The Plebeians Rehearse Uprising: A Play Excerpt

The Plebeians Rehearse Uprising: A Play Excerpt

Excerpt from Günter Grass

[This play excerpt is taken from the July-August 1966 Dissent]

East Berlin, June 17, 1953: The workers’ uprising is seething in the streets; on stage, the “Boss”—artist and man of the theatre, a figure clearly modeled on Bertold Brecht—is rehearsing his new production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.

At the close of this scene, a delegation of the rebelling workers enters to ask the Boss for his support. He hesitates, clings to the stage and the problems of interpreting Coriotanus and Rome’s plebeians—he doubts his countrymen’s passion and ability and foresees the failure of the revolution. When, finally, he loins in, the uprising is already collapsing, smashed by the Russian tanks

(The rehearsal begins. The actress who is to play Volumnia enters, passing through the group of Plebeians. She is wearing a spring overcoat)

RUFUS: “Before we proceed any further, hear me speak.”
FLAVUS: “Speak, speak.”
BOSS: Is this a railroad station?
VOLUMNIA: What? Rehearsing?
PODULLA: Want me to stop?
ERWIN: Yes, stop the tape.
Boss: No, let it run,
VOLUMNIA (turns off tape recorder): I do not wish
to speak on tape. (to the Boss) Well? Isn’t it
going as if by plan? And it began spontaneously,
without plan.

BOSS: You mean the play, Scene One?

VOLUMNIA: I’m speaking of the uprising, do you hear, the people?
BOSS: And so am I. Look, here we are in Rome.
The people are rising up like amateurs…
But mother of our hero Coriolanus,
This scene, respected friend, is not
What’s being rehearsed today.

VOLUMNIA: Then I’m disturbing you?
BOSS: That’s right, disturbing.
VOLUMNIA: But suppose the disturbances increase,
Suppose they rut and buck and whelp
Till one becomes a thousand.
Suppose we’re not in Rome today
Or in King James’s London,
But in Berlin, and half the city—
The eastern half, I mean, our people—
Suppose all East Berlin should come disturbing,
Hissing, demanding,
And shut your theater down.
Boss: That smacks of Puritans;
But since, as you yourself just said,
This isn’t Shakespeare’s London—
Poor Shakespeare! Taking plague as a pretext,
They often shut him down—
My theater will stay open.
At worst we’ll have some broken window panes.
VOLUMNIA: I’ve never been afraid. This time I am.
Down there the people’s rage is boiling over
And here we’re stirring up theater dust
BOSS: Oh unrehearsed incompetence!

VOLUMNIA: The people have risen.
BOSS: Yes, yes, I know. Spontaneously!
VOLUMNIA: They’re serious.
BOSS: If only that were true!
VOLUMNIA: They’ve got accounts to settle.
BOSS: I’ll help them count.
VOLUMNIA:They’ll hang us all, you, him and me
From the gallery. To them we’re bigshots.

BOSS: I’ll teach them the classic way to tie a slip knot.

VOLUMNIA: Your skin has grown as thick as ox’s hide.
BOSS: Would you rather I had gooseflesh?
VOLUMNIA: Like a broad river flow the angry masses,
Plowing the streets and shrinking tight the squares.
I saw them coming.
BOSS: Good. Tell us all about it.

VOLUMNIA: I saw wide-gaping mouths and whites of eyes.
The asphalt softened and the granite cracked. –
I saw the skin on knuckles bursting. Blood.
A smell to curdle all the milk in the world.
Saw dust rise up in columns and screams congealed.

Maggots thought dead woke crawling in the meat. zil I
Great palaces fell crumbling to their knees, which enj
And fury struck with -monumental fists. otnulne
They stormed the stairway. A baby carriage…
BOSS (to Erwin): She’s been at the movies, seeing Eisenstein.

VOLUMNIA: … . and placards waved above their heads,
and on them cried in bold hoarse lettering:
FOR . . .
BOSS: You’ve borrowed that from me. Every last word.
You always seem to find the right quotations.
One night I heard you dream quotations in
Your sleep. Please, comrade. Be yourself.
VOLUMNIA: You won’t believe me.
Boss: Every word’s rehearsed.
VOLUMNIA: All right. Be wily. Get on with your rehearsal.
Before the day is out the masons will
Be here and wall you up with bricks and mortar.

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