Of the major plays that Bertolt Brecht completed after 1940—which includes: Mother Courage and Her Children, Galileo, The Good Person of Szechwan, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle—Puntila and His Hired Man Matti is least known to American audiences. That may be due to the fact that even though it adheres to Brecht’s ideas about epic theater and is forthrightly Marxist in the worldview that it expresses, Puntila is an unusual play for Brecht. To my knowledge, it is the only one of his plays that is based upon a farce (in this case, Hella Wuolijoki’s Sawdust Princess). Though Puntila itself is not a farce, the two-faced nature of the eponymous Puntila and the role-playing that occupies much of the play’s action betrays its inspiration.
Also unusual is the laughter generated by Puntila, less trenchant, less recognizably “Brechtian,” than in earlier plays like The Threepenny Opera. And there is something decidedly European in the figure of Puntila that makes his translation onto the American stage somewhat difficult. Estate owners of Puntila’s ilk are really unknown to American culture, and the unbridgeable gap between classes experienced by the characters in the play is foreign to American ideas about class mobility. Indeed, Brecht himself was concerned that by 1949, when the Berliner Ensemble first produced the play in East Germany, Puntila and Matti represented types who no longer had relevance even to European culture. Still, there is much that commends Puntila to American audiences, and it deserves wider recognition in the States than it has received.
One theme addressed in Puntila that holds special relevance for contemporary American audiences is the character of human relations defined by a wide disparity between those who have and those who have not. It is no secret that since Ronald Reagan took office, the gap in our nation between the rich and the poor has increased. While that move toward inequality did not abate during Clinton’s presidency, it has, as economist Paul Krugman has noted, accelerated to an unprecedented degree during George W. Bush’s tenure as President. Puntila nimbly depicts how immense economic inequity warps interactions among people. As the cast of Frank Theatre’s production of Puntila noted early in rehearsals, Puntila cannot conceive the hardships endured by the working class—as hard as he tries to and in spite of the fact that he originally came from among them—due to his economic status. His position of privilege has erased his memory of the reality of manual labor from a laborer’s perspective; he is completely disconnected from it. Instead, he romanticizes the lives of those who work for a living, forgetting how labor forges laborers’ bodies, straining muscles and leaving behind chapped, swollen hands.
If Puntila’s wealth has purged his memory of certain costs of labor (other costs, such as the wages he must pay his workers, are not lost on him), it also causes him to be surrounded by sycophants who tolerate and even help perpetuate his cruelty and inconsideration. The Parson, Judge, and Lawyer, figures who help maintain the power structures of the status quo, are abused by Puntila or idly stand by as he unleashes his wrath upon others, at most ineffectually counseling him to reign in his sharp tongue. It is not hard to imagine that they prefer the power conferred by Puntila Estate to the Jeckyll and Hyde who actually owns it.
Yet, for all that is detestable about Puntila and his behavior, it is difficult not to have some sympathy for and even like him. After all, in his drunken spells, you can see that Puntila really longs to be rid of the role of the hardhearted landowner that has been cast upon him by his wealth in order to have a more honest relationship with the land he owns and with the people who surround him. Ultimately, though, his wealth isolates him, keeping him at a distance from genuine friendships and encouraging him to see a lifestyle that is a harsh necessity for some as a freedom and luxury to be sought after. His seeming good-heartedness toward his laborers during his drunken spells masks the fact that this occasional egalitarianism derives from his not being a laborer himself.
In fact, Puntila’s misleading affability should look familiar to those who cringed at George W. Bush stumbling through yet another pronouncement with an “Aw, shucks” demeanor that allowed him to bluff his way through almost a decade’s worth of chicanery. I remember reacting with slack-jawed amazement when, during the 2004 presidential election, a friend told me that undoubtedly George W. would be more fun to sit down and have beer with than John Kerry. That Bush would never do such a thing (to say nothing of the fact that it doesn’t seem to be a very rigorous standard by which to judge one’s Presidential candidates) didn’t seem to matter. It was just that he appeared he would. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville briefly discusses how, in the United States, this kind of familiarity between the rich and the working classes has been essential to providing cohesion across social classes. A blue-blooded plutocracy would be unacceptable here, but one that talks like the common folk is quite tolerable. Of course, Puntila shows us, most pointedly when Puntila’s fiancées are so roundly ejected from Eva’s engagement party, that the working class needs to be wary of the friendliness of the rich. As the Telephone Operator says, “Their tricks catch us every time. We fall for them because they look just like us. If they looked more like bears or rattlesnakes, we might be more on our guard.”
One reason the rich’s tomfoolery can be particularly treacherous is that they often have
the law on their side, which Puntila playfully makes clear to us. On a number of occasions, Puntila conspicuously follows the letter of the law in order to break it in spirit, as in his late night excursion to Kurgela where he drunkenly engages four young women to marry him. “Get thee behind me, Jezebel,” he snarls to Bootleg Emma, when she offers to sell him some of her bathtub gin. He goes on to explain to her: “Why everything I do is according to the law. When I want to kill a man, I do it legally or not at all.” The implications are clear: the law is as likely to facilitate unseemly behavior as it is to punish it, especially when you’ve got institutional power behind you. As novelist and satirist William S. Burroughs gleefully used to point out, Hitler took power legally. In a country represented by leaders who approve “extraordinary rendition” and unchecked executive privilege, with major financial institutions that can persuade the legislature to pass money lending laws that border on usury, Puntila’s coziness with all that is legal should impart its lesson.
For all its thematic resonance, though, what might be most appealing to American audiences about Brecht’s play is its generous humanity. Too often when Brecht is discussed, attention is paid to his didacticism or cool intellectualism. Yet, particularly in the plays that Brecht wrote in the 1940s, his vision was more capacious than that. His humanism is fully on display in most of these plays. Mother Courage and Her Children is as sympathetic as it is critical of the titular character, and the same can be said of Puntila. Not only is Puntila himself richly drawn, but Matti is a wonderful character—in a comic lineage with Plautus’s wittily subversive servants—who displays a keen insight into human nature that comes from the vantage of his social position. More to the point, though: who can’t fall in love with the working women whom Puntila promises to marry? They are essential to the soul of this play, showing us how warmly Brecht viewed his dramatic subjects, and if for no other reason, they make clear to us why Puntila and His Hired Man Matti is a play that should be enjoyed for years to come.