“what makes me think that a small collective produced shakespeare’s plays is not that I believe that a single person could not have written these plays because a single person could not have such poetic talent, be versed in so many fields and have such a broad general eduction. it is just that technically the plays are put together in a way that leads me to believe i recognise the workings of a collective. the members of the collective need not always have been the same, it may have been a loose arrangement, shakespeare may have been the decisive personality, he may just have had occasional collaborators etc, but the leading ideas can equally well have come from some elevated person who constantly used s[hakespeare] as head of script production. using old plays, the need to build up a repertoire, writing parts for specific actors, the promptbook character of the plays, the parts that are hastily pieced together, the naive love of theatre, the ingenious craftsmanship, the fact that both lyrical and philosophical elements are wholly theatrical and devoid of any independent existence, all this suggests an actor or theatre manager as author.”
Thus Brecht wrote in his journal for December 8, 1940, using, as was one of his many eccentric habits, no capital letters. John Fuegi, in his new biography, asserts that Brecht employed precisely this method to create all his best plays, ruthlessly exploiting the work of various mistress-collaborators and other acquaintances and then denying them either the credit or the royalties to which they were entitled. The Swiss director Benno Besson claimed that he and Elisabeth Hauptmann had written “Brecht’s” version of Molière’s Don Juan and that Brecht had “hardly interfered at all.” According to Fuegi, “it now seems indisputable” that Hauptmann wrote at least 80 percent of The Threepenny Opera and was almost entirely responsible for St. Joan of the Stockyards, as well as for most of the play adaptations credited to Brecht after his return to East Berlin in 1947. Nor was her contribution to the Brecht oeuvre confined to his plays. John Willett, his distinguished translator and editor, notes that the original manuscripts of his short stories of the 1920s often show few or no marks of his hand, and believes that at least seven of the eleven “Berlin” stories are by Hauptmann, while Fuegi claims that a number of his poems from 1924 and large sections of his famous dramaturgical theories were likewise written by her, offering a wealth of evidence which it is difficult to ignore.
Brecht was born into a solidly bourgeois family in Augsburg in 1898, son of the comfortably off owner of a small factory. He began early to write poems, short stories, and songs, which he sang effectively to his own accompaniment on the guitar. He sympathized with communism, but “maintained his distance from it, except in so far as it could provide material for his writing.” Throughout his life he was to keep his distance from both causes and people, except sexually. At the age of twenty he wrote his first play, Baal, dramatically immature but powerfully poetic and written with a startling sexual frankness—the main character is a bisexual poet and murderer—which Brecht had learned from his first model, the German dramatist Frank Wedekind. He followed this with a play about a failed revolutionary, Spartacus, later to be retitled Drums in the Night. Of his poems at this time, and it was to apply to all his subsequent work, he wrote that he wanted “sentences that can be flung out, the crazy enjoyment of the flesh of words” that will “knock out the listener’s teeth.”
Dreams and nightmares pervade the poems and early plays, showing his fears, as Fuegi puts it, “of being unloved; of impotence, tuberculosis, or heart failure; of powerlessness; of abandonment on a planet turning in cold space; of old age, death, and burial itself. He is both godlike creator and the helpless, powerless, so often abandoned Bebé.” He had many sexual affairs with both men and women, and at twenty-one became the father of an illegitimate son. He demanded from his lovers, throughout his life, absolute submission, and lived on an allowance from his father at least until his late twenties. He changed his name from Berthold to Bertolt because he thought the former sounded unpleasantly aristocratic. As yet he showed little interest in politics.
In 1924 he met Elisabeth Hauptmann, a writer and translator a year older than himself, and almost at once they became lovers and literary collaborators. She noted
how difficult it was for him to complete anything, particularly if it was longer than about twenty lines of verse. Poetry came naturally, but plays usually came only very slowly and with vast amounts of help from friends. Years later he would tell Eric Bentley and James Schevill that he really was a poet and not a playwright. He often had good ideas for plays, but somehow…after a fine start, he would be unable to complete the work….
Close examination of the manuscript trail makes it clear that by 1925 the work of Hauptmann and Brecht had become totally intertwined, and he regularly took over her work as his own. For instance, a short, and subsequently very famous piece, “The Benares Song,” is written in Brecht’s hand but underneath Hauptmann wrote at the time: “By Hauptmann. Brecht’s handwriting.”
The Threepenny Opera in 1928 was an instantaneous success, thanks largely to Kurt Weill’s music, but although he made various adaptations, notably of Gorky’s The Mother, Brecht wrote nothing further of interest for the theater before fleeing from the Nazis in 1933. His first eight years of exile, in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, before he reached America in 1941, were to produce his best plays: Galileo, Mother Courage, Arturo Ui, The Good Woman of Setzuan, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Apart from The Threepenny Opera, he wrote no first-rate plays outside this period, and certainly none (and very few poems) after his return to East Berlin in 1948. The late adaptations of classics such as Coriolanus, Molière’s Don Juan, and Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer (as Trumpets and Drums) were, according to Fuegi, “prepared by staff members [of the Berliner Ensemble] and then…stamped for sale with the Brecht label,” though they are still published as being by Brecht.
What Brecht did achieve during those last eight years of his life in East Berlin was a series of magnificent theatrical productions. I saw three of these, Mother Courage, Galileo, and Arturo Ui, and they remain among the great theatrical experiences of my life, superbly staged and acted. Whatever doubts one may retain about Brecht as a dramatist (one need have none about him as a poet), he was one of the great directors, with this important qualification, that, like his distinguished disciple Joan Littlewood, he confined himself to directing work that he had written or at least partly written himself (which in Littlewood’s case includes such masterpieces as The Hostage, originally by Brendan Behan but much reworked by her, and Oh What a Lovely War!). Brecht’s productions owed nothing to his famous theory of Verfremdung or “Alienation”: two people who took part in The Caucasian Chalk Circle recall the word Verfremdung being mentioned only once in all the long months of rehearsal, and the great performances in those plays, by Helene Weigel as Mother Courage, Ernst Busch as Galileo, and Eckehard Schall as Arturo Ui, quite contradicted Brecht’s theory, in that both actors and audiences completely identified themselves with the characters portrayed. Brecht had conceived the theory in the 1920s to counter the German habit of self-indulgent acting, but Sam Wanamaker rightly observed that Weigel’s performance as Courage was “indistinguishable from that of a superbly trained Stanislavsky actress.”
In 1931, Brecht had found a new mistress, Margarete Steffin, and Fuegi argues that until her death in 1941 at the age of thirty-three she contributed as fully as Hauptmann to the work he completed in this decade, which included the five outstanding plays written in exile. He was as incapable of finishing any large work in her absence as he had been in the absence of Hauptmann, so that “except for a handful of plays completed in later years with Ruth Berlau [a Danish mistress], or after the war by Elisabeth Hauptmann, the career of Brecht the worldclass dramatist died with Margarete Steffin in Moscow in June, 1941.” On her deathbed Steffin said that she had often thought of stopping work with him, “but then it pained me as I saw that without me he didn’t really get anything done.” Fuegi adds that Brecht’s creative paralysis after her death, throughout his years in America and East Berlin, is evidence that she saw things correctly. The strain on Steffin contributed to her early death. Hauptmann said: “One doesn’t help out a bit with Brecht, you work for him 24 hours a day.”
His meanness toward his collaborators became legendary. Although Hauptmann had written virtually all of his early play Happy End, he gave her nothing from the $15,000 he got for the film rights, which would have been the equivalent of ten years’ income for her at the time. He swindled both her and Kurt Weill of royalties from a Paris production of The Threepenny Opera, telling Weill that he himself had received nothing. He violated a contract with a Finnish author who had written the original work on which he based his play Puntila, gave Ruth Berlau nothing from the $22,000 he got for the film rights of Simone Machard, based on a work by her, although she was entitled to $10,000, “four times her annual salary”; and even his wife, Helene Weigel, “had to ask him for every cent needed for household expenses, to which he would usually claim that he had no money or, when he was away, that money was in the mail.” Throughout his life he falsely claimed that he was getting no money from theaters or publishers. The screenwriter Ferdinand Reyher, who worked with him in Hollywood, complained that he “never or rarely credits a line, idea, suggestion, correction.” Fuegi sums Brecht up, not unfairly, as
a wealthy man who compulsively presents himself as poor; a Communist who mercilessly exploits those around him; a man who denigrates women and then proudly presents their work under his own name…. He saw himself as a genius in a self-created universe of the dominant and the dominated,…where he held others to promises and contracts while breaking them himself at will.
In starving postwar East Berlin, where the humblest clothing of any kind was at a premium, we find him ordering yet another fur coat for Weigel and seventy meters of silk for his daughter Hanne. Orson Welles found him “very, very tiresome,” and even his disciple and pioneer Eric Bentley complained: “He has neither good manners nor elementary decency…. He even asks that my introductions contain no criticisms of his work…. His paranoia was as outrageous as that of anyone I’ve ever met with the single conception, perhaps, of the critic F.R. Leavis.” Albert Maltz “came to loathe him as a person who not only displayed ‘contentious arrogance,’ but also whose unbathed stench made working with him extremely difficult.” As a youth in his father’s home, he had had a habit of urinating into baskets of clean laundry to save going downstairs to the ground floor toilet.
Peter Brook declared: “Brecht is the key figure of our time, and all theatre work today at some point starts or returns to [sic] his statements and achievement.” Fuegi approvingly adds: “The impulse that had such an extraordinary effect on Peter Brook can also be detected in works as diverse as Weiss’s Marat/Sade, Schaeffer [sic]’s Equus and the brilliant stage adaptation of Dickens’s ‘epic’ novel Nicholas Nickleby.” Neither Marat/ Sade nor Equus is a first-rate play, though Brook’s production made a memorable evening of the former; I do not see how Brecht influenced the writing of Equus; and John Caird, co-creator with Trevor Nunn of Nickleby, assures me that Brecht did not affect either the compilation or the staging of that play. Brecht’s influence as a director on such gifted followers as Brook and Joan Littlewood is undeniable, but as a dramatist he seems to me to have spawned no worthwhile heritage.
After Brecht, a recent analysis by Janelle Reinelt of his supposed effect on British dramatists, names six who she thinks owe a debt to him. The most accomplished of these, David Hare, denies any such influence, and the others, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Trevor Griffith, John McGrath, and Howard Brenton, show little evidence of it in their best plays, such as Bond’s Saved and Bingo and Griffith’s Comedians. Reinelt mentions William Gaskill’s productions of various Brecht plays as another example of beneficial influence; I saw some of these and thought them pale imitations of the original productions.
I also think it absurd to claim, as Fuegi does, that Brecht provided “the most influential body of critical writing on theater that the twentieth century would produce.” Has that muddled theorizing, to which Brecht himself paid little or no attention in his own productions, had any beneficial influence whatever? I remember a National Theatre production of Danton’s Death about ten years ago based on Brechtian principles. No one but the chief actor, Brian Cox, was giving any performance at all. I asked Cox why, and he said the director had told them that nothing must be allowed to come between the text and the audience. “What does that mean?”
“It means nobody is allowed to do any acting.”
“But you are.”
“Yes, and every night the director comes round and tells me off for it.”
Fuegi offers disappointingly little critical appreciation of Brecht as poet or playwright, and his own prose is verbose and uneven, occasionally so bad that it reads like a translation by someone with an uncertain command of English. Solecisms abound. “While shedding some leftovers, there would be much that he kept.” “When ill,…she [Hauptmann] prepared a sitz bath for him” (meaning when Brecht was ill). “No other magazine ‘had such an influence on Brecht’s development’ than Querschnitt.” “Every available copy…were now collected.” Did no editor at Grove Press read the book? Clichés abound. Ruth Berlau is first “stunningly” then “radiantly beautiful,” Steffin “dazzlingly beautiful,” a Finnish estate “intoxicatingly beautiful.” Graham Greene once told me to beware of the adverb used thus as an adjective, saying it usually just meant “very,” which was a word one should be wary of anyway. Most damagingly, Fuegi’s translations of the poems, of which the book contains many, are of the poorest quality, giving no indication of the power and beauty of the originals. The index is wretchedly inadequate.
Nor does Fuegi make clear what I think is undeniable, namely, how Brecht’s mastery of language transformed the journeywork of his collaborators into something very considerable, at least in such plays as Mother Courage, Galileo, and Arturo Ui. (Some, though not I, would add The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Good Woman of Setzuan.) Brecht was not only a fine poet but wrote vivid and exciting German prose. He once said that what he wanted to bring back to the theater was the red-blooded excitement he felt when he went to a boxing match or a circus, which had been there in Shakespeare’s time but had been replaced by middle-class respectability. Eric Bentley did brave work pioneering Brecht’s plays in the English-speaking world, but his translations do scant justice to the originals, rendering their powerful and poetic language into the flat dialogue of soap opera. No one reading them would guess that Brecht was a master of both poetry and prose. How would Synge’s Playboy of the Western World or O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock seem if they were similarly reduced to clichés? Nor have any of Bentley’s successors satisfactorily solved the problem.
I have seen Shakespeare in inadequate foreign translations, French and Scandinavian, but so strong is the structure and characterization of his plays that in a curious way, stripped of their poetry, they may come across more strongly. But Brecht’s plays are as dependent on their language as Synge’s or O’Casey’s, and without that language even the best of them can seem rather thin stuff. I have never seen any non-German production of them, even in Scandinavia where the languages are closer to German, that did justice to them, even in the hands of gifted directors such as Alf Sjöberg. And even if one accepts that Brecht was largely dependent on his collaborators, was what he did any worse than painters such as Rembrandt using assistants to do the preparation work? I find it difficult to doubt that the final language in each play, or anyway his best plays, is Brecht’s. What is reprehensible is the way he minimized and sometimes completely denied such assistance, allowed Hauptmann and the others little or no credit and, above all, kept the money for himself when they were living in poverty and he was comfortably off and, toward the end, rich.
Brecht’s Journals, 1934–1955, have belatedly appeared, skillfully edited by John Willett and fluently translated by Hugh Rorrison. They are curiously dull to read for the first 150 pages until he reaches California in July 1941, with much obscure and uninspiring theorizing and little or nothing about the planning and writing of his important plays. Once he gets to America the pages spring to life, with sharp pen portraits of Max Reinhardt (“pale as an ink-drawing that has been treated with blotting paper”), Odets (“the difference between him and any old film scribe has begun to disappear”), Isherwood (“small, gentle, tough, patient, and trying”), and other German exiles such as Schoenberg, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Peter Lorre, and Fritz Lang. An old actor named Ludwig Hardt represented just the kind of actor who had caused him to demand alienation, “an old-style reciter who loads each word with atmosphere…all sonorous cadenzas, crescendos and tremolos.” Brecht disliked California,
i can’t breathe in this climate. the air is totally odourless, morning and evening, in both house and garden. there are no seasons here…. neither smoke nor the smell of grass to be had. the plants seem to me like the twigs we used to plant in the sand as children…custom here requires that you try to “sell” everything, from a shrug of the shoulders to an idea, ie you always have to be on the look-out for a customer, so you are constantly either a buyer or a seller.
The journals are profusely illustrated with photographs and newspaper cuttings which Brecht pasted in the diary pages, as Strindberg did in his Occult Diary. (Incidentally, Brecht approved of Strindberg on the grounds that he was a campaigner for men’s rights!) Of his last girlfriend Brecht wrote, in words that Strindberg might have used, “These women weep when scolded, whether justly or unjustly, simply because they are being scolded. they have a kind of sensuality that needs nobody to arouse it and that isn’t much good to anybody either.”
Brecht deserves to be remembered as a splendid if uneven poet and short story writer, the author of a handful of eloquent plays that seem to defy translation, and a great director. Like Strindberg, he wrote an inordinate amount of rubbish in every form he explored. Time is beginning to sift the gold from the dross, and Brecht’s dishonesty, moral cowardice, and other shortcomings are no more relevant to an appreciation of his work than Strindberg’s many disagreeable qualities are to his. But Fuegi is right to put the record straight, even though one could wish that he had given this undeniable devil more of his due.
December 1, 1994