Bertolt Brecht did not like America. After the Nazi consolidation of power in 1933 Brecht and many of his contemporaries went into exile, hopping from one European country to another before settling in the United States. However, for many German émigrés and refugees the transition from European to American culture proved difficult and alienating. The six years that Brecht spent in America saw him virtually penniless, intellectually isolated and dealing with his resounding failure to break into Broadway.[1] His complaints ranged from his distain for American capitalism to being unable to get his hands on a good loaf of bread, often passing up food with a disapproving “we didn’t have that in Ausburg”.[2] He even began working on a film story called The Bread-King Learns to Bake Bread so strong were his views about American bakery products.

Despite feeling uncomfortable in the US, Brecht had spent a lot of time at the cinema with his collaborator Hanns Eisler. They saw a lot of gangster movies and Brecht obsessively collected newspaper cuttings about the rise and fall of notorious Chicago gangster, David Schultz.[3] This interest in gang-land activity, exile from Germany and Brecht’s tragi-comic relationship with American culture resulted in the birth of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Written for an American audience, Arturo Ui is a parabolic play set in 1930s Chicago and presents an allegory of the rise of Nazism. The titular Arturo Ui and his cronies are thinly veiled caricatures of Hitler and his immediate circle. The play shows Brecht at the height of his creative powers, with Arturo Ui as one of his greatest satirical creations. However, the play was never performed in his lifetime and no American producer would touch it as it exposed their country’s political mechanisms as latently fascist.

Indeed, Brecht was very open about his disdain for American capitalism. In his autobiographical “Letter to an Adult American” he writes about how the extreme inequality of 1930s America was a result of a political machine with “vested interests”.[4] He observes that the opinions of the ruling elite comprise of “a few millionaires” and suggests that the president has been “made” by a group of gangsters.[5] How familiar this all sounds. Millionaires in the White house, cronyism of the highest level, widening inequality, and poor bakery products. What would Brecht have made of Trump, I wonder? Luckily for us Bruce Norris (adaptor) and Simon Evans (director) attempt to answer this question in their production of Arturo Ui now playing at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. The intimate setting at the Donmar provides the perfect back drop to Brecht’s fascist-gangster play, updated for the age of Trump.

Norris’s production grapples with the West’s current political volatility by adding another historical layer to Brecht’s play. The original allegorical set up is not hard to grasp for anyone with a vague understanding of German history. The indolent yet violent Arturo Ui (Lenny Henry) is Hitler, Dogsborough (Michael Pennington) is the aged Hindenburg, Giri (Lucy Ellinson) is Goering, Dullflet (Simon Holland Roberts) is Engelbert Dollfuss, Givola (Guy Rhys) is Goebbels and the betrayed Ernesto Roma (Giles Terera) is Ernst Röhm. Although it helps to know your Goerings from your Goebbels’ the contemporary context of Norris’s production is more important to the essence of the play. This new translation sees lines of Ui’s speech replaced with excerpts from Trump’s rallies. At first the intrusion of Trump’s words (the best words) are amusing but as the play develops the allusions become more and more sinister. While it is true that, over the past year, numerous heavy-handed comparisons have been made between Trump and Hitler, Norris’s production is anything but heavy handed: under Evans’s direction Ui subtly grows into a symbol of tyranny, fragmented through the image of Hitler and Trump.

 

The most startling example of this fragmentation comes through moments of comedy. For instance, when Ui is learning how to orate like a leader and the actor hired to help him suggests that perhaps he might like to make a strong movement with his right arm. Ui promptly throws his right arm up into a Nazi salute, holding it there for a few seconds before folding his right arm into it to make a box shape. The audience laughs acknowledging that this buffoon, who has already been aligned with Trump early in the play, is a pale imitation of Adolf Hitler. They laugh even more when Ui stumbles through the first two lines of Julius Caesar’sFriends, Romans, countrymen” speech. However, nobody is laughing when the stumbling stops and Ui delivers the lines powerfully, his gestures becoming more and more jagged. It is then that you realise that these are the gestures are the mirror image of Hitler’s frenzied speeches and that this buffoon is nothing to laugh at. The effortless mingling of Trumpisms and the characteristics of Nazism provide an eye-opening dramatic experience.

Lenny Henry’s performance as the maniacal Ui is superb. The richness of Brecht’s characterisation is a gift for any talented parodist, and Henry brings all his talent and experience to the role. His performance doesn’t miss a beat as Ui oscillates between despot and contempt. Although Henry is undoubtedly the star of the show, an honourable mention must be made for Tom Edden as the Shakespearean actor. Edden’s character directs much of the action and delivers the fast-flowing rhymes of his dialogue with precision and excellent showmanship. It is Edden’s actor who addresses the audience directly, providing the links between Brecht’s world and ours.

Indeed, Norris’ production is an incredibly alienating experience. The production utilises audience participation in a unique and effective way. Just as the terrified business owners build a physical platform for Ui, the audience build one figuratively. The audience sit among the actors throughout the show, as if in a speakeasy with Ui’s gang. Periodically people are pulled up from their seats to participate in the action, much to the embarrassment of those involved and the enjoyment of those not. The blending of viewer and viewed is a truly Brechtian experience, and the most powerful example of this is a scene in which a man who dissents against Ui has his shop burnt down to the ground – historically mirroring the Reichstag Fire. During a song, members of the audience are made to help pass canisters of kerosene across the stage. The audience are directly implicated in the action – even having to choose sides at the end of the play – which is refreshingly raw for a modern-day performance of Brecht, firmly situating it in the Theatre of the Epic.

What this production of Arturo Ui at the Donmar reinforces is how avoidable, or resistible, Ui as Hitler/Trump is. Walter Benjamin wrote of Brecht’s work written in exile, “only political drama can be the proper concern of theatre in emigration. Most of the plays which attracted a political audience ten or fifteen years ago have since been overtaken by events. The theatre of emigration must start again at the beginning; not just its stage, but also its plays must be built anew”.[6] Nearly eight years on, Benjamin’s assertion about the renewal of political theatre is made a reality through Norris’s production. The layering of Trumpisms into the fabric of Brecht’s text provides rich reflection on the cyclical patterns of history. The tragedy of the play is of course embedded in the title. Ui’s rise was resistible, just as Hitler’s was. Norris’s production is a rallying cry against the re-emergence of fascist ideals. As Benjamin suggests, the production begins at the beginning again, highlighting the horrific conditions that lead to the rise of a despot and holds a mirror up to its audience. Norris pays tribute to the pain of those displaced by the rise of Hitler in his rendering of Arturo Ui but also provides a new context for the modern day. It is warning against what has come before and what could be on the horizon.

[1] James K.Lyon, Brecht in America (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980): 3

[2] Stephen Parker, Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life (London: Bloomsbry, 2014): 435

[3] Parker, Brecht, 350

[4] Quoted in K.Lyon, Brecht in America, 342

[5] Ibid.

[6] Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, Trans. Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 1998): 37