Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Mark Antony Meets Berthold Brecht

Over the past few days I've found myself wondering what the socialist German playwright and poet Berthold Brecht would have made of my short post on Plutarch and his biography of Mark Antony.
The trouble with using someone like Plutarch as your source of historical information is that as a biographer, he is only interested in the individual.  You learn plenty about Mark Antony but not much about those around him, and virtually nothing about those under his command or under his rule.  This can make him seem like a romantic figure, an actor in a glorious tragedy.

You do learn enough, though, to know that things were not so glorious for others.  When he stuffed up the campaign in Parthia thousands of his soldiers died, and the others had to resort to eating bark and leather to survive on their long retreat through the desert.  Thousands more died in his ill-fated naval battle against Octavius, while he and Cleopatra high-tailed it back to Egypt with their gold on board.  No wonder his troops deserted in droves during the final battle.  The joys of Dionysius are all very well for those with wine to spare, but not of much interest to those who only have bread and water.

Not that Octavius cared much more about the common soldier, but at least his orderliness and discipline provided a platform for ordinary people to get on with their lives with a modicum of decency.  Glorious romantics tend to be chaotic administrators.

Still neither Antony nor Octavius would have hesitated to have the rabble-rousing Brecht crucified.  One of the 20th century's most innovative and caustic playwrights, he loved nothing better than to poke pointed fun at the pretensions of power, and to elevate common people to heroism.  Here's his poem A Worker Reads History.

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

1 comment:

Lee Shipley said...

It is always good to ask the question "What would Brecht have said?"
The problem of the big leader was probably best examined in his play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui which at the very end gave us the famous quote:
Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.
And Shakespeare backs him up. In Julius Caesar he has Cassius saying about the threat of this new dictator:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

I am one of the optimists of this world and do believe that we underlings have made progress in versing the rise of the Hitlers, Stalins, Napoleons, Caesars and Mark Anthonys.
Brecht did a fine job in showing us through his plays and poetry that it is how we choose to organise society to control such aberrations that matters.
It is a long slow and painful process but we only need to look at the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union last year( for its collective effort in restructuring its politics to preventing conflict to see it can be done.