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Taking Brecht’s Measure

Brecht: A Biography

by Klaus Völker, translated by John Howell
Seabury Press, 412 pp., $14.95

Poems 1913-1956

by Bertolt Brecht, edited by John Willett, edited by Ralph Manheim, with the cooperation of Erich Fried
Methuen, 628 pp., $12.50 (paper)

Diaries 1920-1922

by Bertolt Brecht, edited by Herta Ramthun, translated by John Willett
St. Martin’s Press, 182 pp., $8.95


Bertolt Brecht was a teacher of doubt, carried with him on his many forced travels a Chinese scroll representing the Doubter. He distinguished firmly between doubt and vacillation, and he seems to have thought that even doubt, or at least the expression of doubt, was politically undesirable at times. But his writings are unequivocal on this score.

Disbelief can move mountains, he wrote. “What has not been altered for a long time seems unalterable,” but “a long time is not forever”; only doubt can make us see the possibility of alteration. “Propaganda that stimulates thinking, in no matter what field, is useful to the cause of the oppressed.” We must above all not see our man-made disorders as natural, unavoidable, like the moss around ponds, as one poem has it; like falling rain, as another poem says. “The more there are suffering, the more natural their sufferings appear. Who wants to prevent the fishes in the sea from getting wet?” “Pictures of morning and night are misleading,” Brecht wrote in 1938, thinking of the darkness and barbarism of Germany, and trying to imagine an almost unimaginable future. “Happy times do not come in the way morning comes after a good night’s sleep.”

Brecht was born in 1898 in Augsburg, in southern Germany; he died in East Berlin in 1956. His early work was much influenced by Rimbaud and can be seen as a continuation and refutation of Expressionism. The French critic Bernard Dort has nicely called Baal, Brecht’s first play, the biography of an expressionist without illusions. Brecht liked the ballads of Villon and Kipling, as well as the early work of Chaplin, and he had a thorough distaste for everything that seemed solid and respectable. He devised imaginary worlds, Englands, Americas, Chinas of the mind, where contemporary problems could be viewed in a sharp, ironic light, and he elaborated his notion of “epic theater,” a mode of performance in which both actors and audience would continuously be aware not only that they were in a theater, but that their theater was in the world. A theater of solidarity, as Roland Barthes put it, but not of contagion; a theater that was “critical” but not “magical”; that avoided what Brecht later called “the great emotion racket.”

With Kurt Weill Brecht wrote The Threepenny Opera, which opened in Berlin in August 1928, and brought both of them enormous success. In 1929 Brecht became a communist, although he appears never to have joined the Party. He devoted much time to the study of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, whom he called “the classics,” and he wrote a series of “didactic plays.” With the rise of Hitler he was forced into exile, first in Denmark, then in Sweden, and finally in the United States, where he worked on some fifty film projects, but sold only one, for which he received no credit. An eloquent poem of the late Thirties, written in Sweden, records Brecht’s sense of what it meant to have his own language evoke an enemy country:

I am now living on the small island of Lidingö.
But one night recently
I had heavy dreams and I dreamed I was in a city
And discovered that its street signs
Were in German. I awoke
Bathed in sweat, saw the fir tree
Black as night before my window, and realized with relief:
I was in a foreign land.

In exile Brecht wrote a series of extraordinary plays, including Galileo, Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and The Good Woman of Setzuan. At the end of the war he hesitated about where to live, thought of Switzerland, applied for (and was granted) Austrian citizenship, but finally settled in East Germany, where he and his wife Helene Weigel founded the Berliner Ensemble, a group dedicated to putting Brecht’s theories of theater into practice, and his real fame began. Lotte Lenya, the widow of Kurt Weill and a star of the original Threepenny Opera, is not enthusiastic about Brecht’s politics or what she sees as his touchy vanity, but she once described him as “about the best” theater director she had known in her life. By the end of the 1950s Brecht was widely recognized as a major modern playwright, and his works were being produced everywhere.

Don’t write that you admire me,” Brecht told a Protestant pastor shortly before he died. “Write that I was an uncomfortable person and that I intend to remain so after my death. Even then there are certain possibilities.” Much earlier Brecht himself had written that he was a man on whom women couldn’t rely, and earlier still he had looked at his “idiotic face” in a mirror and found in it

many elements of brutality, calm, slackness, boldness and cowardice, but as elements only, and it is more changeable and characterless than a landscape beneath scurrying clouds. That’s why so many people find it impossible to retain….

He was “strictly provisional,” he said in his poems and in his diaries. “I mustn’t let myself get pinned down here by realities.” “Realities” included his children and their mothers and a number of other women who loved him. Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht’s lifelong friend and collaborator, who found for him Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, which was his starting point for The Threepenny Opera, and to whose memory Klaus Völker’s biography is dedicated, attempted suicide in 1929 when she learned that Brecht, unbeknownst to almost everyone and claiming that it was a matter of no consequence, had married Helene Weigel.

A biographer doesn’t have to be a prosecutor, but one does expect him at least to look into the character of his subject. The chief fault of Klaus Völker’s sensible but pallid portrait of Brecht is that it makes the poet seem such a tame and comfortable fellow, and offers us mere glimpses of the great man caught in a haze of mild-mannered admiration. Völker is the author of an earlier Brecht-Chronik (1971), an assembly of facts and dates and places meant to serve as a frame for future biographical work. Here the frame is blurred without being filled. Völker is well informed and fairly deft at steering his way past threatening political rocks—“For Brecht, to be anti-Stalinist was not a full-time occupation,” he writes, where the real question appears to be whether Brecht was not a nearly full-time pro-Stalinist—but the blandness becomes alarming after a while. Völker has no sense of the bundle of contradictions which made up Brecht’s personality. The poet kept on old girlfriends even when he had new ones because he was “a staunch lover and friend.” But then he also “changed women with as little compunction, as he changed his shirt”—with less compunction, perhaps, if we take note of the affection for scruffy old clothes Brecht records in his diaries. I think I see how both of these propositions might be true, how the staunch lover could remain faithful across what for anyone else would be infidelities, but I need some help, and Völker doesn’t seem to have noticed the problem.

On the subject of Brecht’s renowned prudence, his gift for staying away from anything that looked like danger, Völker cheerfully remarks that Brecht “lacked the courage,” but is not simply to be called a coward because he had none of Hemingway’s delight in adventure. “If he scented danger he had to get to safety.” I wonder what cowards do instead. Brecht himself had clearer and more complicated views on this issue. He saw that heroism cannot be required of anyone, that fear must be forgiven. His Galileo recants not when he is tortured by the Inquisition, but when he is shown the instruments of torture.

Brecht also saw that fear of one danger might produce bravery toward another, as when Mother Courage, terrified of poverty, sheds her fear of death, and drives through the bombardment of Riga trying to sell a cartload of loaves before they turn completely moldy. But Brecht insisted that heroism, which cannot be demanded, is unfortunately often needed, and that a Galileo who had not recanted would have been a greater man, would have enriched the world not only with his books, smuggled out of Italy after his recantation, but with his example. “If I had resisted, scientists might have evolved something like the Hippocratic oath of doctors.” Brecht knew that he might have taken greater risks, that he might have resisted both Stalin and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which interrogated him in 1947. He was his own Galileo, not the man Galileo might have been, and he could be hard on himself, as these dream poems show. The first was written in Santa Monica, the second in East Berlin.

I know of course: it’s simply luck
That I’ve survived so many friends. But last night in a dream
I heard those friends say of me: “Survival of the fittest”
And I hated myself.

* * *

The silver poplar, a celebrated local beauty
Today an old harridan. The lake
A puddle of dish-water, don’t touch!
The fuchsias amongst the snap- dragon cheap and vain.
Last night in a dream I saw fingers pointing at me
As at a leper. They were worn with toil and
They were broken.

You don’t know! I shrieked

Neither of these poems was published in Brecht’s lifetime, although the first was circulated among friends. Only a very small proportion of Brecht’s verse appeared in the three collections he made himself: Devotions for the Home, 1927, Songs Poems Choruses, 1934, Svendborg Poems, 1938. Of course there were songs in most of the plays. H.R. Hays’s Selected Poems, 1947 (and still in print), a bilingual edition with workmanlike translations and Brecht’s approval of the selection, adds one or two pieces, and Brecht himself published a few further poems among his occasional writings. But the discrepancy between this slender production and the ten volumes which now make up the complete poems in German is considerable.

Poems 1913-1956 prints some 500 items (out of a total of about a thousand), in contrast with the 200-odd which appeared in all the collections prior to the posthumous editions, and it has the air of an excavation: a buried poet comes to light. The English versions, by many different hands but obviously much worked over by the editors and the translators, have a grace and a fluency rarely found in translations from any language, and suggest a good deal of the pace and the tone of Brecht’s verse.

I’m not sure we need to conclude, as the editors do, that “he was writing the tragedy of our time” even “more painfully (and in the long run more powerfully) than in any of his stage works.” He doesn’t seem to me to have been writing the tragedy of our time at all—more like its grim, destructive, and very human comedy—and I see no reason to slight the plays, for the sake of the poems. But the poems are obviously major work, and the question a review needs to address, I think, is what do we now know about Brecht that the Selected Poems didn’t tell us.

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