06 October 2006

Dear Bertolt Brecht

It seems strange that this is my first letter to you. I've spent more than three years preparing a thesis on your work and haven't thought to drop you a line once. Sorry about that.

On reflection, it seems likely that spending my time wrangling with your work is itself my reason for not writing sooner. Or, more precisely, having wrangled with your journals, and the opinions of your biographers. Pretty well everyone who met you was won over, but in the absence of your personality you're difficult to like. And three years in, your work starts to pall a bit, too. Why write to someone you see every day?

But I'm writing now because I thought of you while writing about greatness in art to James Joyce yesterday, a letter which was written, like this one, in place of 1000 words on you. Your opinion of Joyce is, as far as I know, unrecorded, but the shrewd guess is that you'd go along with mine so far as his formal importance is concerned. Perhaps you'd even consider him to be using verfremdungseffekt, except: where I consider him to fall short of greatness because I don't think formal importance is sufficient, I expect you'd consider him totally defunct for just that reason. You probably won't even allow me to describe the multiple stylistic lenses through which Joyce viewed the world as verfremdungseffekte, because they don't focus attention on social realities. Which, for the orthodox Marxist, are pretty much the only realities admissible.

But I'm not an orthodox Marxist, and now you've been dead for fifty years and a month, you can stop pretending you are, too. You're not an orthodox anything, partly through contrarianism, but also - to be honest - because you never really understood Marx (or Hegel, or, for that matter, Chaplin). Still, by using them for your own ends, ends which happen to be more than purely formal, you become a greater writer than Joyce.

Yes. Though it pains me to say so to one with an ego so monstrous as your own, by the criteria I set out to Joyce yesterday, you're a great writer. Your use of popular forms to greater effect than plain populism seals it. But like Joyce, in some ways you become truly great almost by mistake. "Emotion floods through that celebrated dam the alienation effect at every turn. More and more one sees Brecht as a man whose feelings were so violent he needed a theory to curb them." (Kenneth Tynan) The harder you work to refuse the audience what they want, the harder they are forced to work to find it. But because everything else is so impeccably achieved, they are prepared to work. Nowadays your work is unfashionable because often nothing is achieved apart from the refusal, lending your work an appearance of petulance which your personal qualities as they appear in the journals and the biographies only serve to confirm.

But when done right, your work has everything. Fun, entertainment, emotional and intellectual seriousness, and ideas which resonate outward long after the half-height curtain has come down.

My thesis situates you in the tradition of clown from Karl Valentin, whom you knew, through Chaplin and Dario Fo, finishing by looking at how the contemporary, fiercely apolitical view of clown can be brought to bear on your work. Jacques Lecoq and John Wright insist clown cannot have political force because the clown, as an inveterate debunker, cannot hold any opinion for longer than about two seconds. It's a sound premise but a false conclusion: put an idiot in the right context and it's easy to illustrate the thesis that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. You don't need the clown himself to support the thesis any more than you need Richard III to support the thesis that tyranny is bad. Slightly harder than to illustrate a thesis is to explore a question undogmatically, but the principle is the same.

This combination of popular form with serious enquiry is at the core of your work (although don't worry, I'm not accusing you of being undogmatic). It's also what I'm trying to do with my clown show this winter. I love the work of Peepolykus, Ridiculusmus, Cal McCrystal and so on, but their work is, like candyfloss, ultimately unsatisfying. There's nothing left to savour once the madness is finished, no flavours left to deepen on the palate. I love Kneehigh above all because they manage to explore beauty, humanity, frailty through this kind of work. Why not create something of this stamp that is also intellectually exciting? The aim of the forthcoming clown show is to touch on serious geopolitical questions, but never stop being clown, never flip from funny to serious for cheap effect. The serious questions are there, but they are left to mature in the audiences' minds. It might not be great, but I hope it will be quite good.

But the other reason I wanted to write is the thesis itself. It's all over bar the writing up. That's the difficult bit. Reading the books was easy. I now know what I think. Fine.

I object to having to set it out in dead prose for the reading displeasure of six people I'll never meet again. The only thing motivating me to finish the damn thing now is politeness: I've been funded to the tune of about £25k to research the thing, so it seems rude not to give them something for their money. But that doesn't get a chap out of bed in the morning. I'm a freelance theatre-maker with a living to earn and both the work and the living are of considerably greater importance than completing a thesis to no purpose. These letters are a welcome opportunity for reflection. If I have to reflect much further on your work, I shall set fire to it.

I'm off to dash off 2000 words while I'm not feeling too negative about you.


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