Brecht’s Tragic Measures (3)

Scene 6 of Brecht’s The Measures Taken was first called “Rebellion against the Teachings” and later “The Betrayal.”  In it, the Young Comrade rises against the rules of the revolution he has been serving.  Is this a “rebellion” or a “betrayal”?  That is the basic question of the entire play.  In the scene, radical elements among the workers press for an immediate uprising.  Ignoring the Agitators’ position that the workers are not fully prepared, the Young Comrade defies the disciplinary regimen of the Party, disobeys its decisions, tears up its classical teachings, and shreds his mask, disclosing his identity and endangering the secret mission of the group.  Is his action an act of “rebellion” against revolutionary discipline (which makes him a model rebel and martyr) or a “betrayal” of the revolutionary cause (which makes him a traitor who later repents and consents to his execution)?  Is the dilemma of the learning play unresolvable and tragic or moral and propaedeutic?

Recent discussions of the play have downplayed any propagandistic/moralistic elements and emphasized its deeply tragic character which they attribute to a variety of features.  One feature is that “the Party as Destiny” (John Orr: “Terrorism as Social Drama and Dramatic Form,” in Orr & Klaić, eds.: Terrorism and Modern Drama, 1990, 53functions like the gods in ancient drama.  Another is that the sacrificial Young Comrade functions like an ancient hero: “With his acquiescence to his elimination, he ultimately remains up to the bitter end a tragic hero who thereby also resisted The Measures Taken as a learning play wanting to overcome traditional theatrical forms.  Brecht embroils his characters in indissoluble paradoxes. His play puts the formal idiosyncrasies of a tragic text on stage, on the one hand, to overcome them there performatively and, on the other hand, to let his characters fall into traditional role schemata” (Oliver Simons: “Theater of Revolution and the Law of the Genre,” The Germanic Review 84:4, 2009, 337).  A third feature is the “tragic effect” produced by the contradictions of Leninist morality: “A person who accepts Leninism because he is morally outraged at Capitalist society and wants to create a truly moral world can thus find himself in situations which require him to violate his own morals” (G. E. Nelson: “The Birth of Tragedy out of Pedagogy,” German Quarterly 46:4, 1973, 571). This tragic feature is “a remainder … that escapes the dialectic, that testifies to the pain of unresolved contradictions” (Elizabeth Wright:  Postmodern Brecht, 1989, 17).

Thus, the scholarly consensus is that the revolutionary didactic thrust of the learning play is haunted by a fundamental irreconcilable conflict between ethics and politics.  To some commentators, this conflict is located within politics, specifically, within the revolution itself: “In so far as the political act par excellence is a revolution, two opposing strategies arise here:  once can endeavor to separate the noble Idea of the Revolution from its abominable reality … or one can idealize the authentic revolutionary act itself, and bemoan its regrettable but unavoidable later betrayal … Against all these temptations, one should insist on the unconditional need to endorse the act fully in all its consequences.  Fidelity is not fidelity to the principles betrayed by the contingent facticity of their actualization, but fidelity to the consequences entailed by the full actualization of the (revolutionary) principles. … This means that there is none the less something inherently ‘terroristic’ in every authentic act, in its gesture of thoroughly redefining the ‘rules of the game,’ inclusive of the very basic self-identity of its perpetrator” (Slavoj Žižek: The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, 1997, 377).  To others, the conflict between ethics and politics is enacted in “the staging of the tension between an individual’s ethical sense of responsibility and the political need to subjugate oneself to a collective (the Party) held together by a set of rules, which the Party calls an ‘ABC of Communism’” (Horsman 97-8).

Ultimately, what prevails in the play is the “law of the genre,” specifically, the law of tragedy. One possible argument is that both the protagonist and the chorus end up functioning according to the law of that genre which was created in 6thcentury Greece by the emergence of a hero out of the choral collective, and the ensuing tension between citizen and polis: “Strikingly, Brecht’s learning play brings to the stage all the characteristics that have, since Aristotle, marked tragedy:  the pity, the error of the hero, the hero’s comprehension of the error, the guilt of the innocent man, the hero’s death, the sacrifice, and catharsis” (Rasch 327).  No critical distance can enable the actors to overcome the codes and norms of this performative tradition.

Thus the theatrical lesson of the teaching play is that there-is-no-outside-tragedy: “Brecht’s learning play demonstrates that the actors are hardly capable of disassociating themselves from old performance archetypes.  They do attempt to play against the theater but cannot completely suppress the law of genre.  Even in their play within a play, the agitators do not succeed in taking up a metaperspective.  On the contrary, as actors they adopt roles from which they attempt to distance themselves. While acting they entangle themselves in an insurmountable paradox.  In its own theatricality, Brecht’s The Measures Taken seems to encourage a limit, unable to overcome the law of its genre” (Simons 342).

Another possible argument would stress the particular genre of modern tragedy, the tragedy of revolution (the very subject of my research project in this web site), and more specifically the tragic “antinomy of duty and inclination” (Rasch 333) which tends to subordinate the latter (the individual) to the former (the cause):  “Brecht reproduces the law of the genre he wishes to supersede and entangles his figures in inescapable aporias that have dominated the metadiscourse on drama in revolutionary theater from Büchner’s Danton’s Death to Heiner Müller’s Mauser” (327).

This argument takes us back to Schelling seeking in Greek tragedy the solution to Kant’s freedom vs. necessity antinomy.  Kantian autonomy is a major political technique of government.  The paradox of the 3rdantinomy is that the realization of autonomy requires obedience to universal law, the exercise of freedom involves practices of submission.  Accordingly, the Young Comrade realizes his freedom not when he rebels against the law of the Party but when he obeys it by submitting his morally self-legislative will to the Party law, that is, by consenting to his own execution.  Schelling defined this antinomy of autonomous reason as tragic because it means claiming freedom through its loss, being punished, in the case of the Young Comrade, for succumbing to political necessity only after a fight.  What is tragic is that “this guiltless guilty person accepts punishment voluntarily [and] thereby alone does freedom transfigure itself into the highest identity with necessity” (Schelling:  The Philosophy of Art, 1989, 255).  As I have argued elsewhere, when guilt becomes necessary and defiant, when fate turns guilty and heroic, the idea of the tragic is born, finding its archetypal incarnation in a hero who is responsible for a certain crime (and not just an error) yet ethically innocent (Lambropoulos:  The Tragic Idea, 2006, 39).

Despite their anti-Aristotelian arguments and moralizing aspirations, Brecht’s learning plays show why modern theatrical enactments of revolution present it as antinomic and tragic.

[This is the 3rd and last post on Brecht’s Measures.  Future studies will discuss two more learning plays, Heiner Müller’s Mauser and Antonio Negri’s Swarm:  Didactics of the Militant.]

10 June 2019

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