Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Measures Taken

Bertolt Brecht is known today mainly for his theory of the Verfremdungseffekt, or Alienation Effect, but he himself thought he would be remembered for a different innovation, the Lehrstücke, or teaching plays.

One of Brecht's most famous Lehrstücke is The Measures Taken, a didactic propaganda piece he wrote in collaboration with the composer Hanns Eisler in 1930. Though "didactic" often has a negative connotation, for Brecht didacticism was the whole point of Lehrstücke. Everyone is supposed to learn something from The Measures Taken, the actors as well as the audience.

Brecht himself claimed he based The Measures Taken on an old Japanese Noh drama on religious themes. In his version of the story, though, the "religion" being espoused is Communism. A Control Chorus representing the Communist Party is interviewing four agitators who have recently returned from China. Something has gone terribly wrong, and an idealistic young comrade has died.

The solution to the mystery is revealed on the first page of the play. The agitators shot the young comrade and threw him into a lime pit. This is not a whodunit, since we know who killed the comrade from the beginning. Instead, the rest of the play explains the decision the group had to make and why they made it. This explanation is made in the form of a play within the play. Three of the agitators stand together, while the fourth stands by himself, enacting the role of the young comrade.

When we meet the young comrade, he tells us he is in favor of "the measures taken by the Communist Party which fights for the classless society." He asks the agitators if they have brought any locomotives, tractors, seed, munitions and guns, or even a letter from the Central Committee. In fact, the agitators have brought nothing, but they demand that the young comrade provide them with an automobile and a guide while they try to spread propaganda across China.

As the play proceeds, each of the agitators take on new roles in telling the story of the incident. One of them, enacting the part of the leader at a party headquarters, tells them they must blot out their own identities, which is of course what they are doing in the performance as well. "You are not Karl Schmitt from Berlin, you are not Anna Kjersk from Kazan, and you are not Peter Sawitch from Moscow," he says. "One and all of you are nameless and motherless, blank pages on which the revolution writes its instructions."

Later, one of the agitators takes on the role of an overseer, another a policeman, another a trader. Each time, the performer must blot out his own identity as one of the three agitators to take on the role of a new part. This, of course, has also been done by the actors, who must blot out their own identities in order to portray the agitators. The Control Chorus, in watching the agitators perform different roles, plays the part of an onstage audience, yet they are also performers themselves. In this way, they provide a model for the regular audience watching the play: We are all performers, and we are all observers.

As a play, The Measures Taken not only teaches a lesson about the necessity of sacrifice, but the performance of the play itself is also a part of that lesson. In the process of performing the play, the actors must do the very thing the play advocates, which is to submit the will of the individual to the greater good.