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The Revolution Will Not Be… Staged?

In an effort to find some kind of parallel to our work, we have been seeking out, pouncing upon and confronting anything that looks vaguely relevant to our project on Quiet (or not so quiet) Radicalism.

So, about a month ago I was in the Amnesty Bookshop on Gloucester Road, Bristol and I came across a play by Gunter Grass: The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising. A quick read of the back cover led me to discover that this was a play about Brecht rehearsing a version of Coriolanus during the 1953 uprising in East Berlin. Fantastic, I thought, it will focus around Brecht having to decide upon what is more important- supporting the workers’ revolution or putting on a production that might allude to these same topics indirectly but artistically.

I have now read the play and feel that it has told me more about making interesting watchable work (or the opposite) than anything about Grass, Brecht, Coriolanus or the 1953 workers uprising in East Berlin. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I felt out I was missing many layers of understanding due to my ignorance on all of these subjects, perhaps most especially Coriolanus.

So what follows is what I believe that we can take away from this play- it is a rough understanding of Grass’ thesis, I am certain that there are many more shades of meaning to be unearthed, but this is what I believe is worthwhile learning and that we should not delve any further, but pursue other research instead.

I think that Grass is suggesting that all of these retellings of stories are always co-opted to forward the ‘new’ authors own views and concerns:

“The play is fated to be looked upon at all times as a reflection of modern conditions, for at the time when it was written, contending parties confronted one another on the streets of London in very much the same way as the patricians and plebeians, the Tories and the Whigs.”[1]

Grass goes on to explain in some detail that Brecht removes even the small elements of humour, wit and humanity that Shakespeare injects into the story, rendering it even less worthy of staging than Shakespeare’s version. Moreover he claims that the failure of Brecht to create ‘a powerful adaptation of a play that has gone flat’ is due to pilfering from ‘spoils so meagre …literary piracy does not pay. ’[2]

Which leads us to wonder why Grass is interested in producing a play about staging what he has essentially denounced as a boring production? Indeed during the time when the 1953 uprising was occurring, Brecht was rehearsing a different production in his theatre. Grass simply cannot resist abusing the parallels that he can draw between the German uprising, the themes in the play of the plebeians revolting against the tribunes about the prices of grain and the questions that arise surrounding the use of a previously existing text to further an artists’ aims and communication of the present. Grass suggests in his conclusion that ‘this play demands to be written’, simply because of the convenience of these pleasant coincidences.

This does not suggest to me that Grass is enamoured with his play; that he believes it to be entertaining, witty or educational. It suggests that Grass feels compelled to carry on a continuum of appropriation and abuse of a meme that has been distorted, whispered about until the original story has become thin and wasted, until we cannot possibly know where the kernel of truth lies.

I would like to know why Grass didn’t make a more entertaining work.  I think that part of his thesis is that the story is so undramatic and without poetry to begin with, that it will never be elevated to moments of transcendence, and it is this to which he will remain loyal.

I believe that reading this play has formed a cautionary tale in my mind, that SBAB, who are forever impelled by the call of the forward momentum of the breadcrumb trail of convenient coincidence, should not forget to make something fun and beautiful, something that says something relevant and that speaks to an audience. Grass has done this in other novels, but this play is a mere exercise in intellect and we should remember that theatre makers must dwell in another region.

[1] P10, Pre-History and Post-History of Coriolanus, The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, Gunter Grass, Penguin Plays, 1972


[2] P22, ibid