Leaving aside Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen, the popularity of playwrights tends to wax and wane on the London stage; the recent reappraisal of Rattigan as someone unfairly cast aside by the Angry Young Men of the 1950s and the continuing absence of Bernard Shaw are two of the more obvious examples of the way a writer’s fortune remains tied to the whims of producers.
The UK has also notably never quite embraced the rich vein of talent that exists in European theatre: Racine is rarely seen; Moliere, a mainly absent figure; and modern continental playwrights virtually non-existent. The thrall of Anglo-American naturalism and the rawness of the grand narratives of O’Neill, Williams and Miller continues to be preferred to the rather more metaphysical questions posed by the likes of Ionesco and Artaud.
Within this structure Brecht cuts a solitary figure, and has increasingly become something of the forgotten man of British theatre. Whilst his position, alongside Stanislavski, as one the pre-eminent figures in the development of modern theatrical practice is assured, it was Stanislavskian concepts that became the dominant mode of theatre and film; championed by Stella Adler and embodied in the work of a young Marlon Brando.
In comparison Brecht’s influence has seemingly ebbed away to the point where a new production of a Brecht play in the West End is something of an event. One must acknowledge that there are resource considerations to this; large casts can be ruinously expensive but that reality is built on the premise that Brecht is deeply unfashionable and cannot be considered an audience draw.
The irony’s that Brecht is perhaps the most American-looking of all the European playwrights. Stanislavski had little desire to cast his eyes across the Atlantic but to Brecht the new world and its eager embrace of democratic and technological progress chime with ideas that were central to his own theatrical philosophy.
At its heart was the development of an art form that would become pre-eminent for the first five decades of the 20th century: cinema. Silent cinema was the great leveller; reliant on music, gesture and simplified dialogue so it could appeal across the immigrant communities of America, these early pictures represented Brechtian techniques transposed to a medium that could truly be embraced by a mass audience.
It was within the world of cinema that Brecht found a way of telling the story of Hitler. The development of genre pictures – particularly the early gangster movies, starring the likes of James Cagney and George Raft – gave Brecht a mechanism with which the rise of an international dictator could be challenged in a way that did not need threaten the authorities directly and would also appeal to a mass audience.
This is not to say that Arturo Ui is dumbed down; the reverse is in effect true, Brecht is raising the genre picture above its humble origins. He may have gained a reputation as a didactic playwright with a sledgehammer touch but this is to ignore the craft taken over the formal structure of the play and the sly literary references liberally sprinkled throughout the text.
Arturo Ui could be enjoyed for the wonderful pastiche of Mark Antony’s oration at Caesar’s funeral and the knowing nods to pretty much every tragedy in the Shakespearian canon but it does more than this – it recognises the freedom of the theatre, in opposition to the limitations of cinema, to challenge the audience by upturning the established conventions of an entire genre.