German-born playwright Bertolt Brecht (born today in 1898) always intended to agitate as well as entertain. After World War I, he was denounced for the satirical poem, “The Legend of the Dead Soldier,” in which the Kaiser demands an inconveniently dead hero soldier be exhumed and marched right back to action. Brecht’s more famous plays, like The Threepenny Opera, used dark absurdism to deliver stinging critiques of capitalism and fascism.
Banned early on by the Nazis, Brecht went into exile in 1933. His allegorical 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, used a Chicago gangster drama to illustrate how demagogues like Hitler divide their opposition to gain power. Post-2016 productions of the play have tilted the allegory toward present-day authoritarianism, finding the continued relevance in lines such as: “If we could learn to look instead of gawking, / We’d see the horror in the heart of farce.”