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 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. 

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.

Endur­ing Legacy

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.

Irre­sistible Rise?

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.