Brecht: The Man and His Work
The Collected Works of Bertolt Brecht: Volume I, Plays
It is nice to see a new edition of Martin Esslin’s Brecht: The Man and His Work. This book has always provided the first essential of a critical biography, which is plain statements of fact about the life and work of the man concerned. When a biographer withholds such factual information or glosses it over—which he usually does because he finds it damaging to his hero or his own arguments—the result is always as untrustworthy as a lawyer’s plea or a lover’s vows, though, of course, like these it may have the charms of audacity and romance.
But when we are given the facts, the matter is different. Having stated them, the biographer has the right to reach his own conclusions about them, because he has made it possible for us to reach our conclusions too. This honest method pays a bonus in that it allows us to disagree with the author continuously while feeling grateful to him continuously: he never arouses the indignation one feels for the biographer who suppresses and distorts the facts.
Such honesty demands courage. In Brecht’s case it almost demands heroism. It is hard to imagine a sleazier, nastier, more opportunistic life than Brecht’s, but this is only my personal conclusion, drawn from Mr. Esslin’s facts. Mr. Esslin’s conclusion, which is also drawn from Mr. Esslin’s facts, is friendlier, more sympathetic, more affected by admiration, more inclined (in my opinion) to romance.
He tells us, for example, that Brecht inherited on both his paternal and maternal sides a strong peasant shrewdness, and that much of his behavior may be explained by an abundance of “canny peasant blood.” This may be perfectly true, for all I know: I have no idea what blood does to people, or what messages run in the veins of peasants, aristocrats, stockbrokers, bank robbers, clergymen, myself, and others. But when a man is born and bred in Augsburg, the son of a father who is managing director of a paper mill and of a mother who is the daughter of a bureaucrat from the Black Forest, I think we should study his environment and his upbringing first of all and not be too ready to let his blood run away with us. Similarly, I think that prenatal receptiveness is too difficult a quantity to assess and that we should not, as Brecht did, attribute to gestation in dank umbrage a coldness of character that may have developed much later:
I, Bertolt Brecht, am from the black forests.
My mother carried me, as in her womb I lay,
Into the cities. And the chill of the forests
Will stay within me to my dying day.
This was written about 1927; a poem of 1951, when Brecht had been a Communist for many years, looks back differently:
I grew up as the son
Of well-to-do people. My parents
Put a collar round my neck and taught me
The habit of being waited on
And the art of giving orders. But
When I had grown up and looked around me
I did not like the people of my own class
And I left my own class and joined
The common people….
The first of these poetic statements is, like blood, simply hazardous; the second starts off accurately enough but seems to decline steadily into retroactive restitution. All of us, probably, spend some of the mature part of our lives trying to pull the immature part into line. Set in our ways and convictions, we are not pleased with the gawky creature of our adolescence and youth and go to work touching up and distorting the young animal until we have turned it into a more suitable forerunner. We are particularly apt to do this when we have youthful works to look back on as well as youthful behavior, such works being almost always the gravest embarrassment to our maturity.
Consequently, Mr. Esslin’s book comes into a new edition at a very good moment, when Brecht’s earliest plays are being republished, four of them and five one-acters in Volume I of his collected plays, and one, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, in an independent publication by Indiana University Press. The valuable addition given to us in the collected plays edition is the inclusion of Brecht’s numerous rewritings and tamperings of later years, complete with new prefaces and explanations. Thus, we may study the curious spectacle of a man trying to pull both his youth and his works into an order they never had, with Mr. Esslin’s biography at hand to tell us what actually happened and how the life was actually lived. Sometimes the difference between fact and fiction, between the original and its later embellishment, is perfectly clear, as when the mature Brecht describes his service as a young medical orderly in World War I:
If the doctor ordered me: “Amputate a leg, Brecht!” I would answer: “Yes, Your Excellency!” and cut off the leg. If I was told: “Make a trepanning!” I opened the man’s skull and tinkered with his brains. I saw how they patched people up in order to ship them back to the front as soon as possible.
But it “now appears certain,” Mr. Esslin says, that Brecht “was assigned to Department D which specialized in venereal disease.” It is “most unlikely” that he performed any sort of operation on anyone; so what we witness here is simply the process of self-operation by means of which a man changes the self of his past from a dreary attendant to a ruthless mountebank.
Exactly this process seems to go on all the time, though it is not usually so easy to see and is always impossible to explain. If Mr. Esslin knew more of the facts of Brecht’s youth, we may be sure he would have given them: as it is, we can see a form of behavior emerging and detect a set of strong emotions, but what inspired these and to what events they may have been a response—this remains quite mysterious. Mr. Esslin’s opinion is that Brecht was deeply affected by his hospital experience, that his “implacably violent attitude clearly sprang from the impotent rage of the helpless bystander,” and that the “blatant cynicism” of his later life was “all too obviously the mask of one whose faith has been shattered and who had decided to meet the world on its own inhuman terms.”
Mr. Esslin may be quite right, but I doubt if he is. There seems to be something more personal than a VD ward behind the passion for violence and domination that shows so clearly in the early plays. Above all, there is the determination to be masculine and ruthless—to get rid of any trace of softness, gentleness, and even affection. Of these aspirations, the strongest, it seems to me, is that toward masculinity: just as in The Good Woman of Setzuan the good-natured whore must take on the likeness of a ruthless man in order to survive, so somewhere in Brecht’s adolescence, it would seem, the decision was taken to dismiss femininity forever and reduce the whole of life to masculine struggle.
Mr. Esslin thinks it “may be significant” that three out of the four early plays “are concerned with the problem of homosexuality,” but he dismisses as “irrelevant” the “exact nature of the subconscious urge [Brecht] sought to suppress.” But when an urge is plainly announced in three out of four plays of a man’s youth, should we describe it as “subconscious” and can we have any doubt about its “exact nature”? Finally, can we dismiss the matter in two or three lines and attribute to experience in a hospital a violence and ferocity that show every sign of being intensely characteristic?
This characteristic element is the important one, I would think. It is easy to speak of sexual deviations as if they were churned out in peculiar but identical forms—like makes of sports cars or left-handed screws. In fact, each deviation has its individual form, shaped by the attitude or character of its possessor. Brecht’s early plays may be called homosexual in a general way, but it is the ideal of masculine domination and ruthlessness that particularizes the emotion and indicates the author. We are in Caesar’s world, not Ronald Firbank’s.
In Brecht’s first play, Baal, the anti-hero pushes aside his pregnant bride and chooses another man as his lover. In In the Jungle of Cities, which is set in an imaginary Chicago, two men fight each other virtually to death for reasons that are quite obscure until the defeated one admits: “I love you.” In The Life and Death of Edward II, King of England, we have a rewriting of Marlowe’s play, with the idea of the King’s infatuation for his favorite, Gaveston, strengthened enormously to support and explain the whole tragedy. The fourth play (second in order of writing), Drums in the Night, was written simply as a pot-boiler: it is an antirevolutionary comedy and caused Brecht great embarrassment in later years, but it has no homosexual peculiarities.
I think Mr. Esslin describes Brecht’s urges in these plays as subconscious because Brecht did his best, when he was older, to disguise their nature and explain them as the early works of a future Marxist. Of Baal, he wrote:
…[it] is a play which could present all sorts of difficulties to those who have not learned to think dialectically…. Yet here is an individual standing out against the demands and discouragements of a world whose form of production is designed for exploitation rather than usefulness.
In the Jungle of Cities was “meant to deal with the pure enjoyment of fighting” and the deciding of “who is the best man,” but under the surface “I was unconsciously moving very close to the real struggle…the class struggle,” with “fighting for fighting’s sake” a natural outcome of “advanced capitalism.” Of Edward II, Brecht seems to have decided that it could best be explained as a purely aesthetic exercise. “The reader may find something to interest him in the narrative methods of the Elizabethans and in the emergence of a new stage language.”
So much for learning to think dialectically. But one may add at this point that the disguising of the homosexual themes of these plays came easier to Brecht than the explaining away of Drums in the Night. Just as homosexuality is plain to see in the other three plays, so is rejection of revolution in the fourth. Later attempts to rewrite the play having proved futile, a full confession was the only escape. “Today,” wrote Brecht, “I realize that my spirit of contradiction…led me close to the limits of absurdity.”
What does the private life have to tell us of these times? “And I left my own class and joined / The common people”—but Mr. Esslin’s account is not quite the same. We get, first, the traditional romantic figure of a student enjoying “a world of smoke-filled cafés and taverns, endless discussions, and a great deal of dissipation.” We get (“often,” according to Mr. Esslin) a young poet who is beaten up by ex-soldiers, supposedly because he sings anti-patriotic songs. As his work becomes better known, he shakes off what Mr. Esslin calls “the effete world of the intellectuals” and takes up with “boxers and racing cyclists”; the current German light-heavyweight champion becomes his “constant companion.” He wears vests “with cloth sleeves, a leather tie, a mechanic’s or lorry driver’s leather jacket and a dirty visored cap”; according to “malicious observers” there are “exquisite silk shirts under this proletarian costume.” He never shaves.
I cannot feel that this is a way of joining the common people. I think it is a way of becoming masculine. What I cannot discover either in the plays or in Mr. Esslin is where and how this passion for violent masculinity began. That the masculinity must be of a violent sort is made clear not only in the three homosexual plays but in the fifth play, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, where the heroine, a sort of Brechtian Major Barbara, goes to her death foreswearing gentleness and pity and pinning her faith to violence—“Only force helps where force rules….” Embattled males dominate the action throughout, and the play is notable as marking Brecht’s conversion to communism (1929).
Mr. Esslin sees this as a genuine conversion. He argues, plausibly enough, that communism offered Brecht a “discipline” for his “chaotic” emotions and gave an aim and purpose to his work. I would think myself that communism served various other purposes: 1) it put into social form Brecht’s need for violence, 2) it provided a justification for masculine ruthlessness, 3) it changed cunning, deceit, and all forms of dishonesty from vices into virtues. Finally, I think it provided an all-male arena, devoid of what one might call the feminine elements.
I think this last is of some importance. Reading these early plays, one is struck by the fact that the women in them are entirely undesirable. They are soft instead of hard, fat instead of thin. Their aptness for pregnancy is disgusting: it is even described in one program note as “a venereal disease.” A man may womanize freely (as Brecht did), but he must remember, as it were, that the female form of production is designed for exploitation rather than usefulness.
I would guess, too, that women excite emotion and affection, and that it is essential that these be ousted from the male dream of ruthlessness and cold dialectic. I hope it is not preposterous to suggest that the whole idea of “alienation” in the theater—the sitting back dispassionately from the action and refusing to enter into the lives of the characters—is of a piece with Brecht’s rejection of affection and femininity. Mr. Esslin describes very amusingly the rage felt by Brecht when Mother Courage—intended by him to represent all that was most despicable in woman—was transformed by his sentimental audiences into a gallant old battle-ax whom neither war nor suffering could defeat.
It will be seen that I do not share Mr. Esslin’s view of what he calls Brecht’s “touching, almost religious faith in the truth of the Marxist theory.” I am even disturbed by Mr. Esslin’s almost religious faith in Brecht. It must be a hard faith to sustain for one who knows so much about Brecht. Mr. Esslin describes his easy outwitting of the McCarthy boneheads who accused him of communism in 1948—a beautiful job of total dishonesty on Brecht’s side and total stupidity on the accusing side. He describes Brecht’s prompt departure to East Germany and the big reception laid on for him by the Commie leaders, who begged him to stay. Brecht agreed to do so—after providing himself with the protection of Austrian citizenship and opening a Swiss bank account. It was in Switzerland that he lodged most of the 160,000 rubles of the Stalin Peace Prize that was awarded to him for violently opposing West German rearmament.
No, I don’t see religious faith behind this behavior, any more than I can see blood or the Black Forest or the VD ward behind the unfailing opportunism of the day-to-day life. And Mr. Esslin is too honest a man to see too much of it himself. His argument is that a distinction can be made between Marxist theory and communist practice, and that a man can stomach the latter because of his profound belief in the former. This is true enough, and God knows there have been many examples of it. But I think that in Brecht’s case, the matter was simpler: he found the communist world more profitable. Mr. Esslin puts this very well when he explains:
…Picasso is so successful that he can afford to live and work in the West as his own master. Brecht was never successful enough in the Western World to gain similar independence to work and experiment in complete freedom from financial worries. So Picasso lives and works in France, while Brecht to get the means to work had to accept the invitation to settle in East Berlin.
I don’t like the word “had” in this context. It reduces the whole matter simply to one of sound, practical common sense. It implies that one should be prepared to “go anywhere, do anything” (as the capitalist ads put it) provided the opportunity is big enough. And, surely, an opportunity so obtained is bound to make one’s “almost religious faith” look like a pious devotion to personal ambition? No, unlike Mr. Esslin, I can only see a rich man, growing elderly and fat, sitting in the park of his large official country mansion and trying to think of ways of getting on at his hosts’ expense.
It may be argued, of course, that the ambition was more artistic than personal, and that the theater that resulted justified the opportunism. It does not seem so to me. All Faustian bargains in which the ends justify the means turn out badly as a rule. The corruption gets into the cake mix; the opportunistic elements spoil the artistic ones and ruin the personal talent.
In the case of the early plays under review, the East Berlin matter does not arise, nor are the plays good enough to warrant much in the way of intense discussion. Baal is a chaos of violent defiance, but with no rhyme or reason to it until the homosexual theme comes into the clear. Drums in the Night (the potboiler) has the makings of a good, raucous comedy, but fizzles out badly in the original version and even worse in the subsequent efforts to put it right—that is to say, Left. In the Jungle of Cities has a weirdness that is somewhat intriguing: this is due to the fact that it is a homosexual struggle pretending not to be, and thus giving off an air of mystery.
Saint Joan of the Stockyards is derived from Shaw and Upton Sinclair: it shows Brecht’s first attempt to use crowds and choruses and is marked by his first use of painfully banal lines in the service of socialism:
Are there no people here with any enterprise?
Yes, the Communists.
Aren’t they people who incite to crime?
As for Edward II, it is indeed, as Brecht said, an exercise in “epic” theater—that old Elizabethan method of stringing a story along in scenes like beads, instead of chopping the play into chunks of “acts”: Brecht’s revival of this technique has been of great value to the contemporary theater.
It is only in the later, and much better, plays that the personal corruption corrupts the work. I think there is a most interesting reason for this. The “alienation” that Brecht demanded was, as has been remarked, a facet of his own personality; it must have helped him a great deal in his more unscrupulous dealings by putting his conscience at a wide remove from his actions. In the plays, “alienation” is meant to serve another purpose: these are “didactical” plays, statements of argument, and the listener is asked specifically to stand back from them, to assess them coolly, to judge their pros and cons dispassionately.
Unfortunately, this means—at least to me—that the dishonesty and falsity of the propositions they present stand out so glaringly as to be inescapable. We laugh when Shaw rigs his arguments—when he proves didactically that burglars are really businessmen and businessmen really burglars: but we also get the point he is making and appreciate it. But when Brecht begins (for example) Galileo with the statement: “By recanting, Galileo postponed the dawn of the Age of Reason by one hundred years,” we are only conscious of being handed a stupendous lie—a lie that only grows worse the more we sit back dispassionately and think about it.
“Alienation” may have been essential to Brecht, but it is not natural to audiences and is not likely to be widely practiced by them. In this, I think, lies the salvation of Brecht’s best plays. A vast amount of theatrical ferocity went into them, and much of it can be felt and shared by audiences, particularly when there are also dancing and musical accompaniment. Mother Courage is only one of many characters who benefit by being felt rather than rationally assessed. Indeed, I would think that the more the emotions are given full sway in Brecht, the more chance there is of his corruption being overlooked: this is particularly so if we can stomach the intense sentimentality that is always the sob-stuff of the hard-boiled, as in the case of gangsters who love their mothers. I think Brecht may, perhaps, have loved his mother in this sad way, and I wish Mr. Esslin would look a little further into the matter.
Self-indulgence of the sort I have described works wonders with the chicanery of The Threepenny Opera, The Good Woman of Setzuan, Mother Courage, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Moreover, the author’s technical management is always good; the story runs its sentimental course briskly and dramatically, and the student has every opportunity to study the charms and advantages of the Elizabethan method. Nothing remains in these later works of the incoherence and vagueness of the early plays.
But with a play like Galileo, even self-indulgence is useless, because here there are no emotions involved except a fondness for food and comfort. These are not strong enough to smother the exorbitant dishonesty of the text. “Grub first, then ethics” is Brecht’s best known aphorism, and though the unfortunate astronomer is condemned for having thought so too, the play can only be enjoyed by those whose real interest is in autobiography.