Brecht’s Tragic Measures (2)

Bertolt Brecht’s The Measures Taken [Die Massnahme/The Measure] (written and published in 1930, premiere and 2nd edition in 1931) is a cantata in speaking parts, choral parts, recitatives, and songs for tenor, 3 actors, mixed choir, and small orchestra created with Hans Eisler and co-authored with Slatan Dudow, who also directed the premiere, and Elisabeth Hauptmann.  Other English titles suggested for the work include The Disciplinary Measure (FBI), Steps to be Taken (Brecht before the Committee), The Expedient (1936 in London), The Decision (John Willett), and The Rule [or Doctrine](Elizabeth Hanunian).

This work, which exists in six versions, is the most advanced of Brecht’s learning plays.  Operating within the tradition of “the play within the play,” it consists in the performance of a performance, as four revolutionaries perform/represent before a chorus what happened in a mission.  To escape what he criticized as limitations of tragedy, Brecht drew on three very different traditions of public performance:  Noh theater, agitprop theater, and courtroom theater.

a) The piece is one of the four learning or didactic works Brecht wrote in 1929-31 based on the 15th-century Japanese Noh play Taniko/The Valley Hurling by Zenchiku which tells the story of a purificatory measure of human sacrifice taken by Buddhists on a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain.The communist didactic work adopted the Shintoist structure of the Noh play: A young individual joins a collectivity and participates in a mission; he endangers the mission; he must be sacrificed in order to save the cause and affirm the collectivity; the victim is reconciled with the group that kills him through his conscious consent to his murder.

b) Brecht was also inspired by the amateur-theater agitprop groups and choruses staging short, didactic events aimed at radicalizing workers in factories, taverns, and the streets of Berlin in the 1920s. “Part of his knowledge of agitprop came from Hans Eisler, who … had been involved in the agitprop movement as the musical director of one of the many popular workers’ choirs” (Yasco Horsman: Theaters of Justice, 2010, p. 101).

c) Last, this is theater as courtroom, play as trial. “Understanding the moment of learning as a moment of judgment, Brecht modeled his theater on a courtroom hearing. An excellent example of this new model, Die Massnahme consists of a set of trials and verdicts embedded within each other. … In his play, Brecht thoroughly investigates the didactic possibilities of theater as trial, and trial as theater, by a tripling of a moment of judgment in a theatrical setting, or rather, of a theater modeled after a trial” (11).  The play consists of a series of embedded trials:  During a revolutionary mission, a young communist was judged and killed by his comrades.  Upon their return, the four agitators give their report to the Control Chorus by demonstrating his behavior in various situations (and taking turns to play the young comrade) and ask the Party to judge their actions.  Interpreters of the play, whether they include audience members or not, are invited to judge both the verdict of the comrades and that of the Party.

Various approaches embedded the play in additional theatrical frameworks of trials.  When Brecht was summoned and appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he was cross-examined at length about The Measures.  In addition, “reverberating during this particular hearing were echoes of another series of show trials, the Moscow trials, which aimed to purge the Soviet Union of so-called enemies of the people.  These trials, furthermore, served a political-didactic, propagandistic role.  The proceedings were publicized via newspaper, film, or radio, so that they could instruct a wide audience in a series of political lessons” (121).  While giving such lessons, the Moscow trials “were typical of a larger interest in the theatricality of court-room proceedings in the Soviet Union, which dates back to the staging of so-called model trials in which traveling agitprop troupes and left-wing theater companies during the first years after the revolution staged political lessons – a practice that may have had a direct influence on Brecht during his writing of Die Massnahme” (122).

Despite his extensive use of radical alienating/estranging techniques, Brecht could not avoid the dramatic structure of tragedy which in this play consists in a tension between moral integrity and political strategy – two incompatible kinds of responsibility, two mutually exclusive sets of obligation.  A revolutionary political program has no room for moral feelings.  “There is only one virtue, and that virtue is advancing the cause of revolution, no matter what other virtues may suffer in the process” (William Rasch: “Theories of the Partisan,” 2000, 340).  Revolutionaries must sacrifice their moral feelings and principles to apply the teachings of communism.   The Young Comrade is asked to sever his relations with family, erase his self-image, lose his identity, sacrifice his life, and even disappear physically in order to dissolve himself completely into the communist collective.  The messianic promise of the revolution is that, when in a future moment of “justice to come” (Derrida), this Party comes to power, the division between the individual and the collective, morality and politics, will be overcome, the dead will be “resurrected,” and all sacrifices will be redeemed.

Thus, if politics is considered more Sisyphean/tragic than millennial/messianic, “then the aim of revolution is precisely the abolition of politics, the abolition of conflict and dissent” (337).  From the perspective of an agonistic politics that embraces struggle, “the demand for revolution can only be seen as an eschatological appeal to a singular vision of the good life, the actualization of which would eventually preclude further political conflict” (337).  This is what makes any revolutionary measures taken tragic:  “These two visions of the political are mutually exclusive.  Either one defines politics as conflict immanent to a given system, or one aims at violently transforming the world by transcending the system’s limits” (337).

When the Young Comrade tears up the “the classics” of communism, rejecting their “instruction,” the Three Agitators admonish him: “Open your eyes to the truth!/Yours is an impetuous revolution that will last a day/And be throttled tomorrow./But our revolution begins tomorrow./It will conquer and change the world./Your evolution will end when you end./But when you have come to your end/Our revolution will continue” (Brecht: The Measures Taken and Other Lehrstücke, 1977, 28).  This messianic faith justifies their decision to use “divine violence” (Benjamin) to exterminate their comrade: “For violence is the only means whereby this deadly/World may be changed, as/Every living being knows./And yet, we said/We are not permitted not to kill.  At one with the/Inflexible will to change the world, we formulated/The measures taken” (32-3).  The question arises, then, whether it is possible to found an immanent governance without devising a (self-)annihilating revolutionary self-discipline as a new state of domination.

5 June 2019


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