Brecht, Turkish Theater, and Turkish-German Literature: Reception, Adaptation, and Innovation after 1960
By Ela Gezen
Bertolt Brecht, generally regarded as the most influential politically engaged left-wing playwright of the twentieth century, died in 1956, but his theory and practice has continued to shape debates about the politics of culture—not only in divided Germany, but in Turkey, as well, where a new generation of intellectuals emerged during a period of liberalization in the 1960s and sought to link culture to politics, art to life, theater to revolutionary practice. Ever since, Brecht has connected two cultures that have become ever more intertwined. Drawing upon archival research and close textual analysis, my book, Brecht, Turkish Theater, and Turkish-German Literature: Reception, Adaptation, and Innovation after 1960, reconstructs how Brecht’s thought was first interpreted by theater practitioners in Turkey, and then by Turkish writers living in Germany. I first focus on Turkey in the 1960s, reconstructing theater programming and critical debates in literary journals in order to explore how Brechtian stage productions thematized issues in Turkish politics and cultural affairs. I then trace the significance of theater practice and aesthetics for writers, actors, and dramatists Aras Ören (1939) and Emine Sevgi Özdamar (1946), who emigrated to Germany. By shedding light on their theatrical involvement in Turkey, East and West Germany, my book not only introduces a new context for comprehending individual works, but also enhances our understanding of the intellectual interchanges that shaped the emergence of Turkish-German literature.
Writing this book has been a journey whose course has changed unexpectedly, and repeatedly, and was shaped by what sorts of archival materials I found. While I knew that Brecht was at the center of the project, the significance for my argument of Turkish and German theater practices, and the transnational dialogue on theater, slowly increased as I worked with archival sources in the Academy of Arts—primarily the Bertolt-Brecht-Archiv and the Literaturarchiv— in Berlin and the Stadtarchiv Erlangen. I discovered that the two writers whose work has been key to my analysis, Özdamar and Ören, were actively involved in the Turkish theater scene prior to their emigration to Germany. This led me to research further their theatrical activities in Turkey prior to their emigration, and to explore continuities and ruptures with regard to their dramatic engagement after their emigration to Germany. By doing so, I was able to piece parts together through unpublished archival documents and articles in Turkish theater journals and dailies which I located in the US, Germany, and Turkey. I further discovered that these writers’ paths intersected at the ensembles and directors they collaborated with, such as Vasıf Öngören (1938–1984), Genco Erkal (1938–), and Sermet Çağan (1929–1970). These practitioners were interconnected not only through some of their practical activities, by appearing at the same festivals or participating in the same workshops, but also at a theoretical and political level—particularly through their efforts to establish a national political Turkish theater that took its cues from Brecht’s epic theater.
When studying some Turkish theater ensembles, I learned that they were integral to numerous international theater festivals, including the Studententheaterwoche, which took place from 1949-1968 in the West German city of Erlangen. In fact, Turkish ensembles were a constant presence after 1954. This discovery changed the framework for my book entirely, as it reframed Turkish-German cultural exchange occurring in the context of theater and prompted me to work earlier, examining the circuitry of exchange that existed prior to the bilateral labor recruitment contract in 1961, which for many scholars has constituted an unofficial “starting point” for Turkish-German cultural relations in the postwar period. Working backward, I realized that Turkish theater practice and discourse throughout the 1960s was influenced by a continuous exchange between German and Turkish contexts, stages, and ensembles—an exchange that occurred outside of the context of labor migration within which Turkish-German cultural exchange and literary production is customarily framed.
In its engagement with the Turkish reception of Brecht during after 1960, my book uncovers hitherto unexamined cultural-political constellations and literary affiliations between Turkey and divided Germany, both East and West. I was particularly intrigued by the web interactions and intersections that became visible with regard to the Turkish and Turkish-German engagement with Brecht, which emerged as neither linear, nor teleological, in various geopolitical contexts, and always subject to continuous renegotiations.
My broader research has centered on including the Turkish archive into our consideration of Turkish-German encounters and exchanges. Rather than positing a unidirectional relationship of influence that is often erroneously described as occurring between a liberal, enlightened, pluralist “West” and Orientalized, backward, authoritarian “East,” my research, including my book, has examined interactions between the Turkish and German cultural contexts as a reciprocal process of intellectual exchange.
Ela Gezen is Assistant Professor of German at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received her PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures from the University of Michigan in 2012. Her research and teaching focuses on 20th century German and Turkish literature and culture, with emphases on literatures of migration, minority discourses, historical and theoretical accounts of transnationalism, and literary and cultural theory. Moreover, Ela has published articles on music and literature, focusing on the intersection between aesthetics and politics in both Turkish and German contexts. She was a EUME Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2015/16.
Citation: Ela Gezen, Brecht, Turkish Theater, and Turkish-German Literature: Reception, Adaptation, and Innovation after 1960, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.05.2018 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10224.