Brecht Bytes #3

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 (Brecht’s German citizenship was revoked in 1935.)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.

You, actor
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.


And already
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
of knowledge
To turn the struggle into common experience and
Justice into a passion.

5 thoughts on “Brecht Bytes #3

  1. Hi Robin,

    The essence of “the street scene” might have started out as the core of one of Brecht’s 1930s poems, but the version I’m most familiar with is an elaborated essay (circa 1950) in *Brecht on Theater: The Development of an Aesthetic* (pg. 121) edited and translated by John Willett. Some snippets of that book available via Google

    • Hi Gautam,
      As far as I could find last spring there was no e-book of this particular collection of poems. I had to check it out of a library and type in the portions I reference on the blog. Sorry I couldn’t be more help.

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