“If we could only act instead of talking …”

“Unmasking the past in order to reveal the present”  is a goal of this year’s theater productions at Macalester. When the morning, noon and nightly news seems like too much to bear, perspectives from the past can help us face today’s horrors. Evil that has been defeated once can be defeated again, and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui urges us to meet the challenge in every political generation.

I went to see Arturo Ui at the invitation of one of my students, who is acting in it. I left the theater wishing the play had a longer run so that I could urge more people to enjoy a moving, funny, and inspiring production.

Bertolt Brecht’s allegorical play about Hitler, set in Chicago, and evokes resonances from multiple places, conflicts and people today. (Egypt, anyone? Hungary’s Jobbik party? Greece’s Golden Dawn? Syria?) Barbara Berlovitz’s director’s notes place the focus closer to home:

“There is a growing unease in America. Fear plays a large part in the day-to-day lives of many: fear of the future, fear of the current financial situation (should I pay the rent this month, buy food or medicine?), fear of a neighbor who might not look like you or have the same cultural background, and fear of violence. Some have done an excellent job of contributing to this atmosphere. Recently an elected official threatened a reporter with ‘If you don’t shut up … I’ll throw you off this balcony.’ There has been a rise in extremis politics and a demonizing of the poor and foreigners, the very people who have little or no voice in our political institutions.”

Though Brecht fled from Germany in 1933 and wrote the play in 1941, much of the dialogue remains alarmingly current. One example: today’s U.S. right-wing opposition to unions, which contributed to the recent defeat of the UAW in Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant. (The union is appealing to the National Labor Relations Board because of “interference by politicians and outside special interest groups” in the election.)

We need look no further than Wisconsin for the prototype of right-wing opposition to unions, from stripping collective bargaining rights from public employees to using prison labor to perform public employees’ work. You can imagine Scott Walker agreeing with Ui’s speech:

As an individual
The working man has all my sympathy.
It’s only when he bands together, when he
Presumes to meddle in affairs beyond
His understanding, such as profits, wages;
Etcetera, that I say: Watch your step
Brother, a worker is somebody who works.
But when you strike, when you stop working, then
You’re not a worker anymore. Then you’re
A menace to society.

Brecht’s humor leavens the dead serious subject matter, and more erudite theater-goers than I will recognize more of the Shakespearean speeches and allusions. By the time the play ends, we are ready to hear the Epilogue and, I hope, go forth inspired to act:

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.

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