Thursday, 5 February 2009

Don Coles blogs! Part 3

[Don Coles is the author of ten books of poetry and the novel Doctor Bloom's Story. He won the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1993 for Forests of the Medieval World and the Trillium prize in 2000 for Kurgan. Formerly a professor at York University, he lives in Toronto. Periodically we'll post an entry by Coles taken from his 2007 book of essays and reviews, Dropped Glove in Regent Street: An Autobiography by Other Means ]

The last 20 anni have been pretty horribili for Bertolt Brecht’s reputation. His plays have faded offstage, his leftwing credentials have been called into question, his personal life qualifies as seriously bad news, in general his enemies have been noisily outshouting his supporters. Indeed it’s hard to know where to look for the latter nowadays. In the book Intellectuals, published a few years ago, Paul Johnson subtitled his Brecht chapter Heart of Ice and quoted Auden as calling BB “an odious person”. Brecht deserved the death sentence, Auden said, and added, “In fact I can imagine doing it to him myself.”

The chorus goes on. Thomas Mann, Theodor Adorno (who said Brecht spent hours every day putting dirt under his fingernails so he’d look like a worker), Marcuse, almost every known German contemporary and many more who are neither German nor contemporary, the judgment’s just about unanimous---flawed writer, flawed man.

I would like at this point to turn towards the Brecht I have one particularly private memory of. I remember one day a long while ago going into a theatre in Paris that was showing Mére Courage and then discovering (something I ought to have known before buying my ticket) that the company was Brecht’s own, the Berliner Ensemble from East Germany, and that therefore the production was being given in German. Of which language I did not understand a word.

This was depressing for about a quarter of an hour. In the next little while, though, without my asking myself why this was happening, the experience set about becoming as engrossing as anything—yes, anything—I’d ever known in a theatre; and it went on being so right up to the end of Act I. After the intermission all this repeated itself, the whole cycle: initial awareness, or remembering, that all this was in a language I had no access to, with its quite natural accompanying frustration; followed however within six or seven minutes by an immersion in the on-stage events that can be described in no milder way than utter attention (and a similarly ‘utter’ forgetting of any linguistic obstacle to my sharing in this experience). From then on the experience settled into being just plain marvelous until I was out in the Paris night again.

I’ve never forgotten that. What was going on on-stage, those archetypal movements of men and women and children, Mother Courage herself striding across Europe as the stage revolved through country after country—well, sophisticated dialogue was not what this was about; and although I’d never have guessed that anything this basic and primary-coloured would work with me or on me, work with and on me it did, and powerfully, movingly, and as you see, lastingly.

In other words the fact that I didn’t understand a word of German didn’t matter. Watching that stage, I forgot that I didn’t understand the language that was being spoken. And this, although as a personal admission or claim it’s of no interest, seems to me to matter here: that language never was nearly as central to the very great success of these plays as other components always were, components that Brecht may have been a near-genius in making use of; components such as, for instance, music; and, for another instance, a nearly unique sense of how certain basic human rhythms and rites (copulation, grief) can be invoked and presented on a stage and can then move an audience at a level beyond that which was, apparently, achievable by anybody else in this playwright’s lifetime.

(from A Dropped Glove in Regent Street: An Autobiography by Other Means by Don Coles, 2007)

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