End of a Brechtian Era

Kristin Hohenadel writes about arts and culture

On Bertolt-Brecht-Platz, near Friedrichstrasse on the edges of the Spree River, the Berliner Ensemble is closed for renovations. The velveteen seats of this opulent Neoclassical theater are swathed in plastic; its grounds are strewn with chunks of glass, remnants of wall, planks of wood; workmen pound out a symphony with power drills and sledgehammers. In many ways, the state of Germany's most famous theater, founded 50 years ago by Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel, is a an easy metaphor for life today in Berlin. The new capital of reunified Germany is still covering its shrapnel scars and filling in with shopping malls the empty landscape once occupied by the famous wall. But the past rides the city's shoulders. Architects' models aside, how it really will look after all this cosmetic surgery is anyone's guess.

In its day the B.E. (as it is known) was the voice of Brecht, a place where he explored the political questions most dear to his East German heart in such classic works as "Mother Courage," "Galileo" and "The Threepenny Opera," a collaboration with Kurt Weill. Brecht became one of the most influential playwrights in the world, creating a body of work that stood up against Nazism. He was known for his interactive "epic theater," which created what he called an "alienation effect" by forcing reactions from his audience and not allowing them to sit back and passively watch the action. In post-reunification Germany, the burning question for the B.E. has become how to keep the theater from turning into a Brecht museum as well as how to preserve the spirit of Brecht's political theater.

The B.E. has toured the world, from Mexico to Istanbul to Argentina. But last week, when the company performed at UC Berkeley it was the ensemble's first visit to the United States. They brought Brecht's 1941 "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," a parable about the evils of Fascism set in 1920s Chicago during Al Capone's era. The show, performed in German with supertitles, travels to UCLA's Freud Playhouse on Wednesday for four performances through the weekend, on the final leg of its first American tour.

It was the Cold War, says Stephan Suschke, 40, the company's current artistic director, that kept them away this long. "Now, 10 years after the Cold War, the American people I think are more relaxed because Communism is an old bad dog," Suschke says.

A co-production with the Goethe Institute, the tour is being promoted as the last performances of this incarnation of the Berliner Ensemble. In the 10 years since German reunification, the B.E. has struggled to find its identity. It has seen a series of directors, a jumble of artistic visions. In January 2000, the former artistic director of Vienna's Burgtheater, Claus Peymann, will take over the company. And while Peymann refused to comment on his plans for the future, it is widely assumed that the famous director will eschew the traditional Brecht repertory, commissioning younger and newer playwrights to develop a new repertory for the B.E. High turnover is customary when a new director comes in; many of the Berliner Ensemble's stable of actors, some of whom have been with the company for decades, are expected to leave after the tour, along with some two-thirds of the management staff.

The Berliner Ensemble that Los Angeles will view on Wednesday night is the closest thing to Brecht's original that the world is likely to see again.

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It is somewhat fitting that the Berliner Ensemble should make its American debut with a piece that was originally intended for American audiences. Brecht wrote the play in exile in 1941 in Finland, and polished it in Santa Monica, where he lived from 1941-47. He had come to America, like many other German Jewish artists and intellectuals, to escape persecution. Brecht's American dreams were dashed in Southern California, where he failed to find success in Hollywood, let alone on the New York stage, and he lacked the influence he had enjoyed in Germany. After being called in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947, he returned to East Berlin, founding the B.E. shortly thereafter.

"Arturo Ui" tells the story of a guy from the Bronx who goes to Chicago and, with a group of thugs, uses violence, corruption and all other means to establish a monopoly on cauliflower. The play was never produced in Brecht's lifetime but contains an obvious sendup of Hitler and a warning message to Americans about the dangers of Fascism. It opened in Stuttgart in 1958, two years after the playwright's death, and was a critical and popular success, touring the world--everywhere except the country for which it was written. In 1995, the late Heiner Muller, then artistic director of the B.E., revived the production, making it the most successful production to date during this post-reunification period, and also touring it widely.

Suschke says that one reason for the appeal of "Arturo Ui" is the play's contemporary insights about the intertwining evils of politics and criminality. "For Germany this was interesting," he says, "but you must also look to American history. I must only say Noriega [or] Pinochet. And to Yugoslavia: With Milosevic you don't know if he is a politician or a criminal. Time has caught up with Brecht."

Martin Wuttke, 36, is the star of "Arturo Ui," a virtuoso actor with a vaguely Malkovitchian allure. Speaking after a performance as Nikolai in Dostoevsky's "The Demons" at the Volksbuhne theater in Berlin a few weeks ago, he suggests that American presenters may have needed several decades' distance to be able to stage a play that insinuates that evil has no nationality, that there could be a Hitler in our American midst. In its time, he says, "it was war with Germany. Maybe [Brecht's] play was too close to the actual historical process."

What's more, Wuttke says, even the late 1950s might have been too soon to make fun of Hitler the way Brecht did in "Arturo Ui."

"Brecht had the idea that it would be important to look at somebody like Hitler as a ridiculous figure, and only in this way can you deal with [him]," Wuttke says.

Wuttke admits that he and other company members were surprised by the play's success in 1995. "Maybe the big success is related to the fact that the play doesn't describe something only of the Nazi time," Wuttke says. "It's also about the relationship between politics and criminality. And it describes somebody who invents himself," he says. "A self-made man."

To prepare for the Muller production, of which this is a faithful re-creation, Wuttke says he watched footage of Hitler's speeches, read historical accounts, collected Hitler jokes. "Many jokes have been told about Hitler and the Nazi time," he says, "which also belongs to our reality." They also watched a documentary about an L.A. street gang, to study "the atmosphere and the way people behave and are relating to each other."

Wuttke says that it was interesting to play a character who "invented his own sky with his own god, his own ideology and mythology." Is it difficult to play the evil Fuhrer? "No, it's fun," says the actor. "It's the kind of asocial behavior which is a lot of fun for the one who's producing it, not for the one who's suffering. I like playing with the audience, to tease [them] and to be nasty and ugly. And to make them laugh."

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The last decade has been a particularly tumultuous time for the B.E., which has struggled to clarify its identity and purpose in the reunified Germany. In 1992, five artistic directors from East and West were appointed, each with different ideas about the role of the theater and with high-profile careers of their own. By 1995, the experiment had created massive power struggles, infighting and a confusing public profile.

"Normally the idea is to have competition with other theaters," says managing director Peter Sauerbaum. "And within the Berliner Ensemble we had our own competition. It was a struggle about money and about actors. And when we presented a new piece, the press wrote more than half [the time] about this idiotic situation. [They wrote that] since it's idiotic having five directors, the plays must be idiotic too."

"The perception in Berlin was 'I don't know what the Berliner Ensemble is, is it an old Brecht theater or is it a new theater or is it [former co-director] Peter Zadek or Heiner Muller?' " says Suschke. "Berlin is a difficult city for theater, we have four or five big, good theaters, and it's important that the audiences know what the theater is for. If you play today a play by Beckett, tomorrow a play of Heiner Muller and then an unknown German author, the audience doesn't know what the theater is for."

Muller emerged as the company's director in 1995, redefining the direction by focusing on the work of Brecht, Shakespeare and Muller himself. The idea was successful, and Sauerbaum says ticket sales have grown steadily in the last four years. But he died later that year, leaving others to carry out his vision.

Suschke, Muller's former assistant, says that the B.E. has suffered from dated stigmas about its past. Even now, he says, "in the German press, the Berliner Ensemble is the bad gray-red theater. It's not possible now to make theater like 20 years ago," he insists. "The questions are new. It's not interesting to look back to [East Germany] with a nostalgic point of view."

But Wuttke, who served as artistic director for a stormy nine months in 1996, says that there has been up to this point a great deal of pressure, including from the Brecht heirs, who have veto power in granting the rights to Brecht's plays, to keep that nostalgia alive. "People expected the Brecht museum," Wuttke says of his clashes with the heirs and city government, "and this was a big problem."

Everyone agrees that, no matter what Peymann decides to do, it's time for a change. "Up to this point, everybody has tried to deal with the basic idea of the Berliner Ensemble and to continue to work with the existing ensemble," Wuttke says. "He's very Western. This is of course a very important point, because for the people from the East it was a very, very important place for their identity. I tried to find a way not to lose this Eastern identity," says Wuttke, himself a Westerner, "but he will, he's decided already to."

"The name Berliner Ensemble has become something like a brand name, like Coca-Cola," he continues. "The people who give them money, the senate of Berlin, want to keep this brand name, and in fact how you fill up this label actually doesn't matter. Apart from the name, when Peymann takes over the theater, nothing will be left of it. If this is good or bad, [we] can judge only later."

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Wuttke says that in his mind, the Berliner Ensemble, like Berlin and Germany, must move beyond the outmoded ideologies of the East and the unbridled capitalist dictums of the West.

"For me it's very difficult to accept that this is it, the Western world is the world, and there's no alternative. Fascism has become sort of chic today; actually in the Western world maybe one-third of each country is of the opinion of Milosevic, and that has something to do with lack of alternatives. There's only one system, and this system doesn't manage to give answers to many, many questions. Everybody seems to have gotten used to the fact that there's not enough for everybody--that's a sentence from a play by Heiner Muller. Nowadays it's simply accepted that you can step on other people."

Wuttke says that those cranes on Berlin's Potsdamer Platz are obliterating a vital part of German culture that he hopes won't be entirely forgotten as the city moves into the next century. "I really have an aversion to this new chic as it is presented on the Potsdamer Platz. If you look at this," he says, slapping the tinny brass light box and Formica surfaces of his dressing room, "this dirt and this rubbish, you can hold onto this. These nice new surfaces and plastic tables are much more beautiful, but I feel lonely with them. These public areas nowadays always want to create a sort of feeling of togetherness, a 'we' feeling, and in these areas I feel completely alone.

"There always has been a dream that there could be a third thing," he says. "I don't exactly like this, I don't want to keep the rubbish, I hate all this dirt but I also don't want everything covered with new paint. It's the third thing that I am looking for."

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"The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," UCLA, Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, Westwood, (310) 825-2101; (213) 365-3500. Wed., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; next Sun., 4 p.m. Ends next Sun. $49-$69; opening gala with company reception, $125.

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