In response to:
Giving the Devil His Due from the December 1, 1994 issue
To the Editors:
I read Michael Meyer’s balanced review [NYR, December 1, 1994] of recent books by and on Brecht with pleasure. However, in praising Professor Fuegi’s undeniable efforts to “set the record straight” about Brecht, Meyer quotes as unquestioned fact Professor Fuegi’s allegation in his Brecht and Company that the young Brecht “had a habit of urinating into baskets of clean laundry to save going downstairs to the ground floor toilet.” I am less concerned with the details of Brecht’s infamous laxity in matters of personal hygiene than with Professor Fuegi’s grasp of the German language. Quite simply Professor Fuegi has misunderstood a poem in which Brecht describes his mother’s dripping laundry as “pissing” into the basket below.
Some of Meyer’s criticism about poor checking by the publishers must fall on the author since there are a good many such instances of inaccuracy on points of German: Arnolt Bronnen’s play Exzesse is translated not as “Excesses” but as “Excess” and his Katalaunische Schlacht more seriously mistranslated as “Battle of Catalonia” (the play actually deals with the famous “Battle of the Catalaunian Fields” at which Attila’s Huns were defeated by an alliance of the Romans, the West Goths and the Franks). A number of German names and titles are mis-spelt, thus Brecht’s poem “Keiner oder Alle” is cited as “Keine oder Alle,” Mehring’s Ketzerbrevier as Ketzenbrevier, Zaubernacht as Zaubermacht, Herrnburger as Herrenberger, Stauffenberg as Stauffenburg, Der Untergang des Abendlandes as Die Untergang, Junge Bühne as Jungen Bühne, Sport im Bild as Sport im Bilder. The actor Harald Paulsen becomes Harold Paulsen, Jakob Geis becomes Jacob Geis, Albert Lortzning becomes Albert Lortzning, the character Cridle becomes Criddle, Franz Blei becomes Franz Bleis, Lotta Svörd becomes Lotta Svörd, Ernst von Salamon becomes Ernst von Salamon, the Munich Kammerspiel becomes the Kammerspiel, while the play Urfaust is re-titled Urfaustus.
There are problems at the level of information too. Anyone who has tried to go by train from Munich to Freiburg, even nowadays, is not likely to think it “nearby.” More seriously, Brecht is criticized for not pleading the Fifth Amendment as all Communist Party members had been instructed to do by Moscow, yet Brecht’s biographer, Klaus Völker, states that Brecht answered quite truthfully when he said that he was not a member of the party.
Statements about Brecht’s texts are not always as reliable as they should be. It is not true, for example, that “At the play’s close, Baal feigns death, and grabs and consumes the vulture that has descended to feed on him”; Professor Fuegi may have been thinking of the poem “Chorale of the Great Baal.” Nor is Drums in the Night set in a “bedroom”; the first act is set in the “Stube” or main room of the Balickes’ flat. Nor is it true that The Good Woman of Setzuan is the first play by Brecht in which “somebody who does good will not be executed”; not only is Pelagea Wlassova, heroine of The Mother, not executed but the last scene of the play shows her refusing to hand the Red Flag over to others and proclaiming that those who are defeated today will be the victors tomorrow.
Department of German Studies
The University of Birmingham
January 12, 1995