Feb. 10, 2004
Poem: "Toast," by Leonard Nathan, from Carrying On: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh).
There was a woman in Ithaca
who cried softly all night
in the next room and helpless
I fell in love with her under the blanket
of snow that settled on all the roofs
of the town, filling up
every dark depression.
in the motel coffee shop
I studied all the made-up faces
of women. Was it the middle-aged blonde
who kidded the waitress
or the young brunette lifting
her cup like a toast?
Love, whoever you are,
your courage was my companion
for many cold towns
after the betrayal of Ithaca,
and when I order coffee
in a strange place, still
I say, lifting, this is for you.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, born in Augsburg, Germany (1898). He's one of the most influential playwrights of the twentieth century. He started studying Karl Marx's Das Kapital in 1927, and he was converted to communism two years later when he saw policemen shoot bullets into an unarmed crowd. He came to the conclusion that most plays were catering to the rich and privileged, and he developed a revolutionary new theory of drama. He thought that theaters should be closer to political lecture halls than places of entertainment, and he wanted to encourage audiences to think about issues rather than sympathize with characters. He didn't use conventional stage props, he flashed slides and written messages on large screens, and he had actors step out of their roles to directly address the audience.
Brecht was an outspoken enemy of Hitler, and in 1933 he was forced to go into exile. First he went to Denmark, where he wrote an anti-fascist play called Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (1938). Then he came to the United States and settled in Hollywood to write plays and movies. He wrote more than 50 screenplays during his six years in Hollywood, but only one of them was accepted: Hangmen Also Die (1943), an anti-Nazi film that came out in the middle of World War II. He later said, "The intellectual isolation [in Hollywood] is enormous. Compared to Hollywood, Svendborg is a world center."
But it was while he was in Hollywood that he wrote his best-known plays, The Life of Galileo (1938), Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1945). When Brecht had them produced in Germany in the late '40s, they established his reputation as one of the great modern playwrights. He spent the final years of his life in East Berlin, where he wrote poetry, directed plays and founded the Berliner Ensemble.
It's the birthday of the man who wrote Doctor Zhivago (1957), Boris Pasternak, born in Moscow (1890). His father was a painter and his mother was a famous pianist, and they encouraged his love of literature from a young age. He spent hours alone in his bedroom reading the classics of Russian literature—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Pushkin
His first two books were collections of poetry, A Twin in the Clouds (1914) and Over the Barriers (1917). After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, he decided that prose could better address the nation's problems, and so he started writing fiction as well as poetry. In the early '30s, he began work on his masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago. He wrote, "I always dreamt of a novel in which, as in an explosion, I would erupt with all the wonderful things I saw and understood in this world."
During the 1940s and '50s he made money by translating writers like Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Schiller, and Goethe, since he knew that he wouldn't be punished for publishing translations. He also continued to work on Doctor Zhivago in secret, and finally finished it in 1955. It's an epic novel that follows the lives of over sixty characters through the first half of twentieth century Russia. It was published in 1957 in Italy, and it was immediately banned in the Soviet Union. The next year, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he refused it. He was still living in Russia, and he knew that if he accepted it he would be deported. Doctor Zhivago has since become a classic, and in 1989 his son finally accepted the Nobel Prize on his behalf.
Pasternak said, "I don't like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and it isn't of much value. Life hasn't revealed its beauty to them."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®