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 New biographies and studies keep appearing, along with interviews and hitherto unpublished letters and diaries, and it’s easy to forget about the words on the page (or stage).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.

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