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 …

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