Monday, 28 September 2015
On the Virtue and Power of Brecht's Die Maßnahme (1930-1)
Bertolt Brecht’s 1930-1 work ‘Die Maßnahme’ is best described in his own terms – as a Lehrstück. It is not a play about real people. It is not a play which crystallises an essential attribute of individual human experience. It is not a play about our eternal hopes and fears, as so many other plays are. It is a play explicitly concerned with men as the tools of politics, explicitly concerned with dogma and interpretations of that dogma, and most especially, it is explicitly concerned with utilitarianism and the question of individual freedom versus the needs of the collective.
‘Die Maßnahme’ was highly controversial when first performed. While this is mostly because of the political content, it is surely worth examining some of Brecht’s more radical theatrical ideas. He is most famous in the modern world for the Verfremdungseffekt he espoused, the “defamiliarization effect” which strips us of the assurance of a play’s solid reality. By drawing our attention to the fundamentally artificial nature of his works, Brecht was hoping to show his audiences that reality could be altered and ‘written’, just as the fictional reality of the stage could be; the goal of theatre was less entertainment as much as indoctrination.
This unique ‘defamiliarization’ or ‘alienation’ Brecht aimed to convey comes across in the play’s central conceit. Four political activists working for the Communist party in Moscow come before a Kontrollchor – in itself, a bizarre concept. Representing the Communist leadership as a curiously driven yet dispassionate mass of swelling voices, which question the activists in straightforward, ominous language, and occasionally sing hymnals to the USSR or the workers, is at first a decision which seems to wreck Brecht’s portrayal of the historical period. But he is of course far less concerned with the actuality of the period in which the play is set and far more concerned with powerfully showing the ‘collective instinct’, the ability of human beings to merge in a crowd (or, in this case, a choir) and express strong emotion as one.
Similarly, the vehicle through which Brecht relates his tale – in that the four activists ‘enact’ what has occurred for the Kontrollchor’s edification – is another theatrical innovation. There is a striking simplicity in the freedom with which the Chor orders Stellt dar, wie es geschah und warum. Brecht makes no sweeping statements, and it is little commented on; it is within the play’s world entirely normal that they should be asked to re-enact what has happened. The verb darstellen seems important in the marriage of Brecht’s beliefs about theatre but also about reality and politics. Everything is primarily ‘representation’ of one kind or another; and everything is composed for the stage, perhaps never more so than in politics, that art of deception where convincing people of your own convictions is crucial.
As mentioned above, this is not a play about real people, but crucially it almost concerns itself with this anonymity. Much like Kaiser’s ‘Von morgens bis mitternachts’, everyone is anonymous. Not only does this allow Brecht to disseminate the message of his play without getting bogged down in individualism and detailed characterisation, but it also means he can effectively represent the feudalist Chinese state. Throughout the play we perceive evidence of humans treated as commodities, or as worse than animals – the hard-driven workers who earn eine Handvoll Münzen or less are told ein Ochse wäre teurer. Similarly, words like Fressen have strongly animalistic connotations. This is a country where a merchant can say wenn die Kulis billiger sind als der Reis: people’s lives are truly cheap and meaningless. The Song von der Ware seems to criticise the very kind of society Kaiser feared was developing in 1912 – particularly in lines such as ich weiß nicht, was ein Reiß ist/ich kenne nur seinen Preis, repeated again for Mensch. Everything has a monetary value in the feudalist society in which the activists find themselves.
This sense of anonymity under repression is of course equally, if not more, present in a communist society and ideology. Under such a government, people stop being creative, argumentative, and valuable; they become shapeless, nameless statistical commodities: in one of the play’s more poetic phrases, they are leere Blätter, auf welche die Revolution ihre Anweisung schreibt. They are as expendable, changeable clay or putty in the hands of the all-serving, all-consuming party purpose.
That this politics is inextricably linked with anonymity is unavoidable. In scene 2, Die Auslöschung, the Lob der Illegalen Arbeit expresses it well: reden, aber zu verbergen den Redner. Talking is good, talking points and discussion about the revolution are to be encouraged; but only if they are for the revolution, otherwise the speakers must be removed; and the individuality of the speakers and their individual points must never be known. Human beings are a Collective Mass, rather than a Mass of Individuals. This perhaps reaches its fever pitch in Lob der Partei, an almost hymnal ode which expresses powerfully the weakness of an individual person in comparison with the collective strength that is the Communist Party. In rousing free verse, the Kontrollchor states Die Partei sieht sieben Staaten/der einzelne sieht eine Stadt. The finest expression of self-negation in poetic form occurs here, too, where it is also stated der einzelne kann vernichtet werden/aber die Partei kann nicht vernichtet warden. (The animalism is not limited to the nationalist Chinese, either, since, in justifying their desire to help their co-combatant, the activists state wie das Tier dem Tiere hilft, wünschten auch wir uns, ihm zu helfen, der mit uns gekämpft für unsere Sache – as though it is animals which lead by example and have had the civilizing influence on humans, and not the other way around).
However, it is not particularly clear that Brecht is seeking to criticise this representation of communism. About ‘Die Maßnahme’, he writes, “I admit that the basis of my plays is Marxist and state that plays, especially with an historical content, cannot be written intelligently in any other framework”. The play is certainly imbued with many of the tenets of socialism, and does not appear to be a critique of a socialist ideology – rather, it appears to be a challenge to the audience to take on the message of this Lehrstück. He was criticised at the time for defending the OGPU and even for condoning the purges that would occur later in the 30s (although he was always vociferous in his attacks on the worst excesses of Stalinism and would refuse to allow ‘Die Maßnahme’ to be performed again in his lifetime).
Many of Brecht’s concerns here in the play revolve around this core issue already touched on, that individual freedoms must be sacrificed to alleviate the misery of the many. The title is an important side note here – sometimes translated as ‘The Measure’, Brecht preferred the more urgent-sounding ‘Steps to be Taken’. The point about the choice, or one could say the dilemma, with which the activists are faced, is it requires them to take certain steps to ensure the survival of their noble mission. The Communist party’s orders are to be upheld whatever cost, whatever steps are taken, even to the extent of killing their comrade. The play suggests that this is entirely reasonable.
The play is suffused with an idealistic view of Leninism. Actions are taken in the name of die Bewegung, the revolutionaries throw around words such as Revolution, Freiheit, Menschheit with apparent earnestness. In the zeal to overthrow the class system, the activists claim wir merzten das Elend nicht aus, sondern sprachen von der Ausmerzung des Urgrunds. There is a real rage in the very Marxist quote das Essen von unten kommt zu den Essern oben – that dichotomy of ‘unten’ and ‘oben’ is typical of such revolutionary rhetoric. Similarly, we often hear discussion of Unterdrücker and Unterdrückten and the activists repeat their tasks several times, as if by rote, as if they contain some religious or sacred import. One of the areas which Brecht seems to champion most is the importance of ideas as opposed to military might – certainly the activists bring only propaganda rather than material goods to aid the Chinese, and the dangerousness with which their leaflets are viewed by the Chinese state police (dieses kleine Flugblatt ist gefährlicher als zehn Kanonen) is an effective way of conveying how important an idea is, how difficult to kill once it has set root.
Brecht comes down hard on the oppressors, the capitalists and the merchants, and sets himself firmly behind the Arbeiter, the oppressed and the downtrodden. The non-naturalistic, physical theatre used in the flogging scene, where the workers sing and chant as they are whipped, is emotive and powerful. There is a real tenderness in the line wir sind dazwischen – as they are constantly extolling how fortunate their ancestors were and how great their descendants will be, but they are the awkward break in the generations, the caesura. The future and past are always greater than the present. It is not only the Kontrollchor but also Brecht who wants us to hear the words ändere die Welt, sie braucht es!
Ihre Leiden sind ungeheurlich, urges der junge Genosse. There is a real compassion, expressed in that wonderful German word Mitgefühl, in his urgent demands that the group take action to free the workers. One of the play’s most poetic moments comes with the lines das Unglück wächst nicht wie auf der Brust der Aussatz; die Armut fällt nicht von den Dächern wie der Dachziegel; sondern Unglück und Armut sind Menschenwerk. Here Brecht expresses through the arguments of the brave young comrade a certain solidarity with the suffering, the miserable of the world; they have been exploited and this exploitation must be challenged. Another crucial moment occurs moments later when the same comrade renounces the classical tenets of their ideology, of Lenin and so on, arguing denn der Mensch, der lebendige, brüllt, und sein Elend zerreißt alle Dämme der Lehre – there may be a classical ‘communist’ ideology, he contests, but it is doing nothing to aid the suffering of these workers. He even goes so far as to ask the challenging, controversial question wer aber ist die Partei? He is defiant and proud of his defiance – ich kann nicht schweigen, weil ich recht habe. The words Brecht uses to describe his face at this, the play’s turning point, are particularly intriguing. Nackt – naked – is used positively, to display how bare he is being, how un-deceitful in a world almost entirely concerned with deceit. Similarly, he is offen und arglos – open and guileless. Finally, there is the opportunity of an end to the lies, the propaganda, and the ideology.
And yet Brecht does not ultimately sympathise with the young comrade, for the simple reason that his idealism – correct though it may be, justifiable though it may be – endangers the entire existence of the mission. The beating moral core of this play is hard to detect, but it seems at times as though Brecht favours the collective purpose for its sense of scale and vision of the future over the driving social justice of the individual revolutionary. The utilitarian nature of the play’s final dilemma, in which the four activists are forced by necessity to shoot their young comrade (the man who has aided them and guided them and been a key part of their cause in China), as expressed in the statement nicht ihr sprach ihm sein Urteil, sondern die Wirklichkeit, is shocking. Reality doomed this young man. Such is the materialist, Marxist view; he had to die for the greater good. His stoicism in the face of death is in fact a surrender of his burning desire to change the world, resorting instead to a limp repetition of the onward march and the revolutionising of the world.
Brecht did not support the purges and excesses of Stalinism; rather, he wanted to show his audiences that the world could be changed if people had a common goal. Whether we can believe this in the 21st century context is a difficult question to answer. But ‘Die Maßnahme’ remains a shrewd and penetrative look at the dilemma between individual freedoms and the desire to alleviate the misery of the many. Perhaps one of the most acute expressions of this comes in the second scene, in which the Kontrollchor conveys the two-faced duality of the ideology: a person who fights for communism must die Wahrheit sagen und die Wahrheit nicht sagen; Dienste erweisen und Dienste verweigern; Versprechen halten und Versprechen nicht halten. Sich in Gefahr begeben und die Gefahr vermeiden; kenntlich sein und unkenntlich sein. This is a profound recognition of the practicality Brecht is trying to convey, that one must feel able to change one’s ideals to meet a situation, that when faced with the impossibility of putting the classics into practice, one must accept this, that when faced with starving workers, one must not help them if this puts the mission at risk; or as he puts it in the play’s final pragmatic moments nur belehrt von der Wirklichkeit können wir die Wirklichkeit ändern. What Brecht believes is hard to determine. But his Lehrstück seems to conclude that fighting for communism – in the name of the ideology, in the name of the mission that one has set – is the highest of all virtues, at the expense and cost of everything else, life, happiness, self-fulfilment; and although this may seem abhorrent to us, although this may seem antiquated, the play is nothing if not a powerful call to self-negation, and worth studying as such.