U-M’s "Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" draws parallels with current events


The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is Bertolt Brecht's satire of Hitler and organized crime set in 1930s Chicago.

He drew support from working class people by appealing to their fears and their prejudices in a time of economic strife. He went into angry rants blaming minorities for all the country’s problems. He encouraged his supporters at rallies to punch out those who protested against him. He came to power in an unusual though legal way, while claiming the support of the nation. He pushed a philosophy of racial and ethnic superiority. He told the crowds that “I and I alone can make this nation great again.”

He was Adolph Hitler.

German playwright Bertolt Brecht left Germany shortly after Hitler was appointed chancellor by Weimar Republic President Paul Hindenburg in 1931, but his disdain for the Nazi movement grew.

Brecht moved from one European city to another before settling in Copenhagen, Denmark. He wrote against the Nazi regime and played with an idea for a play ridiculing Hitler. In 1941, while waiting for a visa to the United States, Brecht completed The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

In the play, Brecht imagined Adolf Hitler and his henchmen as Al Capone and his gang in rough-and-tumble 1930s Chicago. The satire imagines Ui and his gang of thugs bullying their way to the control of The Cauliflower Trust. The events in the play mirror events in Nazi Germany. The comedy was broad but Brecht’s point was deadly serious.

Though always intended for an American audience, the play wasn’t produced in the U.S. until 1961. Recent events in the United States have given Brecht’s satirical allegory new life.

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance is presenting Brecht’s play, Oct. 5-8 and Oct. 12-15 at the Arthur Miller Theatre and director Malcolm Tulip sees parallels with the rise of Donald Trump but wants to engage the audience is a broader discussion.

Tulip said last year’s presidential campaign rhetoric made Brecht’s play appropriate for the times and the early stages of Trump’s administration have only increased the play’s immediacy.

“When Charlottesville happened, it was really out there with the Nazi symbols, the far right symbols, it became more and more relevant,” Tulip said. “People say, 'Well, you’re doing this because of Trump,' and I say, 'No. We’re doing the play because we’re asking the question how does a mass of people put a person in power when that person might not work in the best interests of the mass of people?' I think Brecht was looking at that, too. It wasn’t just about Hitler but about the people who put Hitler in power.”

Tulip said he wasn’t on any level equating Hitler with Trump anymore than Brecht was equating Hitler with Al Capone.

“It was a good matrix, a good framework to use,” Tulip said. “I feel that our audiences are intelligent enough to recognize the echoes, so we don’t want to ram it down their throats with the characterizations.”

Tulip said his student cast has done a lot of background work on the source of the play. He said it’s a little like working with Brecht’s company in that many cast members are left of center and sympathetic with the play’s themes.

“It’s not our policy to exclude anybody in our casting,” Tulip said. “Our cast does tend to be more social-justice members.”

Jesse Aaronson has the title role of Arturo Ui.

“I spent a lot of the summer researching Hitler, “ he said. “I read parts of Mein Kampf, which was very difficult reading -- one because it’s poorly written; the translation I read focused on how Hitler wrote it, which was mad scrawlings. I watched a lot of gangster films from Machine Gun Kelly to The Untouchables to The Godfather and found inspiration from other movies about fanaticism like The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie.”

Aaron said he has tried to humanize Hitler.

“With Hitler, you can’t pass him off as a madman,” Aaronson said. “He was very successful, he had the support of the people most of the time, and figuring out why that happened and how it happened has been a really interesting part of the process for me.”

Aaronson said Hitler tried to appeal to those he saw as “the little people.”

“He was going to make Germany great again, he was the original make-the-country-great-again, he really was,” Aaronson said. “He toured the country and said to the people, 'I’m the guy for you.'”

Liliana Talwatte is the dramaturge for the production.

“I’ve been doing the research, researching Hitler and also researching what parallels there are between Trump becoming president and Hitler’s rise to be the leader of the Third Reich,” she said. “We’re looking at different parallels, not necessarily for the parallels themselves but what they meant. When talking about Hitler’s hatred of the communists, a parallel might be the terrorists’ attacks on France and Trump’s anti-Muslim policies. And we’re also looking at the symbolism of Nazism.”

Tulip said one unusual aspect of the production is that while the five characters of Arturo and his immediate group are male, all the other parts are played by women, including the male parts. Also, the actors often play more than one part.

Lauren Balone, Shaunie Lewis, and Annamarie Kasper each play two roles.

Balone starts the show off as the emcee, who introduces the characters with cabaret-style razzle-dazzle and then returns as Rags.

“I’ve been researching vaudeville performances and getting into the music and kind of the spectacle of it,” she said.

Rags makes one appearance in the show and raised some modern concerns with Balone.

“He’s like a sleazy reporter who tries to push for a story,” she said. “I did some thinking about more mainstream corporate media and today it’s not just about finding real stories.”

She said Rags is unaware of the impact of his actions and where they will lead.

Lewis plays a shipyard owner where the corruption begins and a victim of Ui’s justice.

“I also play Fish, which is the one closest to my heart,” she said. “Fish is wrongly accused of arson and in the entire scene he is drugged and he doesn’t have the capability of defending himself, using his words or his intelligence to get him out of the situation he’s in. I think it’s interesting looking at the racial situation we have today and during the time of Hitler’s rise that compares to Trump’s rise.”

Annamarie Kasper plays O’Casey, a dogged investigator digging into the corruption of Ui and his gang and also plays Betty Dullfeet, the wife of an Ui rival in Cicero who is killed by Ui.

“Betty comes in later and I think it is interesting that they are both characters of resistance to Ui,” Kasper said. “She represents her husband, believes her people should be treated fairly, and it ends up killing him despite my standing up to Ui. It’s interesting to see people stand up for what they believe to be true and what is right and see how things can turn out. It’s scary.”

The students believe the play offers some hope in the face of authoritarian forces.

“The title is ‘The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui’ and this was never inevitable,” said Balone. “You see throughout the play -- as Annamarie was saying -- all these characters saying it isn’t right and we should be doing something and others saying, ‘No, no, no, it will never grow into fascism,’ and that is what I want people to recognize walking out of the theater that there are all these little characters who vanish and you don’t want to be that little voice that vanishes.”

Lewis said the history of Hitler can instruct audiences to the dangers he represented.

“We can change this, we don’t have to repeat the same cycle, and the avenue to change comes from knowledge and it comes from the release of ignorance and glossing over the events that don’t directly affect us," Lewis said. “I hope the audience gets a broader sense of the world and take action.”

Despite the serious intent, Tulip said Arturo Ui is a comedy in the Brechtian tradition.

“When he was directing, it didn’t matter if it was tragic or comedic; if he liked what he saw, his response was laughter,” Tulip said.

The set design by Tulip and his collaborator, Vince Mountain, is spare with few props and no references to Chicago or Germany; it will instead emphasize the theater setting.

“We’re putting canvas on the floor,” Tulip said. “Brecht loved the idea of theater being like a boxing ring and that the audience can eat peanuts, drink beer, and smoke cigars, and that it’s not exclusive or elitist.”


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


"The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" will be stage at 7:30 pm on Oct. 5 and 12; 8 pm on Oct. 6. 7, 13, and 14; and 2 pm on Oct. 8 and 15 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the north campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets, call 734-764-2538, visit tickets.smtd.umich.edu, or in person at The League Ticket Office at Fletcher and N. University, 9 am to 5 pm Monday-Friday and 10 am to 1 pm on Saturday.