Plays

The Genius

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A nuclear physicist runs away from the horrifying consequences of his research in this flinty, electric modern parallel to Brecht’s Life of Galileo.

Brenton’s genius is Leo Lehrer, a brilliant and magnetic American, in academic exile at a rainy English Midlands university because he refused to work for the Pentagon. His inability to confront the moral and ethical implications of his discoveries leave him unable to work, or do anything except get high and sleep with his friend’s wife in the snow.

Then he meets Gilly, a first year mathematics student, who can do the equations he has been trying to hide from: she has worked them out for herself. Together they struggle to deny science’s imperative for progress, and stare in horror at the momentous power which they have articulated.

The Genius was first performed in 1983 at the Royal Court Theatre, London.

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.

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.

Human Cannon

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Human Cannon is a narrative of class struggle, set in a small village consumed by the fight against Fascism in Spain, a play which swells from resentment against the privileged landowners to blazing revolution.

At the centre are Agustina and her family, who we see in the first scene preparing to bury her nameless child, while her husband explains the violent origins of capitalism. When the war takes over the village and the play, Agustina begins by learning to fire her enemies’ cannon, and ends by herself becoming – through the strength of human will – the most effective weapon in the armoury of revolution.

Human Cannon is a tremendous manifesto of resistance and an unflinching interpretation of the Spanish Civil War.

In the Jungle of Cities

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

When lumber dealer Shlink meets book clerk George Garga, they immediately conceive an irrational hatred for each other and declare war between themselves. Their fighting engulfs and eventually destroys their families and the people around them. Depicting fraud, crime, and prostitution in an imagined version of Chicago, Brecht structured In the Jungle of Cities as a boxing match between two men who do not know why they are fighting.

Ever a revisionist, Brecht rewrote In the Jungle of Cities several times in the 1920s, finally settling on this version in 1927. When an earlier version premiered in Berlin, it was interrupted by Nazis in the audience throwing stink bombs and making noise. Brecht’s interest in the collision between the interests of capitalism and the good of the people is already evident in this early work.

Lear

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Edward Bond recasts the story of King Lear into a fundamentally political epic, which reveals the violence endemic in all unjust societies. He exposes corrupted innocence as the core of social morality, and this false morality as a source of the aggressive tension which must ultimately destroy that society.

The despotic Lear is building a vast wall to keep his enemies out of his kingdom, but the betrayal of his two daughters sends the country into civil war. Lear is deposed and tried, while the punishment of those who sheltered him begins a revolutionary uprising against the sisters. The new regime proves a cruel and hypocritical one, and orders that work on Lear’s wall be resumed. Though Lear has now been blinded, he begins to see the suffering of the people and becomes a focus for opposition.

Bond takes names and structures from Shakespeare’s play, but twists them into a brutal new shape that also takes influences from Chekov’s Three Sisters. The play premiered in 1971 at the Royal Court Theatre in London to many shocked reviews.

The Life of Edward II of England

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Based on Christopher Marlowe’s classic play, The Life of Edward II of England dramatizes the life of the king who was deposed and eventually murdered by his wife and her lover. King Edward’s treatment of his favourite courtier, Gaveston, causes discontent among the English nobles, and provokes the Queen’s jealousy. She and her lover, Mortimer, raise an army, intending to put her son on the throne.

Although Brecht used Marlowe’s play as a source, he envisioned Edward II as a challenge to German Shakespearean traditions, which he considered stodgy and middle-class. One of Brecht’s early plays, Edward II contains the beginnings of the playwright’s ‘epic theatre’ style. It premiered at the Kammerspiele in Munich in 1924.

Life of Galileo (Modern Classic)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Life of Galileo examines the tension between the pursuit of knowledge and the power of official ideology, and contains one of Brecht’s most human and complex central characters. It was first performed in Zurich in 1943.

The play opens on Galileo, wild with excitement about a new world of scientific upheaval and improvement, teaching his servant’s young son the remarkable theories of Copernicus with the assistance of an apple and a lamp. But his hopes of a general enlightenment are cut short when his heretical discoveries about the solar system bring him to the attention of the Inquisition. Broken by torture, Galileo is forced to publically abjure his theories, and though Galileo’s name is the one we remember today, Brecht’s character does not forgive himself for his betrayal and his new world disappears with his recantation.

As an examination of the problems that face not only the scientist but also the whole spirit of free inquiry when brought into conflict with the requirements of authority, Life of Galileo has few equals.

John Willett's translation is included here, along with the much shorter version translated in Brecht's lifetime by Charles Laughton as an appendix (see 'From the Book'). Also included are Brecht's own copious notes on the play.

Life of Galileo (Student Edition)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Life of Galileo examines the tension between the pursuit of knowledge and the power of official ideology, and contains one of Brecht’s most human and complex central characters. It was first performed in Zurich in 1943.

The play opens on Galileo, wild with excitement about a new world of scientific upheaval and improvement, teaching his servant’s young son the remarkable theories of Copernicus with the assistance of an apple and a lamp. But his hopes of a general enlightenment are cut short when his heretical discoveries about the solar system bring him to the attention of the Inquisition. Broken by torture, Galileo is forced to publically abjure his theories, and though Galileo’s name is the one we remember today, Brecht’s character does not forgive himself for his betrayal and his new world disappears with his recantation.

As an examination of the problems that face not only the scientist but also the whole spirit of free inquiry when brought into conflict with the requirements of authority, Life of Galileo has few equals. This version is translated by the great Brechtian scholar John Willett.

A Life of Galileo (trans. Ravenhill)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Life of Galileo examines the tension between the pursuit of knowledge and the power of official ideology, and contains one of Brecht’s most human and complex central characters. It was first performed in Zurich in 1943.

The play opens on Galileo, wild with excitement about a new world of scientific upheaval and improvement, teaching his servant’s young son the remarkable theories of Copernicus with the assistance of an apple and a lamp. But his hopes of a general enlightenment are cut short when his heretical discoveries about the solar system bring him to the attention of the Inquisition. Broken by torture, Galileo is forced to publically abjure his theories, and though Galileo’s name is the one we remember today, Brecht’s character does not forgive himself for his betrayal and his new world disappears with his recantation.

As an examination of the problems that face not only the scientist but also the whole spirit of free inquiry when brought into conflict with the requirements of authority, Life of Galileo has few equals. This version is translated by Mark Ravenhill.

In the Poetics Aristotle drew a distinction between tragedy and epic, though conceding that they had much in common. The separateness of the two genres has been acknowledged down the centuries. Linking them is therefore something of a paradox. This originated after the First World War with German radical theatre practitioners who felt that the linear plot and focus on the individual characteristic of Aristotelian dramaturgy were inadequate tools for representing the clash of vast social forces. They also rejected naturalism as providing too limited an angle of vision for revolutionary times.

The term ‘epic theatre’ was coined by the left-wing director Erwin Piscator in the early 1920s. For him, the chief connotation of epic was that of scale, of social dimension. In his work in Berlin – at the Proletarisches Theater, the Volksbühne and particularly in his own house, the Theater am Nollendorfplatz (1927–9) – he sought, often with less than ideal texts, to make the stage respond to the political battles of the moment. He included a good deal of documentary and indeed didactic material in his shows. In order to demonstrate the connection between widely separated events or to provide a historical context for the stage action, he made a bold use of theatrical machinery: lifts, treadmills, multiple stages, even a huge globe that opened up to reveal acting areas inside. In particular, Piscator pioneered the projection of slides and films as an integral part of a stage performance. What mattered, however, was not so much the technical ingenuity of these devices as the social vision they brought to his productions. His commitment to factual drama resurfaced in the final period of his life, when he ran the Freie Volksbühne in West Berlin (1962–6); here he premièred documentary plays by Hochhuth, Kipphardt and Weiss.

Brecht – unlike Piscator not only a director but also, indeed primarily, a playwright and a theorist – appropriated the term ‘epic theatre’ in the mid-1920s. For him, the chief connotation of epic was that of a narrative mode. (In his definitions he drew on and modified from a Marxist perspective the work of Goethe and Schiller, who had collaborated in the 1790s on reformulating Aristotle’s concepts of drama and epic for the modern world.) Brecht’s plays were fictional rather than documentary; they were intended to be models (in the laboratory sense) of human interaction. Their form was non-Aristotelian, i.e. open and structurally closer to Elizabethan drama than to the well-made plays of nineteenth-century bourgeois theatre. Since he wanted his audience to react rationally rather than emotionally, he built his plays on a non-linear storyline, with each scene standing on its own, which often avoided a climax; thus the spectators were denied a catharsis. Brecht introduced the so-called Alienation effect and would employ a number of distancing devices, some borrowed from oriental theatre, such as direct address to the audience; stylized speech, including rhyming, free and blank verse; the insertion of songs in sharp contrast to the surrounding dialogue; a narrator or a chorus; miming and masks. He would expose stage lighting and illuminate the action with bright, untinted light, openly show the source of (live or recorded) music, identify scenes by means of dropped-in or projected captions and use half-tabs (curtains) that only partially concealed scene changes, thus reminding the audience that they were in a theatre.

Towards the end of his life Brecht had come to doubt whether epic theatre was a really useful description; it could be applied too easily to other kinds of non-Aristotelian plays, such as those by Claudel and Thornton Wilder, which had no bearing on social conflict and the class struggle. He was tempted to substitute the term ‘dialectical theatre’ but never found time to evolve a suitable theory.

Epic theatre represents at the same time thematic and technical innovations and a reversion to some pre-naturalist styles of theatre. If it did not bring about the total revolution in the theatre (and elsewhere) that its advocates polemically claimed it would, it did at any rate make a major impact on twentieth-century drama and staging practice.

from George Brandt, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).