Bertolt Brecht: Theater, Poetry, and Politics
Widely considered the most influential playwright of the 20th century, Bertolt Brecht’s life and career spanned eras and continents, political regimes, artistic collaborations, and a variety of media, disciplines, and genres. And yet, through all the change and variety, he remained uncompromisingly faithful to his craft, to his Marxist politics, and to the chosen figures of his art: the outcast, the abject, and the underclass. Reacting against the grandiose Wagnerian ideal of the “Total Artwork,” Brecht originated a modernist method and theory of “epic drama” that sought to dispel illusion and place the audience into a critical, non-empathetic, “alienated” relationship to the characters and action unfolding on-stage. Developed in collaboration with thinkers and artists ranging from Kurt Weill to Fritz Lang to Walter Benjamin, Brechtian theater placed drama on a new, grittier, unsentimental trajectory—one that continues to shape contemporary dramatic writing and acting for stage, television, and film. How can we understand Brecht’s wide-ranging dramatic and literary output—its innovative techniques, its utilization of sound and visual art, its political influences and import? What is Brecht’s artistic, theoretical, and political legacy today?
In this course, we will examine the many dimensions of Brecht as producer—as dramatist, poet, storyteller, screenwriter, polemicist, avant-garde modernist, non-realist historical materialist—and Brecht as collaborator—as comrade, misogynist, and friend. Our aim will be to put into relief the wider intellectual, political, and aesthetic milieux which he helped shape and which shaped him in turn. What influences, partnerships, principles, contradictions, and agonisms animate Brecht’s works and constitute his art and politics? What dispositions—with respect to history, culture, theory, and social practice—cohere in his works? To answer these questions, we will turn to his diaries and to his essays and polemics on aesthetics, theater, history, narrative, and intellectuals. We will read a selection of his plays and poetry—including The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage, and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui—as inroads into questions concerning history, war, and the conditions of possibility for the subject and for ethical relations. How might we employ this diverse body of work, its milieux and debates and legacies, as guides for the present?
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
April 12 — May 03, 2022