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In Jürgen Hillesheim’s recent book on the Augsburg adolescence of Bertolt Brecht, we learn how the quiet but stubborn protagonist came to be expelled from high school. It was 1917 and the Great War was raging. Brecht was to write an essay on the famous line of Horace (Odes iii, 2.13), “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – “It is a sweet and honorable thing to die for one’s country.” His teacher wanted a demonstration of respect and admiration for the generation that was going to its death in the trenches of France and on the frozen fields of Russia. But Brecht was having none of it. This was “crude propaganda” and only a “blockhead” would ever fall for it, he wrote. Throughout his literary career, Brecht took a stubbornly independent view of traditional notions of patriotism, with the concept of honor and the heroic often in the crosshairs. He demanded a critical examination of these concepts, argued that they were manipulated by those in power to bring misery to the lives of millions, and offered up his proof in the form of dramas, poems and stories. One small masterpiece written along these lines disappeared for nearly sixty years and now is staging a comeback.
Considering that Brecht died 52 years ago, it comes as a surprise to see a theater advertising a premiere of one of his works. But this week Vienna’s Theater in der Josefstadt witnessed the first full performance of a long misplaced Brecht gemstone, Die Judith von Shimoda. The play was crafted in the summer of 1940 as Brecht lived on the country estate of Hella Wuolijoki in Finland, anxiously awaiting a visa that would allow him to escape to the United States. He came across the English translation of Yamamoto Y?z?’s 1930 play, The Chink Okichi. It was the story of Judith and Holofernes, Brecht noted in his journal, but transposed to Japan in the nineteenth century.
Brecht had since his high school years been fascinated by the Judith legend. Casting aside the morals of her time, Judith had slept with Holofernes, the enemy of her people. As he slumbered after sex, she cut his head from his body. Judith was triumphant; she saved her people from a brutal fate. But the Biblical tale ends there. “What,” Brecht asked, “happened after the heroic deed?”
In Yamamoto Y?z?’s play, Brecht found the same materials and he worked them into a play of his own. The play consists of 11 scenes drawn heavily from Y?z?, with interspersed narrations provided by a group of Japanese and American figures who are watching the play.
The material is drawn from historical events in the second half of the nineteenth century. Commodore Perry had “opened” Japan to the west, and America had installed the first diplomat on Japanese soil for two hundred years—Townsend Harris. He attempted to negotiate a trade agreement with the Japanese, but found the going rough. There was no eagerness among the Japanese elite for exposure to the west. In Japanese society, xenophobia was at a high point. As Brecht’s play opens, we see a combative Harris speaking English. It is a demonstration of Harris’s detachment from the society he lives in that he can’t mouth a word of Japanese, and lacks any real understanding of or interest in the rituals and customs that shape Japanese society. For him the Japanese are not to be trusted. “Lies, lies, nothing but lies from beginning to end!” he screams at a delegation of government emissaries. “Let the guns speak. Then perhaps we shall have an answer.”
Harris is an ugly American, the nineteenth century forerunner of John Bolton. In the Vienna performance he is portrayed by Peter Kern, looking like Orson Welles in his final roles–a man of gargantuan dimensions wrapped in a white linen suit. He is a ferocious advocate of military force as a cure for every problem. He is also very much the genuine article. In fact, his journals, still held in the bowels of the City University of New York, record the meeting in question and quote Harris’s threats—Brecht, it seems, found no need to take artistic license. (Even back then it was about oil. Harris writes that he was determined to open Japan as a market for American whalers.)
Harris also complains of his deprivations—he has not been allowed to hire Japanese staff. The Japanese authorities decide to appease him by asking a geisha, Okichi, to serve him. There is some ambiguity surrounding the services that Okichi was to provide; in any event, however, it seems that Okichi appeased Harris. The legend that developed was that she brought Harris, sick and unable to sleep, some cow’s milk—violating a strict Japanese taboo. As a gesture of gratitude, Harris did not carry through on his threat to shell a Japanese port.
So Okichi became a heroine. But this all serves as prologue. For Brecht the principal narration starts from this point. What happened to Okichi after the heroic deed? A legend builds up about the noble sacrifice of Okichi with some support from the state. But Okichi’s life is not so pleasant. She is derided as a “foreign whore” (the Japanese term, t?jin, suggests someone who interacts improperly with foreigners). Brecht, putting a still finer point on it, calls her the “American Okichi.” As the play begins, Okichi is a model of self-restraint and sacrifice. But following the heroic deed and the public ridicule that it brings, Okichi loses her self-respect and composure. She degenerates into a life of dissolution, self-hatred and debased relations with those around her. Okichi acted from selfless motives and took great risks for her people and society, but her reward was ridicule and ruin. “You can consider her a sort of Joan of Arc, because she is, in a manner of speaking, burned at the stake. And by her own people.”
Having sacrificed her life for her state, what did her state do for her? That story was also rather complicated, but it “did not take an altogether fortunate course.” Brecht jumps twenty years forward and shows government officials first amused and then horrified at their exposure to the drunken hag Okichi. They are moved to gestures of sympathy, but their real interest is not and never was in the real Okichi. It was the Okichi-legend.
Okichi is portrayed by Mavie Hörbiger–a convincing Geisha at the outset; masterfully Brechtian by the conclusion. Brecht does not in the end reject the notion of heroes, or even of patriotism. He merely asks us to look very closely at what those in positions of power hold up as heroic and why. “They never tell us the whole story,” he writes. And often the unrecounted part can be the most revealing. But could a play with such a tendentiously anti-American message succeed with an American audience? It doesn’t take much speculation to understand why Brecht, packing for his voyage to America, left this manuscript behind. In the years that marked his American exile he had enough troubles with the FBI. But sixty-eight years later, perhaps the answer is “yes.” Over the course of the Iraq conflict, Americans witnessed, in the case of Pat Tillman among others, state-sponsored efforts to fabricate heroes for crude political purposes. Americans are now in a presidential election cycle in which concepts of the heroic are taken to absurd ends. They’re ripe for a lampooning. And the twentieth century stage knows no satirist who can equal Bertolt Brecht.
More from Scott Horton:
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”