Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, directed by John Doyle and currently at Classic Stage, presents the quintessential diagram of how authoritarianism may evolve and devour all in its path. Brecht’s ironic verse shows that the road most despots take escalates demagoguery through fear, intimidation, public acceptance of blatant criminality, and government acquiescence via malfeasance.
Using George Tabori’s translation, Doyle explores with startling clarity how the political tactics of scapegoating, smear campaigns, and bullying terror can anesthetize the public into submission. Doyle’s clear-eyed rendering and Raúl Esparza’s performance mesmerize and appall with Brechtian truths. Huge plaudits go to Esparza’s authentic, brilliantly charged Chicago gangster, Arturo Ui. Everyone who sees this triumph by Doyle and cast will be galvanized. Whether to insure that every citizen’s vote counts or to speak out and redress civil rights abuses, this work encourages the audience to actively participate and strengthen their democracy against invidious government rule by thuggery.
Seminally, Doyle’s production reveals that the core of social and cultural depravity lies in the will of the people. The director conveys this through expert shepherding of the actors. And thematically he threads it throughout the sets, staging, and costumes. As the production underscores, the people hold the power. And they must “resist.” Their participation in upholding the moral and social good remains paramount.
Surely, Arturo Ui’s (a satirical caricature of Hitler) rise could have been prevented. The production signals the obvious turning points where the people faltered and allowed malfeasance to spread its rot, even in such a benign business as the cauliflower trade. When individuals in power cave to amorality, they promote a climate where calumny promoted by the media, political malfeasance, and chicanery infect the society and gain a foothold. With the avid assistance of sycophants, toadies, and other compromised, morally vacant human beings, a Hitler, an Arturo Ui, a Vladimir Putin, a Donald Trump gains power. Otherwise, the culture and its supporting tentacles (media, charitable institutions, businesses, non-profits, etc.), would take a stand. Grounded in principles of honor, they would repudiate political, dictatorial criminality with civil rights measures.
Brecht’s play and Doyle’s iteration of it reveal what happens if oppressors ascend to the top of the political pyramid, compromising the “incorruptible” (in the play Dogsborough represents German Chancellor Hindenberg) and gaining control. Unless people are willing to fight hard and sometimes die to push back against such treason to the nation-state, removal of the despot becomes impossible. In Doyle’s precisely executed Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui we see the interplay among corporations, criminals, and political parties. Often, they meld into one. When each collapses from inner decay, ethics dissolves for the body politic. Right becomes wrong, up becomes down, left becomes right. Then the autocrat, whether it be an Ui, a Hitler, or a Trump defines what “ethical,” “legal” and “legitimate” mean.
Ever the self-dealer, Ui pounces when news leaks that the honorable Dogsborough (the excellent Christopher Gurr) can be compromised. Because Dogsborough allows himself to be tricked, he disintegrates everything moral and noble within. When he vouches for the Cauliflower Trust in a loan deal gone sour, Ui capitalizes. And he makes “the deal” into a stepping stone to seize power.
Ui’s scandalous story of lies and smears about Dogsborough caves in a once viable business network. Through a reign of terror and murder, which the courts overlook and a corrupted law enforcement upholds, Ui takes over the Trust. Eventually, the town of Cicero succumbs to his regime as he moves to seize all in his path. Parallel to Ui’s rants, Brecht/Doyle describes how Hitler invades Austria. Both legitimize their actions as a common good. How can folks take these despots at their word? Indeed, how?
From the costumes to the sets Doyle emphasizes the play’s themes. Brecht aligns each juncture of Ui’s takeover with the historic rise of Hitler. First, Hitler attacks German democratic institutions. Opportunistically, he co-opts German Chancellor Hindenburg the year before the old man died. Hindenburg allowed Hitler to seize the government after political infighting insured that Hitler’s Nazi attack dog Ernest Roehm would be ousted/killed. By the end of the play, Hitler annexes Austria with Austrians’ help. In Brecht’s parallel, Cicero’s terrified citizens (like Austria’s) overwhelmingly align with Ui. Gangsterdom emboldened by the whitewash of citizen support casts the usurpation as legitimate.
Arturo Ui’s rise to power from Chicago mobster to elected political “hero” parallels Hitler’s takeover of Germany without the full majority of the German people’s support. Interestingly, we recollect that Trump lost the popular vote. Sadly, almost one-third of the nation neglected to participate in the voting process. Indeed, Trump’s was a minority win. So was Hitler’s! So is Ui’s. Nevertheless, it is this win which opens the floodgates for world domination as the despots ignite mayhem, murder, terror, and genocide.
Kudos to Doyle and the ensemble whose staging clarifies a difficult verse play full of ironic Shakespearean allusions. Doyle’s set encompasses a large wire fence reminiscent of a prison setting, or a detention camp. Interestingly, this fence provides the wire “curtain” or barrier walling in from out, the playing area. Actors also use the area behind the fence for announcements and as a visible holding pen before their entrances. From behind this fence-like curtain, they narrate the prelude of Brecht’s play. A gate in the middle allows ingress and egress. And the central action/paradigm occurs in the inner sanctum (playing area), adjacent to it.
Sadly, the more powerful the recognition of the analogies that Doyle sets up to our own period of challenged civil liberties in the U.S., the more horrifically ludicrous Arturo Ui and his willing henchmen appear. Indeed, Ui’s and his goons’ caged-in, bound-up souls turn maniacal by Ui’s concluding speech.
The actors perform their roles with precision. Esparza’s weak-minded, Trumpian, whining criminal with mannerisms like Hitler’s brings humor and reality to a role often played as a caricature. His Ui is inimically real and dimensional. His superbly rendered arias justify corruption as legal, enthrall, and hypnotize. His speech about faith and loyalty magnificently, humorously, and hypocritically shows the demagogue’s urges to devour the minds and souls of his followers. Ui imagines himself the savior of the people, calling for them to believe him for he is trustworthy.
Where have we heard this before? Doyle underscores this point when at the conclusion we hear chants of “Lock her up,” and see Ui wearing a long red tie. The parallel sickens because it hits so close to home. And then come the last lines to the effect that, yes, the world powers overthrew Hitler, but this brings no assurances. For the “bitch that bore him is in heat again.” As we consider all the dictators and warlords around the globe who glory in terror, murder, and oppression, Brecht’s truths solidify. Did the populace uphold and understand the vital purpose of the social contract to a healthy government? Do we?
In a moral, self-sustaining world of plenty, those in power would rebuff Ui in the fictional Cicero. But in an economic depression when resources become scarce, ethics collapse with individuals’ desperation. Economic deprivations create despots who promise to return the society to safety, “greatness,” and prosperity. With the effects of climate change daily narrowing the resources (viable land, food, water) humans rely on to live and prosper, the rise of the thug dictator class threatens more than ever.
This production and the play remain a guiding watchtower for our times, for all times. By revealing what has happened, they guide us as to what citizens must not do. Notably, they must not resort to resignation and disengagement. They must speak out, demand redress, and vilify corruption, even to the point of sacrifice and death. Laissez-faire approaches perpetrate oppression for all, for despots expect no reaction to their appalling behavior. But legitimized bullying cannot abide when citizens resist it. Save for the social contract between citizens and government officials, which strengthens the bonds between our rights and responsibilities and enforcement of government accountability, we are lost.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui directed and designed by John Doyle runs at CSC until 22 December. The cast includes George Abud, Eddie Cooper, Elizabeth A. Davis, Thom Sesma, Omozé Idehenre, Mahira Kakkar, and Christopher Gurr. Kudos go to Ann Hould-Ward (Costume Design), Jane Cox and Tess James (Lighting Design), and Matt Stine (Sound Design). For tickets visit CSC’s website.
Once again the Classic Stage Company produced a play by Bertolt Brecht. Last season the company presented Galileo starring F. Murray Abraham in an unusual translation by Brecht and the fine British actor Charles Laughton, now deceased. Abraham portrayed Galileo to sold out-crowds. He and the production were superlative. The current version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle stars, as The Singer and Azdak, Christopher Lloyd, the prolific theater actor who is still most noted for his role as “Doc” Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy and Uncle Fester in the Addams Family films.
The director Brian Kulick (who also helmed Galileo last season) has chosen to set Brecht’s play in the Soviet Union, right about the time of the fall of Communism and the partitioning of its satellite regions into their present independent states. The production’s ironic description of the time and place suggests the metaphors which choppily thread through the play and could have been developed with much greater import to make the conception more powerful: “Ancient Grusinia but also perhaps the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Hammer and Sickle were replaced by the Coca-Cola bottle.”
Because the setting is specific to this time period, the play’s universality, its satire of politics, government corruption and injustice, is unfortunately mitigated. The themes are convoluted and confused. The play’s significance related to our time, when global corporations and shadow global elites deliver a fascist repression of their own, is rendered faint indeed. With a bit more innovation, and connected theatricality of spectacle and costume, the tie-ins symbolized by the Coke bottle (meretricious mercantilism) supplanting the noble beginning of philosophical Marxism (devolving into corrupt, repressive Communism) would have been stupendous. But the conception is to a great extent washed out. Gimmicks (an interruptive blackout, ad hoc audience participation at a makeshift wedding, and the gloss of comedic Russian and Russian-accented English spoken to frame the fable) distract from the interesting conception. The lackluster effects sink the production’s impact and Brecht’s powerful theme that love and human kindness will and should overthrow political class systems whatever their stripe.
The play begins with a Stalinesque/Leninesque statue being toppled by citizens as the current governor and his wife (Mary Testa) flee the violent tumult and retaliation for his repressive rule. It is regime change. The question Brecht poses: Which devils will now come to rule? Testa, true to her comedic talent, lessens the sting of the wife’s cruelty and arrogance as she picks the dresses she will take – but in the chaos leaves her infant son behind.
The child (for expediency and symbolism, perhaps) is represented by a life-like puppet. The fate of the child is debated by a young servant girl who finds him. Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis in a poignant though uneven performance) deliberates whether to save him. But in a typical Brechtian character tension, her humanity and the lower/middle class tenets of the Golden Rule prompt her to sacrifice her own wellbeing for the child whom she preserves. The main action of the play is the preservation of this puppet-child as she confronts danger and trials to get to her brother’s house for asylum, all the while keeping the child’s identity hidden.
The circumstances achieve a quieter resolution with strange moments of accidental kindness, and power reversal. Azdak (a hapless, loutish peasant portrayed forcefully and playfully by Christopher Lloyd) saves the disguised governor who has become his loutish, peasant equal. Through a series of inane ironies that only political revolutions can foment, Azdak turns himself in for saving the governor, but because the current political crazies have hanged all the former judges, he is in the right place at the right time to be selected as a new judge to decide matters of the law. Why not?
The justice Azdak metes out is even nuttier (Lloyd shines at these moments), probably, then the decisions the former bribed, corrupt judges handed out, with one random exception. In appears that the true Just Judge (fortune, fate, God) exerts its will through this wild, roguish Azdak. The governor’s wife has returned to reclaim her child from Grusha. Azdak must make the final decision: Who is the appropriate mother? Is it the overweening, materialist, elite, selfish biological mother or the deeply human, loving peasant who exhibits the nobility, kindness and self-sacrificial traits that exemplify the finest qualities of the human spirit that we (the little people) aspire to? In a fit of Solomonic wisdom uncharacteristic of Azdak, this lout has a chalk circle drawn. Whoever is able to take the child out of the circle is the mother. This sets the competition as two women pull each arm of the child as if to tear him in half to prove “ownership.” And you know what happens.
In this translation by James and Tania Tern, with original music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by the poet W. H. Auden, the production has rare, clarified moments and muddied, miry ones. Coherence throughout is chopped. However, Lloyd should not be missed, and Elizabeth A. Davis manages to hew out a Grusha with whom we want to identify and who vindicates our belief in ethical intention and fine human instinct. And yes, she is rewarded for this when her love interest (Alex Hurt) reaches out to her, despite the complications. (She married a dyingman under false pretenses – his being that he was escaping the draft – then is stuck with him – but not for long.)
Article first published as Theater Review (NYC): ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ by Bertolt Brecht on Blogcritics.