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From a Tot to a Teen in 1960's Oxfordshire

Ian Ralph Huckin

CHIPPING NORTON GRAMMAR SCHOOL
The one thing that I really did enjoy at Bigger school, was the school plays. Mainly, I suppose, because I was a show-off. I usually had a small part, and in 1970 we put on a performance of a play called "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui", by Berthold Brecht. I played a character called 'Young Dogsborough'.

I have included, on the following pages, a scathing, and somewhat unfair, review from a local paper, which is printed pretty much verbatim. The only thing missing from the original are the names that were included, and the spelling mistakes. Well, as I said, it was a LOCAL paper! It was only after reading this article, that I realised quite what the consequences of this performance were. And how a critics mind worked. He missed out the important part - how good the acting was. Because it was extremely well performed. Was this the forerunner of Political Correctness? You Judge!

JUST HOW FUNNY WAS HITLER'S RISE TO POWER?

A FRIGHTENINGLY realistic final scene - which was as unfunny as the rest of the story kept the packed audience spellbound when on Friday and Saturday pupils of Chipping Norton School presented Berthold Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui." The action, shown in 15 scenes, a prologue and an epilogue depicted the rise of Hitler from the early days of the Nazi party to the annexation of Austria.
But, in this case, Hitler and his Henchmen are shown as Chicago gangsters engaged in a protection racket.
The Party is "The Syndicate" and the mugs are the cauliflower merchants. The historical parallel was shown by large captions at the side of the stage before each scene.
For this performance, the producer did not use the conventional stage, but a raised podium running along the right hand side of the hall. This was extended into the auditorium to bring the action closer to the audience .There is no doubt that the use of this vast space was very dramatic and brought the players into close contact with the onlookers.

MISNOMER?
I feel nevertheless, compelled to criticise the play on two counts. Firstly the billing as a comedy was surely a misnomer, unless my sense of humour has suddenly deserted me. The laughs of the audience were mainly due to the reference to cauliflowers in the context of the sombre happenings on the stage.
What is the authors real intention? Is he trying to blame the rest of the world for the infamous happenings of the time? This is true in the sense that society is to blame for the Tariq Ali's of this world because it let them get on with it. But, was it funny? Hitlers crimes were as unfunny as Cromwell's rape of Wexford.
Perhaps a company of professional actors might have been able to make the villains look funny - a tall task for schoolboys.

The actors were very nearly word perfect and if they occasionally slipped up, very cleverly improvised to get themselves out of trouble. Some individual performances were very good and I thought that the out-of-work actor (name omitted) giving Hitler lessons in deportment was outstandingly well portrayed.
What a pity the enormous effort and enthusiasm which the actors and teachers must have put into their work could not have been applied to one of the comedies of which English literature abounds.

REGRETTABLE?
It is even more regrettable, because the presentation of the play coincided with a good-will exchange visit of German boys and girls and their English teacher from Noerdingen. Their reaction to the play was "politely" not-committal.

In a separate part of the newspaper in the same issue:

PLAY CHOICE IN BAD TASTE?
THE choice of subject for the school play last weekend raised an eyebrow when it was realised that it coincided with a visit of a German school party. Comments made to the scribe varied from "bad taste" and "thoughtlessness" to "extraordinary". The German party on the other hand kept diplomatically silent. Let us hope that if we decide on a goodwill exchange visit from Stalingrad someone will not dig up a play about the evils of Bolshevism.

I have to get on my Soapbox here. It was a BLACK comedy. OK, I admit, the subject is not funny. But was Henry the Eighth's decapitation of his wives? That did not stop the 'Carry On' team making a comedy of it.
And what about 'Hogans Heroes'? Is life in a POW camp funny?
As for the raised podium, the stage was simply not big enough to hold this production, without an enormous amount of scene shifting. It would have lengthened the play by nearly an hour. Over 30 years later, I still get b..... angry reading this review.

In the Letters section the following week, these were printed. The first was unsolicited by the school. The second was from several teachers. I have left all the writers names off.

Next Time Billy Bunter's Christmas Circus ?

To The Editor

Sir, - May I reply to your critic's remarks on Chipping Norton School's production of "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui." Incidentally why does he write in anonymity? Brecht, a German playwright, is one of the most important and influential figures in the contemporary theatre. It is within the bounds of probability that the German visitors knew what they would be seeing. To criticise the presentation of a play of this stature on grounds of taste is incredible. The murder of three million Jews was not particularly tasteful. If only a few come to see that we have within us the capacity to permit such frightfulness, errors of taste become irrelevant. The play was presented with understanding and imagination and the teacher/ producer is to be congratulated on the use of Brecht's alienation effect whereby we are encouraged to remain outside what is happening on the stage and to judge critically and form our own conclusions. The production showed Brecht's stature as a dramatist and dramatic thinker. Who knows, but that this production, helped some of the young people in the audience - German or British - (what does it matter) to understand, even if they cannot forgive us, for permitting the resistible rise of Adolph Hitler. Clearly this type of play is disturbing so perhaps we can persuade the school to present Billy Bunter's Christmas Circus next time.

Yours etc.,


Sir,

We feel it incumbent upon us to comment on the remarks made in the March 26th edition of your paper about the presentation of Berthold Brecht's "he Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui."

Your reviewer has made what we consider is an unjustified assumption, on behalf of the German Party, regarding their reaction to the play. We do not consider that it was in bad taste to do it while the students were here. Indeed it would have been an insult to withdraw the play merely because they were coming. They know the relevant facts from their up-to-date history books, whose writers go out of the way to reveal Hitler for what he was. This was fully understood by the Germans who chose to come and see the play. As regards the play itself, it is written by a German playwright of international repute, who's plays are prescribed text for 'A' level and BA Honours. It is therefore a compliment rather than an insult to perform one.

In "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui." Brecht's main point, stressed in the programme notes and the publicity for the play, was that those who commit great crimes are not great themselves. The intention was to reveal Hitler for the petty criminal he was. His rise was resistible for that very reason. This is the central purport for the play, to reduce him satirically from a diabolical figure to someone without an aura of greatness. Your reviewer stated that the play was billed as a 'comedy'. Nowhere was it styled a comedy, Hitler is made comic in the sense of being ridiculous, through the rich irony of the play, which your reviewer does not seem to have appreciated. It is precisely this irony that shows up the crimes as horrifying. We all might have resisted him, and could resist any other similar tyrant who might arise - as Brecht's warning epilogue makes clear.
Yours etc.

Editor's note : It was not our critic's wish to remain anonymous. His initials should have appeared at the foot of the column. The omission was not his, but ours. There is a case for not embarrassing one's guests especially when those were far too young to bear any blame for their countrymen's past actions. No-one doubts Brecht's work - just the timing.

The following year we did Hamlet. I got a bigger part, as Osric. A classic and quaint little story about murder, death, ghosts and destruction. So much more suitable for schoolboys (and girls)! Good job we didn't have a Danish contingent that year! But, of course, that was Shakespeare. And he was British!

"Simpler Then" can be obtained directly from Ian Ralph Huckin ISBN 0-9541235-0-6