Brecht Point

What could Brecht have been thinking when he said that he intended his "gangsterspiel," The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, for the Broadway stage? Perhaps from Scandinavia in 1941 he couldn't quite discern that setting the play in Chicago and modeling it on a favorite American movie genre would not be enough to ease this complicated and biting work into the precincts of our popular commercial theater.

But maybe Brecht had noticed how obsessed American drama is with capitalism and figured that Arturo Ui could fit right in. His play, after all, is an economic parable that traces the rise of Hitler by comparing the fascists to a bunch of gangsters running a protection racket for greengrocers. Emphasizing the "resistible" in the title, the play shows how Ui and his gang manipulate public fear and need during a depression by promising homeland security and economic recovery. They put the merchant class in their pockets, maneuver their way into public funds, control and exploit the media, and thereby win the unquestioning devotion of the masses. If in 1941 America was not primed for this play, we certainly seem to need it now.

Brecht missed one important point, though. American drama explores capitalism's corrosive effects in a much more narrow realm: the family. Take these American classics, all Broadway blockbusters in their day: O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, whose James Tyrone wonders why he wasted his life—and screwed up his family—by pursuing the almighty dollar instead of his art ("What was it I wanted to buy?"); Miller's Death of a Salesman, where Willy Loman sacrifices everything to the elusive drive for success; Albee's American Dream, which skewers the nuclear family as a vicious vehicle of consumerism; Parks's Topdog/Underdog, where Lincoln and Booth's brotherly solidarity dissolves under their burning competition to out-hustle each other and make the bigger buck. American drama's quintessential preoccupation may well be money and the holy, hellish pursuit of it, but the exploration of this theme doesn't venture far beyond the living room.

Fight the cauliflower: Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
photo: Jay Muhlin
Fight the cauliflower: Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui


The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
By Bertolt Brecht
Adapted, designed, and performed by Fovea Floods Theater
Ontological Theatre
131 East 10th Street

True, a Marxist critic might succeed in the academic exercise of showing that such works reveal the intimate relationship between base and superstructure (when Death of a Salesman toured China a couple of decades ago, it was hailed there as an indictment of capitalism). But as a Marxist playwright, Brecht knows what it means to lay bare capitalism's contradictions. The genius of his epic theater—strengthened, of course, by his supreme gifts as a poet—was to recognize and make use of the double consciousness specific to the art of the stage. That is, in watching a play we always recognize two things at once—the actor and the character, the fictive setting and the fact of scenery, the revelations of dialogue and the artifice of language. Brecht sought to call attention to this process. Seeing ourselves engaged in dialectical seeing would encourage our dialectical thinking, he maintained. The theater, therefore, is not a place for learning a recipe for Communism; rather, it provides the ideal occasion for developing and honing a critical attitude. Formally, Brecht pushes theater's pricking of double consciousness by creating doubles within his plots—characters in disguise (The Good Person of Szechwan), plays-within-plays (The Caucasian Chalk Circle), and, in Arturo Ui, the analogy between gangsters and Nazis.

These plays are not easy to pull off. Especially in the U.S., where Brecht has for so long been so solidly misunderstood, theater artists have to hack their way through crusty layers of dumb clichés about a work before they can engage it directly. And they have to overcome the persistent dogma that Brecht's theories are irrelevant, unreliable, doctrinaire, or all about preventing engagement or emotion in the theater.

The special challenge of Arturo Ui—on top of the fact that it's written in iambic pentameter—is maintaining a proper balance between the gangster tale and the Nazi history it parallels. Brecht takes great pains to point out over and over in his notes on the play that the two narratives must relate to each other as an analogy—not an equivalence. It's not that Ui is Hitler, or that his lieutenants Roma, Giri, and Givola are Roehm, Göring, and Goebbels, or that the town of Cicero is Austria, but that they are like each other: One can remind you of, and help you think about, the other.

Unlike half a dozen Arturo Uis I've seen in which the "humble son of the Bronx" is sporting a little mustache and swastika-like insignia by play's end, director Josh Chambers does not make this simple error in his smart but uneven new production with Fovea Floods. Better yet, Chambers seems to want to press our analogizing to some timely local concerns. He is not so ham-fisted—or simpleminded—as to suggest that Ui and Roma are Bush and Ashcroft, but he does invite us to think about the process by which a public—a public like us—gives over its civil liberties and right to question its leadership in a time of perceived peril.

Chambers accomplishes this best by using a moment between scenes where Brecht suggests signs "recalling certain incidents in the recent past." Chambers employs video monitors perched above the stage from which newscasters announce the events in Nazi history that the original script supplies. But in an inspired intervention, he plays a between-scene commercial in which a forlorn-looking woman is asked "Are you depressed?" The soothing voice-over recommends cauliflower as the answer to her ills and a tag line ends the segment: "Paid for by the Cauliflower Trust." The Cauliflower Trust represents the wholesalers in Arturo Ui whose business is failing at play's start because of the downturn. With a corruption scheme as slick as Enron's—and with Ui's protection—they manage to stay afloat as the rest of Chicago sinks.

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