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International Socialism, February 1977


Bryan Rees

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui


From International Socialism (1st series), No.95, February 1977, pp.30-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui/St Joan of the Stockyards
Bertolt Brecht
Methuen £1.00

BERTOLT Brecht died over twenty years ago, in August 1956. Surprisingly little has been published in English to mark his passing, apart from a huge volume of his Collected Poems which has recently appeared in paperback (in 3 volumes). However Methuen have done us an invaluable service by publishing two of his best plays – Arturo Ui and St Joan.

Both are plays about a crisis and both were written in times of crisis – St Joan between 1929-31 and Arturo Ui in 1941. They are about the crisis of capitalism and reading them in 1977 makes them all the more stimulating and relevant.

Arturo Ui, described by Brecht as a parable play, is set in Chicago and shows the rise of Hitler in Germany in the guise of Arturo Ui, the gangster, and a small bunch of thugs who take over the Cauliflower Trust in Chicago and then threaten to take over all the cities in America.

The Cauliflower Trust (German capitalism) is in deep trouble and tries to get a city loan backed by the influential Dogsborough (President Hindenburg). He will have none of it and it is only when he is deceived by the Trust that the loan is made and he gets some shares in return. Arturo Ui (Hitler) and his gangsters have been given the brush-off by the Trust and are in the doldrums. Giri (Hermann Goering) discovers that Dogsborough is implicated in the Cauliflower Trust loan and Ui then confronts the old man, threatening him with exposure unless Ui and his men are given the ‘in’ on the Trust. At first he refuses but later gives in to prevent exposure.

Ui now has his foot on the ladder and events begin to move quickly – a reign of terror and violence is unleashed and a warehouse (the Reichstag) is set on fire by the gangsters, for which the unfortunate Fish (Van der Lubbe) is tried and found guilty. In a speech to the leaders of the Trust, Ui defines his attitude to workers.

Like it or not, this modern world of ours
Is inconceivable without the working man
If only as a customer. I’ve always
Insisted that honest work is no disgrace
Far from it. It’s constructive and conducive
To profits. As an individual
The working man has all my sympathy.
It’s only when he bands together, when he
Presumes to meddle in affairs beyond
His understanding, such as profits, wages;
Etcetera, that I say: Watch your step
Brother, a worker is somebody who works.
But when you strike, when you stop working, then
You’re not a worker anymore. Then you’re
A menace to society. And that’s
Where I step in.

There follows a power struggle in the ranks of the gangsters between Roma (Ernst Roehm), the working class gangster with a large gang (the Brownshirts) and whose appeal is to some extent based on antagonism towards the rich, and Giri (Goering) who represents the rich industrialists who are insisting on the removal of Roma. Ui is forced to choose, and takes the side of Giri and the money – Roma, the friend and confidant, and his men are brutally murdered.

With Chicago won, Ui turns to Cicero (Austria). Ignatius Dullfeet (Dolfuss, the Austrian Chancellor) and his newspaper have been attacking Ui and his methods. Ui forces him to stop the attacks and then has him killed – the road to Cicero is opened, and after Cicero, America!

For Chicago and Cicero
Are not alone in clamouring for protection!
There are other cities;
Washington and Milwaukee!
Detroit! Toledo! Pittsburgh! Cincinatti!
And other towns where vegetables are traded!
Philadelphia! Columbus! Charleston! and New York!
They all demand protection!
And no ‘Phooey!’,
No ‘That’s not nice!’ will stop Arturo Ui.

It is a brilliant play, full of insights into Hitler and the rise of fascism. There is a terrifically funny scene where Ui takes lessons from an actor to improve his speaking and poise; by the end of the play they are perfect – the gestures, the goose-step walk, the fascist salute – and it isn’t funny anymore. It ends with an epilogue which is both a warning and a call for action.

Therefore learn how to see and not to gape
To act instead of taking all day long
The world was almost won by such an ape!
The nations put him where his kind belong.
But don’t rejoice too soon at your escape
The womb he crawled from is still going strong.

Arturo Ui shows how easily capitalism can resort to barbarism and fascism when threatened; St Joan shows how it deals with the periodic crises which confront it without going that far.

Again we are in Chicago, in the stockyards, where the meat king, Pierpoint Mauler, is fighting a life and death struggle with the other meat packers. In the course of this rivalry, thousands are thrown out of work; the Black Straw Hats, an organisation like the Salvation Army, bring soup and God to the stockyards in order to alleviate the misery of the workers. The message is simple – workers are in the condition they are because they have no sense of ‘higher things’; there is no point in trying to improve your conditions on earth because your reward is in heaven.

Happily it has no effect on the workers, who are more concerned with getting work than setting up store in heaven. The apparent failure of their message does have some effect on Joan Dark, a lieutenant in the Black Straw Hats. She is moved to find out why the workers are thrown out onto the streets and seeks out Mauler, the cause of the misery to try and persuade him to do something for the unemployed.

Mauler seems to be impressed by Joan, but is determined to show her that the poor are really wicked and that their conditions and the fact that they are poor is their own fault. Mauler’s henchman, Slift, shows her the poor but it backfires.

If their wickedness is beyond measure, then
So is their poverty. Not the wickedness of the poor
Have you shown me, but
The poverty of the poor.
You’ve shown the evil of the poor to me:
Now see the woes of evil poverty.
O thoughtless rumour, that the poor are base:
You shall be silenced by their stricken face!

Meanwhile the struggle between Mauler and his competitors heightens. Mauler agrees to buy canned meat from them but then buys up all the cattle so that they are unable to meet the contract. More workers are thrown onto the streets – 50,000 wander the stockyards with nothing to do except think, and the smell of revolution is in the air. The real nature of the Black Straw Hats is exposed when Snyder, their leader, speaks to the meat packers

... a story is getting around that unhappiness doesn’t just come like the rain but is made by certain persons who get profit out of it. But we Black Straw Hats try to tell them that unhappiness does come down like the rain and no one knows where from, and that they are destined to suffering and there’s a reward for it at the end of the road.

They maintain the status quo and Snyder asks the bosses to support them with money. Joan clears them out of the meeting hall but is herself kicked out of the Black Straw Hats for her pains. She joins the unemployed in the stockyards.

Mauler has now cornered the market, the packing plants go bust and the small shareholders are ruined. But Mauler has gone too far and the whole system is now threatened with collapse; the lockout of workers produces a call for a General Strike in Chicago – the workers are challenging the power of Mauler and the bosses. Not only the stockyards, but the public utilities in Chicago are supporting the strike and in order to maintain solidarity and prevent the spread of rumours, the strike committee send out letters giving the news to all parts of the stockyards. Joan offers to deliver one, but when she realises that this is the struggle for power between the workers and the bosses and that it might involve violence, she voices her doubts.

What’s done by force cannot be good. I don’t belong with them. If hunger and the tread of misery had taught me violence as a child I would belong to them and ask no questions. But as it is. I must leave.

She does not deliver the letter; the strike collapses, workers are shot and arrested. The bosses are able to pull back from the edge of defeat and reassert their power and Mauler is installed as the president of the newly merged packing plants.

But Joan has changed; she failed the workers at a crucial moment.

Small enough service to a good cause, the only service
Demanded of me my whole life long!
And I did not perform it.

And she is filled with regret and remorse.

The noise of transport is starting again, you can hear it
Another chance to stop it – wasted
Again the world runs
Its ancient course unaltered
When it was possible to change it
I did not come: when it was necessary
That I, little person, should help
I stayed on the sidelines.

The play ends with the meat packers trying to canonise ‘St Joan of the Stockyards’ for her good works among the poor, while the dying Joan denounces them and their system.

Therefore, anyone down here who says there is a God
When none can be seen
A God who can be invisible and yet help them
Should have his head knocked on the pavement
Until he croaks ...

And the ones that tell them they may be raised in spirit
And still be stuck in the mud, they should have their heads
Knocked on the pavement.
Only force helps where force rules
And only men help where men are.

The tragedy will be that few people, and fewer workers, will read these plays; although I hope that this review will send them in their thousands to bookshops to get copies They are a must for any worker’s bookshelf. But a greater tragedy will be that these plays are unlikely to be seen in performance – it is probably too much to expect that the West End will stage productions that are a clarion call to revolution. In any case they would be wasted in the West End; these plays should be in the working men’s clubs, in the occupations and on the picket lines, on the marches of the unemployed and with the fighters against racialism. For it is when they are performed that they are best able to relate to the struggles of today. They are splendidly subversive and there could be no finer tribute to a great Marxist playwright than to see them performed again – the question is who will do it?

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