Page 1: Bertolt Brecht by Dr. Azher Suleiman

The AuthorDr. Azher Suleiman is an assistant professor of English Literature, University of Mosul, College of Arts, Department of English. He has been teaching English Literature and Modern Drama for more than 25 years.Books published by the author:

a translation from English into Arabic.ØØØØ

MacbethHenrik Ibsen: The Father of Modern DramaGeorge Bernard ShawBertolt Brecht

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Bertolt Brecht

Azher Suleiman, Ph.D

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This publication is a creative work fully protected by all applicable copyright laws, as well as by misappropriation, trade secret, unfair competition, and other applicable laws.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author.

All rights to this publication will be vigorously defended. copyright© 2011 by Dr. Azher Suleiman Mena for printing & publishing – Baghdad

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Bertolt Brecht For the villainy of the world is great, and a man has to run his

legs off to keep them from being stolen out from underneath him.

(Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera , Act I Scene 3)

Socio-political Background to Bertolt Brecht’s Dramatic Works:

Hegemony and Consent

A full understanding of Bertolt Brecht’s dramatic background needs to look at the

socio-political context in which he was writing such as the structure of the state, and the

class struggle. Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship imposed complete control over Germany

during 1933-1945, which had an enormous effect on the arts, education, religion and

politics. Some intellectuals and artists recognized that the Nazi regime was repressive,

and that it undermined the high standards of art, literature and science, but the work of

those that held these views was highly censored, and was eventually banned. They were

given a choice to emigrate or stay in Germany. But to stay in Germany meant that they

had to yield to censorship and sacrifice their integrity. Brecht went into exile to Austria,

Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, then Russia and finally to the United

States. Consequently, Brecht’s experience of exile and the cultural values of his time

motivated him to create a theatre, which politicalized audiences and stimulated their

consciousness through his dialectical influences. Brecht’s key debate was class equality,

where the influence of Karl Marx, Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci’s theories were

and still are evident in Brecht’s plays.

Marxist philosopher L. Althusser states that law, education, police, government

and the media are instruments of class control calling them Ideological State Apparatuses

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(ISA), which represent the main façade of hegemony. He argues that these institutions

govern society to accept a controlling ideology and behave the way governments want

them to, resulting in a consenting submissive society which readily accepts a capitalist

ideology. He relates back to childhood and our experience of education, “Why do

children learn at school? They go varying distances on their studies, but at any rate they

learn to read, to write and to add […] which are directly useful in the different jobs in

production.” (Althusser: 1971, 127). For Althusser, consciousness is determined by social

existence. For instance, basic social skills such as reading and writing are deemed

imperative in order to succeed in most capitalist societies. Not to have these skills is

considered a form of degradation and thus the individual’s sense of consciousness is

affected by the values of a capitalist society.

According to the capitalist ideology, to succeed in society we must work for a

living, however Althusser suggests that by doing so we succumb to the capitalist regime.

He proposes that the workforce is not only engaged in an act of working to receive

money, but that workers buy into the idea that they are of an inferior status to the

established hierarchy, and as a result workers become a tool of their own oppression,

a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the

workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the

ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and

repression, so that they, too will provide for the dominant of the

ruling class.

(Althusser: 1971, 127-128)

To extend one’s learning is a declaration that one is not knowledgeable enough, however

without this extended knowledge one cannot better one’s present circumstances.

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Antonio Gramsci, an Italian political theorist, explains that the success of the

capitalist ideology is dependent on one part of society owning the means of production,

allowing them to dictate how much pay the workers earn; then the working class consents

to this regime. Gramsci called this theory, ‘hegemony and consent’. Gramsci proposed

that to overthrow capitalism the working class must work together to free themselves

from their repressive situation, this however would require sacrifice in order to gain long

term rewards. Therefore, Gramsci argues that the basis of hegemony is not a rigid set of

rules, because the

hegemony of the upper class lasts as long as it is able to ensure

the cohesion of the system of alliances on which its rule is

exercised, and to enlarge it to include the other classes, thus

satisfying in one way or another their moral and material


(qt. in Pellicani: 1981, 32)

Consequently, this repressive regime exists because the lower class consents to it.

Influenced by Gramsci and Althusser’s ideas, Brecht argues that the capitalist

system exists because forms of entertainment, education and the law attempt to hide the

exploitation of the working class that is inherent in capitalism. Brecht’s theatre, therefore,

exposes these forms of exploitation to encourage the spectator to question society’s

conventions, and he uses an unconventional aesthetic style to do this, “The subordinate

classes, […] must acquire consciousness of their own existence and of their own

strength.” (Gramsci: 1970, 73) Brecht was convinced that Capitalism was inherently a

belligerent form of economic and social organization based on internal class warfare

between the exploiters and the exploited and on external aggression towards competitors

for markets or for sources of raw material or cheap labor. He believed fascism was a

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symptom of Capitalism in crisis. (Speirs: 2000, 8) Nevertheless, Bertolt Brecht believed

that whilst theatre provided entertainment for the spectator it should also engage the

spectator’s reasoning rather than their feelings. Therefore, he used a dialectic theatre that

intellectually engaged his audience through methods that echoed Marx’s theory, namely

that man and society should be re-examined in order to create an equal society. “The task

of theatre is not to ‘reflect’ a fixed reality, but to demonstrate how character and action

are historically produced, and so how they could have been, and still can be, different.”

(Eagleton: 2002, 60) Brecht was a committed Marxist (although famously never a

member of the communist party) and believed that if Karl Marx’s philosophy and social

theory could be communicated to an audience, there was a possibility to end class

warfare. Therefore, Brecht’s plays are vehicles for dialectics; they present a situation,

which has the opportunity for rational debate within it, and encouraged workers to unite

and rebel against a controlling capitalism.

Terry Eagleton argues that Bertolt Brecht regards any attempt to define the

literary work as ‘spontaneous whole’ which reconciles the capitalist contradictions

between essence and appearance, concrete and abstract, individual and social whole, as a

reactionary nostalgia. (Eagleton, 2002, 65) The Hegelian and Marxist prints are very

obvious here in emphasizing the role of the dialectical struggle of the opposites to

generate a synthesis, which is usually left for the spectators themselves to formulate. The

issue of hegemony and consent in the Brechtian plays always provokes the audience to

find a synthesis out of this dialectical struggle between the thesis and anti-thesis, which is

usually a ‘revolution’.

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The Threepenny Opera: The Ballad Opera and the Socio-political Criticism and Change

Bertolt Brecht’s aggressive political idealism and determination in using art to

pose challenging questions about the conflicts between society and morality generated

intense controversy throughout his lifetime. Technically, by his late twenties, Brecht had

begun to visualize a new theatrical system that would serve his political and artistic

sensibility. He saw the stage as an ideological forum for leftist causes and wanted to

create theater that depicted human experience with the brutality and intensity of a boxing

match. He rejected the conventions of stage realism and Aristotelian drama, which offer

empathetic identification with a hero and emotional catharsis. Brecht did not want his

audience to feel, but rather to be shocked, intellectually stimulated, and motivated to take

action against an unjust society and to awaken them to social responsibility.

Many critics regard The Threepenny Opera (1928) as an early example of his

“epic theatre,” and as a point of departure in Brecht’s dramatic techniques which from

then onward underlie all his works. Peter Demetz, for instance, considers this play as “a

first form of the epic theatre.” (Demetz: 1962, 10) The play consists of theatrical

innovations designed to sharpen the spectator’s critical ability and to shake him out of his

complacency and expect more from the theater than entertainment. Epic theater uses

“alienating” devices, such as placards, asides to the audience, projected images,

discordant music and lighting, and disconnected episodes to frustrate the viewer’s

expectations for simple entertainment.

Ideologically, The Threepenny Opera grew out of its young author’s experiences

in Berlin during the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), when Germany struggled to establish

a parliamentary democracy in the face of economic devastation, notorious decadence, and

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bitter military defeat. More than ten million Germans were without any source of income,

and crime proliferated as citizens were reduced to begging on the street. Horrified by the

poverty and mounting violence, Brecht took The Beggar’s Opera by eighteenth-century

English satirist John Gay and re-imagined it through the lens of his emerging dramatic

theories. Kurt Weill* was asked to compose the score, and The Threepenny Opera was

born. The play satirizes class differences and moral hypocrisy in society as inevitable

products of the political system. Furthermore, The Threepenny Opera proclaims itself

“an opera for beggars,” and it was in fact an attempt both to satirize traditional opera and

operetta and to create a new kind of musical theater based on the theories of two young

German artists, composer Kurt Weill and poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht.

John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera

The term ‘ballad opera’ is used to refer to a genre of English stage entertainment

originating in the 18th century and continuing to develop in the following century and

later. The earliest ballad opera has been called an “eighteenth-century protest against the

Italian conquest of the London operatic scene.” (Lubbock: 1962, 467-468) It consists of

racy and often satirical spoken (English) dialogue, interspersed with songs that are

deliberately kept very short (mostly a single short stanza and refrain) to minimize

disruptions to the flow of the story, which involves lower class, often criminal,

* Kurt Julian Weill (March 2, 1900 – April 3, 1950), was a German, and in his later years American, composer active from the 1920s until his death. He was a leading composer for the stage. He also wrote a number of works for the concert hall.

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characters, and typically shows a suspension (or inversion) of the high moral values of

the Italian opera of the period. (Wainwright: 2004, 15)

Brecht adapted The Threepenny Opera from The Beggar’s Opera* (1728), a

brilliant and popular social satire written by British poet and dramatist John Gay (1865-

1732) (reportedly with the encouragement or assistance of Jonathan Swift and Alexander

Pope). Brecht and his collaborator Elizabeth Hauptmann thoroughly reworked Gay’s

script and transferred the action to London in the 1920s. The original production used

innovative theatre techniques and relied heavily on the musical genius of Kurt Weill, who

wrote the score for the unusual ‘opera.’

Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is a comic farce, poking accurate fun at the prevailing

fashion in Italian opera as well as the social and political climate of the age is concerned.

It established a new genre, the “ballad opera,” of which it remains the only really notable

example, though its popularity led to the work Sheridan and eventually Gilbert and

Sullivan. Gay cuts the standard five acts to three, and tightly controls the dialogue and

plot so that there are delightful surprises in each scene.

The basis for The Beggar’s Opera is that the thieves and other low social people

that inhabit Newgate prison are the same as to be found in the government. The play was

a theatrical success and became the most popular play of that century. It is a harsh satire

that daringly strikes against class distinction and members of the royal court. The harlots,

burglars, and cutthroats are more important than the national governors. These low-lives

* The Beggar’s Opera is a ballad opera in three acts written in 1728 by John Gay. It is one of the watershed plays in Augustan drama and is the only example of the once thriving genre of satirical ballad opera to remain popular today. Ballad operas were satiric musical plays that used some of the conventions of, but without recitative. The lyrics of the airs in the piece are set to popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes of the time.

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have the manners of proper English lords and ladies, and gain power in much the same

ways, proving that human nature is a constant throughout the world. It also pokes fun at

the judicial system of the period. There was a high crime rate at that time in English

history. The death penalty was handed out for the theft of pennies from a person, but acts

of murder and arson were mere misdemeanors. In John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, for

instance, the character Peachum was a lampoon of Sir Robert Walpole.* This satirical

element meant that many of plays risked censorship and banning.

The leading character of The Beggar’s Opera is the swashbuckler called

Macheath. He is a smooth romantic with qualities of both a gentleman and a

highwayman. He is a big womanizer. He says “I must have women” since "I love the

sex.” (Scene III, 30) He is a paradoxical character that speaks King’s English and dresses

well, but prefers to live in the faith and company of cutthroats. He is polite to the people

he mugs and steers away from violence. Even though he cheats on the adorable Polly, the

spectators still believe his love for her is true.

The opening prologue is a dialogue between The Player and The Beggar, who is

posing as the play’s author. They make humor of the Italian opera. The first scene takes

place in Peachum’s establishment. Peachum sings a hymn about the dishonesty of

everyone. Peachum is alarmed at the marriage between his daughter Polly and Macheath.

His objection is for purely business reasons, for Peachum is a “fence” of stolen goods

who occasionally informs on his patrons for the reward. He fears both the loss of Polly

* Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, (1676 –1745), known before 1742 as Sir Robert Walpole, was a British statesman who is generally regarded as having been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. (Encyclopedia Wikipedia)

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from his business, who he related to a pretty bartender bringing in money from

drunkards, and of Macheath’s learning of any business secrets.

Act II has Macheath and his men outside Newgate. He states his problem with

Peachum, but when his gang want to do Peachum in Macheath explains how he is a

necessary evil and that “Business cannot go on without him.” Macheath continues by

giving justifications for cooperation with Peachum,

He is a Man who knows the World, and is a necessary Agent to

us. We have had a slight Difference, and 'till it is accommodated

I shall be obliged to keep out of his way. Any private dispute of

mine shall be of no ill consequence to my Friends. You must

continue to act under his Direction, for the moment we break

loose from him, our Gang is ruin'd.

(Scene II, 29)

Macheath’s goal is to trick Peachum into believing he has left the gang, but Macheath

himself is tricked by eight ladies who call the constable and have him arrested. In jail he

bribes Lockit, the jailer, for looser chains. Macheath however, is a lover of Lucy Lockit,

the daughter of the jailer. He promises her marriage in return for his escape and she


The Third Act begins with Lockit discovering his daughter’s part in Macheath’s

escape. He and Peachum find Macheath’s hiding place and go to re-capture him. As

Macheath is brought back into custody, both Lucy and Polly beg their father for his life,

but to no avail. Macheath is led off to Old Bailey for a trial. In prison Macheath drinks

wine and sings portions of nine songs. Two of his gang come to pay respects and he

instructs them to have Peachum and Locked hanged. When Polly and Lucy come to visit

he tells them to travel to the West Indies and have “a husband apiece.”(Scene 14, 66) At

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this moment a jailer calls that four more wives have come to see him and a fellow gang

member calls desperately for a hangman because at this moment Macheath will really

need one. At this point the Beggar and the Player enter to argue whether Macheath dies or

not. The Beggar states that Macheath must be hanged for poetic justice. The Player states

that this would make the play a tragedy and operas have happy endings. The Beggar

finally agrees and Macheath is released. The play concludes with Macheath stating that

he is legally married to Polly alone and there is a joyful dance.

Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera

Gay’s satire was an ironic reversal of the royal government and the criminals of

old England, which could easily be converted to fit the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat of the

twentieth century. In November of 1927, Elisabeth Hauptmann began to translate the

English play to German for Brecht. Brecht’s main dramatic contribution resides in

transforming Gay’s Macheath into his own Mackie Messier, also known as Mack the

Knife. John Fuegi emphasizes Hauptmann’s imperative role in presenting this dramatic

work to the public by saying,

Given the existence of this text, plus the fact that Hauptmann was

the only person in the workshop to render such complex English

into equally complex German, there can be little doubt that at

least 80 percent of the fabric of the work that Felix Bloch Erben

would soon globally market was hers. Both in a published article

and in a recent interview with me, Klaus Volker, one of the most

knowledgeable people in the world on the Brecht circle told me

it was his view that “Elisabeth Hauptmann was responsible for

as much as 80 or even 90 percent of the published text of The

Threepenny Opera.” Though, later, Brecht would work on the

text and contribute songs primarily taken from other authors,

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though the lyrics of the song “Mack the Knife” are almost

certainly wholly his, the fact remains that the text bought by

Aufricht and later sold to Felix Bloch Erben was almost

exclusively written by Elisabeth Hauptmann.

(Fuegi: 1995, 195-96)

The Threepenny Opera opens in the beggar shop owned by Peachum. Peachum

has taken control of all the beggars in London and runs a shop that outfits the beggars and

provides them with a location to beg in. A young man comes in and asks for a job.

Peachum makes the man pay him first and then shows the man the five states of human

misery before giving the man a costume to wear.

Meanwhile, Polly and Macheath have just broken into a stable where they are

getting married. The rest of Mac’s gang arrives and they bring in wedding presents.

Everything has been stolen, including the stable. Soon the parson arrives and they sit

down to eat. Polly provides them with some entertainment by singing a song. After she is

done Tiger Brown the Sheriff arrives, but instead of arresting them all he greets Macheath

as an old friend. Mac explains that he and Tiger Brown served together in the war and

that he has paid Brown kickbacks on every job ever since. After Brown leaves the men

present Polly and Macheath a large bed to sleep in and then leave them alone.

Polly returns home to find her parents furious with her for marrying Macheath.

She tries to defend the marriage, but they decide to take on Macheath and destroy him.

Mr. Peachum tells his wife that he will go to Tiger Brown and make him arrest Macheath.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Peachum agrees to go and bribe the whores whom Macheath goes to

every week. She is hoping that the whores will turn in Macheath.

Polly goes with her father and watches as Brown agrees to arrest Macheath. She

then goes back to the stable where Mac is staying and tries to warn him. He does not

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believe her until she produces the charges that are being levied against him. Instead of

being emotional, Mac focuses on his business. He hands the business over to Polly and

tells her what to do. Soon thereafter his gang arrives and Mac informs them that Polly

will be their boss while he goes away. Matthew tries to challenge Polly's authority, but

she threatens to kill him if he opens his mouth again; the other thieves applaud her and

accept her leadership.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Peachum approaches Low-Dive Jenny, a prostitute, and

convinces her to turn in Macheath should he be foolish enough to show up at the brothel.

One of Mac’s men is trying to convince the whores that Macheath would not be as

foolish as to show up. However, Mac arrives and sits down. Jenny takes Mac’s palm and

reads it, warning him that a woman will betray him. He thinks she means Polly. Jenny

soon sneaks out while Mac is talking with the whores and gets the police and Mrs.

Peachum. Constable Smith enters and tries to arrest Mac, who knocks the man down and

jumps out the window. Unfortunately for him, Mrs. Peachum is standing there with the

other police officers. They take him away.

Now in prison, Mac is afraid that Tiger Brown will learn that he has been playing

around with Brown’s daughter Lucy. She soon arrives and is horrified to see him in jail.

To complicate matters further, Polly arrives and also claims Mac as her husband. Both

women argue; Lucy indicates that she is pregnant and therefore has a better claim to Mac,

but Polly is “legally” married to him and she has papers to prove it. Mac chooses to

support Lucy instead of Polly because he is more afraid of Tiger Brown. Mrs. Peachum

then arrives and drags Polly away. Lucy, happy to finally be alone with Mac again, hands

him his hat and cane and leaves. When Constable Smith returns he tries to get the cane,

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but Mac is faster than he is and manages to escape. Brown enters the cell and is relieved

to see it empty. However, Peachum also arrives and threatens to disrupt the coronation if

Brown does not find Macheath and arrest him again immediately.

That night Peachum outfits his beggars with signs and clothes in an effort to ruin

the coronation parade the next morning. The whores arrive, led by Jenny, and ask for

their reward for turning in Macheath. Peachum refuses to pay them on the grounds that

Mac escaped already. Jenny, in a fit of rage, tells them that Mac is a far better man than

any of them. She then accidentally reveals that Mac had gone straight to her place and

comforted her, and that he is now with another whore named Suky Tawdry. Peachum is

elated by this information and promises to give the whores the reward money. He sends

one of his beggars to get the police.

Tiger Brown arrives only a few minutes later. Brown has decided that rather than

arrest Macheath it would be far easier for him to arrest Peachum and all the beggars,

thereby preventing them from ruining the coronation. Peachum merely ignores Brown’s

threats and points out that there are far more beggars than there are police. He asks

Brown point-blank how if would look if several hundred men were clubbed down on the

day of the procession. Unable to arrest Peachum, Brown realizes that he is caught in a

bind. Peachum then demands that Brown arrests Macheath and gives him the address

where Macheath is staying. Peachum lastly sends the beggars to the jail rather than that


Polly goes to visit Lucy in an effort to find out where Mac is. It turns out that

neither of them knows his whereabouts, causing Polly to laugh and state that Mac has

stood them both up. They soon hear a noise in the hallway and realize that Mac has been

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rearrested. Mrs. Peachum shows up with widow’s clothing and makes Polly change into


The next morning, the same day the coronation procession is set for, Macheath is

brought out of his cell and locked into a public cell. He is going to be hung at six in the

morning, and has only an hour to live. He offers Smith one thousand pounds in cash if

Smith will let him escape, but Smith refuses to make any promises. Mac asks Jake,

Matthew and Polly for money; they say that it will be hard to get anything so early in the

morning but leave promising to find something. Having failed to get the money, Smith

refuses to help Macheath.

Soon thereafter all of the characters return and stand next to the cage. Jake and

Matthew apologize for not getting the money in time and tell Mac that all the other

crooks are stealing elsewhere. Even the whores have showed up to watch him die. Mac

gives a last speech in which he claims all the small crooks are being pushed aside by

corporate interests. Peachum then stands up and gives the final speech, arguing that since

this is an opera and not real life, they will save Macheath. Brown enters in the form of a

mounted messenger and brings a special order from the Queen. She has decided to pardon

Macheath and to also elevate him to a hereditary knighthood. Mac rejoices his good luck

while Peachum remarks that such a thing would never happen in real life.

Brecht took many liberties in The Threepenny Opera. It is by no means just a

translation of Gay’s play. The London setting is replaced by Soho in Victorian England.

Peachum becomes a beggar king, outfitting, taxing, and reporting on his beggars for the

reward. He prays on people’s sympathies and quotes Biblical verses with ironic dark

comedy. Scenes are added, such as a wedding scene between Mac and Polly set in a

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stable with stolen goods for the reception. The police chief Tiger Brown, Brecht’s Lockit,

an old army buddy of Mac’s, stops in to pay his respects. But most important is the

changes that make Mack the Knife.

The adaptation by Bertolt Brecht was composed in the Weimar Period of post

World War One Germany. The World War had harsh effects on society’s view of the arts

and was the final that toppled the kingdoms of Europe. Starting with industrialism and

ending with the war, new classes were rising to replace the aristocracy and peasantry.

These classes were the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. New art movements called the

avant-garde rose to address the new modern society. One of the big changes was in the

concept of a “hero” in plays and literature. Before the outbreak, people thought of war as

noble and honorable, a statement of national pride. Wars had to this point been quick,

from six to eight weeks in length. But World War One lasted for six long years, destroyed

a generation of European youth, and left a dirty scar across the earth between France and

Germany that is still present to remind people today. After the disastrous war, in

literature, including drama, a new understanding of the hero and heroism began to spring

forth as far as the socio-political issues are concerned. The Threepenny opera was one of

those great dramatic conversions into the avant-garde. Even though The Beggar’s Opera

was over a century old, this unusual play had everything the avant-garde looked for.

Gay’s rapid change of scenes was similar to the montage effect that Brecht and others

were trying to achieve in drama.

Brecht’s version of the character bears little resemblance to Gay’s Macheath.

Gay’s Macheath is presented in The Beggar’s Opera as a dashing romantic, a gentleman

pickpocket, a Robin Hood type. Brecht’s Mackie is unmannerly, cynical, and a toughened

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criminal. He is a gangster who refers to himself as a “businessman”. He praises

efficiency, organization, and even keeps books. He stated that the only difference

between a gangster and a businessman is that the gangster “is not a coward.” (Brecht:

1979, 92) Although he never enters the legitimate business world, he tells Polly that in a

few weeks he will switch to banking because it is safer and more profitable. Thieves like

himself are being edged out of the market by business and banks:

We lower middle-class artisans who toil with our humble

jimmies on small shopkeepers’ cash registers are being

swallowed up by big corporations backed by the banks. What’s a

jimmy compared with a share certificate? What’s breaking into a

bank compared with founding a bank? What’s murdering a man

compared with employing a man?

(Scene 9, 76)

Furthermore, Brecht turns Mack into a scoundrel who kills eleven people, seven

children, two women and two old men and rapes a young widow all in one song and he

continues to be immortalized in this song. He has become thoroughly bourgeoisie, not

like Gay’s dashing romantic hero. In his notes to The Threepenny Opera, Brecht states

that, “the bandit Macheath must be played as bourgeois phenomenon.” (Brecht: 1979, 92)

Therefore, Brecht presents him as “a short, stocky man of about forty with a head like a

radish, a bit bald but not lacking dignity.” (Brecht: 1979, 92)

Brecht’s new style of theater allowed for the play to be more brutally harsh in its

satirical attacks on the class than Gay’s play could achieve. Brecht allowed the audience

to observe, judge, and decide how things could and should be different where as Gay’s

audience got too involved with the characters’ follies. (Esslin: 1977, 133) Brecht offers

alternatives in life rather than Gay’s mocking characters that just make the viewer laugh

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at their folly. Brecht wanted to make his characters amoral, but not immoral. Morality has

nothing to do with action. To emphasize this point he switched the goals of his characters

to be food and money, not power and like in Gay’s play. If there is a choice between

morality and bread, it would be bread. It is not just coincidence that this sounds like

Marxist theory, but Brecht did not have a utopian view like communists in Russia. He did

however, have strong anti-capitalist views.

In Brecht’s version, Peachum is no longer just an underworld dealer of stolen

goods. Now, he is a tight-fisted capitalist who has built an industry of begging and

regulates his myriad panhandler and pickpocket employees in their various professional

endeavors throughout the London streets. His business is based upon the principle that

hypocrisy is a marketing technique:

I discovered that though the rich of this earth find no difficulty in

creating misery, they can’t bear to see it. Because they are

weaklings and fools just like you. They may have enough to eat

till the end of their days, they may be able to wax their floors

with butter so that even the crumbs from their tables grow fat.

But they can’t look on unmoved while a man is collapsing from

hunger, though of course that only applies so long as he

collapses outside their own front door.

(III, vii, 59)

Peachum thus reveals himself a player in the very system he seeks to exploit. In

Act One, Scene Three, Brecht introduces one of the most ironic moments in the play by

having Peachum fire a beggar for eating too much. The reader or observer does a double-

take at this moment; after all, how can you become an out of work beggar except in a

world where capitalism has taken over every aspect of society to such a degree that

existence is no longer possible except within the system. Brecht subtly criticizes the

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excesses of capitalism by showing a world where even begging is a profession that has its

own rules and ethics.

Brecht affirms that “the character of Jonathan Peachum is not to be resumed in the

stereotyped formula ‘miser’, (Brecht: 1979, 91) otherwise this character will lose its

implication as the sharpest critiques of bourgeois society, who does not seek to change

that society, he simply exploits it. As usual Brecht avoids the crude propagandistic tactic

of presenting an idealized opposition to capitalism; rather he concentrates on arousing our

indignation and inspires us to action by simply showing us a brutal world. Consequently,

the synthesis that will be formulated in the modern spectator’s mind is definitely different

from that dramatic presentation of Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera. The basic conflict in

The Threepenny Opera is based on Peachum and Macheath, the former is in charge of all

of London’s beggars, the latter is in charge of London’s thieves. Stealing Peachum’s

daughter is thus a social insult, an attack on Peachum’s status in the London underworld.

The theft of Polly will cause Peachum to openly declare war on Mac the Knife in an

effort to regain his reputation. Thus, it is not an emotional conflict where Peachum is

upset about losing Polly. Rather, it is a social issue.

Macheath makes a similar observation as to the hypocrisy of the commercially

successful, but from the point of view of one outside of the capitalist establishment. He

and Ginny Jenny share a duet commenting on the inherent problem with social

moralizing separate from social equality. Macheath opens with the statement:

You gentlemen who think you have a mission

To purge us of the seven deadly sins

Should first sort out the basic food position

Then start your preaching: that’s where it begins.

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You lot, who preach restraint and watch your waist as well

Should learn for all time how the world is run:

However much you twist, whatever lies you tell

Food is the first thing. Morals follow on.

(II, vi, 55)

The song that ends the act is one of the most famous. The line, “Food is the first thing.

Morals follow on”, serves as a basis for much of the action in this play. It is an attack on

the audience. Instead of morally judging what Macheath, the beggars, the whores and the

thieves are doing, the song tells the audience to sympathize with them. By putting food

before morals, Brecht is issuing a call to his audience to consider the actual circumstances

of the characters instead of judging them abstractly.

Brecht’s criticism of the bourgeois society of the Weimar Republic, so elegantly

set in Victorian England’s Soho, remains one of the great plays today. “The Ballad of

Mac the Knife” became a popular jazz tune in the 1950s and the work has inspired

numerous artists. Attempts have been made to update the play, but Brecht himself left it

mostly in the original form. It is one of the more difficult Brechtian plays to interpret. It

is hard to reconcile Brecht’s outspoken later Communism with the flippancies inherent in

the production, and with the fact that it has had repeated successes in bourgeois theaters.

The problems stem from the fact that when Brecht wrote the play he was only beginning

to explore Marxism and he did not yet identify with the class struggle. The issue is

confused, however, by the fact that Brecht’s notes were all written after the play and also

after his adoption of a committed Marxist stance in 1929. Nevertheless, through its

display of the base elements of society, the play brought theater to the people rather than

to the elite society.

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The Threepenny Opera is a commentary upon society from the vantage point of

the underworld. The people that move across the stage are murderers, thieves, prostitutes,

beggars, and corrupt officials. Each character is handled so as to arouse an emphatic

response and at no point does the sordidness or immorality overshadow the inherent

humanity, frailty, and lovability of each of the characters. One’s sympathy is with these

people despite their open defiance of sexual proprieties, religious teachings, and the

conventions of justice, marriage, and business. Bertolt Brecht describes people caught,

trapped, and debased by life. An unseen thread of implied identity connects them to the

world of light. They harshly mirror the weaknesses and limitations as well as the corrupt

practices that typify people generally then and now.

One of the main questions posed by Bertolt Brecht in The Threepenny Opera is:

how are goodness and love possible amid so much misery? Indeed, this and some similar

moral and socio-political questions preoccupied Brecht throughout his life. How, for

example, can honesty and decency be demanded from people who have nothing to eat?

And who, then, will be guilty of the evil they may commit?

The prologue is the “Ballad of Mac the Knife”, which is sung while beggars,

prostitutes and thieves are all enjoying a fair in Soho. The ballad describes many of the

things that Macheath, known as Mac the Knife, has done. He is compared to a shark with

sharp teeth, but unlike a shark he keeps his weapons hidden. Mac the Knife always wears

fancy “white kid gloves” in spite of the dreadful crimes he has committed.

See the shark with teeth like razors.

All can read his open face.

And Macheath has got a knife, but

Not in such an obvious place.

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See the shark, how red his fins are

As he slashes at his prey.

Mac the Knife wears white kid gloves which

Give the minimum away.

By the Thames’s turbid waters

Men abruptly tumble down.

Is it plague or is it cholera?

Or a sign Macheath’s in town?

On a beautiful blue Sunday

See a corpse stretched in the Strand.

See a man dodge round the corner…

Mackie’s friends will understand.

And Schmul Meier, reported missing

Like so many wealthy men:

Mac the Knife acquired his cash box.

God alone knows how or when.

Jenny Towler turned up lately

With a knife stuck through her breast

While Macheath walks the Embankment

Nonchalantly unimpressed.

Where is Alfred Gleet the cabman?

Who can get that story clear?

All the world may know the answer

Just Macheath has no idea.

And the ghastly fire in Soho-

Seven children at a go-

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In the crowd stands Mac the Knife, but he

Isn’t asked and doesn’t know.

And the child-bride in her nightie

Whose assailant’s still at large

Violated in her slumbers-

Mackie, how much did you charge?

(Prologue, 3-4)

The song indicates that Macheath is to blame for killing many men, stealing cash

boxes, murdering a prostitute, setting a fire in Soho that killed seven children, and raping

a young bride. At the end of the song the whores laugh and a man steps out of their

group. As he walks away, Low-Dive Jenny cries out that that was Mac the Knife. The

introduction of Mac the Knife immediately sets him up in paradoxical terms. He is

represented as a shark with bloody fins and hidden teeth, but at the same time he is

described in terms of “white kid gloves” in order to cover his bloody hands. These white

gloves, signs of pure hands, serve as a symbol of bourgeois society. Brecht is essentially

saying that Macheath covers his crimes by pretending to be bourgeois Alternatively, this

can also be interpreted as implying that bourgeois society commits the crimes and then

pretends that nothing ever happened. By transforming the stable into an excessively

luxurious room, Brecht again is using bourgeois decoration to hide the murders and

thefts. The use of furniture is paralleled by the gang in suits, a comic image since they do

not have the right manners. Thus we again see bloody deeds and bloody people parading

around as if they were common, normal members of the successful society. One may note

that Macheath does not deny his crimes; instead, he acts as if nothing is wrong.

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The fundamental theme that emerges is that business trancends love in this

amoral, capitalist world. Love is made fun of by portraying it ironically. Normally a

parent would be swayed by arguments of love, but Polly’s parents instead advocate

divorce for her. When she continues claiming that she is really in love with Macheath,

Mrs. Peachum blames the books that Polly used to read.

Polly: Look. Is he particularly handsome? No. but he makes a

living. He can support me. He is not only a first-class burglar

but a far-sighed and experienced stick-up man as well. I’ve been

into it, I can tell you the exact amount of his savings to date. A

few successful ventures and we shall be able to retire to a little

house in the country just like that Mr. Shakespeare father

admires so much.

Peachum: It’s quite simple. You’re married. What does a girl do

when she’s married? Use your head. Well, she gets divorced,

see. Is that so hard to figure out?

Polly: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Mrs. Peachum: Divorce.

Polly: But I love him. How can I think of divorce?

Mrs. Peachum: Really, have you no shame?

Polly: Mother, if you’ve ever been in love…

Mrs. Peachum: In love! Those damn books you’ve been reading

have turned your head.

(I, iii, 30)

This attitude converts “love” into a form of business deal; there is no point in marrying

unless you gain something financially. Polly realizes this and tries to point out to her

parents that Macheath is financially well off, however, since he is a competitor to her

father, Peachum chooses instead to take this opportunity to ruin Macheath.

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The reduction of love to mere business is furthered by Polly in her dream. She

remarks that she dreamt about the moon, a symbol of her and Mac’s love.

Oh, last night I had a dream. I was looking out the window and I

heard laughter in the street, and when I looked out I saw our

moon and the moon was all thin like a worn-down penny.

(II, iv, 39)

The moon is equated to a “worn-down penny.” This gives love two meanings and

references, the first being that it equates love with capitalism. Second, love is compared

to something old and not worth very much. This belief that love is worthless is held by all

of the characters except for Polly who seems to the only character struggling to achieve

worthwhile emotions.

In Act Three, Scene Eight, the falseness of love and marriage is dealt with

throughout the scene. Lucy, the Sheriff’s daughter, admits that she lied about being

pregnant and shows Polly the cushion. “Oh, that’s magnificent! Is it a cushion? Oh, you

really are a hypocritical strumpet!” (III, viii, 68) At the end, Mrs. Peachum has the gall to

enter and make Polly dress as a widow before Macheath is even dead.

Ha, Polly, so this is where I find you. You must change your

things, your husband is being hanged. I’ve brought your widow’s

weeds. [Polly changes into the widow’s dress.] You’ll be a lovely

widow. But you’ll have to cheer up a little.

(III, viii, 69)

This brutal disruption of the sentimental interaction between Lucy and Polly serves again

to make the audience feel less pity for Polly. The image of her as a sad, broken wife does

not hold very long either; when Mac asks her for money in the last scene she is brilliantly

evasive, implying that she has taken over his business and kept the money.

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Another example of that business supercedes love, marriage and other

sentimentalities is presented in the cell meeting between Brown and Mac. Brown visits

Mac in the cell to settle up their business first. Mac even explicitly states, “The accounts,

sir, if you please, the accounts. No sentimentality”. (III, viii, 73) When Brown agrees,

Mac yells at him for only caring about money. Mac’s final speech is quite important. In

the speech he accuses big business of doing exactly what he does, namely being a thief.

The only difference is that the big companies do it with more money and legally. “What’s

a jemmy compared with a share certificate? What’s breaking into a bank compared with

founding a bank?” (III, viii, 76) Actually, this is what he was planning to do: Mac wanted

Polly to take the money and set up a bank with it, thereby getting rid of his men and

entering a more reliable business.

Lucy brings up the issue of class for the first time in the play. She tells Polly “You

should have stuck to your own class of people, dear Miss.” (III, viii, 67) Lucy is implying

that Polly married outside of her own class. The question then is which direction did she

marry, up or down? The answer is not obvious because her parents are actually in a

similar profession to that of Macheath. However, Polly clearly interprets it as meaning

that she married down. She elevates herself into the business class by stating, “I should

have kept everything on a strict business footing.” (III, viii, 67) This line has another

meaning, though. It serves to accuse the bourgeois class, i.e. the business class, of being

unemotional and marrying only for money.

The issue of class re-emerges when the Queen raises Mac to the hereditary

peerage. By giving him a knighthood she elevates him into the highest class, the leisurely

class of aristocracy with guaranteed income. This further undermines the issues of class

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present in the play; Mac manages to leapfrog the bourgeois society and lands comfortably

in the aristocratic class. It also serves as yet another sardonic commentary on Brecht’s

own society which he saw rewarding people he considered to be criminals.

Brown: I bring a special order from our beloved Queen to have

Captain Macheath set at liberty forthwith [All cheers] as it’s the

coronation, and raised to the hereditary peerage. [Cheers] The

castle of Marmarel, likewise a pension of ten thousand ponds, to

be his in usufruct until his death. To any bridal couples present.

Her Majesty bids me to convey her gracious good wishes.

(III, ix, 79)

The songs in Brecht’s plays deserve some discussion because they are as famous

as the play itself. Brecht’s use of songs does not represent any attempt aiming at

intensifying or heightening the conflict of the play, rather it specifically intends to detach

the spectator from suspense. Hence, when we argue that Brecht’s songs are designed in

such a manner we do not mean, at any arte, that these songs are forcibly injected as

isolated parts into the structure of the play. An examined reading of Bertolt Brecht’s

songs makes one deduce that they are thematically linked to the action. Therefore, such

technique helps the audience to question attitudes and behaviour which have been taken

as expected and natural. The Brechtian songs always comment on the main action of the

play; furthermore, it gives the spectators time to think of what has been said by other

characters or by the singer himself since the tempo of the song is slower than that of the

normal dialogue. Brecht’s final goal is that he wants the audience to leave his play with a

logical desire to change society. By forcing the audience to not empathize with the

characters, Brecht is trying to make people think about the play rather than feel emotions.

This objectification of character is requisite for the “work” of art: Aristotelian forms

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which induce empathy, sympathy, and a perception of heroism, all create the illusion of

reality (in actuality, an ideological construct), but only when the audience is at a distance,

when they feel no personal kinship with the characters, can the destructive mechanisms

of capitalist ideology be exposed and resisted. The songs are nonetheless bawdy, cabaret

style works that invert the common perception of opera. The songs serve as social

statements by combining high culture with low; they also are an attack on traditional

Wagnerian opera.

This is evident in the first scene where Mr. and Mrs. Peachum sing a song under

spotlight which has nothing to do with their real characters. Peachum sings a morning

“hymn”, basically a call for thieves and beggars to start their “sinful employment”.

Peachum runs an outfitting shop for beggars; he provides them with props and slogans

and is paid a part of their daily “take”. He laments the fact that humans are able to deaden

their feelings, forcing him to constantly create new ways of arousing human sympathy.

You ramshackle Christian, awake!

Get on with your sinful employment

Show what a good crook you could make.

The Lord will cut short your enjoyment.

Betray your own brother, you rogue

And sell your old woman, you rat.

You think the Lord God’s just a joke?

He’ll give you His Judgement on that.

(Act, I, 5)

Brecht here tries to remind the spectators from the very beginning of the play that what

they are watching is just a game not a slice of life; it is a mere presentation of actors on a

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stage in a theatre. This is, in fact, one of many Brechtian preliminary attempts of

initiating an epic drama and theatre, which will reach its peak and maturity in the 1940’s.

In Act Two, Scene Five, ‘The Ballad of immoral earnings’ makes fun of

bourgeois society by attacking its nostalgia. One of the main attributes of the middle class

is a preference for an idealized past. This is reflected in a great deal of literature, with

concepts such as the “golden ages”, the “golden years”, or the Romantic period playing a

key role.

There was a time, now very far a way

When we set up together, I and she.

I’d got the brain, and she supplied the breast.

I saw her right, and she looked after me –

A way of life then, if not quite the best.

And when a client came I’d slide out of our bed

And treat him nice, and go and have a drink instead

And when he paid up I’d address him: Sir

Come any night you feel you fancy her.

That time’s long past, but what would I not give

To see that whorehouse where we used to live?


But in the end we flushed it down the sewer.

That could not last, but what would I not give

To see that whorehouse where we used to live?

(II, vi, 44-45)

Brecht attacks this naive view of the past by having Mac sing about his life with Jenny.

Mac makes the couple seem idyllic even though if they live in a whorehouse. Jenny also

wishes for the past again even while telling us how Mac used to knock her down the

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stairs. Thus Brecht uses the two of them to combine elements of bourgeois nostalgia with

lower class crudity.

Brecht’s theater is intentionally extremely political. (Esslin: 1977, 132) The

Threepenny Opera places blame on the capitalist society for the criminal underworld that

Gay presented merely in The Beggar’s Opera as a mirror-image satire of eighteenth-

century aristocracy. Brecht made some stylistic changes, transforming the protagonist,

Macheath, into a morally ambiguous hero, emphasizing the parallels between Polly and

Lucy Peachum, and creating the character of Sheriff Jackie Brown, a former army buddy

of Macheath’s who protects his friend’s criminal activity in exchange for a percentage of

his spoils. Brecht writes in his “Notes to The Threepenny Opera” that,

The Threepenny Opera is concerned with bourgeois conceptions

not only by content, by representing them, but also through the

manner in which it does so. It is a kind of report on life as any

member of the audience would like to see it. Since at the same

time, however, he sees a good deal that he has no wish to see;

since therefore he sees his wishes not merely fulfilled but also

criticized (sees himself not as the subject but as the object), he is

theoretically in a position to appoint a new function for the


(Brecht: 1979, 90)

This means that Brecht is giving the bourgeois audience their fantasy of the criminal

world, but, at specific moments, he gives them a dose of harsh reality.

Brecht exposes his understanding of death penalty in the play. The dancers will be

the ones to face the rich spectators with their hypocritical behaviour, demanding decorum

today and abusing them tomorrow. And perhaps through that rudimentary feeling of

moral tolerance towards the poor, the ray of hope which shines in this opera’s chaotic

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closing moments could be explained. For when it seems that the leader of the gangsters is

going to be executed, an unexpected pardon arrives, which moves the chorus to sing:

Injustice should be spared from persecution:

Soon it will freeze to death, for it is cold.

Think of the blizzards and the black confusion

Which in this vale of tears we must behold.

(Act III, 79)

Notice finally how, already in this earliest of works, Brecht is proposing a notable

correction of the merciless machinery of justice, and, more directly still, of the death

penalty, for this positive penal law seems inhuman to him. Thus, Brecht is not only

expressing a profound feeling of compassion and mercy towards that poor criminal, the

victim of social injustice, but also a great respect and compassion for every human

creature, however perverse he or she may seem.

Other critical views mix admiration and doubts of this Brechtian adaptation of the

play. Lotte Lenya, one of the stars of the original production (and wife of composer Kurt

Weill), recollected about the play in the1940s, “Respected Berlin theatre oracles slipped

out to spread the word that Brecht and Weill proposed to insult the public with a

ludicrous mishmash of opera, operetta, cabaret, straight theatre, outlandish American

jazz, not one thing or the other.” (Lenya: 1960, xiii) She asserts that he was eclectic and

unabashed about borrowing from other cultural sources as part of his own creative

genius. Lenya describes what was Brecht’s tendency,

As his admirers have it: to adapt, reinterpret, re-create,

magnificently add modern significance; or in his detractors’ eye:

to pirate, plagiarize, shamelessly appropriate – to borrow at will

from the vanished greats like Marlowe and Shakespeare and

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Villon, and even from his actual or near contemporaries like

Kipling and Gorky and Klabund.

(Lenya: 1960, V)

As such, when the idea came to him to resurrect The Beggar’s Opera but in a

satirical manner that would ultimately highlight Brecht’s socialist ideals, the borrowing

of Gay’s story and characters was not only convenient, it was quite appropriate. After all,

Gay’s original production had been laced with political satire itself.

To conclude, all these dramatic modifications have been made to suit and serve

two main purposes: the Brechtian ideological attitude of how human relations are

affected or determined by economic, social and political forces and that is one of the

main themes of The Threepenny Opera, and to borrow from opera a dramatic form and

adapt it so that it reached to a new audience; and in so doing they created a new type of

musical theatre.

The Good Woman of Setzuan: Goodness vs Money, Greed and

Power The Good Woman of Setzuan*, written during Brecht’s exile and set in

Communist China, is a parable of a young woman torn among goodness, money, greed

and power, between obligation and reality, love and practicality, and between her own

needs and those of her friends and neighbors. The story of the play is dramatized by

Brecht from an old Chinese parable. The play consists of an epilogue and ten fragmentary

Acts. The various situations of the play deal with the idea of changing a world where

goodness cannot exist by itself amidst money, greed and power. Therefore, the basic

problem that faces Shen Te is how to be good and rich and yet to live.

* Der Gute Mensch Von Setzuan was first produced in Zurich, 4 February 1943.

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Three gods descend from heaven in search of good human beings on earth in

order to justify the continuation of the world. As they enter Setzuan town, they ask

Wong, the water seller, to find someone who can give them shelter for the night. The

selfish people of Setzuan refuse to offer a place for these three gods. Only the penniless

prostitute Shen Te accepts to offer them a room. The next morning the three gods show

their gratitude by giving her a thousand silver dollars, which sets her up with a “petit-

bourgeois status.”(Thomson and Sacks: 2002, 121) Shen Te, then, buys a tobacco shop

but she is immediately surrounded by parasites, would-be relations, and beggars who

threaten to bankrupt her.

To protect herself, she disguises as a brutal males cousin, Shui Ta. Shui Ta

manages to drive the sponger away. But the situation is more complicated when Shen Te

saves Yang Sun, the unemployed airman, from suicide and she falls in love with him.

After their marriage, Shen Te learns that Yang Sun is only after her money. She is now

pregnant, therefore she pretends, as the male cousin Shui Ta that Shen Te is away on a

journey. In order to provide her future child with a good standard of living, she starts a

tobacco factory and then she becomes the king of tobacco. Shui Ta employs Yang sun

who becomes a foreman and begins to exploit the workers by making them work harder.

Shen Te’s long absence arouses suspicion. Shui Ta is arrested and accused of imprisoning

Shen Te. At the trial where the three gods act as judges, Shui Ta reveals that he is Shen

Te in disguise. The three gods are delighted and relieved that the only good person is still

alive. But the confesses that she could only have survive by alternatively being the bad

cousin Shi Ta,

Shen Te:I’m telling you I’m the bad man who committed all

those crimes!

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First God: [using – or failing to use – his ear trumpet] The good

woman who did all those good deeds?

Shen Te: Yes, but the bad man too!

First God: [as if something had dawned] Unfortunate

coincidences! Heartless neighbours!

Third God: [shouting in his ear] But how is she to continue?

First God: Continue? Well, she’s a strong, healthy girl…

Second God: You didn’t hear what she said!

First God: I heard every word! She is confused, that’s all!

(Sc.10, 105)

As Shen Te asked for their advice, the gods told her not to disguise herself too often and

to keep being the good woman of Setzuan. After the gods said those words to Shen Te,

they flew away. The play is ended and no resolution in the traditional sense is given.

Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan has been written as a response to

the unjust treatment of the lower classes and as a result, the play attempts to bring the

whole issue about social change. The play explains that to be ‘good’ results in

unconditional giving of labor, however this generosity does not give you any position in

society. This is demonstrated through the character Shen Te, who tries to please her

neighbours and friends, but never receives anything in return. Shen Te’s kindness and

generosity results in her nearly ruining her business and, in order to survive, she must

reinvent herself as her ruthless male capitalist cousin, Shui Ta*. This powerful capitalist

ugly face is the only means that can survive amidst greed and voracity. As a result of her

transforming into a man, Shen Te is able to regain her status and rebuild a successful

business. Brecht believes that “evil is not an outside force, but one of human origin, the

* The name Shen Te, in Chinese, connotes gentle rain. The name Shui Ta suggests the rushing waters of a flood tide. The generous Shen Te rains her small gifts on those around her.

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same as goodness, and, therefore, it is up to humans to stem it.” (Abbotson: 2003, 118)

This evil lurks in every corner of the play where money, greed and power are interwoven

to face goodness in any possible shape. Brecht not only highlights the lower classes’

constant struggle to improve their lives, but also questions the female’s inferiority, Shen

Te is split into the good exploited female and bad exploiting male. Accordingly, the main

dramatic conflict emerges from this socio-political situation. Furthermore, to be kind or

not to be kind and to help people or not to help them, are two major powers that push

Shen Te to have a decisive attitude to protect her money. She would rather be kind than

be wicked. However, as more and more people exploited her generosity, she felt

somewhat undervalued and not respected. Her benevolent deeds did not win her others’

respects but invited more people trying to make use of her.

One of the major dramatic conflicts of the play, for instance, takes the shape of

class struggle as far as money, greed and power are concerned. As Louis Althusser

suggests, Shen Te succumbs to the middle class, a capitalist regime. In order to succeed

in society, she buys a shop that will ultimately exploit either the workers who work for

her or the people who buy from her. Brecht’s audience is predominantly petit-bourgeois,

who has the potential to become capitalists. The petit-bourgeois believed they are neither

being exploited nor exploiting and therefore they consent to the system rather than taking

a stand against it. The character Shen Te illustrates the simple step from working class

status to capitalist status when her male cousin transforms the shop into a factory.

Brecht’s compelling argument highlights that a good, honest person who pays taxes and

looks out for others, is likely to fail in a capitalist society. Like the audience, Shen Te

consents to exploitation. Brecht’s messages are overtly clear; he highlights that to break

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out of this unfair cycle his audience must stop consenting to the system and, as Marx

suggests he or she must sacrifice their social situations and revolt against the regime.

Thus, the only solution, to Brecht, is revolution.

The prologue establishes the basic dramatic question around which the entire play

is organized. Shen Te tells the three gods that she wants to be good,

…but there’s the rent to pay. And that’s not all: I sell myself for

a living. Even so I can’t make ends meet, there’s too much

competition. I’d like to honour my father and mother and speak

nothing but the truth and not covet my neighbour’s house. I

should love to stay with one man. But how?

(Prologue, 26)

In the Prologue, for instance, one of the solutions to Shen Te’s inquiry how to be good is

presented by the Third God who suggests that, “Isn’t it true she might do better if she had

more money?” (Prologue, 26) This suggestion will undergo a number of investigations

and it will set the action itself in motion. In short, the whole action of the play represents

an answer to this inquiry.

The gods might well represent the capitalists who offer small ways to help the

poor, but ultimately leave them to struggle after their interference. For example, despite

Shen Te’s desperate plea for help at the end of the play, the gods still proceed to exit on

their cloud,

First God: And now...[He makes a sign and music is heard.

Rosy light.] Let us return.

This little world has much engaged us.

Its joy and its sorrow have refreshed and pained us.

Up there, however, beyond the stars,

We shall gladly think of you, Shen Te, the good woman

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Who bears witness to our spirit down below,

Who, in cold darkness, carries a little lamp!

Good-bye! Do it well! (Sc. 10,107)

Due to their more fortunate circumstances, they are happy to leave Shen Te to suffer, and

sort out her own problems. This may be a metaphor for the middle class who, as long as

they were living in their comfortable homes, and visiting the luxurious opera houses,

were disinterested in the suffering of the lower classes. But at the same time the gods

could represent the spectators, who are distanced from the situation. Therefore, Brecht

may be highlighting that the spectator should not float away onto their ‘clouds’ and forget

the important issues raised in the play. Instead, they should engage in critical thought and

take action. The spectators should think of an end of the capitalistic powers and of a way

to change their world. But in “Brecht’s view,” as Martin Esslin believes, “[the world]

simply cannot be changed slowly and gradually: only violence can bring about really

fundamental change.” (Esslin: 1977, 233) It is the role of the spectators to reach this

synthesis through many theatrical and textual means used by the playwright, and they are

usually fall under the technique of Alienation Effect.

According to Claude Hill, the action of the play as a whole moves on three

dimensions or levels in revealing its theme. First, the dramatic dimension which emerges

from Shen Te / Shui Ta’s encounters and involvements with other characters. Second, the

philosophical dimension which is obviously presented in the Prologue and in the several

short scenes, which reflect and comment on the action. The third dimension is not seen in

the text but is created by the reaction of the spectator, which Brecht frequently stimulates

by means of direct appeals and questions, by making the spectator an unseen judge in the

last trail act, and by challenging him, in the Epilogue, to find a solution which Brecht

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deliberately withholds. Consequently, “The protagonists judge each other on level one;

they, in turn, are judges on level two; and we, on level three, judge level one and, at the

same time, level two judging level one.” (Hill: 1975, 126-127) Obviously, the last word is

left for the audience.

Dialectically speaking, Shen Te mentally and physically suffers from her

existential dichotomy that it is impossible both to have money and to be good and to

continue living. She wants to be good, but she cannot, with her goodness, to confront the

egoism and the greed of our abnormal world. Hence, Shen Te the good woman finds that

she needs a kind of power or protection. Therefore, she needs her ruthless cousin more

and more often in order to reconcile her impulsive generosity with the interests of self-

preservation. Shen Te’s conflict then starts. She wants to practice her altruistic impulse

without the mask of her brutal male cousin but she finds this ambition impossible in a

world of poverty, hatred, egoism, and hardship. Her goodness is unable to drive the

parasites away or to resist Yang Sun’s love although she discovers, as Shui Ta, that he is

marrying her for her money. She tells the audience,*

I want to go with the man I love

I don’t want to count the cost

I don’t want to consider if it’s wise

I don’t want to know if he loves me

I want to go with the man I love.

(Sc. 5a, 71)

The only one who can confront all these problems is the ruthless male cousin,

Shui Ta. It means that in such a world goodness cannot survive by itself. The conflict of

* Directing the speech to the spectators by the actors is one of the Brechtian theatrical means to achieve Alienation Effect, that is, to make the spectators conscious of what is going on stage, and ready to use his critical ability.

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the play, according to K. A. Dickson, shows that, “individual goodness is not only

inadequate to deal with the evil in the world, but, in extreme cases, suicidal.” (Dickson:

1978, 141) The wealth is the main reason of this socio-political conflict among the

characters. This wealth incessantly brings more and more parasites to Shui Ta hoping of

getting a share in her fortune. Brecht sees the need for an analytical spectator who, whilst

being entertained, becomes a thinking human being and as a result of seeing a piece of

theatre would want to bring about a change. He clearly presents the unfair ideology, in

which the working class has to exist. He illustrates that a capitalist society will always

corrupt and that abiding by repressive laws will ultimately lead to corruption also.

As a result, the only synthesis the spectator may conclude out of this dialectical

conflict is that: to exist in a society without corruption, we must live in a society without

wealth. As an alternative, we must live in an utopian communist society, where everyone

shares everything equally. Brecht would ask that the world be changed so Shen Te can be

offered a better option. By this he questions the rightness of Christian principle, being a

determined believer in Marxism, which considers Christianity the “opium of the people,”

(Singer: 2000, 28) and unsuitable as a workable social system. In other words, other

ethics, morals and beliefs do not work as a solution for such socio-political dilemma.

Finally, the conflicts between Shen Te’s altruism and self-interests, which are

indicated in her tendency to help people, her love story, and her desire to protect her

unborn child from need, are not resolved. She tells the three gods,

Oh, don’t illustrious ones! Don’t go away! don’t leave me! How

can I face the good old couple who’ve lost their store and the

water-seller with his stiff hand? And how can I defend myself

from the barber who I do not love and from Sun whom I do love?

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And I am with child. Soon there’ll be a little son who’ll want to

eat – I can’t stay here! (Act 10, 107)

To all these worrisome conflicts and problems of Shen Te, the First god answers

in coolness, “just be good and everything will turn out well.” (Act 10, 107) Brecht seeks

the Marxist synthesis of man rather than the Marxist synthesis of the gods. In other

words, the will of history, which is made by man, not the will of gods, will resolve all

these contradictions. He believes that simple goodness is the natural state of man. He

feels that it is only the mechanics of the capitalist society which restrict and pervert this

goodness. Brecht suggests, therefore, that man should strive for a society of the future in

which simple goodness will be possible. “Galileo verdict, ‘unhappy is the land that needs

a hero’, can also be applied to Shen Te: Unhappy is the land that needs goodness as a

virtue; that is in excess.” (Hill: 1975, 124-125) Therefore, Shui Ta represents the

paradoxical fact of our society: that to be good, man must also be bad. Because of her

love for Yang Sun, who is worthless and insensible in return, Shen Te destroys the old

couple who lend her money and then need it repaid when the man falls ill. “This allows

us to question even her goodness, and wonder how much the gods might be to blame by

sullying her with money in the first place.”(Abbotson: 2003, 122) They forced her to

become part of a capitalist system in which she must constantly struggle to keep her head

above water, frequently resorting to the wicked practices of her alter ego, and at times

having to sacrifice others to stay afloat herself. Brecht wishes us to recognize that when

the good are so easily destroyed in this manner, we have come to accommodate evil

within the social system, and the humanitarian response should be to seek better justice in

the world and make crucial changes. But since Brecht believed in Marxism, maybe it

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takes a new structure of society to change the economic environment and the plights of


The Premise of War and Its Ramifications in Mother Courage and her

Children What are the purposes and consequences of war? Is it for religion, for power – or

purely for business? Where is the hole once the cheese has been eaten? There are those

who use it to make their destiny. Brecht, himself a victim of war, wrote the play in direct

response to the escalating conflict in Europe in 1938-39, and it emerged as one of the

most significant artistic works inspired by that period in twentieth century history. It is a

damning portrait of materialism, where commerce is equated with violence and

opportunism makes a mockery of ideology. In the war-torn world of the play, only the

scavengers survive; by picking on the literal and metaphorical bones of those who fight

(and die) in the name of causes labeled as religious or political.

War and peace tussle with each other throughout the pages of human history.* If

war is generally defined as armed conflict between two conflicting groups, states, or

tribes, then one would have to say that war has always been a part of human experience

and is perhaps even a defining characteristic of human beings. Many people have pointed

out that peace presents special difficulties. It is harder to define than war and it is more

difficult to cultivate and maintain. Aside from being the absence of war, peace is often

* War fascinates humankind and has occurred throughout history. No culture has ever been immune to it, and the stories and experiences of many cultures around the world combine to create a global view of war and peace. Despite differences in time and geography, many of the sentiments expressed in world literature about war or peace closely echo similar thoughts in the contemporary world. Not only do these stories, some passed down for centuries, allow readers a glimpse into the past, but they also contribute to how the modern world sees war and peace today.

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understood to include the stable presence of law, order, and justice. Law, for example, is

the product of centuries of tolerant human experience gained throughout the history of a

given society. Justice is the fruit of reflection on the way humans relate to one another in

society. A learned sense of justice cannot be acquired overnight. Social order follows

from understanding, specifically from awareness that reliable, established patterns of

behavior are useful to both individuals and societies.

Brecht’s attitude towards war is derived from Marxism. The Communist

Manifesto** is, at its heart, a critique of the corrosive moral changes brought about by the

rapid industrialization of Europe. Marx and Engels were highly critical of the new

wealthy class, the bourgeoisie. This class made its wealth from the misery of workers, the

proletariat, who, for the bulk of their lives, worked up to eighteen hours a day in factories

and mines. The authors’ revolutionary ideas came from their observation that the workers

were uniting and educating themselves to better their conditions. Marx and Engels

predicted a time when the bourgeoisie would become so corrupt that the workers would

rise up against them in a great revolution that would destroy the bourgeoisie and result in

a worker’s paradise. This placed workers in an explosive position, suggesting that lasting

peace could only be achieved by starting a war that would completely uproot and

overturn European society.

** Manifesto of the Communist Party (German: Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei), often referred to as The Communist Manifesto, was first published on February 21, 1848, and is one of the world's most influential political manuscripts. Commissioned by the Communist League and written by communist theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, it laid out the League's purposes and program. It presents an analytical approach to the class struggle (historical and present) and the problems of capitalism, rather than a prediction of communism's potential future forms. (Wikipedia)

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Though Marx and Engels did not directly advocate violence, their ideas, known as

Marxism, spread throughout the world and inspired others to attack unjust and corrupt

regimes by any means possible.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins

of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It

has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression,

new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the

epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive

feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms: Society as a

whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile

camps, into two great classes, directly facing each other:

Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. (Marx: 1969, 7)

This created the ideal of communism—in which each person worked as he or she could

and received what he or she needed—which has only dissipated since the fall of the

Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union in 1989. Even though The Communist

Manifesto inspired change and revolt against oppression, it also inspired oppression

itself, producing some of the worst totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Marxism

has permanently altered modern views of war and peace.

Between the years of 1618 and 1648, the 30 Years’ War migrated across Central

Europe from the original rebellion in Bohemia to its conclusion in Westphalia. Seeing as

how this was war so lengthy, it is no surprise that it has left such a lasting mark in history.

It must have also left a lasting impression on Bertolt Brecht since he decided to set his

play Mother Courage and Her Children during this conflict, nearly 400 years after the

event. Perhaps his inspiration for this play came about as he witnessed World War II

unfolding across Europe. The political wheels in his head began to turn as he pieced this

play together. He did not forget to illustrate the social, political and economical

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ramifications that come about in a war, including the changing roles of women and

children as well as the practice of religion.

Mother Courage and her Children (Mutter Courage Und Ihrekinder was first

produced in Zurich Schauspielhaus, 19 April 1941) is an anti-war socio-political play,

which is set during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century*. It shows a mother who

tries to profit from the war in order to help her family, but loses all of her children in the

attempt. Furthermore, the term “socio-political” mainly refers to the dialectical

interrelationship between politics and the social environment of the play. Thus, the social

circumstances are governed, regulated and directed by the political will and power of the

authority. War is one of those political decisions taken by such authorities, which later

will turn the whole social life upside down and make its own system and laws.

The play opens with a recruiting officer and an army sergeant standing together,

talking in the freezing snow. The recruiting officer complains bitterly about the

difficulties of recruiting an army. Threatening suicide, he tells the sergeant that his

difficulty finding honest, willing men to recruit has led to the loss of his faith in

humanity. The sergeant explains, at length, that war is the only way of creating order.

This dialogue shows war’s effect on the little people. To the sound of a Jew’s harp, a

covered cart rolls onto the stage. It is pulled by Mother Courage’s two sons, Eilif and

Swiss Cheese. Mother Courage is sitting aloft with Kattrin, her daughter, as she sings her

opening song.

* The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was part of the political upheaval that followed the Reformation which had divided Christian Europe into Protestant and Catholic states and killed off half of Germany’s population. In the play, the Swedes stand for the Protestantism, and the Imperial forces represent Catholicism. See: Paul Harvey, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature (London: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 815.

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Mother Courage, unable to produce a valid set of papers, explains why she is

called Courage (her real name is Anna Fierling): she once drove her cart through the

bombardment of Riga in order to sell fifty molding loaves of bread. Mother Courage

immediately attempts to make a sale. The recruiting officer, however, is more interested

in her son than the belt buckle she tries to sell him. Mother Courage reacts violently,

pulling a knife and insisting that the soldiers keep away from her children.

An argument ensues between Mother Courage and the sergeant about the rights

and wrongs of Eilif’s signing up for service in the war. The sergeant points out that he

has had a good life in the army, having joined at seventeen, but Mother Courage dryly

comments that he is yet to reach seventy. Mother Courage then draws black crosses

(signifying death) on slips of paper, and she invites the sergeant to select one. He is

shaken when he draws a black cross. When Eilif seems keen to enlist, Mother Courage

marks up several more black crosses and has each of her children draw one. She

obviously has rigged the slips of paper, but in doing so she proves a prophet. All of her

children are to die in the war, and Eilif is about to be taken from her under her nose. Now

distracting her by haggling over a belt buckle, the sergeant occupies Mother Courage

while the recruiting officer leads Eilif off into the fields. He tells Eilif,

Ten gilders in advance and you’re soldier of the King and a stout

fellow and the women will be mad about you. And you can give

me a smack in the kisser for insulting you.

(Sc. 1, 19)

Dumb Kattrin jumps from the cart, making hoarse noises to warn her mother of what is

going on behind the cart, but Mother Courage is occupied with her trade and pays no

heed. By the time she has pocketed her profits, her son is gone.

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The slogan of scene two announces that two years have passed and that Mother

Courage is about to meet her son Eilif again. The stage is split in two, with on one side

the General’s tent and, on the other, his kitchen. In the kitchen we meet General’s cook,

to whom Mother Courage is attempting to sell a capon that she swindled from the

peasants in the nearby village. Eilif successfully killed some peasants and stolen the oxen

they attempted to hide from the General’s army. The General, absolutely delighted with

Eilif’s heroic deed, pours him expensive wine. Mother Courage, astonished to hear her

son’s voice again, comments that the General-being obsessed with the heroism of his

troops-must be a very poor General. That is, if good battle strategies were in place, there

would be no need for heroism. Mother Courage slaps her son around the face. She does

so not, she explains, because he took the oxen, but because he put himself in danger. The

scene finishes in the middle of this reprimand, with the General and the Chaplain

ominously laughing in the doorway. Later on, Eilif repeats the same ‘heroic action’ by

killing innocent peasants taking their cows a meat for his soldiers during a short interlude

of peace, but he is now regarded as a war criminal and executed.

Courage’s second son, the all-too-honest Swiss Cheese, is lost because of her

mercantile inclination. She places the value of her business operation—her cart full of

goods—above his life. As paymaster of a Finnish regiment Swiss Cheese hides his cash

box during a successful attack by Catholic troops. When he is taken prisoner Courage can

win his freedom by paying off his ransom. However, her haggling over the price of the

bribe costs him his life. When Swiss Cheese’s corpse is brought in, his mother—to save

her own life—has to deny she even knows him. The Catholic sergeant says, “Chuck him

in the pit. He’s got nobody knows him.” ( Sc. 3, 42)

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Kattrin is killed as well when she is attempting to warn the sleeping town of Halle

from a sudden Catholic attack. She has succeeded in awaking the townsfolk, though she

has given her own life in doing so. The slogan of Scene eleven comments on her heroic

deed as “The stone begins to speak” (Sc. 11, 80) referring to her dumbness and her

beating on drum from a rooftop.

Mother Courage sings a lullaby over Kattrin’s dead body. It is time for her to get

back on the road. The peasants advise her to follow the regiment immediately. Fetching a

tarpaulin from her cart, she covers Kattrin’s body. She pays the peasants to bury her.

Mother Courage harnesses herself to the cart, hoping that she can pull it alone, “Hope I

can pull cart all right by meself. Be all right, nowt much inside it. Go to get back in

business again.” (Sc., 12, 87) The noise of a regiment passes by, and Courage follows

along with it, pulling the cart. From offstage, the song that introduced Courage in Scene

One is repeated to end the play.

Tennessee Williams has commented, “I doubt that any other play has paid such

homage to mankind’s greatest virtue, its heroic determination to somehow, almost

anyhow, keep on pulling the wagon further on.” (qt. in Bentley: 1981,120) What Brecht

underlines is war’s omnipresence in capitalist civilization. For capitalists, war is just a

business like any other business, a source of getting money and other economical profits.

It is worth noting that at the early stage of the play, the first military deed the play

introduces us to, is not really a military conquest but an illegal robbery carried out so that

a hungry army could eat. The victims of this destructive machine of blood and death are

always the innocent citizens. One of war themes of the play is that little people cannot

profit from a war which runs only for the profit of the greater authorities.

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Since Mother Courage and her Children is an anti-war socio-political play, it

stimulates the audience’s consciousness and states that, “men are indeed mostly

motivated by concern for their own material and physical well-being” (Spiers: 1990, 94).

The play explains that war presents an opportunity for profit, ranging from politicians and

world leaders through to civilians. Brecht’s protagonist Mother Courage is a civilian, who

exploits the war by selling food and clothing to soldiers, giving her petit-bourgeois status.

Comfortable in her status she ignores the damaging effects of her business and as a result

her business costs Mother Courage her children. Consequently, Brecht’s play explains

that Mother Courage consents to the system that murdered her children, “the harm done

to her children is associated with her business dealings. These business dealings,

however, are the means by which she attempts to fulfill a mother’s obligation to provide

for her family.” (Spiers: 1990, 99). The audience is not being asked to identify with

Courage, although some of them would have been shop owners etc, but to stand back and

think about the actions and how they could have been avoided. By placing the action in a

historical situation the audience can be made to think: “Is this how things are? This is

terrible, the suffering must stop”. Ergo Brecht’s dialectics encourages his audience not to

consent to such damaging systems.

In the Brechtian theatre, themes and dramatic techniques are dialectically welded

together to produce the final premise of the play. When we come to Bertolt Brecht’s epic

drama, we actually come to a modern exploitation of the episodic plot technique. The

traditional cause and effect plot with its pattern of exposition, conflict, climax and

resolution is generally ignored. As an alternative, Brecht should have something rather

than cause and effect to connect the separate parts of his play. He finds in ‘theme’ the

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suitable means to achieve this unity. Twelve separate scenes are presented in Mother

Courage and her Children; each does not cause the next, yet all are thematically related

to one another. At this point of ‘thematic unity’, the ideas and the techniques are

manipulated and interwoven with each other. The whole play is regarded as an off-

product of corruption of war and how human values are profoundly tainted by the

circumstances of such deadly business. Each scene presents a variation on this theme but

it does not cause the next.

In short, the twelve scenes of Mother Courage and her Children share the same

war theme although they are presented through fragmentary incidents and different

characters. The total corruption of society is an inevitable output of war circumstances.

War always strives to establish its own ethics, substituting the peace ethics and

demolishing man’s moral values. He shows peace being less prosperous, a state in which

finances are less assured.

To shed light on how Brecht creates his own premises, in the notes to The Rise

and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1928-1929), he makes a schematic table using key

words whereby the basic changes of emphasis as between the dramatic and the epic

theatre are sketched.


plot Narrative

implicates the spectator in a stage situation turns the spectator into an observer, but

wears down his capacity for action arouses his capacity for action

provides him with sensations forces him to make decisions

Experience picture of the world

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the spectator is involved in something he is made to face something

Suggestion Argument

instinctive feelings are preserved brought to the point of recognition

the spectator is in the thick of it, the spectator stands outside,

shares the experience Studies

the human being is taken for granted the human being is the object of the inquiry

he is unalterable he is alterable and able to alter

eyes on the finish eyes on the course

one scene makes another each scene for itself

Growth Montage

linear development in curves

evolutionary determinism Jumps

man as a fixed point man as a process

Thought determines being social being determines thought

Feeling reason

(Dukore: 1974, 847)

The comparisons in the table are not antithetical, but rather indicate what he viewed as a

necessary shift from the dramatic to the epic mode. Brecht proposed a more active

theatre-and-audience relationship. Rather than a theatre that was set up as a place for the

spectators to passively immerse themselves in an emotionally involved story that was

geared toward the climax and catharsis that plot promises and delivers, Brecht desired

and established a theatre that challenged the spectators to think for themselves and

respond to the social issues that were brought to light by the performance.

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The table also clearly lists the characteristics of epic theatre’s form. Epic theatre

uses narrative (not plot), episodic (not climactic) scenes, montage (not dramatic

development), curves (not linear development), and scenes that jump (not cause and

effect). These characteristics are needed as methodological tools to achieve the desired

premises. Since plot tends to draw the spectator into “the story,” Brecht introduces the

use of narratives, in which the spectator only becomes an observer. Moreover, it is

presented episodically with scenes that can jump to any places or time without the

spectator’s anticipation. This will make the spectator expelled from the story anytime s/he

is drawn into it. Even more surprising, as a montage, the scenes can be presented in a

series of non-linear scenes in which the spectator could not but think about what is going

on on stage.

Eilif, for instance, in Mother Courage and her Children, joins the army without

his mother’s consent and become a cutthroat soldier. The General rewards him for one of

his courageous deeds that he killed many Catholic peasants taking their cows for his

hungry soldiers. The General praises him by saying, “you’ve the makings of a young

Caesar. You ought to see the king.” (Scene 2, 18) Eilif repeats the same deed but during

a short peace interlude between the Protestants and the Catholics. He is now regarded as a

war criminal and should be executed. Eilif is trying to justify his crime by saying that

“It’s what I did last time, ain’t it?.” (Scene 8, 69) But the Cook answers him, “Aye, but

it’s peace now.” (Scene 8, 69) Eilif’s actions are antiheroic, directly contributing to the

death and destruction of war. His behavior counters his sibling’s bravery, balancing the

heroic with antiheroic actions. What Brecht points out is not the criminality of war but

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the ways (as Scene One sets out) that war creates its own system of order. Eilif’s heroic

deed in wartime is a crime during peace.

As far as Eilif’s incident is concerned, the spectator in the Brechtian theatre is

stimulated to draw his own conclusion (the synthesis) as in the following statement:

killing innocent peasants is a crime whether it is committed during war-time or during

peace-time. Eilif’s inability to distinguish between the moral values of war and peace

leads him to his tragic destiny. Consequently, the synthesis is formulated in the

spectator’s mind rather than it is mentioned in the text. Brecht differs from Shaw that the

former does not establish any written synthesis in the text. Brecht establishes the first

incident as a thesis; Eilif’s second action during peace time as the antithesis; whereas the

synthesis is left for the readers or the spectators to think of. (Brecht: 1974, 229)

Therefore, most of Brecht’s plays are open-ended.

The main dialectical conflict is presented in Mother Courage’s character. She is

caught in the contradiction between being a merchant and being a mother, between

business and motherhood. It is about the inevitable loss that the mother suffers as she

tries to negotiate these contradictory demands. She aims at exploiting war circumstances

and to get money but without paying the price. She wants to maintain her family during

the war and by means of it. She wants to serve the army and also to keep out of its

clutches. Dealing with war there is no compromise either death or life. But what

happened indeed that Mother Courage sacrificed her children in order to make a living.

Brecht uses the exceptional circumstances or war as a means of forcing the contradictions

in her character to the surface; to dramatically confront and reveal the contradictions

through the brutal event so the war. Mother Courage continually curses war yet embraces

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its circumstances for profit and survival. Peace means uncertainty and loss to her, and

there is no profit in uncertainty. Of her two goals, preserving her family through the war

and turning a profit, she achieves neither by the play’s end. All her children are dead, the

canteen wagon is nearly empty, and she has little money. She is now resigned to hauling

the wagon by herself.

She praises war when her business is being flourished, describing war as “Nice

way to get living.” (Act 7, 59) but she curses war when she counts her losses, “War be

damned.” (Act 7, 59) Brecht represents Mother Courage as a social phenomenon which

always flourishes during wartime. She is a good representative of a bourgeois who wants

to keep her family together and her cart moving. She advises her three children not to go

deep in this war, but she is completely contradicting herself since her trade completely

depends on the continuity of war. Hence, she cannot keep herself out of the war which

will destroy her family. In Act one Mother Courage warns her sons, taking a sheet of

parchment and tearing it into two, then she says, “Eilif, Swiss Cheese, Kattrin! May all of

us be torn apart like this if we let ourselves get too mixed up in the war.” (Act I, 9)

Mother Courage is both hero and antihero; each of her positive actions has a

negative complement. Brecht shows this duality as a negative consequence of war. It is

an unnatural vicious state in which common values are challenged at every turn; people

are forced to act on both their good and bad impulses, in the hopes that a balance of the

two forces will insure success. Mother Courage’s behavior is driven by a need to survive

during wartime, yet by the time the action in the play begins, it is clear her priorities on

this matter have become twisted. She has equated the relentless pursuit of profit (her

antiheroic side) with success and survival; she comes to believe that if she is profitable, it

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will allow her family to survive the war. She has allowed this side of her to rule each

situation, despite what her heroic nature might dictate. Yet in the end her pragmatism and

devotion to commerce leaves her emotionally and financially bankrupt. It is this last point

that hammers home Brecht’s primary theme in the play: war is pointless, it robs people of

their humanity, and, ultimately, everyone involved loses. While gains may be made in

geographic terms, humanity is left poorer for the experience.

Mother Courage and her three children represent another dialectical technique of

characterization and structure in the play in achieving the unity of opposites towards

producing the final promise of the play. Eilif, Swiss Cheese and Kattrin stand for various

excessive virtues during wartime and they are consequently killed by them. Swiss

Cheese, the honest paymaster, refuses to hand over the regimental cash box to the

enemies and is killed, although his mother could save him by paying the compensation on

the right moment, but she hesitates and haggles too long on the amount of the ransom.

Eilif is executed because of his heroic deed. Kattrin, Mother Courage’s mute daughter, is

killed by the Catholics while she is beating a drum so as to awaken the sleeping citizens

of Halle. This emphasis on the virtuous elements of Mother Courage’s sons helps Brecht

to establish and to stress the negative side of Mother Courage. Dialectically speaking,

Courage’s cowardice and viciousness cannot critically be grasped without her sons’

virtues in the sense that Courage sacrifices and subordinates her family and her

motherhood to her commercial inclination. Both sides, Courage and her Children are

necessary to formulate the final effect of the contradiction (e.g. the synthesis).

In short, the technique of unity of opposites used by Brecht reminds us of the

conventional struggle between desire and duty but with some twists. In portraying his

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characters and their action, Brecht emphasizes the socio-political circumstances as basic

motivations for the attitudes of human beings more than any conventional playwright did.

Therefore, a clash between two characters simply means a clash between two social or

political phenomena which are produced by certain existing circumstances of society.

Like Bernard Shaw, Brecht uses the dialectics and the unity of opposites in

portraying his characters and their action but with one difference. Shaw always mentions

the three main dialectical elements of his conflict in the text: thesis, antithesis and

synthesis; whereas Brecht does not. Brecht always leaves the synthesis for the spectators

to formulate in their minds. Brecht felt that identifying such contradictions was an

essential part of the theatre’s role. In his mature work, however, this interest in

contradiction and dialectic becomes more positive, and Brecht’s reading of Voltaire and

classical Chinese philosophy makes it into an exercise in clear thinking. Nonetheless, the

point is that these many contradictions are not the result of poor characterization – rather,

they are realistic portraits of the way that real people behave in a contradictory world.

War produces another corruption as a socio-political phenomenon: the Chaplain.

He stands for men of religion who do not practice what they preach. In wartime, the

chaplain is expected to be of great benefit to raise the soldiers’ spirit; on the contrary, the

Brechtian Chaplain is coward, disguising, chopping wood , pulling the wagon and

escaping from place to place in order to save his skin.

Mother Courage allows two refugees, the Cook and the Chaplain, potential

husbands or business partners to pitch their lot in with hers. She refuses both men and

chooses instead her independence, her cart and her remaining family. The Chaplain is a

speaker not a doer and any physical work he does is seen to be alien to him. He is

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declaring his interest and yet at the same time having to do manual labour, which he

considers to be both repugnant and beneath him. “He seeks to live off the ‘business’ and

at the same time to keep aloof from it.” (Mennemeier: 1962, 144) Mother Courage is very

deliberately teasing him with the fact that she is interested in the Cook. Her pipe smoking

should be both flirtatious and provocative. To the Chaplain, the sight of Mother Courage

smoking the cook’s pipe signals that he will not win her over into having a relationship.

The Chaplain first appears glorifying this great religious war by telling the Cook

that, “It is a war of faith. None of your common wars but a special one, fought for the

faith and therefore pleasing to God.” (Sc. 3, 25) Then he argues that “the war will always

find an outlet, mark my words, why should it ever stop?” (Sc. 6, 54) But when the canons

of this “special war” roar, the Chaplain is scared and he says to Mother Courage, “Ah

well, I’ll be going too. Indeed, if the enemy is so close as that it might be dangerous.

Blessed are the peacemakers is the motto in wartime. If only I had a cloak to cover me.”

(Sc.3, 28) The speed with which the Chaplain changes his robes when he learns the

Catholics are attacking demonstrates that his religious principles are instantly superseded

by his cowardice in the face of danger. The Chaplain is a cynical and wooden character;

he represents a contradictory situation which is usually created in such people by the

circumstances of war. He is at his best in time of war, when high morals take second

place to necessity; in peacetime, however, he is sanctimonious and hypocritical. As usual

in Brecht, it is not religion which is being criticized; it is its double standards and denial

of material reality.

Furthermore, the willingness of people to hide their faith when faced with

persecutions is evident when the Chaplain with the Swedish army dresses himself

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different as he and mother courage are captured by a Catholic army. From that scene, one

can realize that religion does not just spread from generation to generation; sometimes it

can spread through force, which ultimately changes a society’s culture. Despite the fact

that the war had started as a religious war, because of its length many people had become

apathetic about their religion at the end. This can be seen in the play as mother courage

comes across an area that was under bombardment; some soldiers and the Chaplain try to

help hurt peasants: “No way of sorting ’em out in a bombardment.” (Sc. 5, 49). The

difference of religions no longer mattered, people needed help.

After Kattrin has left, Courage lights up the Cook’s pipe, and the Chaplain

converses with her as he chops firewood. He dislikes the Cook, while Courage quite likes

him, a foreshadowing of their future sexual partnership. He complains that his clerical

talents are being underused, “I happen to be a pastor of souls, not a wood-cutter” (Sc. 6,

55) and - with ambiguous motives - suggests a marriage, or at least a closer (perhaps

sexual) relationship.

The Chaplain: Don’t change the subject. Seriously, Courage, I

sometimes ask my self what it would be like if our relationship

were to become somewhat closer. I mean, given that the

whirlwind of war has so strangely whirled us together.

Mother Courage: I’d say it was close enough. I cook meals for

you and you run around and chop firewood for instance.

The Chaplain (coming closer: You know what I mean by closer;

it’s not a relationship founded on meals and wood-chopping and

other such base necessities. Let your head speak, harden thyself

not. (Sc.6, 57)

She hints that she does not want to take anyone into her business, and when he tries to

appeal to her soul, she tells him, “Be sensible, padre. I like you. I don’t want to row you.

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All I’m after is get myself and children through all this with my cart. I don’t see it as

mine, and I ain’t in the mood for private affairs.” (Sc. 6, 57)

In Scene Six, the Chaplain rhetorically asks his famous question, “Where is the

hole once the cheese has been eaten?” (Sc. 6, 53) The Chaplain sees that war is the

standard occurrence (the cheese) and peace as merely an interim incidence (the holes in

the cheese). Thus peace is nothing without a backdrop of war upon it; a hole is only a

hole - it contains nothing. The substance of life is war. This type of dialectical

relationship used by the capitalists and military men reminds us of the speech of the

Sergeant in Scene One. He says, “takes a war to restore order.” (Scene 1, 3) or “no order,

no war.” (Scene 1, 4) Concerning Mother Courage and her children, obviously, (the

cheese) is her children and (the hole) is how she understands her reality. She loves them

but this love is abstract, which is restrained to their obedience to her and to their work

with her. As long as they keep these restrictions, she will keep them safe. She could not

understand that her children have their own entities. She sees only the hole, but her

children are real people with real ambitions. Each child represents a virtue but in

excessiveness during wartime. Swiss Cheese is a man of integrity, but she sees him as a

fool. Kattrin is kind and human, but Mother Courage could not see the substance of this

kindness and humanity in Kattrin’s depth. She slams her daughter in every interaction

they have. For instance, she rebukes her for risking her life to save a baby from a burning

house. Mother Courage does not accept Eilif’s death and she regarded it as useless. Their

use to her (her reality) was a hole framed in substance (their children), when (the cheese)

is lost, the hole is exposed to never have existed. When the cheese - the children - is gone,

she is nothing, and the play is over. Mother Courage has lost what supports her, and the

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story vanishes into thin air. We no longer care about Mother Courage, because what

supported her personality so fully was her children. What happens to the hole when the

cheese is gone? Mother Courage could not find the answer which is simply: it disappears.

One of the most dangerous ramifications of war is prostitution. Millions of

women have been involved in prostitution for survival on the streets. As a sad illustration

of further social decay, there are about a millions women who have turned to prostitution

due to the war-caused break down of social structures and traditional security

mechanisms in the world. Thus, many women see the streets and prostitution as a way to

freedom from conflict. Some women are also see in prostitution a way to earn more

money. Yvette in Mother Courage and her Children is no exception. The character of

Yvette is a perfect example of how bad people profit form war and capitalism. Yvette is

a whore. She follows the soldiers wherever they go. She relies on the war to make

money. She manipulates a colonel into (nearly) buying the wagon for her, and uses her

manipulative skills to marry his older brother. When her husband dies she bets his

inheritance. It is sad that she became a whore in the first place, but that she profited so

well out if it is unfair. When directing the character of Yvette, she would at first be

played as bitter, as she is yet to have much success in her trade. Later in the play, when

she is getting the colonel to buy something for her, it must be made clear that she has

grown more cunning and learnt how to bend people to her will. Later again, when she

has received her dead husbands inheritance, she must be played as slightly smug, with a

new sense of power over the soldiers she used to depend on.

Yvette appears first in Scene Three when Mother Courage advises her, “Don’t

you know you ain’t s’posed to drink before midday with your complaint?” (Sc. 3, 22)

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Yvette has a venereal disease and she refuses to discuss this matter since her business

depends on. Bertolt Brecht diminishes the traditional roles of characters because they

have to survive according to their situation, a confused war torn society. Mother Courage

and Yvette are two characters that are individualistic and have to survive. The aim is to

demonstrate how characters behave and react to social values according to the needs of

the situations they are placed in, whether they conform to social rules as expected

traditionally or whether they react in a more individualistic ways. In the play, moral and

social issues both merge into one another. The people in the play behave as required by

the dictates of war. They cannot afford to be moralistic, so they tend to be amoral in order

to survive. Like Shaw’s point of view of prostitution in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, there

is no condemnation to Yvette’s occupation because this is her only form of survival. In

other words, Yvette is not going against any social or moral norms because there are not

any, but if there was a society then Yvette would be isolated from society.

To Brecht, war is a political will and decision with destructive and disparaging

social consequences. War is always in the mud, “it’s a matter of hauling the war out of

the mud again.” (Sc. 6, 53) The best people who can do so are the kings, emperors or the

popes; they are such friends in need. Brecht saw war as an exaggerated form of

capitalism where people are driven by greed to consume. For example the Recruiting

Officer sizes up Eilif and Swiss Cheese as if he were buying farm animals. Yvette

changes her physicality, literally rebuilding herself when she is for sale. When Mother

Courage is at the peak of her business career she is robed in articles which express her


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Consequently, Mother Courage cannot resolve the conflicting roles of mother and

trader and the tragedy of this play is that she thinks she can. She has to make her living

from the war and the war will exact its price. Her wagon is like a military service station

providing for the war, while the war provides for her and her family. Instead of launching

her children’s lives, Mother Courage is trying to suppress their instinct towards

independence and action because the war is not a safe place to grow up. The result is a

comprehensive obliteration of lives, ethics and values.

The Socio-political Context Determines the Characters’

Behaviour Like Ibsen and Shaw, Bertolt Brecht relies on the technique of metamorphosis to

transfer the character into the opposite side, the side which is determined by socio-

political factors. In The Threepenny Opera, Polly is the only character who undergoes

any significant change in the course of the play. When the play opens, she is a young,

naïve girl who has fallen in love. She is initially horrified by the criminality of her new

husband, but gradually she accepts the circumstances of Macheath’s business and even

agrees to lead the gang in his absence. By the time Macheath has escaped from jail, Polly

has been coarsened enough to try to trick Lucy into revealing where Macheath is hiding.

The social circumstances play a tremendous role in portraying all Polly’s later behaviour,

action and reaction. Polly’s relationship with Macheath causes the change within her

character. She initially experiences his world of depravity and criminality with horror.

But Polly eventually accepts the brutality all around her and helps to make Macheath’s

thieves accept her as their new boss after Macheath tells them he has to leave. At the

jailhouse with Lucy, Polly exhibits a toughness that contrasts her perceived sweetness.

This toughness belies the jealousy that lies beneath, and it displays a virtuous girl that has

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become cruel. Therefore, Polly undergoes internal and external conflict: Polly the

innocent and Polly the professional. The external conflict that the social circumstances

the personal choice put her face to face with Macheath. These conflicts are put in a

dialectical formula of thesis anti-thesis and synthesis.

Brecht skillfully and artistically combines the two techniques of metamorphosis

and the unity of opposites to generate a new dynamic situation. His dramatic premise of

the socio-political power on the individual mannerism is very clear from the very

beginning. In a capitalist society in which competition rewards callousness and brutality,

the characters are forced to trample on each other to survive. In The Threepenny Opera,

characters make decisions not based on psychology but on the need or desire for material

things such as money. Every action that furthers the plot in the play is based on a

character pursuing self-interest. Peachum decides to bring down Macheath because losing

his daughter will hurt his business, not because he fears for her life in the hands of a

criminal. He does not consider Polly’s feelings for Macheath or care that she loves him;

his business concerns motivate him to destroy their marriage. Jenny turns in Macheath

because she needs the money, not because she hates him for abusing her. Instead of

showing loyalty to his friend, Brown agrees to capture Macheath because he is afraid of

Peachum’s beggars disrupting the queen’s coronation. Everyone appears in one way or

another to be engaged in the effort to cut someone else’s throat for his own gain. Polly is

the only character who acts out of love and not self-interest. She truly loves Macheath, so

she is willing to do anything to help him. Her sweet nature turns to toughness when she

must take over Macheath’s business, but her love for Macheath never diminishes even

when he betrays her and tells Lucy that Polly is not his wife. On the other hand, the social

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needs that are met by the characters’ activities are not generally regarded as healthy

needs. Differences exist among them as to the character of their work; thievery and

murder exist at one level, prostitution at another, merchandising of the beggars at still


Macheath (also known as Mack the Knife) and his gang rule the lower class world

of nineteenth century London. They steal, murder and rape, partially for profit and partly

because they can. Macheath is a rather predatory creature filled with cynical contempt for

all human beings no matter in what relation they stand to him. Operating on the basis of

expediency, he is caught up with forces he does not understand and which almost succeed

in destroying him. Suddenly Macheath quits thievery, and open a bank (less risk in

banking and better profit). It is the same metamorphoses we have found in Hedda Gabler,

Doolittle and Eliza. He is dissatisfied, though, with the small-time criminal life and

aspires to middle-class legitimacy. Macheath does not change during the course of the

play. At the end he remains a ruthless criminal who cannot see beyond his own self-

interest. He never expresses remorse for his crimes, nor does he consider whether he

should have done something differently. He always narrowly focuses on his immediate

desires and needs.

Macheath’s middle-class aspirations embody another set of values: the belief in

upward mobility and economic progress. Traditionally, these values are associated with a

progression toward power and responsibility. The socio-political background of the play

and the milieu in which the character lives in strappingly determine Macheath’s

behaviour. Macheath wants to leave his life of crime, put his money into a bank, and

acquire the trappings of middle-class life like quality furniture, tableware, and manners.

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Despite wanting to leave crime, Macheath has no intention, though, of changing his

values. He steals the domestic niceties he desires, continues to visit the whorehouse even

though he is married, and plans to betray his friends to make it easier to stay on the right

path. By showing Macheath’s desire for economic legitimacy as completely unconnected

to any change, Brecht reveals that although Macheath may plan to leave his life of crime

for a safer profession, his values will remain unchanged. Macheath’s actions display two

examples of the alienation effect. Later in the scene, when Macheath is talking with Lucy,

he tells her that he would like to owe her his life, and she asks him to say this line again

to her.

Mac: Lucy, I should like to owe you my life.

Lucy: It’s wonderful the way you say that. Say it again.

Mac: Lucy, I should like to owe you my life.

(Act II, Sc. 6, 53)

This exchange could be played naturalistically, as sweet banter between two old lovers.

The other example comes earlier in the scene, when, after staring down Brown, Macheath

steps out of the scene and speaks to the audience directly to comment on what he just did.

These moments break the audience’s emotional connection to the performers and leave

them free to evaluate the characters and events of the play critically.

Macheath’s metamorphosis from a criminal into a business man is justified by his

speech before he goes to the scaffold and it critiques the competitiveness of capitalism.

Ladies and gentlemen: You see before you a declining

representative of a declining social group. We lower-class

artisans who toil with our humble jimmies on small shopkeepers’

cash registers are being swallowed up by big corporations

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backed by the banks. What’s murdering a man compared with

employing a man?

(Act III, Sc. 9, 76)

Macheath compares the tools of his trade to those of banks and major corporations. Theft

by physical force is nothing compared to theft by economic means. Macheath steals from

only a few, while a bank steals from all by consolidating money and power into the hands

of the rich. Macheath may be a murderer, but that role is nowhere near as bad as being an

employer. This comparison portrays Macheath as the ironic hero because he commits

crimes against fewer people than does Peachum or the rest of society. The implication is

that employment brutalizes and exploits people far more than even murder. The socio-

political premise is now complete: the corrupted socio-political circumstances of the

character decide his mannerism. In such a society governed by the rule of exploitation it

is the same whether you are a common thief or an official thief.

The Issue of Social Justice: The Caucasian Chalk Circle The issue of justice has been an archaic controversial argument. Justice without

being restricted by public laws is often called ‘wild justice’. The universal legal system

evolved from the need to tame wild justice that was tearing apart early civilization.

Justice, in its legal shape, may be dated back to sixth century B.C. Athens with the genius

of Solon (638 BC-558 BC). (Bordenn: 1999, 12) Politicians, poets, philosophers,

soldiers, merchants, practical economists as well as social critics came to power in

revolutionary times with a mission to put an end to the cycles of disciplinary violence that

had overwhelmed Greece for centuries. During Solon’s time, many Greek city-states had

seen the emergence of tyrants, opportunistic noblemen who had grabbed power on behalf

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of sectional interests. Athens wanted peace and order, and turned to the man who had

communicated his vision of social order and the need for justice through his poetry.

Solon laid the foundation for a democratic system of justice through the first of a

series of constitutions that gave birth to democracy. He instituted changes and established

a legal code that brokered a non-violent social revolution and transformed the passion for

vengeance into a justice system. (Bordenn: 1999, 12) This system was based on rule of

and equality before the law, a redeployment of power through law, and resolution of

conflict through a public court system with juries of peers in an adversarial process

before the presiding judge. Religion was separated from the administration of justice for

the first time in human history. In other words, Solon converted private revenge into

public justice. He harnessed wild justice and made it a central part of democracy.

Aeschylus* (525 BC-456 BC) was also a poet, a philosopher, a soldier, and like

Solon, a fighter for justice, but his genius lay in drama. As Solon was creator of

democracy, Aeschylus was creator of tragic drama and he used his art form as a weapon

for democracy, law, and the peaceful resolution of conflict. During his time political

upheaval threatened to sweep away democratic justice. Amidst that first crisis in 458

B.C., Aeschylus produced the Oresteia*, the greatest tragic drama in human history. It is

* Aeschylus Greek[Aiskhulos] (525–456 BC) a dramatist and poet He wrote some ninety plays of which seven survive. These are the trilogy Agamemnon, Choephorae (The Libation Bearers) and Eumenides known as Oresteia, together with Prometheus Bound, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians and The Suppliant Women. He was said to have been killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. (Coleman: 2007, 27)

* The Oresteia, a trilogy, was performed in 458 BC, less than two years before Aeschylus’ death. Once again, he dealt with the tragedy of a royal house, a “hereditary curse” which began in a dim, legendary world in which Tantalus was cast into the pit of Tartarus for revealing to mankind the secrets of the gods. This situation paralleled events in Aeschylus' own life. He was reportedly charged with "impiety" for revealing the Eleusinian mysteries--the secret rites of the city of his birth--to outsiders. It is likely, however, that these charges were politically motivated, and he was not convicted.

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a window into the evolution of Athenian justice, the principles underlying its law, and the

threats to justice inherent in human passions. The play is a transcendental plea for

democratic justice.

Zeus was both the youngest and the oldest of the brothers who were sons of

Cronus and Rhea. He became the undisputed king of the gods. Although he appears

comical in many stories, he was a symbol of order and justice to the ancient Greeks. In

art, he appears as a dignified, bearded man, often holding a thunderbolt. (Colakis: 2007,

20) Maat is depicted as a woman standing or sitting on her heels. On her head she wears

the ostrich feather which is an ideogram of her name - truth or justice. She was the

Goddess of law, truth and justice. The texts describe her as the cherished daughter and

confidante of Ra, and also the wife of Thoth, the judge of the Gods who was also called

‘the Master of Maat.’ (New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology: 1987, 52) All other

ancient civilizations had gods of justice: Utu was a Sumerian sun-god and god of justice.

He was son of Nanna and Ningal and brother of Inanna. He acted as judge of men by day

and of the dead by night. Yü Ti was a Buddhist god of justice in Chinese mythology.

Akonadi was a West African goddess of justice and a guardian of women. Armaiti was a

Persian goddess of justice. Dabog was a Russian goddess of sun and justice. Anbay was

an Arabian god of justice. Dharma was a Hindu god of justice and truth. Enki was a

Mesopotamian (Sumerian) creator-god of justice, water, magic and wisdom. (Coleman:

2007, 21) This huge number of gods and goddesses of justice of the ancient history

clearly indicates the importance of this side of life in the human existence.

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The Athenian legal system served as a frame of reference for the first codification

of Roman law. Greek drama, and the sociological, scientific and, psychological principles

underlying ancient law played a role in the evolution of a great and complex Roman

jurisprudence. Then as Rome declined and fell, civilization sank into the “darkness of the

worst of times” (Bordenn: 1999, 13) and justice seemed to be extinguished by societies

ruled by greed, cruel power, and raw vengeance. The furies retook Justice. Primitive

magical thinking and belief in the supernatural buried the scientific attitude. Then

Demonology and witchcraft metamorphosed into a cruel scapegoating preoccupation that

became twin to the Plague and turned human understanding into chaos.

In drama the theme of justice has a long legacy. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex,

Oedipus seeks to do justice by following strictly the law he has himself decreed, in a

world in which, as we discover, human justice is simply not the measure of the order of

things. In Antigone, Creon punishes Antigone for her crime and tries to put the state back

together after a horrifyingly destructive civil war. He ends up destroying both Antigone

and his own family, as well as his kingship, leaving the state once again in chaos.

(Larner: 1998, 3) Is this justice? The matter is more complicated to be answered by yes or


We are left with prominently similar sets of dilemmas about justice in

Shakespeare’s tragedies. If Othello had known what injustice was being practiced on

him, he would have ended it. A great injustice is done to Othello the Moor. Othello is

manipulated by the villain Iago to satiate Iago’s need for control and his desire for

revenge. Othello the General has promoted another, Cassio, to hold the position that Iago

feels he deserves. For the injustice that Iago feels has been committed against him, he

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brings about the destruction of Othello and his wife, Desdemona, using Cassio as his tool

for doing so. (Stoll: 1967, 57) But, unknowing, he “loved not wisely but too well,” and

destroyed what he valued most. Where was the justice in Iago’s practice on him? He

futilely tried his best to expose to others the amount of injustice he had received.

Consequently, he stands mute at the end of the play, “Demand me nothing. What you

know you know./ From this time forth I never will speak word.” (V, ii, 300-301). Othello

finally discovers what he has done; he kills himself-not from shame or remorse, but as an

act of justice.

In Macbeth, Macbeth himself knows, as we do, what is just. But he is tempted by

evil, commits himself to it, and follows through, in the end losing everything he sought to

promote. The justice which is at stake for Malcolm and his allies, seeking to avenge the

murdered king and restore the state, is then theirs to seize. The imagery of the play

suggests that nature itself reflects human justice, becoming warped, strange, diseased and

dangerous when evil is afoot, and orderly and benign when the health of the kingdom is

restored. Interestingly, this imagery suggests that nature takes its instruction from human

inclination and behavior—that justice forms, and deforms, in nature as it does in our own

hearts and minds.

In Hamlet, Hamlet unjustly rejects Ophelia, rebukes his mother, recklessly kills

the person behind the arras who turns out to be Polonius, and to save his own life, agrees

to go to England. We are left with the feeling that justice, which deserted Denmark when

Old Hamlet was killed, is returning to its seat, and the new order will now play itself out.

Daniel Larner wonders whether there is justice in Hamlet or not. “Was justice done?

What was the justice that was done?” (Larner: 1998, 4) In tragedy the limits of

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understanding must be stretched to the breaking point to know what the limits are. So our

ideas of justice are stretched, in drama, beyond their ability to take the weight placed on

them by everyday affairs.

The main episode of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Der kaukasische Kreidekries

was first produced, in English, in Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, 1947) is

derived from an old Chinese legend which speaks of a quarrel between two women, each

of whom claimed that a baby belonged to her.* A circle of chalk was drawn on the

ground; the baby was put in the centre of it. The two women were asked to take an arm of

the baby, and they are told to pull the child out of the circle. The true mother preferred to

lose the test rather than to hurt the baby. Therefore, the judgment was that the actual

mother was the woman who refused to pull the baby. This episode is dramatized as Act

Five. The complexities of the issue in this representation is great, it involves highly

political and social maneuverings and questions of justice.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is divided into a prologue and five acts. The setting

of the prologue is Georgia, Summer, 1945, the end of the Second World War. Amidst the

ruins of a badly shelled Caucasian village two opposing sides meet to discuss the future

of a valley. One group, the Rosa Luxemburg kolchos, is arable farmers who remained in

the valley during the war and successfully defended the village from the Nazis. The other

* In his Circle Brecht made use of elements of theme, structure and plot from a 13th or 14th century Chinese play Huilaw, or The Chalk Circle, by Li Xingfu, a play Brecht saw in German translation. See (Clark: 1960 227-58) for an English translation. He also may have been influenced by the story of Solomon in I Kings 3:16-28.) The Biblical story relates that two women came to Solomon, both of them claiming the same child, he ordered the child cut in half. The true mother chose to instead give the entire baby to the other woman, thereby revealing to Solomon that she was in fact the mother.

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group, the Galinsk kolchos, is goat-herders and were moved on during the fighting to

graze their animals elsewhere. Now they have returned and the two sides must decide

who is to get the land. An agronomist reveals irrigation plans which will mean a

substantial increase in crop production. Reluctantly the Galinsk kolchos agree, even

though historically the land has belonged to them. The dialectic, therefore, questions the

polarities of justice and injustice.

A famous Singer is called upon to tell a story to seal the contract. The whole

action of the next five acts are related a famous Georgian singer in order to illustrate

ethically the answer to this episode. This entire prologue is extremely Communist in its

message. Any capitalist society would argue that whoever originally owned the land

should get it. Brecht instead argues that whoever can best use the land should get it. It is

because of the Communist overtones in the prologue that Brecht originally did not allow

the prologue to be printed while he was living in the United States.

The five acts, in turn, consist of two parallel stories. The first three acts, which

form about half the play, deal with Grusha’s flight from the town, her dangerous journey

to the northern mountains and her marriage with the dying man. The last two acts deal

with Azdak the rascal judge and the episode of the chalk circle.

Act One starts in Georgia, the long ago. The country, led by the Grand Duke, is

fighting a disastrous foreign war with Persia. In the small town of Nukha all seems calm.

A Governor, Georgi Abashvili, and his wife, Natella, leave their palace to go to church on

Easter Sunday. Their only son and heir, Michael, is shown to the crowds for the first

time. But a military revolution led by the princes, who are unhappy at the way the war is

being conducted, is underway. They want to drive out the Grand Duke and his governors

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and the Fat Prince oversees the capture and beheading of Governor Georgi. Riots break

out in the town and the palace is thrown into chaos. As servants try and pack for the

Governor’s Wife to escape, Simon, a palace guard, and Grusha, a servant, get engaged.

The Governor’s Wife, hurrying as the fighting gets worse, flees, leaving her child

Michael behind. The Fat Prince orders his troops, the Ironshirts, to search for the child,

offering 1000 piastres as a reward. After a night of soul-searching, Grusha steals away

with Michael.

The second and the third acts deal with Grusha’s sufferings during her escape

with the baby to the northern mountains. She buys milk with her last few coins in order to

save the hungry child; she escapes from the Ironshirts who follow her to bring the child

back; she crosses a rickety bridge risking her life to save the child from the soldiers; she

accepts to marry a dying man in order to provide shelter to the baby. Finally, when

Simon, her fiancé, returns from the war, he finds that Grusha has already a husband and a

child. She tries to explain the situation when suddenly the Irionshirts seize the boy and

Grusha bursts into tears crying, “Leave him here, please! He’s mine!” (Act III, 170),

allowing Simon to suspect her of unfaithfulness rather than to give away the child to the

Ironshirts. Thus, Simon is satisfied that the child really belongs to her and no one else.

This incident ends the first story of the play.

The beginning of the second part moves back to the first incident in Act One, the

rebellion against the Grand Duke in Grusinia, (a fictional historic country in the

Caucasus) telling us how Azdak became a judge who uses a large law book as a pillow to

sit on. The Singer starts Act Four by singing the following lines:

Hear the story of the judge

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How he turned judge, how he passed judgment, what kind of

judge he was.

On that Easter Sunday of the great revolt, when the Grand Duke

was overthrown

And his Governor Abashwili, father of our child, lost his head

The village Scrivener Azdak found a fugitive in the woods and

hid him in his hut.

(Act IV, 171)

Azdak, in fact, did not hand the fugitive over to the police. When Azdak later

recognized the fugitive as the Grand Duke, he felt that he participated in a criminal act by

hiding a fugitive in his cottage. Therefore, he gave himself up to the court of Ironshirts

confessing what he had done. The officers were amused by his jests and made him a

judge. Azdak ruled as a judge for two years. He accepted bribes, but those bribes did not

affect his judgments. “He has one principle, that the rights of the poor are disregarded and

that this situation must be reversed.” (Gray: 1969, 110) This paradoxical behaviour is

itself a version of Solomonic Law, based on the Biblical story of Solomon and the baby.

When two women came to Solomon, both of them claiming the same child, he ordered

the child cut in half. The true mother chose to instead give the entire baby to the other

woman, thereby revealing to Solomon that she was in fact the mother.

After two years a counter revolt brings the old authority and the Grand Duke is

back. Azdak is declared an enemy of the new regime and is stripped of his judge’s robes.

He is about to be hanged when a messenger arrives announcing the Grand Duke would

like Azdak to remain as judge. The Duke has not forgotten how Azdak saved his life.

Azdak presides over a trial in which he must judge. Grusha is accused of having stolen

the baby of the Governor’s wife during the chaos of the rebellion in the palace. Hearing

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both arguments, Azdak is unable to decide. Azdak invokes the ancient wisdom of the

Chalk Circle: Michael is placed in the centre of a circle and whoever is strong enough to

pull him out must be the right mother. Grusha won’t pull, she cannot hurt him. Azdak

orders the women to repeat the trial. Grusha again cannot pull. Azdak judges that she

must be the right mother. Natella faints. Simon and Grusha thank Azdak, who signs the

divorce papers – not the divorce of the old couple but Grusha’s divorce from the man she

married in the mountains. Everyone dances. Azdak disappears. The final moral justice is

that both child and valley should go to whoever serves them best. Azdak must decide a

dispute between two women, each of whom claims to be the mother of a child and hence

the rightful guardian. In the setting it is just given that the relevant standard of justice that

determines in principle the correct decision is that the woman who is more disposed to

love and care for the child for his own sake deserves to be awarded custody. (The

morality that the play endorses appears to be that things belong to people who are good

for them.) Nobody can see into the women’s characters, certainly not Azdak, who has just

been introduced to them by hearing their conflicting testimony. Azdak institutes a

procedure that brings it about that the women’s character is revealed by their responses to

a decision problem set by the court. The child is placed in the center of a chalk circle and

the women are told that whoever pulls the child outside the circle will be awarded

custody. The woman, who is more disposed to love and care for the child for his own

sake, yields immediately rather than participate in a determined tug of war that might

well break the child’s body. Azdak summarily awards this woman custody.

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Azdak is the most distinguished character in the play in the sense that he is

dialectically connected to the main theme of the play. Ronald Gray describes him by

arguing that,

There is nothing that can properly be called a self in Azdak,

nothing consistent of foreseeable in his actions: he acts on

impulses. He sets no store by his actions, any more than Grusha

does by hers, and it is this that helps to make him the most

fascinating character in the play, insulting and generous,

preposterous and humble, ignorant and wise, blasphemous and


(Gray: 1969, 110)

It is worth noting that Azdak’s character provides the best illustration of the

tendency of Brecht’s most characteristics work assume the guise of comedy. Indeed,

some elements of Brecht’s technique of characterization belong to the stock-in-trade of

conventional comedy. Azdak’s contradictory and strange behaviour is designed in a way

to reflect the essential discrepancies of which reality is compound; therefore his character

tends to have a comic rather than a tragic effect. Brecht himself tells one of the producers,

Giorgio Strehler, that if he wants to fulfill a truly epic effect in a play it would have to be

directed along the lines of a comedy, on the grounds that the comic characters are

impartially and critically alienated. (Dickson: 1978, 251) Claude Hill shares Keith

Dickson’s view that this dimension of humour is a direct result of Hegel’s dialectics

(Willett: 1964, 85) since there is no humour in Marx. On the other hand, Brecht’s

dramatic intention of such mixture of humour and dialectics in The Caucasian Chalk

Circle is to sharpen the ironical and satirical contrast between Grusha’s seriousness and

Azdak’s comic situation. Thus the caricature and comic portrayal of Azdak enables the

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audience to condemn critically the whole corruptions of the ruling class, their injustice

and the whole bourgeois society of the play. John Symonds comments on this point by

arguing that, “Brecht was the counterpart in the theatre of George Grosz, the savage

caricaturist of bourgeois and capitalist society.” (Symonds: 1978, 65) Azdak is obsessed

with justice. He professes to believe that a new age of spontaneous justice is at hand. He

insists, on discovering that he has sheltered the Grand Duke himself, a murderer and

tyrant, on being taken into Nukha in chains to be judged. His appetite for justice sorts ill

with his self- indulgence, cowardice, and self-protective cunning. He insists on being

punished as much in the hope of avoiding excessive punishment as of furthering justice.

When Azdak learns that he has miscalculated in assuming the proletariat to be in

control, he repudiates his revolutionary song, cringes and whines. Yet even in the

presence of Prince Kasbeki himself and the gallows with which he has already been

threatened, he cannot resist the lure of justice when he is invited to play the part of the

Grand Duke in a mock trial. He launches into a savage and brilliant attack on the conduct

of the war by the princes, which, but for the nice balance of power between Kasbeki and

the soldiery, would certainly have cost him his life. Kasbeki shrieks “Hang him,” but dare

not contravene the soldiers, who have taken a fancy to Azdak, and, perhaps, perceived

some justice in his account of the war:

War lost, but not for princes. Princes have won their war. Got

themselves paid 3,863,000 piastres for horses not delivered.

8,240,000 piastres for food supplies not produced. Are therefore

victors. War lost only for Grusinia, which is not present in this


(IV, 182)

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The Judge was always a rascal. Now the rascal shall be Judge. Azdak manages to

remain a Judge for two years. His judgments are presented as high comedy, but the basic

justice of them is clear, and the presence of the gallows on stage serves to remind us that

Azdak’s career may end as quickly as it began. Thus, the questions which introduce

Azdak story are: what sort of justice can give Grusha the child she deserves? The

judgment of the Chalk Circle, which only Azdak could have given, is that the child shall

go to the maternal that it thrives; and the disinherited lands shall be a public park. Clearly

Azdak was right. But was he just? How widely do such principles apply? Understanding

this work as a “parable for the theatre,” Brecht is asking us whether we can, or should,

run a society based on them. Dramatically, we have a melodrama with a happy ending:

will Grusha and the child survive all the nasty people who threaten their lives and their

new-found status as a family?(Larner: 1998, 14) The following argument tries to find

solutions for such inquires as far as justice is concerned.

There cannot be a set definition of justice in our free society because everyone

has his own insights and acts on his own thoughts. Justice is very hard to explain because

it is very abstract and has many controversial aspects. The Old Testament and Plato’s

Republic offer us great insights into the meaning of justice, but neither one can give a

clear and flawless definition of what true justice is. John Rawls argues in Theory of


Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of

systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical

must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and

institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be

reformed or abolished if they are unjust. Each person possesses

an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of

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society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice

denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a

greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the

sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of

advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore, in a just society the

liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights

secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to

the calculus of social interests... [A]n injustice is tolerable only

when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice. Being

first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are


(Rawls: 1971, 3)

There is no equivocation here, and no entanglement with larger or higher powers.

Nonetheless, this works much like the justice Oedipus wants to find in Thebes—pure and

clear. Where there is a problem, go after it and drive it out. We are either sick or well, a

circumstance is either just or unjust, and through diligence and investigation we can

accurately determine the truth. No one should have to suffer for anyone else. We will

solve the injustice of the plague, Oedipus declares, and establish the reign of justice again

in Thebes, where the king’s promises of order and protection will once again order and

protect. But in the play this does not work. Neither the gods nor human order allow

Oedipus his perfect plan. Oedipus’ goal was to rescue the people and save the state. For

Oedipus, as for Rawls, social justice is the focus, not individual justice. But individual

justice is what he so ironically reaps. The state is saved from plague, but he takes his

punishment upon himself, and casts himself out to wander, eyeless in Attica. The double

irony is that this, in turn, leaves the state rudderless and in chaos. Rawls develops the

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thesis that justice can be understood as fairness, when all the members of the society are

appropriately in agreement with a set of principles of justice.

Generally speaking, social justice laws are those society values that determine

which is right or wrong but that work within the framework of public law. Social justice

occurs when all members of a society share equally in the social order, secure an

equitable consideration of resources and opportunities, and enjoy their full benefit of civil

liberties. Social injustice could include any social problem-domestic violence, political

oppression, and other violation of human rights. One of the main characteristics of the

social justice is that it is indefinite. Consequently, the definition of justice is often thought

of being controversial and confrontational. This theory is sometimes true, but can cause a

huge dilemma. How can we live by the rules when they are not definite? Everyone is just

seeing a part of the big picture. It may seem that there may not be a definite justice, but it

is just something that exists. An example of this theory is the idea of a circle. One can

never actually draw a complete circle perfect. This is scientifically impossible. So how

does one know that there is a circle? One has an idea of what it is, and they draw their

own version of the absolute definition of that circle. Accordingly, Azdak’s trick fails to

satisfy the norm that a just society’s basic structure of institutional arrangements be

public. Azdak’s rule cannot fit within a stable system of rules that is public in this sense.

For one thing, the rule can be exploited by the clever. If I foresee that losing the tug of

war gains me custody of the child and I want custody, I will make haste to be the first to

lose the tug of war and gain custody. Azdak’s trick works in a particular setting; in other

settings, with other agents, different measures would be needed.

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Bertolt Brecht wants to emphasize his Marxist point of view that law protects and

secures the interests of the ruling classes and within this ‘class justice’ the poor can only

gain justice under a series of chances, whims and exceptional circumstances that not

linked to the law as it should be in a feudal regime. Brecht in the play seeks to underline

the difference between justice and the law within Grusinia. The feudal society, or Marxist

society, is shown to have harder implications for the poor than the even distribution of

wealth which is the main emphasis of the Marxist state. The Marxist law is not equated

with justice for all rather justice for the upper classes, or class justice, where the rich get

richer and the poor get poorer. Azdak although seen as the arbiter of justice between

Natasha Abashwilli and Grusha is shown throughout the play as greedy and corrupt when

dealing with the upper classes. He swindles them into giving him money for a bribe then

turns about and gives a contradicting verdict against the upper classes. This duplicity

when passing judgment is seen by the audience but the lower classes see that for once the

law is on their side. This is the final hint that Grusha will get the child, as she is good for

the child and will continue to do good for the child, contrasting to Natasha Abashwilla’s

intent to get the child only to keep her late husband’s estate.

Furthermore, the play tries to distinguish between the two traditional concepts: the

law of property and the heriditary right as part of the social justice.* The whole action of

The Good Woman of Setzuan abandons them in favour of a new type of justice whose

values are to be worked out in the play and celebrated in the epilogue:

But you, you who have listened to the Story of the Chalk Circle,

Take note what men of old concluded:

* See Wigner, Charles. Justice. New York: MaClure, Phillips and Co., 1905.

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That what there is shall go to those who are good for it,

Children to the motherly, that they prosper,

Carts to good drivers, that they be driven well,

The valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit. (V, 195)

The law, at the beginning of the play, is merely a prop for injustice, exploitation

and corruption. Great care is taken of the Governor’s heir, more care indeed than is likely

to produce a thriving child, but this care springs not from parental love, but from the

knowledge that the child guarantees the continuation of injustice for a further generation.

In these decisions, Azdak intentionally disregards the actual law in order to administer a

rough justice that helps the poor. It is heavily ironic that the crowd of beggars and

petitioners should forget their complaints in their obsequiousness:

God bless the child, Your Grace. (I, 124)

When danger threatens, the province itself is light-handedly lost through blindness:

Oh, blindness of the great! They wander like gods

Great over bent backs, sure

Of hired fists, trusting

In their power which has already lasted so long.

(I, 129)

The old law is at last overthrown. The town Judge is strung up by the carpet-

weavers. For a time there is chaos. The princes and soldiers in uneasy alliance keep up a

semblance of authority. Another type of injustice will replace the old one through these

endless eruptions and revolutions. This is the way of the world, in every case the

powerful smashes the powerless, and in turn both will be smashed by larger powers in a

ruthless and nasty progression. This is painted both as the nature of the human species,

and the definitive legacy for our time.

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In short, all Brecht’s plays have strong socio-political messages, which condemn

capitalism regarding it as the main source of all socio-political corruptions in any society

including the issue of justice. Brecht viewed human beings as helpless animals who were

battling against the vicissitudes of life, at the mercy of ineluctable fate; determined by

society and relentless, insidious circumstances. This is why he endeavoured to arouse

people from their inactivity and listlessness. He visualized a world where people would

stand up for their rights. He was not interested in illusions; he relished mental and

intellectual motivation that might lead to the kind of revolution that Marx himself had

contemplated. His sole concern lay in making a different world, where everyone would

be given a fair crack of the whip.

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