Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006

The twenty-year-old Bertolt Brecht began writing Baal in 1918 as a response to Hanns Johst’s drama Der Einsame: Ein Menschenuntergang (1917; the lonely one: a human decline), an expressionist work about the nineteenth century poet Christian Dietrich Grabbe. Brecht had seen a production of Johst’s play and discussed it in...

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The twenty-year-old Bertolt Brecht began writing Baal in 1918 as a response to Hanns Johst’s drama Der Einsame: Ein Menschenuntergang (1917; the lonely one: a human decline), an expressionist work about the nineteenth century poet Christian Dietrich Grabbe. Brecht had seen a production of Johst’s play and discussed it in a seminar led by Arthur Kutschler at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. Brecht despised the play for its idealism—the notion that artists are different from other people—and for its sentimentality. He set out to write an antithetical play, using as his models for the protagonist the fifteenth century French poet François Villon, German expressionist balladeer and playwright Frank Wedekind, and Brecht’s own bohemian experiences.

Suggestions of the relationship between the French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud also appear in the play. Brecht’s first draft, written in 1918, closely follows the structure and episodes of Johst’s play; later drafts move away from his antimodel, de-emphasizing Johst’s influence.

As Brecht’s first mature play (he had written a short play during his school years), Baal is “indispensable reading for anyone who would understand Brecht’s development,” according to critic Ronald Speirs. The play is a heady brew of disparate influences and impulses that continued to be played out in many guises throughout Brecht’s career. The tension of the play is dialectical: Decay is linked to existence, destruction to productive energy, and Eros to Thanatos. Brecht allows no triumphant rebirth or transcendence.

The paganism implied in the protagonist’s name is not simply a reflection of a naïve and innocent longing to return to nature. Baal is the Semitic-Phoenician fertility god, associated with storms and the figure of the bull. His attraction for Brecht, no doubt, in part derives from the knowledge that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Baal is the embodiment of evil. Brecht’s character has strong associations also with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Dionysian principle and with Wedekind’s neopagan, antiheroine Lulu.

Although the action of the play takes place over many years, the essential movement is seasonal, as befits its roots in a mythic paganism. The play begins in spring with an emphasis on Baal’s erotic desires. He successively seduces Emily, Johanna, and Sophie. The friendship between Ekart and Baal ripens through the summer until the autumnal harvest is signaled by Sophie’s pregnancy. The fall’s torrential rains drive Ekart and Baal from the woods into inns and taverns inhabited by worn-out social pariahs. Death marks the winter—first Baal’s enraged murder of Ekart and then Baal’s own lonely death under the starry sky.

Baal is seduced by nature, “that girl the world, who gives herself and giggles/ If you only let her crush you with her thighs,/ Shared with Baal who loved it, orgiastic wriggles,” but he suffers no spiritual or metaphysical illusions. Nature will abandon him as easily as he abandons the lovers of which he has tired. Brecht’s vision of nature incorporates a Darwinian materialism that does not deny the inevitability of death.

In the dark womb of the earth the rotting Baal did lie.Huge as ever, calm, and pallid was the sky,Young and naked and immensely marvelousAs Baal loved it when Baal lived among us.

As an amoral child of nature, Brecht’s protagonist is lusting, romping, scratching after life, gobbling it up in great mouthfuls, all the while trying to survive in a world that is consuming and mad in itself.

Baal also belongs to the satiric tradition, contemptuous of established institutions and sanctioned morality. Baal’s lust is voracious, and his teeth are sharp. When Baal insists that one must have teeth to reach love’s ecstasy, “like biting into an orange when the juice squirts in your teeth,” his friend Johannes observes, “Your teeth are the teeth of an animal: grayish-yellow, massive, uncanny.”

Amid a society rotted with corruption and offering no meaning, the poet exults in motiveless pranks. Baal’s trickery may be illustrated by the episode with the peasants and their bulls—he desires to create a divine spectacle but is thwarted by a well-intentioned and unimaginative parson. Baal celebrates life despite, or perhaps because of, being inextricably caught in the web of nature. This inevitability of death and decay is something that Brecht tried to overcome in his later plays. The atmosphere of Baal is one in which God is dead and nihilism is rampant. God is not dead in the medieval beast epic, to which Baal owes much, but God might as well be, for in such an epic nature reigns, the Church is useless, and the court is incapable of dispensing justice. In both worlds—that of the medieval beast story and that of Baal—one has only oneself to depend upon or worry about. When asked if he believes in God, Baal answers “I always believed in myself. But one could become an atheist.”

Although the older Brecht, committed to the optimistic hope that the world could be improved through dedication to Marxism, repudiated the nihilism of his first play, it was from the writing of Baal that many of the playwright’s techniques and themes evolved. The method of welding together multiple sources fused with a heightened poetic lyricism became his standard procedure in crafting a drama, as did his reliance on multiple collaborators. In the case of Baal, he relies upon the illustrations of Caspar Neher for visual inspiration and scenic decoration, on playwright Lion Feuchtwanger for editing help in the second draft, and on the actors, including Oskar Homolka, in the 1926 revision produced in Berlin and Vienna.

Baal was not produced again until the 1965 Off-Broadway production (of the 1963 English translation by Eric Bentley and Martin Esslin) with James Earl Jones as Ekart. Since that production, it has often been revived in university and alternative theaters and occasionally even in more mainstream venues as a seminal work not only in the evolution of Brecht’s theater but also in the development of contemporary drama.

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