(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/21.)
Is there room for a Marxist dramatist in the modern world? Since the collapse of communism, common sense might say no. But it would be madness to dismiss Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), and for a variety of reasons. He was a great German poet. His best plays transcend dogma. He wrote parts that actors will always be hungry to play. And his influence on modern theatre is still visible.
Predictable right-wing groans greet any Brecht revival, yet his core masterpieces remain indestructible. You may go in expecting to be given a political message, but what you get is contradiction. Life of Galileo (1937-9) is a decidedly equivocal portrait of a seeker after truth battling Catholic orthodoxy – Brecht endorses Galileo's faith in reason, but sees his surrender to the Inquisition as proof of the scientist's abdication of responsibility. Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) is even more complex. Everything in the play tells us we should condemn the heroine's small-business ethic and belief that, by profiting from war, she can protect her three children, because what she fails to realise is that her little world is dependent on a corrupt big world. Yet I defy anyone to watch the play's ending, in which the childless Courage trudges off hauling her cart, without a lump in the throat.