lines from st joan of the stockyards

In classics long after, quotables, video on November 30, 2009 at 1:30 am

“People don’t move me. They are not guiltless.” – Mauler (3)

St Joan of the Stockyards

St Joan of the Stockyards (1974 production)

Very much an ensemble piece, with large parts of the action being conducted between choruses representing meat-packers, stock-breeders and wholesalers (in a business-class manner Caryl Churchill would later echo with Serious Money), St Joan has at its heart a strange dance between Mauler, a meat trader stricken with doubts (“Oh, what a bloody business we are in”) which may or may not be tactical, and Joan, from the Black Straw Hats (akin to Salvation Army) who confronts him (literally) with the “invisible people” he exploits.

In an attempt to counter her idealistic onslaught, Mauler’s serpentine assistant, Slift, shows her how lowly-paid workers exploit each other, but she sees through crime to the logic of need: “You have shown me not / The baseness of the poor but / The poverty of the poor.”

“The cruel thing about hunger is that / However often you satisfy it, it always comes back again.” – Mrs Luckerniddle (7)

“…nothing, however good it looks, should be termed good unless it / Really helps, and nothing counted honourable but what / Irrevocably changes the world, which is in need of change. / I was just what the oppressors wanted. / Oh, inconsequential goodness! / Oh, negligible virtue! (…) Take care that when you leave the world / You have not merely been good, but are leaving  / A better world!” – Joan (8)

Joan exploits the curious hold her innocence has on the softening Mauler by sitting down in solidarity with the jobless from his plant (“The snow will be falling on someone you know”) but, in her heroism, she refuses to compromise herself with pragmatic matters, and the workers lose out as a result of her negligence. She dies, still preaching, pure and useless, canonised by her movement, who have been bought out / ‘supported’ by Mauler (“We’ll promise them that the rich will be punished – after death, of course.”)

“For there is a gulf between the top and bottom, wider / Than between the high Himalaya and the sea / And what gos on at the top / Is not known at the bottom / Nor on top what goes on at the bottom / And top and bottom have two languages…” – Joan (8)

Brecht’s real heroes are ‘flexible’ tricksters or unromantic pragmatists, and his happy endings, few – the frustration of seeing how the world really – mostly – works is supposed to send the audience out at the final curtain wanting to change it. But this play has what is maybe his most enduringly hopeful exchange – between workers who have tried and failed to convince the police that they are equals and should unite. One turns to the other: “Will it always be like this?” The audience considers the tragic conception of the human race, so endlessly fallible, the good intentions gone awry, original sin, hubris and nemesis. And, as they are taken away: “No,” answers the other.


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