This week’s bit of Brecht comes from a poem titled “Speech to Danish Working-Class Actors on the Art of Observation” written between 1934 and 1936 around the time of the writer’s exile to Denmark in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. (Brecht’s German citizenship was revoked in 1935.) I believe this piece could be classified as something in the vein of Brecht’s “Lehrstuck” or “learning plays,” which are imagined, and conducted, as quite literally political theater. Audiences are encouraged to engage the stories directly, suggesting actions or commenting upon events (like a Greek chorus), even asked to prepare their “roles” before a production as co-actors, co-producers of the “on-stage” scenes. Augusto Boal‘s forum theater would be considered as another step in the evolution of this kind of theater.
In their introduction to Bertolt Brecht Poems 1913-1956 John Willett and Robert Manheim note that Brecht’s exile poetry was based on “politically-grounded private experience” (xviii) with a strict adherence to dealing with “precise tangible facts” (xx).
Such a use of the imagination to explain and expand bald reality is one of Brecht’s genuinely scientific gifts. (xxi)
I thought this assessment to be particularly apt considering the documentary theater form and the particular paradoxical mixing of imagination and reality evident in Laramie. Because Brecht sees himself as educating worker/actors (even if it is education with a liberatory purpose), this piece smacks a bit of paternalism and is threaded through with Brecht’s Marxist idealism. That said, I think his description of observation is a fruitful and his image of the actor as a worker is one that I hold as valuable even if he’s addressing a very different kind of worker-actor in 1930s Denmark.
This poem is 7 pages long. I’m beginning about 1/3 of the way in and will make cuts (referenced by the [...] markings) intermittently. If anyone wants the full text, just let me know.
Must master the art of observation
Before all other arts.
For what matters is not how you look but
What you have seen and can show us. What’s worth knowing
Is what you know.
People will observe you to see
How well you have observed.
The man who only observes himself however never gains
Knowledge of men. He is too anxious
To hide himself from himself. And nobody is
Cleverer than he himself is.
So your schooling must begin among
Living people. Let your first school
Be your place of work, your dwelling, your part of the town.
Be the street, the underground, the shops. You should
All the people there, strangers as if they were acquaintances,
Acquaintances as if they were strangers to you.
Nor should you forget the pictures on screen and newspaper
See how they walk and speak, those rules
Who hold the threads of your fate in their white and brutal
You should inspect such people exactly. And now
Imagine all that is going on around you, all those struggles
Picturing them just like historical incidents
For this is how you should go on to portray them on the
The fight for a job, sweet and bitter conversations
Between the man and his woman, arguments about books
Resignation and revolt, attempt and failure
All these you will go on to portray as historical incidents.
In order to observe
One much learn how to compare. In order to compare
One must have observed. By means of observation
Knowledge is generated; on the other hand knowledge is
For observation. And
He observes badly who does not know
How to use what he has observed. The fruitgrower
Inspects the appletree with a keener eye than does the walker
But no one can see man exactly unless he knows it is
Man who is the fate of man.
The art of observation
Applied to man is but a branch of the
Art of dealing with men. Your task, actors, is to be
Explorers and teachers of the art of dealing with people.
Knowing their nature and demonstrating it you teach them
To deal with themselves. You teach them the great art
Of living together.
Many of you are studying the laws of men’s life together,
Your class is determined to master its problems and thereby
The problems of
All mankind. And that is where you
The workers’ actors, as you learn and teach
Can play your part creatively in all the struggles
Of men of your time, thereby
Helping, with the seriousness of study and the cheerfulness
To turn the struggle into common experience and
Justice into a passion.
Today’s bite is a poem that I think captures the way Jeff has been encouraging you all, in these past 2 weeks of individual meetings, to both doubt what’s on the page and what the character is saying and to be active in your choices every moment. It also touches on our continuing discussions as a company about how to manage or account for all the things we now know about the events at the center of the play as well as consider the resonances these details have here and now.
Portrayal of Past and Present in One**
Whatever you portray you should always portray
As if it were happening now. Engrossed
The silent crowd sits in the darkness, lured
Away from its routine affairs. Now
The fisherman’s wife is being brought her son whom
The generals have killed. Even what has happened
In her room is wiped out. What is happening here is
Happening now and just the once. To act in this way
Is habitual with you, and now I am advising you
To ally this habit with yet another: that is, your acting
At the same time express the fact that this instant
On your stage is often repeated; only yesterday
You were acting it, and tomorrow too
Given spectators, there will be a further performance.
Nor should you let the Now blot out the
Previously and Afterwards, nor for that matter whatever
Is even now happening outside the theatre and is similar in
Nor even things that have nothing to do with it all – none of
Should you allow to be entirely forgotten.
So you should simply make the instant
Stand out, without in the process hiding
What you are making it stand out from. Give your acting
That progression of one-thing-after-another, that attitude of
Working up what you have taken on. In this way
You will show the flow of events and also the course
Of your work, permitting the spectator
To experience this Now on many levels, coming from
Merging into Afterwards, also having much else now
Alongside it. He is sitting not only
In your theatre but also
In the world.
**John Willett, translator. Attributed to poems Brecht wrote between 1947-1953. I’ve added a couple of sets of bold typeface because I think these are ideas particularly important as you all continue work on constructing your characters.