I have to confess at the outset that I am something of a fan of the playwright Bertholt Brecht. That makes it sound like a sin, which of course it isn’t. But I felt I should lay my cards on the table up-front, because this post is about one of his plays, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui which I was fortunate enough to see last night at the Duchess Theatre in London.
The production was superb – the lead role was played by the understudy who gave a gripping and energetic performance, and I did not feel in the least “short-changed” by missing out on Henry Goodman. There was a very strong supporting cast, together with moody and atmospheric staging which enhanced the feeling that one was observing the activities of Chicago gangland.
For those who don’t know the play I should point out that, although it is set in Chicago, it is in fact a richly layered allegory of Germany in the 1930s and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, Ui being the play’s version of the Nazi leader. Brecht himself had fled Germany after the Reichstag burned down, and penned the play in 1941 whilst in exile.
Given the subject matter, it is perhaps surprising that there are a number of comic moments in the play – not least the scene where Ui takes instruction in public-speaking from an aged Shakespearean actor, gradually acquiring during the scene some of the style of Hitler’s oratory. But Brecht is a skilful craftsman, and the purpose of this humour is to underscore the real horror of what we are seeing, and to confront us more powerfully with the challenging questions his play is posing.
Central to these questions is the one implied by the title of the play – why isn’t Ui resisted? Time and again in the play, there are calls to action to resist his rise. Time and again no one does so, or those that do are so few in number and isolated that they are brutally subdued or murdered by Ui’s henchmen. In a climactic final scene, clearly inspired by the Nuremberg rallies, we as the audience are challenged to consider what we would do if faced with the rise of a power like this in our own time.
Someone once said that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. (I say “someone” as I understand that the origin of this philosophical idea is the subject of some debate!). Fortunately, few of us see evil of the kind portrayed in this play so closely. But the question is posed to us nonetheless – will we stand by and do nothing when we see clear wrong in the world around us.