All of us are stressed about midterms, essays, and other assignments. We all have seemingly gargantuan amounts of anxiety in our lives, but in comparison with the anxiety surrounding the social conditions of Germany in the 1930s, our stresses seem insubstantial.
Illustrating this is the first theatre production of the year here at the U of R, entitled Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, which begins on October 31.
Directed by Kelley Handerek, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich differs greatly from the last play that Handerek directed here at the University of Regina.
“For myself, the last production that I did here last year was Much Ado About Nothing, and it was a buoyant, lovely kind of romp in Shakespeare land with all the chattiness, and we had great fun doing it. So, it’s time for us to attack something that has a connectedness with the true world,” said Handerek.
“For people who have just been working in the fabrication of imagination in Shakespeare and comedy to go to some of this gritty, truthful realism, or try to unearth and excavate the human psyche of what it’s like to live in a time where you could be sold out by your son, or that your neighbour could sell you out, and within an evening’s night you could be taken away and shot or taken to a concentration camp. It gives our students the opportunity for a juxtaposition.”
Written by Bertolt Brecht and first performed in 1938, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich depicts various aspects of life under Nazi rule in Germany during the 1930s. The play’s shocking content isn’t the only thing that makes Fear and Misery a fascinating play though. Its form varies greatly from traditional theatrical works.
To understand this play, you’ll need to disregard everything you’ve learned in your English classes about the five-part structure of a narrative. This isn’t to say that Fear and Misery doesn’t tell a cohesive story, but its structure is severely different compared to traditional narratives.
“This technique, although we haven’t seen much of it in Saskatchewan – we don’t get to see theatre like this – really reshaped the modern theatre and created deconstruction,” said Handerek.
Handerek believes the deconstruction involved in Fear and Misery will leave the audience both “entertained and confused, which is what Brecht would like”.
“Bertolt Brecht tried to smash what theatre was in its time, to dissolve the over-connectedness that the audience had with narrative. So, he wants these small slivers of light that break across the darkness of the theatre to create an understanding of the world on a political level and on a worldview level,” said Handerek.
This is done by creating a play that compiles a number of scenes not connected by plot, but nonetheless unified in their content. Instead of a traditional exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution revolving around a more or less stable group of characters, each scene features characters and scenarios not unrelated in terms of a grand narrative.
“What instead he did is jump-cut scenes to give us just the climax of the scene or the interior psychology of lives interspersed then with interludes … [which] name the scene and then give a kind of poetic poke at the scene coming up,” said Handerek.
“[I]magine a time where you woke up in the middle of the night, and you looked across the street, and all of a sudden your neighbours are no longer there, and the lights were out for two weeks, and your best friend from across the way was taken out. We don’t understand that in our lives, and hopefully we never have to.” – Kelley Handerek
Moreover, with different characters in each scene there is no star of the show. In good socialist fashion, everyone shares the spotlight.
“With these interludes, he actually broke up what was the perfect three act play, and he got rid of things like the central character. He believed in an absolute ensemble, that every single person’s contribution, from the man or the woman who cleaned and washed the stage, was just as important as any actor,” said Handerek.
Additionally, the removal of the central character allows for the audience to decide (or attempt to decide) on who the protagonists and antagonists are in each scene.
“He doesn’t actually try to tell a lesson or give a so-called idea to the play. He says, ‘You decide’. Everyone in these plays is not just good or evil; they are both good and evil,” said Handerek.
The director also remarked how accepting the historical paradigms in Fear and Misery proved challenging for the cast. The thought that you could be fiercely punished for the slightest deviation in behaviour, thought, speech, or action is almost unfathomable for most who have had the privilege to never experience such a thing.
“The challenge is to say to someone who’s 22 and has grown up in the security of Canada, in that love of freedom that we have, of our social structure, in our freedom of speech, and all our basic freedoms–now imagine a time where you woke up in the middle of the night, and you looked across the street, and all of a sudden your neighbours are no longer there, and the lights were out for two weeks, and your best friend from across the way was taken out. We don’t understand that in our lives, and hopefully we never have to. But to bring us all towards an empathy toward that has been an interesting journey,” said Handerek.
While Fear and Misery of the Third Reich promises to be an enjoyable two hours or so, don’t expect to leave the theatre smiling. The play is titled Fear and Misery for a reason; it is a desolate piece of work. Handerek correctly notes “there is both more humour in some of the darkness,” but nevertheless there is “more darkness than we think surrounding some of it”. And, as I sat down in the rehearsal space just before the cast began a run through of the play, I was solemnly warned by one of the actors, “You’re going to cry”.
“[The audience is] going to be taken on a journey that they’re maybe not used to, about what happens to people if we don’t question power, if we don’t bring question to authority. Also, what happens if we just allow government to roll on with plans and not have a belief in the wholeness of a state and the good of all. What’s interesting about this piece is it does have political question marks all over it; it doesn’t have answers … It’s a play that we probably need to tell ourselves the story of again.”
Fear and Misery of the Third Reich runs from October 31 until November 3, and again from November 8 to 10 with all the shows beginning at 7:30. Tickets for adults are $15, student and senior tickets are $10, and all U of R students can get in for free with a valid student ID.