Feature on Politics and Folk Music

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New Left, Old Left, Left-Over Left. Our guest essayist this month is Bob Cohen, a veteran of the 1960s folk group the New World Singers. He discusses the Hollywood movie about folkies—and how things really were.

Read “Strumming Along with Dylan and Seeger” by returning to top left, the Pages list.

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Tretyakov

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Sex, eugenics, and gender battles in early Soviet Russia! That’s the cheery blurb on the handbill of Swarthmore College’s 2002 production of I Want a Baby by Sergei Tretyakov.

Tretyakov (1892-1937) wrote the play in 1926. It’s about Milda, a young Latvian woman of humble origins “who is helping to build a new, communist way of life in the Soviet Union,” according to the scholar Eric Naiman. “Her virtually non-existent libido notwithstanding, Milda wants to contribute a healthy child to Soviet society, so she sets about hunting for a short-term sexual partner with impeccable class and biological credentials.”

The main theme is the taming of nature on behalf of the state. One means toward that end is artificial insemination. A character endorses it, saying: “Scientific control must be established not only during a child’s upbringing, not only during childbirth, but also during conception.” A drama at once so politicized and so explicit – it touches on rape, masturbation, one-night stands, and “the intrauterine rinse most useful for facilitating conception” (Naiman) — was bound to shock conventional opinion.

It did, as was the playwright’s intention. Tretyakov wrote that I Want a Baby was “meant to be a discussion piece.” There were “didactic-propagandistic elements” in it, but audience members were supposed to draw their own conclusions. He did not like theatrical works, he said, that “conclude with an approved maxim.”

Introducing the 1995 translation of I Want a Baby, Robert Leach wrote that Tretyakov’s aim was “not to undermine the regime, which he wholeheartedly supported.” Rather, he sought “to open unmentionable topics for discussion. He believed that Communism required an unblinking recognition of the truth and an absolutely open and democratic debate about the truth.”

Sergei Tretyakov was arrested in Moscow by the Soviet secret police in 1937 on a charge of spying. Accounts differ as to whether he was executed or committed suicide after being tortured. His friend Bertolt Brecht protested Tretyakov’s innocence in a poem of commemoration entitled “Are the People Infallible?” This tribute to his friend was, however, written “for an audience consisting of himself alone,” said Robert Conquest. Not only that, the poem initially had Tretyakov’s name in its first line but Brecht later crossed it out. (See “The Fourth Door: Difficulties with the Truth in the Svendborg Poems,” essay by Joyce Crick in Brecht’s Poetry of Political Exile.)

Ideological Freight

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Let’s unload some of that. A 1950 excerpt from Bertolt Brecht:

Thus through Kazakhstan, land of the nomads

Went the word and call of the academy.

Each work brigade challenged the other

To raise millet as never before.

And in village and field, in school and workshop

There was on this great day in spring excitement in the air.

And Berziyev summoned the leaders of the collectives

“Rosa Luxemburg” and “The New Way.”

“Short is the day. Out to the field!

Your worth as comrades is in the yield!”

That they might beat him in the contest

The old man challenged them in work.

And following the new rules of competition

He shared with them his finest seeds.

“Short is the day. Out to the field!

Your worth as comrades is in the yield!”

And when man and tractor returned

To Collective Kurman, a happy exhausted crew

They fetched the weights and scales

And weighed twenty-five hundred kilos per hectare.

—Stanzas 26 through 29 of Die Erziehung der Hirse (“The Rearing of Millet”) by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Robert C. Conard in collaboration with Ralph Ley (New German Critique Number 9, Autumn 1976)

Baal-ieve It or Not

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Oskar Homulka

Oskar Homolka

David Bowie

David Bowie

Oskar Homolka and David Bowie—not much in common there, right? Guess again. The Viennese actor (I Remember Mama, War and Peace, Funeral in Berlin) played Baal, the frolicsome sociopath in Bertolt Brecht’s play by that name, and so did the British rock star. Homolka, who died in 1978, was Baal during the Weimar Republic, not only starring in but co-directing with Brecht a production mounted in Berlin in 1926. Bowie took the role of Baal in a British teleplay done in 1982.

Baal was Brecht’s first play, written in 1918 before his work had taken on ideological freight. The critic Eric Bentley notes that even so, Brecht’s favorite subject at that juncture was “the innocence that can accrue to extremely vicious, even extremely criminal, people.”

Below is a photograph of Homolka as Baal, with Gerda Müller (right) playing Sophie, taken during a performance at the German Theatre, Berlin, February 14, 1926.

Oskar Homolka (left) playing Baal, 1926

There are several clips of Bowie’s BBC Baal. He performs some of the songs in the show. Incidentally, the words Bowie sings on that first one will sound familiar to those who know the celebrated 2006 film about the East German Stasi, The Lives of Others. It’s the lyric poetry that the secret policeman reads while he is lying on the couch—Brecht’s “Remembering Marie A.”