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Tom Kuhn: Workshopping with Brecht’s Messingkauf

 Introduction to the film: Messingkauf-workshop for actors

The Messingkauf shows us Brecht at his modernist best, dialogic, dialectic, a self-conscious collage of material, mixing genres and modes, probably always intended to be open and fragmentary in form. More interesting, in many ways, than the Short Organum, in which he tried to streamline his theoretical concerns and theatre experience into 77 numbered paragraphs.


The themes and preoccupations of the Messingkauf are many. Brecht is concerned to set up a rational, practical alternative to the high-priesterly nonsense, as he sees it, of illusion, empathy and Stanislavskian theatre.[1] We get something of a history of the modern theatre, from Brecht’s point of view, and an introduction to the notions of Verfremdung, gestus and so on. Above all, the interest is, as one would expect from Brecht, in how to engage with reality in the theatre, how to make the theatre both a site of sociological experiment and instruction, and at the same time a place of entertainment.

The title of the project is a guiding metaphor in all of this. ‘Messingkauf’ means the ‘purchase of brass’; Messing = brass, Kauf = buy, bargain, purchase, deal. The Philosopher, one of the main discussants in the Messingkauf, comes to the theatre, he says, rather as a scrap-metal dealer might approach a brass band. He is looking for one sort of value in the material of the theatre which the practitioners themselves might assume was rather secondary. The ‘brass’ he wants to deal in are the imitations of social behaviour (p. 778), which he can project as objects of study; but he has to recognise that the actors and the dramaturge may intend something rather different, namely ‘the construction of emotions’ (703), or what they would call ‘art’. But of course they are right too, to an extent at least. Just as the brass band’s musical instruments are not just brass, so the potential of the theatre cannot be exhausted merely as a collection of representations of human interaction. The Philosopher’s intervention has – this is the aspiration – to make their collective work into a new kind of theatre (‘for the scientific age’, as Brecht puts it).

Brecht clearly thought of the Messingkauf as an aesthetic and not merely theoretical work (he was never inclined to that sort of separation of theory and practice or of theory and literature). He also wanted it not just to be a text, or series of texts, for reading, but to have the potential for some sort of practical realisation, possibly even for performance, to be einstudierbar (26, p. 328), both a theoretical reflection and an experiment and exercise in the capabilities of the theatre. There have indeed been formal theatrical realisations of the work, most notably a 1963 Berliner Ensemble adaptation, in which Brecht’s son-in-law played a Philosopher modelled very much after Brecht himself. The Ensemble played the Messingkauf as if the whole discussion was ‘provoked’ by a theatrically rather overblown version of Hamlet, the last scene of which was performed as a prologue. So critical reflection on the theatre itself became theatre.


In the context of the work for the new edition, in January of 2013 I held a week-long series of workshops with the director and theatre teacher Di Trevis and a troupe of professional actors, of which we made a short film. First a bit more about the purpose and sense of what you are about to see.

The purpose, for me, of approaching the task of creating a new edition like this was simply that, although the editors and translators are all textual scholars with a broadly historical approach, we did not want to produce a volume that presented Brecht’s ideas simply as of historical interest. On the contrary, we wanted to ask how far the material of the Messingkauf might still be useful in the theatre and in theatre education in Britain and the English-speaking world today. Although Di Trevis is well versed in the Brechtian theatre, the actors themselves were far from it: actors who train in Britain and, even more, in the States are given next to no introduction to Brecht’s ideas, so it was bound to be a challenging confrontation. In addition of course the workshops also gave us an opportunity to test some the existing translation in the mouths of actors.


So over six full days we led the actors through some familiar warm-up and characterisation exercises, towards more Brechtian notions of the actor’s craft: ‘showing’, not ‘being’; even ‘showing that they are showing’; making the processes more self-aware and more visibly so for the audience; analysing roles and characters for their social class and economic circumstances, even making them ‘types’ (not cheap stereotypes, but analysable, recognisable exemplars of codified social attitudes) rather than attempting Stanislavskian psychologically ‘truthful’ individuals; finding physical gestures to express material circumstances (rather than to express individual emotion); using the ploy of speaking lines always prefaced by ‘He said/She said’; acting one response to a situation, but trying to show the rejected alternative (Brecht’s ‘not...but...’ principle); developing a transparently socially motivated storyline; making the ordinary special, making the familiar strange. And so on. In each case, Di Trevis developed exercises, some of them derived directly from the Messingkauf material. Then we also acted out passages of the dialogue from the Messingkauf and discussed them, and we took on the relatively stand-alone Practice Pieces.

After overcoming the actors’ initial reluctance to theorise, or even reflect at all about what they actually do when they act, the workshops revealed a number of interesting things about Brecht’s texts and his ideas.

The first thing that caught me unawares was how strange and inaccessible they seemed to the actors. Brecht is so distant from their training and their practical experience working with directors in the British theatre that they had trouble grasping what was intended at all. They inclined to the view that all this theorisation might be of value to the director and designer, but wasn’t really something for them, they just needed to be told what to do. As the week marched on, they grew into their parts as Brechtian actors rather more, but that suspicion lingered. It may indeed be correct, that, as things stand, the Messingkauf is for directors, rather than actors. The practice of the modern, serious, arty theatre in Britain often looks quite Brechtian: we have the knowing non-illusionistic stage sets, the constant reference to the theatre as theatre, we love to discover the strangeness of the familiar; but all of this is quite superficial. The fundamental idea of Brechtian theatre – that we see the familiar revealed in all its strangeness in order the better to comprehend it and to critique it as a social construction – this is ignored. The Messingkauf, it transpired, is not an easy place for Brechtian beginners to begin.

Second, the fragmentary nature of the theoretical dialogues began to become a problem. Hardly has one exchange been set up, than it begins to dissolve into something else. Arguments are gestured towards, rather than developed. There are unexplained breaks and leaps all over the place. All of this may make the texts especially appealing to the aesthetic theorist with modernist sympathies, but it makes the material enormously frustrating for anyone looking to create something more coherent from it.

Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, the very re-creation of Brecht’s somewhat abstract discussants as flesh-and-blood characters, however sketchily realised, gave body and attitude to his words – in sometimes unexpected ways. Whereas it might be easy for the reader to imagine a purposeful exposition of Brecht’s ideas, in performance the dialogues became more ambiguous, more dialectical even. It seemed that his Messingkauf Philosopher underestimates the more anarchic force of the work of art. That is most effectively released in performance.

All in all, the Messingkauf was revealed as a still more ambiguous, fragmentary and provisionally experimental work by its realisation as a piece of theatre, by its Einstudierung. The more we worked on it and with it, the more the sense was revealed in Brecht’s exhortation that these are not just texts for reading, but for practical work and for the education, not of some non-participant audience beyond the footlights, but for the theatre workers themselves. The Messingkauf may not be designed ever to make a very good spectacle, but it makes for an intriguing investigation of their world by theatre practitioners themselves. A Lehrstück, if you like, but on aspects of theatre practice and aesthetics, rather than on questions of politics.


I’ll just conclude with a couple of words about the Practice Scenes for Actors. There are four of these, each taking off from familiar classics for the theatre, three from Shakespeare and one from Schiller. The two ‘interpolations’ for Romeo and Juliet and in Hamlet – for rehearsal, but explicitly not for performance – are designed to help the actors to see other sides to the characters they are creating, in particular, in the case of Hamlet, to comprehend his decisive turn to ‘action’ at the end of the play, not as a positive ‘solution’, but rather as a regressive collapse into criminal thuggery, quite at odds with the newly emerging pragmatic bourgeois world of trade and commerce. There’s a typically Brechtian reading for you. Both of these are elaborately developed scenes, giving us a quite new context and set of arguments by which to judge the characters’ behaviour in the rest of the play. Of course we were not actually preparing productions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, but, put simply, these scenes ‘worked’ in a very direct and impressive way. One could see the actors’ dawning realisation of whole new interpretations, which very markedly affected their performances. Whereas the dialogues themselves had seemed inaccessible, and something more, perhaps, for directors and Brecht scholars, rather than for actors or an audience, here in the Practice Pieces the potential was all focussed on the development of the actors, on giving them new ideas and expressive possibilities. This was perhaps even more so in the case of the other two Pieces, which are parallel scenes, again only to be used in rehearsal: first of all a scene for two fishwives quarrelling over their stalls in the market-place, as a parallel to the meeting of the Queens in Schiller’s Maria Stuart; and secondly a bizarre scene in the lodge of Macbeth’s castle, as a parallel to the murder sequence. Both of these seek to transpose and parallel the concerns of the original protagonists in a socially far less elevated milieu: the lives of the queens are refracted through the jealousies and material world of fishwives, the fears and ambitions of murderous thanes through the lives of their own servants. We tend to be fearful and reverent approaching these classics, and it is Brecht’s point that we have to overcome those attitudes and find something for ourselves in the plays. In the versions of Macbeth and Maria Stuart that we experienced after working with his Practice Scene, one could instantly recognise a startlingly new and sociologically intelligent version of Shakespeare, the pomposity and dust blown away. Here was brass for his Philosopher, and still, very definitely, ‘theatre’ for his Actors and Dramaturge.


[1] Journal 12.09.1938