The Kiss Of Death: Brecht, Beckett, And Academia - Christopher Innes
The Kiss of Death: that may sound a pretty melodramatic label to stick on drama studies. But I believe it could also be applied to literary criticism, and indeed the Humanities in general. Consider what it is that makes us "university" people, and how we operate. In any Arts subject it's ideas that matter. We don't deal with facts, but with values; and as one might expect, these are self-justifying. Prizing intellect, we promote the characteristic qualities of abstraction, complexity, subjectivism.
The big names in modern drama are Bert Brecht and Sam Beckett. Why ? or rather Who says ? Following from that one might ask: Does it matter ? (to anyone but us, that is.) But then there's a further question: What effect do such judgements have ? And Is this a good thing ? Clearly from my title, I have some grave doubts. So Do we really know what we're doing ? All that may sound very basic -- but usually we're too closely involved, to examine the way we operate as a group. And note I say "we". If indeed academics are killing off dramatic literature, then I'm rather more responsible than most, what with all that publishing and editing. If I'm going to be slaughtering any sacred cows, then it seems only fair to be puncturing my own pretensions at the same time.
What I'd like to suggest is that there's not only an intellectual basis in everything we do as academics, but an in-built bias towards intellectualism -- and this isn't simply neutral. We actually shape the material of our subjects into our own image. Playwrights and directors (and even these days, actors) are responding to our activities in the way they create the art-works that we then study. Over the last 40 years it's become an increasingly integrated system, with universities taking on the role of patrons. Either universities employ the artists as teachers and writers-in-residence. Or (more insidiously) they supply the experts who decide which of the artistic community get funding from public agencies. Naturally, the type of art that gets rewarded tends to correspond with our intellectual values: so artists learn to write in ways that appeal to academia. The relationship is symbiotic; and the "difficulty", or lack of accessibility of so much modern art can be seen as a direct result.
Art used to be something everyone could understand. Indeed, up to the early years of this century literature was not even considered a subject that needed studying, unless it happened to have been written in Latin or Greek. The beginnings of criticism as we know it, came with the rise of journals like The Edinburgh Review or The Spectator, but their focus was limited to "significant" literary forms such as poetry, or Shakespeare. Contemporary theatre, being relegated to popular entertainment, largely escaped the critical eye until the birth of modernism in the 1890s.
Up to that point, what writings there were about theatre - from Aristotle or Scaliger, to Sydney and Lessing - tended to be on aesthetics. Perhaps the earliest precursor of contemporary dramatic criticism was the notorious Reverend Collier, whose attack on Restoration drama was both moralistic and related to dramatists actually writing at the time. And the aim of his diatribe - to reform the stage, to make plays socially useful and above all to promote his own ethical views - is characteristic of the whole academic industry that has erected itself over the theatre. Criticism has become an essential consumer service, which increasingly controls the market. At one end of the spectrum, reviewers have the power to close a show, particularly on Broadway, or assure financial success. At the other end, academic critics have made it possible for dramatists to prosper quite independent of the stage by creating a market for the texts of their plays. And the direct progeniturs of all this activity, at least in the English-speaking world, are William Archer and Bernard Shaw.
They were the first to qualify as "reviewers" in the modern sense, with Shaw moving from musical criticism, via opera, to stage productions; and each had personal agendas that went far beyond simply evaluating productions of the time. Archer was promoting the "new" naturalism of Ibsen. Shaw (of course) was conditioning the public to accept his own work by attacking the theatrical standards of the 1890s. And by 1905 the practice of drama-reviewing was sufficiently widespread for the London journalists involved to set up a formal association. One of its purposes was to establish standards for this new trade; and Archer, as vice-president, was in a position to dominate the group's discussions. Thus the Archer/Shaw approach became the frame within which theatre criticism operated. Its underlying aims have remained interventionist: to improve, mould, reform -- rather than being simply to appreciate, interpret or inform.
It was a short step from this to more extended and academic studies: indeed Shaw set the pattern by publishing books like The Quintessence of Ibsenism and Our Theatres in the 90s. His example was compounded by the growth of literary departments in Universities, out of which came the drama "specialists", who formed the core of the new theatre departments that sprang up in the late 50s and 60s. And what could be called "the analytical imperative", which emerged from this, has had a significant effect: both on what is written for the stage, and on how it gets performed.
These days all too few directors have managed to escape the formative influence of university lectures and drama classes -- which of course condition their choice of repertoire. In addition, critical interpretations of the play will be part of the material gathered in preparing a production, while it has become almost obligatory to print a theoretical or analytic piece in the programme. Traditionally, actors taking on a classical role used to look at the way earlier performers had tackled it: thus when Janet Sussman was rehearsing Hedda Gabler, she looked at Mrs Pat Campbell's anotated prompt book, and found that it had originally belonged to Janet Achurch, who had also written comments on the script. By contrast, even such a non-academic contemporary actor as Mel Gibson is on record as having read over 50 critical books relating to Hamlet, in preparing for the Zeferelli film.
This analytical approach has undoubtedly produced far more intellectually stimulating theatre than the B.C. (or Before Critics) reliance on tradition. Indeed it is arguable that drama has regained its social significance, its centrality as an art form in the 20th Century, primarily because of the amount of critical attention focussed on it, and the interventionalist stance. However, there is also a kind of natural limitation that flows from this; a narrowness of focus that only prizes (and only therefore encourages) certain types of work.
Popular entertainment seems to be beneath intellectual notice. Shaw demolished the problem play along with melodrama; and it's only very recently that a new look is being taken at these 19th Century forms of theatre. Many more people world-wide have seen plays by Peter Shaffer or Neil Simon than by, say, Howard Brenton or Sam Shepard -- yet the journal I edit (Modern Drama) has never published a single article on Neil Simon, and only three on Shaffer, whereas there are regular contributions on Brenton, and we get literally dozens of submissions on Shepard each year. In fact (although there are other characteristic blind-spots too -- such as the turn-of-the-century Suffragette playwrights) what gets the shortest end of the academic stick is comedy in general, and farce in particular. For every single article or book on, say, Alan Ayckbourn or even Noel Coward, there are ten on almost any "serious" dramatist you care to mention, while in terms of most British theatre histories the Whithall farces or those of Ben Travers hardly rate a mention.
It would, of course, be quite unfair to suggest that this might be due to a lack of humour in academic circles... However, it certainly reflects an obvious (if seldom acknowledged) scale of priorities - at the other end of which are Brecht and Beckett.
It just so happens that both came to the attention of the English-speaking world around the same time. Even though Brecht's work had been performed in London before the war, while his American exile during the 40s produced the Charles Laughton version of Galileo, Brecht remained almost completely unknown outside Germany until the London tour of the Berliner Ensemble in 1956. Similarly, Beckett's first play, Waiting for Godot, arrived on the London stage just 8 months earlier, two years after its premiere in Paris. And it's worth noting that this was precisely the period when drama studies began to be widely developed as an independant university subject in England and North America. Maybe this was fortuitous -- though one has to wonder why the discovery of Brecht was so long delayed, when his work would have had so much more relevance in the 1930s. But what's significant is that each of these playwrights were remarkably suitable for establishing academic credibility. Grist to the new mill, both were rapidly proclaimed the key figures of modern (and then post-modernist) drama. Whether in fact their work deserves such an accolade, or not, is by now almost impossible to establish: the way Brecht and Beckett have been treated has made it a fait accompli - as well as offering cautionary object-lessons about the relationship between academia and the stage.
At any rate, one thing that links these two playwrights, who are in many ways so very different, is the way both use open theatricality, dispensing with naturalistic illusion to emphasize the nature of the stage as performance. Particularly appropriate for distinguishing drama studies from literature. And another thing they have in common is the sheer amount of critical attention that has been paid to each of them over the last quarter-century. More analysis has been published on the plays of Brecht and Beckett than on any other modern dramatists (and the fact that Shaw runs them a close third is no coincidence). Books and articles about Brecht's themes, his theories, his politics and the productions mounted by his theatre, far exceed even the twenty-two volumes of his collected works. And Beckett, whose total dramatic ouput (though large in number) would hardly fill a single foot of shelf-space, offers an even more extreme example. By weight alone the ratio between Beckett's plays and critical commentary is probably around fifty, or even a hundred-to-one. But the most significant indicator is the way their names have come to be used as critical adjectives: "BRECHTIAN"; "BECKETTIAN".
That's usually accepted as the acid test of an author's importance. It implies that he (or very rarely, she) has become a household name. It also says that his (or her) work has clearly identifiable qualities which sum up a specific view of life, or even mode of existence -- as with "Shakespearean", "Rabelaisian", or "Byronic". But when we look at more modern writers, and ask what distinguishes them from other, perhaps equally eminent contemporaries who have failed to win that adjectival accolade, then something else becomes obvious.
In addition to "Brechtian" or "Beckettian", we speak about drama as being "Shavian", "Pirandellian", "Artaudian" or (to a slightly lesser degree) "Pinteresque". But why don't we refer to, say, Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller or Noel Coward or John Osborne in the same way ? Playwrights like David Mamet or Caryl Churchill may be just too recent. But I somehow doubt that we will ever be saying "Mamettian" or "Churchillic", any more than we now say "Cowardly" (or should that be "Cowardesque" ?) since the difference seems to have little to do with the dramatic quality of their plays as such.
Instead there seems to be a high correlation either with a certain type of non-dramatic intellectual activity, or with obscurity. For instance, Bernard Shaw, who claimed to be writing for a "pit of philosophers", accompanied practically every play with a pamphlet -- while Antonin Artaud is almost solely known for his essays in The Theatre and Its Double. And it is largely their "ideas" that have absorbed critical attention. On the other hand, Pirandello's plays - which he himself labelled as "philosophic drama" - are highly complex illustrations of intellectual theses; and Pinter's work was received as being confusingly abstract. Because they seemed hard to understand, critical explanations were clearly needed; and their status grew in direct proportion to the amount of commentary. In achieving adjectival status, plays seem to take second place to theories.
Brecht, who also wrote volumes of theoretical essays and polemic newspaper-pieces, belongs with the first group. Beckett, who consistently refused to explain his ideas at all, belongs in the second. Yet both groups have something in common.
A large part of Artaud's attraction comes from the imprecision of metaphors such as "the plague". His rejection of rationality produces striking phrases, such as "actors signalling through the flames", which can be read to mean any number of things. Similarly, critics - and the actors in productions Beckett has directed - have had to do what they can with self-cancelling negatives like "no symbols where none intended", or puns on the word "play", like his explanation that "Endgame is only a game. Nothing less..."
By comparison to Artaud's gnomic mysticism or Beckett's avoidance of explanation, Brecht appears logical because he uses denotative language, and (like Shaw) is concerned with critical argument in the public forum. But, as one of his early collaborators commented, "Above all else, Brecht had an extraordinary love for sticking labels on things, even before their content had been determined." And towards the end of his life one finds Brecht himself admitting that "My whole theory is much naiver than people think, or than my way of putting it ever allowed them to suppose... For the sake of (oh dear me!) a non-Aristotelian dramaturgy I had to outline (calamity!) an epic theatre."
This was a direct response to the kind of critical misinterpretation his work was beginning to receive. But my point is not the degree to which Brecht's theories actually apply to his plays, nor their general relevance for the theatre. It's simply that this type of theorizing has an irresistible attraction for the academic mind. Why ? Because these types of ideas, uniting schematic preciseness with abstraction, provide a fertile field for argument and speculative constructs. They encourage demonstrations of theoretical positions, with a relative disregard for realities -- in short, they allow free rein for criticial interpretation.
The way this works can be seen best in Beckett, whose drama has a strong philosophical component. It not only centres on ideas about time, entropy and cyclical recurrence, together with the nature of perception, memory and the habitual evasions of consciousness. It also assumes external reality to be problematic, as well as being self-referential -- both in dealing with the act of artistic creation, and in presenting things with open theatricality. In addition, the way these concepts are expressed comes more and more to embody typically intellectual qualities, since Beckett combines progressive thematic abstraction, compressed images and geometrical patterning, with vague indeterminacy and repetition.
The setting of Endgame can be seen as the inside of a skull. The series of monologues, from Not I in 1973 to Rockabye in 1981, become literally "a theatre of the mind"; and the characteristic progress of all Beckett's work is one of diminishing returns. His figures are at an ever more extreme edge of their existence, but not one of them achieves an ending. Just as the characters of Godot "don't seem able... (long hesitation) ...to depart", so the temporal setting or lighting specified for his plays - typically late evening, or grey half-tones - presents a neutral state of non-darkness. And this avoidance of closure signals a refusal of conclusions, which is also an evasion of thematic statement.
All this, mirroring the workings of the intellect, as well as asserting the supremacy of mind over matter, is naturally attractive to the academic mentality. It not only reflects the same qualities, but serves to justify the value that is put on thought. At the same time the consistency of Beckett's vision, and the rigor with which it is expressed, serves as an apparent guarantee of philosophical integrity -- without in any way restricting critical freedom by a specific message. In fact, the eliptical concentration of Beckett's work, coupled with ambiguity and the avoidance of any definable statement, opens his plays to any number of different interpretations.
This has generated a confusing and contradictory mass of commentary. Whole academic careers have been based on it. And such extensive search for meaning by itself creates an impression that his plays are obscure, which in turn seems to justify so much eludication. However, despite the philosphical basis and mental interiority of Beckett's work, his essential vision is clear and uncomplicated. As Beckett declared, in a typically reductive response to all this scholarly activity, his position was "to refuse to be be involved in exegesis of any kind... to insist on the extreme simplicity of dramatic situation and issue... My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended)."
Yet, at the same time, Beckett - with conscious irony - was playing the critical game. When the academic pursuit of signification showed signs of running into the sands of theological abstraction, he countered by identifying names like Godot, or Hamm and Clov from Endgame with the most basic everyday objects: boot (godillot in French), hammer and nail (clou). And indeed, he is recorded as commenting "Oh God, tomes are going to be written about this", when inserting the word "lacrosse" (with its pun on a North American indian game and the Crucifixion) into Footfalls.
In fact one could go much further than this, and suggest that Beckett's progressive cutting of conventional dramatic elements from his plays was in direct response to the academic industry, which was giving him such rapid fame. The qualities that critics singled out when his drama first hit the scene - stylistic economy, symbolic suggestiveness, stasis, universalization, minimalism, theatrical self-reference - were precisely those that came to dominate his subsequent plays in an increasingly pure state. In the 50s and early 60s, it was repeatedly emphasized that what made his work unique was its apparent discarding of all the central elements of drama: plot, character, recognizable scenery, social relevance. By even the progressive standards of the time (Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger) this appeared to be true. Yet Godot and Endgame do actually have individualized figures, localised settings, and at least residual plots. Happy Days still retains social intercourse between the characters; and the action in all three of these early plays obviously relates to everyday activities.
Can it really be coincidental that it is particularly these elements (that Beckett had been somewhat inaccurately praised for omitting), which are cut from his post-1970 pieces ? Drama becomes reduced to "dramaticule" (his term for Come and Go) then further distilled in in his titles for collections of later playlets: "Shorts", "Ends and Odds", "Occasional Pieces" (a bi-lingual pun combining pieces d'occasion, or "commissioned plays", with "trivial fragments"). And indeed, several of his final pieces were not written for public production, but (like Ohio Impromptu) specifically for university performance... The wheel comes round full circle, closing the connection between Beckett's artistic development and academia.
In a marginal note about producing That Time Beckett commented: "To the objection, visual component too small... answer: make it smaller on the principle that less is more" -- and he described the piece itself as being "on the very edge of what is possible in the theatre". That could serve as an epigraph for his evolution as a dramatist.
Increasingly Beckett's theatre presents the audience with a double negative. "Nothing is more real than nothing" (the epigraph to Malone Dies) applies to all his work. The observation that "There's no lack of void", ironic in Godot, becomes more literal with each phase of his career. After 1970 almost all Beckett's pieces deal with solitary figures at, or rather immediately after the moment of death, whose fragmented memories reflect the experience of dying. Largely disembodied voices, listening to themselves, they represent an extreme of abstraction. When Billie Whitelaw, playing Amy in Footfalls, asked "Am I dead ?", Beckett's reply was "You're not really there."
This development towards absence may be entirely consistent with Beckett's declared principles. But the direction he took also corresponded with the values prized by his academic supporters. Hailed as the apostle of post-modernism, Beckett lived up to the billing, continually pushing forward the goalposts, until his final plays barely belong on the stage at all. Indeed, even the plays of his middle period had shorter and shorter runs in smaller and smaller theatres; and his later pieces are clearly designed for very limited numbers of spectators. The precise geometry of minimal movement called for can only be effective in the narrowest of sightlines, while the stress on nuances of facial expression, or the whittling down of the human figure to fragments of anatomy - the amputated "white face" of the Listener that is the only visual image in That Time, the disembodied mouth of Not I which is only "faintly lit from close up and below" - require close proximity to the stage. Minimalist in subject as well as form, and with some pieces being actually intended for universities, they are almost literally "academic".
In short, Beckett's process of radical negation has nullified his drama; and this can be seen as the end result of the reciprocal influence through which he and his university disciples mutually promoted each other.
Brecht's drama suffered an equivalent fate from critical attention. However, the process was rather different, and illustrates another aspect of the symbiotic relationship between theatre and academia. In Brecht's case, his reputation has come to rest less on the dramatic value of his plays, than on the purely intellectual attraction of his non-theatrical writings. Although this is less intrinsically destructive, since Brecht's career was already drawing to a close by the time academics adopted him, it has distorted the reception of his work.
Brecht's impact in the mid-50s led to various main-stage productions of his plays. However, over the two decades from about 1965 (the very period when Brecht studies were big business), not one was mounted in the West End, on Broadway, or even at the British National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. By contrast his plays became standard exercises on university campuses, and enjoyed an intermittent vogue with experimental groups catering to the intellectual carriage-trade. Over the last five years there has been some revival of interest. Yet it is very much to the point that while academics were building up his stature on their pages, Brecht's stock was falling very low on the cultural as well as commercial stages. And these two facts are not unrelated. Where his plays did make an infrequent appearance in the regular theatre, outside the New York and London centres, they attracted reviews with headlines like "To Heck With Boring Brecht !"
That was the response to a 1978 Toronto Arts production of Mother Courage. Now Canadian reviwers may be notoriously subjective and parochial. But their comments were typical enough to pose serious questions about the gap between all the laudatory studies by big guns in the academic field - Bentley, Willett, Esslin, Gray, Fuegi, Innes, et al - and the generally disparaging reception of Brecht's work by the foot soldiers of the daily press. A brief extract from that review might give us a lead to the problem.
This reverential production is yet another example of that alienation theory of Brecht's. Don't make 'em cry, make 'em think. Well, I would have had to think if a recognizable group of human beings had been shown in the grips of a conflict they neither understood or could affect... But all I learned from Brecht's human puppets was that war is wrong, wrong, wrong...
Or, from another review of the same performance:
Brecht wanted his message to reach everyone, so he used a vaudeville technique of presenting signs on the stage to describe the action. But what was intended as a simplification has calcified over the years into the most irritating of theatrical affectations...
And so on. The assumptions are pretty standard, and could be duplicated in reviews from various cities during that time-frame.
Now, Mother Courage is one of the masterpieces of modern drama -- but you would never have guessed it from that production. The performance was exactly as described. The actors demonstrated their roles, rather than displaying the emotions of the characters; and all of Brecht's "epic" devices were carefully reproduced. What any of us who had been writing admiringly about Brecht should have found disturbing, is that such a staging was assumed to be an accurate transcription of Brecht's intentions (in a word "reverential"). However those reviewers, as well as the director and his actors, were all following the principles propounded by Brecht scholars.
That "think, don't feel" definition of Brecht's alienation technique is a popularized Lowest Common Denominator of explanations by John Willet and others. The notion that Brecht's placards are intended to simplify, or even describe the action, can be found in Ronald Gray. The interpretation of Mother Courage as an anti-war tract is mainly due to Eric Bentley. Of course all these things can be found in Brecht's own theoretical essays -- but it was the scholars who had given theory such prominence.
In fact, anyone whose eye had not been preconditioned by academic criticism would have seen that Brecht is using the historical Thirty Years War as a rather obvious stick to beat capitalism. His point wasn't the evils of warfare, which would indeed be a cliche, but (to paraphrase Clausewitz) that war is only the logical extension of economic competition. Without the critics, it would also have been obvious that the placards seldom describe the scene they accompany. To take a couple of examples - "the funeral of the commander, Tilley. Conversations take place about war heroes"; or "1632. In this same year Gustavus Adolphus fell in the battle of Lutzen" - these set up a contrast. They stand for "monumental history" (the standard schoolbook view that history is the record of great men) which is undercut by the ordinary human activities on the stage. The opposition between placard and scene is an exercise in complex perception. It's designed to challenge our assumptions about the world. As for the notorious bugbear of the "alienation effect", that is due to a characteristic sort of mistranslation that exposes the pretensions of scholarship.
Calling the term Brecht coined, "alienation", certainly underlined the novelty of his epic theatre and its unconventional nature. It therefore became (perhaps unconsciously) a way of asserting the necessity of academic criticism: the vital role of the scholar in explaining what would otherwise be too difficult to understand. Yet in fact the distinction between "alienation" and Aristotelian empathy is completely artificial. And using such a term, which in English stands for strong psychological rejection, was largely what produced the boringly mechanical acting in Brecht's plays on the English-speaking stage, as well as the reviewers' expectations that this was correct. More recently, in a belated attempt to undo the damage, other ways of translating Brecht's word have been suggested - "estrangement"; "defamiliarization" - and the latter points out what should have been obvious all along: that the function of epic theatre was intended to be much the same as one of the standard definitions of poetry. As Wordsworth remarked, the aim of the poet is "to make new things familiar, and familiar things new". Brecht was simply focussing on the second half of that formula. Indeed, his theatrical approach is basically the same as any farcical comedy. Anyone who's watched a Charlie Chaplin movie has seen Brechtian acting in practice; and many of Brecht's staging techniques were borrowed from Elizabethan theatre -- none of which should be difficult for an audience to understand. And very little of it needs theoretical explanation.
In fact Brecht never denied the importance of emotion in his epic theatre. In contrasting it with traditional drama (where an impression of inevitability is created by sharing the emotions of the characters, weeping when they weep, laughing when they laugh) he stated that
The epic theatre's spectator says: I'd never have thought it - that's not the way - that's extraordinary, hardly credible - it's got to stop - the sufferings of this man appal me because they are UNnecessary... I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.
Brecht expected his audience to respond with a full emotional range: to cry, to agonize, to hold their breath, to rejoice. Indeed, all these feelings were to be intensified by amazement, even outrage; and one shouldn't forget that Mother Courage contains two of the most powerful pieces of melodramatic, tear-jerking pathos in the whole of 20th Century drama. Think of the dumb Kattrin beating her drum to alert the sleeping town, while the attacking soldiers first threaten, then shoot her: a classic image of the innocent, weeping with fear, yet determined, sacrificing herself to save the children she can never have. Then there is the scene where Mother Courage is forced to deny her own dead son: a situation of biblical force where anguish and loss is made even more agonizing by the necessity to repress her feelings, given graphic expression in Helene Weigel's silent scream.
That scene could be used as a model of Brecht's much misunderstood dramaturgy. Barriers to direct expression are a way of heightening the emotional effect. And many of the elements classified as "Brechtian" - particularly the austere staging - are not intrinsic to his drama. They were a reaction to the politics of a particular time and place, and were never intended to be relevant for productions elsewhere. The "grey period" of the Berliner Ensemble, represented by his own 1949 production of Mother Courage, was a way of confronting the inflated psuedo-emotionalism of the Nazi past that had warped the German psyche. His bare stage, clinical lighting, and stress on sober objectivity, were explicitly intended to be "a withdrawal course for drug addicts" from the rhetorical self-indulgence and stage heroics that had characterized the "narcotic" theatre of the Third Reich.
Clarity was one of Brecht's constant concerns, but cold turkey was never meant as a permanent diet. The actual tone of his drama is much more fairly represented by the colourful, Christmas-crib costumes and fantasy setting of the Berliner Ensemble production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle -- or by the mix of Keystone cops farce with the menace of a St Valentine's day massacre, and the fairground frame of flashing lights and merry-go-round music in The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui. The "Modelbucher", or beat-by-beat photographic records of Brecht's key productions demonstrate that the true characteristics of his drama are imaginative coherence, vivid visual imagery and immense theatrical energy. But all this was disguised by the way Brecht-scholars concentrated on his theories, setting these up as a prism through which his plays were seen. The last word should perhaps be left with Max Frisch, the Swiss playwright, whose comment on Brecht's collaborators in Switzerland after the war applies equally to most of the academics responsible for establishing his reputation in England and America. "Everyone who worked with [Brecht's plays] at that time was more Brechtian than Brecht himself, for he really always worked empirically."
So, in each case, the attention of the critics has been disastrous. Both Brecht and Beckett were adopted by academics who needed to establish the intellectual credibility of their new discipline, because aspects of their work mirrored - indeed substantiated - the values prized by the university community. It's no accident that what they emphasized were Beckett's initial tendencies toward abstraction and philosophical symbols, or Brecht's (mainly polemic) claims to objectivity and rationality. The work of both playwrights contained elements that made them uniquely suited to the professional requirements, as well as the mentality of scholars. By building these two writers into the twin pillars of theatrical modernism, drama departments (and individual careers) were elevated on their backs. Theory triumphed: but at the expense of theatre.
Beckett can be seen as having made a Faustian bargain: immortality in exchange for collaboration: making his plays into what the critics wanted. Although Brecht was already dead by the time the scholarly industry began to build up around him, his essays made him an accessory before the fact. But in either case the result was the same. Beckett's later pieces are almost unperformable in the public theatre. Brecht's work more or less vanished from the stage. The higher their critical status, the more unpopular their plays became with ordinary audiences. The embrace of academia has literally been the kiss of death. And the worrying thing is that we - drama departments, critics: myself included - are continuing to mould contemporary dramatists in our own intellectual image.
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