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Friday, September 10, 2010

BERTOLT BRECHT

... from my Ms The ABC of Neo-feudalism

BRECHT, Bertolt


Only few writers/playwrights have used feudalist backgrounds for their stories/plays but none more strikingly than Brecht. His depiction of characters - be it the Good Woman of Setzuan or Mother Courage - span the transition of feudalism to capitalism as defined by Karl Marx (The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847, chapter 2):

    The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.

The peasant character as eulogized in the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions has never been understood in the Western contexts until Brecht brought them to life. Prior to Brecht even sympathetic depictions of peasants were far from simple heroics: the German writer and playwright Heinrich von Kleist (1777 - 1811) established a most ambiguous scenario with his Michael Kohlhaas as a character who leads a peasant revolt only to be defeated by his uncompromising quest for a minor piece of justice. As compulsory reading for generations of German schoolboys (and girls) it gave rise to the belief that peasants - German peasants at least - deserved a measure of social justice but that they should not be too ambitious in their quest and go as afar as wanting to overthrow the feudal system that sustained them. Brecht’s hero, Georg Büchner (1813 -1837) was perhaps the first to make a working class peasant, Woyzeck, the true hero of a play but there were still some suggestions that the protagonist had some shortcomings. As with Kohlhaas there was the uneasy question whether or not it is right to kill your oppressors (a theme that remains popular till today). Brecht’s peasants are good and intelligent people who never harm anyone even if their quest is opposed by murderous lords and ladies. The peasant as the true salt of this earth finds his voice only in Brecht’s plays.

It may not be a coincidence that Brecht selected far-eastern locales for his transitional peasant characters - e.g. Shen Te’s China for the Good Woman of Setzuan - for it happened only in China that anything approaching a real peasant revolution happened. While in previous revolutions elsewhere there was always much rhetoric about peasants, serfs and slaves being freed, it was basically the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie with more than a little help from disaffected upper classes - often in the shape of intellectuals - who usurped power.

Mao Tsetung in his 1927 Investigation of Peasant Movement in Hunan says that ‘a rural revolution is a revolution by which the peasantry overthrows the power of the feudal landlord class’ and he predicts:

   In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane … they will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation.

Mao Tsetung had sufficient foresight to align his Chinese Communist Party with these peasant movements and thus be swept to power ahead of them. When subsequently the drive to extract the peasantry from poverty and ignorance came to a standstill, Mao Tsetung’s leadership made the dreadful mistake to try to reduce the rest of the population to the status of the peasantry - via the ill-fated cultural revolution - thus violating the basic tenet of all revolutionary movements, namely to bring about a society that does not tolerate poverty and social injustice and where all citizens can enjoy a reasonable standard of living. To punish the upper classes by making them join the peasantry - as tried with disastrous consequences by the Pol Pot leadership in Cambodia - is a retrograde step that in no way helps the peasantry to escape the cruel bonds of a feudal system. If by analogy we would suggest that in order to eradicate disease we first make everyone sick, we would be clearly labeled insane.

China’s answer was of course - post-Mao Tsetung - to restore the old order and march towards pseudo-capitalist industrialization in the hope that the peasantry will transform into industrious and industrial working class heroes. As such China has caught up with the capitalist West but left to wonder if the change from being a peasant to being an industrial worker has brought any real social and economic advancement for the protagonists in question.

When Brecht - as many other writers/playwrights - tackles the capitalist and/or the communist working classes, he shifts his locales increasingly to the English-speaking bastions, the USA and England - and more specifically to Chicago and London - where the culture of gangsters best illustrates the booms and busts of modern capitalism. Brecht’s Three Penny Opera with its immortal lyrics of

                                       Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne

                                       Und die trägt er im Gesicht

                                       Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer

                                       Doch das Messer sieht man nicht.

epitomizes the capitalist system, its predatory base, its dog eats dog mentality and its hyper-competitive struggle to succeed at every level. We are all caught up, like it or not, beggar, tinker, candlestick maker, rich and poor, movers and shakers, pimps and prostitutes, prime ministers, queens and kings, presidents and circus acrobats - a Shakespearean theatre of the absurd, all idiot players on a global stage. Brecht who is embroiled in a triad of communism (Soviet-style), capitalism (American-style) and fascism (German-style) ultimately takes the most surprising step of all when fascism is defeated: he returns to communist-ruled East Berlin and stages his plays in the Berliner Ensemble.

In 1968, as a senior Gymnasialschüler in Bavarian Hohenschwangau, I took part in a school trip to West-Berlin, including a visit to East-Berlin to see a Brecht play at the Berliner Ensemble, namely Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui. The play is terribly famous in itself - at least for anti-fascist literati - but the personal experience of seeing it during the cold war was totally unique. In the first instance there was something very odd - if not schizophrenic - about the proposition that we, freedom loving Westerners, set foot in the evil empire to witness a great piece of art. As we were ushered through a maze of corridors penetrating the Wall, looked upon by East German border control with guns at ready, we entered a grim looking cityscape on the way to the Berliner Ensemble. No wonder, we thought silently, they all want to escape to the bright lights of the glorious West. Maybe Brecht - when still alive - and his entourage were held hostage, ever ready to set up shop in the West, on Broadway perhaps or on the East End - Munich even - where they could stun the free world with their anti-feudal plays, and make vast amounts of money in due course. Else you’d have to be pretty stupid not wanting to make heaps of money the easy way - or so we thought.

When the play opened - Arturo Ui - a dressed up Adolf Hitler delivered the prologue. We as West German students had never learnt anything about Hitler, the Nazis and WWII. Our teachers, especially the older ones, had lived through these times and yet they all acted as if these events had taken place on a different planet - and certainly without their knowledge. Our school’s director had been interred in India where he met Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer who had escaped internment and fled to Tibet (his subsequent book Seven Years in Tibet was infamously made into a film with Brad Pitt). Harrer - as a celebrity - came to our school a few times and delivered speeches about how great it is to believe in high mountains and feudal lords in the shape of the Dalai Lama. Only in our last year at school did some of us find out that Harrer was an avid Nazi - and we suspected that our director and most of our teachers were too (the exception being the teachers that took us to the Berliner Ensemble). In our senior history class we had asked our teacher to let us do a project on the Holocaust - he refused. We clandestinely sent a letter to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and in return they sent us documentation that included the most horrific photographs from the concentration camps. We showed them to our history teacher who looked the other way and reported us to the director of the school who in turn warned us against ‘unlawful’ actions and threatened us with suspension.

It was thus quite a revelation to learn that an anti-fascist play like Arturo Ui was common fare in East Germany - and indeed was a hit around the same time in London with Leonard Rossiter - while in our Bavarian hinterland we were left blissfully ignorant of our German past. Those few of us who had vaguely participated in the political and cultural awakening of 1968 - we wore our hair long and began to experiment with drugs and read about anti-Vietnam War demonstrations - were just about ready to side with Brecht and refuse to return to the West. Still, there were a few aspects of the play we hadn’t figured out. If Arturo Ui as a Chicago gangster represented both Hitler and Al Capone, how come American and English audiences didn’t see such a connection as being highly alarming? Was fascism well and alive in the USA, England and most certainly in Bavaria and only opposed by Brechtian enthusiasts? If US gangsters represent an unadulterated but unlicensed mix of capitalism and fascism, can we deduce that the licensed system still reeks of fascism? Isn’t that what Brecht is warning us against?

Some 40 years later - and having read and seen a few more Brecht plays - I still haven’t found all the answers to these questions, except to say, were Brecht alive today, wouldn’t he be amazed by the slide back - or forwards - into neo-feudalism? Perhaps in the absence of any meaningful revolutions there is only this one pendulum of history that swings back and forth between the extremes of feudalism and capitalism?

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