BERTOLT BRECHT’S SENORA CARRAR’S RIFLES AND ITS THIRD WORLD RESONANCE
by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
A recent sojourn in the Philippines for a year has confirmed for me Brecht’s usefulness (his favorite epithet) in revitalizing the moribund naturalistic-cum-Broadway theater in metropolitan Manila, particularly in the productions of PETA, The Philippine Educational Theater Association, based in Manila. Progressive colleagues in theater, after local adaptations of Galileo and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, are rehearsing the only play Brecht classified as one of “empathy,” that is, one which seizes the spectator’s predisposition for identification with illusionary events and characters in an “opportunistic” way. We know of course that Brecht’s intention is not to delude the audience but to educate or enlighten it by cultivating and legitimizing a participatory mode of aesthetic involvement. When he completed the first version of Galileo, he noted in his journal on February 25, 1939 that it was “technically a step backward just like Senora Carrar’s Rifles. Too opportunistic… Aristotelian (empathy-) drama” (1964, 115). Given the dreaded stigma attached to the term “Aristotelian,” what can Third World revolutionary artists find in the play that would not simply exacerbate the ever-present temptation to indulge in ultra-leftism–the simple negation of art for immediate political action? Would exploiting the didactic potential of Brecht’s play be opportunist, or simply an attempt to use one tool for the same ends Brecht privileged in the Organum: to historicize life, “to treat social situations as processes” (1964, 193) so as to alter them? Since I have not seen any discussion of this play from a Third World radical perspective, I venture to submit the following speculative reflections to explore possibilities in the terrain of Brecht’s “fall,” perhaps a felix culpa, into empathy drama.1
Essentially, Senora Carrar’s Rifles intends to exhibit a specifically contextualized dialectics of choice: how a traditional mother in a semifeudal Spanish village during the Civil War, while opposed to violence, performs her task of maternal care and civic responsibility. Opposites eventually coincide, resolving tensions on a higher plane. Her basic conflict is not one between opposing violence and preferring peace, but one between the desire to maintain the status quo of precarious abstention to preserve the life of her two sons, and the temptation to fight the inhuman (Franco’s fascist military) forces threatening her still tolerable condition. Her apparent neutrality in a time of civil war is one replicated in Third World peoples (peasants, workers, petty bourgeoisie, indigenous minorities) long inured to having no control over their destiny, obsessed with guarding or defending what little they have, bargaining with the powers-that-be. This claim to neutrality is precisely what the play questions. (Of course, Brecht was really addressing the “neutral” allied powers at the time even as he critiqued pacifist liberals.) In a conjuncture where the contradictions are sharply defined, where friends and enemies can be neatly demarcated (loyalist Republican forces versus Franco’s religious “nationalism” supported by Hitler and Mussolini), Senora Carrar’s dilemma and its resolution provides an exemplum for those hoping to mobilize those morally paralyzed by setbacks–Brecht anticipated this when the democratic allies failed to rally to the beleaguered Republicans–or those who find an attitude of temporizing or compromise as a shrewder policy, a tactic of cutting one’s losses. The lesson is that the mother loses what she has been desperately trying to keep. What she should have learned is the reverse, the precept from the Gospel: Only if the seed dies will it bear fruit.
Senora Carrar learns the fatal mistake of delaying or wanting to compromise, and therefore reaps the opposite of herintention. Through a non-commital agnosticism, one sacrifices what one holds dear; thus, armed intervention is necessary in self-defense, self-interest thereby fusing with the survival and freedom of the community in which one’s private worth finds ultimate validation. This urgent message–if one may put it too programmatically–is what, I think, appeals to our anti-imperialist compatriots faced with a population (as in the Philippines) where the religious ethos of the institution of the family resists involvement in projects of radical social transformation because of a conservative dogmatism and rigid particularistic ethos derived from a residual tributary formation.
One should note that this thematic mapping of the play stresses the polemical and pragmatic thrust since it focuses on the strategy of exposing the folly of anyone assuming a position of neutrality while everyone in the community suffers. In a context of total war, neutrality becomes acquiescence to the dominant force or a submission to the ascendant trend. All engagements are complicitous with one side or the other; partisanship is all. Seen from this perspective, the mother’s plight and her conversion evoke the need for the spectator to participate in the ongoing collective project of resisting what is experienced as evil, destructive forces, provided the knowledge and recognition of such forces have become identical with a consensus of the popular alliance–that is, that such knowledge has become a transformative material force when translated into praxis.
But what this interpretation leaves out is not, as I’ll argue in a moment, the historicizing or alienating element–note how Senora Carrar intermittently stands back to demonstrate/narrate herself with highly nuanced defamiliarizing effects–but the problematic of ressentiment in which the revenge motif and the more fundamental question of the gender division of labor find themselves eclipsed. Unless the son killed by the military is construed as symbolic of the socialist project, the mother’s decision to fight may be taken simply as a reassertion of the subaltern will, the maternal urge to project the offspring (the usual essentializing stereotype), in this instance, against the patriarchal mandate of generals and priests. In other words, the mother is not motivated by any radical principle except that of affirming the dignity of the poor and their right to strike back. We conflate here a humanist and an aristocratic motivation to elucidate the general direction of a whole pattern of behavior.
In his essay “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting” (circa 1935), Brecht first enunciated the function of Verfremdungseffekt or alienation-effect as a historicizing of incidents portrayed on the stage. This mode of representation is geared to exposing the temporality of any social situation and the unfolding of what is natural or normal as artificial and constructed, the product of a process of contrivance. Experience conceived as process implies mutability, a continuum of mutation. It signifies contradiction, heterogeneity, and sedimentation: “…the image that gives historical definition will retain something of the rough sketching which indicates traces of other movements and features all around the fully-worked-out figure” (1964, 191). Consider in this passage how Senora Carrar’s position alternates between dependency and mastery:
DIE MUTTER: Du bleibst!
DER JUNGE: Nein, ich gehe! Du kannst sagen, du brauchst Juan, aber mich brauchst du dann nicht auch noch.
DIE MUTTER: Ich halte Juan nicht, weil er fur mich fischen gehen soll. Und ich lasse dich nicht weg! (Sie lauft auf ihn zu und umarmt ihn.) Du kannst rauchen, wenn du willst, und wenn du allein fischen gehen willst, ich werde nichts sagen, und auch einmal in Vaters Boot!
DER JUNGE: Lass mich los!
DIE MUTTER: Nein, du bleibst hier!
DER JUNGE (sich losringend): Nein, ich gehe!–Rasch, nimm die Gewehre, Onkel!
DIE MUTTER: Oh! (Sie lasst den Jungen los und hinkt weg, mit dem Fuss vorsichtig auftretend.) (1967, 1224)
THERESA: You’re staying here!
JOSE: No. I’m going. You can say you need Juan, but then you don’t need me too.
THERESA: I’m not keeping Juan here just so he can go fishing for me. And I will not let you go. (She runs to him and throws her arms around him). You can smoke if you want to, and if you want to go fishing alone I won’t say anything, and you can even go in father’s boat.
JOSE: Let go of me!
THERESA: No, you are staying here!
JOSE (Struggling to free himself): No, I am going! Quick, get the guns, Uncle Pedro!
THERESA (With a cry of pain): Oh! (She lets go of JOSE and limps away, stepping very carefully as if one foot hurt her badly.)
Senora Carrar then acts out the role of the hurt and resentful mother who, in a fit of casting out Jose as a disobedient child who refuses to acknowledge her “patriarchal” assumption, invokes the brother to chastise him. The dynamics of ressentiment thwarts any impulse of sympathy from the spectator even as we discover the deception or imposture this seemingly helpless woman has been foisting on us. Pity and terror, and their catharsis, are neglected here, thus making the drama’s putative original, John Synge’s Riders to the Sea, its parodic and sentimentalized version.
While it is generally conceded that the instructive crux of this play coincides with the turn of Senora Carrar’s judgement when she condemns the murderers of her son as “not human beings” but small-pox that “must be stamped out,” such a sudden reversal of thought may strike those already identifying with the unfortunate mother as a “tour de force.” This in itself generates a discordance in the audience’s effort to establish consistencies and probabilities. At first, Senora Carrar could not believe that her son would be killed by “just fishing.” That defied logic, but then immediately she falls sick as she kneels beside her son’s body. While the women mourners pray aloud (an incongruous importation of Irish piety into the milieu of Andalusian anti-clericalism), Senora Carrar arrives at her “moment of truth” –she holds out the “ragged, worn-out” cap of her son as proof that he was identified as “a gentleman” and therefore executed. (This allusion to the positional effect of apparel has been foreshadowed by Jose’s earlier donning of a militia cap.) Such a peripeteia may seem forced if we don’t observe that the long speech she delivers before the son’s body is brought in demonstrates the necessary distancing from this empathy-inducing funeral rite.
Ostensibly a harangue against Pedro and the partisans for scheming to lure Juan to the frontline, the mother’s reflections enact the loss she would soon confront. Applying post-structuralist terms, the impact of this utterance hollows the plenitude of her subsequent pathos. In this way, character or ethos (in the sense meant in Aristotle’s Poetics) is fissured into a play of rhetorical Gestus:
Wenn er mir das angetan hat und zur Miliz gegangen ist, dann soll er verflucht sein! Mit ihren Fliegerbomben sollen sie ihn treffen! Mit ihren Tanks sollen sie ihn niederfahren! Dass er merkt, dass Gott sich nicht spotten lasst. Und dass ein Armer nicht gegen die Generale aufkommen kann. Ich habe ihn nicht dazu geboren, dass er hinter einem Maschinengewehr auf seine Mitmenschen lauert. Wenn da Unrecht ist in der Welt, habe ich ihn nicht gelehrt, daran teilzunehmen. Ich werde ihm meine Tur nicht mehr offnen, wenn er zuruck-kommt, nur weil er sagt, er hat die Generale besiegt! Ich werde ihm sagen, und zwar durch die Tur, dass ich niemand in meinem Haus haben will, der sich mit Blut befleckt hat. Ich werde ihn mir abhauen wie einen kranken Fuss. Das werde ich. Sie haben mir schon einen gebracht. Der meinte auch, er werde schon Gluck haben. Aber wir haben kein Gluck. Das werdet ihr vielleicht noch begreifen, bevor die Generale mit uns fertig sind. Wer zum Schwert greift, wird durch das Schwert umkommen (1967, 1226).
If he has done that to me, and gone to the militia, I curse him. The air bombs can hit him. The tanks can run him down. He’ll see that there is no joking with God, that a poor man can’t beat the generals. I didn’t bring him up to shoot his fellow men. I never taught him to take a part in the injustice of this world. I will not open my door to him when he comes back, not if he says he has whipped the generals! I will tell him, through the keyhole, that I won’t have anybody in my house who is covered with blood. I pluck him out like an eye that offends. My husband was carried in and laid down right over there. He thought he could win us happiness by fighting. Where’s our happiness? Where’s it going to be when the generals get through with us? You’ll see. They that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
The cathexis of the mother’s attachment dissolves when she curses her son even as she embodies the opposite of what the truth of her son’s sacrifice implies. The son returns indeed “covered with blood”–his own and not those he was meant to destroy. This ironic fulfillment of the mother’s prophecy–a Brechtian director can anticipate this through slides or announcements to undercut suspense–can be made to function on stage as the answer to the mother’s question: “Where’s it going to be when the generals get through with us?” The speech thus performs the Gestus of affirming what it ostensibly denies.
Class allegiance and maternal instinct intersect in the mother’s exteriorizing of her positions, an act generating a contradiction which is resolved at the end when the mother’s role of provider (bread baker/domestic caretaker) is sublimated and fused with her urge to avenge her son. Earlier she demonstrates her partisanship and sense of civic duty when she nurses the wounded militia soldier Pablo, a scene where the boundary of the family coincides with the solidarity of the village. Though she is in a sense responsible for positioning her son as innocent sacrifice, she suppresses any feeling of guilt; her psyche channels the aggressive impulse toward the users of violence against her son. It is only with the son’s loss, and the ressentiment of conceiving the Other (fascist soldiers) as polluted, that the mother recovers her class identity and reaffirms the community of producers. The sacrifice of the son gives birth to subaltern solidarity.
While the dead son awakens Senora Carrar to what Pedro has been insisting, namely, the impossibility of being neutral in a world where violence and injustice implicates everyone, it may be experimentally heuristic to examine how the dead or absent father (whose metonymic extension, now the Senora’s rifles, signify the locus of libidinal investment as well as collective utopian desire) looms insistently in the background. The father’s return is narrated by Jose to his uncle Pedro in the beginning and functions in retrospect as a rehearsal for the son’s funeral: “Died at the station here. All of a sudden, in the evening, door flies open, and here come the neighbor women, the way they do when a drowned fisherman is brought home; file in without a word, take their places around the room up against the wall and pray all together as the body is carried in.” In this context, can we really consider Senora Carrar aloof, unconcerned, non-violent in principle? When she hears General Queipo de Llano’s voice on the radio condemning the “misguided rabble,” she reacts as follows:
Wir sind keine Aufruhrer, und wir bieten niemandem die Stirn. Wenn es nach euch ginge, tatet ihr vielleicht so etwas. Du und dein Bruder, ihr seid leichtsinnig von Natur. Ihr habt es von eurem Vater, und ich wurde es vielleicht nicht mogen, wenn ihr anders wart. Aber das hier ist kein Spass: horst du nicht ihre Kanonen? Wir sind arme Leute, und arme Leute konnen nicht Krieg fuhren (1967, 1199).
We’re not rabble. We’re not rioters. We haven’t had anything to do with agitators. You and Juan probably would if I didn’t look after you. You’re just like your father–and maybe I’d despise you if you weren’t. But this is a terrible business. Hear those cannons? We are poor people. Poor people can’t run a war.
Senora Carrar sees the father’s impulsiveness (ultimately, her own willfullness) in the sons and strives to control that; her pacifism results from the discipline of her feelings and her belief that “nobody knows what’s going to happen these days,” a mark of canny marginality. Such fatalism, however, masks a powerful will held temporarily in abeyance, biding the time for the felicitous opportunity.
We begin to sense at this point that the husband Carlo joined the fighting with the full complicity of his wife, in fact, at her instigation. In the middle of the play, when Manuela insinuates that “she helped her husband get to Oviedo” where he was fatally wounded, the widowed wife counters in a muffled tone: “Don’t say that. I did not help him. I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I know they all try to put the blame on me, but it’s a lie, a dirty lie. I’d like to see anybody prove it.” Our suspicion is that the father’s figure here turns out to be a function of his wife’s calculation of the odds, her prudential cunning. In effect, the mother combines what Darko Suvin calls the plebeian (Schweyk) point of view and the rationalist (Diderot) outlook in Brecht’s sensibility (1972, 94-98).
The concepts of property and genealogy are interrogated in the exchange between brother and sister. Pedro insists that the guns “aren’t things that belong just to you,” and by extension the sons are not merely the mother’s possessions. Senora Carrar’s response to her brother’s desire to persuade Juan in releasing the father’s guns from the mother’s clutches affords us a poignant Geste of questioning reality and the dominant ideology. Her thinking aloud unfolds a psychic cleavage symptomatic of the stranglehold of religious belief manifest in suicidal guilt and self-pity:
Lass meine Kinder in Ruhe, Pedro! Ich habe ihnen gesagt, dass ich mich aufhangen werde, wenn sie gehen. Ich weiss, dass das vor Gott eine Sunde ist und die ewige Verdammnis nach sich zieht. Aber ich kann nicht anders handeln. Als Carlo starb, so starb, ging ich zum Padre, sonst hatte ich mich damals schon aufgehangt. Ich wusste ganz gut, dass ich mit schuld war, obgleich er selber der Schlimmste war mit seiner Heftigkeit und seinem Hang zur Gewalttatigkeit. Wir haben es nicht so gut, und es ist nicht so leicht, dieses Leben zu ertragen. Aber es geht nicht mit dem Gewehr. Das sah ich, als sie ihn hereinbrachten und ihn mir auf den Boden legten. Ich bin nicht fur die Generale, und es ist eine Schande, das von mir zu sagen. Aber wenn ich mich still verhalte und meine Heftigkeit bekampfe, dann lassen sie uns vielleicht verschont. Das ist eine einfache Rechnung. Es ist wenig genug, was ich verlange. Ich will diese Fahne nicht mehr sehen. Wir sind unglucklich genug (1967, 1219-1220).
Leave my boys alone, Pedro. I told them I would kill myself if they went. I know that that is mortal sin and I’ll go to hell if I do it. But that’s all I can do. When Carlo died–that way–I went right to the priest, or I’d have killed myself then. I knew very well that I was partly to blame, though he was worse, because he was so emotional, and struggle came natural to him. We haven’t such a good thing of it in this world, and this life isn’t so easy to bear. But violence won’t do. I learned that, when they brought him in and laid him on the floor in front of me. I am not for the generals, and it is a dirty lie to say I am. But if I keep quiet and conquer my own headstrong nature maybe they will leave us in peace. That’s a simple bargain. It’s mighty little I ask. I don’t want to see this flag again. We’re unhappy enough.
The rhetoric of this passage is a mutation from the immediate present, the hortatory mode, to a narrated past and an impersonal commentary on the unbearable nature of “this life.” It reveals the void on which her claim to pacifism and resignation rests. Senora Carrar also expresses a conditional wish based less on her experience as on a folk/peasant instinct toward the precarious nature of everyday life. Throughout, the detachment of the speaker is sustained by the simplicity and directness of her idiom (inspired by the Synge model), and also by the deliberate avoidance of any mawkish nostalgia for “the good old days.”
While the task of reversing the play’s “opportunist” use of the mother’s suffering largely depends, as I’ve suggested earlier, on the manner of staging and presentation–Brecht in fact hoped to cancel the empathy stimulus by projecting on the stage a documentary film on the historical causes of the Spanish Civil War–the alternating registers of the utterances I have quoted suffice to indicate the self-deconstructive possibilities of theatrical spacing demanded by epic/dialectical imperatives. Cues abound in the text for exteriorizing or distancing, the unmasking of representational illusion as conventional practices or socially authorized production. Brecht himself formulates the aesthetics of the reversals in the play through the Philosopher’s comments in the Messingkauf Dialogues: “Lamenting by means of sounds, or, better still, words, is a vast liberation, because it means that the sufferer is beginning to produce something. He’s already mixing his sorrow with an account of the blows he has received; he’s already making something out of the utterly devastating. Observation has set in” (quoted in Eagleton 1986, 172)
In the end, like Shen Te, Anna Fierling, and other fractured female protagonists, Senora Carrar ultimately shatters the spell of ressentiment, the vindictive personal impulse, and unsheathes the dialectical edge of that ambiguous Biblical injunction which justified her non-resistance–“They that take the sword shall perish with the sword”–as the collective judgement of the people against the militarist usurpers.
If the peoples of the Third World (a convenient generalization, not a homogenizing category) have suffered and continue to suffer the abuses of bourgeoise dictatorships and authoritarian regimes sustained by patriarchal/religious codes, then perhaps the “rifles” of the mothers whose sons and husbands have been tortured, killed or disappeared (as in Chile and elsewhere), can be mobilized to reveal the instability of imperialist hegemony vis-a-vis the psyches and praxis of the oppressed, especially women (to just barely touch on the feminist impulse). Brecht’s play can be profitably read, and performed, as an allegory of such possible transformations. It endows the old Horatian maxim of prodesse and delectare with exuberance and conviviality.
In June 1941, Brecht made a stop-over in Manila, Philippines, then a colony of the United States, on the way to exile in California. His return via Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar may herald a new way of utilizing the still popular empathy drama (on both the stage and screen) in a neocolonial formation for subversive pedagogical and pragmatic ends. In short, alienation-effect and epic distancing can only acquire their power because they are the diacritical reverse of empathy drama, just as the colonized and subjugated indigenous subjects exist because they are the necessary desiderata on which the power of imperialism is predicated.
So Brecht commemorated his passage (on July 21, 1941, from Vladivostok, USSR, with a short stopover in Manila, to Los Angeles, USA; see Volker 102) through this contested terrain in his poem “Landscape of Exile” whose second stanza I excerpt here:
The little horsecarts with gilt decorations
And the pink sleeves of the matrons
In the alleys of doomed Manila
The fugitive beheld with job.
Brecht, Bertold. Brecht on Theater. Translated by John Willett. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964.
—–. Gessamelte Werke 3, Stucke 3. Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp, 1967.
Eagleton, Terry. Against the Grain. London: Verso, 1986.
Suvin, Darko. “The Mirror and the Dynamo.” In Brecht. Edited by Erika Munk. New York: Bantam, 1972. 80-98.
Torres, Maria Luisa. “Anticipating Freedom in Theater.” In Brecht in Asia and Africa. Edited by John Fuegi et al. Hong Kong: The International Brecht Society, 1989. 134-54.
Volker, Klaus. Brecht Chronicle. New York: A Continuum Book, 1975.
1. John Willet (1959, 45-46) gives the production history of this play which he thinks is a work that “seems truly to suit the Party line.”
2. I have also used the English version of the play by Keene Wallis published in Theatre Workshop, April-June 1938, pp 20-31.
For a more detailed elaboration of how Brecht has been appropriated locally, see Torres (1989).
E. SAN JUAN is director of the Philippine Cultural Studies Center in Connecticut, USA He is at present visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at the National Tsing Hua University and Academia Sinica fellow in Taiwan. He was 2003 professor of American Studies at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Among his recent books are RACISM AND CULTURAL STUDIES (Duke University Press) and WORKING THROUGH THE CONTRADICTIONS (Bucknell University Press). IN THE WAKE OF TERROR (Lexington Books), BALIKBAYANG MAHAL: Passages from Exile (LuLu.com), FROM GLOBALIZATION TO NATIONAL LIBERATION (University of the Philippines Press), and BALIKBAYANG SINTA; AN E. SAN JUAN READER (Ateneo University Press). He will be a fellow of the WEB Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, in Spring 2009.