30 October 2008

Bertolt Brecht: still socially relevant

If not anywhere else, you can be certain that German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s plays have a place in Kolkata, the capital of the Marxist-ruled state of West Bengal in eastern India. There, I remember my college days spent watching Brecht’s plays staged (usually) at the Max Muller Bhavan, as well as in other theatres, both in English and in the Bengali vernacular, with various contemporary interpretations.

Of all of Brecht’s plays, his The Threepenny Opera was the most popular, with Galileo coming in a reasonably-sound second place, both of which had us thinking in our seats during the play and on our feet while walking back home. For, such were – and still are – typical responses to Brecht’s plays. Brecht didn’t just entertain you, he set you thinking about what’s happening around you.

Even his greatest detractors couldn’t deny the fact that Bertolt Brecht delivered a balance of entertainment and instruction. Because, at the heart of every Brecht play and/or production was the belief that the audience had to be entertained (using ‘devices’ such as songs and humour), as well as moved to thinking about the theatre on one hand and, on the other, the society people were living in there and then – making his plays socially relevant with the times.

Commenting on European drama in the first quarter of the twentieth century, in an essay titled On Experimental Theatre, Brecht (1898-1956) wrote:

“For at least two generations the serious European drama has been passing through a period of experiment. So far the various experiments conducted have not led to any definite and clearly established result, nor is the period itself over. In my view these experiments were pursued along two lines which occasionally intersected but can none the less be followed separately. They are defined by the two functions of entertainment and instruction: that is to say that the theatre organized experiments to increase its ability to amuse, and others which were intended to raise its value as education.”

Bertolt Brecht believed these two functions of entertainment and instruction can – and need to – be married to produce the perfect play. But even more, Brecht believed that theatre had to make sense to people – to be relevant and contemporary to its audience.

To achieve this, Brecht wrote copious notes on his plays, giving directions to himself, the actors and directors, and even rewriting his plays, introducing his thinking, his responses to and his beliefs about the social and political happenings of the time. For instance, although he had written Galileo (one of his most famous plays) prior to the Second World War, he changed the ending and several other sections of the play after the United States dropped the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

So, in reality, there is a Galileo I (Galileo Galilei written in 1937-38) and a Galileo II (Galileo re-written in 1945-46); although, today, what is accepted and staged as Galileo is actually Galileo II, Brecht’s later version. The effort Brecht put in to make his plays socially and politically relevant to the present times is a practice that is still followed by producers and directors who stage his plays today.

[Citation: 1. On Experimental Theatre by Bertolt Brecht, translated by John Willett, quoted from The Theory of the Modern Stage, edited by Eric Bentley, Penguin Modern Classics, 2008. 2. The Science Fiction of Bertolt Brecht by Eric Bentley in the Introduction to Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, English version by Charles Laughton, Grove Press, 1966.]

23 October 2008

The Great Dictator, Arturo Ui

Adolf Hitler has fascinated many people – not only during his rise to leadership in Nazi Germany, but over the years. He has been, and still is, at the centre of much research and talk… and even filmmaking. Everyone from people who suffered during WW2 in Europe to historians, sociologists, psychologists, military strategists, management gurus to school children have heard of and discussed Hitler sometime or the other.

A niece of mine who had worked at a bookstore in Mumbai once told me that Hitler’s Mein Kampf was one of the highest-selling books at the store. What explains this? No idea. Except that, perhaps, in spite of his delusion, autocracy and cruelty, Adolf Hitler is a fascinating subject for many people. Some may revere him even today.

From all of this, and keeping aside my recent foray into Laurence Rees’ work (see my previous posts), two works of creativity stand out in my mind. First, The Great Dictator, a film by Charlie Chaplin released in 1940. And the other, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a play by Bertholt Brecht written in 1941. While Chaplin’s film is an all-time great work of art and acting, winning favour from adults and children all over the world, Brecht’s play is less well-known, particularly among Indian audiences.

It’s a coincidence that both Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin were born in April 1889 (a few days of each other); Hitler in what was then Austria-Hungary and Chaplin in London, UK. The two men did not meet each other. A story suggests that Chaplin decided to work on The Great Dictator when a friend of his, Alexander Korda, remarked on the physical similarities between the two men and, upon doing some research, Chaplin found that both Hitler and he had both struggled to achieve what they had attained in their respective fields.

The Great Dictator is a parody of Adolf Hitler. The film’s hero, played by Chaplin, is a dictator called Adenoid Hynkel; but the resemblance to the real Hitler is indeed fantastic. In fact, many of the other characters in the film bear resemblance to actual men in Hitler’s coterie. Although Chaplin deals with many of the issues from Hitler’s life and the history around that time, the focus in The Great Dictator is on the delusional mind of Adenoid Hynkel.

When The Great Dictator was released in 1940, or when Chaplin had started work on the film two years earlier, Hitler’s atrocities were not so well known. Apparently, Chaplin had later said that, had he known about the real atrocities of the Nazis, he may not have introduced so much comedy in the film. Needless to say, Hitler had banned The Great Dictator from being screened in all German-occupied territories. But, a rumour exists that Hitler had seen a screening of The Great Dictator once.

Unlike Chaplin, who had the freedom of making films in Hollywood, German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, born nine years after Hitler and Chaplin, and a Marxist to boot, lived in fear of Nazi persecution. In 1933, when Hitler came into power, Brecht fled Germany, first to Denmark and then to Sweden, Finland and finally to the United States. It was in Finland in 1941 that Brecht wrote the play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. However, the play was not staged in English for another 20 years.

My introduction to The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was 20-odd years ago in Kolkata, when the play was staged simply as Arturo Ui. Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is about a small-time gangster in Chicago, called Arturo Ui, who takes control of the cauliflower business in Chicago by getting rid of his opponents one by one. The play, and the characters within it, all have a strong resemblance to Hitler and his cronies, and the setting describes Germany just prior to Nazi rule.

Like The Great Dictator, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a parody of Hitler and the Nazis, staged in a larger-than-life style, highlighting not just the evil ways that Hitler/Ui adopted in his rise to power, banning all opposition, but also the sense of the dramatic that he (both Hitler and Ui) seemed to possess and use to win his audience over. Of course, unlike Chaplin’s film, Brecht’s play has strong Marxist or anti-Fascist undertones, drawing parallels between actual German history and the scenes in his fictional play.

20 October 2008

The Mind of Adolf Hitler

“The Nazi regime was one that practised what one historian [most likely Martin Broszat] famously called ‘cumulative radicalism’, whereby each decision often led to a crisis that led to a still more radical decision… All the leading Nazis knew their F├╝hrer prized one quality in policy-making above all others: radicalism. Hitler once said that he wanted his generals to be like ‘dogs straining on a leash’ (and in this they most often failed him). His love of radicalism, plus his technique of encouraging massive competition within the Nazi leadership often by appointing two people to do more or less the same job, meant that there was intense dynamism in the political and administrative system – plus intense inherent instability.”

[Quoted from Auschwitz: The Nazis & The ‘Final Solution’ by Laurence Rees, BBC Books, 2005.]

“[Hitler] does not think things out in a logical and consistent fashion, gathering all available information pertinent to the problem, mapping out alternative courses of action, and then weighing the evidence pro and con for each of them before reaching a decision. His mental processes operate in reverse. Instead of studying the problem as an intellectual would do, he avoids it and occupies himself with other things until unconscious processes furnish him with a solution. Having the solution, he then begins to look for facts that will prove it is correct. In this procedure he is very clever, and by the time he presents it to his associates, it has the appearance of a rational judgment… His orientation is that of an artist and not that of a statesman.”

[Quoted from The Mind of Adolf Hitler by Walter C Langer, as stated in Michael S Wade’s management book Leadership’s Adversary: Winning the War between Leadership and Management, Nova Publishers, 2002.]

14 October 2008


Why did no one fight back?

If over six million Jews were killed by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945 – over a million of them in Auschwitz concentration camp itself – surely some of these Jews could have formed resistance groups and risen up against the Nazis? But, why didn’t they? Why did they meekly surrender to the Nazis when the Nazis came marching into their towns and went knocking on their doors?

Was the might of the Nazis so overpowering that the Jews were paralysed by fear? Were the Jews so religious in principle and practice that they decided not to pick up arms against the Nazis, even to protect themselves and their loved ones? Were the Jews so widespread in Europe that they couldn’t come together in time to form a line of defence, or even sabotage Nazi initiatives against them?

What could explain the inconceivable passivity with which the Jews across Europe surrendered to the Nazis? Is this some giant mystery of the twentieth century?

In his autobiographical writing, Night, Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, gives an example of the ‘blindness’ with which the people from his small town of Sighet, in Transylvania, responded to the Nazi aggression during WW2. He suggests that it was a sort of blindness – the inability of the people of Sighet to take cognisance of Nazi aggression and atrocities against the Jews around them – that drove the Jews to their horrible fate.

Here’s an excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s Night:

“Spring 1944. Splendid news from the Russian Front. There could no longer be any doubt: Germany would be defeated. It was only a matter of time, months or weeks, perhaps.

The trees were in bloom. It was a year like so many others, with its spring, its engagements, its weddings, and its births.

The people were saying, ‘The Red Army is advancing with giant strides… Hitler will not be able to harm us, even if he wants to…’

Yes, we even doubted his resolve to exterminate us.

Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By what means? In the middle of twentieth century!

And thus my elders concerned themselves with all manner of things – strategy, diplomacy, politics, and Zionism – but not with their own fate.”

[Citation: Night by Elie Wiesel, translated from the French by Marion Wiesel, Hill and Wang publishers, 2006.]

10 October 2008

To forget would…

“Why did I write it?

Did I write it so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind?

Was it to leave behind a legacy of words, of memories, to help prevent history from repeating itself?

Or was it simply to preserve a record of the ordeal I endured as an adolescent, at an age when one’s knowledge of death and evil should be limited to what one discovers in literature?”


“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would not only be dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

[Quoted from Night by Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, author, winner of The Nobel Peace Prize (1986); from the Preface to the new 2006 translation (from the French) by his wife Marion Wiesel.]

08 October 2008


I’m reading Laurence Rees’ book Auschwitz: The Nazis & The ‘Final Solution’ and watching his BBC TV series at the same time. Of course, the book provides details the TV series cannot, keeping in mind the time-frame in which the video format had to be packaged. Still, the colour ‘enactments’ in the TV series are well-directed. Some of the old and hazy B&W video footages of Auschwitz (and elsewhere) in the TV series are heart-wrenching.

A December 2004 BBC press release has this to say about the TV series:

“The name Auschwitz is quite rightly a byword for horror,” says series producer Laurence Rees. “But the problem with thinking about horror is that we naturally turn away from it. Our series is not only about the shocking, almost unimaginable pain of those who died, or survived, Auschwitz. It’s about how the Nazis came to do what they did. I feel passionately that being horrified is not enough. We need to make an attempt to understand how and why such horrors happened if we are ever to be able to stop them occurring again.”

[Citation: BBC TWO press release – BBC Two unravels the secrets of Auschwitz, 3 December 2004. Auschwitz plaque photo courtesy Sunil Bahl.]

07 October 2008

War against the weak

The belief that human stock could be improved by careful breeding is not something devised by the Nazis alone. Much before the Nazis got onto it, eugenics, or the study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding, was practiced in the United States of America.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, frustrated by the influx of immigrants from various parts of the world (particularly from Asia and southern and eastern Europe), America had become quite concerned with the racial composition of the immigrants, and, in turn, its own population.

In response to this growing problem, a group of eugenics practitioners in America had decided to take serious measures in limiting immigration. What is of greater importance is that some of these measures actually led to a sort of ethnic cleansing of the American population.

In his 2003 book, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, American investigative author Edwin Black states that “eugenics practitioners coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands in ‘colonies’, and persecuted untold numbers in ways we are just learning.”

According to Black’s November 2003 article in the History News Network titled The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics, from which I’ve quoted above,

“Elitists, utopians, and so-called ‘progressives’ fused their smoldering race fears and class bias with their desire to make a better world. They reinvented [Sir Francis] Galton’s eugenics into a repressive and racist ideology. The intent: populate the earth with vastly more of their own socio-economic and biological kind – and less or none of everyone else.

The superior species the eugenics movement sought was populated not merely by tall, strong, talented people. Eugenicists craved blond, blue-eyed Nordic types. This group alone, they believed, was fit to inherit the earth.”

[Citation: The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics by Edwin Black, History News Network, 24 November 2003.]

You can also read a previous post of mine Eugenics, an American point of view.