'Dinner with Goebbels' and the power of propaganda

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War requires self deception and someone is always there to provide it. In Red Sandcastle Theatre's production of "Dinner With Goebbels" we get to spend time and share wine with modern history's most infamous purveyors of the cruelest commodity. 

The play, by psychiatrist and Physician Against War activist Mark Leith, gives us a short history of public relations (when you're doing it), otherwise known as propaganda (when it's a bad thing).

Karl Rove, who brought you the Invasion of Iraq to find WMDs, summons up his two dead historical mentors to help him with a problem. Rove has just "outed" Valerie Plame as a CIA agent to counter her diplomat husband's poo-pooing of the WMD story. Rove is experiencing his first serious blowback and calls upon the spirit of Edward Bernays and Joseph Goebbels to guide him through this dark night of the soul. 

For the uninitiated, Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud who pioneered the "art" of public relations. He coined the brand name "Lucky Strike," sold smoking to women as suffragism by calling cigarettes "torches of freedom," engineered the backstory for the Eisenhower era coup in Guatemala on behalf of the United Fruit Company and provided the rationalization for dropping the A-Bomb on Japan to "save lives." The least famous of the three men, he was likely the most influential. Goebbels revered Bernays' books and he is a direct progenitor of the Rovian big lie.

Goebbels needs little introduction. He was the guiding intellect behind Nazi communications operations from the spin on the Reichstag fire to the films of Leni Riefenstahl. And Rove, well, what more need you say about someone who turned a coke head army deserter into a two term president? 

Basically "Dinner With Goebbels" is a history lesson about propaganda. You walk away with a sense that the lies that compose the fabric of consumerism and jingoism are intertwined, and old hat.

As theatre, it suffers from the fact that watching liars lie isn't too exciting in and of itself. Not too much happens other than exposition and dialogue. However the production takes a big risk to resolve this problem. The unholy trinity of warmongering men are played by women. Goebbels, Bernays and Rove are played by Mary Wildridge, Cathy Shilton and Sandra Forte respectively, and their performances save the evening.

There is a surreality, and an element of selling a "lie" in their gender-bending that lends this production of "Dinner With Goebbels" what it needs to surmount drama by exposition. This play needed some obvious artifice to get the audience past the talk. In this case it gets what it needs from three solid performances by three women actors. Forte's Rove is especially powerful, but then again, she also got the best lines with which to work. 

Director Les Porter's production is severe and minimalist. He leaves the play to its words and the performances of the actors. More visual stimulus isn't required as the play is concise and hard hitting. Like real life, you don't notice the austerity until you are over the shock, and by then the game is over. 

In the end Rove does not get the guidance he seeks from his dead mentors, but the audience leaves with an overview of the history of mass manipulation from the mouths of the masters.

In the Q&A following the performance, playwright Mark Leith said that the cure for propaganda was media literacy. Once you know what manipulation looks like, you won't be able to not see it. So it's a great thing that numerous high school history and politics classes will be attending future performances of "Dinner With Goebbels."

If future generations don't learn from the historical mistakes of being duped by propaganda, they will be condemned to join previous generations of cannon fodder. To the unquestioning military service may seem to be the only alternative to unemployment, or student debt.

Humberto Da Silva is a contributor to rabble and also rabbletv's 'Not Rex' contributor.

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