Topical and Mostly Sure-Footed Rendering Of ARTURO UI from Scena

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Topical and Mostly Sure-Footed Rendering Of ARTURO UI from Scena

Robert Sheire, Anne Nottage

Posted on June 18, 2019

It would be tough to identify a more currently topical older play than Bertolt Brecht‘s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, now being presented by Washington’s Scena Theatre. A thinly-disguised parable of the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler, it may have been written in 1941, but it may as well have been addressed directly to Americans of 2019. Brecht’s closing verses (in George Tabori‘s translation from the German) lay the terrible universality of Hitlerism right before us:

If we could learn to look instead of gawking,

We’d see the horror in the heart of farce.

If only we could act instead of talking,

We wouldn’t always end up on our arse.

That was the thing that nearly had us mastered.

So let’s not drop our guard too quickly then:

Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard

The bitch that bore him is in heat again.

As indeed she is, all over the world and, most importantly, here.

That said, there is much validity to the criticism of Alexandra Schwartz, in a New Yorker review of last year’s New York revival of the play, that Brecht failed to pay enough attention to hate. Brecht may have shown Hitler’s avatar, Chicago gangster Arturo Ui, to be an expert in intimidation, lying, cooptation of the press, etc., but he fails to present “demonized Jews, an oversight that feels particularly stark at our inflamed moment.” That shortcoming may be an inevitable consequence of the allegory Brecht chose, recasting Hitler as a petty hood racketeering in Chicago’s wholesale vegetable trade in the early years of the last century. With such a starting point, the allegory necessarily becomes an exercise in comparing small things to great. And there simply was no easy parallel in Brecht’s diminished allegorical framework to the Jews in Hitler’s world, or for that matter, Muslims and Central Americans in ours. Yet without such a parallel, the primary engine of the horror is lost to view; inflaming such hatreds is precisely what gives demagogues their greatest power.

It’s all very well to say, as Brecht does in his title and in the quoted counsel that “If only we could act instead of talking,/ We wouldn’t end up on our arse.” And certainly the passivity of the more benevolent and civic-minded citizenry helped explain the successes of Hitler and his modern analogues, but cannot fully account for them. The political might of hatred may be enough to overwhelm even “act[ing] instead of talking.” The challenge of Hitlerism is largely that of finding ways to defuse hatred, not an easy, maybe not even a feasible task.

There is less validity to scholar J. P. Sterne’s reported criticism of Brecht’s choice (and also Charlie Chaplin‘s in The Great Dictator), to use satire as a means of attack. The fact that the historical Hitler was far more deadly and vicious than Arturo Ui does not make him less susceptible to takedown in this mode. C.S. Lewis appropriately justified a comic treatment of the Devil in The Screwtape Letters with an epigraph from St. Thomas More: “The devil … [that] prowde spirit cannot endure to be mocked.” We can look at the political impact of comedy in our own society to be reminded how potent it is.

In any case, farce and satire are Brecht’s weapons of choice. He starts out with a most unimpressive Ui (Robert Sheire), down on his luck, terrifying no one, so awkward a speaker that he needs to hire an actor (Scena’s founder and artistic director Robert McNamara nicely over the top for a couple of minutes) to instruct him in the basics of elocution. Indeed, the diction of almost all the characters owes much to Damon Runyon and Guys and Dolls, a sound we associate with aspirations toward toughness but nonetheless also with a degree of ineptitude as well. It marries magically with the quasi-Shakespearean sound of translator Tabori’s iambic pentameter. Consider Ui’s initial lament:

Gee, how I’d like a judge inside my pocket

By putting something in his pocket first.

Buy me a judge, or else I got no rights

And every time I feel like holding up a bank,

Some cheesy cop can shoot me full of holes.

It is important to remember that many tyrants started out like young Herr Schicklgruber (an Austrian watercolor painter down on his luck). Starting out as a mope doesn’t guarantee you won’t end up bestriding the narrow world like a colossus.

Besides, comedy excuses the shamelessness of Brecht’s theft from Shakespeare, both Mark Antony’s funeral oration in Julius Caesar and all sorts of things from Richard III, including a courtship (of sorts) of a widow over her husband’s very casket (pictured above). If you’re trying to demonstrate that your antihero is one treacherous, antisocial dude, comparing him forcefully to Antony and Richard III are excellent ways to go about it, and the comparison of small things to great just makes it funnier, in a bitter way.

This production, staged in a black box theater with a cast of only thirteen (to fill approximately thirty roles, plus ensemble ones) flies into certain inevitable headwinds. For one thing, few of us are as familiar with the rise of the Third Reich as Brecht was. (Brecht had decamped from Germany after the Reichstag fire which solidified Hitler’s rule, and the play was written while Brecht was in exile in Finland, awaiting a U.S. visa.) There are projections (partially obscured where I sat) of what amount to headnotes summarizing what in Hitler’s timeline was equivalent to the events we witness in Ui’s, but they are necessarily too brief to fill us in if we don’t already know the stories. And the relentless doubling makes it hard to keep the characters straight. Brecht renders that fundamental task harder by insisting on naming most of his characters unmemorably (e.g. Sheet, Flake, Ragg, Fish). One comes away far from confident one has understood all aspects of the plot – though the main thematic points are drilled home with didactic glee and in no danger of going misunderstood.

One thing that will therefore be clear to everyone: The annexation of the greengrocer business in Cicero (Chicago’s neighbor to the south) is the equivalent of Germany’s annexation of Austria (the nation to the south), the Anschluss. The play stops dead when Ui stands in triumph after his Anschluss, proclaiming his morgen die Welt plan to install his protection racket in “many other towns: in Washington, Milwaukee! Tulsa! Pittsburgh! Cincinnati!” and others. Exactly how Ui got there may be a little hazy in its outlines, but we certainly understand where he’s arrived.

Brecht also knows there is no need to show Ui’s undoing as Shakespeare needed to show Richard’s. Brecht simply refers to it in passing in the epilogue speech quoted at this review’s outset, which follows hard on the heels of Ui’s proclamation of his plans to expand his empire. (No spoiler alerts needed here; the end of the play was announced at the play’s beginning.)

Having said, as I have, that this Hitler avatar, Mr. Ui, starts out small and without much confidence is not really getting at what is surprising about this reading of the part. What surprised me more was that at the end, even making the morgen die Welt speech, this Ui lacks Hitler’s menace. There is no attempt I could discern to give him a physical resemblance to pictures of the Fuehrer. He still looks as he sounds, like a character out of Damon Runyon (rather than, say, William L. Shirer). It would have been nice to get more menace throughout but especially there, right at the end. Brecht does, after all, want to frighten us into activism against whoever “the bitch’s” progeny may be at whatever date the play is performed. This particular son of the bitch would be more likely to inspire the theatergoer to go out and vote for a tough-on-crime DA. We get it that Hitler, and the Hitlers of this world, are all punks at heart. But by the time they do serious damage, those hearts are encrusted with the gravitas of real power (even if with nothing else), and that gravitas is what makes them legitimately scary. And this point can be conveyed without losing all the satire and laughter.

I suspect this presentation of Ui is the result of directorial choices, which are otherwise sound. McNamara elicits outstanding performances from the rest of the ensemble. It seems unfair to single out individuals, but Anne Nottage was certainly memorable as the widow Ui seeks to bury the hatchet with, Caroline Johnson sparkled in an assortment of very different parts, Joe Palka brought to the role of Dogsborough, the Hindenburg analog from whom Ui wrests leadership, a note of confusion, dismay and ultimately pathos, and Lee Ordeman made much of the role of Roma, a senior Ui henchman.

Like so much else that I’ve seen over the years presented by Scena, this is a challenging experience, but one audiences will find well worth grappling with. Highly recommended.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

Photo credit: Jae Yi Photography.

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