Bertolt back where he didn't belong

Andrew Gumbel on a historic visit to America by the Berliner Ensemble

Bertolt Brecht would surely have relished the irony. After 50 years of Cold War animosity and deep-rooted anti-Americanism, the theatre company he founded as a vehicle for his revolutionary dramatic ideas, the Berliner Ensemble, has been playing to packed houses in Los Angeles on its first visit to the US.

Here, in the city where Brecht spent a miserable six-year exile during the Second World War, one of his most radical works - The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui - has attracted an enthusiastic, incongruously eclectic crowd, from daytime soap-opera actors to dolled-up German expatriates in distinctly un-Brechtian evening regalia.

One might say history has come full circle, with the Berliner Ensemble at last settling an unfinished piece of business by bringing its considerable talents to a country that has never seen them, and Los Angeles embracing a playwright it cold-shouldered when he came begging for work in Hollywood in the 1940s.

Except that this first-time visit is also the last: once the final curtain goes down at the University of California's Freud Playhouse tonight, the Berliner Ensemble will cease to exist since the company is to regroup under new management and a new name at the end of the summer. The US is not just the end of the Cold War for the troupe: it is the end of the road.

It seems, in one way, an astonishing choice of finale. After all, Brecht founded the Berliner Ensemble as a visceral reaction to all he had disapproved of in the US, and for its first 40 years the company was considered a pillar of the East German artistic establishment, a bulwark in the cultural wars between East and West.

And yet the decision has a certain compelling logic. In its heyday, the Berliner Ensemble was startlingly influential well beyond the confines of the Iron Curtain. American theatre, too, became steeped in Brecht's epics of the common man and his theories of dialectic exchange between audiences and the unfolding action. On the rocky road that the Ensemble has travelled since the fall of the Wall, the US was one last big hill left to climb.

And so they came, first to Berkeley and then, for four nights, to Los Angeles. The production is one of the company's biggest hits from the past decade, a version of Ui heavily reworked by the late director Heiner Muller, and featuring a virtuoso performance by Martin Wuttke as the small- time Chicago gangster whose conquest of the local cauliflower racket mirrors Hitler's rise to power.

Curiously, Brecht had intended Ui for American audiences, hoping the transplanted action would demonstrate how fascism knows no national boundaries. He brought the play with him when he arrived from Finland in 1941 and finished it in his house near the beach in Santa Monica waiting for a screen-writing contract.

If Ui failed to find a stage in the US - it was first performed in Stuttgart in 1958, two years after Brecht's death - it reflected a wider malaise that afflicted Brecht in his six years in the Californian sun. In a famous poem, he said Shelley was wrong to compare Hell to London because it was really much more like Los Angeles. "Here you feel like Francis of Assisi in an aquarium," he wrote, "a chrysanthemum in a coal mine, a sausage in a greenhouse."

He found his fellow German expatriates insufferable and the movie industry a giant racket, a "marketplace of lies". His socially conscious morality tales found little resonance with the big studio bosses, and the one screenwriting credit he earned - for Fritz Lang's excellent thriller about the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, Hangmen Also Die - he disowned as a vulgarity based only loosely on his original ideas.

When Brecht arrived he was so poor his family relied on handouts from friends and accepted clothes from the Salvation Army. As he was preparing to leave, he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington as an unfriendly witness suspected of Communist sympathies. That was an ordeal he handled brilliantly, appearing to give full co-operation while saying nothing about himself or anyone else. "They weren't as bad as the Nazis," he said wrily. "The Nazis would never have let me smoke." He left for Switzerland the next day.

Brecht got more out of the US than he might have liked to admit. It was there that he wrote many of his masterpieces, including The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Life of Galileo, which premiered in Los Angeles in 1947 with Charles Laughton in the title role. The American connection, though, was one that the Berliner Ensemble was keen to forget as it ploughed its way through the Cold War period reverently churning out a solid diet of Brecht to the East German intelligentsia.

The detente has been slow. Last week the mayor of Los Angeles, Dick Riordan, tried to make up for the rough reception his city gave Brecht all those years ago by issuing an official pronouncement praising his contributions to humanity. Martin Wuttke's acceptance speech was bittersweet, at best. "This is a great tribute to Brecht," he said. "But it's a bit late for him."

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