On Day 107 of Donald Trump's tenure in the White House, I went to the Comédie-Française in Paris to see its new production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Brecht’s 1941 tale of the ascent to power of Ui, an Adolph Hitler-like crime boss in 1930s Chicago, has been much talked about lately (there’s also a new production at London’s Donmar Warehouse) largely because its principal character reminds many people of the way Trump behaved during last year’s election – and the way he is performing now.
I can’t speak for the Donmar production, but the version on stage in the French company’s Salle Richelieu is impressively staged and performed, an eye-catching spectacle, a true representation of what Brecht called his “epic” theatre. There’s a raked stage, the floor of which represents Chicago, with square openings through which the actors often enter and leave; song and dance in French, English and an eerily effective and chilling German; actors in grotesque, at times ghoulish whiteface; jugglers; a clown; and most effective of all, a stage-filling spider’s web of rope that opens and then closes firmly shut, trapping the world in Ui/Hitler’s iron grasp – a web on, over and under which the actors move acrobatically all evening.
Much praise goes to director Katharina Thalbach, who traces her roots to the Berliner Ensemble, the theater company established by Brecht and his second wife, Helene Weigel. Thalbach is the daughter of Swiss director Benno Benson and German actress Sabine Thalbach, both of whom worked in the Ensemble. Katharina Thalbach has said that she “grew up” with the ensemble and that her mother played the role of Dockdaisy in the ensemble’s late-1950s production of Arturo Ui. She noted in an interview that as a very young girl she saw that version many times.
Hurrahs also to Laurent Stocker as Ui. The fine French actor and Comédie-Française veteran (he has performed with it since 2001 and been a member since 2004) makes a dazzling transformation from Ui as a near-farcical fool to a figure of remorseless and maniacal evil. He supplies more than the echo of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator that is in Brecht’s play, and adds an at times generous touch of Mel Brooks' Springtime for Hitler. But all the actors give sterling performances, often comical, often macabre.
The play begins in Brechtian style with a narrator – a kind of ringmaster with whips – telling the audience what will happen, so there will be no surprises and it can focus on the significance of what Brecht is saying. Four main characters are introduced, first dressed like, and with masks resembling, their German counterparts, Hitler prime among them. Then they pull off their uniforms and their masks and are transformed into the Chicago gangsters they will portray. When Hitler becomes Ui, he keeps that all too familiar mustache.
The play is set in a Depression-era America rife with poverty, business failure, gangsterism and corruption, a time when Chicago was ruled by machine guns, gangland assassinations and the crazed mobster Al Capone. Brecht also includes references to Richard III, the evil Shakespearean king, whose rise to power had little equal in malevolence and ruthlessness, as well as to Julius Caesar. Ui first appears as a buffoon with little public speaking ability. A teacher will arrive and show him how to talk before a crowd, using Mark Anthony from Caesar as an example. And then the teacher will be done away with.
Gradually, Ui, taking advantage of the Depression but also the public's ignorance and greed, will gain control over the troubled Cauliflower Trust, using, as the Comédie-Française notes, “the same techniques as Hitler: intimidation, blackmail, misappropriation of money, threat, murder.” At appropriate intervals, cast members unfurl black fabrics on which are printed the historically relevant moments of Hitler’s ascent that the particular scene in the play is meant to represent.
It doesn’t matter much if your French is mediocre, or if you have no French at all. Read the play beforehand – or if you must, at least a summary – to gain a basic understanding. Yes, you may miss some details, and some verbal humor, but you shouldn’t have any trouble following the plot, and the performances and the staging should carry the day.
Brecht wrote the parable play, what he called “a historical farce,” at a time when Hitler was at height of his power. The playwright said that he did so “with the aim of destroying a dangerous respect commonly felt for great killers” – and, most important, that it was “not so much an attack on Hitler, but rather upon the complacency of the people who were able to resist him, but didn’t.” In that respect, it is a lesson for our time.