I had no idea how appropriate this play was for our times. Henry Goodman’s characteristics are deliberately extreme and the play is animated and at times extremely funny (Goodman’s scene with ‘the actor’ was Brecht’s way of illustrating the lengths Hitler went to, to create a powerful and convincing rhetoric) but the scene that stays with me is the last scene. The play is coming to London from Chichester so I can’t describe too much in case you go to see it, but the reality of it is stark; heightened, paradoxically, because the last lines are spoken straight, with no ‘performance’ by Goodman, and they rightly lack the bravado of the rest of play. What comes through is the bleakness of the mass death at concentration camps at the end of WW2 – and the shock is revealed in seconds. If the audience thought they were going to be protected from the reality behind the play by its farcical style, they were wrong.
Goodman is tremendous and is both message and messenger. ‘Partly comic, it’s set in Chicago … the play has echoes of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard III, as well as The Godfather, Scarface and The Sopranos…Not just a knock-about comedy … this has a serious point … a Berlusconian buffoon can become a mass murderer.’ Patrick Marmion, The Daily Mail.
Arturo Ui (Goodman) and his men are representatives of any tyrannical government at any time, and in any place (and Brecht’s setting of the ‘Hitler rise to power’ scenario in 1930’s Chicago of course increases this realisation). In the same way, we, the 21st century audience, are representative of the common man at any time and in any place (enhanced in the performance at the Minerva at Chichester by members of Ui’s gang standing amongst the audience in his final speech – how are we different from them?). The world is still producing people who have the capacity to wipe out generations of a certain race who they happen to take a dislike to, whilst asserting (or precisely to assert) their power as dictator. And it doesn’t matter how those people start out in life – big or small, rich or poor, educated or non-educated: life and people are too complicated to make these divides. And we should not look for easy answers to complex problems. As Libby Purves in The Times said: ‘Brecht’s Fuhrer is no superman but a schmuck, a little man: the message is that his progress should have been resistible, even with the Depression economics. It is a superbly horrible performance, even in comic moments … his paranoia is rendered with awful hilarity.’
And it is this message that should sit with anyone who watches the play – evil can be resisted but resistance comes at a price. Those who stood against Ui (those who stood against Hitler) lost their lives. The play has been revived at a time when we have seen people crushed by their own government in their own countries. How does the world become such a terrible place, so quickly, over and over again, century after century? Watch the play and it is clear.