In 1921/22, poor Bertolt Brecht “from the black forests” pulled out all the stops to help his career as a poet and theater maker take off. Since the beginning of 1919 he has been working on a second play, which is to be called “Spartacus”. On the advice of Lion Feuchtwanger’s wife Marta, it was renamed “Drums in the Night”.
In contrast to the wet and sprawling “Baal”, his first draft of a drama, it has a clear five-act structure and a more pronounced dialogue structure, also contains lyrical-musical passages and rigorously subverts the Aristotelian scheme of the unity of space, time and plot by anti- illusionistic elements. He’s luckier with that. Feuchtwanger is enthusiastic and is now one of his most important sponsors.
Even at a young age, Brecht proved to be a master of self-marketing with an excellent network. His long-time friend and stage designer Caspar Neher said that Brecht collected acquaintances “like mushrooms”. From February 1920, he used his first stays in Berlin to establish contacts with influential representatives of the capital’s cultural scene.
Now I push my way in everywhere.
In addition to Herbert Ihering from the Berlin Börsen-Courier, who is one of the most influential theater critics of the Weimar Republic, this includes the Kiepenheuer editor Hermann Kasack, prominent actors and also the scandal-ridden young dramatist Arnolt Bronnen, who later drifted to the right, whom Brecht met at a party in early 1922 . “Now I’m pushing my way in everywhere,” is the motto transmitted to Bavaria.
In order to make their companionship visible to the outside world in the form of a literary “company”, Brecht, who was three years younger, transformed the boring “Berthold”, which is in his passport, into the sleek “Bertolt” and also adopted Bronnen’s lowercase letters without punctuation marks – a first step towards self-stylization as a cult brand with recognition value, which will not be reversed even after the end of their collaboration, which Bronnen sees as “unfinished”.
From the very beginning, Brecht’s trademarks included a characteristic appearance: the shabby little wire-rimmed glasses, the mechanic’s jacket over the casual sports shirt, the close-cropped skull and the cigar in the corner of his mouth.
Otto Falckenberg, the busy artistic director of the Munich Kammerspiele, decides to premiere “Drums in the Night” as the first piece by the young Brecht, who sees himself as a coming “classic”, on September 29, 1922. Ihering called what then began a true “Brecht boom”. He made sure that his protégé was honored on November 21, 1922 with the most important literary award of the Weimar Republic, the Kleist Prize, endowed with 10,000 Reichsmarks, which had already helped Oskar Loerke, Arnold Zweig and Hans Henny Jahnn get started before him would have.
As a promoter in his own right, Brecht evidently had a pronounced instinct for the combination of charisma and reasonable provocation. The fact that he had put up posters in the auditorium of the Kammerspiele with the inscription “Don’t stare so romantically!” was appropriate at a time that, after the collapse of the Wilhelmine value system, was leaning towards objectivity and a mellow materialism. If, towards the end of the play, the commercial illusion apparatus is identified for what it is – ‘It is ordinary theatre. It’s boards and a paper moon” – the door to the “epic theater” is already pushed wide open.
The Spartacus uprising led to serious unrest in the German Reich
What is Brecht’s stage premiere, which has been listed as a “comedy” since the Suhrkamp edition of the early plays in the early 1950s, about? The background to the plot is the Spartacus uprising, the follow-up to the November Revolution in the previous year, a current historical event that triggered serious unrest throughout the German Reich through the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
Brecht’s main character Andreas (“Andree”) Kragler is a war returnee who, after four years in captivity, suddenly turns up at the Balickes in Berlin, to whose daughter Anna he was engaged and now has to realize that the waiting woman, at the insistence of her parents, has just met the war profiteer Murk got engaged. Anna has a “branch in her body” from him and regrets her complacency when her former lover’s “ghost” crashes the engagement party. For two acts it looks like Kragler is about to be engulfed in the riots in the newspaper districts before the final act reverses: Kragler doesn’t want to make a revolution. He just wants his girl back and go home with her.
The question is what conclusions to draw from this last turn. Is “Drums in the Night” an anti-revolutionary comedy that counters the continuation of the war under different auspices with a confident, individual, almost bourgeois gesture of aversion? Is Kragler a role model who takes action into his own hands, or does he embody the type of German slacker who is responsible for ensuring that nothing changes?
Even with hindsight, Brecht’s position on this central point does not appear very clear. The agitation of the communists was not his thing. But he also didn’t want to share the view of the play as an “individual drama”. The priority for the young Brecht will have been that he had staged his first play and stepped into the limelight to the applause of the premiere audience. A Star Was Born!
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