A Book by a Man Who Didn’t Belong

August 7, 2011 § 2 Comments


The Jewish Wife and Other Short Plays (Brecht, Bertolt)

“What is a man actually?
Do I know what a man is?
God knows what a man is!
I don’t know what a man is –
I only know his price.”
(From the Song of Supply and Demand, sung by The Trader in Brecht‘s The Measures Taken)

The only Brecht play I’d read before this was Life of Galileo, which was engrossing without being overtly political, though one of its themes does concern the courage of a man’s convictions under relentless attack. In one of life’s twisted ironies, Brecht himself was subjected to cross-examination by the House Un-American Activities Committee, where, under severe pressure, a nervous Brecht testified that he was not affiliated to the Communist Party, just as the protagonist of his play had recanted his belief in the Copernican system in the face of papal examination. Brecht’s harrassment at the hands of Robert Stripling and his unpleasant cronies wasn’t a new experience for him – he had Nazis snapping at his heels in Germany before that. It was to avoid them that he fled, first to the Nordics and then to America; but after the brief but thorough working-over by the HUAC, he fled right back to Austria where he remained a controversial figure for the rest of his life, reviled for his views by large sections of both the communist left and the capitalist right.

Revolutionary Ambiguity: Scene from a 1996 performance of Brecht's "Measures Taken" (Courtesy Thomson River University website)

The six plays (I am not counting the Salzburg Dance of Death, which is little more than some preliminary sketches) in this selection are representative of Brecht’s life. The first three are extremely short slice-of-life vignettes based in Nazi Germany. I believe Brecht was much influenced by the expressionist movement in inter-war Germany, that believed that the primary purpose of art is to convey emotion: Brecht’s single-scene plays convey the racist horrors of Nazi Germany far better than a history textbook could. To see them performed on stage must therefore be a doubly powerful experience even today, and I look forward to the opportunity of seeing one – is Brecht performed at all these days?

The fourth play (The Elephant Calf) is a surreal farce that I’m not sure I understood too well – but I take heart from the following speech by one of the characters, right at the beginning of the play:

“Whoever can’t immediately understand the plot needn’t fret, it is incomprehensible. If all you want to see is something that makes sense, go to the urinal.”

Well, that clears that up, I suppose.

It is in the last two plays in the selection that Brecht’s leftist leanings come out in full force. “The Exception and the Rule” is based in China, and Brecht fittingly copies the elaborate symbolism of a Chinese play (where, I am informed by Roland Barthes in his Mythologies, a single flag can represent an entire regiment) and reduces class conflict to its fundamental algebra: a Coolie and his Master in an empty desert. Of course the Master kills the Coolie and is acquitted by the court for having done the logical thing, and the acid mix of comic irony and devastating tragedy reminded me of Jaroslav Hasek. Small wonder, then, that it was Brecht who wrote the sequel, Schweik in the Second World War, to the Great War adventures of Hasek’s Good Soldier.

Even more similar than Hasek was Safdar Hashmi, the Indian theater artist who took theater to the streets of India, and whose plays poured scathing scorn on the privileged and corrupt political elite of 1980’s India – so close, in fact, that I feel Brecht was probably an influence. There is one difference, of course: Hashmi was a card carrying Communist activist, and chose not to keep that secret, and so they struck him down and killed him mid-performance one day.

The sixth play, The Measures Taken, is easily the most complex and politically nuanced play of the lot. In it, a young communist burns with Fanon-like anger against injustice and oppression, and is constantly stopped from taking impulsive action against the oppressors by the seasoned Party agitators, who remind him that the Party had “no bread for the hungry, but only knowledge for the ignorant.” The agitators eventually kill their impetuous comrade, with his active consent, because it was the only way to not jeopardize their larger mission – the seizure of power.

In other words, the Capitalists hold all the power and exploit the poor, the Communist party would rather acquire power themselves than help the poor, and the real heroes are those who try to help the poor but end up shot dead and buried in a lime pit – at least, that is what I understand of Brecht’s message.

This less than romantic portrayal of the Communist Party, so reminiscent of John Steinbeck‘s seering In Dubious Battle that tormented my teenaged mind many years ago, naturally earned Brecht the opprobrium of the Party – the play was banned in the Soviet Union. Alfred Kurella, spokesman for the East German communist establishment, dismisses the author contemptuously as embodying a “way of thinking which is characteristic of the radical petty-bourgeois whom the chances of life have turned from the bourgeois camp into that of the proletariat.” Needless to say, it didn’t earn him too many fans on the other side of the fence either – the F.B.I report on the play described the play as promoting “Communist World Revolution by violent means“. (Both criticisms are probably valid, but the play is still superb)

Born a German Christian but oppressed by the Nazis for supporting Jews, an eager immigrant to the United States but persecuted by the Americans for supporting Communists (and criticized by other Americans for not supporting them enough), a Marxist and champion of the poor but rejected by Communists as being too bourgeois: it is possible that Brecht simply did not belong to any group at all. This thought makes a reading of his plays even more poignant, because a rich humanity, a keen sense of right and wrong, of empathy and passion and kindness, flows through every line he writes. Brecht belonged firmly on the side of the underdog, the weak, the put upon, the victims of power and cruelty. And whether he was a Communist or not may still be open for debate, but he was certainly a revolutionary writer – revolutionary in both form and content. As a necessary corollary, Brecht belongs to world literature – of this, at least, there can be no doubt.

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