Relax: this is my only encore. I've only just noticed that I unwittingly provided the raw material with which a writer for the Financial Times, Chris Wilkinson, was able to fashion a straw man in an article yesterday (online only with a subscription) entitled "A paradoxical playwright: Bertolt Brecht was a willing apologist for Stalin's tyranny. But does that devalue his art?":
It is true that, in private, Brecht's views on Stalin were considerably more ambiguous [than suggested by his welcome for Soviet tanks in East Berlin in 1953]. But this hasn't prevented a string of critics from lining up clutching hammers and sickles to beat him with. The latest of these is the journalist Oliver Kamm. Writing in The Times earlier this year, he described Brecht as "a big propagandist for . . . an orthodox communism that followed every twist of Stalin's whims"....
It is impossible to dismiss Brecht's political opinions when looking at his work in the way we might dismiss, say, Pirandello's fascism. Pirandello's views had little bearing on his plays, whereas with Brecht, as the scholar John Willett has pointed out, "no creative artist's politics were ever less independent of his work".
But equally, we should not confine ourselves to the "you're either with us or you're with the Stalinists" mentality of some critics. If Brecht's Marxism forced him, in life, into a polarised world view that necessitated his support of a red-tinted tyranny, in his art it provided an ideal base for him to explore the moral ambiguities that arise in the conflict between an individual and his social conditions....
Kamm condemns Brecht for producing "an exhortatory theatre that mirrored [his] corrosive political obsessions". But even Kamm concedes that some of his plays are actually quite good. He cites The Good Person of Szechwan and Mother Courage as plays that "transcend [Brecht's] political vision to speak to the human condition". But this is to miss the point. Brecht's broader political outlook meant precisely that the "human condition" was inseparable from the material conditions in which the individual lived.
1. I have yet to meet anyone who believes the human condition is separable from the material conditions in which it is lived. If it were, then it wouldn't be the human condition but something altogether more ethereal.
2. Of course Brecht's repugnant politics do not devalue his art. Aesthetic criteria are independent of political judgements. A good writer can use politics to illuminate deeper and more enduring issues, as Brecht did at his best. A bad writer will use his politics to shroud his literary shortcomings. The realist novels of Theodore Dreiser are a pre-eminent example of this latter tendency from the 1930s, the painfully didactic plays of Trevor Griffiths (consider his 1970s period piece The Party, in which a fictionalised Gerry Healy has a starring role) a more recent one. Brecht at his worst was like that.
3. But if a theatre critic is going to venture a political judgement, he'd better get it right. What can Wilkinson mean by (emphasis added) "Brecht's Marxism [that] forced him, in life, into a polarised world view that necessitated his support of a red-tinted tyranny"? Why would Marxism, or a polarised world view, force him into any such thing? Coincidentally, in my article that Wilkinson cites, I referred to a contemporary Marxist whose political writings I am intellectually indebted to, and who treated Brecht with due respect:
The philosopher Sidney Hook recorded in his memoirs that Brecht, when visiting him in New York in 1935, had remarked of the victims of Stalin’s show trials: “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.” Hook gave him his hat and coat, and showed him the door.Brecht was - like Maxim Gorky - an appalling man who wrote a few great works of political literature and theatre. This doesn't seem to me a particularly contentious or incomprehensible point, even if it's a morally uncomfortable one.