A class on Bertolt Brecht’s Der Jasager/Der Neinsager

For a full version of this activity, please see my Chapter 4. “Pedagogical Intermission: A Lesson Plan for Bertolt Brecht’s Revisions.”

I ask my students to read three different passages aloud: The first, which I dub Yes 1 for ease of reference in class, is from the 1930 Der Jasager with Weill’s music, which I play in the background throughout the exercise. I tell my students that Brecht’s libretto was based on the Japanese noh play Tanikō, which tells the story of a student who accompanies his teacher on a mountainous pilgrimage in order to pray for his sick mother. When the boy falls ill, the teacher tells him that he will contaminate the journey unless he agrees to be thrown to his death. The boy consents to death, but his teacher’s grief and the prayers of the other pilgrims lead to his resurrection and a demonstration of Buddha’s miraculous power. Brecht and Weill initially intended Yes 1 for Berlin’s 1930 “Neue Musik” festival, a workshop for avant-garde artists concerned with the educational and social aspects of performance as well as the new technologies of radio and film.

“Neue Musik” inspired collaborations by Brecht, Weill, and the composer Paul Hindemith, who was the first to use the term lehrstück in relation to a 1929 “Neue Musik” festival piece later published by Brecht as the Baden-Baden Lehrstück vom Einverständnis. Joining ideas of consent, self-sacrifice, and understanding, einverständnis was central to Yes 1 and to Brecht’s interpretations of the consent of Tanikō’s student. Yes 1 was not presented at the Berlin festival but first performed by students and broadcast on radio on 23 June 1930 – followed by between two and three hundred other school performances before Hitler took power in Germany. In keeping with that tradition, I ask students – mostly non-actors – to read the parts of a BOY and his TEACHER on a dangerous “scientific” journey to the mountains. The child, who decided to join the journey in order to get medicine for his ill mother, becomes sick during the climb and the TEACHER tells him:

THE TEACHER: Listen to me. There’s been a law here from ancient times that if anyone’s taken sick on such a journey, into the valley’s depths he must be hurled – which means instant death. But the same Custom prescribes that the one with the sickness be asked: should we turn back again for that reason? And moreover the Custom says that the sick man must reply: no, you should not turn back.
THE BOY: I understand.
THE TEACHER: Do you want us to turn back home for your sake?
THE BOY: No, you should not turn back.

Free-Writing Exercise:
After the performance, I put a prompt on the board and ask my students to follow the directions precisely: Take three minutes to write a paragraph that presents an original claim about whether or not students would benefit from performing this opera. Why or why not? I tell the students I will collect their paragraphs at the end of the writing exercise.

I collect my students’ paragraphs and turn to the second selection, which is from the revision of Yes 1 that Brecht wrote in response to students at the Karl Marx School, Neuköln, who participated in the second performance of the play and then discussed their experience with teachers and Brecht himself. They performed the revision resulting from these discussions, Yes 2, on 18 May 1931. In this version, an epidemic has hit the town and the Teacher describes the purpose of the journey as “aid” rather than “science.” I ask the TEACHER and the BOY from Yes 1 to trade roles, invite a new student to read the stage directions aloud, and require that everyone else in the class stand up and read the part of the THREE STUDENTS. With this casting choice, I hope to demonstrate that authority and submission are distributed to teachers and students as part of their assigned or reassigned roles. The entire class must participate in Yes 2, more closely approximating Brecht’s desire for the lehrstück to be performed by students without an audience.

THE TEACHER: Because you are ill and can go no further, we must leave you here. But it is right that the one with the sickness be asked: should we turn back again for that reason? […?]
THE BOY: I understand.
THE TEACHER: Do you want us to turn back home for your sake?
THE BOY: No, you should not turn back.
THE TEACHER: So are you consenting that you should be left behind?
THE BOY: I will think it over. He pauses for thought. Yes, I am consenting.
THE TEACHER calls from Space 1 to Space 2: He has answered as necessity demanded.
THE FULL CHORUS and THE THREE STUDENTS while going down to Space 2: He has said yes. Go on!
The three students remain standing.
THE TEACHER: Go on now, no hesitation
On towards our destination.
The three students remain standing.
THE BOY: Let me say something: I beg you not to leave me lying here, but to throw me down into the valley, for I am frightened to die alone.
THE THREE STUDENTS: We cannot do that.
THE BOY: Stop! I demand that you should.
THE TEACHER: You resolved to go on and leave him there
Deciding his fate is easy
Enacting it is hard.
Are you ready to throw him down into the valley?

Free-Writing Exercise:

Following the performance, I post a prompt for the second writing exercise: Please take 3 minutes to write. I tell the students that I will once again ask them to hand in their work.

I collect my students’ writing, and we turn to the final passage, which is from yet another revision, Der Neinsager or He Said No, which Brecht published in Versuche 4 (1931) with Yes 2. Teachers could experiment with different distributions of the roles, but I have the TEACHER and the BOY switch again so that they are now performing the same part as they did in Yes 1. I ask a new student to read the stage directions and everyone else stands to perform the THREE STUDENTS.

THE TEACHER: Do you want us to turn back home for your sake? Or do you consent that you should be hurled into the valley as the Custom prescribes?
THE BOY: He pauses for thought. No, I do not consent.
THE TEACHER calls from Space 1 to Space 2: Come on down! He has not replied in accordance with the Custom.
THE THREE STUDENTS coming down to Space 1: He has said no. To the Boy: Why have you not replied in accordance with the Custom? Whoever says A must also say B. When you were asked at the start if you would consent to whatever might happen on the journey, you replied yes.
THE BOY: My answer was wrong, but your question was more so… as for the ancient Custom I see no sense in it. What I need far more is a new Great Custom, which we should bring at once, the Custom of thinking things out anew in every situation.

Free-Writing Exercise:

I give the students verbal instructions this time, “Please take 3 minutes.”


Immediately after the third reading, I ask for volunteers to respond to three questions:

1. What claims did you make about whether or not students would derive any benefit from performing the opera?
2. Did your argument change after each of the three pieces?
3. Did the form of your response change with each prompt?

The majority of my students, especially those who volunteer to talk, produce three conventional paragraphs claiming that, yes, a group would benefit from performing the Brecht scenes. They cite the benefits of learning about the danger of conformity, engaging in public speaking, and analyzing Brecht’s dialogue. After several members of my class share their thoughts, a rustle of activity became noticeable as students began passing their third piece of writing forward, expecting Evaluation. I feign an attitude of surprise and asked, “Oh? Do you have something to pass in?”

At which point, I finally acknowledge that my students were absolutely justified in their frustration with this belabored exercise, which takes fifteen minutes of class time or even more. I ask my student to look again at the instructions I post after the first two readings:

1. Take three minutes to write a paragraph that presents an original claim about whether or not students would benefit from performing this opera. Why or why not?
2. Please take 3 minutes to write.
I remind them that I spoke the third prompt:
3. Please take 3 minutes.

The first is a truly horrific prompt, I acknowledge, the kind that might appear on the AP English exam, ACT college admission test, or other “standardized” writing assessment. The second simply asks students to write, so they can draft a dramatic scene, an account of their breakfast, or a (legitimate) complaint about the activity for three minutes. Of course, the pressure of Evaluation encourages them to apply the explicit instructions from the first prompt to Yes 2 and write a paragraph arguing for its pedagogical value. And finally, the third prompt does not even ask students to write, although they tend to produce the same argumentative paragraphs about Brecht’s No. I rename the assignment an Unfree-Writing Exercise.

The Brechtian Unfree-Writing Exercise
demonstrates to my students how often they submit to the authority of a teacher or “great writer” like Brecht without even recognizing that they are being asked to say “yes.” Brecht’s fame encourages them to argue for the pedagogical value of his plays. My students also dutifully write their paragraphs with claims (even when I didn’t ask them to write) because the genre of the paragraph is a “Great Custom,” as is the “free-writing exercise” that is anything but free with its prompts, time constraints, and demands that they turn it in, presumably for a grade. Authority and custom regularly determine our actions as well as our supposedly “original claims” and writing styles.