History Lesson

An integral part of theater is the practice of producing older, lesser-known works. The term "revival" is used in these cases because of the literal act of bringing a dead show back to life, as well as the act of breathing new life into it through a fresh translation, staging, etc. The idea is that by modernizing a text, the gap between current and former experiences is lessened, creating a greater understanding of the work and, with luck, correcting the mistakes that kept it out of favor in the first place. Bertolt Brecht, while not exactly a household name, is known to theater historians and students as the creator of "epic theater." He did not want his audiences to sit passively, suspending their disbelief and accepting what was onstage as reality; he wanted them to acknowledge and transcend the artifice so they could see it for the political and social commentary it was meant to be. One of his plays, known as Fear and Misery in the Third Reich in the original German and as The Private Life of the Master Race in English, is a series of scenes that address the miseries brought about by the Nazi regime. These hardships range from a general culture of fear to the outright threat of the end of one's comfort, livelihood, and life.

In Binyamin Shalom's new translation, receiving its American premiere at Walkerspace, Germans sport Southern accents and use urban patois alternately with accent- and slang-free speech. There are also modern clothes in some scenes and period clothes in others. These devices are used to blur the lines between the situations of the past and present, and to stir the audience into analysis. How effective they are depends on the audience member's familiarity with (and enjoyment of) Brecht's purposefully alienating style.

In any case, they raise two questions. First, in using modern dress and contemporary argot, the production goes against Brecht's own concept of "historification," which is the placing of a historical event outside the recent memory of audiences so they cannot directly relate to what's happening onstage. (This allows the audience to keep a bias-free perspective on the event.) While it is true that during the play's first staging in 1938 viewers would find the action sadly relevant, it's likely that most theatergoers today will see this as world history and not personal history. It all boils down to what choice is more in line with Brecht's ideas about theater: a past we cannot remember or the odd juxtaposition of the "now" with the "then"?

Secondly, by making direct parallels between the suppression of free speech in Nazi Germany and in modern-day America (as the show's program suggests), is this production comparing our government to their government? Is it comparing the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and at Guantánamo Bay to the treatment of prisoners at Auschwitz and Dachau? At first glance, these comparisons would be highly offensive to the memory of the generations of people who died at the hands of the Nazis. At second glance, by belittling the comparison one is belittling the gravity of current human rights violations.

This production hits hardest when its audience is hip to the specific requirements of Brechtian drama. However, there's something for the empathetic theatergoer as well; "The Jewish Wife" (the titular woman leaves her Aryan husband to make his life easier) and "The Old Soldier" (about rationing at the dairy and meat markets) are moving, and "The Informer" (the evils of the Hitler Youth) is deliciously unsettling. Scenes tended to run a bit long, though scholars could debate whether this is done on purpose or is a fault of the pacing.

The assorted actors, young and old, blond and dark-haired, have clear voices and are comfortable with the performance style. Tracy Hostmyer's Jewish Wife (in the aforementioned scene) and Nicholas Daniele's Secret Police Officer (in "The Chalk Cross") gave especially strong performances; Hostmyer's plainspoken delivery and naturalistic style as the Wife was not rooted in any place or era, while Daniele's modern, boorish Officer was equally effective.

It's difficult to judge the success of a play that holds as its core value the wish to unnerve and manipulate its audience. The Private Life of the Master Race toys with its viewers, presenting moving scenes and snippets of horror, all prefaced by stilted, rhyming speeches. It is less important as a revival of Brecht and more important as a return to the values of the epic theater: questioning the political and social status quo, questioning the purpose of theater, and waking up a complacent audience. This is where it achieves its most meaningful success.

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