“Poverty makes you sad as well as wise.” So spoke Bertolt Brecht, a playwright in the modern theater whose highly political plays are starting to make a resurgence on a global stage.
Born in Bavaria, Brecht grew to despise and write plays denouncing the middle-class in Germany following World War I. He became a Marxist at a young age and spent his life satirizing capitalism and its marginalization of certain individuals. This political position was partly responsible for the drop in popularity of Brecht’s works during the 80’s and 90’s.
However, the 2008 global financial crisis, which enlarged impoverished classes and exposed flaws in the capitalist model, has lead theaters all over the world to stage Brecht’s plays. Producers have found that audiences are particularly responsive to Brecht’s political themes in today’s economic context. Al Jazeera America reported that stagings of Brecht have not only proliferated in the United States but have also increased in the UK, Ireland, France, Canada and Iran.
According to some scholars, Brecht has lost his status as “sage and prophet of the downtrodden and exploited,” but even if this is true, his works still scrutinize the dehumanizing impact of social, political and economic forces on the individual. This impact is keenly felt by the world’s poor, who figure prominently in Brecht’s plays.
For instance, arguably Brecht’s most famous work, “The Threepenny Opera,” contains some of the playwright’s most penetrating remarks on poverty and capitalism.
One character in the work, Peachum, manufactures fake beggars. His employees meander through London, making people with money feel guilty enough to donate it. This money, essentially stolen from the real beggars, then goes to Peachum. It is a sharp critique of capitalism’s potential to abuse people in the quest for profit.
While most people find Peachum’s methods contemptible, the character’s assessment of the problems facing anyone trying to stoke sympathy in others—a charity, for example—is pellucid. Peachum remarks that a man spotting another man in need will give him tenpence the first time, fivepence the second time and turn him into the police the third.
Thus, the things that “stir [people’s] souls” and make them care about others in need lose their effect over time.
These sorts of commentaries, along with Brecht’s subjects of “inequality, squalor, exploitation and the malleability of human nature,” are still germane in discussions of the modern world. The topics may be even more important as globalization pits developed and developing countries against each other, bringing entrenched models of capitalism to poorer populations.
Make no mistake, capitalism can help to alleviate poverty, but as Brecht’s works remind audiences, it must not alienate the impoverished people who stand to benefit from it.
– Ryan Yanke