Fear and Misery of the Third Reich in the New Theatre
Brecht’s touching and profound collection of sketches, portraying the morally defunct and distressing realities of the Nazi regime in Germany, was movingly and cleverly reproduced in the New Theatre.
The directors used the sound system to great effect throughout the play – pre-recorded narration opened and closed the performance, as well as the use of music, sound effects and of course the most effective background noise – silence. It is testament to the effective direction and acting that the silence on stage was reproduced in the audience. The tension and shock factor Brecht sought to produce found its place in this production, which left its audience in an emotionally fragile state, with questions running through their minds and an increased heart-rate. One member of the audience was even moved to leave in tears.
Brecht left Germany before the Second World War as a result of his rejection of the Nazi regime. Fear and Misery is the first of his openly anti-Nazi works. It was first performed in 1938 and was one of the first major plays to use a style of performing Brecht called ‘epic theatre’. This technique distanced the audience from the characters and was used to drive home the play’s message. One aspect of this distancing came in the form of unidentifiable characters, seen in the New Theatre’s production through the use of face paint, basic patchwork costumes and one scene merging into the next. The seamless skipping between scenes and characters was at some points confusing but overall contributed to the sense of a society that has lost all structure, morality and reality. The stage was also very bare and few props were used, the focus being on the dialogue and the political and social import – and often the irony – of what the characters were saying and experiencing.
The actors themselves reacted to and assisted the material in an effective and affecting way. One scene, in which an old lady retches into a bucket after her daughter is seized by SA patrollers, left the audience physically affected, while another scene cleverly showed a judge being pulled in conflicting directions regarding how best to serve justice. The physical representation of his mental plight was gripping and, despite being one of the longer scenes of the play, sustained the tension throughout.
Many of the points raised in the play could be applied to any society – not just a Nazi-led anti-Jew one. Brecht raises questions about power, who has power, how this power affects those who have it, and how power can impact morality in society and all those who come into contact with it.
Fear and Misery is a shocking portrayal of the dismissal of human dignity and worth, but it is one that unfortunately can still teach us lessons.