The Meaning Of Brecht In Modern-Day Mumbai

The famous playwright who fled Nazi Germany only to be hauled, years later, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities has plenty to contribute still in our post-truth world.

Arundhati Nag (right) in 'Mother Courage and Her Children'
Arundhati Nag (right) in "Mother Courage and Her Children"
Sudhanva Deshpande

MUMBAI — It's hard to imagine that in our tired, post-ideology, cynical and hopeless world, young directors and theater producers the world over would be so drawn to a German Marxist playwright born exactly 120 years ago. And yet, barely a week goes by without a new Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) production opening somewhere on the planet. Like Shakespeare, Brecht is a global playwright.

In Mumbai alone, two major Brecht productions have been mounted in the last few months: Courage and Her Children, directed by Quasar Padamsee and starring Arundhati Nag, and The Threepenny Opera, for which Imaad Shah — the son of actor-director Naseeruddin Shah — is making his directorial debut.

Brecht's plays are, of course, superb. They're well crafted, entertaining, complex, hard-hitting. But what makes Brecht particularly relevant to our post-truth world is that in a context of rising intolerance and irrationality, Brecht insists on establishing a rational, scientific attitude between the story on the stage and its viewers, between fiction and reality.

European theater, following Aristotle, was premised upon maintaining the three unities of time, space, and action. Simply put, a single scene has to be set in continuous and chronological time; it has to take place at one location; and it has to have unbroken, continuous action.

One of the assumptions, with this kind of play, is that there is an invisible "fourth wall" between the actors and the audience. The actors are supposed to be unaware of the audience, and the audience, for its part, acts like it's watching a real-life kind of situation unfold. Everything on stage — the sets, the costumes, properties, gestures and speech —is supposed to be "realistic," an approximation of the truth.

The characters on stage seem psychologically and emotionally well rounded and complex. They have a "motivation" or reason to behave the way they do. Even seemingly illogical actions have a logical basis in the emotional makeup of the character. You feel as if you're watching a slice of life. The play pretends to be real life.

The play, then, is supposed to create for the audience the experience of catharsis — a feeling of increasing emotional saturation, eventually bursting forth in a kind of explosive purification or cleansing. By vicariously experiencing the fate of the hero, especially if it is a tragic fate, the audience is purged of its own emotions.

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci called this kind of theater something between a digestive and an aphrodisiac, served to bourgeois people who have three hours to kill between dinner and bedtime.

Bertolt Brecht Portrait Photo: Jörg Kolbe

These settled, bourgeois ideas were shattered by the October Revolution of 1917. As masses of peasants, workers and soldiers blew apart what Lenin called the "weakest link" in the imperialist chain, the world watched with fascination, awe, and delight or terror — depending on the viewpoint of the observer — as the historical drama with global implications unfolded.

It was a time of innovations. In both Russia, where the revolution succeeded, and Germany, where it failed, writers and directors such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Erwin Piscator and Brecht, of course, created plays that challenged the bourgeois notions of theater. These were plays that used modern technology extensively, with film projections of real events, recorded radio broadcasts, placards, massive constructivist (and thus "non-realistic") sets, the entry of cars, horses and even armored vehicles on stage, and "historical" rather than "psychological" characters.

On the third anniversary of the October Revolution, in 1920, more than 100,000 people watched a recreation of the storming of the Winter Palace of the erstwhile Tsarist regime, staged by literally hundreds of actors, dancers, circus performers and others, at the very place where the events took place.

More than anybody else, Brecht gave these innovations a theoretical basis. He came to call it "epic" theater. Deeply inspired by Eastern traditions, this was a theater that strips away its pretense of reality. At all times, it reminds people that what they are watching is only a play. The actors break out into song, or they look through the fourth wall to address audiences directly. Instead of emotional identification, the performer seeks social distancing. The actor doesn't inhabit a character by seeming to become one with it; she distances herself from the character by "demonstrating" rather than becoming it. This is the famous "alienation" effect.

For Brecht, theater did only half the work.

The A-effect, as it's known, is perhaps the most misunderstood of all Brechtian strategies. It is often taken to mean that the audiences should feel no emotion, and that they must relate to characters and their actions purely cerebrally. But Brecht didn't mean that at all. He was all for emotions, so long as they didn't lead to a cathartic release. In other words, the audience mustn't exit the theater having vicariously enjoyed the protagonist's story and thereby absolving its of responsibility for taking action in the real world. For Brecht, theater did only half the work. The rest had to be finished by the audience, outside the theater.

For this, Brecht needed a different type of storytelling. In his plays, the story doesn't move in only one direction to inexorable denouement; it takes a zigzag route, sometimes getting caught up in sub-plots, sometimes jumping events.

Think of our great epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata for instance. The epics keep going off into subplots. Even though they have a small set of central characters, they are teeming with a large cast of very important characters, each of whom has a back story, and who become central characters in their own plots. The narrative jumps forward and back, and often shifts viewpoint from one character to another.

When the epics are played on the stage, in the case of a Ramlila (folk re-enactment of the life of Rama) for instance, everybody in the audience already knows what is going to happen. No one asks, "What's next?" There is no mystery. What keeps the audience engaged is how events unfold — the artistry of the actors, the shifts in perspective, the emotional resonance, the philosophical stance of that particular telling, and so on.

Indian theatrical traditions break the three unities all the time. Hanuman stands on the stage, looking into the distance, where he uses his divine powers to "see" Sita imprisoned by Ravan. With one circle of the stage, he announces that he is now in Lanka, at which point Sita walks in and takes her position, seemingly unaware of Hanuman's presence. The unities of time, space and action are broken effortlessly, delighting audiences who know exactly what is to unfold.

Brecht wrote (and directed) plays that were "epic" in this sense. He frequently announced the main action of the scene before it began, as text on a half-curtain. If the audience already knew what was going to happen, they would have an easier time focusing on why. His was not a theater that said, "This is reality, fixed and immutable." Rather, his focus was on getting audiences to be surprised by the commonplace. In other words, rather than blaming Fate or God or Circumstances — often the same thing — and saying "This is how it is," Brecht strove to make audiences see that his characters' choices were limited by social, historical and economic conditions, and that these conditions themselves were a product of history. If history makes the present, history can also unmake the future.

Think of what some consider Brecht's greatest play, Mother Courage and Her Children (1939). Set during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), it is the story of a woman who runs a canteen for the Swedish army. Since she sells rations to the soldiers, her very existence depends on the continuation of the war. But this very war also consumes, one by one, her three children. It is impossible to take a moralistic position here. You can hardly condemn her, for she, with all her feistiness, manages to make the most of an impossible situation, but you cannot also see her as a "victim," complicit as she is in an inhuman system that turns war into a business.

When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Brecht fled Germany. He was right to fear for his life. Too many of his contemporaries were killed by fascists. Poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, also born in 1898, was killed at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936; the historian Marc Bloch was shot dead by the Gestapo for his role in the French Resistance in 1944; and Brecht's close friend, philosopher Walter Benjamin, committed suicide in 1940 even as he attempted to escape Nazi forces on the Spanish-French border.

Changing countries as frequently as people change shoes (as he put it), Brecht eventually landed in the United States, in 1941. There he produced some of his finest work, famously collaborating with the great British actor Charles Laughton on Life of Galileo. He also sought work in Hollywood, mostly unsuccessfully. The only completed Hollywood film he worked on was Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die, which he co-wrote.

In the U.S., the post-War years were marked by intense anti-communism. Brecht also became a target, and was made to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. His deposition before the Committee almost reads like one of his own plays — he is cunning, clever, ingenious. He plays dumb, pretends he doesn't understand the language, and blames the translation. He escapes without telling an untruth, or giving anything away either.

As writers and artists face more and more hostile governments, right-wing assertion and a general rise in intolerance, Brecht's witty, sly, street-smart cunning is yet another reason to rediscover and celebrate him.

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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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