Theater archives

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.

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.

In that brief spot, Chambers deftly evokes the American penchant for quick-fix solutions that can be bought off a shelf as well as the twisted system of campaign finance that has long hijacked democracy. Similarly, he opens the play with a stirring prologue in movement, in which 10 actors in ’30s suits and fedoras slouch, sling themselves over chairs, hitch up their trousers, and brawl, establishing the gangster imagery that is the play’s template, and winking at our familiarity with this vocabulary as an artificial framework.

Soon, though, Chambers gets overwhelmed simply by the task of keeping the plot clear, and the production loses its urgency and tautness. In large measure that’s because his cast is just not up to the task. As Ui, Jon Bernthal comes across more like the guy throwing spitballs from the back of your geometry class than as the compelling paranoid sociopath Ui has to be. As Roma, Timothy Fannon forces his voice through his nose, collapses his chest and cranes out his neck to create a sleazy slump, and, most irritating, wags his tongue constantly—all cartoony tics that distract without adding any insight to the character.

Still, with Hitler currently represented as a swishy fellow with “a song in his heart” in the defanged musicalization of The Producers, and soon to warm our cockles in a CBS miniseries on his troubled childhood, Fovea Floods’ Arturo Ui reminds us—as Brecht’s epic theater always sought to do—not to forsake our own critical powers even when, especially when, we’re feeling desperate.

Sholom Asch was no Marxist, and he wasn’t half as good a playwright as Brecht, but his 1906 Yiddish melodrama God of Vengeance puts the contradictions of capitalism—and religion—into a hothouse. Tracing the efforts of a brothel keeper, Yankl Tshaptshovitsh, to become an upstanding member of the community, Asch explores the moral predicaments of the clash between modern and traditional worlds in intimate, tragic terms. There’s been an explosion of interest in this play in recent years as scholars have unearthed its peculiar fate on Broadway in an English-language production in 1923—the cast and producer were arrested after a performance for promulgating obscenity. It wasn’t only that the play portrayed the lives of prostitutes. Yankl’s daughter—whom he’s trying to marry off to a Talmudic scholar—runs off with a woman in his employ. The two provided Broadway with its first (and have there been any since?) steamy lesbian love scenes.

Several productions I’ve seen in the last few years seem driven merely by a prurient interest in this romance. They have been awful. But Donald Margulies’s vivid adaptation—which played at the Williamstown Theater Festival earlier this month in a crisp production directed by Gordon Edelstein and starring Ron Leibman—offers a much deeper and enriching approach, the only one I know of that makes this play worth reviving. Drawn, no doubt, by the play’s affinities with his own mordant Jewish family dramas, Margulies has transported the action from a Polish city at the turn of the century to the Lower East Side of the 1920s. There, Margulies can emphasize the theme of assimilation as he follows Yankl (who, in this version, atones for having changed his name to Jack Chapman) through his catastrophic collapse. Is assimilation always a kind of pimping? Teasing out the pesky questions of spirit, love, family, and commerce at the heart of Asch’s play, Margulies, some 80 years after the actor Rudolf Shildkrout tried, has achieved crossover success, making God of Vengeance a profoundly compelling American play.