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.)

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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.”

The Drama of Galileo — and of Losey, Eisler, and Brecht

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“I believe in the gentle force of reason; in the long run, no one can resist it. Nobody can watch me drop a pebble and say it doesn’t fall. Nobody can do that. The seduction of truth is too strong.”

So says Galileo Galilei in Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. The staged biography by the famed East German poet and dramatist pitted science (truth) against religion (rigorously enforced falsehood) and placed intellectuals on the side of the former.

Brecht’s work went through several versions beginning in the late 1930s, all of them featuring incidental music by the German/Austrian composer Hanns Eisler. In America, it played on Broadway in 1947 in a production directed by Joseph Losey. Losey’s conception of the play is still with us, in the form of the Losey-directed movie from 1974 that has the Israeli actor Topol in the lead role.

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Topol expressed admiration for the director but said that he was a man preoccupied “22 out of 24 hours of the day” with his own persecution by the U.S. government. Losey had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. After being blacklisted, he exiled himself to Europe (where he made Galileo, among other pictures).

If the theme of the creative mind under pressure from the Inquisition was relevant for Losey, it was more so for his longtime friend, Eisler, and his role model, Brecht. Both had run-ins with HUAC. Much more dedicated Reds than Losey (the American’s membership in the Party had been brief), they got deported as the communist controversy in America neared its height.

After deportation came the attempt to live in East Germany, “the land of real and existing socialism.” It was dicey; the truth was superintended by the scientific and cultural commissars of the Soviet bloc.

Hanns Eisler’s most ambitious project, an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, was condemned by East German academicians. They were enforcing the policy of Andrei Zhdanov, the Russian tasked with patrolling music and the arts behind the Iron Curtain and stopping any imperialist influences from creeping in. Eisler was denied authorization for his interpretation of Goethe and gave up writing the opera in 1952.

As Staatsdichter (state poet) of the German Democratic Republic, Bertolt Brecht fared better. He minded his p’s and q’s and was given the use of the grand Schiffbauerdamm theater for productions by his Berliner Ensemble, which became East Germany’s most distinguished institution. Aware that the theater could be taken away from his ensemble if he stepped out of line, he paid lip service to the theories of the Russian dramatist Stanislavsky and the socialist realism demanded by Zhdanov.

Brecht also doffed his hat to Trofim Lysenko, the truth-arbiter in the field of biology. “Lysenkoism” held that Mendelian genetics were a capitalist hoax; agronomists and horticulturalists in Russia and its satellite nations were to eschew Mendel and build upon Soviet theories exclusively.

He may be one of the few who, while being subjected to Zhdanovism, also dabbled in Lysenkoism. Die Erziehung der Hirse, a children’s ballad that Brecht wrote in 1950, about how to grow millet, highlights the wonders emanating from “Lysenko’s greenhouse in distant Moscow.” Stalin, “the Soviet peoples’ great harvest leader,” appears in a cameo role.

Brecht won the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.