Sunday, September 5, 2010

Brecht’s Split Characters and His Sense of the Tragic

The theme of the split personality is a striking phenomenon in Brecht’s dramatic work. It occurs in A Man’s a Man. The ballet The Seven Deadly Sins and the two major plays The Good Woman of Setzuan and Puntila are built around this theme. Indirectly schizoid behaviour forms an essential aspect of Mother Courage and an important one in Galileo. The theme of the split personality is one of Brecht’s major devices for expressing one of his basic concerns. A proper understanding of it will shed light on his deep-seated though oft-denied sense of the tragic and on the relationship between that and his political utopianism.

According to martin Esslin, the theme of the split personality expresses a conflict in Brecht between reason and instinct, prudent self-preservation and romantic self-abandonment. This conflict provides the creative tension nourishing his work. Brecht, according to Esslin, was in both camps simultaneously, and his fundamental ambivalence serves as a clue to his entire personality. Esslin’s brief analysis supplies a starting point from which we can push further the exploration of the problem of the split character and its relation to the sense of the tragic, to utopianism, and Communism in Brecht’s mature work. The plays of his mature period in which schizophrenia, or more accurately the splitting of the self, forms the basic pattern will provide the material for our investigation.
Brecht’s vision stands in striking contrast not only to Freudian but to the traditional and conventional view of morality in general. In it egotism is strenuous to assert and involves self-sacrifice, while altruism is simple self-fulfilment.
Brecht opposes to the pleasure principle not the demands of morality—these are consonant with pleasure—but the necessity of self-preservation or, in Freudian terms, the reality principle. He effects a new twist in the old conflict between desire and duty characteristic of classical French and German drama. In the classical drama desire or the natural caters to the self and its passions while duty demands sacrifice of the self to the law of altruism and humanity. In the Brechtian play desire serves humanity as well as the self and its passions, but duty or restraint is exercised to help the self survive. Shen Te would like to give all her possessions away to make everyone happy because her nature thrives on giving. But her other self Shui Ta is compelled to be calculating, mean, and profit-minded in order to save Shen Te’s property and thereby to make it possible for her to indulge her generosity in the future. As Shui Ta she denies her nature, in order to fulfil it as Shen Te. As Shui Ta she must exploit and deceive her lover, to whom—as shen Te—she gives herself without reservations. As Shui Ta she adjusts to and manipulates her environment which victimizes Shen Te. As Shui Ta she assures her survival which Shen Te recklessly endangers. As Shui Ta she safeguards her livelihood but cripples her life; as Shen Te she fulfills her life but forfeits her livelihood. Making a living swallows living; livelihood devours life. The means defeat the end they are to serve.
The natural instinct of man to be good, kind, generous, loving, free and easy is constantly thwarted by circumstances, by the harsh necessities of survival in a competitive world.
The tragic element in Brecht appears in two guises: as the inevitable clash between desire and fact and as the paradox of ends and means. These are two sides of the same coin. Shen Te’s wish to be generous must employ Shui Ta’s profiteering meanness, or else she would be deprived of the means to be good. Her calculating self alone can insure the survival of her charitable self. For, left alone with her goodness, she would soon squander her money and become a pauper. Helpless to do good she would also cease to be good. Brecht holds with Aristotle that only in action can morality be realized. However, by trying to protect the means for the exercise of her goodness Shen Te must transform herself into the heartless entrepreneur and hated exploiter Shui Ta and so cease to be good. Praised by gods and men for her goodness as Shen Te, she stands accused of cruelty and wickedness as Shui Ta. Yet without Shui Ta’s cruelty Shen Te’s goodness would be completely ineffectual and therefore nonexistent. In order to realize his goodness man must renounce his goodness. His tragedy is that he can never effectively be what he naturally is.
This tragic dilemma appears in Brecht’s play in three forms: generosity and sympathy toward all fellow men; sexual love as spontaneous affection and surrender without questions asked; and maternal love. As Shui Ta she knows the worthlessness of her charming but rascally lover Sun. But with her emotional feminine self, as Shen Te, she cannot give up the physical passion and tenderness that bind her to him. In Shen Te’s love the drive for self-fulfilment and the need for self-preservation clash in hopeless combat that can never be decided.
As an expectant mother Shen Te affirms Shui Ta’s ruthless capitalist career. Precisely because she loves her child she must deny herself pity and consideration of the children of others. She must assure the security of her own child and therefore turn her back on the misery of other children. This tragic dilemma is clearly imposed by society. Social conditions twist the natural goodness of human beings into its opposite. Shen Te’s first thought as an expectant mother is to picture her son as a pioneer and benefactor of mankind. But the shock of seeing a child searching for food in the garbage cans makes her resolved that her child must be spared the lot of want and poverty. She vows to marshal the ferocity of a tigress to protect her child in this cruel and competitive world. And so Shen Te changes more resolutely than ever into Shui Ta.
It is inadequate and doomed to heartache and failure. Shen Te seeks to make sure that her son will never know of her other self, Shui Ta. She is deeply ashamed of this other side of her self. But it is this odious and despised Shui Ta self that has to secure the foundations for her child’s happiness. Her child is to know nothing of Shui Ta. Thereby Shen Te denies the true understanding of reality to the very child whom she wishes to raise as a future hero and leader of mankind. He is go grow up in ignorance of the true nature of his mother, who withholds from him one half of her self and indeed the effective, functioning, providing part of her self. He is condemned to grow up ignorant of the means that are to secure his own life, ignorant of reality itself.
In Puntila the relationship between the split personality and tragedy differs only slightly from that in The Good Woman of Setzuan. Puntila, the Finnish estate owner, generous, charming, ebullient, kind and witty when drunk, but tight-fisted, dry, stiff, unfriendly, and dull when sober is like Shen Te a character with tragic overtones. He desperately wants to be good, kindly, spontaneous, friends with everyone. He wants to live free of conventions and class distinctions by the pure exercise of his innate human vitality and conviviality. The conditional in Mr. Peachum’s question, “Who would not like to be a good and kindly person”? applies to Puntila even more than to Shen Te. For Shen Te is good but has to act cruelly, while Puntila would like to be good and can achieve his wish only in the Utopian state of intoxication. Shen Te’s tragedy is that she cannot be in action what she is by nature. Puntila’s dilemma is that he cannot be at all what he wishes to be, except in moments of drunken escape.
The reason for Puntila’s frustration is circumstance — but circumstance that has shaped character so completely that the two have become one. Punatila is so thoroughly the product of his class, with its conventions and economic interests, that he can be freely human only in his fantasy world under the influence of liquor. Written in 1940, about one year after The Good Woman of Setzuan, Puntila reverses the relationship between the two sides of the split personality in the earlier play. Kindness, which in Shen Te is human nature, appears in Pur.tila as a mere wish dream of drunken sentimentality, while meanness, in Shui Ta a requirement imposed by circumstances, is in Puntila equated with human nature. They underlying assumptions of Puntila no longer call Rousseau to mind, but Marx. In Puntila human nature is not a given endowment but a product of class conditions and social circumstances. The universally human spontaneity, good fellowship, and expansiveness exist only as a romantic dream that can never come true (at any rate not without a radical change of social institutions).
On this impossibility, however, on the unreal Utopian quality of human goodness, both plays are agreed. In the final analysis Shen Te too can merely wish to be good. Ultimately Shen Te’s tragedy and Puntila’s dilemma are the same—the permanent frustration of the wish to be truly human. The same holds true u Mother Courage, who because of her material circumstances cannot fulfil her natural maternal love and has to sacrifice her children’s lives to her livelihood.
In Puntila the permanent and tragic failure to realize one’s human potential appear as Puntila’s failure to break through the wail of human isolation to a friendship outside and beyond the barriers of class and status. Puntila woos his chauffeur Matti and craves for his friendship. He fails because the walls of class interest prove to be the true condition of man. When Puntila is sober he is a class snob and exploiter, and the thought of friendship with his chauffeur appears absurd to him. Conversely, too, to Matti’s class-conscious rationality the intoxicated Puntila’s romantic enthusiasms appear unreal and ridiculous. The practical impossibility, the purely romantic and imaginary nature, of the master’s wish for human fraternity and unconditioned love, is shown most vividly when Puntila seeks to marry his daughter Eva to Matti. Eva, though romantically in love with the chauffeur, could never be a good and useful wife to him because her class education and background have made her incapable of performing the chores which the wife of a working man has to perform.
The tragic element in Brecht’s plays seems to be brought about by social circumstances. The plays imply the possibility of a non-tragic world, which a fundamental change of circumstances might attain. Brecht found Marxist Communism to be the instrument of such a change. Puntila ends with Matti’s refusal to have any dealing with the ruling class. Only the elimination of the class society can provide the foundation for genuinely human relationships. Here seems to lie the clear Brechtian answer to the tragic split between human aspirations and circumstances. The revolution will achieve the dream of human goodness.
Yet is Brecht’s answer really so clear beneath the surface? Is it as simple as it appears? Matti’s tough unsentimental Marxist simplicity offers as little comfort to Puntila’s dilemma as the gods offer to Shen Te. Puntila remains pathetic and Shen Te remains tragic. We see the tragic element in Puntila less clearly than in Shen Te because the automatism with which he changes from one side of his split self to the other is grotesque and lacks the dignity and nobility which the lucid awareness of her dilemma bestow on Shen Te. Yet, like Shen Te and Mother Courage, Puntila partakes of the tragic because he himself forever defeats his deepest wish. Even as Shen Te defeats herself, and Courage the businesswoman defeats Courage the mother, so the sober, practical estate owner and boss Purtila forever defeats the drunken, genial, quixotic Puntila’s search for human brother-hood.
Brecht’s plays of the split character are akin to Greek tragedies, insofar as they show an external necessity acting in and by the individually a destructive barrier to his desire. The threat of starvation forces Mother Courage to support a war which devours her children one by one. Like the fate in Greek tragedy, economic necessity leaves her a desolate Niobe in the end. Yet this economic fate worked through her own actions. If Puntila realized his Utopian longings in earnest he would be unable to run an efficient estate and keep his family’s financial and social position. The necessity of status frustrates the cravings of his natural self. Matti never ceases to point out the quixotic nature of Puntila’s dreams, and if Puntila were not split, but permanently drunk, he would be another Don Quixote with class-conscious Matt as his Sancho Panza. The necessity of choosing Shui Ta’s means defeats Shen Te’s ends. In all these cases one pattern of Greek tragedy prevails: Necessity, the condition of human existence, defeats the aspirations, nobility, and greatness of man. The split nature of his protagonists serves Brecht as his device for presenting this tragic pattern.
Our analysis has now come up against an interesting contradiction between Brechtian practice and theory. In his practice as a playwright one discovers strong affinities to the oldest form of tragedy. In his theory Brecht consistently attacked “the Aristotelian theatre,” i.e., the whole Attic tradition of tragedy to which his own plays show remarkable similarities. How can we account for this contradiction?
First we must remember that Brecht the theoretician ignored the tragic and heroic elements which inspired Brecht the poet and play-wright The tragic and heroic vein in Brecht results not only in such unforgettable creations as Mother Courage, Kattrin, her daughter, Shen Te, Puntila, but it also enabled him to write the one classic tragedy of Communism which world literature possesses: The Measures Taken. Secondly, however, there are at least three fundamental features which distinguish Brechtian plays from classical tragedies.
1. Brecht does not involve the spectator in the plot of his play. The plot keeps the spectator in suspense, and in it the chief meaning of the play is to be found. In Brecht’s plays the plot loses its central importance. There is in these plays neither a development toward the tragic event, as in Macbeth, nor a development toward a tragic revelation, as in Oedipus. Instead Brecht demonstrates a tragic situation; he holds it up to our inspection. Of all Brecht’s plays Mother Courage, by its structure, comes closest to the traditional pattern of European tragedy.
2. Brecht does not present the tragic individual and the tragic instance or particular fate with which the spectator identifies and which moves him to pity and fear. Instead he presents the tragic case, the tragic problem per se, which the spectator is to understand, to reflect upon, to draw conclusions from. Brecht’s theoretical writings lead us to believe that there is a hard-and-fast distinction between his epic and intellectual (or “cool”) theatre and the “Aristotelian” emotional and plot-centred drama. Actually there are many fine shadings and transitions from this type of play to the classical drama. Mother Courage, Kattrin, Shen Te undoubtedly move us emotionally as characters in Aristotelian drama do, while Galileo and Puntila conform much more accurately to the Brechtian ideal of the intellectual, “cool” theatre. But in any event Brecht, in definite and sharp contrast to traditional Western tragedy, does not begin with the individual but with the problem. A comparison between traditional and Brechtian titles of plays can elucidate this difference. The main characters of classical dramas are first and foremost individuals who act out particular tragic destinies or stories before our eyes. Their proper names are identical with the titles of the plays in which they occur: Oedipus, Antigone, Medea, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Phedra, Mary Stuart —these titles show the emphasis on the individual and his particular fate. Brecht’s protagonists on the other hand are exemplifications of human problems; they are primarily not individuals but dilemmas. They are types: the courageous mother able to profit from and survive social disaster at a terrible price; the good person who wants to do good and must search for the means which prevent her from being good; the rich man and master who wishes to be the friend of the poor man and servant but cannot attain his goal; the scientist and searcher after truth who also wants to live and to live well and must consequently compromise his ideal. The titles of Brecht’s plays indicate this problem-and-function-centred approach: The Good Woman of Setzuan; Mother Courage who, as one passage in the play explicitly tells us, is called “Courage” because she represents the courage the little people need in order to survive the catastrophes prepared for them by the great ones in the world. Even where proper names do occur in the titles they are combined with or expressive of the function of the name-bearer.
Since Brecht starts not with an individual fate but with a general problem acted out before us by his characters, his plays are akin to comedy as well as tragedy. Apart from the humour and wit of Brecht’s plays their structure, and functionalism, and the typicality of their characters link them to comedy. With comedy, especially Moliere’s type of comedy, the Brecht play shares its appeal to the detached critical spirit and non-serious peripheral role of the plot which is too unimportant to involve the spectator emotionally. But unlike comedy and more like tragedy it shows the defeat of aspirations which represent the best in man. This intimate mixture of comedy and tragedy, the ironic subordination of plot, the preoccupation with problems rather than individuals unite Brecht with the spirit of the whole experimental theatre of the twentieth century, with Pirandello, Schnitzler, Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet.
The third element that distinguishes Brecht from the tragic tradition of Europe at the same time, however, excludes him likewise from the contemporary experimental French theatre with its emphasis on the absurd. For in his mature plays Brecht implies that the tragic predicament of man is not inexorable but that it can and should be remedied. Tragedy is part not of human nature but of circumstances, and circumstances can be altered. The questioning epilogue of The Good Woman of Setzuan; Matti’s propagandist oration at the end of Puntila: even Kattrin’s heroic action of human solidarity with its successful outcome set in instructive contrast to her mother’s defeated profit-and-adjustment-minded mentality — all these exhibit a social didactic optimism that belies the tragic spirit. Man’s tragic condition is not inexorable. Social action can overcome it.
Is this optimism, then, the final meaning of Brecht’s mature plays in which schizophrenia reveals man’s tragic condition? Certainly The Good Woman of Setzuan, for example, shows the cause of tragedy to lie in social circumstances. Yet this play also shows that tragedy results from the contradictory relationship between ends and means. Can Communism, the instrument of social change Brecht envisaged, be exempt from this tragic contradiction? Can Communism overcome the tragic condition of man.? The Measures Taken, the play in which Brecht made Communism the protagonist, gives a negative answer. Communism is not exempt from the tragic contradiction between ends and means; it cannot overcome the tragic condition of man. On the contrary, Communism is for Brecht the tragic hero par excellence.
The Measures Taken, the play of Communism, deals with the same basic problem as The Good Woman of Setzuan. It shows that Communists are doomed to suffer the same tragic split as Shen Te, the good woman of Setzuan. The Communists’ motives are the same as Shen Te’s—goodness, generosity, the spontaneous wish to help one’s fellowmen. But like Shen Te the Communists, in order to make their wish come true, must disguise their original self and assume the mask of ruthless, heartless schemers, as Shen Te must hide her self in the mask of Shui Ta to procure the means that will enable her to do good. Shen Te in the guise of Shui Ta must suppress the spontaneous stirrings of love, pity, and kindliness so as to acquire the means for them. The Communists, too, must squelch their compassion, rebellion, and indignation which brought them into the movement, to prepare in their shifting and difficult day-to-day work the conditions that will make their movement victorious. Shen Te’s goodness squanders her money and threatens to make her goodness impossible in the future. The Young Comrade’s outbursts of compassion and rebelliousness endanger the movement and threaten to make its further clandestine labour impossible. Shen Te’s Shui Ta self must liquidate the Shen Te self in order to realize Shen Te’s goals. The Communists must silence and kill the Young Comrade in order to realize his objectives at some future date. They execute him with his consent. The Young Comrade is the natural and spontaneous part of the self; the Four Agitators who murder him are the planning and deliberate Shui Ta part of the self which must suppress and kill goodness in order to prepare its actualization. In The Measures Taken as in The Good Woman of Setzuan man’s natural wish for goodness clashes with circumstances. In The Measures Taken the persecution of Communism by the authorities and the fact that it has to work clandestinely and by clever strategy and compromise provide the same kind of limiting circumstances which the capitalist system provides in The Good Woman of Setzuan. The inhibition of the direct fulfilment of the wish by circumstances causes the split in the self, expressed in both plays by the mask which Shen Te and the Communists have to don to hide their real face. The mask symbolizes, and is the suppression of, the true self and the assumption of a pseudo-self, of a character opposite that of the true self. The pseudo-self has to deny, oppose, and even kill the true self in order to protect and realize its aspirations. The means deny the end which they alone can bring about. The Young Comrade has to be killed by his fellow Communists the moment he takes off his mask and reveals his true face. If he is not killed, his cause—Communism —is lost. The paradox of this relationship in which the pseudo-self must destroy the true self in order to fulfil it constitutes the essence of tragedy in Brecht’s work. It is primarily the tragedy of those who, like Brecht himself, seek to eliminate tragedy from this world.
In his tragedy of Communism Brecht affirms the iron law of circumstance which kills the impulse of the human heart. In speeches patterned on Greek choral passages he celebrates the heart-inhibiting split between feeling and action. In his later plays he deplores the split and, implicitly or explicitly, condemns the circumstances which make the split necessary. Finally, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, he presents characters who no longer need the split, whose behaviour is the direct expression of their feelings. The relationship between The Measures Taken and the group of late plays might be illuminated by comparing the two contradictory responses a Greek tragedy such as Prometheus Bound or Oedipus can elicit. Some see in these plays an affirmation of necessity, a celebration of the fateful power in the universe which cuts down the individual and forces him to bow to it. In The Measures Taken Brecht would conform to the first, in the later plays to the second response. In this shift an important instance of Brecht’s general shift from the nihilism and vitalistic fascination with which crime, violence, and conflict imbued the young Brecht (Baal, In the Swamp, The Threepenny Opera) to the more mellow humanist view of the mature Brecht can be seen. With its double heritage of apocalyptic mysticism and Western humanism, Communism was able to accommodate both tendencies in Brecht. However, with this shift from the romantic mystique of violence to the mellow humanism of his later period the role and function of Communism in Brecht’s work also shifted. In the early period he faced the harsh, naked truth within Communism: its suppression of goodness in the name of goodness, its imprisonment of human nature for the sake of liberating human nature. He presented the cruel discrepancy between ends and means with an austere realism that disdained all glossing over. In his later period he either eliminated Communism from his works —which show the curse to which Communism is also heir, restricted to pre-Communist environments—or, as in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, he lifted Communism from reality to a Utopian plane, an idyllic realm in which a rosy glow of human wisdom and kindness dissolves all contradictions. With regard to Communism, Brecht in his late period adopted the attitude of the gods whom he satirized in The Good Woman of Setzuan. He removed Communism from the real world with its grim schizophrenic split to the rosy clouds of fantasy and fairy tale, in which alone, as in Puntila’s state of inebriation, wish and fact, ends and means, harmonize.

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