Plays

The Duchess of Malfi (adapt. Brecht and Hays)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Written in collaboration with H. R. Hays and intended for performance by Elisabeth Bergner, (described by the editors of the Collected Works as ‘the most famous of all the exiled German actresses’), Brecht and Hays’s adaptation of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was born of a tortuous set of drafts, redrafts and recriminations, which led to several versions of the script, including a Broadway staging of a version by W. H. Auden. H. R. Hays sets the scene:

‘Early in 1943 Brecht came to New York and broached the idea of The Duchess of Malfi to me as a vehicle for Elisabeth Bergner, who was currently playing on Broadway in a whodunit. Brecht and I were both fond of the Webster piece and both felt that it sprawled too much for a successful production. The idea was to eliminate the anticlimactic series of deaths at the end, tighten up the script and emphasize the implicit incest motivation of the duke . . . We began working in April 1943 . . . We had a meeting in my agent’s office, at which Mr Czinner [producer] announced that what the project needed was “a British poet”. I hit the roof and told them to take my name off the script. Needless to say, the poet was Auden, whose name they hoped would be success insurance. Brecht did not at first withdraw, but later, when he saw what was happening, he too removed his name . . .’

This version of the script, written directly in English by Hays, with Brecht advising on story and structure, reproduces a copy that was in the possession of Hays. It is complemented here by notes and letters by Brecht himself on how the play ought to be performed.

The Elephant Calf: An interlude for the foyer

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Originally written as part of Mann ist Mann (Man Equals Man), The Elephant Calf was later removed and redrawn as a play in its own right, to be performed as an interlude in the foyer during performances of the former play.

The Elephant Calf sees Galy Gay – the protagonist of Man Equals Man – undergo a trial for the murder of his mother (who, in a surreal turn of events, is in rude health on the stage, and even called as a witness). The play’s farcical denouement is critiqued by ‘audience members’ – in fact, part of the cast – who storm the stage and insist on having their money back, with the threat of menaces to come if the cast don’t accede.

Sometimes subtitled ‘You Can Prove Anything’, this version of The Elephant Calf was translated by John Willett, and was first published in 1979.

The Exception and the Rule

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Exception and the Rule is a parable about exploitation, telling the story of a rich merchant travelling across the desert and being increasingly cruel to his porter so they can travel as fast as possible. When their water supplies run low, the porter offers him a drink from his water bottle, but the merchant thinks he is being attacked by the porter, and shoots him. In the following courtroom scene, the brutal logic of the judge finds the merchant innocent because of his cruelty.

The didactic Lehrstücke (or ‘learning-plays’) lie at the heart of Brechtian theatre. Written during 1929 and 1930, years of far-reaching political and economic upheaval in Germany and the period of Brecht’s most sharply Communist works, these short plays show an abrupt rejection of most of the trappings of conventional theatre. The Lehrstücke are spare and highly formalized pieces intended for performance by amateurs, on the principle that the moral and political lessons contained in them can be best taught by participation in the actual production. There is nothing in the drama of this century to match the precision of their language and the economy of their theatrical technique.

Faust: Part One

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Goethe's Faust is a two-part retelling of the story of Faust, the learned doctor who makes a pact with the Devil to obtain magical powers, but is finally carried off to hell when the Devil comes to claim his soul.

The work occupied Goethe during the whole of his creative life: he began work on it in about 1772-5; published a first fragment of it in 1790, then the whole of Part One in 1808; saw the first performance of Part One in Brunswick in 1829; and was still making minor revisions to Part Two shortly before his death in March 1832.

The two parts of the original are full of meandering plotlines and inconsistencies. Although Faust is written in dialogue form, it appears that Goethe did not intend it to be a play at all. John Clifford, the translator of this version, describes it in his introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition (published 2006) as 'a poetic autobiography and epic-dramatic confession'.

Clifford's task as translator, he writes, was to 'shorten the text, reducing it to a manageable length without compromising the richness and complexity of the journey; make abstractions vivid and fill them with life; discover a form of verse that would be faithful to Goethe's poetic spirit without reproducing his very literary and non-dramatic forms; reduce the worst of the meanderings and dead ends and discover a theatrical through-line that holds the whole journey together.'

The resulting version aims to be true to the spirit of Goethe's work, while also reflecting Clifford's own creative and personal life, including his identity as a transgendered person (he subsequently changed his name to Jo Clifford), and the traumatic loss to cancer of his lifelong partner, Sue Innes, in the course of working on this translation. 'While I hope the result is true to the spirit of Goethe's work,' he writes in his introduction, 'it is also most intimately autobiographical'.

This version was first performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on 28 February 2006 (Part One) and on 1 March 2006 (Part Two). The production was directed by Mark Thomson and designed by Francis O'Connor.

Faust: Part Two

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Goethe's Faust is a two-part retelling of the story of Faust, the learned doctor who makes a pact with the Devil to obtain magical powers, but is finally carried off to hell when the Devil comes to claim his soul.

The work occupied Goethe during the whole of his creative life: he began work on it in about 1772-5; published a first fragment of it in 1790, then the whole of Part One in 1808; saw the first performance of Part One in Brunswick in 1829; and was still making minor revisions to Part Two shortly before his death in March 1832.

The two parts of the original are full of meandering plotlines and inconsistencies. Although Faust is written in dialogue form, it appears that Goethe did not intend it to be a play at all. John Clifford, the translator of this version, describes it in his introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition (published 2006) as 'a poetic autobiography and epic-dramatic confession'.

Clifford's task as translator, he writes, was to 'shorten the text, reducing it to a manageable length without compromising the richness and complexity of the journey; make abstractions vivid and fill them with life; discover a form of verse that would be faithful to Goethe's poetic spirit without reproducing his very literary and non-dramatic forms; reduce the worst of the meanderings and dead ends and discover a theatrical through-line that holds the whole journey together.'

The resulting version aims to be true to the spirit of Goethe's work, while also reflecting Clifford's own creative and personal life, including his identity as a transgendered person (he subsequently changed his name to Jo Clifford), and the traumatic loss to cancer of his lifelong partner, Sue Innes, in the course of working on this translation. 'While I hope the result is true to the spirit of Goethe's work,' he writes in his introduction, 'it is also most intimately autobiographical'.

This version was first performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on 28 February 2006 (Part One) and on 1 March 2006 (Part Two). The production was directed by Mark Thomson and designed by Francis O'Connor.

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Brecht's series of 24 interconnected playlets describe what life was like in German households in the 1930s. They dramatize with clinical precision the suspicion and anxiety experienced by ordinary people, particularly Jewish citizens, as the power of Hitler grew. A growing distrust of their friends and colleagues and even of their own children affects everyone from factory worker to physicist, housewife to judge. ‘We know the results, what we are looking for is the beginnings’, Max Frisch said of the play in 1947, emphasising its significance in exposing the roots of Nazi terror. Brecht’s picture of the breakdown of normal relationships under the Nazis is not only of historical interest, but emotionally transfixing.

Written in exile in Denmark, the play was inspired in part by Brecht’s recent trip to Moscow where he had been researching tasks for the anti-Nazi effort. Eight scenes of the play were first performed in Paris in 1938 entitled 99%, while all the scenes have since been produced in a variety of different combinations.

This version is translated by John Willett.

The Good Person of Szechwan (Modern Classic)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Brecht’s famous parable pivots around a moral paradox – that in an unjust society good can only survive by means of evil.

The play opens on three gods, who have come to earth in search of enough good people to justify their existence. They find Shen Teh, a good-hearted and penniless prostitute, and make her a gift that enables her to set up her own business. But her generosity brings ruin and trouble to her small tobacco shop, and she is forced to disguise herself as an invented male cousin, Shui Ta, in order to reclaim her shop from the scroungers and creditors. Shui Ta turns out to be the stern and ruthless counterpoint to Shen Teh, helping her to capitalist success and financially-motivated marriage, but not to happiness.

Through this sharply split personality Brecht points to the impossibility of living anything like a ‘good’ life in a corrupted and persistently exploitative world.

The Good Person of Szechwan was first performed in Zurich in 1943. This version is translated by John Willett.

The Good Person of Szechwan (Student Edition)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Brecht’s famous parable pivots around a moral paradox – that in an unjust society good can only survive by means of evil.

The play opens on three gods, who have come to earth in search of enough good people to justify their existence. They find Shen Teh, a good-hearted and penniless prostitute, and make her a gift that enables her to set up her own business. But her generosity brings ruin and trouble to her small tobacco shop, and she is forced to disguise herself as an invented male cousin, Shui Ta, in order to reclaim her shop from the scroungers and creditors. Shui Ta turns out to be the stern and ruthless counterpoint to Shen Teh, helping her to capitalist success and financially-motivated marriage, but not to happiness.

Through this sharply split personality Brecht points to the impossibility of living anything like a ‘good’ life in a corrupted and persistently exploitative world.

The Good Person of Szechwan was first performed in Zurich in 1943. This version is translated by John Willett.

He Who Says No

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

He Who Says No forms a pair with He Who Says Yes, relating two different versions of a fable about consenting to a cause. The Boy demands to be taken by his teacher on a dangerous journey into the mountains, so that he can bring back medicine for his ill mother. The teacher acquiesces reluctantly, but when the boy can’t go on, either he or the journey will have to be sacrificed.

The didactic Lehrstücke (or ‘learning-plays’) lie at the heart of Brechtian theatre. Written during 1929 and 1930, years of far-reaching political and economic upheaval in Germany and the period of Brecht’s most sharply Communist works, these short plays show an abrupt rejection of most of the trappings of conventional theatre. The Lehrstücke are spare and highly formalized pieces intended for performance by amateurs, on the principle that the moral and political lessons contained in them can be best taught by participation in the actual production. There is nothing in the drama of this century to match the precision of their language and the economy of their theatrical technique.

He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No were inspired by the Japanese Noh play Taniko.

He Who Says Yes

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

He Who Says Yes forms a pair with He Who Says No, relating two different versions of a fable about consenting to a cause. The Boy demands to be taken by his teacher on a dangerous journey into the mountains, so that he can bring back medicine for his ill mother. The teacher acquiesces reluctantly, but when the boy can’t go on, either he or the journey will have to be sacrificed.

The didactic Lehrstücke (or ‘learning-plays’) lie at the heart of Brechtian theatre. Written during 1929 and 1930, years of far-reaching political and economic upheaval in Germany and the period of Brecht’s most sharply Communist works, these short plays show an abrupt rejection of most of the trappings of conventional theatre. The Lehrstücke are spare and highly formalized pieces intended for performance by amateurs, on the principle that the moral and political lessons contained in them can be best taught by participation in the actual production. There is nothing in the drama of this century to match the precision of their language and the economy of their theatrical technique.

He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No were inspired by the Japanese Noh play Taniko. He Who Says Yes was first performed in 1930 at Zentralinstitut für Erziehung und Unterricht, Berlin.

It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that Germany developed a dramatic literature to rival those of France, Spain or England. Until then the German speaking lands were divided into more than 300 independent states and were struggling to recover from the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War of the previous century. Rulers who took an interest in theatre tended to import Italian opera or French drama. Drama in German consisted of vernacular farces and the Haupt-und-Staats-Aktionen, bombastic historical dramas of little theatrical or literary merit. The development of German theatre was encouraged by the Englische Komödianten, groups of English actors who toured with versions of plays popular in England at the time, performing when and where they could to a popular audience.

The first attempts at improving the German drama were undertaken in the 1730s by Gottsched, whose translations of texts from French and English were performed by the theatre company of Karoline Neuber, who also symbolically staged a banning of the popular comic character Hanswurst from the stage.

The art critic and dramatist Lessing’s disappointment with the quality of plays produced at the new National Theatre in Hamburg, where he was employed in the late 1760s as Dramaturg, led him to write the Hamburgische Dramaturgie (Hamburg Dramaturgy), in which he suggested that Shakespeare would provide a better model for German writers to copy than French dramatists. Influenced by his studies of Aristotle and contemporary English drama, he also wrote three plays as examples for German playwrights to follow.

The writers of the explosive, but short-lived Sturm und Drang movement developed Lessing’s ideas and added a powerful new emotional charge to their plays. Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen and Schiller’s Die Räuber (The Robbers) broke new ground by drawing inspiration from Shakespeare, German history but above all nature. These works, along with the poetry of the movement, infused with natural imagery and driven by sentiment, would later serve as a major inspiration for the poets of the European Romantic movement.

Goethe and Schiller, the principal dramatists of the Sturm und Drang, then rejected the lack of discipline of the movement and developed the more refined and considered style of writing and acting known as Weimar Classicism. Schiller in particular wrote a series of history plays, including Don Carlos and Maria Stuart (Mary Stuart), which have formed the basis of the national repertoire ever since, and which established Germany as the leading theatre nation in Europe at the start of the nineteenth century. Goethe’s two-part poetic masterpiece Faust, only completed shortly before his death, has continued to challenge scholars and theatre directors alike since its publication. These works were inspired by Schiller’s Idealism and the conviction that the theatre should be a force for moral improvement. This concept inspires the high regard in which theatre is held in Germany and the generous level of public subsidy, which it has enjoyed ever since.

Despairing of Idealism and frustrated by the lack of response to his call for revolution in his pamphlet Der Hessische Landbote (The Hessian Courier), the scientist Büchner, despite his lack of theatrical experience, wrote four plays, three of which survive. In Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death) he employed documentary material to depict the despair of his hero with the Revolution, and in the unfinished Woyzeck, the first play in German to depict a working class hero, he blended factual material into a visionary expression of existential angst.

In the late nineteenth century, young writers, inspired by the writings of Zola, Darwin and Marx wanted to introduce a more scientific approach to theatre writing and bring the conditions of the underprivileged to the attention of theatregoers. Die Weber (The Weavers), by Gerhart Hauptmann, caused a riot and official sanctions when it was first produced in Berlin, but within two years the plays of European Naturalism had established themselves at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

The trauma of the First World War was reflected in the ecstatic and despairing texts of Expressionism. Early plays expressed a vision of Der Neue Mensch (The new Man), rising from the purifying fire of the war. As the true horror of the war in the trenches unfolded, this idea was changed in the writing of Ernst Toller, and subsequently Erwin Piscator, into the concept of the new collective, socialist Man.

Brecht’s ideas on the theatre have been hugely influential, as have the plays written by him and his collaborators. After his huge success with The Threepenny Opera in 1928, and his work with Piscator, he engaged in theatrical experiments, the Lehrstücke (Teaching Plays), in which he tried to involve the audience in a new relationship to the stage and the subject matter of the performances. Brecht always regarded Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken) as his most important play and a model for the future development of the theatre. These experiments came to abrupt end, however, when Brecht and Piscator were forced to leave Germany as Hitler assumed power in 1933.

During the Nazi period attempts were made by the authorities to restrict performances to approved propaganda plays, but these were so unpopular that theatres were soon allowed to revert to their previous programmes.

After the war Germany was left in ruins, with many of the theatre makers in exile. In Switzerland, however, Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote plays, which combined black humour and symbolism to confront the post-war world. They addressed post-war guilt in Andorra, Biedermann und die Brandstifter (The Fireraisers) and Der Besuch der Alten Dame (The Visit) before moving on to consider the individual’s role in society.

On his return from exile in the USA Brecht set up his Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin. After his landmark production of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and her Children) in 1949, he spent the next seven years directing his own texts, but also encouraging the work of young playwrights and directors. During the forty years of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) a game of cat-and-mouse was played out between playwrights and theatres and the authorities. Theatres played a particular and vital role in the GDR during this period, as well as in the demise of the regime, as they were one of the very few places where political issues could be addressed before a large audience. Playwrights such as Christoph Hein and Volker Braun offered veiled criticism of the regime, while Heiner Müller, the most innovative and outspoken playwright of the GDR, was silenced by being expelled from the Deutsche Schriftsteller-Verband (The German Writers’ Association). This meant that his work was not published, so it could not be produced in the GDR. His international reputation was secured by the staging of his texts in the West.

In the Federal Republic (West Germany), the use of documentary material for drama, which had been pioneered by Erwin Piscator before the war, was reintroduced by playwrights attempting to confront the exceptional subject matter of the Third Reich. Peter Weiss in Die Ermittlung (The Investigation) adapted testimony from the Frankfurt War Trials to present a harrowing account of conditions in Auschwitz, while Rolf Hochhuth indicted Pope Pius XII in Der Stellvertreter (The Representative) for his attitude to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis. These texts, among others, were championed by Piscator at the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin.

Peter Handke caused controversy in 1966 with a staging of his Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience), and cemented his reputation in 1967 with Kaspar, a study of the way in which a character is defined by the language he acquires. He, like Botho Strauss, another innovative writer whose career began in the late 1980s, has aroused controversy for the political positions he has subsequently adopted.

Franz Xaver Kroetz felt that the peasants in Brecht’s plays were too articulate and in the mid-1970s used the Volksstück form, popular before the war, in his Stallerhof and Geisterbahn (Ghost Train), to give a voice to the underclass of Germany’s Economic Miracle.

For much of the post-war period, West German theatre has been dominated by Regietheater, the theatre of directors, such as Peter Stein and Luc Bondy, who have tended to make their reputations in productions of classic texts, but who also champion new playwriting. The high level of funding of theatre and the large number of theatres in Germany continues to support the most extensive and varied programme of new playwriting and innovative production activity in Europe. From the dense and challenging theatre texts of the Nobel Prize winning Austrian writer Elfriede Jellinek, to the unique theatre of Rimini Protokoll, who use non-professional actors and their experiences to build performances described as ‘Reality Trend’, theatre makers in Germany seek to challenge the traditional limitations of drama. Theatre critics select outstanding work from more than 100 plays premièred each year for the Mülheimer Theatertage festival of new playwriting, while the Berlin Theatertreffen foregrounds the best in theatre production.

Since the Wende (the fall of the communist regimes), the cost of reunification has resulted in reductions in state subsidy to the arts, but the theatre still continues to command the respect of the population and to play a central role in the cultural life of Germany.

Tony Meech, Senior Research Fellow, University of Hull