Politics at the Theatre
Deaglán de Bréadún
The Abbey got its timing right with its new production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht. It’s a parable based on the rise of Hitler at a time of economic depression and the last line is a warning that something similar could happen again.
I don’t normally get to attend first nights but an invitation came in for me and one or two other political correspondents. The storyline concerns a Chicago gangster who shouts and shoots his way to supreme dominance but there are very clear echoes of Hitler’s rise. Just in case anyone is too slow or ill-informed to get it, the parallels are spelt out by a “ringmaster” shouting into a megaphone at regular intervals. This is didactic theatre after all.
I knew probably nine out of ten of the people in the audience, which made it an enjoyable occasion even before the curtain rose. The acting was superb, particularly Tom Vaughan Lawlor in the title-role and Des Cave as a voice and drama coach for the aspiring leader (I wondered did many people realise he was doing a take-off of the late Micheál Mac Liammóir? A friend suggested he was, in fact, imitating Anew McMaster – from even further back!)
It was a fairly lengthy production so the start-time was brought forward to 7.30 pm from the usual 8pm. Things were a bit wordy leading up to the interval but it came to life after that with some well-staged comedy and shoot-out scenes, as with the best of the old black-and-white gangster movies from the Edward G. Robinson era.
At the end one felt inspired: if they rear their heads again these darned fascists must be stopped. At the same time, there was a nagging feeling that one was getting an incomplete picture. Had Stalin’s allies taken over, Germany would still have become a totalitarian state, albeit with the colour red instead of brown. Indeed the Communist Party anticipated they would, in fact, succeed the Nazis and their slogan was, “After Hitler, our turn.”
Instead of allying with the Social Democrats (SPD) against Hitler, they condemned the SPD as “social fascists” and effectively collaborated with the Nazis in the undermining of “bourgeois democracy”. Both sides had this much in common: the suppression of free speech and an independent media. Many of us who were energised by Brecht’s anti-fascist passion were also appalled by The Lives of Others, the recent film about the police-state methods used by the Stasi in the former East Germany.
Brecht accepted the patronage of the self-styled German Democratic Republic although not uncritically; the man had a moral flexibility worthy of certain past and present denizens of Leinster House. Having backed the suppression of a workers’ uprising in East Berlin and other areas by GDR boss Walter Ulbricht, he later wrote the following lines, entited The Solution:
- After the uprising of the 17th of June
- The Secretary of the Writers Union
- Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee*
- Stating that the people
- Had thrown away the confidence of the government
- And could win it back only
- By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
- In that case for the government
- To dissolve the people
- And elect another?
Personally speaking, I don’t always agree with Winston Churchill but he was right when he wrote that “democracy is the worst form of government – except all the others that have been tried”.
Deaglán de Bréadún
*Two years later in 1955, Brecht accepted the Stalin Prize in Moscow. What a man!