THE GHOSTS IN THE WINGS
[this article originally appeared on spiderwebshow here.]
it was supposed to be a parable, a satire, a spoof.
even when brecht wrote his play in 1941, hiding in in finland, the imagery and language he used created a distance between the events he was describing and the events in his play. hitler didn’t really consort with gangsters, they were just a convenient parallel for the coercion and intimidation he was describing.
but over the last weeks, as we have re-rehearsed our remount of THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI, the parallels seem less and less allegorical. on the one hand, its timeliness makes for a great promotional opportunities—retweeting bob rae’s comparison of the play to the ford saga can only help our ticket sales—but on the other, it has risked shrinking the distance between the satire and its subject, a distance (or strangeness—verfremdung) that brecht’s dramaturgical mechanics rely heavily upon.
when we began rehearsals for this piece, which began as a classroom exercise for the graduating 4th years in york’s conservatory, we started with a discussion. WHAT IS THIS PLAY DESCRIBING? nazism, obviously, for starters. written in a tremendous hurry, hoping to come to america armed with a surefire commercial success, brecht grabbed the gangster-film aesthetic and constructed an architecture of events that directly mirrored hitler’s rise from the failed beer-hall putsch to the annexation of austria.
but in canada in 2013, that wasn’t (for me) reason enough to take on the play. and knowing what i do about brecht, i’m pretty sure that he would have found that take to be insufficient grounds and subject matter for a remount in north america today; just as redundant as a romeo and juliet set in renaissance verona—historically accurate, but ultimately pointless.
as part of my MFA teaching, i was asked to direct the students in a brecht work. young as i am, i hadn’t thought of myself much as a teacher, and had never taken on a brecht text, but i have some experience with his techniques, and was thrilled at the prospect of having a massive and enthusiastic cast to take UI on with.
i spent the better part of my training and theatrical upbringing apprenticing under brecht’s granddaughter, from whom i learned just about everything i would call the core of my practice. i wasn’t all that interested in brecht when i began learning from her—he seemed stodgy, didactic, and most of all, dated—but johanna was unprecious about her relationship to his theories, and eventually convinced me that:
a) his interest in politics extended only so far as politics affected people, and
b) he had a wicked sense of humour.
if i could boil down everything i learned from johanna about brecht into one sentence, it would be: WHAT ARE YOU ANGRY ABOUT? as i fudged my way through teaching acting, i knew that if there was one thing i wanted to accomplish, it was to bring their own anger, their own passion and politics to bear on the work they do, and to make sure that they knew how to make theatre that described something that pissed them off.
so i pressed the cast, who had come in armed with thorough research into nazism and the cast of villains the play described, WHAT IS THIS PLAY DESCRIBING?
- 1930s chicago
- a financial crisis
- a government bailout
- a corruption scandal
- a reactionary wave of populist conservatism
- intimidation tactics
- a meticulously controlled PR campaign
- a courtroom that seems more like a circus
- a man who consolidates power around himself and rules his deputies with an iron fist
- loyalists thrown under the bus on the road to power
- we took all the aesthetic answers from the list, and took only the actions and circumstances. even i was surprised at the exactness of some of the parallels to our current situation. at the time we crossed off the guns and the gangsters (as seeming to be more aesthetic).
interestingly, in a conversation with johanna about the play, i suggested that my take on the piece was going to focus less on the nazism and more on the contemporary analogues we found for the tactics ui uses to climb to power. as a german, this was inconceivable to her, and not because she doesn’t know our politics. harper and ford, she contended, were bullies, maybe, but not nazis, and certainly not murderers. “whenever you do this play there are the ghosts of 6 million jews walking in the wings,” she said.
we talked a lot about harper and ford and bush and the like in rehearsal, and even experimented with recreating the (in)famous “kitten photo” in one of ui’s image-crafting scenes, with a silver wig and toy kitten. we even constructed an elaborate narrative for the kitten, given as a gift to the token brechtian whore character and called adolf. but somehow it felt reductive to the parable, and much to the actors’ chagrin, we cut the pussy (and all the inevitable jokes that came with it). brecht’s play never explicitly mentions hitler, nor would we do so with harper. it was not, i determined, a play about a hooker and her pussy.
fast forward nine months to our rehearsals for a reworking of the piece downtown. the eruption of the senate scandal and the ford saga and the daily batch of barely-believable revelations had me reconsidering, among many things, whether this might a play about crack, hookers, and pussies. the gangster setting wasn’t creating the distance it once did. as it turns out, rob ford does consort with gun-toting gangsters. harper and ford have both tried to appease the public by throwing their enforcers under the bus. jennifer wise’s excellent translation abandons the blank verse of brecht’s original for the idiomatic language and clichés of gangster films, and i have seen video footage where rob ford is saying lines right out of the play, from his gravy train rhetoric to platitudes like “i got the patience of job but i can only be pushed so far,” right over to the violent threats in one of his more recent youtube hits.
fantastic though its unfortunate timeliness has been for our marketing angle, it’s left us playing a perpetual game of catch-up. do we retailor our staging to find a way to sneak a crackpipe onstage? do we redesign ui’s costume as a bloated bigot in a blond buzz cut? or do we leave it to the audience to see what we see?
in the first incarnation of the piece, i drew one important distinction—while our current leaders may employ many of the same tactics as ui, and by association, hitler, they weren’t murderers. but the last 9 months have left me doubting even that—what ever happened to anthony smith? the ghosts of those six million jews will still be wandering the wings, but in our production, maybe the audience will see them joined by the aboriginal women who have died and disappeared while harper’s government continues to refuse policy or support to protect this vulnerable demographic, and the numerous victims of toronto’s gang violence.