NOTES ON UPDATING BRECHT

Unfinished by Brecht, intensely ambitious, rarely performed and unknown to English audiences, Brecht’s Messingkauf is the writing large of the shrunken head Brecht fashioned of himself in A Short Organon for the Theatre (1949). Like this shorter text, the Messingkauf is based on Francis Bacon’s New Organon, Bacon’s mature statement, and Western culture’s first draft of what is now known as the scientific method. Its frontispiece, not insignificantly, is a trade ship bearing the latin inscription: Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia: “Many will travel and knowledge will be increased”.

Subtitled “True Directions for Interpreting Nature” Bacon’s Organon models a scientific discourse designating ‘nature’ the object to a human subject —the second maneuver of a Cartestian two-step. Whereas the Baconian subject perceives himself within an obectified ‘natural’ environment, a Brechtian one perceives himself within an objectified ‘capitalist’ one. For Brecht then, the task is to do for theatrical discourse what Bacon did for scientific discourse: to produce it as a tool for understanding and mastering one’s environment.

Science — or at least the scientific method — is a product of global trade. It was for the mature scientific age of the early 20th Century — built by capitalism, founded on trade and empire — that Brecht sought to create his theatre. That age is now over. We are now postcolonial, and postcapitalist. It is making way for something new. That something remains to be defined, but whatever it may be, it likely to be defined by hyper-connectivity, informational ubiquity and ecological necessity.

The current reality of ecological threat exposes Brecht’s vision of radical social change not — as it is often received — as too idealistic — but rather too narrow. The challenge now is not to effect a change of the guard in human society through politics, but to radically rethink a model of the universe which, more than 500 years later and in spite of the Copernician revolution, still holds man at its centre.