Bertolt Brecht in America
Bertolt Brecht experienced at least two different Americas in his lifetime—the one provided him with images, the other fired his rage. As a young man in Berlin, writing his early poems and plays, Brecht used America as the chief stimulant of his urban imagination—a dream country, a phantom nation, a generous supply house of metaphors for a poetry of the city which, in savagery and terseness, remains virtually unequaled in the twentieth century. After the Nazis acknowledged the power of his poetry by forcing him to leave Germany in 1933, Brecht spent fourteen years in exile, six of them (1941 to 1947) in the America that had so intrigued him in his youth. His stay effectively dispelled any remaining illusions about the country he had once called the “New Atlantis.”
Brecht’s mystic America, as it appears in such works as In the Jungle of Cities, Mahagonny, Arturo Ui, and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, was formed out of movies, novels, pulp fiction, news stories. It was a land of steel and concrete, of primitive emotions and primal innocence, embodying what Brecht called “the hostility of the big city, its malicious, stony consistency, its Babylonian confusion of language.” To Brecht, America meant stockyards, Wall Street, Chicago gangsters, New Orleans jazz, Charlie Chaplin, boxing matches, hurricanes, and typhoons. It had two kinds of landscape: Nature (the savannahs and prairies where one lives in lonely freedom) and the City (Der Asphaltstadt, where people are mauled and lacerated by economic necessity).
In In the Jungle of Cities, life is depicted as a wrestling match, where the motives are hidden, the stakes high, and the outcome fatal; the play is the perfect embodiment of Brecht’s perception of America as a naked arena of social Darwinism. Before Brecht’s conversion to Marxism in the late Twenties, he was able to contemplate this concrete jungle with equanimity, even with a certain feverish excitement; the pulsing quality of those inflamed early plays owes much to his aloof and amoral, yet self-hypnotized demeanor.
For Brecht, the American city was sometimes a disguised Berlin, but he had a genuine crush on the United States in his youth. “How this Germany bores me,” he wrote in 1920. “There remains: America.” In a poem of the same time, he described Germany as “a carrion land, anxiety hole” (Aasland, Kummernisloch), but, he added, “in the youth that you haven’t corrupted awakes America!” Brecht’s convictions about American incorruptibility were about as sound as his sense of American geography—in one play, Chicago is a port to the South Seas, in another, it is fourteen days travel from Lake Michigan. But one suspects the confusions were deliberate. As Joyce remarked about Shakespeare (another writer with a wayward grasp of geography), “a man of genius makes no mistakes—his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
In Brecht’s America, Patty Lee Parmalee examines the origins of Brecht’s early fantasies about Americans—“this …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.