The art of revolution

The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising - G√ľnter Grass

This is one of those pieces of literature that I simply love, and it is a play that I definitely have to see performed (if it is ever performed, so I will have to keep my ear to the ground). Anyway, the author, a German, writes a play which is about a group of playwrights performing Coriolanus during the backdrop of the 1959 uprising in East Berlin. Obviously the uprising was put down, and it was done so quite brutally. In fact there is one section of the play where the workers who are rising up are waiting for American tanks, which never come, while the Soviet tanks are sitting on the outskirts of East Berlin.

The argument that Grass is making here (and the version of the play that I read included the transcription of a lecture that Grass gave that deals with Coriolanus, as well as a paper that he wrote at the end) is that Coriolanus is written in the backdrop of a peasant uprising in England, and that Shakespeare picked what he wanted from Plutarch's work and that Shakespeare's adaptation falls far short of what Plutarch was exploring in his biographies. Personally, I am not surprised that Shakespeare is butchering the text since he is using a story to make a point that is relevant to his audience. Remember that the values that Plutarch's readers held were much different to the culture that Shakespeare was writing in (which in turn is vastly different to our own culture).

Grass is correct when he says that Shakespeare cannot necessarily be taken as timeless, and in some cases he can be seen as a political critic who is warning the general public about taking certain courses of action. Shakespeare was appointed by the King, and as such you will find that much of what he writes about is the need for a stable government, and rebelling against the king is not so much a religious thing (the idea of Divine Right insinuates that rebelling against the king is the same a rebelling against God) but rather a social thing. One could say that all of the history plays (and in fact a number of his tragedies) deal with somebody usurping the throne and what comes out of it (though Henry V is a bit 'hey we're English and we're pretty good').

The conflict in this play though tends to be between the intellectuals and the working class. It appears that the intelligentsia did not want to take part in the uprising (and they are represented by characters from Coriolanus), while the working class (as represented by the numerous professions) were pushing them on. However, it was not that the playwrights (apparently the Boss represents Brecht) supported the government, it is just that they did not see revolution at that time to be a necessity. In fact he quotes Lenin as suggesting that 'Revolution is an art'.

That is quite true since while there are uprisings all the time, it is only the revolution that comes out of a successful uprising. However the difference between a successful uprising and an unsuccessful uprising tends to be timing, and we can see this throughout history. The revolutions that do happen tend not to act in a vacuum, there tends to be a lot of external factors that go into a successful revolution. For instance the Russian Revolution of 1905, while there was some success, the Czarist regime remained in control of Russia and members of the uprising were punished. Secondly both 1917 revolutions (though the second one could be labelled more as a coup than a revolution, though it was successful) occurred in the background of rising resentment, war losses, and a government that had grown weak, yet the communist success post 1917 had, once again, a lot to do with timing, particularly due to the lack of willpower within the United States and Britain to launch a successful counter-revolution.

However, being the intellectual, the boss realises that at this time a revolution is not necessarily going to be successful, which is why he is not willing to get involved. Why get yourself killed in an uprising that will not work, but rather bide your time and wait for a better opportunity. Of course the counter argument tends to be that by staying out of the revolution, you are not in support of the cause, and that if everybody takes that attitude then nothing would get done. However, one must remember that in an uprising it is only those who are discontented with the way things are that rise up against the government. In a democracy this tends to take the form of protests though some protests can turn quite ugly. Even then, democratic governments, when looking to make cuts, will only make then to small areas (or try to) since the smaller the disruption in as few a peoples lives are the best, otherwise the discontent will end up being unmanageable.