Late Encounter With a 'Remnant'

The Berliner Ensemble offers a last opportunity to see Brechtian acting, wherein text and actor separate from each other before your eyes, and irony floods the stage.

BERLIN - There are East German children outside, huddled by the big Bertolt Brecht monument in the meager plaza in front of the Berliner Ensemble's theater. In the background, construction work is under way, designed to transform this area into the glittering center of the gray city, to which Brecht returned in 1948 from his wartime wanderings. On his return, he wrote in his diary, among other things: "The street-light is so faint that the stars in the heavens can be seen from the streets once more."

brecht - News Agencies - September 9 2011
News Agencies

But now it is a completely different Berlin. From the center (Mitte), in what was formerly East Berlin, East Germans ("Ossies") are being hastily ousted from an area that is now being built up. They cannot meet the higher rents.

The kids in the plaza outside the theater are happy to embrace Brecht and be photographed with him. It's August, summer vacation, and they are going with their teacher to see "Oedipus at Colonus" - not a modernist adaptation but the complete text, chorus included.

Needless to say, their conduct throughout the play is impeccable, and it is rather irritating for me to speak about impeccable conduct in Germany, let alone children who go to see "Oedipus at Colonus," to hear the long tirades of the saddest tragedy Sophocles left us: the father's death under the auspices of the city that he favors over his own sons and the city of his birth.

The Berliner Ensemble is the theater that Brecht managed to make his own, largely thanks to the persistent labors of his wife, Helene Weigel, and perhaps ironically, with the help of the Soviet cultural commissar Alexander Dymshitz. The leading German communists were less enthusiastic. The eight years Brecht lived in East Germany were spent in a peculiar situation. He was enthusiastic about the attempt to build a new country. He even proposed a national anthem for it (which was not accepted ). He wrote several hymns for the communist youth movement, songs that annoyed the party heads, who did not like the word "fuehrer," in one of them. In any event, East Germany is gone. The summation of its relatively brief life is being written by the victorious West.

Within this context the Berliner Ensemble, too, has become a kind of museum for tourists from across Germany, who come to see a little Brecht. Aside from productions based on his plays, there is also a classical repertoire: Sophocles, or Heinrich von Kleist's "The Broken Jug," and modernists such as Frank Wedekind, Max Frisch and Samuel Beckett. But Brecht is the cornerstone of this theater, and there is nothing like these productions when it comes to appreciating his status in the smug world of neo-liberalism.

Naturally, those running the theater are not people from "the past." The victorious German establishment is very enamored of the discourse concerning "the Stasi's past." It helps them get rid of the old elites of the East. Suffice it to compare the way in which the Stasi archives were opened to all, with the utter secrecy that shrouded the Gestapo archives for a half-century, to understand that when it came to its own ass, the West German establishment knew very well how to protect itself, whereas it was quick to expose the East Germans' asses in order to get rid of them.

Linguistic ironies

I saw "The Threepenny Opera," which is very tough to ruin, certainly not in the original German, so full of sparkle and linguistic ironies. The production, directed by Robert Wilson, has enjoyed tremendous success, and will continue to run in the theater's new season, for a third year. The direction itself makes efforts to "innovate." Hence, the spirit of iconic dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch hovers over the play, and the settings are staged in slow motion, as though these characters, out of 18th-century London, would not "pass" without some decent innovation.

brecht - Archives - September 9 2011

Nonetheless, what is the secret to this production's success? Aside from the music and its precise performance, which maintains allegiance to the understated arrangement Kurt Weill wrote, and the execution of the opera's songs on a level to which we are not unaccustomed - aside from all these, before you onstage is some wonderful acting, with the ability to deliver an ironic text, long sentences whose endings overturn their meaning.

This "Kleistian" tradition, of which Brecht was its apex, becomes on stage a late encounter with a "remnant" of the era when ensemble actors still worked according to Brecht's method, even after his death. Now it mainly comes down to the elderly Juergen Holtz, who plays Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, king of the London beggars. Not only is his ability to sing the most cynical of this opera's songs fabulous, but his acting seems to live and breathe Brecht's instruction "to speak in first person as though it were third person."

The audience was enraptured. His movement onstage, heavy-footed, seemed, as soon as he opened his mouth, as though it were a dance. Here is a final chance to see Brechtian acting, wherein the text and the actor separate from each other before your eyes, and irony floods the stage. Here is one of those wonderful monologues: "And I did work out something: that the rich of the earth indeed create misery, but they cannot bear to see it. They are weaklings and fools just like you. As long as they have enough to eat and can grease their floors with butter so that even the crumbs that fall from their tables grow fat, they can't look with indifference on a man collapsing from hunger - although, of course, it must be in front of their house that he collapses."

You can't deliver a monologue like that without understanding it. Well, that seems obvious, but it is also clear that you can't deliver a monologue like that without having a stand of some kind in relation to that ironic, sarcastic, cynical text. The ending makes the whole gap between poor and rich "useful," that being the operative word in Brecht.

The other classic play being staged by the theater is "Mother Courage and Her Children." When I saw it, I found myself longing for Israeli actress Zaharira Harifai. In Berlin, too, as at the Cameri Theater here in Tel Aviv, they thought it was "a pity" about the scene breaks. There, too, in the place where the epic theater received its clearest interpretation, with the cuts between scenes, they thought it would be possible to turn an epic play into a melodrama. But after all, there are years separating one scene from the next, and hundreds of kilometers, and rival camps.

The secret to the division into scenes that are wholly separate from each other can be found within the context of history, which is shrouded in darkness. The discrete scenes are moments of light - amusing, funny - that sink back into the darkness, and the cuts between the scenes do not merely solve problems of narrative, as directors mistakenly think. The cutoff is part of the poetic action of the stage.

On the ruins of Brecht's aesthetics, the Berliner Ensemble put on a tearjerker melodrama, and the audience got carried away and cheered Carmen-Maja Antoni, who annoyed me with her unwillingness to be malicious. Malice is what is required of good actors, certainly epic actors, the sort who present themselves as one option among many. And that is after all the whole Brechtian trick: "Here's one possibility for you, and there's another, parallel, possibility."

Brecht commented in his journal while working on "Mother Courage": "... a remarkable aura of harmlessness rises from the stage at rehersals, as if Hitler had used up all the nastiness in the Germans too" (November 11, 1948).

I waited for the fourth scene. There Mother Courage explains to the young officer that a battle should be forgone if there is no strength to fight to the end. At the climactic moment, she herself gives up on her battle and sings "The Song of the Great Capitulation." But they cut that scene. In its entirety a Brechtian parable that is unsuitable for a melodrama. This, too, is German unification.

In the evening, after the play, you can go to one of the legions of cafes in the area to get a beer. Anyone who wishes to meet "Ossies," of the sort who were small children 20 years ago, must look for out-of-the-way, cheaper cafes, where the irony is heard at its best. Because that is what's getting lost in the smug atmosphere of the great triumph over communism.