I Bertolt Brecht

by Victor Grauer


Voice from loudspeakers: Presenting, I Bertolt Brecht, Prologue to Act I. In which our hero, whose name coincidentally resembles that of the author, finds himself lost in a dark forest, sort of like the one the poet Dante found himself in, so many years ago. Sure enough, he hears voices intoning the opening lines of Dante's Inferno and, like Dante, comes upon a strange specter, a poet, who is to be his guide. Only this specter smokes a cigar. And speaks German.

[Blackout. From many places in the auditorium (or via the loudspeakers), we hear the first verses of Dante's Inferno being intoned, in the original Italian, by a multitude of voices, with certain lines being repeated over and over again:]

Voices: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/ mi ritrovai per una selva oscura/ che la diritta via era smarrita.

Ah quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura/ esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte/ che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant'è amara che poco è piu morte;/ ma per trattar del ben chio vi trovai,/ dirò

dellaltre cose chi vho scorte.

After a few minutes we hear the voice of the Translator, intoning (without repetition) the

following [original] English translation over the voices in Italian:

T: Midway on the road from birth to death

I found myself in a dark forest

Where gloomy shadows had obscured the path.

So hard it is to speak of my duress

In that place so savage and so drear

The thought of it sends shivers through my breast.

Death itself holds hardly more to fear;

[After the first two verses in English, VG walks onstage, followed by a spotlight, faces the audience and speaks (over the still repeating voices in Italian):]

VG: At a certain point in my life, during a period of great difficulties, I felt as though I'd utterly lost my way in a cold dark forest. My mother had recently died after a very difficult and disturbing illness. I'd lost my father many years before. And then my wife left me. I was alone. And felt utterly lost. For a long time all I could do in my free time was surf the Internet, getting involved with certain newsgroups and forums that interested me, trying not to think too much about the future. I no longer had any idea of what I wanted out of life, no more dreams, desires, hopes, just a way to kill the time without getting too bored.

Voices: Mentre ch'i i' ruvinava in basso loco,/dinanzi alli occhi mi si fu offerto/ chi per lunga silenzio parea fioco.

Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,/ 'Miserere di me' gridai a lui/ 'qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!'

Rispuosemi: 'Non omo, omo gia fui,/ e li parenti miei furon lombardi,/ mantovani per patria ambedui. . . .

Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto/ figliuol d'Anchise che venne da Troia,/ poi che 'l superbo Iiion fu combusto.

T: As I ran in panic down a rocky course

Before my eyes there suddenly appeared

One whom long silence had made hoarse

And when I saw him in that place so weird,

"Whoever you are, take pity on me,"

"Whether man or ghost," I cried in fear.

[A puff of smoke from the smoke machine, in a corner. After this is emitted, a second spot illuminates it.]

He said: "Not man, though man I used to be . . .

I was a poet once and sang of justice . . .

VG: [again interrupting the Translator after two verses, and speaking over the voices of those still repetitively chanting Dante] One evening I noticed, in a corner of the room, a small puff of smoke. It smelled slightly of cigars. Next time there was a sort of halo round it, almost like I'd seen a ghost, and I was frightened. "Whoever you are, whether man or ghost," I cried in fear, "take pity on me." The thing replied in a voice grown hoarse with smoking too many cigars:

BB's voice [from out of the smoke, coughing]: Kein Mann -- ein Mann einmal war ich. Aber -- ein Mann is kein Mann. Und einmal ist keinmal. [sighs, blowing smoke from his cigar.]

[The voices chanting from Dante gradually die down and stop during the following monologue.]

VG: "Not man," he said. Though one time he was a man. "But one man is no man," he said. And one time is no time. Strange! [pause] It was him. Or his ghost at least. The specter of the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. Of all people to occupy my mind. When Dante had his mid-life crisis, he conjured up Virgil. For some reason, I got Brecht. Now I don't know how many of you know anything at all about this guy. If you've ever heard the song "Mack the Knife," you've heard his lyrics. He also wrote the "Alabama Song," the one that goes "Oh show us the way to the next whiskey bar." But he did much more. Many critics think of him as one of the greatest playwrights of all time. He was certainly one of the most controversial. For one thing, he was a dedicated Communist. He was even, at one point, hauled before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. I won't say more about Brecht right now. We'll be getting a lecture on that topic shortly, though. Why did he appear to me? And at this time in my life? Why did I get obsessed with his poetry, his plays and his ideas? I'm not completely sure, but maybe the play we're about to see will explain at least a part of it.


VG: You know, when I was in high school, I wrote a song. A setting of a poem about the death of the Chinese poet Li Po. And somehow at this time it began to seem important to me, something to do with this strange, German ghost.

BB's voice, emanating from another puff of smoke: Li Po. Jawohl! Der Tod von Li Po. Po Chu-I.

VG: [Going to a shelf, finding the manuscript, blowing off the dust.] "The Death of Li Po." By one of Brecht's favorite poets: Po Chu-i. "By the river of Tsai-Chi, there stands Li Po's mound." Hmmmm....

[The smoke spotlight moves to the piano. VG goes to the piano and sits down, then freezes in place as the scene changes to that of Act 1, Scene 1, which then follows.]

End of Prologue