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Three Book Reviews

Parables for the Theatre: Two Plays by Brecht

In college I’d heard of Brecht’s penchant for theatre that broke the fourth wall; a decade later, this two-play volume I read this month was the first Brecht I read.

My experience reading drama is limited. I’ve read the classical Athenians, and some Plautus; Shakespeare, and a bit of Ben Jonson and Moliere; Ibsen, and a bit of Henry Miller and Sartre. Brecht is a demanding playwright, and not a very entertaining one. The Good Woman of Setzuan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle are moral questions, dressed up as drama. The disguise is not meticulous: resulting in plays that are on paper dry. The characters serve purely as vehicles for moral abstractions. There’s resolution to neither the action, nor the moral dilemma driving it. The plays’ intention is to provoke moral questioning. There they succeed.

The Good Woman of Setzuan asks: Is it possible to look after one’s own interests while also being a good person? The narrative’s frame comes via three of the gods, who have descended to earth in China to see if there are any good people still extant. They find Shen Te: a prostitute who offers the gods – in their guise as destitute vagrants – a night’s shelter. They reward her generosity with enough money for her to buy a tobacco-shop. They reason that she has a good heart; now she has the means to be respectable, and to do more good as a prosperous tradesperson.

Shen Te is barely moved into her new shop before she’s put upon by a flock of vultures: people unfortunate, or just lazy, who presume on her kindness, and exploit her unassertiveness. (The play doesn’t distinguish the two: we’ll get to that later.) At wits’ end, Shen Te reappears disguised as Shui Ta – a man of action. Shui Ta is hard-hearted, clear-sighted about his own interests and other people’s motives. Shui Ta keeps on the right side of the law, while exploiting other people’s follies for his own gain.

Only the reader is privy to Shen Te’s guise: so Shen Te’s split personality continues over the course of the play. Shen Te remains softhearted, going to great lengths to save people’s lives even when they prove themselves heartless, shiftless wretches. Sui Ta keeps carrying the burden of looking after the business, and, soon, Shen Te’s baby.

At play’s end, Shen Te’s double personality is revealed. Before a magistrate, Shen Te pleads that it was simply impossible for her to be a good person: poverty has driven people to dishonesty, and her heart goes out to both the quietly suffering and the malign layabouts. The gods again appear, beseeching Shen Te to just do her best to be a good person, disregarding her protests.

Shen Te, Shui Ta, the gods, the magistrate, the narrator – nobody asks one simple question: Doesn’t being good begin with looking after oneself? If charity begins at home, it begins first of all with looking after oneself, newborn baby or no. In the Old Testament, the mandate to preserve one’s own life supersedes every other religious principle. The biological imperative to preserve one’s bodily and material integrity define our value systems, and motivate our public and legal institutions. Yet nobody in this whole play faces the fact that Shen Te, with her heart bleeding for shiftless scoundrels and shrill families – was failing in the good person’s most basic duty: to herself. Instead, the play remains concerned with the pragmatics of a goodness defined as centring around, not oneself, but other people.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle asks: Who is a child’s rightful mother? She who bore him, or she who has given up everything to look after him? Noblewoman Natalia Abashwili deserts her newborn while fleeing a political coup wherein her husband is killed. Nursemaid Grusha takes up the child. He’s being pursued by the revolutionaries, so Grusha flees her familiar life, runs up and down mountains, and engages in melee with soldiers thirsting for the child’s blood. Burdened with the child, who is under the circumstances presumed to be hers out of wedlock, Grusha is forced to abandon her lover and marry a peasant. When, finally, Natalia wishes to reclaim her child – as a way to regain her status as her husband’s heir – a magistrate must arbitrate the question: to whom does the child rightfully belong? To make his decision, he draws a chalk circle; whichever woman is willing to pull the child out of the circle is not his mother. This play reads as little more than a dramatisation of Solomon’s judgment. The political context in the play’s background – as well as its framing device, which involves another dispute, this time regarding a contested piece of land – is incoherent. No wonder: the play was originally set in China, then relocated to Georgia. Nor does the politics in the background inform or resolve the play’s moral dilemma.

As triggers to moral thinking, these two plays are worth reading. Their value as entertainment, or as studies of character or situation, is dubious.

*** Have you read Brecht? Have you watched him? What do you look for in a play – or in literature, in general? Is there literary value in fictitious works that exist primarily as triggers for moral or intellectual questioning?

Classics I Missed: Anne Frank’s Diary, and To Kill A Mockingbird

Recently I read two classics I’d missed as a child. As powerful moral works, I wished I’d read them before – there’s truth to the idea that what we read in our formative years shapes us profoundly. Changes of mind, morals, and habits are possible as an adult: but require deliberate choice and continual effort.

In her twenty-five months in her ‘Secret Annex’ hideout in German-occupied Holland, Anne matures significantly. Just thirteen when she becomes stateless and imprisoned in a suite above her father’s offices, Anne seems at first cheerful, gregarious, and energetic. For the most part, the Franks – and the van Daans, sheltering with them – expect their imprisonment to be temporary. They maintain normalcy. The three teenagers’ education is continued; though rations are increasingly tight, birthday-presents and treats are given; the Sabbath is observed; and quarrels, flirtations, and scoldings continue.

Anne is particularly liable to be subject to said scoldings. Soon, Anne’s madcap façade falls: but only before her diary (‘Dear Kitty’). Via her interpersonal difficulties – especially with her mother – and her growing self-awareness, we see a sensitive girl, who acts the monkey only to forefend scrutiny. Anne falls in love with Peter van Daan, falls out of love again when he proves weak-willed; discovers hidden resources in her spirit; yearns for nature, and seeks sunlight through the windows perpetually closed and curtained; and decides to be a writer. (We know that after hearing of plans to publish the diaries of Jewish survivors, Anne began to revise her diary: this including creating pseudonyms to protect identities.)

Anne’s final diary entry is dated August 1, 1944 – three days before the Secret Annexers were discovered and sent to concentration camps. As I read, I kept turning to the front cover to look at Anne’s photo. A smiling girl, awkward, clearly fighting hard to sit still. I kept tearing up: this child, who’d started to tell us her story, would not finish it.

Anne’s diary doesn’t engage much with politics. She’s eager to learn: fond of working out royal family trees, proud of her burgeoning multilingualism, an industrious student at every subject except maths. On herself as on her co-residents Anne turns a critical eye. She fluctuates between extremes of opinion: one day considering herself an independent adult, the next feeling deep contrition for her filial ingratitude. In the high of her short-lived romance with Peter, feeling wise and serene, her brain lit up with a neurochemical cocktail – Anne is inspired to insights: such as the wisdom of looking to nature for comfort, and a more nuanced and compassionate view of her fellow-inmates’ shortcomings.

Anne’s father, Otto, survived to edit his daughter’s diary. He edited out portions he considered too personal, including Anne’s explorations of her sexual anatomy. Recently there’s been debate about this redaction. Claims that sexual details would divert giddy teenage readers from the book’s profound anti-war message seem well-founded – but the whole point is that this is the story of an ordinary life cut short. Like any teenager, Anne has been wrestling with sexuality, family, romance, and ambition. She shows intellectual promise, copes with her extraordinary situation with grace on the whole, and makes valiant progress in her battle for self-mastery. Would Anne have fulfilled her dreams and become a journalist and writer? We’ll never know.

That’s what makes this a devastating read. In her last entry, Anne is still chastising herself for the difference between what she is, and what she means to be. Just when she seems to be coming into her own as a person – Anne Frank’s Diary ends.

***

Atticus Finch is the beacon shining through the soul-killing conformity and cowardice of To Kill A Mockingbird. A single parent to preteen Scout and teenaged Jem, Atticus holds his children to high standards. Himself, too. Tasked to defend an African-American accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama, Atticus correctly fears the displeasure of his backwards hometown, but dares not refuse. For, if he failed to do his job – and to do the right thing – he could never again expect his children to heed him. His total, simple honesty is inspiring. Atticus is a model parent. He is also a model man, a repudiation of the Marlboro or James Bond type of aggressive, hypersexual, toxic masculinity. Teased by her peers, Scout fears her father isn’t manly enough: he’s middle-aged, bespectacled, and owns no guns. She’s wrong. For the illumination of his regressive fellow-men, Atticus proves a dead shot; for ours, he proves made of the true stuff of manhood. Courage, truth, and tenderness.

Atticus’s apprehensions are correct: he does face social consequences, and the prospect of bodily harm. So do his children. But Atticus seems to not even contemplate vengeance. Whence comes this superhuman forbearance? His habit of walking a mile in ‘the other man’s’ shoes. He does this with every unpleasant character he faces. Mrs. Dubose, who calls Atticus a ‘nigger-defender,’ and persecutes his children; his own sister, who appoints himself mistress of his household and objects to his parenting style; the rape victim, who proves a fraud; and her alcoholic white-trash father, who tries to murder Atticus’s children. Atticus takes necessary action unhesitatingly – but of vengeance he seems incapable. His empathy is complete, his perspective-taking immaculate. Is it possible to hate someone once you really understand them?

We see the story from the perspective of Atticus’s children. Jem develops from Scout’s playmate into a moody teenager. Scout herself, our narrator, is a quick learner, outspoken and intrepid. Scout is trained to tell the truth, and to face the consequences of her adventuring and her penchant for boxing schoolmates. She’s a fiesty, admirable character, uncorrupted by gender norms. The town’s other residents are broadly drawn: we know immediately who, in a pinch, will stand by the right, and who will stand by and criticise. The plot doesn’t sustain close scrutiny. Atticus’s defence hinges upon one piece of evidence cartoonishly obvious. The murder attempt on the children is contrived, and their rescue from death by a character introduced early is a deus ex machina: satisfying, nonetheless. Flat characters and flawed plot notwithstanding, Mockingbird successfully delivers well-dramatised lessons in treating our fellow humans, however eccentric, with compassion.

*** What classics that you missed reading as a child have you read as an adult? How have they impacted you? Do you find that the books you read early shaped your tastes and worldviews more profoundly? Is this simply because we’re less critical of incoming influences as children – likelier to take them in unfiltered?

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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