Schweyk in the Second World War

The Theatregoer

Through one of the disquieting coincidences which threaten to reduce criticism to an exact science, 1883 was the natal year of a pair of Czech novelists whose lookouts on the problem of monolithic authority and what to do about it are presently very much in point. In a country which has earned its reputation as the common stamping ground of optimistic power, Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek came to know the texture and stink of vast administratives schemes so vicious, irrational, and irremediably tacky that they generate comedy and tragedy, like industrial waste, in awe-some volume, beyond any man's capacity to absorb without the saving intercession of art.

About the nature of the problem the two writers would have had, I think, little quarrel. But about the solution their views are crucially divergent. In Kafka there was simply none available, for the very qualities which render the dreaded state intolerable--its impressive size, structural inefficiency, and grotesque involution--also render it effectively invulnerable. Hasek, on the other hand, saw in these same qualities the faults which invite the wedge: nothing so ludicrous could really expect to survive. Hasek created the figure of Schweyk, the good soldier, whose will to survive encompasses his will to resist, and whose native innocence and peasant cunning provides the specific antidote to corporate petrification.

These days, Kafka's version is very much with us, and justly so. But like the people say, consider the alternative. In the extremely informal comfort of an Eliot House main dining room spotted with wrestling mats, army blankets, cushions and chairs, the next weekends offer a free, funny, and frequently poignant update on Hasek, in the form of a rare English language production of Bertolt Brecht's Schweyk in the Second World War. An update it is, for in his telling epilogue to the production, translator Charles Sabel would have it emphasized that even for folk heroes times change.

Hasek's Schweyk was an Austro-Hungarian Imperial recruit whose very literal-minded obedience proves the bane of his superior officers. By the time of the Second War, Schweyk's position has become more complicated, and Brecht's hero has as more difficult task; a civilian now, he juggles the roles of partisan and seeming colla-borator. He still feeds his friends, still rattles military authority, still tries to stay alive, but there is somewhat less call on his innocence, somewhat more on his cunning. Brecht's Schweyk is already a conscious, canny resister. Nor does the progress end there, for Donald Bloch's imaginative staging carries the Schweyk figure through to our time troubles. Although the guts of his production is drawn from Brecht's text, it is framed in a nicely articulated image of Sanctuary, complete with detailed instructions of nonviolent self-defense and free legal aid, and embellished with a drivingly contemporary slide show. Schweyk in sanctuary, the Schweyk of the moment, is really a third distinct figure. His aims and methods remain the same, but his open declaration of the will to survive, and better, is something very new. Mr. Bloch's production suggests that the tactics of Schweyk remain valid, being as adaptable as authority is inflexible.

Candid, appetitive, resourceful good-will may yet prove literally disarming, especially if touched by a new spirit of community. This is an extremely attractive premise, and the production earns credit as fine didactic theatre: tonic but never argumentative. But it is also an important premise, and an arguable one. Like all didactic art, this Schweyk must stand on the force with which it advances its object lesson, and its simple success as theater.

In many respects, the quality of the production is extraordinarily high. The parties responsible have made a number of bold choices, and most of them have paid off. Notable in this regard are Paul Fry's simple modular settings, which combine function with a sort of determined elegance rare to house stages. Equally significant is Mr. Bloch's decision to emphasize the inherent humor of line and situation, and to use a liberal hand in devising comic business. Although occasionally subtle antics which animate the human background throughout the evening distract from more important actions, the general effect is one of rich detail, and this must be judged a special pleasure while Harvard theater is so often plagued by underrealized staging. Much of the politically cheering impact of this production derives directly from its humor, as further embodied in Mr. Sabel's fine-sounding translation, which provides a good deal of sharp comic dialogue and worthy black-out lines for the vignettes of Schweyk in action. In rendering the songs which highlight many scenes, the translation achieves where many English treatments of Brecht fail; the lyrics retain a cutting edge but never overstep the limits of the playwrignt's delicate ironic sense to make the point. This discipline is another necessary element of good didactic theater.

The performances, though uneven in control and focus, all suggest a remarkable investment of energy. There results a sense of restrained favor in the playing which makes up for occasional lapses in comic timing. A great deal of good-natured conviction appears on stage inSchweyk, and from the standpoint again of didactic theater, nothing is so important as this. John Tatlock as Schweyk and Gerard Shepherd as his gluttonous companion Baloun are admirable, though I wished in each case for certain qualities of size, and especially of what can only be called earthiness--which only actors of considerably more age and experience can be expected to convey. Among the ladies, Jan Gough does especially well as as Frau Anna Kopecka: her presence is grand although some of her readings could be sharpened in urgency. She and Nancy McGill carry most of the songs, and both deliver the remarkable Hanns Eisler tunes in fine, direct style. David Dunton scores a minor comic triumph as Bullinger, the harried SS functionary, while Claudio Buchwald should be marked as an actor who makes a great deal of some potentially unrewarding bits.

With all its contributing sources of energy and intelligence, this Schweyk advances its premise farther than any overview of the text might suggest would be possible. The amount of didactic mileage concealed in a series of simple comic vignettes pitting a group of small-time Czechs against a team of penny Nazis is something to experience for oneself. Though it may not finally upset one's faith in the Kafka version, this production will give that faith a thoroughly healthy shaking-up. That much, at least, I think we deserve.