Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Brecht's Measures Taken as an Activist Pedagogical Project

     I've been periodically thinking about a series of didactic plays written by Bertolt Brecht in the early 1930's, which are commonly grouped under the rubric of the "learning plays", for the past few years.  The learning plays were a collection of experimental theatrical works put together by Brecht and his collaborators in the late 1920's and early 1930's, designed to explore the concepts developed in his theoretical writings.  The plays were designed to break down the barrier between audience and actors, transforming the theater into a space of learning and engagement.  More specifically, I've been thinking about a play that was written for amateur workers' theatrical groups, Measures Taken.  You can see my initial thoughts about the play here.  Despite the fact that the play was explicitly written as a direct political intervention into the crisis of the Weimar Republic to be presented by workers' groups outside traditional theatrical settings, very little effort have been made to read the plays within this political context.  In a sense, it's understandable.  After all, the play itself was a failure, rejected by the structures of the German Communist Party and performed minimally. But, exploring that framework can provide a useful lens for thinking about the process of organizing, as well as the roll of organizers.

      The narrative structure of the play can be understood as an elaboration of two previously written learning plays, "He Said Yes" and "He Said No."  Each were thinly rewritten versions of classical Japanese No plays.  Both narratives were substantively the same; in each case, a journey is taken to deliver a set of documents, and in each case, the delivery of those documents is potentially put in danger by the misbehavior of one of the younger members of the party, who is injured due to this misbehavior.  The decision made on how to rectify this situation, however, radically differs.  In the first play, the individual decides to sacrifice his life in order to allow for the journey to continue, while in the second play, the individual rejects that idea, and simply proposes that the party returns to take on the journey at a different time.  While the ethical implications to each situation is radically different, each frames the ethical quandary of the play through this moment of decision, between life and death, between a strong commitment to duty and a commitment to the well being of the individuals involved in the upholding of that duty.

       However, when we turn to the narrative structure of "The Measures Taken", we a substantial transformation of the narrative.  The setting shifts from the setting of the classical No plays to the revolutionary situation in contemporary China, as defined by the crisis in the party after the destruction of the party by the Guomindang.  The play is no longer defined by a single moment of decision.  Instead, the narrative structure is stretched out, and is defined by a long series of small decisions, each of which has its consequences, but ones that are set up a new framework of choices, which themselves lead to the need for other decisions.  In each case, the figure of the young comrade makes a mistake in the process of organizing, a mistake of solving the immediate problem himself, rather than seeing the problem as an organizing opportunity, that is to say, as an opportunity to help the people involved self-organizing skills.  In each situation, the young comrade is given the opportunity to self-criticize, and in each situation, the young comrade recognizes her or his errors and commits to the revolutionary project.  The narrative ends with a moment of crisis.  Something has gone deeply wrong, and the young comrade is badly injured.  She or he insists on sacrificing herself or himself, rather than jeopardizing the project.  Indeed, its this very act of sacrifice that allows the revolution to go forward, and the committee members reporting back note that it was a contribution that the party had not expected.

      However, to fully understand the implications of the play we need to move beyond the simple structure of the narrative and to take a little bit of time to discuss some of the basic framework of the performance of the play itself.  Designed for street and other contingent modes of performance, the play requires minimal set work.  One could go farther and argue that the play is designed for very small groups, for political discussion groups, for educational groups, etc.  Rather than imagining the theatrical experience as spectacle, the play is designed for the actors and the audience to discuss the play, for the play to be an educational experience for all involved.  More significantly, the cast, who are in masks, rotate roles in the play, which means that every individual, at some point takes on the role of the young comrade.  In effect, the play asks each of the actors, who is most likely an activist or organizer herself or himself to reflect on a moment of failure, of a moment in which she or he caused the failure of an aspect of a project through a set of mistaken actions.  Moreover, it implicitly recognizes that any organizing project is going to be littered with these moments of failure.  The difference between the failed project and the successful project, at least the difference that can be controlled, is not the lack of failure, but the recognition and acceptance of that failure, and the commitment to develop new practices from those inevitable moments of failure.

     The play, in effect, becomes a meditation on the experience of failure and the mechanisms to learn from that failure and change, rather than slipping into despair or into defensiveness.  By doing so, it marks failure as a normal part of organizing, as something that must be dealt with and moved beyond.  Additionally, there will be many occasions when those failures were caused by the fairly ordinary mistakes made by the organizers and activists involved in the project.  But, perhaps more significantly, the play forces its participants and small audience to recognize that there is going to be a moment where they are the young comrade, that is, where a small or large error they made translated into a moment of defeat for the project.  It attempts to deflate the impact of that experience, to create the conditions in which that individual can recognize that error and attempt to make amends.  It's a process that I believe we rather desperately need within the structures of subcultural activism that I had been a part of for a number of years, which is ironic, because we fail so often, at so many levels.  But we lack the structural mechanisms to engage with that failure, to make its experience ordinary, to neutralize the trauma involved in it to allow for reflection.  I'm not sure how to do it, perhaps a return to this theatrical experimentation would provide a framework for thinking about the process.

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