Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht; drawing by David Levine

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 extraordinary unbiased people,” as he called us, “totally unspoiled by history”—by tracing his reading of such social novelists as Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Frank Norris, and Sherwood Anderson, not to mention the more exotic literature about America written by foreigners. This is useful—but what really attracted Brecht to America was not its literature, but its haunted, unknown quality. As an undiscovered country, America had the capacity to stimulate the unconscious side of his art, to make the familiar strange.

It was historically inevitable that reality would retaliate by confronting Brecht with the echt America. Brecht had already changed his mind about our country, Ms. Parmalee tells us, when he began investigating Marxist politics, a study he undertook, according to legend, because he couldn’t understand the complexities of the Chicago wheat exchange. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Brecht showed the dismay of a disenchanted lover. “What a bankruptcy! How great a fame has departed,” he wrote in a poem significantly entitled “Late Lamented Fame of the Giant City of New York.”

The Crash not only confirmed Brecht in his Marxism, it destroyed his belief that America was a source of any genuine strength. People were freezing and starving in the streets of Berlin as a result of an economic disaster thousands of miles away on Wall Street. Brecht’s disillusionment resolved him to write a play, St. Joan of the Stockyards, which would not only be located in America, but actually be about America—where he would look at the brutality, injustice, and exploitation of our country from a political-economic perspective. The archetypal American would now be named J. Pierpont Mauler, not Shlink or Garga or Joe Fleischhacker; the asphalt American cities (in Seven Deadly Sins) would be exclusively identified with the struggle for money; and sardonic hosannas would be sung (in Happy End) to the Fords and Rockefellers.


Having lost his mythic America, Brecht was doomed to do penance in reality. The period of this American exile is the subject of James K. Lyon’s fascinating study, Bertolt Brecht in America. Ms. Parmalee’s book is a meandering, disjointed examination of the influences on Brecht’s early views and the evolution of his Marxism which never seems to rise above the level of a senior research paper. Mr. Lyon’s, on the other hand, is an impressively researched, cleanly written discourse on six important years in Brecht’s life—his friends, his colleagues, his travels, his efforts to make a living in Hollywood, his failures on Broadway, and finally, his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the day before his permanent departure for East Germany.

Although Brecht had once characterized Hollywood as “Tahiti in metropolitan form,” his stay in this “mortuary of the easygoing” was far from pleasant. His early encounters here remind one of Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant, an optimistic steerage passenger sailing into the port of New York who looks hopefully at the Statue of Liberty—after which, having been roughly jostled by the ship’s officers, he throws it a second, more doubtful glance. As soon as Brecht arrived here from Europe, following eight years in Denmark and Finland, he was under suspicion as an enemy alien, made to register, and forced to observe a curfew. Mr. Lyon, who has examined Brecht’s FBI file (it runs to more than a thousand pages), tells us that the playwright was under surveillance from the moment of arrival, and that his phone was bugged for almost the entire period of his stay (Brecht’s wife used to read Polish recipes over the phone to confuse the eavesdroppers and once invited his FBI tail into the house for a bite to eat).

As for his efforts to support himself, these were pitifully unsuccessful. For Brecht, Hollywood was a marketplace “where lies are bought,” but he was not effective in marketing his own. He was perfectly willing to sell out, but nobody was buying—at least, in the beginning. Brecht had few qualms about exploiting his European friends—Peter Lorre, Oscar Homolka, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Erwin Piscator among them—but his work in Hollywood was a record of disappointment and piecemeal achievement, with the significant exception of his contribution to Hangmen Also Die—for which he failed to receive credit on the screenplay.

He was even less successful in impressing himself on the New York theater. The Threepenny Opera had been produced on Broadway in 1933, closing after twelve performances, and the Theater Union had produced The Mother in 1935—a production Brecht saw and hated. But until Galileo was performed in 1947, Brecht did not enjoy a major New York production of one of his plays. According to Mr. Lyon, he had set his mind on conquering Broadway, though he scorned it as “a branch of the world narcotics trade run by actors.” But although he made some contribution to the Elisabeth Bergner production of The Duchess of Malfi (it was Brecht’s odd idea to have the black actor, Canada Lee, play Bosola in white face), and supervised the mangling of his Private Life of the Master Race by a group of German-accented actors, arguably the greatest living dramatist of the time had to wait for at least two decades before his genius was acknowledged on the American stage.

Lyon attributes this to a combination of bad luck and bad temper; he provides more evidence of the latter. His book offers hair-raising documentation of Brecht’s extraordinary capacity to alienate, insult, and repel just about everybody in America who might have been some help to him—with the single exception of his wife, Helene Weigel, who tolerated his curt behavior and relentless womanizing with a forgiving stoicism (Brecht’s friends rewarded her saintliness by calling her a “kitchen slave”). Others were less tolerant. After Brecht had screamed at the actors of the Theater Union that their work was “shit” and “crap,” a pianist threatened to break every bone in his body. Albert Maltz complained of his “contentious arrogance” and of the smell emanating from his unwashed body, while George Sklar perceived in him “the same ranting and shrieking associated with the German dictator.”

Having written The Caucasian Chalk Circle with Luise Rainer in mind, Brecht became so abusive to her that she withdrew from the production. W.H. Auden found him a remarkable writer but “a most unpleasant man,” “an odious person” whose behavior was justification for the death sentence (“In fact,” he added ruefully, “I can imagine doing it to him myself”); Thomas Mann, whom Brecht loathed for his bourgeois leanings, called him “very gifted, unfortunately.” Even Eric Bentley, who was to champion Brecht tirelessly throughout the postwar years as his translator, director, and chief publicist, wrote that “he has neither good manners nor elementary decency…. He is like Dubedat in The Doctor’s Dilemma—a scoundrel but an artist.”


The one Brecht play that did succeed in getting produced professionally during his stay in America—his Life of Galileo—was almost entirely managed through the good offices of Charles Laughton. Laughton was the kind of actor Brecht enjoyed; he was Epic not only in his acting but in his girth (Brecht once wrote a poem about his belly). The actor responded with a three-and-a-half year collaboration, first as translator, later as star, on one of Brecht’s most ambitious works. Brecht’s behavior during this production was not very impressive either. For one thing, he bungled the opportunity to have Orson Welles produce and direct, though this would probably have assured its success. Brecht was well aware of Welles’s gifts; he had much admired his production of Around the World, which he considered a confirmation of his own Epic Theater theories. Like most American theater people, Welles was bored by Brecht’s theories but he was enchanted with Galileo and very eager to work on it.

Brecht lost Welles—and what Welles characterized as potentially “one of the greatest productions in contemporary theater”—because he was looking for a better financial deal. After unsuccessful efforts to enlist Mike Tood and Elia Kazan, Brecht settled for T. Edward Hambleton as producer and Joseph Losey as director, two of the most mild-mannered men in the American theater. Even with these gentle collaborators, Brecht could not control his nature. He refused to let Hambleton have world rights to the play (“I’ve held out against Hitler,” he yelled at him, “and I’m not going to give in to you”) and abused Losey so much during rehearsals that he offered to resign from the show.

Galileo was produced first in Hollywood and later (after Brecht had left the country) in New York, having been delayed many times because Laughton was making films. Laughton, a timid man, was worried about some of the political passages in the work, fearing that his association with a subversive might jeopardize his application for American citizenship. The production was also hampered by Laughton’s mannerisms, particularly his nervous habit of playing with his genitals whenever he was on the stage. (Helene Weigel—one of the great actresses of the century, reduced at this time to working on costumes—momentarily solved the problem, with Brecht’s collusion, by sewing up the pockets of Laughton’s pants.) The critical response to the Hollywood production was predictable. Some of the reviews were savage; others were obtuse. “Mr. Brecht’s corn is red,” was the opinion of the critic for the Los Angeles Examiner, while the recording angel of Variety announced that “the overall impression is one of dullness” and that “the script” doesn’t “make the grade.”

The “script” didn’t make the “grade” either when it was produced in New York. Mr. Lyon does not cover the opening, since by that time Brecht had already left the United States—but I have a memory of The New York Times comparing Brecht’s masterpiece unfavorably with Lamp at Midnight, another Galileo play of the time by Barry Stavis. It was Stavis’s play that entered the Samuel French catalogue, where it was available for college performance, while Brecht’s was left to languish in manuscript for at least another fifteen years.

Brecht’s greatest performance during his stay in the United States was, by common consent, his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee as one of the eleven “unfriendly” Hollywood witnesses. Thanks to the FBI, the House investigators had very precise information about Brecht’s political activities and opinions. Nevertheless, two things saved him from the fate of the others. He had never joined the Communist Party, either here or abroad, and he was an extremely sly person. Determined to say or do nothing that might ruin his chances to leave the country safely, Brecht submitted to testimony before the committee for an hour in a manner Lyon characterizes as “a polite exercise in cunning and duplicity.” He smoked cigars continually, under the impression that this would endear him to J. Parnell Thomas, the cigar-smoking Committee chairman; he admitted to being “revolutionary” only in his desire to overthrow the Nazis; he characterized his frankly communist work The Measures Taken as “an old religious Japanese play” (cleverly confusing it with The Yeasayer); and generally persuaded everyone that he was a friendly and forthcoming witness. After hearing the Committee praise him for his cooperativeness, he left the country forever, at the moment that his companions were being set up on contempt charges that would later land them in jail.

From the safety of East Berlin, Brecht wrote that the American investigators were better than the Nazis, since at least they allowed him to smoke. That was about the only good thing he could find to say about his experience here. He believed that, for the most part, he had described America accurately in his plays: it had the most advanced form of capitalism and hence the most brutalized form of human existence. “No wonder,” wrote Brecht, “that something ignoble, loathsome, undignified attends all associations between people and has been transferred to all objects, dwellings, tools, even the landscape itself.”

This was hardly a view of our country common to the Broadway of Oklahoma and Carousel, the Hollywood of Journey for Margaret, or the Madison Avenue of Ozzie and Harriet. But it would be articulated with increasing frequency in the Sixties and Seventies by Americans themselves, as the disillusionments associated with Vietnam began to stimulate perhaps the most ferocious critique of our social system in history. One suspects that the mordant, sardonic tone of this criticism owes a great deal to Brecht, as his style and attitudes gradually began to infiltrate American culture.

The highly successful, long-running off-Broadway revival of Threepenny Opera in the Fifties—the first to expose Brecht to a wide American audience—was really just a rehash of Pal Joey. But it would not be long before Brecht’s true spirit would begin to dominate the schedules of the resident companies, the directorial essays of the experimental theaters, the satirical sketches of the cabarets, the university drama courses, even the techniques of Broadway itself—first in Charles Laughton’s Epic version of Shaw’s Major Barbara, later in such musicals as Cabaret and Evita. Brecht helped to turn our Pepsodent smile into a Weimar sneer, altering our sense of ourselves and our society in a manner that has yet to be measured or chronicled. America’s Brecht—I hope that fertile unexplored country will be the subject of Mr. Lyon’s next book.

Yet much as we owe to Brecht, he surely owes something to us. It is a paradox, considering how unhappy he was here, that Brecht did the most important writing of his last years during his American exile; in East Germany, he wrote no more original plays, limiting his theater activity largely to adapting and directing. This new emphasis resulted in the development of a great theater, the Berliner Ensemble, where Weigel, the “kitchen slave,” would have the opportunity to show that she was a great actress, but it was the Hollywood years that produced Schweyk in the Second World War, The Good Woman of Setzuan, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Galileo. Perhaps opposition was a stimulus to Brecht’s dramatic instinct; perhaps a morbid discontent was the spark of his creative genius.

In few of the photographs included in Mr. Lyon’s excellent book does Bertolt Brecht look happy. He sits squinting in his Hollywood Tahiti mortuary as if being tortured by the sun. Only in his New York photographs does he permit himself the trace of a smile—particularly in one picture, where we see him sitting on the roof of an apartment house. His head is thrown back, he is smoking a cigar, he looks totally relaxed against a background of concrete, smog-encircled skyscrapers. This is his element, the one aspect of American life that did not betray him, the Asphaltstadt that originally inspired his cold, mean, merciless art.

This Issue

February 5, 1981