September 4th, 2006


He who says Noh

It's crazy. Brecht is probably my favourite writer and one of my biggest songwriting influences, and I've been living in Berlin close to his theatre the Berliner Ensemble for three years. But, for some reason, it wasn't until yesterday that I actually went to the Schiffbauerdamm and saw a Brecht play there. I'm kicking myself now, because it was terrific.

Der Jasager / Der Neinsager (He Who Says Yes / He Who Says No) was staged, by a company consisting of 70 schoolchildren from Dessau, as part of the Brecht Fest that's just ending at the Berliner Ensemble. First performed in 1930, it's one of his Lehrstücke or teaching plays, and you don't often get a chance to see those; they have a reputation as dry and didactic, but in fact they have gorgeous music, concise folk tale-like drama, splendid retro-communist chic, and lots to chew on. Sitting in the second row with my Japanese friend Nao (her ticket was only €3.50!) I felt as though I were immersed physically in Kurt Weill's lush music, while up on the stage the students acted out Brecht's version of a 14th century Noh drama called Taniko, or The Valley-Hurling.

The way the play was made gives a lot of insight into Brecht's working techniques. Taniko is originally the tale of a boy whose mother is sick, and who joins a dangerous mountain expedition led by a spiritual teacher to ask the gods for some favours. He will pray for his mother at the top of the mountain. On the way, though, he falls sick himself. Rather than hamper the progress of his companions, he submits to The Great Custom and agrees to be thrown into the ravine. The gods are so moved by his spirit of self-sacrifice that they resurrect the boy. Arthur Waley made a version of the story which leaves out the deus ex machina happy ending. Elizabeth Hauptmann made a German translation of the Waley, then Brecht secularized and communized it even further by making the mountain trip an expedition to secure drugs and medical advice which would save the village. His "yes sayer" agrees to be flung off the mountain in a spirit of communist-collectivist self-sacrifice (Einverstandnis in German, standing as one), although the gesture has its origins in Japanese social collectivism.

Brecht was rather perplexed to discover, though, that amongst the people this message appealed to in 1930 were some right-wingers, who were also into the idea of laying down your life for the collectivity, and acquiescing without argument. Since his play was also meant to be a pretext for debate and a learning tool for the actors involved, he had extensive discussions with his actors and made some of the changes they suggested. Finally, a second telling of the same story was added as a kind of Act 2, "The No Sayer". In "The No Sayer" the collectivity is much less orderly and disciplined. Accompanied in last night's performance by "decadently formalistic" dissonant music, "The No Sayer" was in poignant contrast to the collectivist virtues depicted in "The Yes Sayer". This was clearly meant to be the West German rather than the East German approach to the story. The teacher and boy (played by different actors) sneered and leered, reeking of petulant defiance and "moronic cynicism". The group of mountaineers jabbered and snapped photos the whole time, incapable of discipline or discretion. When the boy fell sick on the mountain he refused to let himself be sacrificed to save the community, and the whole expedition was forced to return fruitlessly to the village. The last line was one about how the boy felt "no particular concern for his neighbours".

Actually, Brecht didn't make things as black and white as that. His "No Sayer" was written to incorporate the objections of his actors, and to posit "a new Great Custom of rethinking every new situation" as a dialectical antithesis to the Great Custom of acquiescence. It was a relevant point for the communism of the day, which was sliding, in the Soviet Union, from revolutionary questioning and experiment to unthinking conformity and dictatorship.

One of the great things about Brechtian Epic Theatre, though, is its ability to make a strength of contradictions, turning them into dialectics. "The Yes / No Sayer"'s originality is in the way it plays the same story twice, removing our sentimental involvement in the character's plight and pointing out how things can always be done differently. Brecht loved contradictions and unresolved incompatibilities, and left them in, unvarnished, for us to mull over as we chomped on our dialectical cigars in a "smoking theatre". The succession of alienated dramatic friezes is supposed to be neither sentimental or moral, but to point out sentimentality and morality.

Perhaps that's why you can still feel Brecht's influence today in the work of some of our most thoughtful artists. Think of Peter Greenaway's 80s films, pure Epic, or Patrick Keillor's quiet historical investigations, or Lars Von Trier's "Dogville", a Brechtian pastiche. It's also clear that the Gebrauchsmusik of Paul Hindemith comes from the same Weimar Republic mindset as Brecht's Lehrstucke, but lacks the political backbone, the commitment to Einverstandnis; solidarity, communism.

I couldn't help thinking that the anti-individualism of this play related to yesterday's theme. There's something weirdly Brechtian about the Queen's refusal to emote on cue for Diana's death. Diana, in this reading, is the royal who had to be thrown off the mountain for the survival of the aristocratic collectivity. I connected this yesterday with fundamentalist Islam, where individuality also counts for little. Brecht already made the connection between Japanese collectivism and communist collectivism for us, but I could add the message Richard Dawkins brought us in "The Selfish Gene": that in evolutionary biology, too, the individual counts for very little. He or she is just a conduit for the survival of DNA. Death throws us all off the mountain sooner or later, for the good of the species.