The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht
By John Fuegi
Harper Collins. 732 pp., $39.95, (hb)
Reviewed by Dave Riley
As the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, word went out that this action drew on the inspiration of "the three B's" — Biermann, Bahro and Brecht.
The masses of Berliners who took to the streets in search of a new beginning had chosen their heroes well: Wolf Biermann was a master of the protest song, something of a Germanic Bob Dylan but with an allegiance to socialism; Rudolf Bahro, a sometime jailed GDR dissident who, after being exiled to the West, became a major theoretician and leader of the German Greens; and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), renowned poet and playwright.
Brecht's ready listing was sure to fuel the immense controversy that he has attracted since his early theatrical successes in the 1920s. Sometimes compared to Shakespeare (by Charles Laughton), Brecht is generally considered one of the great playwrights and directors of the 20th century.
Even now, almost 40 years after his death, his plays — along with those of Chekhov — are the most frequently performed works in the modern repertoire. (In my locality alone there have been three separate Brecht productions in the last year.) As the English theatre director Peter Brook has emphasised: "Brecht is the key figure of our time, and all theatre work today at some point starts or returns to his statements and achievement".
But much of the enthusiasm extended to his work inevitably catches on a snag — Brecht was a Marxist, and proud of it. Here was no fly-by-night intellectual acting out a brief romance with the revolution before returning excused to the comfort of bourgeois patronage. Instead, he immersed himself lifelong in the method of Marxism so as to enrich his skill and focus his playwrighting.
This unshamefaced political allegiance has annoyed the critics no end. Some, like John Willet — the author of many books on Brecht and his chief English translator — have chosen to look upon it as an aberration, something unfortunate but incidental to his achievements as a playwright and poet. In contrast, Eric Bentley — the keenest Brechtian in the United States — lamented that Brecht "would be a better writer if he gave up Marxism". Others are more disparaging and oppose his work on the grounds that it is coarsely didactic — even propagandistic — and lacks the subjective sentiments accessible only through a more personal theatre of individual experience.
Among the rest of us there are any number of specialists whose cursory acquaintance with his work promotes an all too ready employment of the label "Brechtian" to a wide range of very diverse offerings.
And finally, there are writers, such as John Fuegi, who tail-end controversy by generating their own hype in the hope that in the New World Order, mud-slinging sticks to dead reds better today than it did before Berlin lost its dividing wall.
Inevitably, commentators are forced to approach the phenomenon of Brecht by addressing not only the scripts of his plays but also his many writings on theatre as well as the way he directed productions in his last years. Mostly they decide to deal with his technical expertise in isolation from his politics. Thus sterilised, Brecht is apprehended as a modern dramatist and poet worthy of careful study, and of no more particular interest except that he also happened to be political.
This conscious attempt to neglect the total Brecht is more annoying because of its success in obscuring the continuing relevance of his artistic achievements. For those determined to seek him out, Brecht's legacy is a rich cultural vein that has survived all attempts by fascism, Stalinism and modern academic discourse to destroy its revolutionary content and warp its significance.
After he was driven into exile by the rise of Hitler in 1933, for the next 15 years Brecht's plays were seldom to reach the stage. Thwarted in his ambition to create a new theatre geared to the revolutionary promise of his time, he spent his last years defining and reworking his ideas while kowtowing to the new rulers of the GDR, who gave him a theatre of his own, the Berliner Ensemble.
What we identify today as Brecht's dramatic method is an amalgam drawn from the traditional Elizabethan and Asiatic stages, modern German cabaret and the work of his Marxist contemporaries such as the director Erwin Piscator and the theatre of the new Soviet state instigated by Vsevolod Meyerhold and Sergei Tretiakov (both of whom were later to die as victims of Stalin's campaign against "formalism" in the arts). Brecht's role — aside from his superb poetic ear and skill as a dramatist — was to develop a form of theatre that transcended mere illusion by committing itself to representing the social world as it was rather than as it appeared to be.
Most commentators have had trouble with such a quest and have failed to understand the rationale of the method involved. But Brecht was quite clear about what he wanted and how he proposed to get it. When he referred to Karl Marx as "the only audience for my plays that I had come across", Brecht was describing a primary focus that is lost on his many critics. He did not mean that only Marxists could understand his plays. Rather it was Marxists alone who could understand what he was trying to do.
And for those willing to make the effort, Brecht comprehended how insidiously and pervasively manipulative cultural production had become under capitalism. His response was to do something about it by creating a theatre that sought to redefine the relationship between audience and performance.
This particular and significant achievement — resting primarily as it does on the content of his work rather than its style — seems not to have registered with some professors of literature such as John Fuegi. For him, this side of the fall of the wall, Brecht is open season. After being compared to Hitler and Stalin, the Bertolt Brecht in Fuegi's new biography is portrayed as a misogynist and plagiarist whose major works were written by other writers. Fuegi insists that what we know as his plays were actually the work of women (and socialist feminists at that!): Elisabeth Hauptmann, Grete Steffin and Ruth Berlau — sometime lovers of Brecht who have not received appropriate recognition.
While the collective method of Brecht's writing has always been acknowledged (as well as his penchant for lifting material from the works of Arthur Rimbaud, Rudyard Kipling, Francois Villon and Arthur Waley's translations of traditional Japanese Noh plays) Fuegi's determination to downsize Brecht's primary and essential role in its creation is advanced through the most preposterous assertions.
In reviewing the book for the Australian recently, Michael Morley (professor of drama at Flinders University) was curt: "... we are asked to accept that he [Brecht] cheated his collaborators blind, caused Margarete Steffin to die of tuberculosis, was indirectly responsible for Ruth Berlau's death in a hospital fire in 1974 (18 years after his own) and had so exhausted his stock of what a Victorian poet termed 'faithful female friends' that 'by 1956, as in his teen years, his most trusted companion was a dog'. Thankfully, the author refrains at this particular juncture from explicitly suggesting bestiality."
As founder of an outfit known as the International Brecht Society, Fuegi's motives in generating his own highly original version of the Brecht story can only be described as dubious. His interpretation of the epoch in which Brecht lived is facile and couched in sternly judgmental terms that even insist that somehow Brecht was complicit in the rise of fascism and Stalinism and the Cold War extremes of Senator Joseph McCarthy!
This ready moral outrage contrasts sharply with his subject's fascination with the ethics of capitalist society. Indeed, the bulk of Brecht's plays and poems are parables in the mode of those of the New Testament. In casting Brecht as a hypocrite and charlatan, Fuegi's core project is to make out that the Bertolt Brecht we think we know did not exist. Rather than a shock, it's an embarrassing fantasy.