Before the opening scene of the Eastenders’ production of Bertolt Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich—which opens Thursday, May 17, at the Jewish Community Center for a four-show run, after four days last week at San Francisco’s Traveling Jewish Theatre—there are projections of National Socialist posters of happy comrades, of mother and child, the cheerful false face of Nazi propaganda for the German public and the world.
As many as 30 of these scenes and sketches were written during and just after the dark years from the Nazi takeover in 1933 to the Anschluss, annexing Austria in 1938; the Eastenders show features 18. What Brecht tried to do in them was to pry off that mask to reveal the human toll, the social miasma, of private life beneath the fixed, defiant smile.
The original U.S. production of 17 scenes was entitled The Private Life of the Master Race, and had its first premiere June 7, 1945 at the Little Theater in Wheeler Auditorium on the UC campus, part of the program for the UN conference delegates meeting in San Francisco. It was directed by Henry Schnitzler, son of famed Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler (La Ronde), who was in touch with Brecht. The Eastenders program, with its George Grosz cartoonish cover, contains a facsimile of the Daily Cal preview of the premiere.
The scenes, episodic (Brecht called his theater “Epic”) and unrelated directly by story but knit together by theme, play like frames in a film running through those years, capturing a panorama of social breakdown, deception, betrayal, disaffection, disaffiliation and flight. In Berlin in 1933, a storm trooper eggs on a worker to make jokes about the regime and shows him the trick of marking a suspect with a chalk cross on the back of his jacket, unawares. The next year in Augsburg, a magistrate in chambers nervously hears pleas, advice and veiled threats from a prosecutor, an investigator and storm troopers, wondering how he can render a verdict.
In the most famous of these miniature dramas, one that was played with great affect by Vanessa Redgrave a few years ago at a benefit in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre, “The Jewish Wife,” a Jewish woman on the verge of fleeing to the Netherlands from Frankfurt in 1935 talks reassuringly to her friends on the phone about her “little spring vacation,” asking them to look after her husband—then rehearses a bitter goodbye to him, which she can’t repeat when he appears.
It’s absorbing, sometimes very funny, and deeply affecting. And this production is probably the best sustained show the Eastenders have done in years. The cast of 11, including splendid Longfellow Middle School student Alexander Senauke (who plays a Hitler Youth whose parents nervously suspect him of spying on them) has the flavor of this repertory company that calls itself “held together by an ensemble of artists who collectively ... produce and generally build theater from the ground up,” an interactive and personable troupe, as they take on these often nameless faces from the past, or pose in tableau, bookending the scene in progress centerstage with what came before and will follow.
This Eastenders production, solidly presided over by artistic director Susan Evans and founder Charles Polly, emphasizes the documentary aspects of these brief cameos of the contradictory life led by the German people, supporters and dissenters alike, under Hitler’s regime. It therefore touches on Brecht’s relationship—a somewhat uneasy one—with “The New Objectivity,” a progressive movement which aimed to show the social realities of the times, under the Depression and fascism. Brecht, however, went further: his innovative dramatic practices stylized the actions of the characters portrayed, in a new method of theatrical storytelling that brought out big issues hiding in small gestures. He invited the audience to consider the social intent rather than just identifying emotionally with the personal plight of the characters.
Performances by Craig Dickerson (a talented comedic actor), Carolyn Doyle (whose “Jewish Wife” deftly plays the full register, yet seems low key) and Christine U’Ren, in particular, capture something of the still controversial “performative” aspects of the synthesis of theatrical style that’s called Brechtian.
This is one of the few shows in the ad hoc revival of Brecht that’s been going on the past few years that really plays and gets the point across, thanks in great part to the Eastenders’ canniness and commitment in choosing this collection of sketches which are both intimately direct yet suggestive of issues broader and deeper. What doesn’t always come across are the finer points of Brecht’s innovation, like what he called the social gesture, an actor’s exact portrayal of a “pregnant moment” which reveals, in a flash, the social meaning of the character or the scene—like a prosecutor wryly forgetting, over and over, the name of a suspect (”Judicial Process”). Like camp follower Mother Courage in Brecht’s great wartime drama, biting a coin and losing her son to the recruiters while distracted, it demands a kind of concentration and sense of display, of demonstration, different from the training of most American actors.
Fear and Misery of the Third Reich is the sort of theatrical experience which goes over without going over the top. It has plenty of true dimensionality—and the audience leaves with much to mull over, difficult but fascinating truths that the valiant Eastenders have portrayed.
FEAR AND MISERY OF THE THIRD REICH
Presented by the Eastenders Repertory Company at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday and at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St. $20. 568-4118.