Playwright Bertolt Brecht, new film


This 23 March 2019 German video is about Heinrich Breloer on fusing documentary and drama to tell the story of ‘Brecht’ [TV Show].

By Stefan Steinberg in Germany:

69th Berlin International Film Festival—Part 4

Brecht: A new film about the famed left-wing German dramatist

5 March 2019

Interest in the famed left-wing German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is undergoing something of a revival. Recent signs of that renewed interest include the 2014 publication of the important biography of Brecht by Stephen Parker and the 2018 movie Mack the Knife—Brecht’s Threepenny Film, directed by Joachim A. Lang.

And now, this year’s Berlinale featured a new film biography of Brecht by one of Germany’s leading directors, Heinrich Breloer (Die Manns—Ein Jahrhundertroman [The Manns—Novel of a Century], 2001; Speer und Er [literally, “Speer and He,” released as Speer and Hitler: The Devil’s Architect], 2005; and Buddenbrooks [based on the Thomas Mann novel, released as Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family], 2008).

Breloer makes films on historical subjects in the manner of so-called documentary dramas. He combines documentary material with dramatic scenes and superimposed comments in a dynamic fashion. In so doing, Breloer has been able to win large television audiences for films dealing with key figures and epochs of German history. He has adopted the same approach for his new work about Brecht.

As Breloer (born 1942) explains in the introduction to the book published to accompany his film, his fascination with Brecht began when he was a student. Already in the summer of 1963, just seven years after Brecht’s death, the young Breloer worked together with an individual who was to become one of Germany’s most outstanding theatre directors, Claus Peymann, on a production of Brecht’s Antigone, an adaptation of German poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation (1804) of Sophocles’ tragedy.

Some years later, in the summer of 1977, with a copy of the material assembled about Brecht by Werner Frisch and K.W. Obermeier (published in 1975) in his rucksack, Breloer travelled to Brecht’s birthplace, the city of Augsburg in southern Germany, to track down and conduct interviews with those who had known Brecht personally, including the first love of his life.

Then again in 2010, Breloer undertook what he describes as another journey toward Brecht and began a second round of interviews with those who had worked with Brecht after his return in 1949 to East Germany (GDR) following his flight from Hitler’s Germany and 16 years in exile.

These interviews with some of Brecht’s closest friends and collaborators determine the modus of the new film, with interview clips juxtaposed with key episodes in Brecht’s life.

Breloer’s Brecht is divided into two parts. The first 90 minutes deal with the writer’s early life in Augsburg, his move to Berlin and his later success as a dramatist. In 1914, Brecht, aged just 16, was a strong supporter of Germany’s aggression in World War I. He quickly turned against the imperialist war, however, as news of its horrors emerged, particularly in the form of the letters sent him from the front line by his childhood friend, Caspar Neher. Neher later became a famous stage designer, who worked on many of Brecht’s productions.

In one early scene in the film, we witness the young Brecht (Tom Schilling) denouncing the war in a school classroom to the horror of his teacher, who immediately threatens the young “traitor” to the German national cause with retribution.

After the war, Brecht was present in Munich when nationalist Freikorps mercenaries brutally crushed the Bavarian Soviet Republic in April-May 1919. At the time, Brecht was closely following the activities of the Independent Social Party (USDP), which had broken from the main body of the Social Democratic Party in 1917. These two events—German capitalism’s role in the horrific war and the defeat of the uprisings in 1919 (including the murder of Rosa Luxemburg in January of that tumultuous year)—were to play a decisive role in Brecht’s political and artistic development, along with the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In Munich, Brecht turned to the then well-known writer Lion Feuchtwanger, who took him under his wing and helped him in his first stage successes. Breloer then follows Brecht’s move to Berlin where he begins to achieve considerable success as a playwright. The pinnacle of this success in the Weimar Republic comes with the triumphant response to the first production of his (along with Kurt Weill) The Threepenny Opera in 1928.

During the late 1920s, Brecht began to study Marxist literature and came increasingly under the influence of the German Communist Party, along with dissident leftist intellectuals such as Karl Korsch. The Stalinisation of the Communist Party and the disorientation of figures like Korsch did not assist Brecht’s political development.

In a number of interviews, Breloer refers to Brecht’s concern with concealing his private life and persona. Instead, the playwright wanted to be remembered only in terms of his work. “He loved the masks of the classics,” Breloer notes. In his new film, Breloer seeks to look behind those “masks” and throw light on Brecht’s personal life. He explores in some detail Brecht’s complex relations with a number of his closest female co-workers. In so doing he makes clear that Brecht, in his literary and dramatic work, was always intent on collaboration, in developing his ideas as the leading figure of a team.

Breloer’s film largely skips over Brecht’s period in European exile with his wife Helene Weigel (Adele Neuhauser). In its second half, we see the much older writer, now played by Burghart Klaussner, in the US in October 1947, where he appears before the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the witch-hunting, anti-communist outfit set up by the House of Representatives.

The day after the HUAC hearing on October 30, during which he declared he had never been a member of the Communist Party (which was true, strictly speaking), Brecht returned to Europe. He ultimately moved to Stalinist East Germany two years later, where he was able to recommence his literary and dramatic work. In 1953, he finally received his own theatre, the Berliner Ensemble.

Brecht’s Faustian bargain with the Communist Party had profound consequences for his artistic development. In his book, Breloer notes that the Stalinist archives in Moscow described Brecht in the 1930s as a “Trotskyite”, based on the playwright’s links to co-workers such as the actress Carola Neher, who, along with her husband Anatol Becker, was denounced as a Trotskyist. …

In fact, although he admired Trotsky’s writings highly, Brecht rejected the latter’s analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy as counter-revolutionary. While he continually came into conflict with the nationalist-philistine Stalinists in East Germany after the war, Brecht repeatedly sided with the GDR and Soviet bureaucracy at crucial junctures … Having provided the bureaucracy vital public backing, Brecht, at the same time, drafted notes criticising Stalin and his policies. …

The Ulbricht regime was well aware that Brecht’s work did not fit into its repressive, anti-Marxist straitjacket of “socialist realism”, but decided the playwright and his theatre company—always under close observation from the state security service—could function as an important safety valve to prevent social layers disenchanted with the system from challenging it head-on. Brecht, in turn, was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in Moscow a year before his death. Breloer’s film depicts these events very well.

Equally, Brecht also made artistic compromises—such as shifting the action of his plays to past centuries and other continents and creating “fables” or allegories—so as to avoid a direct confrontation with the bureaucracy. Important sequences toward the end of the film show Brecht in the process of rehearsing a number of his later works, including Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Life of Galileo.

Breloer’s film implies that Galileo most closely resembles the trajectory of Brecht’s life and career: Galileo (1564-1642), the outstanding astronomer and physicist, who strikes a pact with the Papacy and renounces his scientific discoveries to avoid punishment by the Church, on the one hand, and Brecht, a remarkable poet and dramatist, who cut his own deal with the Stalinist bureaucracy to continue his work, on the other.

Breloer’s film and accompanying book provide an opportunity for a younger generation to acquaint themselves with a key literary figure of the 20th century. The film is due to be shown on German television on March 22 (Arte) and March 27 (ARD).

The revived interest in Brecht, who has been treated as a “dead dog” or worse by the academic and official intellectual world for decades, is another indication of a growing radicalisation.

Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray on stage


This BBC video is called The Picture of Dorian Gray 1976 – Oscar Wilde.

It says about itself:

In Victorian England, handsome Dorian Gray (Peter Firth) makes a Faustian deal that his portrait painted by Basil Hallward (Jeremy Brett) will age while he remains young.

Irish socialist author Oscar Wilde is well known for having been cruelly punished for being gay and for his plays.

On 6 November 2018, I went to see the play Dorian, based on Oscar Wilde, in Leiden, the Netherlands. Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray not as a play, but as a novel.

This Dutch 2018 trailer video of this play, by the Noord Nederlands Toneel (NNT) says about itself (translated):

Some 125 years after the publication of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, our obsession with youthfulness and the feeling that you must have taken everything out of your life have only increased.

With these questions as a starting point, Javier Barcala wrote a stage adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s famous novel for the Noord Nederlands Toneel. Barcala places Dorian in the background of the contemporary art market, a familiar world for guest director Christophe Coppens.

The Belgian multitalent Coppens was trained as a theater maker, but broke through as a designer and visual artist. Previously, pop stars such as Rihanna, Grace Jones, Scissor Sisters and especially Róisín Murphy walked in his creations. And now NNT actress Bien de Moor shines in his artworks.

This 2018 NNT video says about itself (translated):

Some 125 years after the publication of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, our obsession with youthfulness and the feeling that you must have taken everything out of your life have only increased. But do we not lose sight of ourselves in the desire for the new, the beautiful and the special? And if we are busy all the time with our personal development, what does that mean for our relationship with others?

Leading actor Bram van der Heijden and artistic director of the NNT Guy Weizman tell us what the performance is about for them.

This in another 2018 NNT teaser video about the play.

This October 2018 video is an interview with Akim Moiseenkov, who composed music for the NNT play.

More about the play is here.

In Wilde’s novel, the young man Dorian Gray indulges in beauty and individualistic pleasure-seeking in such an extreme way that he causes other people’s deaths: by murder, or by driving them to suicide. Also indirectly, as a hunter mistakenly shoots an antagonist of Gray. Wilde did not like fox hunting; he called it: ‘The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable’.

Dorian does not age visibly, even as he gets older and commits crimes. The aging and the crimes become visible only on Dorian’s portrait, which gets uglier and uglier.

Ultimately, Dorian attacks the picture with a knife. In that way, he kills himself; as the picture reverts to its youthful original state.

There are many differences between Dorian in Wilde’s book and in the NNT play. In the play, Dorian’s real name is Igor, getting called ‘Dorian Gray’ only later.

Wilde describes Dorian as from a well to do family, while Igor in the play is from a poor background.

Wilde’s Dorian is not an artist, while the NNT’s Igor is an art student and later a famous artist.

In the novel, the gay painter Basil Hallward, who is in love with Dorian, paints the portrait. In the play, female visual artist Ava Ravenstein does that.

In the novel, Lord Henry Wotton pushes Dorian onto the ruinous road of self-indulgence. In the play, rich art collector Ms Bambi Pelecano (by actress Bien de Moor) plays that role, becoming Igor’s manager, renaming him and pushing him into her art market world where only superficiality, fame and money count.

Though both director Christophe Coppens and playwright Javier Barcala are gay and have a same-sex relationship, there are less allusions to homosexuality in the play than in Wilde’s text.

In the novel, Dorian’s self-indulgence causes quite some deaths. In the play only one, until just before the end. The death of Dorian’s/Igor’s girlfriend: actress Sibyl according to Wilde, singer Rebeka according to Barcala.

Then, in the penultimate scene, Igor/Dorian attacks the portrait. With a gun, unlike the knife in the novel, but still killing himself.

In the final scene, manager Bambi Pelecano is interviewed on the now dead Dorian. She does not really want to talk about him anymore, falsely pretending she hardly knew him. According to Ms Pelecano, the interview should instead be about her latest discovery, some really hip and trendy artist.

The audience liked the play, giving it a standing ovation at the end.

Chekhov’s Seagull, new film


This video says about itself:

10 May 2018

The Seagull starring Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening and Corey Stoll directed by Michael Mayer is reviewed by What the Flick?!

One summer at a lakeside Russian estate, friends and family gather for a weekend in the countryside. While everyone is caught up in passionately loving someone who loves somebody else, a tragicomedy unfolds about art, fame, human folly, and the eternal desire to live a purposeful life. Adapted by Tony-winning playwright Stephen Karam (“The Humans”) from Anton Chekhov‘s classic play and directed by Tony-winner Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”), THE SEAGULL explores, with comedy and melancholy, the obsessive nature of love, the tangled relationships between parents and children, and the transcendent value and psychic toll of art.

By David Walsh in the USA:

The Seagull: Is there a “Chekhovian mood” at present?

30 June 2018

Directed by Michael Mayer; screenplay by Stephen Karam, based on the play by Anton Chekhov

Michael Mayer has directed a new film version of Russian writer Anton Chekhov’s play, The Seagull, written in 1895 and first produced in 1896.

Mayer’s film, with a screenplay by Stephen Karam, begins at a Moscow theater in 1904. The actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), after a triumph, is told that her elder brother is dangerously ill. In the middle of the night, she rushes to his estate outside the city, accompanied by the celebrated writer, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll).

Irina finds her brother, Sorin (Brian Dennehy), on death’s door. Her son Konstantin (Billie Howle), a would-be playwright, who lives with his uncle, is also present. When Konstantin finds himself alone for a moment, there is a knock at the window. It is Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman with whom Konstantin was much in love and who left to become an actress two years before …

Other than making these brief scenes, which in Chekhov’s play come close to the conclusion, into the opening of their film (and repeating them later), Mayer and Karam remain faithful to the original drama (or comedy, as the playwright termed it).

It is two years earlier. Konstantin is staging his foolish, grandiose Symbolist-Decadent play, set tens of thousands of years in the future (“All is cold, cold. All is void, void, void. All is terrible, terrible”), at dusk on the grounds of his uncle’s estate, with Nina in the lead role as the “soul of the world”. His mother, the author Trigorin—with whom she has begun a relationship—and Sorin are in the audience, along with the local doctor, Dorn (Jon Tenney). Also present are the estate manager, Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler), his wife Polina (Mare Winningham) and daughter Masha (Elisabeth Moss). The latter is being pursued by the ineffectual, poverty-stricken schoolteacher, Medvedenko (Michael Zegen).

There are numerous undercurrents. Irina Arkadina is bored in the country, jealous of Nina’s appearing in Konstantin’s play and hostile to the latter’s attempts to create “new forms of art”. She ridicules the play and succeeds in ruining her son’s experiment. Konstantin dislikes Trigorin, the short-story writer, whose works he finds insubstantial. Sorin, already ill and musing about death, regrets that he never succeeded in fulfilling his two greatest desires, to become a writer and to marry. Polina and the doctor have had an affair at some point. She is unhappy in her marriage to the boorish Shamrayev. Masha, her daughter, appears destined to follow in her footsteps. In fact, Chekhov’s play begins with Medvedenko asking Masha—who is unrequitedly in love with Konstantin—why she always wears black. “I’m in mourning for my life”, she replies. “I’m unhappy.”

For Konstantin things only get worse in the following days. In a fit of anger, he shoots a gull (not a “seagull”, in fact, the drama takes place on an inland lake) and places it at Nina’s feet. He warns her he will soon end his own life in the same way. Trigorin determines to make Nina, lovely and naïve, his latest conquest. Prophetically, he tells her an idea for a new story: “A young girl grows up on the shores of a lake, as you have. She loves the lake as the gulls do, and is as happy and free as they. But a man sees her who chances to come that way, and he destroys her out of idleness, as this gull here has been destroyed.”

Konstantin does attempt suicide, but fails. Nina falls in love with Trigorin and tells him she has decided to take the plunge—she will leave for Moscow and become an actress. He arranges to meet her in the city.

Two years later. Masha and Medvedenko are married, miserably. Sorin is fatally ill. We learn that Nina and Trigorin lived together and had a child, who died. Nina has not proven to be an especially brilliant actress, although she has something of a career. Trigorin has returned to Irina Arkadina. Nina, as before, knocks on Konstantin’s window. They talk, she begins to compare herself to the gull. She is still hopelessly in love with Trigorin. She has a second-rate acting engagement for the winter, in the provinces. She leaves …

Anton Chekhov

Chekhov’s plays, wrote the famed Russian-Soviet theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold years later, “corresponded to the general mood of the Russian intelligentsia at that time.” Meyerhold, who became a friend of Chekhov’s, played a leading role in the legendarily successful 1898 Moscow Art Theatre production of The Seagull (the original production, two years previously at a different theater, was an abject failure). Konstantin Stanislavsky directed—and performed in—the 1898 production, which also featured Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s future wife.

Nina’s tragedy, wrote Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Stanislavsky’s colleague and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, specifically spoke to the situation of many girls “from the provinces at the time—girls whose ambition it was to escape from the dullness of their environment … to find something to which they might ‘give themselves’, all of themselves; flamingly and tenderly to sacrifice themselves to Him, the gifted man who had stimulated their dreams. As long as women’s rights were rudely limited, theatrical schools were full of girls like these.”

The “general mood of the Russian intelligentsia” in question, if one accepts Chekhov’s drama-comedy as a guide, contained discouragement, disillusionment and the sense of one’s personal insignificance and the pettiness and egoism of one’s concerns and ambitions. Add to that the dullness and stagnation of life in the country, where the only interruption of the boredom apparently extending to the end of time takes the form of desperate intrigues and pointless, doomed (and sometimes destructive, as in the case of Trigorin-Nina) love affairs, and the picture of life for this layer of society that emerges in The Seagull, and in Chekhov’s stories and plays generally, is not an attractive one.

As Elisaveta Fen wrote, in a 1959 introduction to a volume of Chekhov’s plays, “the characters … behave and talk as if they have lost their way, lost faith in themselves and in their own future.” Of course, other social forces and “moods” would shortly exert themselves explosively and eloquently in the 1905 Revolution.

American director Michael Mayer (born 1960) has done a competent job with The Seagull. This is an effort at a straightforward presentation of Chekhov’s play. The basic themes and ideas come through. The actors are generally fine. There are moving and even insightful moments. Saoirse Ronan, who seems a little over her head at certain points, makes an emotional and troubling final appearance as the now experienced and wounded Nina. Elizabeth Moss is also moving as Masha, who “voluntarily” enters into a marriage she knows will make her life nearly unbearable.

But this Seagull never rises to any great height. It is largely uninspired. There is no particular indication that Mayer, who describes himself as a man of the theater, has any strong film sense. The many close-ups and quiet conversations, if the truth be told, become a bit tedious. It is a film made without strong purpose.

How much of this is Mayer’s fault and how much of it is the fault of the conditions under which this interpretation of Chekhov’s work takes place?

Meyerhold repeatedly refers to Chekhov’s theater as a “theatre of mood” rather than Realism or Naturalism.

There is something to this. One indelibly associates Chekhov (1860-1904), for better or worse, with the quiet desperation and feelings of impotence and ineffectiveness of his leading characters. Chekhov brought tremendous honesty and sincerity to his stories and plays (“Life unfolded in such frank simplicity that the auditors seemed almost embarrassed to be present”, Nemirovich-Danchenko said of the opening night of The Seagull in 1898), but not the widest range of situations and emotions.

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who liked Chekhov personally, once complained to him, “A playwright should take the theater-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction he wants him to go. And where can I follow your character? To the couch in the living-room and back—because your character has no other place to go.”

Elisaveta Fen, in her introduction to Chekhov’s letters, wondered how it was possible for “so profoundly Russian … moods, characters and dramatic technique” to have been so well received, for example, in England between the world wars. She suggested the answer might lie “in the social temper of the periods concerned.” Fen argued that for the typical, educated middle class Englishman, “few would deny that the intellectual and emotional climate of the years 1919-39 was one of disappointment and depression … The two periods [in Russia and England] … are stamped with spiritual discouragement.”

This strong association with definite moods, of course, works both ways. Because of his specific characteristics as a writer, Chekhov inevitably seems somewhat out of place under certain social circumstances, circumstances of rapid social upheaval and transformation, for example.

In Literature and Revolution, written in the early 1920s, Leon Trotsky referred to Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre as belonging to the “islanders”, that section of “the intelligentsia who live on an island in the strange and hostile ocean of Soviet reality.” He went on, in more astonishment than anger, “Just imagine: these people are living, to this day, in the mood of the Chekhov Theater. The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya [two of Chekhov’s other major dramas] today!” In other words, how incongruous this subdued “Chekhovian mood” was in convulsive, ferociously energetic, post-revolutionary Russia, where the masses were still quivering in every fiber.

In a later passage in the same work, Trotsky pointed to “the passive realism of the Chekhov school” and suggested that “the experiences of Uncle Vanya” may well “have lost a little of their freshness.”

But the pendulum didn’t stop there either. The emergence and eventual domination of the Stalinist bureaucracy had created new political and cultural conditions by the late 1920s. In the name of “proletarian culture”, a great deal that was superficial, vulgar and “narrowly rationalistic” came to the fore in Soviet literature and drama.

Konstantin Stanislavsky

Aleksandr Voronsky, the editor and literary critic, Left Oppositionist and Trotsky’s co-thinker, felt it necessary in 1927, in his essay, “Notes on Artistic Creativity”, to come out forcefully in defense of Stanislavsky (whose theater had responded in the meantime to the artistic implications of the Bolshevik-led workers’ revolution), the Moscow Art Theatre and Chekhov. In a comment on Stanislavsky’s My Life in Art, Voronsky argues in favor of the theater director’s painstaking efforts—his book, Voronsky writes, “is permeated with blood and sweat”—and great artistic creativity.

He specifically and pointedly takes note of Stanislavsky’s emphasis on intuition and the need of the artist to “turn away from one’s common, everyday mood and become infected with the creative mood” and to “forget himself and yield to the flow of other feelings.” Again, Voronsky is taking aim here at pragmatic, utilitarian, cheap, purely “external” realism, which the national-minded ruling caste in the Soviet Union was encouraging. Here, under these conditions, Voronsky was promoting psychological insight and “inner realism” too, a secret which, he insists, the great literary artists—including Chekhov—understood.

“It is not hard to strut about”, Voronsky continued, almost provocatively challenging the advocates of so-called proletarian art, “or to write and say with a condescending expression that the Art Theatre represents the past. Perhaps it does represent the past, but this past was wonderful, we haven’t yet grown to its height, and our writers and actors have something to learn from it.”

There are a remarkable 475 films or television programs based on Chekhov’s works or associated with them somehow, many of them in the postwar period, when disappointment and discouragement were widespread sentiments. And other feelings too. It’s not necessary to identify Chekhov simply with a “retrograde” sensibility. But he seems to come to the fore at more socially quiescent times, which also allow perhaps for reflection and regret.

The Soviet film The Lady with the Dog (Iosif Kheifits, 1960), based on one of Chekhov’s most memorable short stories, would likely have been inconceivable in an earlier period of Soviet history. A man and women, both unhappily married, meet at a resort. They have an affair, but return to their old lives. They meet again, and make tentative plans to go on meeting, but the reality that they cannot get out of their marriages oppresses them. In the final scene, the audience is only aware of the Russian winter and the couple’s hopeless situation.

Does Mayer’s new film indicate the presence of a “Chekhovian mood” in the American intelligentsia today? The election of a Trump and the general and unprecedented filthiness of the political and cultural atmosphere have undoubtedly generated disquiet and unease. Feelings of impotence in the face of the growth of the far-right may exist in certain intellectual and artistic quarters.

And from the point of view of the issues raised by Voronsky, Chekhov and his circle as the representatives of a more serious, principled approach to art and to the audience, there may be something there as well. Each time a “classic” is filmed at present, no matter how inadequately, one has the feeling that the actors (and probably others involved) give a sigh of relief, appreciating that they have the opportunity for once to do something other than an empty, stupid superhero movie.

On the whole, however, the upper middle class in the film and entertainment world has done well for itself economically in recent years. Identity politics, among other things, has the function of offering this affluent layer the illusion it is “socially engaged” and “influencing things.”

Complacency and a lack of urgency largely prevail. Mayer’s Seagull reflects this in its own way. It is not done with tremendous passion or commitment. Chekhov’s work, to be effective, must suggest the cruelly, tragically suppressed feelings and drives under the surface. The quietness or even “half-heartedness” of the characters merely expresses the force of that suppression. Here, too often, there is merely passivity. American filmmaking hasn’t yet grown to the height of this “wonderful” past, far from it.

As noted, Chekhov is not for every time and place, or for every taste, but he was a serious artist. He wrote in a letter, “I hate lying and violence in all their forms—the most absolute freedom, freedom from force and fraud in whatever form the two latter may be expressed, that is the programme I would hold to if I were a great artist.” Who do we have like that today?

Racist murder of London Bengali worker in 1978


Catalyst: Altab Ali's murder sparked protests in the Bengali community. Photo: Paul Trevor

By Lynne Walsh in England:

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Preview: Forty years on, Altab Ali is not forgotten

LYNNE WALSH looks forward to an event marking the racist murder of a young Bengali worker in London

MAY 4 marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Altab Ali, an immigrant clothing worker who came to Britain as a teenager and laboured in a clothing workshop in Hanbury Street off Brick Lane in London.

The day Ali was killed in 1978 was the day of local elections. There were 50 seats in Tower Hamlets, with the National Front [neo-nazi party] fielding 43 candidates.

They had been organising in the area for a few years regularly, with a paper sale at the corner of Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road and a bookstall selling Did Six Million Really Die?

A book by a National Front member, denying Adolf Hitler’s mass murder of Jews.

They frequently terrorised the local Bengali community.

In the last few years, Tower Hamlets council has officially recognised Altab Ali Day locally and organised a memorial event with local groups.

This year’s includes the one-off performance of a scene from a very moving play written by Julie Begum to be performed in Altab Ali Park late in the afternoon of May 4 and the same evening at the Rich Mix on Bethnal Green Road.

Begum, the writer of The Altab Ali Story, is chair of the The Swadhinata Trust, a London-based secular Bengali community group that works to promote Bengali history and heritage among young people and she has started a crowdfunding campaign to finance the production (see below).

The trust has been operating since November 2000, offering seminars, workshops, exhibitions and educational literature to young Bengalis in schools, colleges, youth clubs and community centres in Britain.

The heart-breaking story about the death of Ali oscillates between a village in Sylhet in Bangladesh and a flat in East London and it dramatises the fateful moment in 1978 when his mother is given the devastating news.

Ali regularly writes letters to his family back home with descriptions of life in a foreign land, but everything changes with the arrival of an ominous envelope from one of his friends.

The anger conveyed in the letter and the impact of this senseless murder live on for his family and the community at large.

It was the catalyst for a mass anti-racist movement in the Bengali community, the first ever seen in Britain, culminating in a demonstration of 10,000 people marching to Downing Street via Hyde Park with his coffin.

To contribute to production costs of the Altab Ali Story, please visit spacehive.com/thealtabalistory#. Details of the event at Rich Mix are at richmix.org.uk/events/theatre/altab-ali-story.

This 2016 video from England says about itself:

The Altab Ali Story: Play

The Altab Ali Story
Written by Julie Begum
Director: Mukul Ahmed
Dramaturge: Patricia Cumper
Producer: Pauline Walker

Cast
Mother: Saida Tanni Dabir
Miah/Postman: Delwar Hossain Dilu
Grandmother: Tonni Khan
Altab Ali: Porag Hasan

This heart-breaking story about the death of Altab Ali oscillates between a village in Sylhet, Bangladesh and a flat in East London and dramatizes the historic moment in 1978 when his mother is given the devastating news. The airmail letters to his family back home with descriptions of life in a foreign land are keenly anticipated but everything changes with the arrival of an ominous envelope from one of Ali’s friends.

This senseless murder is the catalyst for a mass anti-racist movement from the Bengali community; the first ever seen in Britain, culminating in a demonstration of 7,000 people marching to Downing Street via Hyde Park with his coffin. Though airmail letters are no longer a primary means of communication, the anger conveyed ‘par avion’, and the impact of this senseless murder live on, both for his family and the community at large.