“I do not allow my feelings to flow into the theatrical embodiment,” Bertolt Brecht told an interviewer in 1926, around the time the rising German sensation had begun work on the play Fatzer: Demise of the Egotist. “This would falsify the world. I do not write for the scum who value having their heartstrings plucked.”

Judging from the cavalcade of tantrums masquerading as theater across the city, the majority of Chicago theater artists see their audiences as Brechtian scum. Actors seem to think that if they’re not frothing at the mouth, collapsing into sobs, or at least brooding intently they’re not doing their jobs. Heaven help the local playwright who wants to express an idea or two.

Brecht, of course, was passionate about ideas. Though German theater of the day was choking under a thick fog of expressionist excess, his theater was a place to think, not swoon. “Today the meaning of a play is usually blurred precisely by the fact that the actor plays his way into the heart of the spectator,” he avowed, and he may as well have been talking about contemporary Chicago theater. “The figures presented ingratiate themselves to the audience and thus are falsified.”

Brecht didn’t care a whit for the plight of the individual, except insofar as the individual’s situation illustrated the workings of a ruthless, corrupt, soul-destroying capitalist order. The yellow-gloved cutthroat Macheath, star of Brecht’s greatest success, The Threepenny Opera, is less a character than the embodiment of one of society’s most revered values: self-interest. (In the film version, Brecht wanted Macheath to end up a bank president.) How Macheath feels about anything is as relevant as the length of Hamlet’s inseam.

In Fatzer, which Brecht never finished, he turned to a favored theme: the monstrous exploitation of war by industrial capitalists, who line their pockets while soldiers die and the proletariat scrounges for the occasional turnip. In this world, AWOL soldier Fatzer leads three comrades on a whirlwind of greed, debauchery, and betrayal. While society has discovered a “newfound pleasure of marching in step,” Fatzer’s boys learn to mimic his relentless selfishness until even they see what a monster he’s become.

German playwright Heiner Müller cobbled together a script from Brecht’s fragments, and Prop Theatre’s Stefan Brün, who worked with Müller at Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in the former East Germany, provided the translation and direction for this English-language world premiere. But Brün has thrown away a golden opportunity. His Fatzer grunts, growls, laughs demonically, clutches his head in torment, and generally indulges in every synthetic emotion known to man during this production’s two and a half hours of lurid emotional display. Meanwhile Fatzer’s soldier cohorts co-opt false, quasi-homoerotic intensity from Saturday-afternoon army-buddy movies. In general, every member of this 16-person cast keeps the play to him- or herself laboring over one and only one question: What is happening to me in this moment?

All these tortuous histrionics have nothing to do with Brecht and thoroughly obfuscate any ideas he might have hoped to express. He himself specifically discouraged this kind of acting, insisting that his performers “quote” their characters rather than become them, as if they were reporting to a listener how a family member looked and acted the day he got a piece of bad news. This critical distance between actor and character is essential to the success of Brecht’s self-described “epic theater.” He detested the ideal of dramatic theater espoused by Goethe and Schiller, the latter of whom wrote, “The spectator must not be allowed to rise to thoughtful contemplation; he must passionately follow the action; his imagination is completely silenced.” Brecht desired a critical theater, one that posited the world not as a source of pathos but as a mistake to be corrected.

As in many of Brecht’s plays, various characters in Fatzer interrupt the action from time to time to explain underlying themes or outline what will happen next. And even these straightforward sections are gummed up with emotional excess: Brün’s narrators seem eternally upset, typically barking at one another instead of explaining simple truths to the audience. At one point, a woman raps sharply on a bannister three times and snaps, “It is nighttime!”—which is a bit like getting into a tizzy over the phrase “once upon a time.” In moments like these it’s clear what the actors are saying but nearly impossible to know what they think they’re doing.

In essence Fatzer, like so much emotion-driven theater, is a string of lies, with actors imagining they can convince us they know what it felt like to live in post-World War I Germany—and imagining it would matter to us if they could. As Brecht said, theater is only as sacred as it is true; it is not a servant of the actor but of society. v

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.