Giving the Devil His Due

Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama

by John Fuegi
Grove, 732 pp., $32.50

Bertolt Brecht: Journals, 1934–1955

translated by Hugh Rorrison, edited by John Willett
Routledge, 556 pp., $39.95

After Brecht

by Janelle Reinelt
University of Michigan Press, 231 pp., $39.50

“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…

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