Bertolt Brecht, Parables for the Theater

Parables for the Theatre: Two Plays: The Good Woman of Setzuan / The Caucasian Chalk CircleParables for the Theatre by Bertolt Brecht

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bertolt Brecht derived his “epic theater,” one of the 20th century’s signal dramatic innovations, from a short and schematic essay by Goethe and Schiller distinguishing epic and tragic poetry. They write:

The essential difference consists in this, that an epic poet narrates an event as completely past, while the dramatist presents it as completely present. […] The epic poem represents more especially action restricted to individuals; tragedy, suffering restricted to individuals. The epic poem represents man as an external agent, engaged in battles, journeys, in fact in every possible kind of undertaking, and so demands a certain elaborateness of treatment. Tragedy, on the other hand, represents man as an internal agent, and the action, therefore, requires but little space in a genuine tragedy. (Trans. F. W. J. Hauser, Eighteenth Century German Criticism)

The epic playwright, then, strips the present-tense immediacy of performance from the drama and replaces it with the storyteller’s calm recitation. Several stage techniques serve this aim: the literal presence of a third-person storyteller; the projection of scene summaries above the stage to distance the action by blunting suspense; the use of signs and placards to label figures or enunciate messages; a preference for fable-like stories and distant settings that lend themselves to allegory; and a non-naturalistic acting style meant to encapsulate characters’ social roles rather than their psychologies. Epic theater encourages the audience not to become absorbed in an ongoing spectacle but to contemplate intellectually a completed event.

Brecht targets Aristotle’s Poetics with this new theory of drama. For Aristotle, tragic drama used mimesis to invite audience identification with and fear for a protagonist about to be undone by his own inner flaw, this to drain the excess feelings of pity and terror from the polis. Implicitly countermanding the censorious Platonic argument that poetry spreads disordered and immoderate affect through the populace, Aristotle proposes tragedy as a cloacal channel through which such inevitable emotional waste products may be expelled. The Marxist Brecht sides with Plato, and like the Plato of the noble lie or the myth of Er, wished to create what Eric Bentley, his foremost critical celebrant, labeled Parables for the Theater to educate the laity on behalf of a philosophical utopia. Insofar as this (communist) utopia was not yet everywhere accomplished, however, Brecht intended to incite its creation by encouraging the audience to revolt against the (capitalist) conditions dramatized in his parables. One play ends with this epilogue:

You’re thinking, aren’t you, that this is no right
Conclusion to the play you’ve seen tonight?
After a tale, exotic, fabulous,
A nasty ending was slipped up on us.
We feel deflated too. We too are nettled
To see the curtain down and nothing settled.
How could a better ending be arranged?
Could one change people? Can the world be changed?
Would new gods do the trick? Will atheism?
Moral rearmament? Materialism?
It is for you to find a way, my friends,
To help good men arrive at happy ends.
You write the happy ending to the play!
There must, there must, there’s got to be a way!

To the question, “What is living and what is dead in Brecht?” I am tempted to answer that it’s all dead. The political project for which he mobilized his artistry survives in zombie form as the rhetoric of contemporary capitalism’s vanguard—corporate Stalinism: the techno-bureaucratic management of an exsanguinated former middle class—but this tendency’s preferred dramatic and narrative technique is simple-minded moral didacticism on the model of YA fiction. Brecht’s celebrated alienation effects, his deliberate creation of a cool and almost cynical mood in the theater, with its audience thoughtfully puffing cigarettes over the onstage action, might be bracing against this puerility. But really its brutalist vanguardism is just sentimentality’s other side: laughing so you don’t cry, but never gathering yourself into a complete and integrated emotional response.

The result is that culture is split between mindless mawkish cant for the hoi polloi and self-congratulating psychic mortification for the intellectual elite—precisely what the Platonic account of political reality would lead us to expect. By contrast, Aristotle, as the philosopher of the nascent middle class, extrudes from Sophocles the integral artwork of the future, in which thought and feeling are at one, indivisible, the model of a critically alert but unified polity with its heart as well-educated as its mind. None of which can prepare us for the crowning irony that the scientist Aristotle, mostly too dry a writer for poets to endure at all, left us just a bare and incomplete treatise on the topic, while Plato invented in his dialogues and in his tragedy of Socrates the true drama and novel of ideas.

I raise this irony only because it rescues Brecht in the end. As I read through three of Brecht’s plays this week—Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), The Good Woman of Setzuan (1941), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944), all in Eric Bentley’s translations—I both reveled in their inventiveness and suffered from their didacticism. And not only the open didacticism like that of the hortatory and even demagogic epilogue quoted above, but an implicit and often tiresomely insistent pedagogy often subtly at odds with the “official” Marxist optimism elsewhere promoted. This sub rosa message tells us of the essential meanness, selfishness, and spitefulness of social life as such. Granted, as a Marxist, Brecht means to portray these dire traits as inherent to capitalism, but then why set his plays in pre- and non-capitalist settings like a Chinese province, a Caucasian kingdom, or Europe during the Thirty Years War, if not to imply that their vision of humanity should be taken as timeless and universal? To an exhausting extent, these often overlong plays—shouldn’t fables be short?—dramatize attempted swindles and quarrels about loans and credit and interest, as if to suggest that this is all anybody thinks about, with the occasional interlude for a casual seduction or even rape.

In The Good Woman of Setzuan, three bumbling-bureaucrat gods come to earth in search of a good person. When an amiably cynical water-seller leads them to one in the titular person of Shen-Te, a kind-hearted but impoverished prostitute, the gods write her a check that will allow her to escape her circumstances. But no sooner has she set herself up in business does she find herself beset by spongers and hangers-on and cheaters of all sorts, until she has to don the mask of an imperious male cousin to deal with the selfish rabble. At the end of the play, confessing her masquerade to the gods, she charges them with making goodness impossible:

Your injunction
To be good and yet to live
Was a thunderbolt:
It has torn me in two
I can’t tell how it was
But to be good to others
And myself at the same time
I could not do it
Your world is not an easy one, illustrious ones!
When we extend our hand to a beggar, he tears it off for us
When we help the lost, we are lost ourselves
And so
Since not to eat is to die
Who can long refuse to be bad?

It is in conclusion to this play that Brecht appended the already quoted epilogue insisting that “[t]here must, there must, there’s got to be a way” out of this dilemma. But if the dilemma pre-exists modern capitalism per se, just as poverty and prostitution do—the simple commerce of the drama’s Chinese province has little in common with 20th-century economics—then the solution can only be a concept as metaphysical and finally unrepresentable as the Platonic forms. Our salvation is suspended in notional space over the event horizon of The Revolution, an unrepresentable happening both in and outside of history, after which human nature will no longer be what it immemorially has been. This is a question of first principles, so some will inevitably disagree with me, but I judge this an unpromising religion for a dramatist, whom no mere theory or dogma can absolve of the duty to animate the present in all its fractious complexity rather than immolating the past on the altar of a future that will never arrive.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a fable about a prince rescued from a palace coup by a poor servant girl, casts itself as a tale told by a storyteller to partisans after liberating a Caucasian village from the Nazis and trying to divvy up the land for modernization. The teller of tales remarks,

We hope you will find that the voice of the old poet also sounds well in the shadow of Soviet tractors. It may be a mistake to mix different wines, but old and new wisdom mix admirably.

The story’s moral proves to be that a child or a valley belongs to those who love it and will care for it, not merely to its biological parents or ancestral tenants. But, as Adorno complained of Brecht in his essay “Commitment,” this shortcut from old wisdom to new conditions evades the real difficulty presented by the latter. In a world run through technology by bureaucracy, Adorno asks, what can peasant wisdom really offer us, and isn’t the bourgeois Brecht’s donning of this earthy garb finally offensive?

But Brecht needed the old lawless days as an image of his own, precisely because he saw clearly that the society of his own age could no longer be directly comprehended in terms of people and things. His attempt to reconstruct the reality of society thus led first to a false social model and then to a dramatic implausibility. Bad politics becomes bad art, and vice-versa. […] Brecht affected the diction of the oppressed. But the doctrine he advocated needs the language of the intellectual. The homeliness and simplicity of his tone is thus a fiction. It betrays itself both by signs of exaggeration and by stylized regression to archaic or provincial forms of expression. It can often be importunate, and ears which have not let themselves be deprived of their native sensitivity cannot help hearing that they are being talked into something. It is a usurpation and almost a contempt for victims to speak like this, as if the author were one of them. (Trans. Francis McDonagh, Aesthetics and Politics)

For Adorno, Beckett, not Brecht, is the true dramatist of our catastrophic modernity, the one who reveals to us the unfreedom of our totally administered society, which has reduced the human being to an immobile set of codes and tics on a morally denuded stage. In comparison to the mordant and incisive Beckett, Brecht appears to be only a rather thuggish sentimentalist.

From within his own dialectical paradigm, for whose rigor and integrity I have always been lost in admiration, Adorno is absolutely right. But I, as I think I have told you, am American and petit bourgeois, and I can’t therefore breathe that thin atmosphere for very long. In the end, then, only Aristotle will be able to save Brecht for readers and viewers like me, who never agreed in the first place that we weren’t permitted to feel a tender emotion in the vicinity of a story until after The Revolution. Mother Courage and Her Children—the tale of a trader who wants to make a profit from the Thirty Years War until it destroys all three of her children—proves to be the tragedy we were waiting for.

Mother Courage is a real heroine, not a pasteboard allegorical figure. Her cynicism and her indomitability are so twisted around each other that the mean flaw for which she loses her world can’t be pried apart from the magnificent will that allows her to survive it. When she says, “Sometimes I see myself driving through hell with this wagon and selling brimstone,” we leave the social and historical world and find ourselves in the existential dimension of Lear or Endgame. Whatever’s wrong with the world that inspires people to slaughter each other for a third of a century isn’t going to be fixed by anything we might call politics. And when a chaplain says the following to Mother Courage, he might be trying to seduce her, but I almost hear a metacommentary on Brecht’s own poetics, if not a self-reproach:

Mother Courage, I have often thought that—under a veil of blunt speech—you conceal a heart. You are human, you need warmth.

And then there is this heartless play’s heart, Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin, who runs back and forth across the stage making animal noises when she wants to warn the characters they’re in danger, as if she were the silent witness and mute bearer of the apolitical outcry against pain and injustice that the cool Brecht cannot bring himself to utter, the scream that we hear over and over again in Greek tragedy—Aieeeeeeeeeeeee!—smothered at the heart of epic theater.

“If only I ever knew what went on inside her head,” Mother Courage says of Kattrin. Later, she adds, “The other day we found her with a hedgehog we’d run over.” In the end, the girl sacrifices herself to save a village of strangers. Mother Courage, kneeling over her corpse, tells herself that Kattrin is only sleeping. All that Brecht had forbidden himself in the name of his steely revolutionary theorems—personal morality, the ineffable otherness of the inner life, a theater of present and palpable feeling—floods back onto the stage and reveals itself always to have been the fluid pre- and apolitical matrix of any political art worth attending, any political change worth making: a tragedy worth all the parables in the world.