Thursday, December 25, 2008

Švejk vs. Schweyk: Encounters with Brecht

Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War is my favorite novel. Sure, there are others that give me plenty to chew on, and plenty of entertainment. (I think number two would have to be Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.)

But Hašek's book has given me by far the most to think about in my career -- about war, about the human condition, about beer and grog. Plus, it has the advantage of being the ultimate Balkan and Bohemian book -- set mostly in Prague and South Bohemia (and Budapest and Galicia) -- and yet starting with the key Balkan event of the last two centuries: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.

The key to Švejk's enduring relevance is the profound mystery of its protagonist's character. For a literary invention that has often been advanced as a symbol of the Czech national character (much to the chagrin of some Czechs), this mystery seems particularly crucial. Is Švejk -- as he so often explains as he seeks to shirk military service for the hapless Hapsburgs -- "a certified idiot?" Or is he a supremely cunning and subversive force?

The argument for idiot is the sheer pathos and farce of the situations in which Švejk finds himself -- jail, mental hospital, the train station in Tabor drinking beer after beer with a Hungarian, causing a riot in Kiralyhida, and then literally captured by his own troops. What normal and sensible -- let alone a crafty and cunning -- person would place themselves willingly in such situations? And yet Švejk so often outwits and flanks the officers, judges and bureaucrats who would crush him that it would seem foolish to accept the "patent idiocy" that he produces as a catch-all excuse for his behavior.

My own theory is that Švejk is neither idiot nor savant, but rather that a sense of play -- the innocent and yet often brutal play of children -- so deeply permeates his character that it forms the blueprint of his behavior in any situation. It is a sense of play that results both in punishments and in tiny triumphs of the human spirit. (My theory also addresses that notion of Švejk as an expression of the Czech character: Švejk does tap deeply into a mischievous and cruel vein of Czech humor as a resistance to cruel and oppressive realities.)

These deep thoughts about Švejk bring me in roundabout fashion to the question of Bertolt Brecht's attempt to interpret Hašek's iconic character. I recently tackled the German playwright's Schweyk in the Second World War -- which reimagines Švejk as he might have functioned in the more brutal and efficient thrall of the Gestapo.

If The Good Soldier Švejk is my favorite novel, why wait so long to check out Brecht's take? Well, there's a natural inclination to keep one's favorite thing pure somehow within the mind. (Impossible, yes. And yet we try...)

But there's also my own complicated dramatic relationship with Brecht. It's hard to argue that Brecht's best works (Dreigroshen Oper, Mutter Courage, Galileo, Arturo Ui and many of the poems) are among the last century's greatest. But there is a stridency and oversimplicity-- not to mention Brecht's fraught relationship with his collaborators -- that gives me pause, and puts me in the camp of Peter Handke in preferring Odon von Horvath's work. Handke wrote back in 1968 that "Horvath ist besser als Brecht" -- and have you read The Measures Taken lately? Read it and then read Horvath's Faith Hope and Charity. The gulf between the sensibilities and moral feeling of these writers is immense, but boil down to Brecht's feeling (and sometimes "unfeeling") for humanity as a striving mass, whereas Horvath sees -- and feels -- the individual and the power of jargon to warp and pervert societies.

I finally succumbed to curiosity, however. (It didn't help that Brecht scholars feel the play to be in the middle ranks of his works: John Willett and Ralph Manheim write in the introduction that"the whole notion of pitting Hašek's beautifully ambiguous figure... against Himmler and the SS is a deep misconception which distorts both recent history and Hašek's novel.")

Having read it now, I vigorously disagree. There are certainly moments when the critique above applies -- particularly in the ending dream sequence where Švejk encounters Hitler outside Stalingrad. But Brecht succeeds on two key levels in his Schweyk: he keeps much of Švejk's sense of mystery and play and yet skilfully adapts the original material to meet a transformed historical context. Brecht's play is darker and less comic than Hašek's novel (which is dark enough despite its comedy), but one feels the intrusion of Brecht the propagandist in the moments where the play drifts toward pastiche of the German war effort. In its adaptation of the novel to the much-less ambiguous patriotism of the Czech resisatnce, however, it is terrific -- and Brecht has incredible mastery of the pub talk and bureaucratic subversions that fuel Hašek's classic.

So yes, Brecht's Schweyk is imperfect. But if you're interested in how Hašek's iconic figure has transformed other writers and been transformed in turn, it's more than interesting. It is, in its way, quite brilliant.


DJ said...

Really interesting comparision, and I particularly enjoyed your ambiguous response to Brecht. I feel we're not sure how to tackle Brecht now, at least in the west. Do we treat him as a theatre poet, rather like Beckett, and highlight his harsh truths and glinting humour? Do we exploit the way he plays off speech, song, image, slogans and farce? Will the politics of Weimar and wartime seem horribly relevant again during recession?

Agree with you too about Horvath and the aching "Faith, Hope & Charity." There will be a new production of "Judgement Day" at the Almeida Theatre here in London in autumn 2009 and I can't wait...

Lives in Washington DC said...

Hi, DJ: Thanks for the comment! You're so lucky to live in a city where people do Horvath. I've tried to bait the hook here a couple times with no luck. (I guess that's why people start their own theatre companies, eh?)

As for Brecht, I think your thought that the recession may make him (and Horvath) more relevant again is correct. Unless you elide some of the more difficult passages, it's hard to play him like you'd play Behan's The Hostage. (I think that most people don't get the depths of that play, either.) But it's really difficult to play him totally Beckett, either. It's a bit busy. It's strange but Brecht has written it all so that you really have to buy into the package, don't you? It's a difficult smorgasboard... :)

Anonymous said...

Having just appeared in Schweyk in the Second World War (at the South London Theatre directed by James Hough) it was interesting to read your thoughts. With Brecht's scathing views on parasitic bourgeois theatre-goers and their alleged failure of class consciousness (forgive my thumbnail sketch of his views!) I was curious how the audience would respond. They seemed to appreciate it as satire and enjoy it as panto which may have had Brecht cursing in his grave. Here in Britain with increasing debate about state surveillance and data bases the play seems quite modern. I agree with you about the difficulty of understanding Schweyk, idiot or savant or just motormouth? Cheers Stefan

Lives in Washington DC said...

Thanks for your comment, Stefan! I really wish I could have seen your Schweyk!

dainfomaster said...

"My own theory is that Švejk is neither idiot nor savant ..." I dutifully report you are not alone. :-)

". . . the profound mystery of its protagonist's character." - I believe there is no mystery, but mythology created over many decades by the "engineers of human souls" and "livingers". ""Unlike K., fellow Czech Franz Kafka's stunted stand-in for modern intellectual man, the rascal Švejk belongs to the men and women of the workaday world -- the bartenders, cleaning women, gamekeepers, petty larcenists, lathe operators, janitors, drunkards, office workers, shopkeepers, undertakers, adulterers, nightclub bouncers, butchers, farmers, cab drivers and others who populate Hasek's imagination as they stumble through the lunacies of the first World War." - Don DeGrazia

"Hašek's beautifully ambiguous figure" - the ambiguity of Švejk has become a canonic myth. He is not ambiguous - the perception of him is. Švejk is a mere agent of a method. I very much like Peter Steiner's essay Tropos Kynikos: Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk which you can find in the Analyses section at