On Stage: A Brechtian view of the new Germany | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: A Brechtian view of the new Germany 

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Despite the jubilant scenes captured on television, not everyone is popping champagne and dancing in the streets to celebrate the new united Germany. Old fears die hard, and the prospect of a powerful, confident Deutschland inevitably stirs second thoughts.

In A Public Performance of "The Private Life of the Master Race" by Bertolt Brecht, Alchemical Theatre, under the aegis of the Chicago Shakespeare Company, takes a sardonic new look at a classic contemporary drama. They hope to use their stage to ask whether, despite the changes of a half century, Germans can now avoid following an evil precedent.

Director Myron Freedman and Chicago playwright Gene Walsh have put Brecht's play into a contemporary context: twin delegations from the once-divided Germanies join to watch a performance of The Private Life of the Master Race (much as the feuding communes watch Brecht's play within a play in The Caucasian Chalk Circle). Delegation members include a fatuous Industrialist, a go-getter Entrepreneur, an Old Soldier with bad dreams, a doubtful Emigre, a rebellious Skinhead, a Western Woman disgusted with men's stupidity, and a Survivor who wants to block still-painful memories. These onlookers react characteristically to the scenes they see: they attempt to extenuate the Nazi crimes, or accuse each other of indifference to the past.

Originally entitled Fear and Misery in the Third Reich and first done in Paris in 1938, The Private Life of the Master Race is a series of short scenes Brecht took from daily life—and death—in Nazi Germany. Intentionally ordinary in their depictions of evil, these searing vignettes range from short "blackout scenes"—dealing with such issues as the Nazis' manipulation of the media and subversion of scientists—to the best-known section, "The Jewish Wife." Here the title character discovers that her Gentile husband would not mind if she left him forever, with the excuse that she'll be taking a temporary vacation in Holland; his small talk about it is the quintessence of Nazism. In "The Informer," two frightened parents are torn apart by fears that their son will expose them to the gestapo. In "The Chalk Cross," an inquisitive worker has a cross scrawled on his back and is later arrested.

The Chicago Shakespeare Company's three-hour variation on Brecht owes much to the framing device in Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade: there the inmates in an asylum perform a play that, instead of demonstrating enlightened progress under Napoleon, turns anarchic as the crazed actors re-create the French Revolution and its ongoing iniquities. The delegations' polished platitudes on Brecht's 52-year-old play, their belief in a progressive and equitable Germany, similarly suggest history repeating itself.

Freedman got the idea for A Public Performance from a college production of The Private Life. "It was a kind of documentary that mixed songs, poems, slides, and film clips from the era with Brecht's scenes. When German reunification broke into the news, I thought, 'That's how we open up the play in a new way.'"

In Freedman's staging a large cast—23 players of all ages—create a kind of dark circus in a claustrophobic, neo-expressionistic bar, much like the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret (there's even a menacing emcee like Joel Grey's smarmy host). The audience sits at tables along with the "delegation members." Bruce Bergner's scene painting and Kim Fencl's costumes were inspired by period caricatures by Georg Grosz and woodcuts by Oskar Kokoschka.

On this neutral ground, the new Germany must face some old specters. Freedman: "Why these delegations are in the cabaret matters less to us than what they do when they get there. Brecht's scenes indict a regime for historical crimes against mankind; you sense the menace of the Nazi regime, but you seldom see the agents of the terror. But what's the reaction of the delegations? None of the representatives of the new Germany go up to the Survivor or the Emigre and say, 'You're safe now; we won't let this happen again.' No one can say that and look them straight in the eye."

A Public Performance practices Brecht on Brecht. As Freedman says, "Without getting polemical or preachy, we're trying to reproduce Brecht's alienation effect, with the different parts of the play playing off each other. The dozen musical numbers will also discourage any emotional involvement in the audience."

That's where playwright Walsh comes in. He wrote not only the cabaret scenes but several songs. "I wanted the music to fill a middle ground between the contemporary cabaret scenes and the "memory' scenes Brecht provides," he says. "I love to provide an inner dialectic for the work I do, with several levels to the language and the stylization so that people don't get caught on one level and let that become the reality of the work.

"We're trying to do with Brecht what he would have wanted to do today. Music was always an integral part of his work." The majority of the songs are by Hans Eisler, a collaborator of Brecht's and a student of Schoenberg; he was a blacklisted composer who won an Academy Award for his score for Hangmen Also Die. He also composed the music for Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, a documentary about the concentration camps. Other numbers are by Kurt Weill, Steve Reich, and music director/ arranger Michael O'Toole.

To research the project, Walsh and Freedman took an extension course in German history at the University of Chicago. It opened their eyes. Walsh: "A lot of people who took it were of German descent—and they proved much less critical and more unclear about German horrors than I would have imagined. We incorporated this pragmatic attitude into the lines spoken by the delegations. For example, the Old Soldier talks in nationalistic metaphors that are heavily laden with special meanings, like 'the stab in the back' and 'our place in the sun'; they refer to specific humiliations and hopes. Then there's the concept of narrowed guilt: 'If it wasn't for Hitler, we might have won.' We heard that along with 'Hitler was a loner.' This scares me, this idea that Hitler was the sole villain in the business."

Walsh worries in particular about East Germany. "There you have the worst situation of all—a generation of un-deNazified Germans who have grown up hearing that they have no responsibility for the past, that the blame belonged to West Germany. There have already been ugly incidents against the Gypsies, as well as proposals by right-wing xenophobes to rebuild the Wall—on the eastern border! A lot of the blackest lines we use in the cabaret scenes come out of German newspapers."

Freedman shares Walsh's doubts: "You can look at the news reports and decide for yourself if Germany is still a hotbed of anti-Semitism. But I'm concerned that a country that has that in its history has not exactly become a leader in human rights. When you look at the way they've treated the Gypsy minority in their ranks, or the gung ho materialistic zeal with which they talk about building up their economy and to hell with everything else, you get a sense of deja vu."

But A Public Performance will not indulge in German bashing. Says Freedman, "I think the universality in the stories and the reactions of the delegates prevent this from being Germanophobic." To Walsh it's a matter of artistic open-endedness: "I don't believe in didactic theater. Theater doesn't answer questions; it raises them with a clarifying complexity. I've tried to make half the characters as sympathetic as I could: Germans have been victims of their society; their intellectuals, like Gunter Grass, are among the most rigorous in the world in moral matters.

"A Public Performance is not just about the former Germanies but about East and West Europe; it's about the problems carried over from an old Europe into an unshaped one. We need Brecht's cautionary, rough-edged approach to question that future. So far, reunification has played as if it were no occasion for anything more than practical politics, not a reappraisal of a new nation's altered course in history."

What would Brecht, who died in 1956, think of German reunification? "He would despise the idea that his country had become such a capitalistic nation," says Freedman. "I don't think he would believe that the madmen who prevailed in the Nazi regime were necessarily gone. He would fear the monster. The economic machinery behind the Third Reich is still there."

A Public Performance of "The Private Life of the Master Race" by Bertolt Brecht runs through December 16 at Puszh Studios, 3829 N. Broadway. Performances are at 8 Thursdays through Saturdays and 7:30 Sundays. Tickets are $10-$12; call 871-8961.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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