Back in May Nick Cohen wrote a piece about seeing a performance of David Harrower's new translation of Bertold Brecht's play, The Good Soul of Szechuan, at the Young Vic. His line was that Brecht was "a communist writer, not a writer who happened to support communism", a political propagandist, and the play was there simply to say, "individual morality will only be possible when the collective morality of communism comes".
This week I saw the same translation beautifully performed in rep in the more humble surroundings of Manchester's Library Theatre. And did I see the play differently! I suppose you could read it the way Nick Cohen did, but I found that, rather than being didactic, the play was discursive, layered and complex. It is set amongst the underclass of an unjust society and the destructive effects of poverty were played out to the full and condemned. Yet this was a very un-heroic proletariat. The play, like so much Brecht, was about survival, this time amongst a 'low life' that clearly fascinated him.
The drama centres around the question of whether a bad society creates bad people or bad people create a bad society. It is about the possibility or impossibility of altruism. I found no conclusion. There is much more besides, with a range of existential dilemmas presenting themselves to the characters. Certainly the propagandist element was present, though only briefly and unconvincingly. At times virtue was punished and vice rewarded, at others it was reversed. And who were the three Gods who could find good only in the poor, never in the rich, but could still find only one virtuous person on earth? Whoever they were, they couldn't solve the conundrum so they made their excuses and left, abandoning humanity. There was no resolution. We were offered ambiguity rather than certainty.
That Brecht had been an apologist for Stalinism is well known, that he was a brute who insisted on being buried in a steel coffin with a stiletto through his heart is equally known. Neither are appealing. But his art stands, and did for me on Tuesday, because he asked questions, rather than provided answers, and used drama as a vehicle for depicting and discussing human imperfection. My answers were probably not the ones that he would have given.
I really can't make up my mind as to whether Brecht was too good a playwright to be a good Stalinist or too bad a Stalinist to be a bad playwright. And just as I was thinking that his picture of humanity was too bleak, I came back from the interval to find that someone had stolen my programme. Last word to Brecht I suggest.