Die Maßnahme; The Measures Taken

It is utter folly to be wise all by yourself. – La Rochefoucauld

Die Maßnahme; The Measures Taken (translated literally: The Measure) (written and performed 1930)

Co-author: Slatan Dudow (who also directed the premiere)

Music: Hanns Eisler

This ‘learning play’ (Lehrstück) was first performed on 14-16 December 1930 in Berlin. It was first published in 1930 but Brecht published a revised version of the play in 1931. Reviewing the play in January 1931, Alfred Keményi called it ‘epoch-making’ (see Keményi (below), p. 550).

One of the central messages of this play is that collective action is more effective than individual action.

Brecht developed the genre of ‘learning plays’ (Lehrstücke) in 1929 in an attempt to turn theatre into an educational process, both for the performers and the audience. Inspired by his friend the Soviet writer Sergei Tretyakov, Brecht was attempting the ‘refunctioning’ (Umfunktionierung) of the theatre by turning it into a learning environment, one which would collapse the distinction between artistic producers and public (see below, Walter Benjamin, p. 93; Roswitha Mueller, pp. 103-04, 112). In order to do this, questionnaires were given to the audience after the show, and the play was rewritten in the light of the comments received, thus turning the audience into fellow scriptwriters.

Brecht’s idea of the ‘learning play’ (Lehrstück) was also influenced by the children’s theatre developed by the Latvian actress Asja Lacis (see below, Roswitha Mueller, pp. 108-09). The point is that all of the performers are supposed to be transformed through the experience of performing. This is why each of the four performers takes it in turn to play ‘Der junge Genosse’; ‘the young comrade’ who is sentenced to death. The young comrade can thus be seen as representing a common impulse, as well as a lone individual.

This is a play about people who are prepared to die for their principles, in this case, those of the revolutionary communist party. The American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King once said that ‘if a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live’. King however believed in non-violent protest, whereas the figures in this play are convinced that violent revolution is the only way to change society. In this respect they are closer to Malcolm X, who recommended that black people should use ‘any means necessary’ to protect themselves. In Brecht’s play, the young comrade’s feelings make him betray the mission. He endangers the revolutionary cause through acts of humanity and generosity. The underlying message is that individual acts of kindness are inadequate because they do not challenge the status quo. At worst they can even undermine effective political organisation.

At the beginning of the play, the four agitators report that they have shot their young comrade to the ‘Kontrollchor’. The ‘Kontrollchor’ can be translated as ‘checking choir’: the verb ‘kontrollieren’ means ‘to check’ or ‘to test’. It can mean ‘control’ but only in the sense of ‘quality control’. This choir represents the group organisation which is shown here as more important than the individual.

In Scene 1, the four agitators arrive at the Chinese border and the young comrade asks if they have brought weapons or locomotives. The agitators reply that they have brought the teachings of communism.

In Scene 2, the agitators and the young comrade extinguish their identities. They must conceal their identities because political agitation in Mukden is illegal.

In Scene 3, the agitators warn the young comrade not to give in to pity. But when he sees coolies struggling to drag a boat full of rice, he is overcome by pity and intervenes with the overseer. The overseer raises the alarm and the agitators must flee. In the 1931 version, the young comrade asks for new shoes to ameliorate the workers’ condition, which reveals his short-sightedness, since this would stabilise the status quo.

In Scene 4, the agitators distribute propaganda leaflets in secret at a factory but when a policeman tries to arrest an innocent worker, the young comrade intervenes. Once again the agitators must flee.

In Scene 5, the agitators seek to exploit divisions among the ruling classes – in this case a conflict between Chinese merchants and English colonial authorities – by asking the merchants to arm the workers (Lenin did something rather similar in 1917 when he persuaded the Germans to send him to Russia by train). The young comrade is supposed to strike a deal with the merchant, but he is so offended by the callous merchant that he refuses to do business with him.

In Scene 6, the agitators tell the young comrade that the workers are insufficiently prepared for revolution, but the young comrade refuses to wait, takes off his mask and destroys it.

In Scene 7, the agitators and the young comrade are on the run with their pursuers right behind them. They know that if they are identified then there will be a pre-emptive strike against the revolutionary forces.

In Scene 8 they decide to shoot the young comrade and to conceal his body in a chalk pit. The young comrade agrees with the decision. The agitators report that they carried out this measure, and their choir gives its assent.

The play contains hymns to the communist party, which state that the collective can see more clearly than the individual.

The play is prophetic, given the purges of the 1930s and 1940s which shortly followed in the Soviet Union. Brecht did not support these purges and for the rest of his life he did not give permission for Die Maßnahme to be performed again. When his friend the dramatist Sergei Tretiakov was sentenced to death, Brecht wrote a poem criticising this policy of the Soviet regime. It is also worth noting that Brecht chose to spend his exile in the USA, and not in the Soviet Union. Even so, Die Maßnahme remains a powerful exploration of the idea that collective political discipline is necessary in order to achieve the widespread reduction of human misery.

Die Maßnahme also helped to inspire Mauser (1970), one of Heiner Müller’s most important works.

Further Reading in English

Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’, in Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. by Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 1998), pp. 85-103 [also published in Walter Benjamin, Reflections, trans. by Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1986)]

Alfred Keményi, ‘Measures Taken at the Großes Schauspielhaus’ [first published 20 January 1931 in Die Rote Fahne], in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 549-50

Chris Long, ‘Dead Reckoning: A Measure of Die Maßnahme’, Brecht Yearbook 32 (2007), 356-67

Roswitha Mueller, ‘Learning for a new society: the Lehrstück’, in Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp.101-117

G. Nelson, ‘The Birth of Tragedy out of Pedagogy: Brecht’s “Learning Play” Die Maßnahme’, German Quarterly 46:4 (1973), 566-80

William Rasch, ‘Theories of the Partisan: Die Maßnahme and the Politics of Revolution’, Brecht Yearbook 24 (1999), 330-43

Oliver Simons, ‘Theater of Revolution and the Law of Genre: Bertolt Brecht’s The Measures Taken (Die Massnahme)’, Germanic Review 84:4 (2009), 327-52

Martin Swales, ‘Historicity and all that: Reflections on Bertolt Brecht’s Die Maßnahme’, in The Challenge of German Culture: Essays presented to Wilfried van der Will, ed. by Michael Butler and Robert Evans (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), pp. 77-85

Arlene Teraoka, ‘Der Auftrag and Die Maßnahme: Models of Revolution in Heiner Müller and Bertolt Brecht’, German Quarterly 59:1 (1986), 65-84

Further Reading in German

Bertolt Brecht, Fünf Lehrstücke, ed. by Keith A. Dickson (London: Methuen, 1969)

Florian Vaßen, “Alles Neue ist schmerzhafter als das Alte”. Bertolt Brechts Lehrstück Die Maßnahme (Hannover: Universität Hannover, 1987)

Susanne Winnacker, Wer immer es ist, den ihr hier sucht, ich bin es nicht. Zur Dramaturgie der Abwesenheit in Bertolt Brechts Lehrstück Die Maßnahme (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1997)