Der Jasager, Der Neinsager is part of Bertolt Brecht’s Lehrstücke, or “learning plays,” as they are often translated in English. The Lehrstücke can arguably be considered the quintessential Brechtian plays that bring into stark relief both Brecht’s revolutionary innovation of theatre as well as his idealism, indeed his social utopianism.
Designed specifically for a concept of theatre as a kind of laboratory workshop, the Lehrstücke reject any traditional hierarchies in theatre and refuse to present entertaining theatrical illusions on stage. They instead call on the directors and actors, and ultimately the audience itself, to engage in a dialogue and debate about the staging of the play and thereby to reflect critically on the very society they live in and the ideology, power structures, and traditions that govern it.
To achieve this, the Lehrstücke call for a rehearsal process that unfolds as a collaborative workshop and for a staging concept and acting style that is demonstrably self-aware, never pretending to be imitating reality, instead always presenting the action on stage as a proposal, a hypothesis, one version of multiple alternative scenarios.
This theatrical, as well as social, ideal is captured very well by the Jasager, Neinsager, which already in its very title offers two contradictory scenarios – saying yes, saying no. The play revolves around an ethical issue that only allows for two choices: A teacher, three students, and a young boy embark upon an expedition across the mountains to the great city in order to seek advice and help for a plague that is ravaging their village. The boy falls ill during the journey, and tradition demands that he agree to be killed in order not to endanger the mission. In the Jasager, the boy affirms tradition by agreeing to be sacrificed for the greater good, in the Neinsager, he refuses to be killed and calls for a new tradition. While we instinctively want to identify with the boy and might therefore consider the Jasager to be affirming a barbaric tradition, the boy’s refusal to be sacrificed in the Neinsager has significant implications for the collective, the village that is in desperate need of help.
The play thus does not offer a solution to the dilemma, one that would achieve any sense of genuine and comforting moral closure, but only two problematic choices.
Our intention in staging the play has been twofold: to highlight this sense of non-closure and thereby to suggest that there is ultimately as much continuity as there is difference between the “yes” and the “no;” and to stage this in a manner that visibly works with core Brechtian theatrical concepts, such as the Verfremdungseffekt (estragement), gesture, epic theatre.
One of the most significant means by which we have achieved this is to apply central facets of another theatrical tradition to which Brecht’s Jasager, Neinsager owes a great debt, namely the Japanese Noh theatre.
In the spirit of Noh theatre and in order to emphasize gestural elements and to achieve the Verfremdungseffekt, we are using the stage not merely as a place in which the action occurs, but rather as a configuration of symbolically significant spaces that themselves produce action by demanding a specific gestural stance from the actors. The stage is divided into three spaces, the Naming Place front stage used for declarative statements in recital style, the Bridge in the middle as a threshold place of transition, and the Mirror Room in the rear balcony as the place of revelation of identity and human authenticity.
Characterization is also partly informed by the character configurations in the Japanese Noh theatre in that the characters’ identities are partly derived from their functions: The main character (the Boy), the companion (the Students), the observer (the Teacher), and the Chorus. The stance, gestures, and self-understanding of our actors is thus determined both by the plot and by these symbolically significant formal and spatial elements.
Moreover, one significant function of the Chorus is to supply upfront the plot summary or core thematic components of a sequence, which is then subsequently enacted. Being thus informed ahead of time of the action, the audience can focus on examining the process of the plot’s unfolding rather than its outcome alone.
Finally, both in accord with Noh theatre and with Brecht’s Lehrstück concept, ours is a “bare bones” production that uses a minimalist set and very few props items so as to bring into relief the core Brechtian concepts of gesture and estrangement, and to invite critical input from the audience itself. Our most important props are ropes of different sizes and colours, which serve to symbolically represent the ethical dilemma as a power struggle and quite literally as a tug-of-war.
Our ultimate hope is that the audience will not come away from the performance with a clear sense of a winner in the tug-of-war, but that it will instead be stimulated to engage in a continued discussion with the actors and directors after the performance.
We look forward to seeing you at the performance and can’t wait to hear your feedback!
“The law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don't understand it”
-Bertolt Brecht, Three Penny Opera
Theatre is its own language, and the experience of working on Der Jasager and Der Neinsager in the Performing German Drama course demonstrates that. While dialogue is a very important and practical element in any play, it exists to drive further action on stage. Working on a play to be performed in a language I do not speak is something I never thought I would do, but it has taught me as a director to pay attention to every element involved in story-telling on stage, beyond just the words themselves, which is especially important when working on anything by Bertolt Brecht.
The most valuable thing about this process is that the entire class has come together in order to make it happen. Much like the characters attempt to come together with a willingness to learn and reach understanding, we have all come together to put up this production. Just as the Boy, the Teacher, and the Three Students in both Der Jasager and Der Neinsager go on a long journey to learn, and the Chorus helps us to define what we are meant to learn from that and agree upon, so have we created our own eager journey with this play and have all needed each other in order to manifest a collaborative journey.
As theatre performance is its own language, Brechtian theatre is a very distinct dialect within it. Instead of suspending disbelief for the audience like most playwrights intend, Brecht tells the story as if it were a lucid dream, by making the audience aware of the fact that a story is being told, and rather than exploring humanity by making the actors fully become the character they are playing, he shows the dynamics of human nature by demonstrating the contradictions between our declarations and our actions.
Whether as an audience member you speak German or not, and whether or not you feel you have reached full agreement with the play, you are about to observe these journeys too.