- The Brechtian ExceptionFrom Weimar to the Cold War
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Was Bertolt Brecht un-American? Or un-German? Did he believe in the need for a “state of exception,” whether in politics or in art? Although largely absurd, these were some of the questions he found himself confronting when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington, DC on October 30, 1947. Of course he was not and had never been a citizen of the United States; he had lived in California for only six years, arriving almost a decade after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933. As a guest in the country, he was nonetheless forced to testify because of his obvious interests in Marxism, his support for the social-democratic Free Germany movement, and his personal connections to suspected Communists like the composer Hanns Eisler, who had worked with him on many of his pedagogical “learning-plays” (Lehrstücke) and was ultimately deported in 1948. Brecht left for Europe of his own accord only a day after his hearing and never returned; after waiting a year in Switzerland for a visa to reenter Germany, he eventually settled in the Russian-occupied zone of the newly divided Berlin, where he directed the Berliner Ensemble theater company until his death in 1956.
Much to the surprise of the HUAC, Brecht had never been a member of the Communist Party. He was exposed not as a Communist, but rather as a curiously elusive writer and critic who had championed the right to aesthetic freedom and political dissent throughout his career. At the center of his trial was an almost comical discussion of his play, Die Maßnahme; although literally translated as “The Measure” or “The Procedure,” and generally referred to in English as The Measures Taken, the title was consistently mistranslated by the HUAC as Disciplinary Measures. As early as 1943, the FBI attempted a close examination of the script, which it called The Disciplinary Measure, and concluded that it was “a self-styled ‘educational play’ which advocates Communist world revolution by violent means.”1 More thoughtful interpretations of The Measures Taken have managed to discuss its political plot—Russian agitators attempting to spread Communist thought in prerevolutionary China—while at the same time recognizing that it is not simply ideological but also aesthetic.2 Less often attended to is the particular historical context in which it and Brecht’s other Lehrstücke were conceived and first performed: the early 1930s in Germany, soon before Hitler’s rise to power and at the height of Brecht’s growing friendship with Walter Benjamin. Even a basic understanding of this background makes it clear that it was not Brecht but rather the FBI and the HUAC who believed that disciplinary measures should be taken against those who take exception to political rule.
A careful reading of The Measures Taken is only one step in approaching the complex questions of aesthetics and politics raised by Brecht’s trial. At least as important to examine are Brecht’s critical writings and conversations with Benjamin, his writings on Japanese Nō theater, and the other Lehrstücke that he wrote between 1929 and 1933— especially The Exception and the Rule (Die Ausnahme und die Regel), The Yes-Sayer (Der Jasager) and The No-Sayer (Der Neinsager). While Brecht’s call for a “non-Aristotelian” form of epic drama as an alternative to tragic drama is well rehearsed, especially thanks to the pioneering work of Benjamin, the Lehrstück requires recognition as yet another Brechtian genre. In turn, although Brecht’s innovative methods of estrangement and [End Page 57] Gestus did obviously attempt to get beyond such time-honored Aristotelian notions of pity, fear, pathos, and catharsis, most of his plays at the same time depend on modes of mimesis (imitation, representation), peripeteia (reversal, change in fortune), and anagnorisis (recognition, discovery), and he in fact admitted his ultimate submission to Aristotle’s “laws” in his private notes, as we shall see. Since the waning of the Cold War, more recent scholarship has also examined Brecht’s interest in Chinese and Japanese aesthetics, which, as alternatives to Greco-centric traditions, helped provide...