UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Realism and idealism in the major plays of Bertolt Brecht Kitching, Laurence Patrick Anthony


This thesis is based on the major plays of Bertolt Brecht; reference to his lyrics and critical writings is made where pertinent. The thesis examines the contradictions between Brecht's realistic assessment of human nature and his Marxist ideal of how man should be in order to change society. Brecht viewed society and the behaviour of the individual from two vantage points: the first was that of man who accepted society and conformed because he was concerned mostly with his own survival; the second was that of the Marxist critic, who claimed that the survival of the individual was unimportant, and that the traditional class structure had to be destroyed. Brecht pleaded idealistically for heroism and martyrdom in the service of the Marxist cause. On the other hand, he was sympathetic to the misfortunes of the common man, and realistically urged him to repudiate the necessity of heroic acts. Chapter I introduces the main problems of the thesis, and traces briefly their development throughout Brecht’s work. Chapter II discusses the problems of individualism in four of the "Erste Stϋcke". Man's search to discover his own values for existence ends in disappointment; his insistence on hedonistic and homosexual behaviour is a sign of his rejection of society and all traditional values. In only one of the works does the protagonist join society. The choice he has to make between security and revolution anticipates the dilemma of man in most of the later plays; he prefers conformity to individual freedom. The isolation of man, and the insufficiency of sensual pleasure reveal to the hedonists also that individualism is futile. The main characters in each of these plays are striking examples of Brecht’s experimentation with the figure of the anti-hero. Chapter III examines the implications of unheroic behaviour and capitulation in Mann ist Mann, and of conformity in Die Dreigroschenoper and Mahagonny. In the two operas, man is gradually forced to conform to the economic practices of bourgeois-capitalist society. In all three works, the individual's opportunism and willingness to capitulate to those in control, causes him to become evil and leads eventually to the dehumanizatlon of man. Chapter IV discusses Brecht’s insistence on the necessity of conformity to Marxist doctrine in the "Lehrstϋcke", Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe and Die Tage der Commune. The individual finds that the ethics of the communist collective compel him to become evil. These plays mark the beginning of the Marxist Brecht’s conflict with the poet of human nature. In his attempt to accept Marxist doctrine without reservation, Brecht had to force himself consciously to overlook the shortcomings of Marxist practice. These plays stress that man must replace his belief in personal integrity with an unyielding faith in the ethics of the collective. Consequently, he must refuse to help or pity the suffering, and deliberately resort to revolutionary violence. Chapter V investigates Brecht's contradictory views about heroism in a number of the plays of exile and the later "Bearbeitungen”. His greater fidelity to his knowledge of human nature, and to his sympathy for the common man generally prevailed over his desire to show that man would accept Marxist doctrine and sacrifice himself for the cause. Most of these plays present unheroic, finely observed individuals who prefer to settle for the small pleasures of life rather than resist oppression in order to seek freedom or justice. The plays of exile reveal a less dogmatic Brecht, but still one who never ceased to emphasize the need for social change. He avoided depicting contemporary social evils in these dramas, and showed those of all time. Chapter VI assesses the varying emphases and the contradictions of Brecht’s thought. The chapter concludes that although Brecht insisted from first to last on the necessity of man's unheroic behaviour, his individuals did become more humane. There was no progression in his ideas concerning how man was to survive in traditional society or how he might achieve social change. The plays since the “Lehrstϋcke” revealed a shifting of emphasis from the dehumanization of the individual to the necessity of man's accepting personal responsibility for the welfare of his fellows. The real progression of Brecht was not in his thought, but in his art, in his ability to depict human nature in conflict with the injustices of all ages and societies.

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