Irresistible Rise? Brecht’s V‑Effekt from The Threepenny Opera to Watchmen
By Christopher Richardson
Reviewing a 2018 production of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in New York City, Alexandra Schwartz observed that, “the play’s warning about an unimaginable future now feels like a bitter mockery of our degraded present—though mockery has its own political and artistic uses, as Brecht knew”. In our age of Trumpism, genocide in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), and Black Lives Matter, Brecht’s vision of political art remains of urgent relevance, although the question of its power to effect real change remains unresolved.
Epic Theatre & The V‑Effekt
Born in Germany in 1898, Brecht witnessed first hand the horrors of the First World War as a medic, bringing a premature end to his early nationalist sympathies. Rising to prominence in German theatre during the Weimar Republic, Brecht’s politics were shaped in the momentous interwar era that gave rise to Nazism and Adolf Hitler. Like so many artists, Brecht fled Europe for America, yet ultimately returned to reside in Communist East Germany, hounded from the USA by the McCarthyism that pervaded his adopted home during the post-war era.
As well as a poet, playwright, and essayist, Brecht was one of the most innovative and influential theatre practitioners of the Twentieth Century. The principal technique of Brecht’s “Epic Theatre” was Verfremdungseffekt or V‑effekt. This German neologism has been translated as “distancing,” “alienation,” even “estrangement”. Shunning realism for political parable (Parabelstück), Brecht sought to strip theatre of bourgeois sentimentality. Verfremdungseffekt sought to impose a cerebral distance between the audience and stage, privileging “objectivity” and intellectual engagement over catharsis. Brecht believed that catharsis – Greek or Shakespearean – offered audiences a false emotional release and an escape from politics. Through his radical modernist Lehrstücke or “learning theatre” Brecht hoped that drama could create a crucible of political, social, and economic transformation.
The so-called “objectivity” of Brecht’s V‑effekt was achieved through a range of key theatrical techniques and devices. These included: breaking the fourth wall, employing narration and speaking stage directions aloud, using signs and placards to signal information to the audience, employing minimalist stage designs and props (including symbolic props), employing song, dance, and slapstick (spass). Brecht’s theory of Gestus entailed gestures steeped in symbolic and political meaning, such as the famous silent scream in Mother Courage and Her Children. Meanwhile, Brecht drew upon film innovations, such as freeze frames and montage, and admired the works of Charlie Chaplin. As Schwartz observes, Arturo Ui contains echoes of Chaplin’s anti-fascist comedy The Great Dictator (1940).
Of course, breaking the fourth wall was not a new idea. Shakespeare frequently drew his audience’s attention to the fact that they were, in fact, watching a play. Yet whilst Shakespeare’s meta-theatricality was variously ludic or metaphysical, Brecht’s purposes were unequivocally political. Arturo Ui even contains a scathing parody of a Shakespearean actor co-opted by the fascists, and Ui himself quotes Julius Caesar. And so, whilst scholars still fret over the evasiveness of Shakespeare’s politics, there can be no doubting Brecht’s ideological leanings, developed under the tutelage of Marxist intellectual Karl Korsch. Robert Gordon summarises Brecht’s politics as, “essentially a Marxist view of how the base (economic) structure of a society shapes the specific class identity of any individual, and how a change in material circumstances might offer the dialectical possibility of changing social and therefore personal relationships”.
The Politics of Alienation
In his essay A Short Organum for the Theatre (1949), Brecht argued that “for art to be un-political means only to ally itself with the ruling group”. This may well be true and yet Brecht’s flaw, like so many Leftists of his generation, was to be only half right. Whilst Mother Courage and Arturo Ui astutely diagnosed the social, economic, and political ills that bedevilled the West, Brecht failed to perceive the dangers posed by Soviet Communism. As Michael Billington writes, Brecht “deluded himself that he could provide an inner opposition to Ulbricht’s corrupt post war East German regime while accepting its money to create the Berliner Ensemble”. In the eyes of Brecht’s detractors, this remains a cardinal sin.
The contradictions between Brecht’s vision of a just society and the harsh reality of life in East Germany likely contributed to Brecht’s declining health and death in 1956 aged only 58. Wolfram Schlenker has explored the long and sad history of Brecht’s reception in Communist China, where his works were first performed in 1959. Brecht had even composed an essay on “alienation” in Chinese theatre and drew on Chinese influences in the creation of Epic Theatre. Yet the Cultural Revolution saw the suppression of Brecht’s writing in the PRC and, despite various attempts to revive Brecht’s work, “the ruling group” in Beijing remains unwilling to brook creative dissent.
In the West the legacy of Brecht endured in theatre, but also in cinema, music, and popular culture. As we have seen, cinema deeply influenced Brecht’s Epic Theatre, and Brecht influenced cinema in turn. Evelyn Juers sees a Brechtian influence in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), as does Hugh Iglarsh. The 1931 film of The Threepenny Opera – starring future Bond villain Lotte Lenya – first brought Brecht’s vision to a cinema audience. Lenya had played Jenny in the original stage production of 1928. Meanwhile, Brecht and Kurt Weill’s songs have brought elements of Epic Theatre to millions. Brecht’s famous Moritat or murder ballad “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera remains a jazz standard, recorded by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Darin. As Sharon Guthrie writes, “being inert listeners, the bourgeois viewers also fail to stop Mackie, and since in the eyes of Brecht, Macheath is a gangster capitalist, they fail to stop themselves”.
Whilst Brecht echoed Theodor Adorno’s concern that a mass cultural recycling of The Threepenny Opera diminished the power of the work, he nevertheless approved of Louis Armstrong and other African-American artists covering “Mack the Knife”. As Guthrie notes, “[Armstrong’s] racial background, for Brecht, adds a level of legitimacy to the song … [as he] speaks for a segment of American society whose exploitation by capitalism is particularly brutal”.
Artists as diverse as Tom Waits and Pet Shop Boys have covered Brecht and Weill’s coruscating agitprop anthem “What Keeps Mankind Alive?”, invoking Brecht’s revolutionary dictum, “grub first, then ethics,” for a mass audience.
Arguably, the most authentically Brechtian afterlife awaited Brecht and Weill’s “Pirate Jenny.” Brecht’s lyrics offer a violent feminist revenge fantasy in which Jenny – who has endured a lifetime of menial labour and sexual harassment – imagines the arrival of a ghostly pirate ship that levels the town that has abused her, slaughters her persecutors at her command, and hails her as its new captain. In Brecht’s original production of The Threepenny Opera, Lotte Lenya performed the song. In recent years, Shilpa Ray, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis recorded “Pirate Jenny” for the 2013 album Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys. Yet the definitive post-Lenya rendition of “Pirate Jenny” was Nine Simone’s tour-de-force rendition at Carnegie Hall in 1964, transforming Brecht’s Weimar-era Marxist anthem into a full-throated cri de coeur of the American Civil rights movement. Simone’s voice soaring, she sings as if the song is her last will and testament.
In our post-modern era the character of Pirate Jenny and the haunting Black Freighter have re-merged in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen (1986–87). Moore acknowledged his debt to Brecht as early as 1987. The characters in Watchmen’s dystopian alternative universe – in which superheroes are real and commonplace – read a comic about pirates entitled Tales of the Black Freighter, an example of a literary V‑effekt, designed to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that she is, in fact, reading a graphic novel too. HBO’s 2019 Watchmen sequel takes this pop recycling to its logical conclusion with the addition of a Latina superhero literally named “Pirate Jenny”. HBO’s TV sequel was an unsubtle pop cultural assault on Donald Trump, the intransigence of White Supremacy in America, and rise of the alt-right. It was also a classic instantiation of Epic Theatre’s technique of historicisation, inviting audiences to compare the contemporary BLM struggle against racism to earlier eras in American race history. As theatre’s cultural reach regrettably wanes it is intriguing to witness television and graphic novels assuming the mantle of Epic Theatre for a mass audience.
Neo-Brechtianism & The Resistible Rise of Donald Trump
It is not surprising that this neo-Brechtian renaissance unfolded in the age of Trump. A year before Watchmen, a revival of Arturo Ui was staged off-Broadway in New York by the Classic Stage Company. The Classic Stage Company’s production employed Epic Theatre techniques, including didactic announcements and explicit historicisation that linked the play’s narrative to the rise of German fascism. In the hands of director John Doyle, the play also became a parable about the rise of Trumpism. As Schwartz writes, “at the end of the play, as Ui, at a rally, boasts of his plans for American conquest (“Flint! Scranton! Trenton! Charleston! Wilkes-Barre!”), chants of “Lock her up!” play over a loudspeaker, an effect that is no less chilling for being obvious”.
The same year saw a revival of Arturo Ui in Australia from the Sydney Theatre Company starring Hugo Weaving and directed by Kip Williams. As Ben Neutze explained in his review, “Williams employs extensive live video, with camera operators moving around the stage relaying close-up footage to a giant screen at the back … it fits perfectly with the Brechtian style – we can see the camera operators on stage, deconstructing and exposing the mechanism of film and theatre, and how public figures can be crafted through the medium of film”. In the spirit of Brechtian didacticism and V‑effekt, the production contained not-so-subtle references to contemporary Australian politics and culture, incorporating allusions to conservative tabloid The Daily Telegraph, the government’s draconian refugee policies, racist media rhetoric about the threat of ‘African gangs,’ and the lingering spectre of Hansonism in Australian politics and culture.
Looking back on these Brechtian revivals from the vantage point of 2021, particularly in the aftermath of January’s storming of the US Congress by a gang of theatrically attired fascist goons (insurrectionists who seemed to be playing straight from the playbook of pop culture and dressed to impress on the new “stage” of social media), it seems clear that politically engaged art remains as urgent as ever. And yet to what end? It is not obvious whether any anti-Trumpian Epic Theatre – on stage or TV – managed to make a dent in Trump’s support base in the 2020 election. And whatever role Epic Theatre and its heirs play in the democracies, the fate of political art is bleaker still in China, where censorship is unrivalled since the Cultural Revolution that saw Brecht banned.
“What keeps mankind alive?” Brecht asks his audience in The Threepenny Opera, before answering ominously: “the fact that millions are daily tortured / Stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed.” Brecht’s vision remains prophetic, even if the question of art’s power to effect change remains sharply unresolved.