Great Lives, Radio 4
Fu Manchu in Edinburgh, Radio 4
That's the theatre for you – all socks and violence
Sunday 11 April 2010
German political theatre: three words likely to quicken the pulse of only the hardest of hardcore culture vultures. Its greatest practitioner, Bertolt Brecht, however, felt that going to the theatre should be like watching a big sporting event: "The business of the theatre, as of all art, has always been to entertain. It is this business which gives theatre its special standing. It needs no further justification than fun. And the fun should be unrestrained."
I don't think he meant just on stage, either. The cigar-chomping womaniser was the subject of the first of the returning Great Lives, championed by John Godber, founder of the Hull Truck Theatre Company (and Britain's third most performed playwright, apparently, behind Shakespeare and Ayckbourn). A programme with that title naturally prompts the question: was the life as great as the work? Brecht may have opened up new theatrical vistas but he was an infuriating old dog, usually with at least three mistresses on the go (and, what's worse, doing the business in his socks and long johns). For Godber, there is a line not to be crossed when contemplating one's heroes. "That's a part of Brecht that I've bleached out," he said.
Potentially more damning, in a professional sense, is the theory that Brecht's mistresses, whom he clearly chose very carefully, supplied much of the material that went into his plays. But expert witness Michael Patterson is relaxed about such charges, likening Brecht to Shakespeare, another "enlightened thief". He's also not fussed about the allegation that for all Brecht's hatred of tyranny he went soft on Stalin once the East German government had set him up in his own theatre. Godber is less forgiving: "A writer, even if he's working in subsidised theatre, needs to reserve the right to bite the hand that feeds him."
All I know about the life of Sax Rohmer, a near contemporary of Brecht, is that he was a Brummie who died of bird flu. Of which he might have been cured had his celebrated creation, Fu Manchu, actually existed: the criminal mastermind, bent on liberating China from the predations of the West, was an expert in the chemical properties of plants, though generally concerned more with harming than healing.
The conceit on which Fu Manchu in Edinburgh was based was that he did exist. We know from the books that he had three doctorates, including one from the University of Edinburgh, and Miles Jupp, a fellow alumnus, hunted down "traces" of the doctor's time there.
What emerged was a fascinating period snapshot. In 1870s Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson rubbed shoulders with Arthur Conan Doyle, who was being instructed in medicine by Joseph Bell, the inspiration for a certain detective who might profitably have done battle with Fu Manchu had their authors pooled resources. Britain, meanwhile, was dealing with its first immigrants from China, a country just beginning to flex its muscles. We felt there was much to fear from "the yellow peril". No change there, then.
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