Bertolt Brecht wrote his one-act The Wedding in 1919, the same year he joined the Independent Social Democratic Party—the leading faction behind the Bavarian Soviet Republic, which lasted all of a month. Although Brecht’s infatuation with Bavarian-style communism was short-lived—and what reasonable person could support a regime that declared war on Switzerland?—his earliest plays twitch with the revolutionary spirit that filled the air in his homeland.
In The Wedding Brecht deploys the iconic characters and satirical bite that made his cabaret songs such a scandalous sensation, taking aim at the affectations, fake morality, and herd mentality of the shopkeepers and low-level professionals who make up the petite bourgeoisie (the German title translates literally as “The Petit-Bourgeois Wedding”). The setting is the wedding feast of a wholly ordinary group of friends and relations—given generic names like the Bride, the Groom, the Bride’s Father, the Bridegroom’s Mother—who strive mightily against their baser instincts in the hope of achieving respectability. The Bride’s Father wants to impart pearls of wisdom to the assemblage, but can tell only stories of people dying from dropsy or throwing up all over a dinner table. The Bridegroom’s Friend makes exemplary displays of his fine manners, repeatedly covering smoothly for the others’ inappropriate remarks—but when he’s asked to perform a song, he responds with one about a man who forsakes his chaste lover to learn sex from a prostitute (“Spread her on the stairs and banged her / Laughing at propriety.”)
As the party progresses and alcohol loosens tongues, rudeness gives way to cruelty. At some point every guest makes a crack about the bride’s questionable virginity, even as each one reveals an unseemly lascivious side (two of them end up screwing—loudly—in the kitchen). It becomes clear that the spiteful guests imagine they can up their own social status by tearing the others’ down. Decorum collapses at roughly the same pace as the Bridegroom’s shoddy, homemade furniture.
On a superficial level, The Wedding is a farce, but Brecht saw real danger in middle-class pretensions. “If you don’t press us hard, yell at us, and punch us in the face, we will remain like pathetic rag dolls,” Brecht imagined them saying in a later essay; he concluded, with chilling irony, “Luckily a leader was found and they gave him power.” Some critics have gone so far as to see The Wedding as “a historical document on the birth of the German version of fascism.” That may be a stretch, but Brecht’s contemporaries could hardly miss the play’s weighty politics.
To a 21st-century Chicago audience, post-World War I Bavaria may as well be the moon, and director Zeljko Djukic doesn’t try to reconstruct the play’s political moment. His production for TUTA Theatre Chicago slips in enough anachronisms—one guest photographing an embarrassing moment with his cell phone, another singing an Elvis Presley tune to the wedding party—to wrest the proceedings from their original historical context. And in typical fashion, Djukic has assembled a smart, meticulous cast who find rich, subtle humor in the disasters that befall their characters.
The first half of this 70-minute show is great fun. But in transplanting The Wedding to the contemporary realm and sealing the cracks with heavy patches of irony, Djukic eliminates class consciousness from it, and therefore any meaningful stakes. The members of this wedding party aren’t struggling to rise above their low social status or banish others to social oblivion; eliminating social strictures also eliminates Brecht’s political satire, and turns the guests’ actions into mere drunken misbehavior. It’s fun for a while, but it doesn’t matter.