I would like to offer 12 of my readers-12 men and women, tried and true-a bottle of champagne each if they would be good enough, or courageous enough, to boo Al Pacino in the star-studded revival of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui .
I don’t mean Mr. Pacino alone, though he’s bad enough. I mean everything about this gleefully foolish, patronizing, un-Brechtian, irredeemably rotten three-hour production. I’ll tell you what I really think in a moment.
Brecht himself asked us to think about his morality plays and take action accordingly. Very well: Let’s protest for once and make our voices heard. There comes a time when the sound of lusty boos would be more than music to the ears. It would be a sign that theater audiences are actually alive and kicking.
Forget, for the moment, that Arturo Ui , Brecht’s 1941 parody of Hitler, has been turned into an awesomely glib comment on today’s America, forget that instead of “Deutschland Über Alles” and a Nazi salute, we’re given the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as Mr. Pacino’s Hitler and the cast place their hands on their hearts. The distinguished British director, Simon McBurney, means to warn us about our own Nazi government. Well, we must thank him very much for popping over to tell us. It’s surely an unintended irony that this blundering production takes place at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University, just a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. But it isn’t Mr. McBurney’s interpolation we object to so much as its lameness.
The crucial test of any propaganda play-whether of the right or left-is as Eric Bentley (Brecht’s long-time champion in America) defined it: Does the propaganda persuade those who don’t agree with it? Does it even have those who disagree on the ropes?
The answer here is: not a chance. The exercise itself is a waste of time. Who is this production for? As that fawning Arturo Ui audience-who forked out $115 a ticket to see the stars-rises at the end to give Mr. Pacino & Co. an unthinking standing ovation, you have to wonder whether they know what they’re doing. Do they know anything about the Marxist Brecht or what they’ve just seen? Does it matter?
It matters if you still care a bit about theater and what, of late, it’s coming to. I believe we need Brecht urgently. We need his radical social truths and his authentic, uncompromised moral debates. If nothing else, we need him as a rigorous antidote to easy sentiment onstage and off. But this botched Arturo Ui isn’t theater and it isn’t Brecht. It’s an empty ritual for narcissistic celebs and brain-dead worshippers who’ve been given the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval by the presence of a visiting British director. If it’s British, it must be great!
Let it be said that with Mr. McBurney, it usually is. As the inspired director of the Theatre de Complicite in London, few directors have given me more pleasure or touched such greatness as he has. Those who’ve seen his imaginatively compelling productions, such as Mnemonic last season, The Street of Crocodiles or The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol will know why we embraced his work as the drowning cling to a life raft in an awfully literal world. But as a gun for hire with a starry American cast, Mr. McBurney has resorted to a leaden literalness that’s the very opposite of everything he does.
Brecht’s own didacticism and use of supertitles in Arturo Ui can seem obvious enough without the director showing us film of Hitler, lest we miss the point. In its macabre, farcical way, the play is already simple-minded enough. It’s an epic cartoon. It isn’t major Brecht. Arturo Ui is a historical parable a child could understand. A small-time gangster, Arturo, “a simple son of the Bronx,” takes over the cauliflower market of mythical Chicago with his goonish henchmen. It’s a blatant caricature of Hitler’s rise to power with clear references to the likes of Goebbels and Goering, as well as to the Reichstag fire and occupation of Austria. Yet the new production is so messy and incoherent there were stretches, including the ludicrously overmiked prologue, when I had trouble following what was actually going on.
Al Pacino’s Arturo is a perverse version of an exhausted Marlon Brando playing Richard III with a schlump, not a hump. Mr. Pacino and gangsters go together like stars and stripes, and his Richard III has been knocking around in various incarnations since the beginning of time. Even so, his stage appearances are rare, and we always look forward to them. We like to Pacino with Big Al. It’s necessary to enter the dangerous spirit of things to enjoy the internal convulsiveness of him and see what’s cooking behind homicidal eyes. He’ll make-I thought excitedly-a compulsive Hitler.
But there’s no fire in him here and, fatally, no danger. I’m afraid it’s a flat, humorless, one-note performance, and we’ve seen the performance one too many times before. It’s inconceivable that Arturo/Hitler doesn’t threaten us in any way. Mr. Pacino must freeze our blood or have us rocking with laughter, or both. Yet he does neither. His interpretation isn’t big but small scale. Of all things, he’s given us a recessive Hitler.
It’s a terrible choice. From the star’s first crabby appearance, he’s hiding from us-cringing and wishing to be invisible. It’s the opposite of everything Brecht’s text (and the role) demands. Mr. Pacino’s small-time hood would have remained a nobody, and a muted Hitler is no Hitler at all.
“Mr. Pacino’s enjoyably audacious performance,” The Times ‘ Ben Brantley writes admiringly, “is about an id in search of an ego.” But Brecht’s plays aren’t concerned with psychology. There is no inner psychological reality to Brecht, only the reality he gives us.
It might be that Arturo Ui has lost its punch over the years. It’s hard to tell with a production as wayward as this. But for Mr. Brantley to claim that the play has never provided any fresh insights into the rise of Hitler is again misinformed. The mighty Kenneth Tynan raved over the relevance of the benchmark Berliner Ensemble production he saw in the late 50′s: “Macabre farce on this level of inventiveness was something I had never been struck by before in any theater,” Tynan wrote. Harold Clurman found the play a revelation in 1960: “We are confronted with a living thing which is full of meaning and has immeasurably greater impact than anything I have witnessed in years,” he wrote. Jan Kott vividly recalled a 1963 Polish production that starred a flabby, famous clown of the day as Arturo conjuring up one of the greatest scenes he had seen in the theater-and one of the most terrifying. “From the first to the last scene he is a clown; but not once does he make the audience laugh,” Kott wrote. “And this is his greatest achievement. Hitler was not funny. Murderers are never funny, even when they are clowns.”
Then again, the leading British drama critic, Michael Billington of the Guardian, described the Arturo Ui of the late, fabled Leonard Rossiter as one of the finest comic performances he had ever seen. I saw that 1969 London production, directed by Michael Blakemore, and like The Great Dictator, Rossiter’s fevered, sweaty comic genius somehow made evil funny-and the more we laughed, the more horrifying Hitler became.
So the signs are that the play itself might still be disturbing on different levels and at least dazzle us. But Brecht cries out for unadorned clarity, not staginess; artlessness, not artificiality. Above all, it needs a mesmerizing performance in the central role. The changes that have been made to the original play by the McBurney production border on insult. The music is loudly, showily intrusive, a form of theatrical Muzak that’s sometimes fashionable (Tom Waits), sometimes classical (extracts from Shostakovich that have been left over, it seems, from a two-year-old theater piece directed by Mr. McBurney about Shostakovich). The rag bag of tricks includes the hackneyed use of moody slow motion to end a scene when speed is of the essence. All in all, the production feels thrown together-as if we’ve been allowed into a private work in progress. But where is it meant to be heading?
The labored Keystone Kops approach for Arturo’s goons might have stood a chance if anyone had been in the least funny. They’re wearing imaginary red noses like frantic second-rate comedians in search of a laugh that will not come. Their notion of “being Brechtian” appears to be such an absurd, twitchy faith in overacting, it’s as if the intention is to do in Brecht. They’ve succeeded. Guest appearances by Billy Crudup, Steve Buscemi, Chazz Palminteri, Charles Durning, Lothaire Bluteau, the usually superb Linda Emond and John Goodman et al. are no use to us if they’re at sea.
Brecht’s alienation theories of theater are always much discussed. Too much! But “alienation” was basically his reaction against the overheated acting that’s going on here (or the over-emotional German acting of his day). He was after a sense of cool detachment. We’re grateful, then, to Tony Randall, a ham actor playing a ham actor, for gracefully underplaying the amusing role of the clapped-out Actor who teaches Arturo/Hitler the tricks of the trade in the play’s most famous scene. The old pro obviously took a withering look at what was going on around him and underacted onstage for only the second time in his life. The first time was as Khlestakov in Gogol’s The Government Inspector, though not everyone agrees.
But the pickings are otherwise slim. The closing, juvenile image that’s intended to be a warning about Nazi America takes the strudel. Brecht’s critique of Western decadence is built into his plays, particularly in the great works with Kurt Weill, and the lessons of Arturo Ui aren’t difficult to grasp. But if we are additionally to be told that Hitler is back ruling here and “the bitch that bore him is in heat again,” it must be well told. Not glibly, not foolishly, but well.
The entire shoddy production should be booed off the stage. Passive audiences are dead audiences, and we have a right to expect so much more than this insulting stuff. May just 12 people make their voices heard in protest during that oh-so-self-effacing curtain call as the adoring, fawning audience rises in thoughtless salute to the stars. And we will celebrate, you and I. We shall give theater a wake-up call, and together we’ll toast its future. If not, show me the way to the next whiskey bar.