Essays: Hitler turned hood |
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Hitler turned hood

FOR a time it looked as though Brecht’s classic status would just go quietly into abeyance, like that of Maeterlinck or Brieux, having done its work of providing the theatre with a necessary — but necessarily temporary — illusion of seriousness. In helping to generate an intellectually unbreathable climate for the modern stage, Brecht played all too muscular a role. Finger-wagging dunderheads and feather-witted scolds built reputations as producers, Brecht’s texts having the peculiar quality of striking the politically insensitive as the last word in clear-eyed analysis. Meanwhile, the marginally more talented bent every effort to defeating the master’s theories about presentation, inexorably reintroducing the theatrical seductiveness which Brecht had striven to eliminate.

It was the latter movement which won. In any professional production of ‘Mahagonny,’ for example, the beautiful Crane song — dripping with the lyricism which Brecht said made opera the enemy of truth — is now assigned a place of glory, and you had to see Wolf Kaiser playing the Berliner Ensemble’s Mackie Messer to really understand what it means for the bourgeoisie to applaud a virtuosity independent of its purport: it sounded like a bullfight, with fat ladies passing out in their furs every time the scrumptious Kaiser pointed a patent leather toe.

Generally it is by now safe to assert that the rebellion of the international proletariat is unlikely to be sparked off by a Brecht production. What we can expect, at best, are talented wrap-ups which take our sceptical minds off the author’s notable failure to deal honestly with the political realities he claimed to be facing. Last week, absolutely out of the azure, one such presentation made its appearance — The Gangster Show, Jack Gold’s BBC-2 production of ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,’ with Nicol Williamson playing the American hoodlum Brecht dreamed up as an instructive parallel to Hitler.

For reasons too numerous to go into, the parallel doesn’t seem to me in the least instructive. As is now usual, however, Brecht’s ambiguous efforts to make one think were decisively interfered with by his interpreters’ determination to make one respond. Gold’s direction was quite simply beyond praise. One had watched his handling of Williamson before — in that crucially important, tragically unavailable film ‘The Bofors Gun’ — and had there seen a portent of this seismic psychopathy, but Arturo still came as a throat-constricting surprise.

Williamson’s foim detoimination to establish peace on ’oith looked murderous from the eyeballs on outwards. His voice, ranging from pebbles dropping into a bucket to Orson Welles telling beads in a sepulchre, was the beginning of the miracle which transformed Brecht’s America into America. Other contributing factors here were George Tabori’s consistently idiomatic adaptation; the impeccable casting of the minor parts and the finely judged production values: between them, Gold and his producer Tony Garnett managed to rebuild a convincing reality out of the required stylisation. What with the Leonard Rossiter stage performance a while ago, and Williamson’s screen performance now, Arturo has become one of our greatly challenging roles — just the kind of thing Brecht was up in arms against, but those are the breaks.

‘The Gangster Show’ overlapped with Robert Vas’s BBC-1 celebration of the corporation’s achievements in television, Looking In. One firmly trusts that this programme was a better birthday pressie than the dire 50 Years of Music (BBC-2), a blistering demo of everything one dreads about Light Entertainment. Cliff Richard represented the age of rock, in the same way that Nosher Powell represents the Florentine Renaissance and my mother represents the silver age of Latin poetry. The Younger Generation danced to the Beatles in a shimmer of faultlessly lit silver foil, a partially animated basket-load of Individual Fruit Pies. Where was Sacha Distel? Having his spare head fitted?

On Les Sez** (Yorkshire) the stubby Les Dawson reeled off yet another string of one-liners about his wedding, at which the sunlight apparently burst through the stained glass windows and glinted on her father’s Luger. Utterly deprived of viewpoint, Dawson’s gags could have been written by an averagely gifted hamster, yet he’s undeniably a treat to watch. Apart from some insert sketches rolled on telecine, the whole show is composed of Dawson glumly chatting up a couple of cameras, wheeling demoralised from one to the other like the ‘Bismarck’ with its rudder jammed.

I find him refreshingly determined to stay out of drag, at a time when almost every other comedian on telly is climbing into high heels at the drop of a sequin. Benny Hill, Stanley Baxter, Dick Emery — you name it and you watch it. Three-fifths of the people on Monty Python now flaunt frocks at all times. On The Royal Variety Performance (BBC-1) Danny La Rue did his usual paper-thin routine to the kind of Rent-a-Tumult applause that I can never begin to comprehend. Carol Channing brought things full circle by being a real female who comes on like an impersonator. At least Liberace wears trousers. They loved him, too. Not that I have any moral objections, you understand: just aesthetic, critical, mental objections.

On Monday night Magnus Magnusson clashed with himself — a new record. The essential Mastermind on BBC-1 (featuring Magnus as The Interrogator) got its wires crossed with The Ashes of Atlantis on BBC-2. The Atlantis programme was an unnervingly beautiful exploration of Minoan civilisation — unnerving because the newly uncovered frescoes are so clear, so life-enhancing and so mild-mannered. Like D. H. Lawrence mesmerised by the Etruscan tombs, you start imagining that perhaps this lot had the secret.

An unpromising-sounding new horror series, Dead of Night (BBC-2), started encouragingly well, with a Don Taylor story about a quartet of chic lefties Christmassing at a newly redecorated weekend cottage and getting carried back by a time-warp into the past’s unimaginable injustices. Anna Cropper, her body inhabited by a soul out of a forgotten famine, acted superbly.

[ ** Sez Les ]

The Observer, 12th November 1972