Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Brecht and Coleridge

"Ah, well-played, sir, well-played indeed!" The mellifluous baritone rang throughout the drawing room as Bertolt Brecht, playwright, poet, and champion middle distance runner placed the tray of marzipan delights in front of his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet, lover, and foster mother.

"Did you hear that?" said Brecht, a nervous look in his eye as he sank into the deep folds of the comfortable couch.

"Hear what, sir?" boomed Coleridge, reaching for a treat and licking his lips, less in anticipation than in unstoppable nerve spasm.

"I could have sworn I just heard a mellifluous baritone," said Brecht. "It told me 'well-played, sir'"

"Ah, you Germans are a cunning bunch," said Coleridge, lifting his cup and pouring tea down his neck. "That was me, sir, complimenting you on that clever move you performed, placing the tray upon the table at the precise psychological tipping point. Quite an advantage you have over me, I think you'll agree."

Brecht studied the undercover poet intensely, noting well the curve of his neck, the cleft of his chin. In some ways, he thought to himself, man is little more than a cow with an aptitude for algebra. In some ways. He spoke:"It was prophesied that I would be killed by a man with a mellifluous baritone."

"I don't see how," Coleridge punctuated himself by quickly hemming his trousers, "a mellifluous baritone makes a poor choice of weapon. I once attempted to assassinate a Maharajah with my mellifluous baritone. He suffered only a superficial flesh wound and shot me in the knees."

Brecht was silent a moment, contemplating the futility of struggling against the machine. Sometimes he thought things would have been much simpler if he had been born a magical talking cushion. Sometimes. He spoke again:"Erst komm das Fressen," he said urgently, squinting hard at Coleridge, and leaning forward.

Coleridge hesitated. He had suspected this might be where it was all leading. When Brecht had invited him up to his room, he had accepted, not out of eagerness for company, but from respect for the bond they had forged with each other in Korea. But now, with Brecht's hand strongly massaging his thigh, he realised his initial instincts had been right: Brecht had invited him here to speak German at him."What does that mean?" he asked, reaching inside his sweater and removing his brassiere through an armhole so as to keep the mood light.

"It means, 'now we dance, tomorrow we urinate'," replied Brecht, sucking Coleridge's ear.

"FILTHY LIAR!" screamed Coleridge, leaping up and upsetting the marzipan. "It means nothing of the sort!"As quickly as it had come, the flash of rage passed, and Coleridge smiled pleasantly at his companion and took up a seat on the windowsill, contemplating the quadrangle."Do you sometimes feel, Bertie, that we are not doing enough?"

"What do you mean, enough?" replied Brecht, furtively. Coleridge turned from the window and saw Brecht attempting to climb into the kettle. He sighed. This happened so often these days he was beginning to regard it as part of the daily routine. Walking across the room, he yanked Brecht's head from the steaming jug and rubbed his hair with a towel. Brecht gasped. "You shouldn't have done that," he wailed. "Death is the only answer for me, I fear."

"Come, come," said Coleridge. "That's no way to talk. Talk like this instead," and he demonstrated with a low guttural moaning. Brecht tried it, and his mood imediately lifted.

"This IS fun!" he chuckled, capering about like a schoolboy. "Wunderbar!"

Coleridge laughed like a carefree schoolgirl, until he glanced once more out of the window. Ducking down, he hissed, "Stop it!"

"Why?" cackled Brecht. "I've never felt so alive! MOoooooo! MooooooO!" he warbled, twisting his nipples as he scampered onto the top of the bookcase.

"Stop it, man! This is serious!" Coleridge barked. "We've attracted humpback whales! They're in the quadrangle, bumming cigarettes."

Brecht sighed and climbed down. He perched once more on the sofa and mournfully vomited into Coleridge's teacup. "They will only get cancer," he said. "In the end, everyone gets cancer."

"This is true," Coleridge nodded. "I've had it six times this year, and frankly it's getting a bit much." Brecht nodded back, and so they proceeded in this fashion for several hours, bobbing their heads like deranged budgerigars, neither one willing to break down and mention the real cause of their dissatisaction. Deep down, both of them knew that the summer in Lesotho was weighing them down intolerably.

Eventually, the silence had to be broken. The detergent man was at the door, demanding he be paid for this week's detergent. Brecht dutifully slipped him a fifty, and sent him on his way with a tender kiss. Returning to his chair, he mournfully wrote a pessimistic modernist play and ate it without fanfare. In the opposite corner, Coleridge was talking animatedly on his mobile phone. Snapping it shut, he stormed across the floor. "Dammit! The Atkins account just fell through!" he raged.

"What's the Atkins account?" asked Brecht timidly, a pen up each nostril.

"Oh, I've no idea," said Coleridge, so airily that a ballon emerged from his ear. "I just like to occasionally shout that it's fallen through. It's a hobby."

"I thought poetry was your hobby."

"Oh no, poetry is my PASSION," corrected Coleridge genially, taking half an hour to punch Brecht repeatedly in the head for daring to say such a thing. "Poetry is my LIFE. I wrote one just the other day. It's about raccoons. Would you like to hear it?"

"I would rather be raped at gunpoint by a syphilitic anteater while a mountain lion slowly ate my head," said Brecht, with his usual suave Bavarian charm.

"Oh good, here it is then," Coleridge assumed a splay-legged stance, threw his head sideways and took on the facial appearance of a paralysed toad, his normal recitation pose. He began:

I have come, said the spider crab,
To bring you great news
News that will fill you with joy
For unto us a king is born
A great fat ugly dibbly boy

The spider crab proceeded to leap on the rocks
And do an amusing little dance
And all who saw him were sore amazed
And set fire to each other's pants

I have come, said the spider crab,
Not to abolish, but to complete,
To complete the undertakings of yore
Wackle wackle doodle, piffle goggle blee,
Slampitskin greddle weddle CAW!

Entirely spent, Coleridge spun around and shouted, "Lawks!" before collapsing on top of Brecht's meticulously constructed Lego pirate ship.

The next few hours were spent in hostile silence, Coleridge avoiding Brecht's gimlet gaze and Brecht tattooing Persian swearwords on his penis. The first to speak was Coleridge. He cleared his throat, using a catheter, and addressed his old friend in a high, reedy voice, apparently in an attempt to impersonate Glynis Johns.

"I saw Gerard Manley Hopkins the other day," he said.

"Oh yes," said Brecht. "How is he? Still a hopeless old drunk?"

"He's looking very well. Tanned. He just came back from Pakistan. He's got a girlfriend over there. Met her on the internet."

"Mein gott. How did he manage that?"

"Apparently she's morbidly obese, but very creative in bed."

"How so?"

"She makes cheese sandwiches in there. Got a jaffle maker hooked up to the electric blanket. Hopkins says it's divine. Anyway, they were going to be married, but they were caught having sex and she was stoned to death." Coleridge demonstrated how it would have looked like with a short and amusing mime.

"That's terrible," Brecht put on his "sad" hat, to indicate that he was sad. "How's he taking it?"

"Oh, he said c'est la vie."

"He's philosophical about it?"

"No, he just likes to prove he can speak French. Anyway, that's not what I wanted to tell you. Hopkins took me aside in the tavern and told me in confidence that he recently realised he doesn't actually like dappled things at all."

Brecht nearly leapt out of his seat, and then nearly had a stroke, and very nearly exploded. "WHAT?"

"He said, and I quote, Dappled things, they're rubbish, innit?"

Brecht fanned himself with a nearby otter. "I don't believe it, I just...all these years, he's been living a lie."

"He told me not say anything, he said it might ruin the Welsh economy." Brecht nodded. This was typical. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a talented silversmith, a competent monk, and a wonderful lover, but if he had one weakness, it was his obsession with the Welsh economy. If he had two weaknesses, it was the hideous growths the sides of his head which made him look like an eland. But Brecht tried not to think about that. It reminded him too much of the pain he carried inside him every day. On an impulse, he decided to confide in Coleridge.

"Samuel," he said, haltingly, "I have a great pain inside me, and I think it is something you need to know. Es tut mir leid, but I did something a few Jahren back which I am not particularly proud of."

"Is this the Vin Diesel thing again?" said Coleridge, yawning with barely disguised contempt and a completely disguised midget submarine.

"No, no, it's much worse," said Brecht, crying into his cornflakes.

"Where did you get those cornflakes?" roared Coleridge, his anger as sudden and terrifying as a summer's day or a delicate dandelion, perhaps even more so. Certainly more sudden than a dandelion. It is in fact difficult to imagine in what way a dandelion could be thought of as "sudden".

Brecht shrunk into his seat. "I bought them earlier."

"GIVE THEM TO ME!" screamed Coleridge, in a blind, unstoppable rage, hurling books and pot plants at his hapless Teutonic chum. Brecht cried and cried, shrieking for him to stop, promising him everything, and in the end, as always, it ended in a sweaty, passionate embrace, naked on the floor, exploring each other's bodies with remorseful passion. "I'm sorry," sobbed Coleridge. "Cornflakes, they just..."

"I know," Brecht soothed, stroking his hair. "They set you off." Indeed they did. Coleridge and cornflakes had had an uneasy relationship, ever since at the age of six he had watched his mother run off with Will Kellogg, and his father run off with a bag of pears, only to return shamefaced and admit he did not actually know the way to his car. From that day forth, young Samuel's father had forced him to eat cornflakes three times every day, for the next sixteen years. "We must confront our demons!" Coleridge senior would screech maniacally, shovelling more crunchy golden leaves of doom into his son's bowl. "Strength through indomitability! Here, have some milk!" he would hiss, throwing carton after carton at the boy's head. Poetry was Samuel's way of dealing with the nightmarish reality of his childhood. At that stage, he didn't actually write poetry, but he had sneaked a copy of the collected works of Emily Dickinson from the school storage cupboard, and every night, he would take the precious volume from his bedside table and lie beneath the covers, thrilling at the strange new emotions which awoke in him when he rubbed the book vigorously between his thighs. Coleridge often described those times as the happiest of his life, although when pressed further he would crumble and admit that in fact they were unspeakably awful and he wanted to kill himself whenever he thought of them. Eventually, his mother had returned, full of exciting stories about high society in Vienna, flaunting her newly acquired oboe-playing ability and kicking Samuel in the stomach at regular intervals. His father degenerated further and further into madness, until ten years ago he had planted himself in the backyard and begun to produce figs from his armpits.

"Anyway," said the undercover poet, covering his nakedness with his trenchcoat, the warm afterglow making him strangely shy, "what was it you wanted to tell me?"

"Oh yes..." Brecht hesitated. Did he really dare? He thought back to his days in the hospital in Munich. Proper equipment had been in short supply. He hadn't flinched at the thought of using a harpoon to remove a patient's spleen, even when it was completely medically unnecessary. He could not flinch now. He took a deep breath and inhaled a bee.

Five hours later, in his hospital bed, Brecht looked up at the swarthy Adonis holding his hand, smiling and reciting a new epic poem about parsnips, and realised how lucky he was to have found a true friend. Across the ward, some head trauma patients were performing an impromptu rendition of The Threepenny Opera. Bertolt smiled indulgently. Let them have their fun. After all, who's to say Mack The Knife wouldn't be better with several verses concerning a mischievous juggling rabbit? Not he, that's for sure. "Nicht mich," he murmured sleepily. "Nicht mich."

And now, the secret didn't seem so terrible and daunting after all. "Sam," he said, trying to focus on Coleridge, the task made difficult by the poet's insistence on running back and forth past the bed at high speed, squeaking loudly. "Sam, I'm ready to tell you what's been bothering me for so long..." he coughed, for no reason. "You...you remember New year's Eve 1946?"

"How could I forget?" grinned Coleridge, swigging from his Gatorade bottle.

"Yes, well...after the party was over, you'd fallen asleep on the couch."

"Ha ha ha," said Coleridge in an oddly unconvincing manner. "I was so drunk. Whatever possessed me to liquefy those Jessie Matthews records?"

"Yes, well...while you were asleep, I sort of...."

"Yes?" Coleridge was nude with anticipation.

"I set you up on your hands and knees, dressed you as a Dalmatian and took photos of you with Kurt Weill's testicles in your mouth."

Coleridge gazed levelly at Brecht. "I see."

"Then Kurt played the piano and we wrote a song together called Samuel Taylor Coleridge The Big Flabby Girlie Man, Let's All Shove Things Up Him'" Brecht looked carefully at his friend. "It went to number one in Japan, it made us both millionaires. Every night I call him up and we laugh at how much fun it was to humiliate you because you're so stupid and we hate you so much. We did that last night for hours. I hope you're not angry about this."

In many ways, this marked the beginning of the deterioration of their friendship.


Anonymous said...

Lovely work, very Beckett-like.

No actually, more "Rosencrantz and guildenstern are dead"

BTW, am I right in assuming the "sad hat" was a reference to to Brecht's Epic theatre?

Brilliant if it was.

Doug Quixote said...

Dummkopf or wunderkind? That is the question.

BartyLobethal said...

More than a touch of The Goons in there I think.