The Days of the Commune

Die Tage der Commune; The Days of the Commune (written 1948-49, first performed 1956)

Co-author: Ruth Berlau

The play was written 1948-49 in East Berlin. It was first performed three months after Brecht’s death on 17 November 1956 in Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz), in a production directed by Benno Besson and Manfred Wekwerth.

It is Brecht’s ‘most serious and ambitious historical play’ (cited from the cover blurb of the English translation by David Constantine, see below). In its scope it bears comparison with Georg Büchner’s drama of the French Revolution, Dantons Tod; Danton’s Death (1835).

Brecht’s treatment of the Paris Commune, which lasted from 18 March 1871 to 28 May 1871, is mostly faithful to the historical record. There are a few minor divergences from the record: e.g. Brecht makes Eugène Varlin (1839-1871) one of the ‘hawks’ of the Commune, whereas the historical Varlin opposed the plan to march on Versailles (Keith A. Dickson, p. 112); the Governor of the Bank of France at the time was Gustave Rouland, not the ‘Marquis de Plœuc’.

Brecht’s primary source was Hermann Duncker’s edited collection of documents, Pariser Kommune 1871 (Berlin, 1931). He also drew on Karl Marx’s essay on the Commune (see below) and on Nordahl Grieg’s play Nederlaget (Defeat, 1937). In line with Marx, Brecht presents the Paris Commune as outmaneuvered by Adolphe Thiers and Jules Favre, who strike a deal with Otto von Bismarck, enabling them to declare war on the Communards.

Brecht invented a number of working-class characters, including Jean Cabet, Madame Cabet, Papa, Coco, Babette, Geneviève. He also invented the character of Pierre Langevin, one of the central characters of the play. Langevin, who is Madame Cabet’s brother, is a moderate at first but later he ‘inclines towards a tougher policy when he realizes that the Commune is the victim of its own generosity’ (Keith A. Dickson, p. 114).

As we hear in Scene 11b, the glory of the Commune was that it tried hard to avoid violence. Its tragedy was that the Communards failed to act, even when decisive action was needed. They even failed to get the Bank of France under their control. This enabled the Bank of France to finance Adolphe Thiers’s military manoeuvers against the Commune:

Ruf: Laßt sie von der Kommune sagen: sie hat die Guillotine verbrannt.

Rigault: Und die Bank stehen lassen!

(Brecht, Die Tage der Kommune, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1966, p. 88)

Cry: Let it be said of the Commune: they burned the guillotine.

Rigault: And left the Bank alone!

(Brecht, Collected Plays 8, p. 115)

In Scene 1, it is the 22 January 1871, the day on which a battalion from Brittany opened fire on a crowd in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris - six demonstrators were killed. In a small café in Montmartre, a political debate takes place between three National Guardsmen, Papa, Coco and François Faure, and a portly member of the bourgeoisie. The portly gentleman runs away and his dinner is served to Madame Cabet.

In Scene 2, Thiers is in his bath having his morning milk. He discusses the proposed reparations with Jules Favre. Once the servant has left, Favre explains that Bismarck’s personal banker, Gerson von Bleichröder, will extend a loan to finance the reparations.

In Scene 3 (a, b, c), it is the night of 17-18 March 1871. Philippe Faure leads a squad of men to capture the cannons held by the National Guard, but Madame Cabet persuades him not to fire on his own brother. Papa reports that General Clément Thomas has been shot. ‘During the whole of his tenure of command, he made war, not on the Prussians, but upon the Paris National Guard’ (Marx and Engels, On the Paris Commune, p. 62).

In Scene 4, it is 19 March 1871. In a meeting of the Central Committee in the city hall, the National Guard decides not to march on Versailles, but instead to hold Commune elections.

Scene 5 begins with a long list of bourgeois newspapers, all of which denounce the Commune. Jean explains to Philippe that François needs his microscope because it is the tool of his trade; i.e. property is only meaningful if it is used productively. The bourgeoisie are leaving Paris and heading for Versailles.

In Scene 6, Jean and Babette hoist the red flag from the window of the café. Papa and Jean make fun of Bismarck and Thiers.

In Scene 7, it is 29 March 1871 – the opening debate of the Commune. Six placards display the declarations of the Commune. Genevève, who has become delegate for education, finds that the Ministry of the Interior is deserted. There is no money available.

In Scene 8, Beslay is fooled by Marquis de Plœuc, the Governor of the Bank of France. Plœuc claims to be neutral, but is secretly sending money to Thiers.

In Scene 9, the Commune debates political and military problems.

In Scene 10, Bismarck and Favre meet at the opera in Frankfurt and seal the deal. Favre boasts that he has received 257 million francs from de Plœuc.

In Scene 11a, we learn that Beslay has only received 11,300 francs from de Plœuc. Langevin starts to doubt the declarations of the Commune. He remarks: ‘in diesem Kampf gibt es nur blutbefleckte Hände oder abgehauene Hände’; ‘in this struggle, the hands not bloodstained are the hands chopped off’.

In Scene 11b, the Commune votes against military reprisals.

In Scene 12, Jean and François are building a barricade. Geneviève’s fiancé Guy Suitry shows up disguised as a nun. Papa is about to execute him, but Madame Cabet persuades him not to. She also persuades François not to cut down the apple tree.

In Scene 13, it is the ‘La semaine sanglante’ (The Bloody Week) of 21-28 May 1871. Jean, Babette, François and Geneviève are killed.

In Scene 14, the bourgeoisie observe the fall of the Commune from the walls of Versailles through their opera glasses. They congratulate Thiers, who tells them that they are France.

English Translation

Bertolt Brecht, The Days of the Commune, trans. by David Constantine, in Bertolt Brecht, Collected Plays 8: The Antigone of Sophocles; The Days of the Commune; Turandot or the Whitewasher’s Congress, ed. and intro. by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2003)

Further Reading in English

Keith A. Dickson, Towards Utopia. A Study of Brecht (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 109-24

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On the Paris Commune (Moscow: Progress, 1971)

Karl Marx, ‘The Civil War in France’ (1871)

Anna Seymour, ‘Welcoming in the New Millennium: The Possibilities of Brecht’s The Days of the Commune for Northern Ireland’, Modern Drama 42:2 (1999), 176-84

Further Reading in German

Günter Hartung, ‘Brechts Stück Die Tage der Commune’, Weimarer Beiträge 18:2 (1972), 106-44

Karl Marx, ‘Der Bürgerkrieg in Frankreich’ (1871)

Wolf Siegert, Die Furcht vor der Kommune: Untersuchungen zur Entstehung und Bedeutung von Bertolt Brechts “Die Tage der Commune” (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1983)