The 1930s revisited
From Brecht to Lorca, the playwrights who became theatre’s freedom fighters
It’s wrong to characterise 1930s theatre as escapist or frivolous. In Europe and America, many plays were alerting audiences to the dangers of fascism – led by the German fugitive Bertolt Brecht
Photo: Orson Welles (right) as Brutus in his 1937 New York production of Julius Caesar, in which Caesar is ‘the embodiment of black-shirted dictatorship’. Photograph: Mercury Theatre/Rex/Shutterstock
Saturday 11 March 2017 14.00 GMT
I suspect the popular image of theatre in the 30s is one of gilt-edged escapism. In Britain, Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence romped fastidiously through Private Lives and Tonight at 8.30 while Ivor Novello peddled Ruritanian romance in Glamorous Night and Careless Rapture. On Broadway, it was the decade of sublimely frivolous musicals such as Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.
Yet it would be misleading to charge theatre guilty of sticking its head in the sand and ignoring political reality. In Europe and America a surprising number of plays alerted audiences to the danger of fascism; no one was more passionate on the subject than Bertolt Brecht.
He and his family had fled Germany in 1933 after the Reichstag fire and settled in Denmark, where Brecht wrote the 24 short plays that make up Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. They derived from eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports, and today offer theatre’s most vivid account of life under the Nazis. Rarely played in full, they acquired an icy relevance when London’s Union theatre presented a selection of them in 2016.
Photo: Bertolt Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich offers theatre’s most vivid account of life under the Nazis. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
If any one of these pieces stands out today, it is Judicial Process, in which a judge is reduced to a quivering wreck as he prepares to try a case in which a group of stormtroopers attacked and robbed a Jewish jeweller. He is reminded at one point that the minister to whom he is answerable has officially declared that “Justice is what serves the German people best”: substitute the word “American” for “German” and it is a sentiment President Trump would clearly endorse.
Brecht provides a memorable montage of life in Nazi Germany where parents live in terror of being denounced by their son and where a Jewish wife, in order to protect her gentile husband, leaves him on the pretence of taking a holiday. Far from being preachy and simplistic, Brecht proves to be pungent and complex.
Brecht dubbed Fear and Misery “a documentary play”. But in 30s theatre, there were multiple approaches to the subject of fascism. Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba deals with a tyrannical matriarch who rules over her five daughters with a will of iron. As David Hare wrote when his translation was staged at the National in 2005, the play is not offering a timeless, literary version of Spain but a palpable political metaphor: Lorca finished writing the play in June 1936, and by August he had been murdered by supporters of Franco.
Photo: Federico García Lorca was murdered by supporters of General Franco in 1936. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features
The classics were also appropriated to warn against fascism. In 1937, Orson Welles staged a famous Julius Caesar for New York’s Mercury theatre in which Brutus became “the eternal, impotent, ineffectual, fumbling liberal” (Welles’s words), and Caesar the embodiment of black-shirted dictatorship.
Even in Chamberlain’s Britain, theatre sent up its own alarm signals. Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance, first produced in 1939 and strongly revived at the National in 2010 with Benedict Cumberbatch, showed the generation of Bright Young Things sleepwalking to catastrophe. As one character observes, people ran away from reality after the last war. “The awful thing is,” he adds, “we’re still running away.”
It is no accident that all these plays have enjoyed recent revivals, or that Julius Caesar looks set to be the fashionable Shakespeare of 2017 (I know of at least three upcoming productions): we clearly find echoes of our own fears and concerns in the theatre of the past.
Just as no one can be sure where the global economy is heading, there were a number of plays in the 30s that questioned the very nature of capitalism. Given that America was in the throes of the Great Depression, it is unsurprising that several of them came from the US. Indeed, then-leftwing writers such as John Dos Passos, John Howard Lawson and Mike Gold, who had their plays produced in Greenwich Village, were dubbed by the critic Alexander Woollcott “the revolting playwrights”.
Photo: Publicity for Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty
Astonishingly, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty ended up on Broadway
Out of this maelstrom of activity, one work had a vividly direct impact. This was Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which was produced by the Group Theatre in 1935 and, astonishingly, wound up on Broadway. The play depicts a meeting of unionised taxi drivers who, while awaiting the return of their committeeman, Lefty Costello, are addressed by various speakers who attack the corruption of capitalism. In early performances, there was even a scene in which a young actor discusses the Communist Manifesto, declaring: “The militant will inherit the Earth.”
The big moment came at the end when, after news arrived that Lefty had been murdered, the cast led the audience up the aisles and into the lobbies chanting “Strike! Strike! Strike!” It was arguably the most revolutionary gesture in the history of US theatre: the sad sequel was that when the play was revived by political groups all over the country, the cast was often arrested. Today, presumably, they’d be subject to presidential tweets.
British theatre was not above questioning the capitalist system. We tend to think of JB Priestley as a comfortable, middlebrow dramatist. But when his 1935 play, Cornelius, was revived by London’s Finborough theatre in 2012, it proved to contain a passionate tirade against the international capitalist network that turns the world of small business into a “lunatics’ obstacle race”. Two years before, in 1933, George Bernard Shaw’s On the Rocks had shown the Liberal head of a British coalition government advocating a programme of wholesale nationalisation: not, sadly, a prospect one can easily imagine today.
Even this brief survey suggests that 1930s theatre, far from being myopically escapist or irrelevant, was capable of addressing urgent topics such as the rise of European fascism and the contradictions of capitalism. And if one masterwork of the decade seems more timely than ever, it is The Life of Galileo, which Brecht began writing in 1937.
In it, he shows Galileo querying the existing cosmic order and being forced to abjure his theories under threat of torture. In the light of the atomic bomb, Brecht revised the play postwar to make it an even more direct statement about the moral responsibility of the scientist.
Given that the current US president disputes the hard evidence of climate change, I can’t think of a more prescient play for today – one which proves that 30s theatre had depth-charge impact.