The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising
Attendance List for a Funeral
Having used up their obvious, rich, horrifying subject matter, post-war German writers, to judge from this present batch of books, are turning to the coolly enigmatic—exactly as so many other writers did quite a while back. I have in mind that kind of writing which resembles grangerism: given an atmosphere of indeterminate “significance,” the reader cooperates by pasting his own meanings into the vacant spaces provided.
During 1952 and 1953 Brecht was working on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In Günter Grass’s play the author imagines that Brecht was actually rehearsing Act I Scene I, the uprising of the Roman plebeians, on 17 June 1953, the day of the workers’ rising in East Berlin. Workers’ delegates come into the theater to ask for the influential dramatist’s verbal support, a statement or a manifesto, “nothing too long or radical…polite but firm.” Brecht—the Boss, as Grass calls him in this play—remains aloof. The workers’ complaints strike him as slightly ludicrous—production norms are too high and the alcoholic content of the beer is too low—and he cannot believe that German workers are capable of an uprising, since they are essentially a law-abiding species. We might note that in his “Studium des ersten Auftritts in Shakespeares Coriolan,” Brecht remarked that “To the masses revolt is the unnatural rather than the natural thing and, however bad the situation from which only revolt can free them, they find the idea of it as exhausting as the scientist finds a new view of the universe.”
In any case, the Boss is concerned with art, he is a man of the theater.
Kindly shoot above the trees.
We want our freedom, but no blood- shed, please,
he mocks, comparing the workers with Shakespeare’s plebeians. Outside it is raining. “A revolution wilted by the rain: a German revolution!” he exclaims to the actress playing Volumnia, who retorts, “What a crumby aesthete you turned out to be!” Eventually he composes a statement, criticizing the government for its premature measures and then declaring his solidarity with the Party. “It’s feeble, it’s embarrassing,” say his colleagues. “Like the subject matter,” he answers. For there is no one to be congratulated, nothing to be congratulated on.
THE BOSS’S ATTITUDE is fairly clear: it is wry, rueful, ironic. “It’s irony. It stinks,” remarks the delegate from Halle of the Boss’s proposed letter to Ulbricht. But Grass’s attitude is considerably less easy to make out. Does he share the Boss’s scorn for the workers? Or is his scorn directed at Brecht? Certainly the workers we see in the play—the workers as Grass presents them, along with two “tribunes,” not simply as the Boss views them—are an unimpressive collection, quite unlike the workers described in the “Documentary Report” on the rising printed as an appendix here. A play solely intended as a rebuke to Brecht, from the pen of Grass, would be an equivocal enterprise, unless it …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.