JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Epic theater and the
principles of counter-cinema, page 2

by Alan Lovell

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 64-68
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

It is almost impossible to estimate the popularity of Brecht's plays by the obvious measure of the audiences they got. For a variety of reasons his plays weren't put to a substantial test in this respect. Ironically his biggest commercial success, The Threepenny Opera, was with bourgeois audiences in the Weimar Republic. If this period is left out of account as predating the complete political articulation of the theory of Epic theatre, the only other period when Brecht had audiences on a regular enough basis to make a judgment of popularity possible was in the German Democratic Republic from the late 1940s on. While his plays undoubtedly had a working class audiences in the GDR, the circumstances (the privileged position of the Berliner Ensemble, the absence of alternative entertainments) make this a special case. His audiences in Western Europe and the United States have been of a minority kind, generally bourgeois, professional and intellectual in social composition.

If the test of the audiences actually gained isn't really applicable, do Brecht's plays have a potential popularity which might either be actualized in the right circumstances or used as a starting point by other artists? Brecht, himself, pointed out that “besides being popular, there is such a thing as becoming popular." On the face of it, Brecht's poetry and plays have an obvious potential in this respect. Of all the art produced within the framework of modernism, his is distinguished by its simplicity and seeming accessibility. It doesn't appear to have the range of cultural reference, ironic elusiveness or shifting perspectives that make the work of artists like Joyce and Eliot the difficult preserve of minorities.

However, Brecht's simplicity and seemingly accessibility should not be taken for granted. He wasn't an artistic freak, a simple man mysteriously gifted with special powers of expression, though in some ways he encouraged such a myth. He was part of the same cultural and artistic complex as other modernist artists. Like other modernist writing his work is infused with an awareness of a wide range of literature. Much of its energy comes from an ironic relationship with previous literature — the presentation of The Rise and Fail of Arturo Ui in the form of Shakespearean drama, for example. Or take the following characterization of a modernist poetic position:

“Verse becomes hard (1) through being concise and paring away all ornamental frills, (2) when, in remaining close to everyday speech it conveys some of the harshness of quotidian reality, (3) when it tends towards concrete objectivity, thus avoiding sentimental effusions, (4) because in rendering what purports to be an accurate account of its subject, it approximates to the scientist's hard methods, his hard observation of detailed fact, (5) when it 'dares to go to the dustbin for its subject,’ (6) when it avoids symmetrical, isochronic meters which are branded soft, monotonous and soporific and instead traces its rhythms the rough, irregular contour of things.” (Nathan Zach, "Imagism and Vorticism," in Modernism, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, London: Penguin, 1974, p. 238)

This is, in fact, a characterization of Imagism but it could just as easily be a characterization of Brecht's poetic outlook.

The point of insisting on Brecht's relation to Modernism is to suggest that the simplicity of his work isn't easily achieved. It's not the simplicity of an artist who can take artistic traditions for granted and achieve a direct relationship with an audience because of a shared cultural and social background. The simplicity has to be worked for, constructed. Like other modernist art, it is the product of a self-conscious act.

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Increasingly, Brecht described the quality he was searching for in his art as "Naiveté." Manfred Wekwerth has noted the problem such a search creates:

“The advantage of such discoveries of Brecht's was that they were offbeat. Their use could never be grasped immediately because they appeared to be charging open doors: naiveté is something self-evident. It was only afterwards when we were staging the Commune that the door slammed shut in our face; we had to open it all over again. Only then did we note that we were passing through a door. Naiveté became a problem.” (Brecht — As They Knew Him, London: Laurence and Wishart, 1980, p. 150)

The conscious creation of naiveté is a contradiction in terms. Its successful achievement can only be thought of as "pseudo-naiveté" or perhaps, less critically, "faux-naiveté." But if the simplicity of Brecht's work is a deceptive simplicity, if the artistic effect he was after is best described as "faux-naive," how does this affect the accessibility of his work?

From an unsympathetic viewpoint, Theodor Adorno posed the issue very clearly:

“Even Brecht's best work was infected by the deceptions of his commitment. Its language shows how far the underlying poetic subject and its message have moved apart. In an attempt to bridge the gap, Brecht affected the diction of the oppressed. But the doctrine he advocated needs the language of the intellectual. The homeliness and simplicity of his tone is thus a fiction. It betrays itself both by signs of exaggeration and by stylized regression to archaic or provincial forms of expression. It can often be importunate, and ears which have not let themselves be deprived of their native sensitivity cannot help hearing that they are being talked into something. It is usurpation and almost a contempt for victims to speak like this as if the author were one of them.” (Theodor Adorno, "Commitment," Aesthetics and Politics, London: New Left Books, 1977, p. 187)

If Brecht's work was substantially an attempt to dramatize Marxist ideas, then Adorno was right to say that a conceptual ("intellectual") language was needed. But Brecht's work can't simply be seen as the dramatization of existing ideas, an exercise in political propaganda and education (important though these tasks are). As Adorno notes, the fact that the simplicity of the language of the plays and poems is a fabricated simplicity, relates Brecht to the modernist preoccupation with language, to the dilemmas of artists who don't have a language available they can take for granted.

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Brecht's work highlights a number of areas for exploration: the audience, aesthetic pleasure, popular art, avant-garde art, and realism. As a theorist, his value is for the questions he asks rather than the solutions he offers in these areas.

The Ideal Brecht constructed in current radical film theory, the Brecht who provides solutions, is a fiction. This isn't necessarily a criticism of the position. At a certain level, everybody creates fictions out of the past in order to come to terms with the present. The substantial issue is how useful the fiction is, how effectively it allows the present situation to be confronted. The main objection to the use currently made of Brecht is that the solutions derived from his work are inadequate. They sidestep the difficulties of contemporary left politics and consequently produce an art and criticism that is politically marginal.

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Brecht's position on the audience starts from an anti-bourgeois stance. It depends on identifying the theatre audience as complacent, uncritical and sentimental. This is a familiar account of the character of the bourgeoisie and may be an accurate one for audiences in the Weimar Republic. Brecht didn't, however, identify the proletarian audience in the same way. He had a strongly positive attitude towards the German working class movement. He was never able to adjust the theory of Epic theatre to this positive identification though his thinking always poses the question of the class composition of the audience.

Current positions implicitly solve the problem by a negative identification of the working class audience (with some acknowledgement of "contradictions" present in it). The proletarian audience can then be united with the bourgeois audience, so that an Epic theatre approach aiming to make audiences dissatisfied, critical and unsentimental is appropriate for both classes. This class unification is often encouraged by a Freudian approach which allows audiences to be treated as if they were classless.

The audience is not only made into a social unity but also identified as passive. This notion of passivity needs scrutinizing because it so obviously draws on traditional criticism of art forms like cinema and television, where visuals are important; "pictures" are seen as inherently demanding a less active response than "print."

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The reason for identifying the audience as classless and passive is not hard to find. A major problem for Marxist theory since the end of the Second World War has been to explain why the working class in mature capitalist formations has generally accepted capitalism. Same variant of the “affluent society" thesis referred to at the beginning of this essay has been a pervasive explanation. Simply put, the explanation is that the working class has been bought off, misled, manipulated — principally by the development of the consumption process. This development has led the working class to adopt bourgeois ideas and values.

The variant of the affluent society thesis that has been influential in radical film theory has offered a sophisticated avoidance of the immediate crudities of the "bribed and fooled" account. Influenced by structuralism and psychoanalysis, the formation of political attitudes has been located at deep levels of social life. But despite its sophistication, I don't think this variant of the explanation faces up to the complexities of left politics created by the development of both socialism and capitalism in the 1950s and 60s. The failure of the working class to support revolutionary politics does not need to be explained as an imposed and/or unconscious choice. Revolutionary action isn't something to be lightly entered into, and the period since 1945 has provided some good reasons for not doing so.

Within its own confines, Western capitalism has not proved a decisively unsuccessful social form (though this is almost certainly changing in the late 1970s and early 80s). The consumption goods it has made available, for example, have produced some real gains for large numbers of people.

Whatever their drawbacks, washing machines, cars, frozen foods, television sets and the rest get rid of much dreary labor and open up many new possibilities. In themselves, they certainly don't provide good reasons for rejecting capitalism. Nor have the examples of socialist forms provided by the major revolutionary social formations, the Soviet Union and China, strengthened attempts to overthrow capitalism.

It is also inaccurate to describe the response of the working class (and other oppressed groups) to the post-Second World War development of capitalism as passive. In terms of social struggle, the period has been marked by substantial activity and militancy on the part of the labor movement and other groups. (In Britain, to take an obvious example, the trade union movement first resisted the attempts by the Labour Government in the late 1960s to restrict its militancy, and then in the early 1970s the miners assisted by other sections of the Labor movement overthrew a Conservative government.) The activity and militancy hasn't been of a uniform kind in all the relevant countries, but none have been immune from it.

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The support Althusser's account of ideology gives to the notion of passivity and class unity raises issues of a different order. By insisting that ideology is a necessary component of all social formations, both past and future, Althusser extends the passivity thesis to the whole of human history. From this point of view, the struggle to make people active makers of their own destinies is an impossible one. Perry Anderson's comment is apposite:

“… the transhistorical statute of ideology as the unconscious medium of lived experience means that even in a classless society its systems of errors and delusions would survive to give vital cohesion to the social structure of communist itself. For this structure will be unseen and impermeable to the individuals within it. The Science of Marxism will never coincide with the lived ideas and beliefs of the masses under communism.” (Considerations on Western Marxism, London: New Left Books, 1976, p. 84)

Despite Althusser's militant Marxism, the character and centrality of his concept of ideology encourages the unification of the bourgeoisie with the proletariat. Rather than class, the main social division appears to be between those who live within ideology (the mass of people) and those who can escape from it and understand its workings (theorists).

Generally the Althusserian concept of ideology seems to me to have a disabling effect on left ideas, both political and cultural. Ideology has been so emphasized that the attempt to differentiate it proved increasingly difficult. The differentiating concept of science collapsed under critical pressure and failed to provide an analytical grip. Increasingly it has come to play the role of phlogiston in nineteenth century chemical theory, the unidentifiable gas that conveniently accounts for all the difficult problems. To be useful, the concept of ideology needs to be much more precisely delimited.

These criticisms of the unification of the working class with the bourgeoisie shouldn't be taken to mean that class divisions are the same as they were when Marxism was first developed a hundred years ago. The work contemporary Marxists have done on the social impact of technological change (e.g., the decline of the traditional heavy industries, computerization) is important and needs to be taken account of by cultural theorists.

Similarly, recent political history has made it all too clear that the working class doesn't have an inherent virtue that frees it from reigning prejudices (racism, chauvinism, religiosity, monarchism, etc.).

There is a real need to meaningfully acknowledge class difference and class struggle. Even if Brecht was sentimental and patronizing in his attitude to the working class, the sentimentality and patronage at least makes an acknowledgement of class difference. Such an acknowledgement is a necessary minimum of any position that wants to maintain contact with Marxism.

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Brecht was never able to deal with aesthetic pleasure satisfactorily but was insistent on its importance for art. His concern with pleasure was undoubtedly a positive one. Current positions on aesthetic pleasure have turned that concern into a negative one. The psychoanalytic perspective on aesthetic pleasure conceives of an imaginary (as defined by Jacques Lacan) which too easily conflates with the dominant (bourgeois) ideology. According to this perspective, the pseudo-pleasures offered by most art should be rejected in favor of work and critical activity, i.e., the pleasures of intellectuals.

For all the novelty provided by the Lacanian framework, the attitude to pleasure reveals the age-old suspicion of art as a pleasing delusion, which needs to be replaced by philosophy and the search for truth. It also reveals the same kind of puritanism that produces the attack on washing machines, cars, television sets, etc.. Attempts to suggest positive aesthetic pleasures have generally been vacuous. In this way Brecht's central ambition to use art as a form of "cheerful and militant learning” has been undermined.

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Brecht's attitude to popular art, like his attitude to pleasure, was unresolved. But it had a decidedly positive element. An enthusiasm for popular art, however, doesn't mean uncritical acceptance. Any socialist must be concerned with evaluating its power and relating it to capitalism.

Brecht certainly wasn't uncritical. But at the present time it seems important to stress the positive element in his attitude. Suspicion of mass art is so built into the formation of intellectuals that negative estimates of it are made very easily. This negativism has certainly dogged and handicapped Marxist theorizing about art. Recently it has been particularly strong, given the development of Marxism in a situation where students and intellectuals have been politicized but have been unable to make mass contacts. Such a situation encourages an anti-popular bias. Brecht's enthusiasm for popular art, however incoherent it was, needs to be recalled if radical artists are not to be confined to the safe space of universities and art cinemas and museums.

Brecht wasn't the only artist who found some of his inspiration out of a response to popular art. A range of artists — Leger, the Surrealists, Sartre and many others — have found a similar inspiration. In this connection, it is important to note how strongly mass popular art has been associated with the United States. The set of relations constituted by avant-garde artists, the United States and radical politics urgently needs examination at a time when film theory is trying to come to terms with the celebration of Hollywood bequeathed it by Cahiers du Cinéma. The recent reexamination of avant-garde art and politics in the Soviet Union in the 1920s has not sufficiently acknowledged the Soviet fascination with the culture of the United States.

Brecht's enthusiasm for popular art is also salutary in relation to the current rethinking by Marxists of the base/ superstructure relationship and the problems of economic determinism and reductionism. The powerful presence of capitalist forms of organization in the mass arts provides an obvious temptation for economic-determinist explanations of their roles. Though openly avowed explanations of this kind are uncommon in contemporary film writing, the assumption that film industries organized on capitalist lines necessarily and directly serve the interests of capitalism is generally taken for granted.

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The way Brecht politically positioned himself as an artist was exemplary. He was aware that neither mass popular art nor avant-garde contexts were satisfactory from a political point of view. He was also aware that important things could be learned from both kinds of art. His interest in avant-garde art (as shown, for example, in his debate with Lukács or his involvement with the Baden-Baden music festival) cannot be used to validate the current state of avant-garde art. He took his distance from the avant-garde as he did from Hollywood.

The politicization of film criticism over the past ten years has frequently meant a move from an uncritical attitude to Hollywood to an uncritical attitude to the avant-garde. At the present time, left film criticism badly needs an analysis of the avant-garde's role in contemporary capitalism, its relation to the state, the use made of it by large capitalist enterprises, its validation by the institutions of higher education. An analysis of the social role of art based on crude or vague concepts like “dominant" or "mainstream" cinema, "Nixon-Paramount," "Hollywood Mosfilm" and support for avant-garde art simply on the basis of its use of "new forms” doesn't provide a substantial basis for a political account of the cinema. If Brecht's positioning of himself is respected, the old left slogan of "Neither Washington or Moscow" could be adapted to "Neither Hollywood or the Avant-Garde."

Notes

Editor's note: Alan Lovell's analysis of Godard will appear in JUMP CUT 28.

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The "Epic Theatre-Counter Cinema" position which I have been criticizing in this essay is presented in numbers of articles in many contemporary film journals. Probably the most accessible source is the two issues of Screen centered on Brecht (15:2, Summer 1974; and 16:4, Winter 1975-76).

My own thinking about Brecht has been especially helped by

  • Essays on Brecht/Theatre and Politics, ed. Siegfried Mews and Herbert Knust, University of North Carolina Press, 1974;
  • Julia Lesage, "The Films of Jean-Luc Godard and Their Use of Brechtian Dramatic Theory," Ph.D. Dissertation, Indiana University, 1976, which is especially helpful in situating both Brecht and Godard historically and culturally;
  • and Dana Polan, "Brecht and the Politics of Self-Reflexive Cinema," JUMP CUT, no. 17 (April 1978).