Book Review: ‘The Complete Brecht Toolkit’ by Stephen Unwin

*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

Although it’s a cliche, there’s a lot of truth to the old adage that, as Stephen Unwin says in his new book, “Brecht is often sloppily taught”. Many teachers of his plays and theories ignore the importance of contradiction in his work, and formal considerations are frequently given precedence over context. Artists and scholars alike become bogged down in ideas of “gestus” and “alienation” without considering their purpose and practicality, thus separating the ideas from their application. In The Complete Brecht Toolkit, Unwin takes care to knit the two back together, presenting the theoretical and practical ideas of Bertolt Brecht in a clear, concise and connected way so that students and practitioners may consider the importance of his work in the twenty-first century.

The book follows Bella Merlin’s The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit (2007), and attempts to “clear away some of the mystery that surrounds Brecht’s theatre and explain what he was trying to do”. Unwin, whose experience in the theatre is deep and far-reaching, is often to be considered one of the leading proponents of Brecht’s theatre in Britain, so he is an obvious choice of author. His writing style, as in his other handbooks, puts clarity first, and though this is often at the expense of tackling complex and knotty ideas, it means the tome becomes at once readable and useful, making this one of the best introductory books on Brecht currently in circulation.

Before considering Brecht’s theories and practice, Unwin makes the smart move of explaining and clarifying the socio-political climate in Germany during his lifetime, allowing insight into the historical and cultural forces which led dear Bertolt to his particular conclusions. To this end, we get a broad understanding of his upbringing, his Marxism, his artistic history and movements on the world stage, meaning that any description of theory in the rest of the study can be linked back directly to Brecht’s background. At this stage, too, Unwin unwinds some of the cultural influences on the subject’s work, from Aristotle to Expressionism, allowing the reader to piece together the complex jigsaw puzzle which makes up this extraordinary body of work.

Some of Unwin’s most interesting ideas are found in the next section, ‘In Theory’, which begins with a brief explanation of the differences between German and British theatre, the latter of which “sets out, above all, to entertain, and where theories about writing, acting or the art of theatre are regarded with deep suspicion”. Here, we get a lowdown of the most prevalent ideas in Brecht’s theatre, like the infamous ‘V-Effekt’ and ‘Epic Theatre’, all explained in digestible terms which consider each in theory, rehearsal and performance. Here, ‘alienation’ is summed up as being simply a “scientific” process which forces practitioners to think reasonably and objectively about the text in question, allowing a presentation of any particular play in a way which is thoughtful and somewhat detached without being unemotional (after all, science is very much an emotional field). In similarly straightforward ways, ‘Epic Theatre’ is described as “dialectics in practice” and a brief explanation of Brecht’s formal position – taking in Lukács and Benjamin – concludes that his “position feels more amenable to the modern, liberal sensibility”. Each definition is followed by a list of numbers, which refer to exercises at the back of the book which Unwin devised with Julian Jones in order to help readers explore these ideas in a workshop or rehearsal.

Interestingly for a book whose aim is to consider how Brecht’s theories may aid the practitioner, the chapter ‘In Practice’ is perhaps the weakest. Here, Unwin unravels how Brecht’s theories were translated into his actual work in theatre, but though there is a fairly detailed explanation of how they were utilised at the time, he fails to connect this back to the theory or consider how they may help us in the present tense. After usefully laying out how Brechtian acting is intelligent, ironic, provisional, observant, elegant and passionate rather than caricatured, long-winded, strident, unemotional, unrealistic, solemn and undercast, Unwin then picks apart the language, music, design and direction of the Berliner Ensemble under Brecht’s leadership. Though he gives us a broad overview, however, this section lacks much of a guiding hand about how we may translate Brecht’s aims in contemporary Britain.

Nonetheless, this does throw up one of the central talking points of The Complete Brecht Toolkit, that “Brecht’s plays have, to an extent, become irrelevant” due to the differences between his context and ours. The truth is, of course, that by the same reasoning many of his theories are also all but useless in 2014, considering they reacted specifically to the times in which the playwright lived. As the brief section on Brecht’s approach to Shakespeare makes clear, we must constantly reinvent and reconsider the past if we are to understand our collective present, and no more is that true that with Brecht’s theories which, though useful for engaging with and critiquing his modern era, need to be remade for our postmodern, neoliberal one. Brecht, Unwin adds, would no doubt agree.

The final section of the book before the appendix of exercises is entitled ‘The Brecht Challenge’, which seeks to “create a kind of theatre that reflects the reality of the world [whilst] persuading the audience to criticise that reality”. Here, Unwin takes a selection of five productions he has directed – The Decision, Man To Man, Don Giovanni, King Lear and The Winslow Boy – in order to make a case for Brecht’s continued importance. All these shows, he argues, were influenced some how by Brechtian theory, no matter how minor or invisible. On the subject of his Lear with Timothy West, which was performed in a stripped-back production of 14 actors and a simple stage, Unwin argues that “When it comes to the great political plays of Shakespeare, Brecht’s epic realism is […] the finest theatrical model we have,” and reading his description of the piece it’s hard to disagree. This is The Complete Brecht Toolkit at its most ‘useful’, explaining how we may take the theory and apply it within a rehearsal process of any play, no matter how unexpected or traditionally ‘conservative’.

The study of Brecht throws up a fundamental contradiction; how do we use his work and theories to continue his legacy of critique, engagement and humour without becoming bound to the past? Brecht, surely, would have wanted us to come up with some ideas and practices of our own, and though The Complete Brecht Toolkit doesn’t necessarily offer up any manifesto for the future, Unwin succeeds in laying out the past in such a way that the reader may be inclined to solve this conundrum on their own.

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