warning: in the essay below, i will make my political views unabashedly known, make a controversial comparison, expound upon an idea not originally my own, and rant on politics, history, and literature ALL AT THE SAME TIME and it’s gonna be epic.
in my seminar on epic theater, we recently read berthold brecht’s play der aufhaltsame aufstieg des arturo ui, which parodies the political rise of hitler as the story of a small, somewhat inept but unambitious chicago gangster attempting to take over the chicago vegetable market. the small-time crook, ui, is portrayed as a bumbling, somewhat discontented criminal surrounded by powerful friends (ernesto roma, the stand-in for ernst röhm, famously later purged from hitler’s government) who push him to the front of their political movement by taking advantage of a crippled economy and corruption and back-room dealings by the cauliflower trust (the prussian junkers) and the weak inter-war government (the barman dogsborough, standing in for the last inter-war president, hindenberg). one major flaw of the play (in my humble opinion) is that it fails to take into account the sort of mass flocking to the national socialist cause, which is undeniably also an important factor in considering hitler’s rise to power.
brecht’s play was only rarely performed during his lifetime, but was recently performed on broadway, starring al pacino as ui; this, if you ask me, was the director’s first mistake, as pacino comes to the stage with far more street cred and gangsta bad-assery than ui really should have. a new york times review criticized the play for being a little heavy-handed in its allegorical connotations (rightly so, ugh). at any rate, reviewers of the play also criticized the play for making inappropriately salient certain comparisons between hitler’s rise / the early fascist years in germany and george w. bush’s two terms as president.
i’ve heard these comparisons tossed about liberally (pun intended) by various friends and classmates, especially at nice, safe, liberal middlebury. accusations of rampant cronyism, lack of transparency, a bipolar attitude towards incendiary nationalism, and global imperialist intentions were hurled with some abandon. to be perfectly clear, i was never a fan of the bush regime or just about anything it did. yet i feel that these comparisons are more incendiary than apt, and make other, more appropriate criticisms of the regime seem laughable.
ANYWAY. the point of this post was that my rather batty yet occasionally perspicacious seminar professor observed, in an unguarded moment, that ui’s rise is better compared to the rise of america’s favorite hockey mom, sarah palin.
i was a little shocked when i heard this. you compare sarah palin to arturo ui, you compare her to hitler. it’s a little harsh for anyone who hasn’t recently committed an assortment of crimes against humanity. but the more i thought about it, the more true the comment rang. (please don’t tell her i said that; i more or less live to antagonize this particular professor this quarter, and baiting her has become my favorite sport.) think about it…
arturo ui, as i said, is a small-time crook (hitler was a virtually unknown politician; palin was, famously, governor of alaska). in the play and in its real life, sadly less slapstick counterpart storyline, he is shored up by powerful, ambitious friends (cough-johnmccain-cough). there is even a scene where ernesto roma encourages ui to take elocution lessons: picture charlie chaplin playing the part of gene kelly in singin’ in the rain. but anyway, i realized that what brecht’s play is portraying is, for the most part, the part of the story before most of america started quipping, “i can see russia from my house!” the powerful friends making a small but ambitious politician the (church picnic casserole-ing, lipstick-wearing, hockey mom-in) face of a movement? it does sound a little familiar…
what happens after the curtain falls on arturo ui? that once bumbling gangster goes on to incite hundreds of thousands of people, through a sense of national history (the swastika is an ancient germanic rune; andrew romano recently wrote an excellent piece for newsweek about how sarah palin’s movement has made use of a different iconic symbol of cultural heritage) and in the face of a struggling economy, to cling to farther right politics than either of their countries (i mean… vegetable markets) had seen in years.
it’s easy to throw stones at the bush administration. in hindsight, there were a number of major cockups, and the close calls in both elections made his time in power that much more heavily derided by his opposition. but history does repeat itself, potentially in moose-shooting, star-dancing ways that we might never have expected.