Puntila and Matti, Brecht and Marxism

The Saint Louis University Theatre is currently performing a Bertolt Brecht play entitled Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti. I attended a performance and was impressed by both Tony Horne’s direction and the acting. The purpose of this article is to address the content of the play, analyzing it in light of Brecht’s commitment to Marxism. To put the play in its historical context, this article begins with a review of events leading up to its writing.

Brecht was born in Germany in 1898 and became a Marxist in the mid-1920s. He fled Germany after the Nazis came to power early in 1933. After six years in Denmark and a year in Sweden, he moved to Finland in April of 1940. There he wrote Puntila during the following August and September. The war in Europe began with Germany’s attack on Poland and on the Soviet Union soon after the signing of their pact on Aug. 23, 1939. As Warsaw surrendered, Nazi delegates flew to Moscow to finalize plans, which included the Soviet takeover of Finland.

Finland resisted, and at the end of November this nearly defenseless country of fewer than four million people was attacked by a massive Soviet force. With incredible bravery, Finland managed to defend itself until fear of Allied intervention induced the Soviet Union to end its assault in March 1940. Finland lost 20 percent of its territory, from which one-eighth of its population fled. The subsequent Nazi offensive in the West and the defeat of France allowed the Soviet Union to renew its pressure on Finland by June 1940.

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had inspired an unsuccessful revolution in Finland in 1918. Some of the defeated revolutionary leadership had fled to the Soviet Union. As a pretext for its invasion in 1939, the Soviet Union claimed that another revolution had broken out and that Soviet forces had been invited into Finland by the new revolutionary government. This fabrication was accompanied by a barrage of Soviet propaganda, vilifying the political, social and religious leadership of Finland, a campaign which was renewed in July 1940. As with similar communist campaigns, this one was echoed by Marxist sympathizers around the world. Some simply repeated crude Soviet slogans.

Other more talented sympathizers offered more sophisticated echoes. Brecht’s play is an example of this.

The play is filled with details supporting the Soviet propaganda campaign against Finland. The failed 1918 revolution is treated as a heroic struggle against exploitation, rather than the eruption of communist terror into Finland. The play gives no hint of the terror and destruction in the Soviet Union evident already by the mid-1920s. At one point, Matti describes an exploitive judge at the High Court in Viborg and comments “a day may come when there’s no High Court in Viborg any longer.” This `prediction’ had just come true. Viborg was in the part of Finland that had been taken by the Soviet Union in March 1940.

One of the epithets used by Soviet propaganda against Finland was “kulak.” This label was created in the Soviet Union to dehumanize the so-called “wealthy peasants,” 10 to 15 million of whom were annihilated in 1930s. Brecht does not repeat this term, but creates in Puntila a “wealthy landowner” whose behavior is irresponsible and arbitrary, quite in line with Soviet propaganda.

The play is thoroughly dualistic. Each character in the play is either a member of the exploiting or the exploited classes. Each scene and each story told by any character other than Puntila explicitly includes the exploiters and the exploited.

There are two apparent exceptions. The first comes when Eva initially expresses her interest in Matti. Matti responds by referring to an estate he once worked in Karelia where the boss, Victor, had been a farmhand. The point of this story, however, is to illustrate that he was still treated as a farmhand. The line dividing the exploiters and the exploited cannot be overcome, even by marriage.

The second comes in the longest story told in the play about Athi, “a young chap,” who was held in a camp because he “was in the 1918 business with the Reds.” Athi’s mother received food from her landlord’s wife to take to him. The commandant at the camp had allowed her to enter even though it was forbidden. Nevertheless Athi, though “thin as a rail” from hunger, turned down the food, refusing to take anything from “that lot.” The message is that the apparent acts of generosity by the landlord’s wife and commandant are not to be accepted. The exploited are not to accept anything from the exploiting classes.

It is Puntila who speaks constantly as if there were no class divisions, but his actions repeatedly betray his words. The play concludes with Matti’s words that it is necessary for the exploited to reject the exploiters. The entire substance of the play is to convey this simplistic class analysis that served as a tool for the creation of the greatest system of terror and mass murder that Europe has ever seen. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced the Marxist system, clearly expressed the Christian alternative to this dualistic class analysis. “We have learned that the line dividing good and evil does not run between different classes, or different races, or even between different people, but runs right through the center of each and every human heart.”

Dr. Charles E. Ford is a professor of mathematics and mathematical computer science.