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Why Brecht is (Still) A Playwright for Our Times
By Drew Lichtenberg
Last month, the Shakespeare Theatre Company teamed up with four other D.C.-area theatres on a series of free staged readings in the run-up to the election. As Nelson Pressley wrote in the Post last weekend: “the readings were popular. Tickets vanished for Bertolt Brecht’s fascist-gangster fable The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Shakespeare Theatre, and a large portion of the audience stayed past 11 p.m. for a Trump-centric discussion with political journalists.”
I moderated that talk, with David Smith, Gardiner Harris and Derek Goldman, and Nelson was right. In more than five years at STC, I have never experienced a longer or more passionate talkback. For a Brecht play.
Now, for those who don’t know, the plays and writings of Bertolt Brecht suffer from a certain stigma in American theatrical circles. His plays are derided as box office poison, as cold and abstract, even alienating at times, and lacking in psychological nuance or sympathetic characters. He is a didactic writer, some say with a shudder, a political writer. Better left to the posterity of the page and austerity of the seminar than to the stage.
Then why were audiences so rapt and provoked by our Arturo Ui, a play which at first glance looks less like a “fascist-gangster fable,” all due respect to Nelson, and more like a shaggy-dog story about a Dick Tracy mobster taking over the cauliflower trade of Chicago? The genius of Arturo Ui—not Brecht’s greatest play, but certainly one of his most cunningly constructed—lies not in its airtight plotting, but rather in its repurposing of theatrical materials to dissect the unthinkable, yet all too real, events of political reality.
Brecht’s Arturo Ui starts off the play as a cartoonish braggart, a figure of ham-fisted and harmless fun, swaggering about the stage in a thinly disguised imitation of Richard III (there is even a Lady Anne scene). It is only toward the end of the play, as Arturo’s consolidation of the cauliflower consortium becomes increasingly ruthless, that we start thinking about why we are watching such monstrosities with enjoyment. We have been watching, we realize with a shock, a scene-for-scene chronicle of Hitler’s rise to power, including thinly disguised versions of Kristallnacht and the Reichstag Fire. And watching it for entertainment. (In the play’s greatest scene, Arturo receives instruction from a Shakespearean actor on delivering Marc Antony’s funeral oration. Fascism, Brecht seems to be saying, is all in the playing, not in the content.) Even more disturbingly, the play’s Hindenburg figure, the venerable Dogsborough, appears as an all-too-recognizable decaying bureaucratic functionary, an embodiment of the corrupt political “system” that Arturo Ui wishes to overthrow and transform. In the post-show discussion, more than one audience member was unnerved and alarmed by how presciently Brecht seemed to anatomize our own politics, and by how little had changed in the intervening 75 years. Many looked as if they had seen a ghost.
It is the eerie power of Brecht’s theatre, not its avant-garde tendencies, that makes him a hard sell for American audiences. We are used to theatre that reassures us, not theatre that makes us question everything.
As someone currently finishing a dissertation on Brechtian theater, and as a longtime Brecht partisan, I continue to believe that he is a playwright for our times, perhaps the crucial playwright for our times. I’ll prove it—let’s consider the arguments against him, one by one. **Editor’s note: we’re publishing this article in two parts. So, let’s consider the first two arguments against him this week, and the final three on Saturday, December 10. Now, back to Drewmaturgy….***
First, let’s start with some history. Brecht was in fact a master entertainer. He was a key figure behind the Threepenny Opera (1927), one of the biggest hits of the 20th century. And he was such a canny self-promoter that there is now a cottage industry of books (such as this one) claiming that Brecht operated as a one-man corporation, the “Brecht-Factory,” appropriating the work of his many lovers and collaborators under his own imprimatur. In the years after his death in 1956, Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble would come to be regarded, alongside Giorgio Strehler’s Piccolo Teatro and Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre, as examples of how a national theatre could help to rebuild a nation after World War II. It may not be a stretch to suggest that without Brecht, there would be no Kennedy Center (the Berliner Ensemble’s closest equivalent), nor the many regional theatres who follow his example.
Moreover, Brecht wrote frequently of how he wanted a “fun” (Spass) theatre, one in which you could smoke a cigar, have a snack and a drink, and sing along or shout back at the performers. Directors these days love to talk about their groundbreaking “immersive” techniques, but they are just Brecht’s children, ripping off their parent and profiting off of our ignorance of his techniques.
History aside, one glance at Brecht’s dramaturgy is enough to dispel the myth of his plays as some kind of toxic communist brew. In fact, his plays are filled with nearly as vast a panorama of human types and characters as Shakespeare’s. Do you love Falstaff? Then you would love Brecht’s Schwejk, a jolly fat soldier every bit as anarchic in his humor, as insubordinate in his view of the world, and as indomitable a comic spirit. Do you love Shakespeare’s spirited female protagonists, from Rosaline to Viola to Beatrice? No 20th-century playwright more consistently wrote fearless feminist heroes than Brecht: from Pirate Jenny and Saint Joan of the Stockyards to The Mother’s Pelagea Vlassova, Shen Teh of Good Person, to Grusha of the Chalk Circle. And oh yeah, he also created Mother Courage, the Ma Joad of 20th-century dramaturgy. Do you love wily, Autolycan scamps? Seek ye close relatives Azdak and Wang the Water Seller. Do you love moody poets and mysterious, homoerotic male friendship? Check out Baal and Ekart, Puntilla and his man Matti, or Garga and Shlink from Jungle of Cities. And if you go in for sadistic, amoral antiheroes such as Richard III, Iago, or Edmund, Arturo Ui is one of the last in a long line of Brechtian anarchists inaugurated by Kragler (Drums in the Night) and good old Mack the Knife. Then there are figures such as Brecht’s Galileo, a ponderer of the universe and mankind’s folly who evokes no one so much as Hamlet, perhaps, or Marlowe’s Faustus.
I think you get the idea. Brecht’s corpus of 52 plays doesn’t only stand up to Shakespeare’s in terms of quantity, but also in quality. Not coincidentally, Brecht was a great admirer of our resident playwright, and admitted that he begged, borrowed and stole from him as well as other old masters. Brecht would eventually adapt Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and one of his first works was a version of Marlowe’s Edward II. At the end of his life, in his theoretical masterpiece, the Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht threw up his hands and admitted that he had always been an entertainer, a playwright preoccupied with giving his audience something pleasurable to consume. He was not opposed to what he called “the culinary theatre.” It’s just that he saw thinking as another form of pleasure. He is a playwright for the age of kale, one interested in diversifying our diet from the high-carb musicals and melodramatic spectacles we typically consume. (And if you can shoehorn in some dramaturgical superfoods in a burrito-like casing, even better! Witness Mahagonny.)