Review: ‘Bertolt Brecht: The Collected Plays’ Volume one (London, Metheun, 1970), Volume seven (London, Methuen, 1976; London, Eyre Methuuen paperback, 1977)

Edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim


Michael Minden


Eighteen years ago Eric Bentley was complaining that there was a lot of uninformed prattle surrounding Brecht in English speaking countries, and it is only with the gradual appearance of these translations under the editorship of John Willett and Ralph Manheim that the various prejudices and general ignorance can start to be dispelled. As well as offering translations (of varying degrees of excellence) of the plays themselves, these volumes assemble material relating to the texts more conveniently than any comparable German edition of Brecht. The achievement of scholarship involved can hardly be praised too highly, although one inevitably regrets the air of finality the apparatus gives to Brecht’s work, which would ideally retain some of its fluidity in every reading or performance. On the other hand it is Brecht’s constant willingness or need to revise and modify which makes the collection of variants included in these volumes an indispensable aid to understanding.


The more recent volume includes the three full-length plays and the adaptation which Brecht wrote in the United States between 1941 and 1947. Of these probably only the Caucasian chalk circle is familiar to most people and needs no introduction here. On the other hand, it is refreshing and instructive to read the other two plays (The visions of Simone Machard, Schweyk in World War II). Here it is possible to experience Brecht’s practical poetic and dramatic skill without the covering of habit which he was at pains to discourage in everything he wrote and which is bound to attach to a reading of the Caucasian chalk circle. Both plays are certainly lesser works than the Chalk circle, not least perhaps because of their specific reference to the War, a subject which threatens to engulf even Brecht’s clarity of vision and skill of exposition. Nevertheless, they demonstrate his ability to organize dramatically effective situations in such a way as to combine pathos and incisiveness and make us wonder how anachronistic the literary aims of ‘prodesse et delectare, really are.


Brecht’s theoretical writing (as represented here in the notes) is likewise a pleasure to read because of its lucidness. It is so clearly defined by its intention that it is able to express basic practical and artistic insights in a business-like manner:


Plainly all art embellishes (which is not the same as glossing over). If

            for no other reason it must do so because it has to link reality with

            enjoyment. But this kind of embellishment, formulation, stylization,

            must not involve phoneyness or loss of substance. (from `Notes to the

            Caucasian chalk cirle’ [299]).


Clearly that kind of statement is open to all kinds of learned theoretical objections, yet in relation to Brecht’s actual achievement it has authority. The ready accesibility of some of Brecht’s theoretical utterances will no doubt do much to rectify the most wearisome of the kinds of ignorance threatening him that relating to his `theory’. In these extracts one can appreciate the real suppleness and subtlety of an approach to art which is not simplistic simply because it has no desire for mystery or aura. The only criticism I would make of the apparatus is that it is not arranged by page which makes it difficult to look up specific points quickly.


As for the translations themselves, it would be pedantic to pick holes in so useful an overall enterprise. Nevertheless, I should like to know what ‘out to the wide’ means (Volume 7, pages 73 and 76) and why the translator (W.H. Auden) saw fit to add a rhyme where Brecht had none, and a very bad one too (whore/therefore, vol. 7 p. 182). In general the insistence on preserving rhyme even where it distorts syntax seems to be a bad idea, not at all in the Brechtian spirit of revision and adaptation. Martin Esslin, in a review of the earlier volume, pointed out how badly the magnificent `Choral von grossen Baal’ comes off in translation and this is certainly a result of the translator’s decision - always a difficult one of course—to stick to rhymes instead of attempting a more accurate rendering without this constraint. Brecht’s simplicity is deceptive, and the slightly unsatisfying effects achieved in English—say, in the most poignant passages in the Caucasian chalk circle—bear witness to this.


But these objections are trivial in relation to the service Willett and Manheim have done to the image of Brecht in English-speaking countries. Although his achievement is based on an idealogical commitment inaccessible to us, the example of his theatrical and didactic skill must surely bear fruit once ignorance and prejudice have been dispersed -and this edition is perfectly designed to do that.