Hans-Thies Lehmann and Helene Varopoulou write a letter to Brecht

30 March 2016

Dear Bert Brecht,

Here we already start to falter, because to whom do we address this letter? To the anarchic, sometimes expressionistic writer of the early poems and of Baal? Or to the Brecht of the New Objectivity, the one who wrote “The ABC says: they will get you down”? To the Brecht who thought as a Marxist and invented the notion of Lehrstücke? To the inventor of “tragic” figures, from the young comrades in the learning play The Measures Taken to the characters of your classics of epic Theater, such as Mother Courage? Even when it is particularly that one Brecht, the “other,” whom we address, we somehow also include all the others.

You were never just one, but always another, and because of that, also someone who changed. You never conceived of yourself as the “owner” of ideas, and wrote down early on in your 1932 diaries:

“I don’t think that I can ever have such a matured philosophy as Goethe or Hebbel, who must have had, in regards to their own ideas, the memories of tram conductors. I always forget my own deliberations and cannot make myself learn them by heart.”

And we cannot forget your wonderful description of your face as you ate cherries in front of a mirror:

“My face contains many elements of brutality, quiet, slackness, cunning, and cowardice, but only as elements, and it is more changeable and without character than a landscape under passing clouds. This is why many people can’t remember my face (‘There are too many,’ says Hedda).” (Diaries 138)

“Whoever you are looking for—it’s not me.” (WW8, 101). The two of us who are writing this letter to you found this to be so true that in 1991 we separately—at the time still unacquainted with one another—chose the motto “The Other Brecht” for Brecht events: one in Augsburg, the other in Athens. At the time, our acquaintance with your writings already went back quite far: for one of us, back to his youth in Bremen. As a schoolboy, in the window of a library or bookshop in the city, he read the following sentence on one of the thin, pale-yellow single editions of your work. He was electrified: “That that of what is there should belong to those who are good to it.” Electrified by the content that spoke to a youthful sense of justice, but also by the very formality of that wonderful stumble of syntax and sound: “those who are good to it,” an oh-so-important, yet simple, twist (one that the German teacher probably would have questioned).

The other one of us also had her first experiences with you during her youth and early years. In 1950s and 60s Greece, “Brecht” was more of a legend than a concrete author: a representative of the anti-fascist Germans, a giant of German literature in exile, a “leftist” with a strong sense of social justice, the leader of the Berliner Ensemble. She first knew you through texts: programmatic writings and poems usually presented in an ideological context. Then came the first live performance, The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the artist theater of Karolos Koun. The truly transformative experience came later, when she saw the stunning performance of the Berliner Ensemble in Paris during the 1970s. Here was your language, Bert Brecht, as it was written; here was the acting of Helene Weigel. This was the Brecht that would so affect the rest of her intellectual life.

We write to you today as a couple working together. We both hope for one thing, regardless of which BB we reach: that you aren’t bored in your heaven of good villains. Or did you make it to hell? In life you certainly suspected (as Hegel already knew) that only God and animals could survive paradise—it is so terribly boring. Once you wrote a poem about the sinners, the “unclean” who were flown over heaven on their way to hell: they were disappointed, “because they were the ones who thought it would be more splendid.”

After this captatio benevolentiae we must be brave, because now we may have to disappoint you on an important point. With all our love and admiration for how theater became epic, when we think of you (and we do this frequently), we think less of epic theater in its narrower sense, and more of you as a poet and the inventor of the Lehrstück model. Of course you invented the epic theater with Erwin Piscator, and as a poet and theater-maker you remain its founder. In this position you can be more than satisfied: epic theater has triumphed. Your call for an epic theater—an intelligent theater—has become the natural measure for anyone who matters artistically. Your ideas are effective even in places where your own works have never been shown. The epic style as a game of alienation has become habitual for many of the best contemporary actors. They allow us, even in Hollywood films, to take distance from their characters: they highlight, historicize, demonstrate, ironize, and reference their gestures, in short: actors alienate and make theater epic for all they are worth.

Your epic theater was a hallmark shift in the art of theater-making and acting in the 20th century, and it remains a standard against spectacle, against redundancy, against the swagger of theater, against all neo-baroque temptations. This materialist minimalism, this insistence on the style and precision of the theater, makes any excess on stage feel embarrassing. Your rigor (which despite all its differences reminds us of Beckett) is a form of silent criticism of the whimsy of some of your acolytes. (Certainly what is shown in the theater can be made “light,” but you would have agreed with Einstein when he emphasized that it is about making things as easy as possible—but not easier.) Your theater, dear Brecht, should scan our thinking processes and articulate a discourse at odds with the awareness of its protagonists. It should offer conflicts, not mere solutions at the expense of contradictory truths.

If today the urgent question, the undeniable desire for a new epic theater arises, then this is not a question of style. For you, the formal renewal of the theater (in contrast to mere formalist innovations) was only one side of the coin; the other side was the politics of the theater. We will not close our eyes to this, in an orthodox or Brecht-bent fashion. Thus we must conclude that, against the contemporary flood of images, the techniques of epic theater have lost a large part of their power, once so disturbing to the establishment and to our own consciousness. Probably far beyond your own worst fears, the capitalist cultural establishment (like the rest of capitalism) has transformed the poison used against it, and now enjoys it as a stimulant.

Perhaps many take a childish comfort in the idea that, in some revolutionary way, the Great Brecht brought thinking into the theater. To be honest, neither of us can imagine that you ever doubted people were thinking, and thinking a lot, in the dramatic theater of “The Shakespeare”, as you liked to call him. So this one aspect cannot be essential to your revolution of the theater. It would be so nice to believe that bringing a bit of intelligence, thinking, theory, or knowledge onto the stage would suffice to fundamentally renew the theater. If one does not go beyond this perspective, however, then everything—the institution, the apparatus of the theater—remains unchanged and uncontested. Your notion of theater always meant a political and institutional criticism of its very apparatus.

And this is why we would like to define what, in our eyes, is the truly “revolutionary” part of your thought and practice. Like a Copernicus of the theater, you subverted the foundational idea of what theater is. You no longer imagined theater as a performance in front of and for the visitors, but as a scenic practice by and with everyone participating, visitors and performers alike. To think of theater as a communal event of all participants—to think through this concept, in all its consequences—this is what appears to us the change in perspective that offers us direction in the search for a new epic theater. And this is why we hope to win you, who inspired the idea of the learning play, as our patron.

Perhaps the message has already reached your heavenly saloon or your dive bar in hell (where yesterday it was perhaps Marx and Lessing, today Nietzsche, Sophocles, and Lucretius with whom you share eternal conversations). These days, many young people are more interested in you as the inventor of the learning play, in the theater of research and of self-understanding (Selbstverständigung was your term for this) among its players, than in you as the inventor of epic theater.

It was not so long ago that young theater-makers brought a sound recording to our attention on which, in 1953, you explained that what we needed were “small, mobile forms, little theaters.” You recalled the tradition of Agitprop and mused that small theater collectives might even originate in the larger theaters through—here one can hear on the tape your own joy at this formulation—_Selbstzündung_, spontaneous combustion. In these later years of your far-too-short life you wrote the Buckower Elegies, poems full of skepticism. And this skepticism, as it appears to us, allowed you to suspect even then the paralyzing immobility that threatened (and continues to threaten) the big theaters.

What type of little theaters, what flexible forms and structures, do we need for a new epic theater? We cannot paint you a picture of how the new epic theater will look. Some artists will make an installation or a danced process instead of a theater piece, be it only because great poets who could match the high art of complex simplicity in your Lehrstück texts are not exactly being born en masse. Others are perhaps interested in the adaptation of your model to other texts of dramatic literature. Still others may continue to send the audience on a journey of discovery through their environments, or work with documentary material. All of this and much more is possible; we cannot and do not wish to predict it. In any case (as you once said so well), it will be built not on the “good old,” but on the “bad new.”

Let us state our wish list for the new epic theater: of the spaces, the smaller ones; of the performers, the smarter ones; of the thoughts, the more expansive ones; of the durations, the longer ones. And of the artists: rather those who are more interested in the life of society than in themselves.

Why do we rarely want to see a theater of large dimensions? Because theater is the art par excellence in which we communicate with the body: with gazes and gestures, with the modulation and timbre of the voice, with posture and sensual presence. This is why we plead for a physical closeness between actors, players, and audience: so that they can distance themselves mentally from one another, as you demanded, but at the same time experience this distance not only theoretically, but physically: as entferntes Verstehen, which means both a near (incomplete) understanding and a removed understanding.

Why do we wish for smarter performers? What we just spoke of may not appear to be intellectual enough for some. However, the new epic theater needs specifically clever actors: those who are not so simple as to want to propagate ideas in the theater, to sell a message to the people, to desire a direct influence on them. After all, we have known for a long time that this influence will fade away upon closer examination, at the latest upon leaving the theater. Rather, the new epic theater will depart from your occasionally expressed thought that the actors should be understood as delegates of the audience; ordered in to lend sensual form to communally interesting themes, especially those difficult-to-solve fundamental conflicts about our ways of living together as a society. They should not present themselves as magicians who offer the spectator magical acts of the art of embodiment. Instead, they should offer themselves as especially active participants in a theater that is conceived as a communal space inhabited for a certain amount of time. Victory slogans were never your thing. Your “theater of constructive defeatism” never showed the successful revolution, but always only its problems. You never portrayed the victorious, heroic battle, but always the defeated, the deserter, the one who didn’t play along.

Why do we need more expansive thoughts? Expansive thoughts are those that contain the unthinkable within them. Your entire concept of theater aimed away from an idea that many still adhere to: that theater should illustrate with its sensuality something that one can also grasp theoretically, something you can take home, black-on-white, as something learned. Instead, you always implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) insisted on the opposite of what aficionados of instructive theater uphold. Theater is a practice, through which and with the help of which one is able to grasp what one cannot grasp theoretically, but only through practice: through gestures and movements, sensually, vocally, physically. The process of performing opens a space for learning that does not end in something fixed, something learned. Much closer than the image that many have of you, you appear to us similar to Hölderlin, who wished to show the human being as “wandering under the unthinkable.”

And why the longer duration? A theater of discovery with many authors, a theater that takes the necessary time, expects the necessary expenditure of time from its visitors. The new epic theater will be a theater whose performances can be considered conceptually as a continuation of rehearsals—with the invitation of an audience. We think that the new epic theater should adopt one of your own opinions. Once you were scolded by party functionaries about the length of a performance, because after all, people needed to go to work the next morning. You responded that this was indeed a problem: one would have to change the work schedules.

Many greetings to your exile beyond time and work from
Hans-Thies Lehmann and Helene Varopoulou

The Brecht letter by Hans-Thies Lehmann and Helene Varopoulou was written for our first DURCHEINANDER, which was premiered in August 2015 at HAU1, Berlin as part of the festival Tanz im August. DURCHEINANDER is both the title for a series of projects and a motto for our artistic working methods. The DURCHEINANDER projects both investigate and produce a certain social disorder, while at the same time encouraging mutual relations, social interaction and seeking to communicate within the chaos of artistic activity. August’s DURCHEINANDER brought together some twenty-five artists and a diverse audience at HAU1, Berlin, to rebuild, set up, and strike an entire theater within 24 hours. We danced, ate, and slept together while rearranging, shifting, and mixing up a great deal in between and also clearing up afterwards. For many years we have regarded theater as a social situation which develops and puts into practice certain features of Brecht’s epic theater discourse such as its treatment of the audience or references to space and time. What we – and others – term a new epic theater is a choreographic theater which links actions, actors, audiences, spaces and objects in complex scores while constructing itself and taking itself apart. The new epic theater takes its audiences seriously. It does not make theater for them, but with and about them.

deufert&plischke (artistwin Berlin)