The music is by Kurt Weill. It was first performed in 1930.
The opera is about a school. One of the pupils wants to join a dangerous journey across mountains to get medicine for his sick mother. However, during the mountain crossing, the boy gets ill. An old Japanese Shinto religious custom says that if during a pilgrimage, a pilgrim gets ill, then that is a sign from Heaven that the pilgrim is unclean. His fellow pilgrims then have the religious duty to kill the ill person by throwing him into an abyss.
Today, Der Jasager was on stage in the provincial archive hall in Haarlem in the Netherlands. The performance was by the local choir Puisque tout Passe; three solo singers for the three roles of the teenage boy (played by a thirteen-year-old), his mother and his teacher; and the local amateur symphony orchestra. The opera had also been played yesterday; both times for a sold out hall.
The play is credited to Bertolt Brecht. However, 90% of the words are by Elisabeth Hauptmann. How much of Brecht’s works are really by Brecht and how much is by women in his life is an issue. An issue which Brecht has in common with other famous men, like scientist Albert Einstein, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
In Hauptmann’s and Brecht’s text, the central theme is whether or not individuals should sacrifice themselves for a supposed higher social need.
This interpretation points in the same direction as a line of Brecht’s poem Lob des Lernens: “Don’t accept things uncritically, investigate them yourself!” Brecht wrote Lob des Lernens in the same year 1930 as Der Jasager. In the Haarlem performance, the choir sang Lob des Lernens, set to music by Hanns Eisler, before the opera performance proper started.
After Der Jasager, Brecht wrote a twin play, to be played along with it, called Der Neinsager (the No Sayer); as he thought audiences had not understood his criticism of the killing of the boy enough. The more openly critical Der Neinsager is not often played along with Der Jasager, because Weill never wrote music for it. Der Neinsager was also not performed in Haarlem today.
To find out the meaning of the Jasager’s authors, we should also look at the social contexts of the original medieval Japanese play, and of Germany in 1930 when the opera was written.
Fifteenth century Japan, when Taniko was written, was a class society; like twentieth century Germany. On the top of the social pyramid was an emperor; like in Germany until just 11 years before Der Jasager was written. After the German empire lost the first world war, “the Kaiser went away, his generals stayed”. There were powerful feudal landlords in fifteenth century Japan. There still were in early twentieth century Germany, though the capitalist class was already eclipsing their feudal predecessors. And there were ancient religious and other customs individuals were supposed to obey; also if that meant oppression or even death.
So, though five centuries and over half the globe separated the Japanese original from Brecht and Hauptmann, the problems which Taniko discussed were still relevant.
Taniko is a pro-feudal, pro-Shinto religious tradition play (Nō is an aristocratic tradition within the evolution of Japanese theatre). Its moral was that its protagonists should fulfill their religious duties; even if that meant killing a well-intentioned teenager.
My view is that Brecht and Hauptmann inverted the original Nō moral.
That they pointed out how dangerous it is to uncritically follow ancient religious or other traditions. And that tragedies are not just caused by evil people; also by good people who do not dare to resist traditions if necessary.
Hauptmann and Brecht grew up during the slaughterhouse of World War I.
As a schoolboy, Brecht was
very nearly expelled from Augsburg Grammar School for taking a dismissive, anti-patriotic tone when given an assignment to write an essay with the title “It is a sweet and honourable thing to die for one’s country.”
So, teenager Brecht was in many ways the opposite of the teenage schoolboy character in Der Jasager, who, contrary to Brecht, accepts traditions even if they mean his death.
During World War I, the slogan of imperial Germany was Gott mit Uns, With God on our side. Another slogan was God strafe England; May God punish England. So, to kill English people and to risk being killed by them was a religious duty, rather: a state religious duty, in 1914-1918 Germany. Like killing ill pilgrims was a religious duty in fifteenth century Japan.
Not all people in Germany in 1914-1918 wanted to kill and die for Kaiser Wilhelm II. Not all people in Germany in 1914-1918 wanted to kill and die for the emperor’s generals. Not all people in Germany in 1914-1918 wanted to kill and die for the noble landlords. Not all people in Germany in 1914-1918 wanted to kill and die for Krupp and other capitalist war profiteers. Not all people in Germany in 1914-1918 wanted to kill and die for a God who supposedly had enlisted into the armed forces of Germany and its allies: some because they were not Christians; some because they were Christians, but thought that religion should not be abused for war propaganda.
For people in Germany in 1914-1918 who did not want to kill and die for any of the above reasons, the pro war establishment offered other motives. Similar to ideas which would later be called “liberal hawkish”. And here, we have the point which I named about good people who do not dare to resist if necessary, thus causing tragedies.
In Der Jasager, all three main characters are basically good people. The teenage boy loves his mother and wants to help her to recover health. He is willing to obey Shinto tradition and even to get killed for that. But we don’t know if the boy’s fellow pilgrims, as he asks them before dying, will succeed in getting medicine for the mother. And we don’t know if, if the medicine reaches the sick mother, it will manage to cure her. The boy’s self-sacrifice may have been completely in vain.
The mother is a good person, who does not want her son to risk her life for her. However, she allows herself to succumb to custom. Her son is dead. Will she get back her health? And even if she does: will she feel guilty for the rest of her life for her son’s death?
The teacher at first refuses the boy’s request to go along with the dangerous journey. Later, when the boy admits that he is ill, he asks his pupil to be silent to prevent their fellow travelers from hearing him and killing him. When the other pilgrims say the boy is ill, the teacher lamely tries to save the boy’s life, saying that he is just feeling a bit unwell, not really ill. Finally, he does what Shintoism says that he has to do. Will he feel guilty for the rest of his life for his pupil’s death?
During Hauptmann’s and Brecht’s World War teenage years, as I wrote, the pro war establishment offered also other motives than obviously bloodthirsty ones to support the war effort. Similar to ideas which would later be called “liberal hawkish”. And here, we have the point in Hauptmann’s and Brecht’s lives about good people who do not dare to resist if necessary, thus causing tragedies.
There was revulsion in Germany in 1914 against oppression in czarist Russia, and against the British empire’s wars. Revulsion which was not wrong in itself. Like revulsion in France or Britain against authoritarianism in the German and Austrian empires was itself correct. Very incorrect, criminal, was the abuse of these feelings of revulsion by warmongers of both warring sides for the World War One bloodbath.
In Germany, even some young people from Left socialist families allowed themselves to be swept along with “liberal” sounding war propaganda. Peter, the son of socialist visual artist Käthe Kollwitz, joined the German army and was killed soon. It made Kollwitz, politically close to Brecht, a lifelong opponent of war and of uncritically obeying authority.
In 2003, revulsion against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq was not wrong in itself. In 2012, revulsion against the theocracy in Iran is not wrong. It was and is criminal, however, to use those revulsions for bloody war in Iraq from 2003 till now. And maybe now for bloody war against Iran from 2012 till only God knows when.
Before Weill’s opera was performed in Haarlem, the choir sang eight songs by twentieth century composers.
First, two songs by Edward Elgar (a World War I opponent).
Then, Gerald Finzi.
Then Elliott Carter, with an Emily Dickinson poem set to music.
Then, two songs by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, including the poem Y Despues by Federico Garcia Lorca set to music.
Finally, as I noted earlier, Brecht’s poem about thinking critically for oneself.
Then, the opera.
In their booklet on the performance, the Haarlem organizers noted that in the present economic crisis, Der Jasager really is relevant. They also criticized the policies of the present Dutch Rightist government which cuts arts funding.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle: Brecht’s parable on “the temptation to do good”: here.
Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, at the Classical Theater of Harlem, February 4-29: here.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night: Eugene O’Neill’s dramatic protest at middle class hypocrisy: here.