Brecht’s Tragic Measures (1)

Once Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) began in 1927 to develop a systematic interest in Marxist thought, he turned against what he considered the tragic legacy of Western theater as configured in Naturalist drama.  Humanity cannot change natural laws and is doomed to conform to them: This false necessity was invoked by the Naturalists to generate Aristotelian pity for human fate, he argued. The tragic and the religious collaborated to produce mythologies that control the imagination.  In his comments on Karl Korsch (Tom Kuhn & Steve Giles, eds.:  Brecht on Art and Politics, 2003, 109-11), Brecht urged that revolutionaries must wrest the mythological hold on reality, showing that the tragic and the religious are historical phenomena whose necessity is escapable.  “Brecht asserts that the audience can no longer experience the fate of Naturalist protagonists as tragic in a world where catastrophes can be explained without reference to religion or mythology.  Indeed, Brecht takes the very notion of tragedy to be an ideology that must be resisted, because dilemmas which had once been perceived as inevitable and inescapable can, in fact, be resolved by adopting practical social and technical measures” (61).

In the late 1920s his new project, a Marxist one, was to invent a “total artwork” that mobilized even more arts than the Wagnerian one but put them to entirely different uses.  To that effect, between 1929-33 Brecht wrote nine learning plays/plays for learning (Lehrstücke), highly innovative intermedial works focused on reception/consumption.  They also work as teaching/didactic plays in the triple sense that they are plays that teach, plays about teaching, and plays in the form of teaching which educate performers/producers not in political action but in dialectical thinking that transcends the conventions of bourgeois theater.  As Brecht wrote in 1935, “the Aristotelian play is essentially static; its task is to show the world as it is.  The learning-play is essentially dynamic; its task is to show the world as it changes (and also how it may be changed)” (John Willett, ed.: Brecht on Theatre, 79).  Brecht sought to bridge performers and audience, stage and auditorium, to make production and consumption coincide, to train actors to view their own performance and learn from it, and ultimately to cultivate an active/participatory audience.

According to his so-called Major Pedagogy, the Lehrstücke are not intended for performance but as an occasion of learning for actors.  “Properly understood, the Lehrstücke would need to be rewritten each time a committed cast works on it” (Michael Patterson: “Brecht’s Legacy,” in Thomson & Sacks, eds.: Cambridge Companion to Brecht, 284).  They are meant to be a pedagogical experience for performers only, and dispense with spectators.  If there is any audience, it should be taught how to think critically and politically, and not be moved to pity and purged of its compassion. Instead of identifying morally, developing feelings of compassion and pity, and going through a catharsis, the audience should be challenged to reach a verdict.  Plays are composed of a series of verdicts.  The roles played are not characters with psychological qualities but demonstrations of certain social types; the actors do not play persons but embody sets of actions.

Through the Lehrstücke Brecht experimented with the apparatus of theater as an institution. “Brecht’s learning plays … involve a kind of foundational theater:  a theater that attempts to constitute itself and stage the conditions of its own possibility” (William Rasch: “Theories of the Partisan”, The Brecht Yearbook 24, 1999, 329).  It is therefore remarkable that, while rejecting techniques traditionally associated with tragedy (and renounced by the contemporary messianic critique of tragedy), Brecht based his most didactic plays on Kantian antinomies of autonomy, on tragic dilemmas that preoccupied Western culture since Romantic drama and Idealist thought.  The Measures Taken (1930), in particular, is a supreme example of dialectical thinking caugh between freedom and necessity as dramatized since Schiller and debated since Schelling.

May 20, 2019

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