The Humanities and Social Sciences Fund Conference titled
Illustration: Eli (Elazar) Gilad
Symposium of the International Brecht Society (IBS)
This 17th Brecht Symposium – the first of its kind in Israel – will focus on the response of Bertolt Brecht to expressions of racism, political oppression, and dictatorship – in the era he himself termed ‘dark times’ (finsteren Zeiten). We will also discuss aesthetic/political responses to inequality, injustice, and the deprivation of freedom of speech and of movement in our own 'dark times', and how these responses have been inspired by Brecht’s legacy.
What were Brecht’s options for protest, resistance, and revolt in the 1930s-1940s? And, considering those options, is it possible to discern a Brechtian legacy in contemporary activist art? How is this legacy manifested today, in scholarship as well as through artistic creativity? Are Brecht’s theory and practice still exemplary for the relations between art and ideology, and/or between artistic creativity and political action? In raising these issues, the Symposium addresses scholars of Brecht’s ideas and works, as well as theatre practitioners and theoreticians concerned with the issues that he himself had confronted.
In addition to the discussions on Brecht’s own resistance to discrimination, injustice, and violence, the Symposium will feature lectures, panels, workshops, and theatre productions, exploring his legacy for our own time. Selected texts taken from Brecht will be studied in regard to his theory and practice, in particular to inspire interest among younger theatre researchers and practitioners.
The foremost importance of this Symposium lies in its offering a unique possibility to conduct, in Israel, an exploration at the highest academic level, not only of the well-known dramatic works of Bertolt Brecht -- one of the greatest, if not the greatest, playwrights and theatre innovators, ideologists and theoreticians of the 20th century – but also of his lesser-known but highly influential theoretical works.
Freddie Rokem, Gad Kaynar-Kissinger, Ira Avneri
It is a great pleasure to welcome you to the seventeenth symposium of the International Brecht Society. This symposium is unlike any we have ever had before, because it takes place in the midst of the world-wide Covid pandemic, which put a stop to travel and all too many scholarly conferences and cultural events in 2020 and 2021. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the symposium’s on-site organisers, particularly Gad Kaynar Kissinger, Freddie Rokem, and Ira Avneri, for persevering in the midst of this crisis and bringing the symposium, aptly called Brecht in Dark Times, to fruition. We do indeed live in dark times, and so did Brecht. His work speaks to both his own time and ours. I expect the symposium to be full of lively discussion and debate, as Brecht himself would have wanted. But also in keeping with Brecht and his approach, I look forward to pleasurable conversation and conviviality, learning, top-notch theatrical and cultural events, and hopefully some good weather and even better food. Brecht himself was not ashamed to list “comfortable shoes,” “the dog,” “enthusiastic faces,” “traveling,” and “being friendly” along with “dialectics,” “writing,” and “comprehension” as some of life’s pleasures. Among the considerable pleasures that I anticipate from this symposium are the simple joy of being together, learning from each other, and engaging in constructive and spirited real-time, in-person dialog. These are pleasures that we have learned, over the past three years, not to take for granted. I therefore look forward with considerable anticipation and pleasure to seeing and being with you in December.
In Dark Times
“Let others speak of their shame, I will speak of my own”
Bertolt Brecht, O Germany, Pale Mother, 1933
The Department of Theatre Arts, Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with the Theatre Departments at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Haifa University, the Israeli Association for Theatre Research and the Israeli Centre of the ITI (International Theatre Institute), welcome the first post-corona symposium of the International Brecht Society (IBS), hoping that throughout the symposium days we will be able to reflect face-to-face not only retrospectively on Brecht’s “Dark Times”, but also on our own contemporary crises – social, political and moral.
The Symposium will offer a web of keynote speeches, panels, workshops, Lehrformances (a combination of performed lectures and interactive learning events), readings, and a rich artistic program and excursions, all carried out in the estranged form of a “Wandering Symposium”.
The 2022 Symposium will focus on Bertolt Brecht’s response to expressions of racism, political oppression, and dictatorship – in the era he himself termed ‘dark times’ (finsteren Zeiten). We will discuss aesthetic/political responses to inequality, injustice, and the deprivation of the freedom of speech and of movement in our own 'dark times', and how these responses have been inspired by Brecht’s legacy.
What were Brecht’s options for protest, resistance, and revolt? And, considering those options, is it possible to discern a Brechtian legacy in contemporary activist art? How is this legacy constructed today, in scholarship as well as through artistic creativity? Are Brecht’s theory and practice still exemplary for the relations between art and ideology, and/or between artistic creativity and political action? Raising these issues, the Symposium addresses scholars studying Brecht’s ideas and works, as well as theatre practitioners and theoreticians concerned with the issues that he himself confronted.
The Messingkauf dialogues will serve as the conceptual framework for these discussions. These dialogues feature a philosopher who has come to the theatre – by invitation of the actress – to explore its aesthetic, moral, and philosophical features as well as its material conditions, based on the assumption that the theatre shows how “people live together,” which is what interests the philosopher. Can his discussions with the theatre people (a dramaturg, an actor, an actress, and a backstage worker), which take place on the stage itself, after each evening's performance, still be read today as a model for discussing the theatre and its functions?
In a section of the dialogues composed at the beginning of World War II, Brecht’s philosopher urges the theatre people to “bear in mind that we are living in dark times, when people’s behavior towards one another is particularly abhorrent and the deadly activities of certain groups of people are shrouded in an almost impenetrable darkness, so that a great deal of thought and organization is needed in order to shed some light on people’s social behavior.” During such dark times, he adds, many people regard the exploitation of human beings “just as natural as our exploitation of nature”, considering “great wars to be like earthquakes, as if they were not caused by humanity but by forces of nature against which the human race is powerless.” Does such an eclipse of moral values incapacitate intellectuals and artists? On the contrary, Brecht responded in one of his Svendborg poems: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / There will also be singing. / Of the dark times.” And his close friend Walter Benjamin expressed this view in even more radical terms in On the Concept of History, suggesting that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight.” Therefore, Benjamin concludes, to improve our position in the struggle against fascism, “it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.” One might even dare ask: How can the theatre do this?
Did Brecht practice this ‘attitude’ (Haltung) in his own work during those dark times? And what can we still learn from him today, when observing/representing “people’s social behavior”? These are only two of the fundamental issues that the 2022 IBS Symposium will address. In addition to discussions on Brecht’s own resistance to discrimination, injustice, and violence – including cases in which he did not raise his voice in protest, at least not as seen retrospectively – the Symposium will feature lectures, panels, workshops, and theatre productions exploring his legacy for our own time. There will also be workshops in the ‘spirit’ of the Messingkauf dialogues in which selected texts of Brecht will be studied – to inspire interest in his theory and practice, in particular among younger theatre researchers and practitioners.
The choice of Israel as the site for the first post-Corona IBS Symposium – whose home-base is metropolitan Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city – embodies all the tensions these issues raise: in a country initially founded on the idea of ‘setting things right’ after World War II, an idea which in turn has created new injustices, while still experiencing the threat of extinction, real or imagined.
The Symposium will manifest the unique character of a "Wandering Symposium", hosted by the three major academic theatre departments in Israeli universities – Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Tel Aviv University will host two of the Symposium days – including the registration and the opening ceremony – and Jerusalem and Haifa will each host one day (Haifa – December 13, Jerusalem – December 15). The program in each location – adjusted to the orientation of the respective department and city – will comprise one keynote speech, panels, workshops and a roundtable, as well as a varied artistic program. A full-day excursion in Jerusalem (December 16) will follow the Symposium.
Our aim is to promote the study and research of Brecht, and we therefore welcome the participation of advanced degree students and young scholars. This will, inter alia, be underlined in our artistic program by featuring one of Brecht’s most intriguing texts – Antigone, directed by Ira Avneri; the activist protest show – Making a Revolution by Einat Weizman – at the Jaffa Theatre; and a short presentation of Brecht's poems by drama students at Tel Aviv University, directed by Gad Kaynar-Kissinger.