Alike in an abhorrence of war and the inhumanities perpetrated on man by men, two plays, one German and one English, have recently gained acclaim in England. The Rabbit Race, by Martin Walser, and Oh What A Lovely War, produced by the London Theatre Workshop under the direction of Joan Littlewood, offer a contrast in the methods by which members of the cold war generation have tried to excite the conscience of their audience. Utilizing more or less conventional techniques, Walser presents an increasingly somber psychological drama; while Miss Littlewood employs several innovations in a satirical revue which bears a distinct Brechtian influence.
The Rabbit Race, one of three plays featured at the recent Edinburgh Festical of Music and Drama, records the hyprocrisy of a small Bavarian community as they struggle to ride the varying political winds since World War II. With only slight hesitation, they shift course and run before Nazism, fear of Nazism, total pacification, and anti-communist militancy. Serving as a foil to the townspeople is Alois Grubel, a one-time syndicalist, who has been made simple, sterile, and soprano during his stay in a concentration camp. There are two Aloises, one wishing only to breed rabbits and sing in the town choir, thus frustrating and embittering his wife who longs for children, and the other an overly indoctrinated and obtuse handyman who embarrasses and deflates his neighbors as they delicately change tack.
In the first act, Walser focuses on the foibles of the villagers, but in the second, communal viscissitudes serve only as a debilitating influence on two people struggling to stay afloat. A modern Germanic Everyman, Alois's desire for love and procreation has been perverted by a hyperdermic needle and a heavy dose of ideology. Unable to shift as rapidly as his neighbors and finding his Nazi utterances dated and scorned, Alois slowly drives himself and his wife insane.
Oh What A Lovely War affirms the same belief: man en masse is a mess. But the tone and techniques are altogether different. "Tonight ladies and gentlemen, we are going to play a little game, the war game," intones the narrator at the outset, and onto the stage prance the players, garbed in black and white clown costumes. What follows would warm the heart of any Tocsinite (ne Ban the Bomber) as ridicule is liberally applied to the causes, beneficiaries, and leaders of World War I.
Miming, dancing, and singing the lovely old songs of The Great War, Miss Littlewood's actors lightly trace its course. National leaders disclaim any thought of war and then whip out their offensive plans--just in case. Allied generals hold each other in highest contempt, refusing to speak the other's language--until they receive medals. And the audience remembers that "Its a Long Way to Tipperary." But in the background a neon sign chronicles the facts: ALLIES DEFEATED--150,000 CASUALTIES, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT--30,000 DEAD IN THE TRENCHES.
Despite the originality of its staging and contrary to London reviews heralding it as the "best play of the year if not the decade," Miss Littlewood's production encourages tedium through its repetition. Erecting a super-structure reminiscent of The Threepenny Opera, complete with skeletal sets, narrator, and Kurt Weil orchestra, she and writer Charles Chilton have failed to provide a decent base, for their play is as black and white as the actors' costumes. After five minutes no one doubts that boobery is the best that the leaders can manage, that soldiers are great guys if only left alone, and that war is a pretty stupid business. Spare fare indeed, especially when larded with such banalities as the British general praying to God for victory "before the Americans come." Also, using thirty-one songs from the war period, although an effective stimulant to nostalgia, reduces the area of irony so important to satire, leaving the worn jokes and mesmerizing slides and lights. Basically, Brecht with little bite.
Examining characters more extensively, The Rabbit Race not only makes a stronger indictment of man's barbarities than Oh What A Lovely War, but is far more ambitious. Although unevenly paced and at times marked by obscure symbolism, the play, besides exploring the central tension between the vacillating community and the man of simple faith, tangentially questions the relevancy of history, the efficacy of science, and the moral indifference of the German people. For example, the town is saved from French destruction not by following battle plans from Thucydides, no tby adhering to military strategy, nor even by waiting to give up to the Gestapo or the enemy, depending upon who comes first. Rather it is saved when Alois rangs up the white skins of the rabbits he has been ordered to kill, which accidentally act as truce flags. Slaughtering pure-bred animals creates a confusion in his mind between the theory of German racism and the practice of the gas chambers and starts him on the path to mental collapse. Although Walser occasionally lapses into stereotypes (e.g. the officious German scientist) and occasionally the symbolic brew of Germans, Jews, rabbits, love, and conception is gagging, in his attempt to treat more, his flaws are more understandable.
Any play, whether serious or satirical, which affirms that man has bestial tendencies merely states a truism if the production is poor. On the program of Oh What A Lovely War are quotations denouncing war from such diverse men as Mathiez and MacArthur, giving credence to the assertion that it is only a propaganda piece embellished by slick staging. As such it pales in comparison to The Rabbit Race which is more caustic and convincing by treating fresh characters, not tired caricatures.