Bertolt Brecht on an Example of a Scenic Innovation through the Observation of a Mistake

In the Chinese agitation play Millet for the Eighth, farmers smuggle millet to Mao Zedong’s revolutionary Eighth Army. After the play had been adapted, the young director explained some of the details of his basic scenic design to Brecht.

The play takes place in a town hall’s main room and the room adjoining it. When the director told him about a small table he wanted to place in the middle of the stage where the farmers were to serve first a merchant who was collaborating with the Japanese and then a troop leader from garrison, Brecht made him aware that they would be sitting with their backs to the entry – in a place where they were unwelcome they could hardly be happy about this. The director immediately agreed, but then hesitated to move the table to the side because the stage design would lose its balance. After all, he noted, on the one side there was nothing but the adjoining room that was only seldom used in the performance! ‘Aha, a mistake in your set design!’ said B. with interest. ‘Do you really need both rooms? Couldn’t the adjoining room be set up just when you need it? By the farmers putting up a screen?’ The director explained why this was impossible. (B. had participated in the adaptation, but when it came to directing, he forgot everything that he knew from reading or working on the piece and ‘let the flow of the story surprise him.’) ‘Fine,’ said B., ‘then we’ll have to bring some life to the adjoining room. We need an action this is connected to the main plot and leads to something. What could they be doing there that relates to the smuggling plans? There’s another mistake that I remember. When he leaves the stage, it’s not clear that the partisan, who is faking a raid on the village by the Eighth Army so the farmers can explain the missing millet to the Japanese, will now transport the millet over the mountain himself. What season is it?’ – ‘August, because the millet was just harvested. You won’t be able to change that.’ – ‘We can’t have a warm jacket sewn for him … ? You know, a woman could be sewing a warm jacket, for example, in the adjoining room, that is, mending it.’ We agreed that the packsaddle for the mayor’s donkey should be mended. They needed the donkey to transport the millet.

We decided on two women, mother and daughter, so that they could whisper and laugh when the collaborator was locked in the cupboard with the files. This idea quickly proved to be productive in several respects. The women’s giggles could emphasize the funny side of the fake raid and of the collaborator’s presence in the cupboard. The collaborator could show his lack of respect for the women by paying them the same attention as he would a straw mat on the floor and so on. More than anything, this action clarified how the entire population cooperated, and it was a poetic moment when the women handed the packsaddle over to the partisans after mending it. ‘Mistakes can produce effects,’ B. said in leaving.

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