Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Brecht Quote: "A Jolly Business"

From the speech Brecht made on the radio to introduce a 1927 broadcast of Man Equals Man:
I imagine also that you are used to treating a man as a weakling if he can't say no, but this Galy Gay is by no means a weakling; on the contrary he is the strongest of all. That is to say he becomes the strongest once he has ceased to be a private person; he only becomes strong in the mass. And if the play finishes up with him conquering an entire fortress this is only because in doing so he is apparently carrying out the unqualified wish of a great mass of people who want to get through the narrow pass that the fortress guards.

No doubt you will go on to say that it's a pity that man should be tricked like this and simply forced to surrender his precious ego, all he possesses (as it were); but it isn't. It's a jolly business. For this Galy Gay comes to no harm; he wins. And a man who adopts such an attitude is bound to win. But possibly you will come to quite a different conclusion. To which I am the last person to object.

["A Radio Speech" in Brecht on Theatre, translated by John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 18-20.]
Note how Brecht sets up his audience to engage critically with the play. First, he tells them what is going to happen in the play before they hear it. For Brecht, the key question is not "What is going to happen?" but rather "Why does it happen?" and "Is it right that it should happen?"

Brecht informs the audience that the play presents "a jolly business"--in other words, a comedy with a happy outcome. But I hear great irony in this statement, since he then encourages the audience to "come to quite a different conclusion." I believe Brecht gives us a comedy--and a truly funny and enjoyable one, at that--but he also wants the audience to see the horror in Galy Gay's transformation and his submission to the "great mass of people."

The audience cannot be sure whether to interpret the play as a comedy or a tragedy, so they must engage critically with the performance to come to their own conclusions. In this radio speech, Brecht uses his characteristic irony to foster the ambiguity and uncertainty that will inspire deeper engagement and thought around the themes of the play.

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