“A collaborationist doesn’t work for nothing, just the opposite, he even gets paid more these days because his own people despise him, I have to be compensated for that, why else do it?” – Schweyk (5)
Brecht adapted the work of others throughout his career – from looking-glass revisions of ‘The Threepenny Opera’, ‘Turandot’, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’,’ ‘Edward II’, and ‘Round Heads and Pointed Heads’ (based on ‘Measure for Measure’) to this later play, which marches Jaroslav Hašek’s novel onto the stage (updating from WWI to II in process). Its central character, either an innocent incompetent or a trickster playing the part as a one-man passive resistance, is a readymade Brechtian survivor, whose feints, tangents and allusions are too slippery for the literalism of the Nazi occupiers. He routinely over-praises these latter, inflating them into ridiculousness, a burlesque of obedience (thus, in a disapproving speech about his less vocal countryfolk: “When he hears he’s to die for something great, he doesn’t like the taste of it, he picks at it and pokes it around as if it was going to stick in his throat.”)
“In times like these, you’ve got to crawl. I licked his hand.”
Even this submissiveness becomes a weapon – volunteering to help a soldier remember which train carriage to send, he succeeds in utterly befuddling him, and elsewhere outflanks the party’s inbuilt racism with a speech on mongrels being the cleverest dogs.
Much of the play is set in ‘The Chalice’, a local bar which becomes a liminal space as natives and invaders intermingle and drink, thus risking losing control. The regulars exchange black market goods, unsettle soldiers by telling their future (“a hero’s death” predicted as something to be proud of) and – brilliantly – buy ‘postcards of German towns’. Initial scepticism over these – with a caption ‘Hitler is one of the great architects of history’ dissolves when they’re examined: “That looks dreadful. I’ll have that one. Nothing but craters.” In the final scene, Schweyk remembers the place fondly, its hospitality open to all who can pay, wandering through the snow – exchanging pleasantries with deserters, a murderous chaplain, and Hitler, now facing defeat – still looking for the front.