To highlight the idea of suffering in Brecht, Williams quotes from him the following lines:
He who laughs
Has not yet heard
The terrible tidings …
I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger ruled.
I came among men in a time of uprising
And I revolted with them.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.
Here, clearly enough, is a consciousness of the weight of suffering, in the modern tragedy of Europe, which is not hyperbole but is precise and literal. In Williams view Brecht’s response to this suffering carries two modes: first the identification of a political system, and second the finding of hope in the fight against it. It is not the callousing of acquiescence, as it has been with a majority of men. It is rather the deliberate hardening against open sympathy, the sealing and covering of a too naked tenderness. If the substance of suffering enters, with its natural weight, the spectator will be broken, for he will become a participant. While giving his assessment of Brecht, Williams says: Yet as a participant, he can only condemn or comprehend the suffering by some active principle, and this he cannot find. Principle, it seems, is part of the world he rejects. An evil system is protected by a false morality. This balance is always delicate, and it can seem easier and clearer to turn, not against the system, but against the morality. Then the fact that the morality is part of the callousing leads to a bitter irony: Then again on behalf of Brecht, Williams says: You see, my business is trying to arouse human pity, There are a few things that’ll move people to pity, a few, but the trouble is, when they’ve been used several times, they no longer work. Human beings have the horrid capacity of being able to make themselves heartless at will. So it happens, for instance, that a man who sees another man on the street corner with only a stump for an arm will be so shocked the first time that he’ll give him sixpence. But the second time it’ll be only a threepenny bit. And if he sees him a third time, he’ll hand him over cold-bloodedly to the police. It’s the same with these spiritual weapons.
To explain the above view Williams goes in detail and says that the perversion of values, by a false system, can go so deep that only a new and bitter hardness seems relevant. Instead of sympathy, he says, there must be direct shock. In Brecht’s plays of the 1920s, according to him, there is a raw chaotic resentment, a hurt so deep that it requires new hurting, a sense of outrage which demands that people be outraged. Williams in the explanation of this view get so emotional that he says: So deep is this that it is often expressed in the crudest physical imagery: a revulsion from spit and excrement which demands the exposure and the handling of both; a revulsion from false loving which leads straight to the whore. To affirm Brecht’s assessment Williams quotes some examples from Brecht’s play Three Penny Opera. Also he makes a comparison of Brecht with Joyce and Mayakowsky. He says that in much avant-grade writing between the wars, and especially in the 1920s, the naming of filth and the open gesture of anti-morality were felt as creative.
In providing to us a detailed analysis of Brecht, Williams introduces us to Brecht’s idea of distancing effects. On Brecht’s behalf, Williams says: Nothing is more predictable, in a falsely respectable society, than the conscious enjoyment of a controlled and distanced low life. There is no real shock, when respectable playgoers confront them, because they are seen, precisely, as a special class, a district. So we get, again and again, the consciously outrageous which nobody even pretends to be outraged by, but simply settles back to enjoy. The more people sat back and enjoyed this kind of action, the safer their ordinary view of life was. When the play was published, he wrote: It is a sort of summary of what the spectator wishes to see of life. Since, however, he sees at the same time certain things that he does not wish to see and thus sees his wishes not only fulfilled but criticised … he is, in theory, able to give the theatre a new function … Complex seeing must be practised … Thinking above the flow of the play is more important than thinking from within the flow of the play. Brecht’s idea of distancing effect ‘In theory’ was right. But its practice was not there, in the actual play. In Williams’s view Brecht had found his theory, in the idea of complex seeing. He had considered that his ‘epic style’ would enforce ‘thinking above’, whereas the ‘narrative style’ of ‘Aristotelian drama’ enforced ‘thinking from within’. He had used distancing effects to push the spectator into ‘the attitude of one who smokes at ease and watches’.
But he was himself still confused, himself not distanced, and there was more ease than either watching or thinking. Having given us an example from Three Penny Opera Williams says that the actual moral remains quite different from the surface or outer moral: that we can all pretend to be livelier and brighter than we actually are. We dispense with the warm-hearted whores and engaging crooks who at least are honest, who have seen through hypocrisy, who have lived past the earnestness of the old quotations. Williams says that the writer who ‘shocks’, by his rejection of ‘conventional morality’, becomes rich and admired and that he has done the State some service, even when he is disposed to deny it. Giving an instance of Fascism, the ultimate protection of propertied society against radical change, he says that it fed on much of this bittersweet toughness.
In Williams’ view Brecht thought that he was detaching himself from this by calling it bourgeois morality, but in The Threepenny Opera this is so external, so really casual, that it is in effect an indulgence. It was in fact the displacement of feelings about modern capitalism. The real detachment, the real distancing, required a new principle and a new start. What Williams says is not the opposite of Brecht’s intentions. In the idea of ‘complex seeing’ Brecht had his new start, but under the pressure of danger he moved, for a time, in a different direction. He set himself to oppose false society by the idea of a true society, and in his first conscious acceptance of this principled opposition he simplified both his feelings and his plays. Williams quotes another example from Brecht’s play Saint Foan of the Stockyards, where the charity of Joan Dark in the labour struggles of Chicago is not only shown as a false morality, covering crime and exploitation, but as a feeling to be consciously rejected and replaced by a new hardness. In the same way in Die Massnahme, he says, Brecht offers what he takes to be a revolutionary morality: that the party worker who shows too much human sympathy endangers the revolutionary effort and must be killed. To explain it in full he says that this is not any dialectical transformation of goodness into its opposite. It is a willing rejection of goodness as it is immediately known. In his view, we must say of this play what Orwell said of Auden’s line in Spain: The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder … It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word.
Having said all this on Brecht’s behalf, Williams sets out to comment on this idea of the displacement of feelings. He says that the complicated issues of revolutionary violence cannot be settled by a simple formula in either way. The weight of the choice of killing is, in experience, a tragic thing. But its reduction to a hard formalised gesture, however, is merely willful. In Williams’s view, the most important thing to be said about such a gesture is not political, but cultural. As a literary line, it follows directly from the bittersweet amoralism, sharing with it a persuasive capacity to keep real experience at a distance. The literary revolutionary, with his tough talk of necessary killing, turns out in fact to be our former acquaintance: the honest criminal or the generous whore. This connection between the decadence and what was supposed to be a positive response to it has been widely and dangerously overlooked.
Williams, however, does not stop short of Brecht’s abilities. He says that the extraordinary thing about Brecht is his ability to grow through this position. The emphasis of love can look like growth, but is often a simple withdrawal from the human action in which love is being affirmed and fought for. Love is then defined and capitalised in separation from humanity. To sum up his analysis he says that Brecht learned to look beyond either formula, into the genuine complexity, that is, the connections and contradictions between individual goodness and social action. In Williams view, Brecht introduces a new method of seeing termed as complex seeing. The dimension of experience and perception that Brecht possessed required this method of complex seeing. His first achievement, in this new kind, was Mother Courage and her Children, but it will be convenient, in describing the method, to look first at The Good Woman of Sezuan. Williams gives us a synopsis of this play and says that Brecht invites us to look at what happens to a good person in a bad society: not by assertion, but by a dramatic demonstration. Brecht seeks to show, through Shen Te, how goodness is exploited, by gods and men. In Brecht’s view, where goodness cannot extend, and is merely used and abused, there is a split in consciousness. The only consistent way out is through sacrifice: an acceptance of sacrifice which can become redeeming, as in Christ. Brecht rejected any such acceptance, as he similarly rejected the idea that suffering can ennoble us. Rejecting this superhuman design, Brecht rejected also sacrifice as a dramatic emotion. And just as it is a bad society that needs heroes, so it is a bad life that needs sacrifices. And at this point we reach the profoundly ambiguous question: is it not a sin against life to allow oneself to be destroyed by cruelty and indifference and greed?
Williams names this way of seeing as complex seeing and says that in Brecht’s idea it is deeply integrated with the dramatic form: the character who lives this way and then that, enacting choice and requiring decision. No resolution is imposed. According to Williams, Brecht has in fact transformed that method of special pleading which insists on the spectator seeing the world through the actions and tensions of a single mind. In his view, Brecht achieves this transformation by deliberate generalisation and by the appeal to impersonal judgement. The play then becomes, in its essential movement, a moral action.
Williams in this case presents the example of Mother Courage and Children and comments that the history and people come alive on the stage, leaping past the isolated and virtually static action that we have got used to in most modern theatre. The drama, in his opinion, simultaneously occurs and is seen. It is not ‘take the case of this woman’ but ‘see and consider what happens to these people’. The point is not what we feel about her hard lively opportunism; it is what we see, in the action, of its results. By enacting a genuine consequence, in Williams’ view, Brecht raises his central question to a new level, both dramatically and intellectually. The question is then no longer ‘are they good people?’ Nor is it, really, ‘what should they have done?” It is, brilliantly, both ‘what are they doing?’ and ‘what is this doing to them?’
In Williams’ opinion, to detach the work from its human purpose is, Brecht sees, to betray others and so betray life. It is not, in the end, what we think of Galileo as a man, but what we think of this result.
If we go too deep into this way of looking at things we have to say that it is not only complex seeing but also a very complex kind of feeling. Williams at this point says that tragedy in some of its older senses is certainly rejected. There is nothing inevitable or ennobling about this kind of failure. It is a matter of human choice, and the choice is not once for all; it is a matter of continuing history. The major achievement of Brecht’s mature work, Williams says, is this recovery of history as a dimension for tragedy. Struggling always with his own fixed consciousness, Brecht could only begin this transformation. But his epic theatre is at once a recovery of very early elements in the humanist drama of the Renaissance. Continually limited by his own weaknesses, by his opportunism, which often comes through as dramatic cheating, and by his vestigial jeering and coarseness, Brecht struggled towards a transformation and in part achieved it. Instead of trying to convert his work to the complacencies of our fashionable despair, or more easily to the grossness of our defensive cynicism, we should try to see what it means to drama when in recovering a sense of history and of the future a writer recovers the means of an action that is both complex and dynamic.
Having defined the different characteristics of Brecht’s art, Williams attributes them all to his idea of the rejection of tragedy. If somebody feels, he says, that the sufferings of this man appal him, because they are unnecessary, his feelings extend into a general position: the new tragic consciousness of all those who, appalled by the present, are for this reason firmly committed to a different future: to the struggle against suffering learned in suffering: a total exposure which is also a total involvement. Under the weight of failure that could have been avoided but was not avoided, Williams says, this structure of feeling is now struggling to be formed. To assert his point Williams gives an example from one of Brecht’s poems:
For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.
The recognition is a matter of history, the known harshness of the revolutionary struggle. But while this is seen as a process it can be lived through, resolved and changed. Whereas if it is seen, even briefly, as a fixed position—an abstract condition of man or of revolution—it becomes a new alienation, an exposure stopped short of involvement, a tragedy halted and generalised at the shock of catastrophe. In our own day, in a known complexity, it is the fixed harshness of a revolutionary regime which has turned to arrest the revolution itself, but which finds, facing its men turned to stone, the children of the struggle who because of the struggle live in new ways and with new feelings, and who, including the revolution in their ordinary living, answer death and suffering with a human voice.
Throughout this chapter Williams has been like a traditional academic critic. At most of the places Williams is just paraphrasing and summarising what Brecht has said in supporto of his theories. The chapter seems merely an introductory or interpretative article – worthless in all respects to be included in a book of more philosophical than critical judgements on the tragedy in theory and experience. Williams generalises Brecht’s views as if they were the views of all the modern critics and dramatists. The arguments he gives in support of his commentary that seems more a kind of passive views remain underhanded and subjective to Brecht’s ideas. We don’t see the vigour of arguments he discussed with the Greek, Mediaeval and Elizabethan critics. Though we have seen this argumentative helplessness in discussions on Nietzsche, it was not so tangible as it is in case of Brecht. The arguments remain so subtle and parasitic that at moments I feel this chapter having nothing to do with the rest of the book. All Williams has done is to explain and interpret Brecht’s ideas and experiments. His effort to see things in social and political perspectives also seems minimised. He looks but an intellectually kidnapped.
In fact what Brecht writes does not suit to the taste of Modern Tragedy. I am unable to understand Brecht’s theoretical contribution to tragedy. His aim was to portray the mind or society, not the theory. His intention was to discover mainly some new form of expression, not to reject the old ones. In fact I don’t think that Brecht’s experimental work has anything to do with the idea of tragedy. Brecht was an innovator, but could not be a pioneer. Except one or two sentences, whatever Williams has said about Brecht so far is merely an approval or appraisal from a teacher. He seems unable to do with Brecht what he has been doing with other critics – contriving and deducting from their views and opinions the views and opinions of his own. In between the lines we feel him saying if we want to know his (Williams’) views about the concept of tragedy in modern times we should simply read Brecht or any available criticism on him and that’s all. Whatever Brecht says and practices seems on Williams’ behalf true, accepted and agreed.
The chapter seems a kind of evaluation of Brecht’s work. Rather it should have been the evaluation of his theories. The instances given from plays seem unnecessary when we recall to mind the earlier chapters of the book. What we except to read in this chapter is the theoretical growth in the idea of tragedy. What we read in real is the growth in the writing style of tragedies. All Brecht’s statements are left unexplained as if they were already agreed upon. We find very little of evaluating or interpreting nature. Unlike to the demand of the topic or Williams’ former expression, the chapter seems bearing no cultural or political perspective. See for example an excerpt: Instead of trying to convert his work to the complacencies of our fashionable despair, or more easily to the grossness of our defensive cynicism, we should try to see what it means to drama when in recovering a sense of history and of the future a writer recovers the means of an action that is both complex and dynamic. What he says in these lines seems irrelevant or imposed. I have been unable to see this all in the above discussion or commentary. Williams could have said this even for Eliot or Pinter. I don’t find it subjectively coherent. However the argument he gives about Brecht’s rejection of tragedy with respect to the former tragedies seems interconnecting to some extent.