Drama in the Kindle store. They're short and excellent.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 3:54 PM on April 22, 2016

I studied English as an undergrad, with a lot of classes on drama, and the two Brecht plays we read were Mother Courage and Threepenny Opera, so I've always considered those (correctly or not!) the "canonical" Brecht.
posted by lazuli at 4:14 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm ABD in modern drama. You don't really say what your own interest and literary background is. Do you want to just read his work, or do you want to understand his theory of theater? If you're interested in theory, I'd go with Brecht on Theater, which is available on Kindle. If you just want a little background on his theory, the Wikipedia article is a start. It would be good to have at least a passing understanding of Brecht's idea of epic theater, especially his theory of Verfremdungseffekt, usually translated as "the distancing effect."

In terms of the plays, Mother Courage and Her Children is probably the most important. Threepenny Opera is also cool. I would add as well The Good Woman of Szechuan (sometimes translated as The Good Person of Szechuan). I like The Life of Edward II of England, but I did a lot of work on plays about Edward II, so I'm prejudiced in that regard. I am not personally familiar with Brecht's poetry or short stories.
posted by FencingGal at 6:33 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Manheim's translation of the collected poems is not on kindle, but i bet a pdf exists
posted by PinkMoose at 6:40 PM on April 22, 2016

I'd start with Chapter VI of Brustein's The Theater of Revolt. Also, watching and reading about Marat/Sade helped me to understand how Brechtian distancing effects and the Artaud's visceral theater of cruelty could be used together in a single play.
posted by umbĂș at 6:52 PM on April 22, 2016

Seconding Brecht on Theatre, because the essays in in are generally quite short and yet all of them bubble and fizz with ideas. (Although there is some controversy about his authorship...) My first encounter with the works of Brecht was in Year 11 Theatre, studying The Good Woman of Setzuan, so that's where I would start with his plays. My favourite Brecht, though, is his uncompromising version of Antigone which roars it's fury at war and dictatorship in glorious, brutal poetry.
posted by prismatic7 at 1:46 AM on April 23, 2016

PDF of 'If Sharks Were Men' (sometimes translated as 'If Sharks Were People').

We did the eponymous story (p 24 in the PDF) in 5th or 6th grade, and it still sticks with me, many year later. All texts included in the collection have an aphoristic quality, you can just read one and go off for a walk and let it churn in your head. If you read too many at the same time, they can end up feeling insufferably didactic, though.

Of his plays, we did The Caucasian Chalk Circle extensively (first retold as a short story in 4th grade, later the whole play), and it, too, left a long-lasting impression. It is quite accessible and gives fairly easy lessons for life.

Later we did the Life of Galileo Galilei. Again, it is very vivid in my mind, but mostly because of its complicated genesis (apparently, it was initially written as a sort of allegory about power - the Church, but after Hiroshima/ Nagasaki one scene was altered to reflect on the responsibility of the scientist & the context in which science occurs). It did read a bit like a hybrid and like it couldn't quite make up its mind what it was. I just picked it up again a couple of days ago and perused it; what strikes me now (at a glance) is just how long some of the 'lines' are - I pity any actor who has to play GG. The reason I picked it up was actually to check if the edition I have also includes Brecht's 'Notes of the Life of Galilei' (it doesn't). I do recommend getting an edition that includes them. Maybe you can find them in one of the non-fiction volumes recommended above? Again, this is my recollection of stuff from 20 years ago, but, if I remember correctly he goes quite a way into explaining stuff around the Verfremdungseffekt there, but more from a practical POV (I think they were intended for actors). One thing I recall is him talking about how the church potentates should not be represented realistically; rather pains should be taken to distance the audience by, for example, representing church authorities as bankers. The take-away should be not 'at some point in history the church was anti-science', but rather 'power seeks to exterminate that which could undermine it' (the latter is more my interpretation from when I read it than what is actually in the text, I think).

If you are interested in some of Brecht's ideas here as reflected in the works of others, I also recommend the following (these are all clustered together in my head, partly, I think, because we did them close together in school, partly because they come from the same kind of cultural/ social/ political environment, but also possibly because of no clear reason):

On power and our relation with it in the context of the third Reich: Mephisto by Klaus Mann. Can't find an electronic translated version, though there seems to be one in French, if you read French, and the film is quite good, though it does not have the text's insistence on the corrosive effects of power. Mephisto the book is also quite didactic after a while, but I think the opening scene is one of the most powerful ever written, particularly in terms of how power annihilates the humanity of all those involved (including the powerful, empty husks themselves who would be risible if they were not as dangerous as they are), and there are recurring passages of absolute brilliance (my opinion) about 'die Macht' (Mann was writing in exile, after the Nazis had gotten into power).

On the responsibility of the scientist: The Physicists by F. Durrenmatt (Scribid link) The 21 points to the Physicists at the end are worth a read as well - D. manages to create narrative/ logical flow even in this aphoristic page and a half. Personally, I find Durrenmatt to be the better writer of the two; he is (in my opinion) much more subtle, but Brecht is probably the more forceful of the two.

PDF on Art as Technique by V. Shklovsky - an earlier Russian Formalist work on the alienation effect; unlike Brecht, Shklovski was entirely unconcerned with the social function of art and much more interested in what constitutes art (or literariness) in the first place. Its quite short and accessible, and an interesting companion piece to Brecht's writing.

We then did Mutter Courage; in highschool it seemed more chaotic than anything else, but it is probably different for adult reading. At that point, we kept doing the Thirty Year War in school, and I never really got it, so that probably had something to do with my inability to connect with the play.
posted by miorita at 5:42 AM on April 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Translators are important! I recommend the Marc Blitzstein translation of Threepenny Opera.
posted by kyrademon at 7:18 AM on April 23, 2016

I found the Caucasian Chalk Circle the best-to-read of his plays. Otherwise I have little to add the consensus on his dramatic works.

The poems are good but googling I didn't only one collection that meets your criteria and the one review says the translations suck. If you google "Brecht poems ebook" you'll find some online examples, unimpressive translations as well but at least free.

I've read his essays on theater are a bit controversial these days--not because they are bad reads, but because they are Good Theory the way Marxists need, but that he then didn't actually apply when he was staging stuff.
posted by mark k at 9:52 PM on April 23, 2016

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