Brecht and Shaw resonate
during these troubled times
A reflection on the use of mobs and protests in theatre
By Byron Toben
On September 21, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival is scheduled to host nationwide marches in 40 states of the USA. Conceived of back in 1968 by Martin Luther King, it never really was fully realized, despite President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, due to his preoccupation with the Viet Nam war.
In 2019, it was revived and now, figure-headed by Reverend William Butler, it is concentrating on ensuring a large voter turnout before and during the slated day of November 3. Visit poorpeoplescampaign.org/take-action for a list of the simultaneous marches. The one in Kentucky focuses on the state offices of Senate leader Mitch McConnell.
A counterpart movement exists in Canada. Check out Dignity For All: The campaign for a poverty-free Canada.
This massing of poor and desperate bodies called to mind The Three Penny Opera, the watershed 1928 play by Berthold Brecht with music by Kurt Weill based on John Gay’s 1728 play, The Beggar’s Opera. Three hundred years after Gay, the cyclical economic boom and bust forces were at play again as the Great Depression gathered strength.
Key to the plot was the plan by J.J. Peacham, the king of the beggars, to threaten a royal coronation procession by having hundreds of down and outers, costumed with fake eye patches, crutches and wooden legs, line the route and cause embarrassment, unless a large payment is made. There, the threat was a sort of blackmail, whereas the present day’s marches are for social justice, so I do not equate the two but only mention, as a theatre reviewer, that the use of marches comes to mind.
(By the way, monotone me can only sing one song decently and that is the Mack the Knife dirge from Three Penny, in both English and German. I am available and work cheaply – a Guinness will do.)
Another timely play is the 1937 On The Rocks by G. Bernard Shaw. There, mobs are coalescing, political parties are splintering, and a police chief mentions that sometimes it is good to kill a protester.
I saw an adaptation of this play into a Canadian setting at the 2011 Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake. My review of that show was posted in the late lamented Charlebois Post.
Having now added Brecht and Shaw to my list of playwrights who have plays evoking Trump’s Turbulent Times (ours, too but couldn’t resist the triple alliteration), I invite viewers to add others that I may have overlooked.
My list so far is Shakespeare (4), Molière, Ibsen, Shaw (2), Brecht and Jarry.
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.