A timely spectacle

November 25, 2018

Brecht’s intelligent political satire comes to town in a magnificent adaptation by Theatre Wallay

A timely spectacle

When a society slides down on the road to fascism, the role of actors, artists, creative writers, critical thinkers, filmmakers, journalists, playwrights, and translators becomes extremely important.

In an increasingly shrinking social and intellectual space, the number of those who question the dominant narrative becomes smaller by the day. They are either forced to leave the country or are abducted, gagged, and even killed by the forces of fascism. When German Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese militarism prevailed across the world, creative people and critical thinkers were eliminated first, after which a morbid silence was imposed on the people who were fed only the official version of the right and wrong. Those who could, left the country; while others were forced into silence.

Bertolt Brecht was one such playwright in Germany who used his pen and creative genius to warn the German people and the world of an impending doom. Luckily, he managed to flee the country before he could be caught and killed. Most of his plays are masterpieces of his dramaturgy. When Aslam Azhar and Mansur Saeed used Dastak Theatre Group in Karachi to challenge the Zia regime, Brecht, Chekhov,
Gorky, and Ibsen came in handy. This writer fondly remembers the days when we staged The Life of Galileo by Brecht in the 1980s.

It was beautifully translated by Mansur Saeed into Urdu while Aslam Azhar directed and played the lead role of Galileo. Now Theatre Wallay led by Fizza Hasan and Safeerullah in Islamabad are keeping the torch alight. Though they have been staging plays for over a decade now, it is in the present context of stifling suffocation, that their recent production of Brecht deserves timely appreciation. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a play that was written in 1940 but it carries a message that is valid across continents and decades, if not centuries.

The play parallels the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s. Arturo Ui represents Hitler, but it can be any populist leader anywhere.

The play, recently staged in Islamabad, warns you of the perils of keeping silent. It mostly projects some actual events that occurred in the 1930s. With a mix of satire and farce, Brecht not only amuses but also wants the audience to understand how Hitler rose to power, or how the forces of tyranny can insidiously creep and take over a society in the garb of protecting people. The play shows how a monster is supported by some of the people who for their own benefit open the door to a demagogue.

The message of the play is clear that we all contribute to the rise of Hitler-like characters in society. Remember Altaf Hussain, who put curbs on all dissent in Karachi and Hyderabad? Newspapers such as Dawn, Jang, and the News could not be delivered for months on. With just one call to strike, dozens could be put to death on roads and in their homes. Journalists were killed, maimed, tortured and their families threatened of dire consequences. We have seen it all, and we are watching it again.

If Wali Khan Babur was killed in broad daylight in Karachi, Saleem Shahzad is killed in the dead of night in Punjab. Brecht reveals to us that when we stand by and make the choice not to see the corrosive effects of a controlling mafia on society, we change our society and our lives forever, or at least for a long time unless a complete disaster strikes us. The play encourages us to open our eyes and ears to understand that the greed of some for power and supremacy can curtail our freedom not only to act but also to speak, think and write.

This play is a warning to us all that if we don’t pay attention to what is happening in our cities, families, in our lives, and if we don’t hold those with actual power responsible, we facilitate fear and create a society around us, that is devoid of human justice. The play shows a gangster who seizes control over Chicago with the help of the Cauliflower Trust. The Trustees want to increase their profits at any cost even if justice is sacrificed and the lives of innocent people are taken. The gangsters want absolute power, and they would do anything for it.

Arturo -- played perfectly by Ammar Khalid -- his gangsters and the Trust utilise the services of Dogsborough, an elderly man who has projected himself as Mr Clean. They join hands and physically destroy their opposition. The closest friend of Arturo is Roma -- played by Ahad Ali -- who parallels Ernst Rohm of Hitler. Rohm was a co-founder of Storm Battalion of the Nazi Party that served as the killing machine or militia for Hitler. But once the purpose is served Roma is killed by Arturo just like Hitler killed Rohm. That shows how the powerful use others to serve their own purpose and then dispense with them.

In the play, Dogsborough, played by Safeerullah, parallels von Hindenburg, the elderly chancellor who facilitated Hitler’s rise to power. Before the rise of Arturo, the community was safe with no untoward incident happening; but Arturo and his gangster friends inculcated a sense of insecurity among the common people so that they seek protection by paying to the gangsters. The gangsters ‘want’ to protect the community even if the community is in no need of protection from the gangsters. When the community members tell Arturo and his friends that the community is peaceful, all of a sudden fires erupt, people get killed, and an atmosphere of dread is created.

Throughout the play, the gangsters indulge in illegal actions without any regard to justice; manipulation of the judiciary produces compliant judges, some of whom try to protest but are subjugated in time. The judges present a semblance of justice being done but sometimes don’t even bother about that, violating the basic principles of impartiality and transparency. Any protest, no matter how meek it is, draws the wrath of the gangsters. Another interesting point highlighted by the gangsters themselves in the play is their relative newness to the game of power, making them better than the previous masters.

Theatre Wallay is a group of volunteers with a passion for theatre and literature; a passion that is getting extinct in Pakistan. The play was supported by Heinrich Boll Stiftung (HBS) of Germany. Perhaps there is no better country than Germany to acknowledge the devastation that was caused by the rise of intolerance and militarism. Both the Theatre Wallay and the HBS deserve appreciation for keeping the light of intellectual debate alive in Pakistan.

A timely spectacle