*(I am not sure if W refers to Helen Weigel or Carl Weber; B, I assume, is Brecht)
In Brecht’s ‘Study of the First Scene of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus‘ (1953, trans Willett, 1974), W asks ‘Can we amend Shakespeare?’ (259). On one level the questioner is asking if *s/he and his/her colleagues in the Berliner Ensemble are capable of amending a Shakespeare play – do they have the translation skills or the subject knowledge? On another level, the are asking if they, as contemporary artists, have the ‘right’ to alter the works of an author of such canonical status. B replies, ‘ I think we can amend Shakespeare if we can amend him’ (259), by which he means, if we are capable at the skills level of amending Shakespeare then, yes, of course we have the artistic right to so.
Like their early modern counterparts, Brecht and his contemporaries had no qualms about appropriating the classics. Leopold Jessner, the German Expressionist theatre and film director, went so far as to claim that ‘basically there are neither classic nor modern authors. From the point of view of the theatre the poet belongs to no generation… Shakespeare, Schiller, Wedekind must be thought of as representatives of this generation as much as the younger writers’ (cited in Kennedy, 1993: 84). He believed that a director must ‘split apart’ the source text and refashion it in the spirit of the times (84).
The avant-garde in early and mid twentieth-century Europe deconstructed classic texts in part because they were iconoclasts, but primarily because classic materials reconfigured were in themselves powerful examples of defamiliarization, or Verfremdung. Jessner’s, Schiller’s and Brecht’s productions challenged the ways in which audiences responded to once familiar, now defamiliarised material. Brecht argued against creating a simplistic universalising empathy in audiences towards individualised characters and situations, because according to his Marxist-influenced thinking, empathy supports the status quo. He summed up this difference between empathetic (dramatic) theatre and defamiliarised (epic) theatre in his 1935 essay ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction’:
The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too – Just like me – It’s only natural – It’ll never change – The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are inescapable – That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world – I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.
The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it – That’s not the way – That’s extraordinary, hardly believable – It’s got to stop – The sufferings of this man appal me because they are unnecessary – That’s great art; nothing obvious in it – I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh. (Brecht in Willett, 1974: 71)