“Do you remember when I directed Arturo Ui with the kids?” Cecil asks me.
I didn’t. Not offhand. Cecil had been a secondary school English and drama teacher, exiting the profession, he claimed, before they replaced all books with instruction manuals. That was back a few years now. Retirement suited Cecil who’d definitely mellowed, became less ornery and cantankerous.
“Brecht,” Cecil adds as a helpful reminder.
Vaguely? Perhaps. In his day, Cecil directed a lot of school plays that I dutifully attended. Few stuck with me. Musicals, mostly, I remember. They seemed the appropriate choice for the competence level of aspiring teenage performers. But who am I to judge? I’m no Max Beerbohm.
“I think it’s high time for another production of Ui if you ask me,” Cecil says, turning back to the news on his phone. “Listen to what Trump said at CPAC last weekend,” he continues. I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.
We’re sitting across from one another at a table in our favourite breakfast haunt, an if not daily than a very regular morning get-together, over bowls of twee porridge. I am partial to the fried bananas while Cecil has lately gravitated to the savoury side, arugula, mushrooms and a fried egg. “That’s not porridge,” I chide him. “It’s a risotto, is what that is.”
We dine. We bicker. Talk news and current affairs. Drink too much coffee and have to urinate far too often. Like the old men we are.
“That’s fascist talk, wouldn’t you say, Barnaby?” Cecil asks me. A soupçon of genuine concern in his tone. “Right there on the front pages. Right there in plain goddamn sight.”
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written by Bertolt Brecht in 1941while ostensibly in exile from Nazi Germany, an allegory about the rise of fascism. A 1930s Chicago gangster story, as Cecil has to remind me, it features characters based very obviously on Adolph Hitler and his early associate henchmen, Ernst Röhm, Goebbels and Göring, Cecil says. Criminals not politicians, transformed into saviours of the very people they’ve extorted and terrorized.
“Sound familiar?” he asks, rhetorically as intended.
Alas, it does.
Familiar. Dispiriting. Cartoonish in its villainy but very much real, real and current, not some historical footnote.
“A good, rousing production of Ui might serve as a welcome wake-up call, don’t you think?”
“Who do you think is slumbering at the moment, Cecil?” I ask him, frankly. “Who remains oblivious to the threat? You said it’s right there on the front pages. It’s hard not to miss. At this point wouldn’t you say that everything’s on the table and we’re now just left to choose sides?”
Long past the point where a high school production of even the most incendiary political stage play would change hearts and minds or galvanize an audience into some sort of partisan fighting force. Did it ever? I wonder. Scandalize maybe. Mobilize? Hardly.
“It just feels like we need to be doing something,” Cecil says, with a slight petulant retreat. “We should be doing something.”
Who could argue with that?
Something, but what?
The conundrum for old men like Cecil and me, old, comfortable men, far from the firing line, likely in our graves before the actual hand-to-hand combat begins, left to our artisanal porridge and ineffectual ruminations. What was. What happened. What could’ve been.
Cecil and I finish our breakfast in silence, reading more news items. We empty our coffee cups. I think Cecil passes gas. Neither of us acknowledge it. The restaurant is largely empty. Old men indeed.
“We could demand that the trains start to run on time,” I say, finally, after finishing one particular article.
A fraught, loaded statement in normal times. Near hideous given the conversation that had just passed between us. Cecil looks over at me with an appropriately shocked expression on his face.
I explain myself.
The ongoing human and ecological disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, the Norfolk Southern train derailment, toxic spill, ‘controlled’ chemical burn. The federal government’s slow response, allowing the gap to be filled by bad faith actors, malcontents like the former president, and a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
“They were quicker to strike break a rail dispute than they were to assist people facing a toxic spill,” I tell Cecil. “The federal government. The supposed good ones. That’s a problem.”
It isn’t the fascist-bent alone who have allowed for the creation of a new era of railroad robber barons, money for the big bosses and investors first, safety, workers’ rights, consumers and customers be damned.
“Deregulated becomes unregulated. There’s gold in them thar wild west hills. Everybody for themselves!”
I slide my phone across the table toward Cecil who still appears at a loss with the turn in the conversation. Tapping on the screen, I indicate the article I’m referencing. He reads while I continue.
“If we don’t assist people who need assistance, they’ll fall for the ones telling them they will even if they have no intention of doing so. Fascists are simply offering to fill the holes in our lives that we’ve helped create. We have to stop helping create those holes in people’s lives. That’s what we need to do, Cecil.”
Everybody knows fascism is wrong, corrupt, evil at its very core.
The clever ones embrace it to make a buck.
The rest of us, well, we allow ourselves to throw up our hands and see the world through that cracked lens: wrong, corrupt & evil. We’ll look the other way if someone convinces us they know how to clean it up.
“I think it was William James,” I say to Cecil as he continues to read, “who said ‘A difference which makes no difference is no difference at all’. What we need to do, Cecil, is to start to make a real difference.”
He looks up at me from my phone and we stare at one another for a moment. If it were only that easy. If only we were younger and more energetic. If only we had been younger differently.
“I need to pee,” he says finally, and struggles up from his seat to his feet.
I watch my friend make his way to the men’s room, tentatively, as if he’s forgotten where it is, as if he hasn’t been there twice already today, countless times on the countless occasions we’ve been to this restaurant. Yep. He asks our waitress for directions. Again.
It’s hard to imagine old warriors when they never were young warriors.