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Theater 30.3 (2000) 33-35
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On Die Bürgschaft:
A pledge, or bond, in the sense of the title of Weill and Neher's opera, presents an interesting combination of relationships. It starts with the premise that something has gone awry and offers a system to put it right. In this case, Mattes has gambled away everything he owns and cannot pay his debts. The creditors are hot on his heels; his wife and child are likely to be thrown out onto the streets. A disaster is in the making. Fortunately, however, Mattes is able to persuade his neighbor Orth to vouch for him and assume eventual responsibility for these gambling debts. In return for this pledge the creditors are prepared to delay demanding payment for a reasonable period, allowing the debtor time to raise the necessary funds elsewhere. Orth has to trust that Mattes will find the money, but Orth is bound to pay the debt if Mattes does not. This combination of trust, reasonableness, and reliability functions well and averts a disaster. Thus the prologue to Die Bürgschaft shows how a bad decision or act can be redressed and its disastrous consequences averted when all parties agree to act with the generosity, responsibility, and trustworthiness implicit in the notion of such a pledge. Humankind, money, the law, and society can function, despite their imperfections, in a harmonious relationship. It is no surprise that at this point in the opera, a rainbow appears--the biblical symbol of God's pledge to Noah to spare the world. The rest of the opera, however, shows us what happens when any element of this pledge relationship is ignored. The consequences are apocalyptic.
In the first act, both Mattes and Orth behave unreliably, if not with downright dishonesty, and deceive themselves as to their true motives. Orth hides his money in a sack of chaff, then lies to Mattes and says he has no more chaff to sell. When Mattes points out that this is not the case, Orth finds himself in the awkward position of having to agree to sell the sack to Mattes and, in his embarrassment at being caught in a lie, fails to admit that he has money hidden inside it. Afterward he can only trust and hope that Mattes will return the money when he finds it. Mattes finds the money but cannot [End Page 33] initially bring himself to acknowledge that it does not belong to him. It is these small, unworthy transgressions of the individual, of not wanting to admit, of looking the other way, of failing to confront, of avoiding responsibility--of falling short of the spirit of a "pledge"--that start a process of degradation that ultimately spreads to include a whole society and leads inexorably to catastrophe.
Throughout the opera, a small chorus comments on the events that transpire. However, the chorus members do not content themselves with staying on the sidelines, and after a while it becomes clear that the commentary offered is not necessarily neutral. In the scene that follows Mattes's discovery of Orth's money in the sack of chaff, the two men meet in their fishing boats in the middle of the river. Neither will confront the issue of the money openly, however. A mist arises and prevents them from seeing each other and talking easily to each other. What is the cause of their failure to communicate? Is it the mist, or their own intransigence? The chorus appears to lay the blame on the mist. The chorus men go so far as to give us a complex and lengthy meteorological explanation as to how mist arises over a river on a cool evening after a hot day. The explanation is correct, but it is irrelevant to the central moral struggle, to what is "really" going on. The chorus are unwilling to delve into deeper motivations and content themselves instead with accepting external explanations. Here, then, it is not so much what is said as what is not said that is of central importance in the...