Actually my knowledge of 16th century history was of no real use at all. The play – as I subsequently found out Brecht would have intended – was staged in a way that represented no specific period at all, and all periods. Although I did get a distinct sense of the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia.
To call it is an anti-war piece is an over-simplification - the play suggests that war is in fact the natural order. It seemed to be more concerned about the universal need for ordinary people to simply survive – and their ability to do so. Watching it I was reminded of Hasek’s novel ‘The Good Soldier Svejk’ - and then I found out afterwards that Brecht scripted that novel for the theatre.
I also later found out something about Brecht’s dramatic theories: What often puts me off theatre – and I am conscious of quite how philistine this sounds – is the ‘staginess’ of it. Having grown up on film and television – stage drama can easily just seem too hammy. Particularly so when it is trying to be realistic: In fact the less hard it tries this the more ready I am to accept it – so I will happily sit through Shakespeare but struggle with something that it supposedly more accessiblelike 'Look Back In Anger'
. Brecht’s theory and technique of alienation actually tackles this head-on, and it works. Which is why I found that three and a half hours of fairly heavy-going drama flew by and I was thoroughly engaged.
There was once some kind of a social-democratic consensus which held that as an individual progressed through life’s journey they would progressively experience the benefits of social justice. So the gap between those children born into poverty and those born into privilege would be eroded by a meritocratic education system that provided the gateway to equal opportunity. Along the way social housing, medicine and ultimately old age provision would narrow the gap.It was a blueprint for something like socialism - to be achieved by stealth over a few generations. It might well have been bollocks but it kept much of the Labour Party going for years.
Now George Osborne says that the Tories will increase the retirement age to 66 in seven years’ time, trumping New Labour’s own long-standing objective to do the same in seventeen years - ultimately rising to 70. By then final earnings, inflation-linked or even a basic state pension that you can actually live off, will all be distant memories. In effect old age will be privatized, thereby finally reversing the social-democratic consensus - as we get older we can now look forward to inequality (and life) actually getting worse.
At the same time we hear a lot of bullshit about the ‘third age’ and the ‘silver economy’. It’s one thing to be a grey-haired captain of industry working into your 70’s or to cash in on your good fortune on the property lottery and take early retirement in sunny climes. Or come to that, to pontificate about having a portfolio of flexible skills because we cannot expect continuous employment any more.
But in the real world most people will find in their 50’s that the skills they have built up over a career have become obsolete with little chance of re-training. They will then probably have to fill the next 20 years of employment with low paid part-time work just to keep their heads above water. They’d also better keep their fingers crossed that when they do finally stop working that they don’t need (almost certainly private) care.
And for their children they might get a small window of respite when they are in their 30’s; a few years in-between paying off their student loans and starting to support their own children ... and then their parents.