BRECHT, TOKYO AND MT. VESUVIUS

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In 1956 Bertolt Brecht sent his written contribution to a debate about the theatre taking place in the city of Darmstadt, Germany. In his clear-cut style and well-defined images, he warned the listening congregation (we are assuming somebody else read his words) that if they wanted to talk to today’s people they needed to present today’s problems in relation to their solutions, the world as a world that can be changed. “Years ago,” the voice (not his) continued, “in a newspaper I saw a photograph of the city of Tokyo destroyed by an earthquake. Most of the houses had collapsed, but a few modern buildings were standing, unscathed. ‘Steel stood’ was written over the image.” The voice then invited them to compare this description with Pliny’s description of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, concluding that it seemed obvious which one “our modern playwrights should avoid.” (Alas, we can only imagine the reaction of the passionately debating congregation. In 1956.) “We can no longer present man to man as a victim, as the passive object of an unknown and immutable environment.” The voice finally spoke in stone, “If we put ourselves in the position of the ball, the laws of motion become inconceivable.” (In 1956, of course.)

3 Replies to “BRECHT, TOKYO AND MT. VESUVIUS”

    1. It’s a tricky one I know as he (Brecht) was talking about the theatre and the fact that in his opinion theatre-goers at the time were forced to become one with the story and the characters on stage so much that they forgot themselves and didn’t have any rational approach to the play and its message – which is why he went on to conceive his own “epic” theatre where the audience would not identify with the characters and the story but observe it as external viewers. What I wanted to say, however, has more to do with the image of the earthquake/eruption and our world’s desire for catastrophe and some hidden enemy lurking upon us from who knows where (terrorism, this virus, etc…) and our desire not only to be part of something like this but also not to be able to explain it.The more unsolvable the mystery, the happier we seem to be. Brecht’s thought struck me as he would probably come to a different conclusion about today’s humanity than in 1956. In his theatre we see the hidden mechanisms of stage design and props that are normally out of sight – and (most) people welcomed this back in 1956 – I wonder if we would like them today?

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