(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/11.)
I suspect the popular image of theatre in the 30s is one of gilt-edged escapism. In Britain, Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence romped fastidiously through Private Lives and Tonight at 8.30 while Ivor Novello peddled Ruritanian romance in Glamorous Night and Careless Rapture. On Broadway, it was the decade of sublimely frivolous musicals such as Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.
Yet it would be misleading to charge theatre guilty of sticking its head in the sand and ignoring political reality. In Europe and America a surprising number of plays alerted audiences to the danger of fascism; no one was more passionate on the subject than Bertolt Brecht.
He and his family had fled Germany in 1933 after the Reichstag fire and settled in Denmark, where Brecht wrote the 24 short plays that make up Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. They derived from eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports, and today offer theatre’s most vivid account of life under the Nazis. Rarely played in full, they acquired an icy relevance when London’s Union theatre presented a selection of them in 2016.
Photo: American Theater