Brecht’s Great Historical Gangster Play

by Abigail Jean-Baptiste, Assistant Director

“It is easy to blame it on Hitler…[but] the evil has a deeper source.” – Aimé Cesaire, poet.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came into power, eventually launching the West into a second World War and the deaths of more than sixty million people. It was an event that changed the course of the world and whose effects still reverberate today. In 1941, German playwright, poet, and theorist, Bertolt Brecht wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in response to Hitler’s rise to power. The play is a parable in which Brecht demonstrates, through satire and high drama, how mundane irrationality can lead to an inhumane and barbaric government.

Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg, Germany in 1898 as Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht. Some of Brecht’s most formative years were during World War I, a distinctively violent time, though farce dominating German theater seemed to be a bigger influence. Being heavily exposed to farce, Brecht wanted to use comedy in his own work. He used humor as a weapon in his writing; it became a tool of transgression and means of survival in horrifying times, in his words, “humor is a feeling of distance.” He believed using comedy would awaken the consciousness of the masses by demonstrating that there could be pleasure and joy in changing the world.

He rejected empathy as his theatrical aesthetic strategy, which was widely accepted as the core to Western theater practices. He did not want audiences to find moments of identification with his characters but instead wanted current political situations to become visible in his work so the audience could critique their situations and be motivated to alter them.

Brecht escaped Germany with his family in 1933 after The Reichstag was burned down. Effectively in exile, they lived in Scandinavia from 1933 to 1941 while they waited for US visas so they could escape the Nazis. For a while, Brecht did not write much about Nazis, but in 1935, while still in Scandinavia, he decided to start responding directly to Hitler’s reign in his work. Brecht’s exile in Scandinavia, although a period of extreme isolation, ended up being a time of unplanned creativity.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was written at the very end of Brecht’s Scandinavian years, right before he escaped to America. In the play, Brecht doubly displaces the events of Hitler’s rise to power, first by placing it in an American gangster setting and secondly by writing his dialogue in verse reminiscent of William Shakespeare. Brecht wrote, “Again struck by the idea i [sic] once had in new york [sic] of writing a gangster play that would reach certain events familiar to us all. (the gangster play we know.)” On March 10th, 1941 he wrote of the play, “Of course it will have to be written in the grand style.” Although mirroring the events of Hitler’s Germany, the play would be set in the American gangster world of The Great Depression and the characters would speak in high poetic drama. This reflects the similarities Brecht saw in the bloodshed and violence present from Elizabethan drama, Roman history, Chicago gangs and Nazism – his work converges all of these worlds, insisting the terror caused by Hitler was not an isolated incident. It is evident he wanted to create resonances across time and place.

Brecht had always imagined Arturo Ui for the American stage and explicitly did not write it for a German audience. While he wrote in German, he did so with the knowledge that it would need to be translated to English, writing to a friend that it “Ought really to stand a chance on the US stage.” Brecht’s interest in American culture, audiences, and vaudeville style certainly influenced the work. He was particularly fascinated with the American gangster world, reading many crime stories and watching American gangster movies. Brecht used what he knew from movies and gangster lore to ridicule the Nazis. Also on his mind while writing the play was The Great Dictator. Brecht heavily admired Charlie Chaplin so the film’s parody of Hitler certainly served as an inspiration for the satire in Arturo Ui. The farce that influenced him from an early age proved a useful tool for responding to the horrific events plaguing his world.

After writing The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Brecht was exiled in America from 1941 to 1947. He lived in America for a long time, yet only gained recognition and popularity after he left the country. He was not considered the major dramatist we know him as today until the 1960s and 70s. Arturo Ui debuted on Broadway in 1963 starring Christopher Plummer and played the Great White Way again in 1969. Though it has received attention much more delayed than Brecht intended, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui still proves urgent today, well beyond Hitler.