Brecht’s New Age

Margot Heinemann

  • Brecht in Context: Comparative Approaches by John Willett
    Methuen, 274 pp, £12.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 413 50410 7
  • Brecht: A Biography by Ronald Hayman
    Weidenfeld, 423 pp, £18.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 297 78198 7

It’s probably a good thing that we know so little about Shakespeare’s personal life. What biographical information we have concerns leases, wills, marriage lines, property. His pillow-talk with Anne Hathaway, Emilia Lanier or Mr W. H., interesting as it may have been, was not recorded. If you want to discuss Shakespeare, you have to depend on reading and seeing his work. Not so with Brecht. Not only did he write a great deal of commentary himself. All those who knew him well were impressed, and by now almost every one of them has written a book or articles about him, or at least had one ghost-written. New biographies and studies keep appearing, along with interviews and hitherto unpublished letters and diaries, and it’s easy to forget about the words on the page (or stage).

Given the wealth of material, the problem is to sort it out, sift and select, so that it can help rather than distract the reader. The two books under review belong to very different genres, both of which are relevant to this task – John Willett’s a critical and historical study based on many years as reviewer, English editor and translator of Brecht, Ronald Hayman’s a lively, detailed biography – though the first turns out to be far the more expert, original and reliable. Indeed, Brecht in Context, economical, witty and unpretentious in a way that Brecht would have liked, but immensely well-informed and thoroughly documented, seems certain to become required reading for anyone seriously interested in the dramatist. Willett focuses first of all on the poems and plays and their presentation in the theatre – a refreshing change after so much writing about Brecht has concentrated (often rather aridly) on his dramatic theories. His private life is brought in only as it serves to illuminate the work, though Willett clearly knows at least as much about its essentials as Hayman, and includes some notes on his contacts with the Brecht circle. Here, for instance, is a perceptive account of the integral part played by music and the visual arts in the impact of the plays. Brecht was not just lucky to have collaborators of the quality of Weill, Eisler and Dessau in music, Neher, Otto and Von Appen in stage design. He had himself a keen eye, great musicality and the skill and taste to know exactly what he wanted for his plays and song-settings. He did not simply delegate responsibility, Willett argues, but directly and creatively influenced composers and artists of great stature who developed a distinctive Brechtian style in their work with him.

Other sections bring out his particular attraction to literature in English, from Shakespeare to the modern crime story: a tradition which he found richer and more coherent, sharper and lighter than the German heritage. Kipling’s work was a powerful influence from the first, especially the early songs and stories written in India, before his absorption into the Establishment. As one of the few authors between Shakespeare and Brecht’s favourite Hasek to give a voice to the private soldier, his use of music-hall songs, catchy rhythms and plebeian idiom provided a model for the popular vitality of Brecht’s own songs, so unlike the more lofty and emotive socialist poetry of the German Expressionists (his relation with whom, as with Piscator, is also sensitively examined). Among English contemporaries, Brecht had the highest regard for Auden, whom he was always keen to secure as translator or co-worker, and Auden himself, though less friendly in later years (because of political divergences and perhaps also, Willett thinks, through fear of McCarthyite persecution) still spoke of Brecht as one of the poets from whom he had learned most. The kernel of the book, however, is the account of the role of politics in Brecht’s life and work, to my mind the most convincing anyone has yet written: thoughtful, scrupulously factual, at times very moving.

Hayman’s Brecht: A Biography is highly readable and entertaining, drawing on a mass of secondary material, much of it unavailable in English, with a few additions and interviews of his own. It is not being cynical to say that the long bibliography of writings about Brecht, the chronological table of events in his life and the admirably full index are the book’s most valuable features. The publishers’ claim that it is ‘the first book to put his political and theatrical ideas in the context of his personal experience’ is not strictly accurate: Klaus Völker’s book with the identical title appeared in English in 1979, while Frederic Ewen’s Bertolt Brecht: His Life, his Art and his Times (1970) tackled the same task with a stronger historical sense and better-produced photographs, and has scarcely been invalidated by all that has appeared since. Still, Hayman’s is the first book to draw on the full up-to-date range of sources and construct an attractive story from them.

The easy read has to be accepted with caution, however, for the narrative is a good deal less objective and definitive than it seems. Selecting from a wide range of material from different and not always reliable witnesses, Hayman doesn’t discriminate between his sources, so that controversial anecdotes and opinions may be stated in the text as facts, often without quotation marks, and few readers will have the time or expertise to check what was said by whom, when and why. Sometimes this leads to strange results. To take one example, on page 228 we’re told as a fact (without quotation marks) of Brecht’s ‘ambivalence towards Weigel ... inseparable from characteristics he regarded as typically Jewish’. Looking up the reference (as most won’t), one finds his ‘ambivalence towards Weigel and the Jews’ to be taken from the memoirs of Ruth Berlau, not in her old age the most impartial of witnesses on the Brecht-Weigel relationship. Similarly, Brecht as a child was a coward and often a bully of younger boys – according (if you look it up) to his brother Walter, who a little later served as a volunteer in Von Epp’s Freikorps to crush the Munich Soviet. It may be true, but one would want better evidence than that. What we really get, then, is a mosaic of pieces from diverse sources, some of which must be treated with reserve, fitted into a preconceived pattern which differs little from that laid down by Martin Esslin a generation ago, with its presentation of a man caught between the twin evils of Communism and Fascism.

The most interesting part of Hayman’s book deals with Brecht’s early life in Augsburg, which the biographer clearly finds more congenial than his later, more socially and politically engaged years in Berlin. This gives a vivid impression of the precocious, iconoclastic schoolboy and student, centre of a devoted group of friends, a great party-giver and party-goer, famous for singing his own cabaret songs to the guitar; already influenced by Wedekind, Büchner and Rimbaud, he thought at 18 that he wrote better. Much of this account is new to English readers, who will at least be encouraged to think of Brecht as extraordinarily good company, amusing and brilliant, rather than a heavy philosopher best known for his quarrels with Lukacs. He was also sexually adventurous, anarchic and unsettled – not simply promiscuous, but given to passionate romantic attachments, his male arrogance encouraged by the fact that, thanks to the war, there were, in his generation, far more girls around than boys. The considerable amount of material now available from diaries and letters on his early relationships with Paula Banholzer (who bore his first son, Frank, killed in the Wehrmacht in 1942) and Marianne Zoff (his first wife, mother of his actress daughter Hanne Hiob) shows him by no means the gay seducer happily loving and leaving them. His attitudes at this stage, not untypical of the sexually-emancipated of such circles at the time, are thoroughly contradictory: committed but not faithful, opposed on principle to private property in sexual relationships, terrified of being tied down, yet with a strong feeling for children and paternity.

Less usual was the way he later brought his women friends into active partnership in his work. His close if stormy relationships were long-lasting because as well as personal they were collaborative – which doesn’t mean the women were important only as collaborators. (Reading the poems written to Steffin, Berlau, Weigel should be enough to establish that point.) It is clear that we owe a great deal to the women who loved, worked and put up with Brecht: to Margarete Steffin, the young working-class Communist who collaborated on Galileo and Courage and died of tuberculosis in voluntary exile; to Elisabeth Hauptmann, co-worker for thirty years from Threepenny Opera to Trumpets and Drums, whose editing work made the Collected Works possible; to Ruth Berlau, who photographed the productions in detail and devised the Modellbücher which recorded them for future generations; to Helen Weigel, something of a bogeywoman in this biography, who kept the household and children going in exile, and who, after 11 years as a housewife, came back to organise the Berliner Ensemble, helping to make it internationally famous by her playing of roles such as Courage and Volumnia. Hayman refers to Brecht’s ‘mistresses’, but the connotations are quite wrong: there’s a suggestion of knowing naughtiness to which the biographer himself sometimes succumbs, as on page 208: ‘Fore-boding tarnished all the pleasures of living with a devoted wife and two children in a comfortable house on a beautiful island with two mistresses not far away.’ Examples are legion.

Failures of taste are not the main problem, however. As the story continues and Brecht’s political concerns assume a larger part in it, Hayman becomes an increasingly unreliable guide, his objectivity in selecting evidence more and more suspect. Disliking Brecht’s political ideas, as he has every right to do, he sets out to minimise their importance and to treat his Communist commitment as neither rational nor serious – a kind of spin-off from the theatrical and sexual concerns which were his real interest. The trouble is that Brecht really is a deeply political writer, whose plays don’t make sense if one refuses to come to terms with his dialectical approach and insists on isolating the contradictory, divided behaviour of his individual characters from the cruel, contradictory, jarring world they inhabit. The insoluble contradictions of a Shen Teh or Mother Courage, represented by Brecht as the outcome of a class-divided social order that needs to be changed, are taken by the critic (who sees nothing much wrong with the social order) as evidence of the writer’s own psychological conflicts, dishonesty or cowardice. All real historical complexities are reduced by this relentlessly personalised, crudely ‘psychologising’ method to Brechtian evasiveness or self-interest.

Indeed, Hayman often seems less concerned with critical appreciation of the plays than with using them to diminish and put down the man and his politics. Witness, for instance, his extraordinary treatment of Man is man, Brecht’s famous anti-militarist satire of 1925, in which the peaceful dockworker Galy Gay is tricked into uniform and reassembled as a ferocious soldier of the British Army in India. Hayman comments: ‘Though Brecht cannot have been unaware of the play’s relevance to Nazism – a man’s identity changed when he put on a brown shirt and jackboots – Brecht cynically refused to adopt a disapproving stance ... Galy Gay wants to survive even at the cost of becoming someone else, and instead of being punished by the action of the play, he ends up in a stronger position.’ Satire and irony seem to be beyond the critic’s comprehension. Apparently he really thinks that because Galy Gay isn’t ‘punished by the action of the play’, Brecht is quite neutral about his transformation into a ‘human fighting machine’ in an imperialist army, ‘longing to sink his teeth in the enemy’s throat’, and setting fire to a fort full of refugees whose screams are heard offstage. In support of this remarkable interpretation, he tells us that when Man is man was later performed on radio, Brecht’s introductory talk showed that no harm was done to Galy Gay by losing his precious ego, and quotes: ‘It’s quite a cheerful affair. For this Galy Gay emerges unscathed; he comes out on top, as a man with this attitude is bound to come out on top.’ Again quite missing (or suppressing) the glaring Brechtian irony, Hayman omits the two following sentences underlining it, with which the talk ends. ‘But perhaps you will arrive at a quite different conclusion. Which I am the last person to object to.’

On the evidence of this unscholarly reading (to use no harsher term), Hayman goes on to smear the author. ‘Brecht was making no protest about the way in which Hitler was liberating his supporters from outmoded restraints on aggression.’ Indeed, he goes further still, suggesting an autobiographical context: ‘No one could have been more eager to come out on top [than Brecht] ... If he had a centre it was subjective, and rejecting subjectivity he was hungry for transformation, willing to flow into any shape [my italics]. This he had in common with those who became Nazis, but he was able to dramatise the process.’ I found all this so startling that I turned back to Man is man, and could scarcely believe that anyone, let alone an experienced critic, could read it as Hayman says he does. For, while the form is comedy and slapstick clowning, the theme of the play is quite clear, even in its earliest version: to turn a peaceful man into a human fighting machine is easy but appalling.

Hayman, however, is determined to confirm the impression he wants to give that Brecht was unconcerned about Nazism until the eleventh hour, and indeed had much in common with it. In support of this, he cites the playwright Arnolt Bronnen, who claimed that in Munich in 1923 he was ‘uncomfortably aware of swastikas, uniforms, strident shouting’, whereas the young Brecht ‘seemed to enjoy the spectactular choreography of the large-scale fascist demonstrations’. No one would guess (and Hayman fails to mention it anywhere in the book) that Bronnen later joined the Nazis, while Brecht wrote in The Theatricality of Fascism (a work Hayman likewise doesn’t cite) the most brilliant analysis of the methods of showmanship used at Hitler rallies. This is pseudo-objectivity indeed!

Equally revealing of Hayman’s incomprehension are his comments on The Life of Galileo. When this great play was first written in 1938, Brecht intended the audience to have some sympathy with Galileo’s recantation before the Inquisition, since it enabled him to survive and write his major work, the Discorsi. But while Brecht was reworking the play with Charles Laughton in 1945, the first nuclear bomb was dropped at Hiroshima, and he felt that ‘overnight the biography of the founder of modern physics read differently.’ Because, as he said, ‘the atomic bomb has really made the relationship between society and science a matter of life and death,’ he deliberately altered the balance of the play, giving Galileo a long speech of self-condemnation in which he proves that his recantation was a crime against science and mankind, not to be compensated by his work, however important it might be. This, says Brecht in a later note, is also the playwright’s opinion, but the audience has to make up its own mind: confronting his contradictory situation, ‘one can scarcely wish only to praise or only to condemn Galileo.’

All this complex seeing is lost on Hayman, who insists on taking it as one more example of Brecht’s psychological hang-ups. The great tirade is for him ‘an interesting example of bad writing’, because ‘atom-bomb or no atom-bomb, Brecht is repeating what he had done before with nearly all his best characters ... [he] turns against his character and produces a new version to make the audience sympathise less. It would be simplistic to suggest that Brecht is turning against himself, but an austere denial of the pleasure-principle is clearly at work.’ Whether or not the new ending is an improvement dramatically (as many would think it is), to see the denunciation of scientific irresponsibility as ‘an austere denial of the pleasure-principle’ is surely to turn a blind eye to the main point. The idea that the scientist should take some responsibility for what is done with his work – a desperately topical issue in the nuclear age – is for Hayman merely a perverse denial of the intellectual’s right to fulfil himself. The same trivialisation is evident later, when he dismisses the Short Organum for the Theatre – a close-packed summary of Brecht’s dramatic theories written in 1948, which likewise stresses the menace of uncontrolled science in the atomic age and the social responsibility of scientist and dramatist – as a ‘manifesto’ probably ‘planned for later use in impressing the East German authorities’.

Appreciation of Brecht clearly demands a less simplistic and slanted approach to his political attitudes. Fortunately, Willett goes far to provide it in his chapter on ‘The Changing Role of Polities’, which is neither snide nor starry-eyed, but scholarly and subtle, informed by his wide study of 20th-century German cultural and political history. In view of the long-standing prejudices and misrepresentations which still cloud discussion, this is a particularly important contribution to our reading. Brecht’s political involvement began with the strong anti-war attitude formed while he was still at school, which was reinforced by his brief service in the army medical corps. Indeed, ‘The Legend of the Dead Soldier’, a ballad-masterpiece about the military authorities digging up the dead and marching them back to the front, written in 1918 when he was 20, put him on the Nazis’ hit-list from the beginning. Poverty and famine, the suffering of the poor and the complacency of the comfortably-off inspired some of his most poignant early poems: on the evidence of these alone, Hayman’s description of him as ‘not yet concerned about social injustice’ in the mid-1920s is quite inaccurate. But unlike many of his contemporaries, as Willett shows, he was not swept into revolutionary politics on a wave of emotional protest and enthusiasm. For some years after the aborted revolution of 1918-19 his position was anarchic and cynical. He arrived at Marxism later and by what he himself termed a ‘cold route’. It was not till 1927, while working on plays about the oil trusts and the world wheat market, that he felt the need to understand how big business operated and began seriously to study Marxist economics, to attend lectures by Korsch and Sternberg, to ask Weigel for Communist books and to read intensively in Marx and Lenin.

His conviction was never purely theoretical, however. According to Willett, a turning-point seems to have come for him in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash and the world economic crisis which led to the rise of the Nazis. On May Day that year he saw the Berlin police fire on an unarmed workers’ demonstration, killing 20 people. An eye-witness account by Fritz Sternberg (a non-Communist and later strongly anti-Communist, but at that time a close friend of his) describes what was evidently a crucial experience for Brecht, and gives a vivid impression of the atmosphere of pre-Hitler Berlin:

When Brecht heard the shooting, and saw that human beings were being killed, he turned white, as I have never seen him before ... I believe that it was this experience that was not least influential in bringing him closer to the Communists ... Later we drove in an auto through Berlin ... The police were unusually courteous towards us since we had a car, and as one of them remarked, since we didn’t belong to the ‘rabble’. That working men who were demonstrating on I May should be termed ‘rabble’ by the police was something Brecht was never to forget. Even ten years later, when we were both emigrants, he would recall that incident.

For some reason Hayman plays down this episode, though admitting that Brecht saw the shooting. ‘Brecht would go on talking about this later, but in May he was preoccupied with defending himself against Kerr’s charge of plagiarism.’ Sternberg’s book Der Dichter und die Ratio is cited in Hayman’s bibliography, and it’s hard to see why he has so curiously minimised the experience, except that it doesn’t fit his general interpretation: that all Brecht deeply cared about was his own work, while his Communist politics were mainly the result of his relationship with the probably ‘fanatical’ Weigel, and later of the desire to get his plays performed in East Berlin – though for most of his life his Communism must have been a grave disadvantage to his career as a playwright.

At all events, it’s probably right, Willett thinks, to date Brecht’s definite commitment to Communism from 1929: his co-worker and friend Elisabeth Hauptmann (a strong influence on Brecht, but hardly to be seen as an accomplice of Weigel) applied to join the Party in that year, and it’s quite likely that Brecht did too, though the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD, may well have decided, as it apparently did with his collaborator Hanns Eisler, that he should not be formally admitted. ‘Much would be explained,’ says Willett, ‘if Brecht was treated in the same way: in particular that mixture of intellectual independence and outward conformity which was to characterise his attitude to the Party’s policy from 1929 on.’ He may be right, but whether Brecht did or didn’t technically hold a Party card is perhaps not the relevant point.

Brecht’s new Communist convictions were spelt out in the songs in the Lehrstücke (‘learning plays’), summarised by Willett: (a) communism is simple, rational and depends on learning and study; (b) the Party is immense and indestructible, and if its policy is wrong it would be still more wrong for the individual to act on his own; (c) altering the world means dirtying your hands; (d) piecemeal reforms are inadequate; (e) the rank and file of the oppressors are not all that different from the oppressed; (f) an unfulfilled life is a worse fate than death. ‘These were genuine beliefs, and neither he nor Eisler could have expressed them so powerfully if they had been anything else.’ Brecht kept his old scepticism and detachment, but was prepared at times under principle (b) to override them. On this, Willett quotes aptly from Brecht’s Me-Ti aphorisms, a pseudo-Chinese collection of analytical and critical comments on the Communist movement, written on and off in exile and never published in Brecht’s lifetime. There a figure called Do argues:

One has to doubt anything one hasn’t seen with one’s own eyes. Rebuked for this negative attitude ... he came back and said: I must amend that. One has to doubt what one has seen with one’s own eyes too. Asked what could set a limit to doubt in that case, Do said: The wish to act.

This ‘wish to act’ differentiates Brecht’s attitude from that of some others on the Left – such as Karl Korsch, from whose teaching on Marxist dialectics he learned a great deal – whose criticisms of the Soviet Union or of KPD policy led them to justify an inactivity and passivity which he found unacceptable. But, though he remained sceptical and independent as far as the form of his work was concerned, there is no evidence that Brecht at this time was politically any more far-sighted than the KPD about the need to join forces with other anti-Fascists to keep Hitler out. On the contrary, as Willett stresses, ‘he seems to have shared their view that proletarian revolution was now inevitable and a Nazi government merely the last desperate throw of the ruling class: a brief if unpleasant phase that the KPD could afford to sit through.’ His writings of the pre-Hitler years suggest that ‘for him as for the Party, capitalism was still the main enemy, and the Social Democrats, whose police had fired on the workers in 1929, its main ally.’ Only later did he realise that resistance in Germany had largely been suppressed and that ‘sitting it through’ would not be enough; and even after the line of the Communist International changed to one of building a united front against Fascism, he was slow to accept that anyone could be against Fascism without also opposing capitalism.

As Willett shows, with the political and artistic changes in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s (to which in his Danish and Finnish exile he was closer than most English Communists), the worst of the ‘dark times’ began for Brecht. Many German friends living there were arrested or ceased to answer letters: Socialist Realism, which had been a mere slogan in 1934, became a stick to beat the avantgarde, and émigré cultural organisations were being closed. About the show trials he was doubtful: he thought some of the charges might be true, but the proof was insufficient. Nevertheless, with all its flaws, the Soviet Union remained the one bridgehead of socialist construction and therefore had to be supported. In public he took the line Marx had recommended to the émigré German Social Democrats of his day – ‘critical, but for it’ – and did not attack the trials. His reservations and criticisms of Stalin (who he still thought was doing some useful things) were expressed only privately, in discussions with Benjamin and others and in the unpublished Me-Ti aphorisms.

Even though in 1939 he believed that by signing the German-Soviet pact the USSR had ‘saved itself, at the cost of leaving the workers of the world without guidance, hopes or help’, this didn’t lead him to despair of Communism. As a refugee, he remained unassimilable by capitalist America, and never had any intention of staying there after the war. His decision to return to Germany – and, within a divided Germany, to the Eastern, Communist-run part of it – was, Willett says, predictable and inevitable, in line with his whole development, and above all with the sense that there he was needed and could be useful. Willett is especially interesting on Brecht’s last years in East Germany, where, as he realised, the situation was deeply contradictory, with the occupying power attempting to impose socialism largely from above on a country where Nazism and the forces that led to it had not been rooted out by native resistance or revolution.

In particular, Willett documents clearly and convincingly Brecht’s much-misrepresented attitude to the protests and violent demonstrations he witnessed in Berlin in June 1953. Deeply shocked as he was, he saw these as based on genuine working-class grievances, exploited by the old Nazi and Western capitalist forces, and forcibly repressed by the Russian Army. He reacted to the shock, not only by publicly expressing solidarity with the Socialist Unity Party in the emergency, but by equally openly pressing it to seize the precious opportunity for a large-scale discussion on conditions with the working class, who at least were no longer passive. The crisis signalled not only danger but positive hope, if the Party was determined to correct its mistakes. He insisted on publicising his reservations about the Party’s mistakes, which the initial reports of his letter to Ulbricht, its Secretary, had not mentioned. And he began to plan a work about the real-life shock-worker Hans Garbe, to be written with Eisler as a Lehrstück, with an entire act about 17 June. Willett doesn’t go into detail, but Brecht drew up a scenario in 1954, in which the shock-worker hero works purely as an individualist and fails to win the support of other workers, who regard him as a scab and rate-cutter and eventually beat him up so badly that he dies. His friend flees to the West, but then returns with a greater political understanding to help save the factory. Though this was one of the projects Brecht never completed, it shows one direction in which he hoped to develop the critical, didactic function of his theatre.

The whole record effectively refutes Hayman’s suggestions that Brecht was guilty of ‘insincerity’, ‘cynical lying’, and using the occasion to ingratiate himself with the regime so as to secure a theatre of his own. It increases one’s respect for Brecht’s political insight and for the stance he was taking towards both political and cultural authorities.

Where does this leave the story? Willett sums it up thus:

Brecht believed in a new age, an age of new ideas and technologies ... an age of productive doubt, very much the kind of age he makes Galileo experience in the marvellous great speech at the beginning of the play. Between 1929 and the mid-1930s he seems to have seen this coming through communism; then he realised that he himself was not going to experience it. Thus the middle section of [the poem] ‘To those born later’ ... reports that

    Our forces were slight. Our goal
    Lay far in the distance
    It was clearly visible, though I myself
    Was unlikely to reach it.

Evidently it had become less clearly visible by the time Brecht wrote the various forewords to Galileo, with their vivid picture of what it means when such expectations come to nothing – a picture that seems not to be painted with his usual detachment. And yet at the end of the play he still, in the last version, made the old scientist say a laconic ‘Doch’ to Andrea’s assumption that he no longer believes in a new age at all. ‘Doch’, a curtly affirmative denial like the French ‘Si’, a single word for ‘on the contrary’. This in my view was Brecht’s own position ...

In all the shelves of books about Brecht, I doubt if anyone has put it better.