Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller were there, holding hands as they watched the performance. John Gielgud described the production as 'so stimulatingly and exquisitely rehearsed and executed that it was a great inspiration'. And Peter Hall, who went on to found the Royal Shakespeare Company and direct the National Theatre, wrote in his autobiography that 'every British theatre person I knew was in awe of the talent'.
Half a century later it's hard to imagine the impact made by the visit of the Berliner Ensemble to London's Palace Theatre in August 1956, a fortnight after the death of its founder Bertolt Brecht. Performing only in German with no surtitles ('We shall be offering most of the audience a pure pantomime, a kind of silent film on the stage,' said Brecht in his last message to the company), the Ensemble's short season of three Brecht plays (Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Trumpets and Drums) took the English stage by storm.
For the veteran theatre critic Michael Billington, recalling the visit in his epic State of the Nation: British theatre since 1945 (Faber and Faber, 2007), it was one of two events in the 'pivotal year of 1956' that 'in the short term exposed [Britain's] cultural divisions and in the long term genuinely changed the British theatre'. The other was the establishment of the English Stage Company (ESC) at the Royal Court, whose first productions that year included Arthur Miller's The Crucible and, most famously, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.
Billington notes how the ESC's director-designate George Devine had seen the Berliner Ensemble at work in Germany the previous year and 'ended up bowled over by Brecht's achievement of a "poetic reality"'. For Devine, as with those who were similarly 'bowled over' by the Ensemble in London in 1956, Brecht's medium was more important than his Marxist message (which the Foreign Office had tried to suppress by way of an unsuccessful bid to deny the East German company entry visas). 'British theatre practitioners,' Billington writes, 'seized avidly on the acting, the decor, the lighting and the austere purity of the productions.
'For a generation raised on star casting, short rehearsal periods, the encrustations of naturalism and the frayed maintenance of theatrical illusion, the visit of the Berliner Ensemble provided a profound stylistic shock: one that was to permeate the British theatre, and even rival media, over the coming decades.'
'Brechtian' theatre techniques have become so pervasive - in film and television as well as on the stage - that we have to imagine ourselves back in the 1950s to recognise just how revolutionary they appeared at the time.
Consider, for example, Brecht's key objective of stripping away the artifice of traditional bourgeois theatre. He wanted, he said, to 'drop the assumption that there is a fourth wall cutting the audience off from the stage and the consequent illusion that the stage action is taking place in reality and without an audience'.
We are accustomed today to minimalist stage sets, undisguised staging techniques, open stage wings, exposed stage machinery, visible lighting rigs and all the rest. We are familiar, too, with the use of non-naturalistic, discordant, sometimes non-chronological or seemingly disconnected scenes and storytelling methods.
We are even, despite this age of celebrity, unfazed by casts of actors who, as the critic Kenneth Tynan described those appearing in the Berliner Ensemble's Mother Courage, 'look shockingly like people, real, potato-faced people such as one might meet in a bus queue'. No one bats an eyelid when the National's current production of Mother Courage dispenses with certain stage-set artifices altogether and simply drops down white sheets with 'A thatched cottage', 'A general's tent' or 'An army canteen' painted roughly on them. In 1956, this sort of thing was still strikingly avant garde, challenging and fresh.
So too was the Brechtian approach to acting. This involved, above all, his famous notion of verfremdungseffekt - the 'alienation' or 'estrangement effect' (see box, right). Brecht was scathing about the kind of theatre that required 'the spectator to leave his reasoning powers with his hat and coat [and] to simply engage in a trancelike orgy of feeling'. He sought to get his audiences to engage their 'critical faculties in assessing what was being enacted, and gain insights'.
In Kenneth Tynan's words again, the performers in Brecht's plays 'do not behave like western actors; they neither bludgeon us with personality nor woo us with charm'. To do so would be to undermine the fundamental intent of Brecht's work, which was to lay bare the reality beneath the surface of capitalist illusion.
Brecht sought to stimulate the intellect of his audience into recognising how so much of what appears 'natural', rational and immutable is in reality nothing of the sort. And, as the Latin American literary theorist Roberto Schwarz puts it in 'Brecht's relevance: highs and lows', an essay recently translated and adapted for New Left Review (May/June 2009), he was convinced that: 'Once the oppressed made out the strange in the familiar, the irrational in the everyday, and the anomalous in the rule, an acceptable and comprehensive reorganisation of society [would be] close at hand.'
Brechtian politics and theatre
It is impossible to isolate either Brecht's writing or his production methods from the political beliefs that underpinned them. The Brechtian project for the transformation of the theatre went hand in hand with the Marxist project for the transformation of society. And it was inevitable that once the 20th-century application of Marxism failed to bring about the social and economic changes that its adherents had argued were historically inevitable, so too would the nature of the Brechtian impact on theatre alter.
As Schwarz notes, '[when] the place on the leading edge of history that Brecht's method presumed found itself without support in the real course of things [this transformed] clear-sighted critical superiority into an illusion'. It was the ultimate inversion: the exposer of bourgeois artifice himself exposed as a peddler of political illusion. 'Under these circumstances, the didactic component of Brechtian estrangement was left without anything to teach, at least directly; and so changed its meaning.'
Brecht was far from alone on the Marxist left in failing to recognise the immense adaptability and social and cultural flexibility of the capitalist order. As Schwarz writes (in specific relation to Latin America but it applies more generally), 'The "economic miracle" had brought not just a leap in manufacturing and its internationalisation, but a liberalisation of sexual mores, a normalisation of drug use, the partial - and precarious - incorporation of the poor into mass consumerism, and the desacralising commercialisation of culture. The left's certainty that it was the party of historical progress, while its adversary would be traditionalist, lost its footing in reality. Meanwhile, commercial culture had appropriated the most sensational aesthetic discoveries of the avant-garde, Brechtian drama included, for its own purposes.'
So Brechtian methods found their way into everything from advertising new cleaning products to the exposed stage sets of television newscasts, in which 'the Brechtian focus on the material infrastructure of ideology - [for example] on the didactic inclusion of the wings on centre-stage ... [functioned] as a prop for the authority of capital, rather than a critique.
'The cameras and cameramen filming other cameras that filmed the studio, the giant logo, the anchormen, all lent weight and immutability to the industrial-commercial apparatus which stood behind the highly partisan account of the world that we would shortly be given.'
What had been a tool in the historic struggle for emancipation was turned into another weapon in the cultural armoury of the ruling class.
An entertaining message
If Brecht's methods were subject to appropriation, his message could not be so easily adulterated. Tony Kushner's new translation and Deborah Warner's direction of Mother Courage at the National Theatre remains true to Brecht's original concept of 'epic theatre', capturing the 'pointless, grotesquely protracted, gruesome catastrophe' (Kushner's words) that was the Thirty Years War. And in its dramatic account of that war as experienced by some of its ordinary participants it remains as relevant and insightful to a 21st-century audience as it did to a world recovering from the ravages of two world wars.
The National's production also manages to do what the Berliner Ensemble was doing half a century ago. The critic Harold Hobson wrote of the Ensemble in Theatre in Britain (1984) that it exposed the poverty of productions of Brecht that were 'heavy, sententious and void of life' with an approach full of 'verve, melodramatic vigour, and regard for theatrical effect as well as doctrinal orthodoxy'. To the Ensemble - and now to the National - 'had been revealed a truth hidden from their British rivals, namely that Brecht and entertainment are synonymous'.
It is a myth that Brecht was ever unaware of the importance of entertainment. But stripped of its expressly didactic intent and its purposeful context as part of the transformational Marxist project, Mother Courage becomes, like the rest of Brecht's work, precisely what Brecht would not have wanted it to become: a classic, rather than an interventionist drama.
Brecht's methods may have become mainstream and his message may retain much potency in its modern incarnation, but the political movement of which he was a critical member - at least in its dominant 20th-century form - has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
The perfect subject for a piece of modern-day Brechtian epic theatre, in other words.
Steve Platt is a former editor of the New Statesman and a regular writer for Red Pepper.