Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)  was a poet.  Most people know him as a playwright, but he was a true poet and it slithered its tentacles into his other (more famous) writing.   And yes, poetry is an octopus and its coming for your brain.

If some professor or other clammy-handed intellectual somewhere didn’t sit you down and teach you about Bertolt Brecht, here are some important things to know for your next cocktail party where pale, clammy-handed intellectuals might be in attendance:

1.  Brecht was one of the rare geniuses whose work is so different and creative and influential that it changes an entire art form–he did this for theater.  He experimented with a form of theater called “Epic Theater,” which (and some clammy-handed intellectual somewhere will claim I’m simplifying matters) essentially incorporated unconventional elements to keep the audience intellectually engaged.  Brecht did not want his theater to be a form of escapism.   Actors in his plays, for instance, might have held up signs or had strange songs at inappropriate times. Therefore, the next time you do something in a social setting that is inappropriate and distracting, you can tell people you were having a Brechtian moment and it was for their own good.

2.  Brecht was a Marxist and was questioned by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee.  Afterwards he was offered and accepted his own theater in Berlin and lived there after his death.

3.  Some really famous songs come from his works:

From the Three Penny Opera (as performed by Lotte Lenya–there’s no actual video because they didn’t know about YouTube yet.):

The Doors did this one, probably because it’s about going to get whiskey. This is from the Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny:

It’s easy to recognize only the strangeness of the Brecht operas and miss the actually poetry in his lyrics.  But it’s there, which I would show you if I could get my hands on a libretto. But alas, the tubes have failed me.  Below is a sonnet that floored me in one of my German classes.  It’s in German!

ENTDECKUNG AN EINER JUNGEN FRAU

Des Morgens nüchterner Abschied, eine Frau
Kühl zwischen Tür und Angel, kühl besehn
Da sah ich: eine Strähn in ihrem Haar war grau
Ich konnt mich nicht entschließen mehr zu gehn
Stumm nahm ich ihre Brust, und als sie fragte
Warum ich, Nachtgast, nach Verlauf der Nacht
Nicht gehen wolle, denn so war’s gedacht
Sah ich sie unumwunden an und sagte
Ist’s nur noch eine Nacht, will ich noch bleiben
Doch nütze deine Zeit, das ist das Schlimme
Daß du so zwischen Tür und Angel stehst
Und laß uns die Gespräche rascher treiben
Denn wir vergaßen ganz, daß du vergehst
Und es verschlug Begierde mir die Stimme

Basically, the speaker just had a tryst with a woman.  She’s about to leave and is indifferent to him. He notices she has a strand of gray hair and decides he doesn’t want her to leave. There aren’t really great translations out there…or any that I could find, so I’ll try to translate it in parts in multiple posts.  Stay tuned.  It will be fun.

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