The Good Soul of Szechuan meets the Young Vic’s usual high standards. Jane Horrocks is frenetic and brilliant as the prostitute Shen Te, Brecht’s “good soul”, who tries to live a moral life in his cruel and corrupt version of China. A large cast, a rare treat in the cash-strapped London theatre, supports her, while David Harrower’s translation makes dialogue written in 1940 sound contemporary.
However, the actors can’t outperform the audience. They laughed and clapped as Brecht eviscerated the corruptions of the market economy and traditional morality, and managed to look knowing without appearing to know anything. “Don’t they get it?” I thought as I watched them. “Don’t they know what happened?”
After the closing lines, it seemed the cast was determined to shake them out of their suspended disbelief or wilful ignorance. An actor stepped forward. “Something has happened to China,” he began. For a second I thought he was going to say that Brecht had got what he wanted and communism had happened to China. The tens of millions of dead in the Great Leap Forward, the murdered intellectuals of the Cultural Revolution, the enforcement on a whole people of the idolatrous worship of a smirking tyrant had happened.
As it was, the actor merely said an earthquake had happened, and asked us to leave money in buckets by the door. It was a kind thought, but ever since the Chinese authorities abandoned Marxism for a combination of autocracy and market economics, they have been able to cope with disasters well enough on their own.
Brecht would neither have understood nor approved. He was a communist writer, not a writer who happened to support communism. The normal injunction to never judge an artist by his or her politics is an insult to his ghost because politics dominated his work. The Good Soul of Szechuan ends with the narrator asking if it is possible to lead a good life in a rotten world. The expected, indeed demanded, answer is “no”. Individual morality will only be possible when the collective morality of communism comes.
Nothing, not the mountains of corpses or the cults of the personality, could shake Brecht’s confidence. He preferred silence about the vast crimes of the Bolsheviks, including the murders of his friends and translators, to admitting that his god had failed. His one break from orthodoxy came when he returned from exile in America to communist East Berlin after the Second World War. In 1953 the Berlin workers rose up against their new masters. The communists duly suppressed them. A hack from the Writers’ Union declared that the masses had behaved disgracefully, and must win back the confidence of the government.
After the uprising of 17 June, Brecht replied in verse:
In that case, would it
Not be simpler if the government dissolved the people
And elected another?
These ironic lines are the only words Brecht wrote that are generally remembered. Whenever a politician implies that his country doesn’t deserve him, a journalist or opponent will throw them in his face. As his biographer John Fuegi points out, however, Brecht was a coward to the end and gave the poem to friends with instructions to hide it until after his death. “By not publishing (as he easily could have done in the West), he again failed to back the population of the German Democratic Republic.”
There are three possible responses to an artist who dedicated his life to a monstrous cause. The first is to deodorise him by pretending he was really a liberal humanist, which Brecht certainly was not. The second is to do what the British theatre never does and have an adult argument. The actor on stage at the Young Vic might have said that propaganda for a totalitarian ideal can nevertheless be art that is worth seeing, and explained why the company thought it was. Similarly, Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw, who are reviving Mother Courage at the National Theatre next year, could discuss the oddity of Brecht – the refugee from Nazism, the leading enemy of fascism in the theatre of the Thirties – writing an anti-war play in 1939 when Britain, France and Poland were preparing for a war to the death against Hitler. Is it significant, they might ask, that while Brecht and one of his many abused and unacknowledged women collaborators were at work, Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact and agreed to divide Poland between them? As a part of the deal, the Soviet Union instructed the world’s communists to stop criticising Nazism and embrace the cause of “peace” instead. Brecht, predictably, made no public objection. Coincidentally or not, Mother Courage embraced the cause of peace.
The knowledge that it comes from the lowest point in the history of communism wouldn’t stop the audience at the National seeing a harrowing anti-war play. But talking about Brecht’s complicity would break the stultifying conformism of British political theatre; the unquestioned assumption that directors, audiences, writers, critics and actors share the same views and read the same books, and would be as horrified by the discussion of inconvenient facts as a Victorian family with dirty secrets to hide.
The third option is to shrug and walk away, and I was tempted to take it at the Young Vic. The American socialist Sidney Hook put the case for indifference best after Brecht came to dinner in Manhattan in the mid-Thirties. Stalin was forcing thousands of Soviet communists to confess to fantastic crimes, and Hook asked Brecht what he thought of the show trials.
It was at this point that he said in words I have never forgotten, ‘As for them, the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.’ I was so taken aback that I thought I had misheard him.
‘What are you saying?’ I asked.
He calmly repeated, ‘The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.’ I was stunned by his words. ‘Why? Why?’ I exclaimed. All he did was smile at me in a nervous sort of way. I got up, went into the next room, and fetched his hat and coat. When I returned, he was still sitting in his chair, holding a drink in his hand. When he saw me with his hat and coat, he looked surprised. He put his glass down, rose, and with a sickly smile took his hat and coat and left. Neither of us said a word. I never saw him again.’