The 'Art' of Change

A Critical Discussion on Literature & Theatre’s Ability to ‘Make Something Happen’

The phrase ‘poetry changes nothing’ has its origins in a poetic eulogy attributed to W. H. Auden called ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats,’ written just after the famous Irish poet’s death in 1939. Such a sweeping generalisation begs for a response – can poetry, literature and theatre change anything? And if so, how and what can they change? To examine this two-pronged question, I will draw on the work of three renowned literary theorists and place them in dialogue with one another in order to disprove W. H. Auden’s statement. This discussion relies primarily on an article and two book chapters. Firstly, Bertolt Brecht’s ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’ (1948), which explores the use of and provides a justification for ‘alienation’ as a means for invoking social change through the medium of theatre. The next piece is a chapter from Raymond Williams book Marxism and Literature (1977) which investigates what Williams has termed ‘structures of feeling’, a concept used to explain the means by which new forms of thought emerge in particular times and places. Finally, I have selected the introduction to Edward Said’s famous critical study, Orientalism (1978). This chapter explores how literature contributes to and advances cultural representations that form the basis for Orientalism, a distinctly Western way of knowing and understanding the ‘East’. While Brecht and Williams both operate from a Marxist perspective and promote the idea of using art to initiate social change, Said focuses on the more negative impact literature can have on society when it works within and for dominant ideological discourses. However, they all agree that literary art can indeed make ‘something’ happen. This essay will explore how art (primarily theatre and literature) furthers human agency by influencing how individuals act in society, providing means by which to understand cultural ideologies as living and present forms, and finally, facilitating social change in different and unique ways. Ultimately, society and literary culture are inseparable; thus, to say that the arts are merely for entertainment is to ignore the unbridled creative power of poetry, literature and theatre as forces for influence and change in society.

The glibly overstated catchphrase, ‘poetry changes nothing,’ is a line from the third stanza of Auden’s poem which begins, ‘For poetry makes nothing happen,’ ending four lines later with: ‘it survives, / a way of happening, a mouth’ (Robinson 253). What Auden seems to be implying is that it is a fallacy to think the purpose of poetry, or art in general, is to ‘make something happen’, and that the effect of art upon the actions of human beings or on history, is something either direct or calculable (Robinson 256). Rather than viewing art as an ‘effective agent’ which enters and re-enters history, Auden asks the reader to consider art not as a force or harbinger for change, but as a reflection of that which already exists, a ‘way of happening’ but not a method ‘for happening’. Subverting the call for politically engaged forms of art, the statement implies that it should not be an intrinsic requirement that poetry, literature, or theatre engages or furthers a political cause or idea (Huddleston 2). Subsequently, the phrase ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ points to the reductiveness and inutility of the arts, suggesting that its key role is to provide entertainment not meaningful social commentary, and definitely not social change.

Auden’s first inference is that while plays, poems or novels may reflect dominant ideologies unintentionally, the primary (and preferably only) role of art is to entertain people, not to influence or inform new modes of thinking. However, Brecht, Williams and Said identify several problems with this supposition and, based on these provocations, argue for a broader understanding of theatre and literature’s function in society which extends beyond mere entertainment. To begin with, Brecht maintains that first and foremost the main business of theatre should be “to entertain people” (233). It needs “no other passport but fun, but this it has got to have” (Brecht 233). In this instance Brecht agrees with Auden that art should not be turned solely into a “purveyor of morality,” in fact, “not even instruction can be demanded of it” (234). But the problem, Brecht confesses, is that this form of entertainment unconsciously has a social commitment to the universally acceptable (i.e. bourgeois ideology) (233). Furthermore, this commitment causes the theatre to show “the structure of society (represented on the stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium)” (235). While this is not a problematic issue for Auden, Brecht realises there is room for a new form of “unshackled” art which can amuse but at the same time open bourgeois social structures up to critique. Whatever “type of entertainment [which] suits us [Marxists] best” (233) should be appropriated by the playwright to ‘make something happen.’ He proposes that “the bare wish, if nothing else, is to evolve an art fit for the times” in order to drive universally acceptable ideologies into the industrial suburbs where they will be compelled to “stand wide open” for interrogation (237). Therefore, Brecht’s agenda is double-pronged – entertainment first, ideology a close second.

Williams, like Brecht, has noticed a problem in the way culture and society are habitually expressed in the ‘past tense’, being presented as permanent and unchangeable structures rather than as “forming processes” (130). This ‘barrier to recognition’ which allows cultural activity and dominant ideologies to remain largely unchallenged is the result of a separation of the personal (feeling) from the social (thought), a notion Auden would no doubt approve. The result is that social forms are “admitted for generalities but debarred, contemptuously, from any possible relevance to this immediate and significance of being” (p. 130). In other words, the present is conceptualised by individuals and society as a foregone conclusion, rather than a lived, changing experience. While Williams considers literature in one sense “explicit finished forms,” to ‘actively’ read and engage with a novel is to bring it into the present tense (128). In this way, literature becomes “lived and felt” in the present and subsequently, is more readily able to reveal true social content in its affective form (133), whether as a pre-emergent ‘structure of feeling’ or as a reflection of the governing ideologies. Hence, rather than being purely for entertainment, Williams suggests that literature informs and reflects both emerging and existing social forms, revealing the present in an active and informative way unlike other, more serious, forms of discourse.

Auden’s statement assumes that art only reflects what already exists, and Said appears to agree. In his book Culture and Imperialism, he writes that “the novel is fundamentally tied to bourgeois society” (83) and “draws support from ideas, concepts, and experiences from dominant ideologies” (79). In other words, while a Western novel about the Orient may be entertaining (take Robinson Crusoe, Kim, or Heart of Darkness for example), it is inescapably tied to and part of an ideological system. Said also points to the fact that the details of everyday life govern and place internal constraints on writers who are operating within certain cultural hegemonic systems, classes, sets of beliefs and social positions (14). Said notes that a large mass of writers, simply by virtue of the fact that they lived in Europe, “accepted the basic distinction between East and West” as the starting point for epics, novels and romances “concerning the Orient” (2), and as a result, knowingly in some cases, advanced the politically acceptable ideal. However, while Michael Foucault (whose work Said draws on extensively) proposes that individual texts and authors count for very little in the large scheme of things (a statement Auden would agree with), Said claims that some writers leave a “determining imprint” on discursive formations like Orientalism by referring to each other and thus creating a ‘unity’ of ideas (23). Subsequently, like both Williams and Brecht, Said maintains that the role of art in society extends beyond mere entertainment since popular literature can determine whether or not ideologies like Orientalism are truly ‘imprinted’ on a culture.

It has been established that Brecht, Williams and Said disagree with Auden’s claim that art can and should be divorced from social politics. But if literature, and theatre are indeed ‘political’, and by this I mean engaged with and contributing to understandings of specific societies and cultures as these three theorists suggest, how is it outworked in art? and to what purpose?                                                                                                                                                 

As a Marxist attempting to inspire a ‘war of the classes’, Brecht is unwilling to separate what Auden would dismiss as an ‘activist agenda’ from theatrical performances, writing: “Without opinions and objectives [in art] one can represent nothing at all” (243). He even goes so far as to suggest that for art to be ‘unpolitical’ means only to ally itself with the ruling group (243). For Brecht then, ‘representation’ of and for the advancement of the working class is of the utmost importance. But how does ‘representation’ outwork itself in Brecht’s politically-motivated plays? One of Brecht’s finest works, Mother Courage and her Children (first performed in 1941), is an excellent example of an entertaining play which explores the dangerous and dynamic relationship between war and money; a relationship created and preserved by greedy, corrupt capitalists. War ensures the continuation of business by other means more profitable than industrialisation and peaceful trade; means which are lucrative for those who are already rich, but devastating for the working class people like Mother Courage and her family. Brecht aims expose the role capitalists play as instigators of war for the purpose of profitable gains (money), and the audience is compelled to recognise this. Even though the ‘little people’ may try to make a profit from war by starting private enterprises (like Mother Courage with her wagon), it only serves to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. With its strong anti-war sentiments, there is no doubt that Mother Courage presents a persuasive political message. However, Brecht believes that inserting a ‘message’ on its own is not enough to inspire an audience to act against bourgeois oppression. For this Brecht turns to ‘alienation’, a technique which will be explored later in this essay.

Whereas Brecht wants to make the arts more ideological by inserting a Marxist commentary on capitalism into the text, Williams associates the value of literature with its ability to loosen the grip of ideology on society. To quote Williams: “Despite being inescapably ideological…its specific relative autonomy is that it is a form of writing, a form of practice, in which ideology both exists and is or can be internally distanced and questioned. Thus the value of literature is precisely that it is one of the areas where the grip of ideology is or can be loosened” (Filmer 214). What Williams is suggesting is that literature can create a ‘space’ where the reader is able to question both dominant and emerging political ideologies from multiple perspectives with the possibility of myriad interpretations. This is not to say that art is ‘unpolitical’, but rather that it has the potential, in some cases, to extend beyond contemporary social formations and articulate ‘pre-emergent’ or new ideas which have yet to be given form or thought in more scientific and prosaic discourses.

For Said, by nature all art is political. While Brecht maintains that the only ‘unpolitical’ art is that which is aligned to the ruling power or dominant ideology (i.e. capitalism or imperialism), Said disagrees, claiming every artistic piece is intrinsically ideological since it is a “willed human work” (15). Even if a text “seems to have no direct political effect upon reality in the everyday sense” its ideology is woven directly into the material since there is no way to detach the scholar from the circumstances of life, and therefore it must be “taken for granted as being ‘political’” (9). For example, in Victorian Britain the imperial adventure, the domestic detective story and the romance novel all formed part of a unified narrative about British imperial power in the world vis-à-vis the inferior and mysterious Orient (Reitz 82), strengthening patriotic feeling and national identity in Great Britain as a result. This unconscious, ‘propaganda-like’ mode of influence in fiction is why it is dangerous to assume, as Auden does, that literature ‘makes nothing happen’. Too often “literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent” (Said 27) when they are, in fact, clarifying, reinforcing, and even advancing new perceptions about the West and its position in the world as a ‘superior’ society.

Brecht contends, however, that the current style of theatrical performance (and I will go so far as to imply that this refers to the arts in general), causes spectators to enter a “detached state” of “vague but profound sensations” (237) which results in a “cowed, credulous, hypnotised” audience (238). Obviously Brecht does not approve of his imagined situation since it dilutes the political messages in a play and doesn’t facilitate changes in attitudes or beliefs. Instead he proposes a method of acting and presentation “which will leave the spectator’s intellect free and highly mobile” (239) to enter a state of suspicious enquiry. How is this done? Brecht attempts to ‘make something happen’ by ‘alienating the familiar’, which will, he suggests, create a sense of impermanence in socially conditioned phenomena such as capitalism, socialism and imperialism (moving social structures into present and affective tenses as Williams would say). For example, Brecht advises that an actor, rather than being wholly transformed into the character/s he plays, should make it obvious that he is only a “particular individual at this particular moment” (242), looking at the audience “as if they were playing him their actions” (243). By consciously interpreting a character rather than ‘becoming’ a perfect caricature, an actor leaves room for inconsistency and imperfection. This unfamiliar state, Brecht presumes, will inevitably lead the audience to question what they have seen. Another interesting example of ‘alienation’ comes from Mother Courage. Titles at the start of each act give away the major plot details, visibly knotting-together the story so as the audience won’t be distracted from its social point by a sudden death or plot twist (245). By removing the stamp of familiarity so spectators won’t be “carried vaguely hither and thither” (244), Brecht’s alienating techniques force the focus onto what is happening ‘between’ people, actions and events, creating a ‘space’ to criticise, discuss and alter what is portrayed on stage, and ultimately, Brecht hopes, in wider society.

Williams, on the other hand, argues that art and literature lose their present and affective power to influence when they are reduced to “belief-systems, institutions, or explicit general relationships” (133). Since Marxism is an ideological belief-system, Williams would most likely disagree that ‘alienation’ is a necessary pre-requisite to influencing human subjects. Instead Williams believes that feeling and thought have the potential to meet unhindered in art, creating a “living and interrelating continuity” (133) of consciousness which is are more subtle than, yet equally as powerful as alienation. This is because, according Williams, literature facilitates ‘ways of happening’ which are not ‘detached’ or ‘hypnotising’ as Brecht presupposes, but are made active and present through engagement with the text. Similarly, Said also discredits the importance of ‘conscious’ attempts at alienation, although for a different reason. He pitches Orientalism’s success as an accepted and unquestioned belief-system on its strategy of “flexible positional superiority.” This strategy puts the Westerner in a series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing the relative upper hand (7). The result has been the gradual, yet large-scale build-up of a “web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, and dehumanising ideology” which places the West in superiority to the Arab and Asian world (27). So while Brecht contends that a conscious effort must be made to influence individuals and thus society, Williams and Said point to literature’s intrinsic ability to influence those it comes into contact with, both consciously and unconsciously, via more subtle means.

The discussion has already established that art has the ability ‘make something happen’, whether by influencing individuals or compelling audiences to subscribe to or interrogate dominant modes of thinking. But the question remains, do Brecht, Williams and Said believe that the arts on their own can incite ‘social change’? That is, does art possess the power to alter the social order of society, including social institutions, social behaviours and social relations?                                                                                                                                                 

Brecht is a strong believer in the theatre’s ability to ‘inspire’ the working masses to question and overthrow the yoke of bourgeois oppression. He claims that a theatre which converts the critical approach into pleasure “finds nothing in the ethical field which it must do but a great deal that it can” (137). While Auden discredits the arts ability to spur on any kind of social change, Brecht argues that the theatre of the “scientific age” conveys the “joys of liberation” (243), showing the current order as impermanent and unnatural. Since bourgeois rule “would come to an end if the scientific eye were turned on its undertakings” (236), for Brecht there is the very real possibility that his form of ‘alienating’ plays could usher in a new social order.  Williams also situates literature in a position to act as an agent for social change. Working to relate the extraordinariness of imaginative literature to the ordinariness of cultural processes (Filmer 199), Williams sees the arts as contributing to the politics of social change when they subconsciously articulate alternatives to dominant worldviews by making thought as felt and feeling as thought (132). As an example Williams points to a case in early Victorian ideology. As an accepted social norm, Victorians presumed that the negative exposure caused by poverty, debt and illegitimacy was the result of social failure or deviation; meanwhile, the new ‘semantic figures’ in popular novels by Dickens, Emily Brontë, and others, created a different structure of contemporary feeling by specifying exposure or isolation as a “general condition” in which poverty, debt and illegitimacy were “connecting instances” rather than the cause (134). In contrast, Said believes that on its own literature cannot invoke social change and is in fact ‘hooked’ into advancing only pre-existing dominant ideas like Orientalism. In Culture and Imperialism he explores this further, writing: “The novel is an incorporative quasi-encyclopaedic cultural form…an entire system of social reference that depends on the existing institutions of bourgeois society” (85). Nonetheless, while Said doesn’t define how, he does suggest there is room for literature to assist in social change, even if it is only to help individuals ‘unlearn’ the inherent dominative modes by presenting alternative ideas.

As explored in this essay, the phrase ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ when held up to the rigorous scrutiny of three of the West’s most lauded critical theorists, is found to be untrue. Brecht argues from his position as a prolific playwright that theatrical performances using ‘alienation’ techniques have the potential to make the working class aware of bourgeois oppression, creating a “wide open ground” (237) on which the dominant modes of ideology can be questioned and then, if found wanting, rejected. Likewise, Williams claims that literature and the arts not only actively reflect and contribute to sociological understandings of culture, but also have the potential to articulate alternatives to dominant modes of existence by pre-empting recognisable changes in formal institutions (Filmer 204). In contrast to Brecht and Williams ‘positive’ social change agendas, Said points to the negative effect the arts can have in shaping and advancing the ‘happening’ of an ideological discourse like Orientalism. For Said, Brecht, and Williams then, society and literary culture can only be understood, in the fullest sense of the word, when they are studied together, not separately, and hence reductively as Auden proposes. In closing, while the novel or play cannot be given direct legislative or administrative authority, literary art is in a position to influence society and individuals for both good and ill, guiding and changing the ways by which ‘we’ know ourselves alongside ‘other’ ideologies, classes, races, and places.


Works Cited

Brecht, Bertolt. “A Short Organum for the Theatre” (1948). Brecht on Theatre. Trans. John Willett. London, UK: Metheun, 1964. 232-246. Print.

Filmer, Paul. “Structures of Feeling and Socio-cultural Formations: The Significance of Literature and Experience to Raymond Williams's Sociology of Culture.” The British Journal of Sociology 54 (2003): 199-219. Print.

Huddleston, Robert. Poetry Makes Nothing Happen: W.H. Auden’s Struggle with Politics. Boston Review, 25 Feb. 2015. Web.

Reitz, Caroline. Detecting the Nation: Fictions of Detection and the Imperial Venture. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2004. Print.

Robinson, P. “Making Things Happen.” Cambridge Quarterly 3 (2000): 237-248. Print.

Said, Edward W. “Introduction.” Orientalism. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1978. 1-28. Print.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London, UK: Random House. 1993. Print.

Williams, Raymond. “Structures of Feeling.” Marxism and Literature. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1977. 128-35. Print.