Political satire is still relevant even after 60 years.
The playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is best known outside Germany for The Threepenny Opera (1928) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930) written with composer Kurt Weill, and his plays Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), The Good Person of Szechwan (1943), and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1958). He also wrote numerous poems many of which have been translated.
As a young man in the Weimar Republic, Brecht made a name for himself as a theatre critic and as a producer of new plays with socialist or political themes. In 1933, fearing persecution by Hitler, he went into exile, eventually settling in Santa Monica, California, in 1941. Hoping to write for Hollywood, Brecht only ever co-wrote the screenplay for Hangmen Also Die! directed by Fritz Lang and loosely based on the 1942 assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich. Attracting the attention of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, he appeared before them and then left the USA for Switzerland.
In 1949, Brecht moved to East Berlin where he set up the Berliner Ensemble and dedicated himself to directing plays and nurturing the talents of the next generation of young directors and writers. It was here that his darkly comic parable The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui premiered. A satire on how Hitler and his cronies seized power, it also illustrates the way ordinary people can be persuaded and manipulated by lies and half-truths.
One passage in particular underlines the play’s continuing relevance today, when populist politicians rant about being misunderstood and cast in a bad light. Arturo Ui is seeking the support of Old Dogsborough, a corrupt and senile businessman. Ui wants the public record put straight:
“I have been very much maligned, my image
Blackened by envy, my intentions disfigured
By baseness. When some fourteen years ago
Yours truly, then a modest, unemployed
Son of the Bronx, appeared within the gates
Of this your city to launch a new career
Which, I may say, has not been utterly
Inglorious, my only followers
Were seven youngsters, penniless like myself
But brave and like myself determined
To cut their chunk of meat from every cow
The Lord created. I’ve got thirty now
And will have more. But now you’re wondering: What
Does Arturo Ui want of me? Not much. Just this.
What irks me is to be misunderstood
To be regarded as a fly-by-night
Adventurer and heaven knows what else.”
Brecht died of a heart attack on 14 August 1956 at the age of 58. He is buried in the 18th century Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery in the Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin, overlooked by the residence he shared with his second wife, the actress Helene Weigel. Their graves, not far from those of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the writer Heinrich Mann, are marked by rough-hewn stones.