That Brecht was a nasty piece of work, and he didn’t even write his own plays

Michael Hofmann

  • The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht by John Fuegi
    HarperCollins, 732 pp, £25.00, July 1994, ISBN 0 00 255386 4

I have never read a life like John Fuegi’s of Brecht. Revisionism doesn’t begin to describe it. This is dartboard stuff, effigy abuse, voodoo biography. If Fuegi could get inside the Dorotheenfriedhof, uproot Brecht’s jagged scalene headstone, dig through six feet of Brandenburg sand and a zinc coffin, and do something to the remains involving chicken heads, inverted crosses and black candles, I don’t doubt that he would. In an epigraph over his preface – the first words in the book, effectively – he quotes an oblique little exchange from Waiting for Godot:

Estragon: All the dead voices.

Vladimir: To be dead is not enough for them.

I suppose this must be meant as a nod to Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Ruth Berlau, and the other oppressed and occluded members of ‘Brecht & Co’, but because Brecht himself is so much at the centre of the book, and it is Fuegi’s hatred for him that drives it, I can’t help but relate it to B.B. himself. ‘To be dead is not enough.’ And so Brecht, almost forty years dead, hopelessly, perhaps irredeemably unpopular, but still, mercifully, unignorable, gets another savaging.

It isn’t that I would have nihil nisi bonum. But a balanced, pro-Brecht book, giving equal space to the poetry, the plays, the ideas and the life, would be infinitely more valuable than this kicking, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, where, with a few rare exceptions – Tynan, John Willett and a handful of others – Brecht has always gone over badly. Two visits to London in the Thirties were pretty unavailing; the only dramatic success in six years’ exile in the States was not on Broadway or in Hollywood, but the cigar-smoking stone-walling in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington; and in one of the last things he wrote, days before his death (in 1956), a note to his Berliner Ensemble on their forthcoming visit to London, he was unillusioned, even prophetic about what awaited him there: ‘the English have long dreaded German art (literature, painting and music) as sure to be dreadfully ponderous, slow, involved and pedestrian.’

Xenophobia, philistinism, censoriousness, priggishness, have always been offered in loose handfuls by the English to foreign writers. Fuegi, who is described as ‘British-born’, no doubt thinks he is killing two (if not three) birds with one stone, when imparting such nuggets of information as the following in his nastily telescoped sentences: ‘When Threepenny opened in Paris, not only did it do splendidly at the box office, but it also won the endorsement of both the young Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, with Sartre (whose life is strikingly similar to that of Brecht) learning the catchy tunes by heart.’ As an approach, this is about as discriminating as the ducking-stool, and will no doubt draw similar circles of admirers.

To call this book one-eyed would be an overstatement. If Brecht had ever in his life helped an old lady across the road (doubtful, but still), don’t look for an account of the circumstance in Fuegi; but if someone somewhere had accused him of eating babies, it would be there in the index: ‘babies, B.B. eater of’. Things are used only inasmuch as they damage Brecht, and with the express purpose of doing so. There are various objections to this approach. First, six hundred pages of animus is overdoing it some: it is, to put it no higher, rather undramatic and lacking in variety. The pamphlet form might have served Fuegi better. Secondly, a biography, a vita, is a rather strange vehicle for such loathing. Every so often – actually, all the time – he suspends the narrative to give Brecht another wigging, and then resumes. Thirdly, this doesn’t actually do what it is supposed to do – namely, persuade the reader of the rightness of its case. That the reader will unquestioningly believe what he is told, and, if told it enough times, may even carry on on Fuegi’s behalf, telling his friends, ‘That Brecht was a nasty piece of work, and he didn’t even write his own plays,’ assumes a rather naive view of reading. It also doesn’t allow for fairness, the English equivalent of dialectic. Fourth, it wastes its time and the reader’s on a lot of aunt sallies: Brecht the lifelong Communist, Brecht the fair dealer and feminist, Brecht the bold anti-Nazi, Brecht the solitary genius, Brecht the selfless promoter of others’ works, Brecht the champion of alternative or underground theatre. So far as I know, no one now believes that Brecht was these things, and surely not many ever did. And yet Fuegi goes around stamping on them in his big boots. His book is full of detail and research, but on a larger level, it told me nothing I didn’t know, and, needless to say, I couldn’t hear Brecht in it. It’s only the counsel for the prosecution that ever gets to speak.

Fuegi was for 18 years managing editor of something called the International Brecht Society, but now he writes with the zeal of the unconverted. Any page, paragraph or even (one sometimes thinks) sentence not slamming Brecht is a waste of space. It begins with the book’s title and jacket. I’d actually been reading it for a couple of days before taking them in, at which point the title made me giggle, the near-subliminal variant on ‘Life and Works’ or ‘Life and Times’, but finally so impatiently, almost neurotically declarative. And then the typography: Fuegi’s name in white, in a round, solid typeface, the title by contrast in jagged, dripping Kung Fu characters, the first five words in white, but ‘Bertolt’ and ‘Brecht’, bigger and finally enormous, and red! That in conjunction with one of his 1927 photographs, wearing a large leather coat with a knotted belt, one arm thrown over the back of his chair, the other hand holding a cigar (what’s he about to do with it?), deepset eyes and a torturer’s personal smile: the very image for Fuegi to pin his Brecht = Hitler line.

Obviously Fuegi is extremely knowledgeable about Brecht, but all his knowledge is in the service of a rabid hatred. His book is six hundred pages of loathing, indignation, will-to-assassinate. It is difficult to read such a book, even more difficult not to become desensitised while reading it, to go on responding to its venom and absurdity all the way through – is it possible he relents for a time during the last East German years?

But before I became utterly punchdrunk, while I was still able to respond, it seemed to me his techniques were those of propaganda: everything done to serve a – transparent – intention. There is the sentence as mugging: ‘Bright, bold and delicate in his appreciation of the arts, while being at the same time apparently helpless in doing everyday tasks, he appealed to both young men and young women.’ There are the warped lists: ‘Brecht, Ulbricht and his successor, Erich Honecker’; ‘Stalin, Brecht, and the East German Government’. There are the fitted-up pairings and outrageous comparisons: ‘Bébé, like Nero’; ‘like the Berlin wine salesman Joachim von Ribbentrop, Brecht’; ‘Stalin’s and Brecht’s systems of control’; even ‘the jacket ... that would soon be associated with Brecht and Mao’. There is loads of sex, all of it intended to be discreditable, whether it be Brecht’s youthful (alleged) homosexuality or later homophobia, his multiple partners or his flaccidity and ‘urinary tract ailments’ late in life. There is the subtle widening of focus, to take in something irrelevant but lingeringly poisonous like ‘dreamily beautiful Dachau’. There is the tabloid-style use of detail or intensives to taint, magnify or belittle, as in ‘300 tons of pure gold a year’ (my italic); and also the tabloid-style reverse, the undifferentiated, intellectually aimless but rallying rehearsal of certain ‘facts’: ‘31 and enormously wealthy’, ‘increasingly wealthy’, ‘now wealthy and with real estate values driven radically down in the depression’, ‘in 1932, such was his success that a country estate was virtually an obligation’, and so forth. There is the vindictive pursuit of a course of particulars, without any suggestion that a variation or difference in them would be enough to cause leniency to operate:

As the violently aroused audience finally began to file out of the theatre, Bert told Bie that they could now go off alone together at least for a time, and she hobbled through the street in her tight dress. Brecht did not propose that they take a taxi to their destination, the Café Fahrig. Brecht had brought along a bottle of now-warm champagne that he had been given earlier by one of his admirers. He was incensed when the waiter charged a corking fee. They sat for two hours over the bottle, and then Brecht accompanied Bie on the long hobble back to her aunt’s in the Schwanthalerstrasse. He dropped her off and was gone.

If there is anything funnier than the tight-fisted and terminally ungallant Brecht, it is surely the fuming, violently aroused Fuegi, remorselessly tracking the couple through an evening: but one should ask oneself if it would have made the blindest bit of difference to his curmudgeonliness if Bie’s skirts had been looser, the champagne had been cold. Brecht had urbanely tipped the waiter and the two had had it away at her aunt’s. The answer, obviously, is no. Always first there is Fuegi’s rancour.

Fuegi’s besetting rage at Brecht regularly leads him into inconsistency. All his leitmotifs – money, for instance – are stunningly badly handled. Another obsession is with Brecht’s wardrobe and particularly his spectacles, but I defy any reader to say whether it is because they are cheap or expensive or cheap-looking. He simply has it in for Brecht, and it shows: ‘If he had made a lot of money from Threepenny, it did not look to her as if he had invested any of it into clothes: his suit was shabby, and his hair poked out from under a cap that he never bothered to take off. No sooner had he arrived than he was gone again.’ Then why should he have taken his cap off? But that’s Brecht in this book: he stays only long enough for Fuegi to parade his violent dislike for him – or for someone else, in this case, Margarete Steffin, to fall in love with him, a circumstance Fuegi leaves himself at a loss to explain.

Sometimes, when Fuegi does get it right, he is so elaborately vindictive that the effect is funny: ‘Before the master was up Brecht’s pretty maid, Mari ‘Peppi’ Hold, took out the ashes and relit the stoves, brought in the milk and the newspaper, and put on water to boil for his tea. She brought him the newspaper in his bedroom, opened the drapes, and every few days brought him hot shaving water.’ I could only write ‘Oo!’ in the margin at that.

Equally vindictive, equally ineffective, is the two or occasionally threefold use of certain witnesses and material; for instance and ironically, the tag that Brecht, ‘ever the literary ecologist’, recycled material. There are vulgar jingles, ‘sex for text’, practically delirious alliteration like ‘sickening sycophancy’, semiconscious word-play – ‘Eisenstein’s case was a warning of what was to come as the arts were brought under Stalin’s steel heel’ – and mindless near-nonsense like ‘discreet marital indiscretions’.

A corresponding poverty of epithets makes itself felt, all manner of people and things being classed as ‘famous’ and anything from the breasts of Marieluise Fleisser to the Finnish countryside to old Danish copper pots being described as ‘lovely’, usually because they stand in some sort of victim-relation to Brecht. And then there is plain, fearless – because there is nothing to be feared – bullying, totalitarian coarseness, Brecht ‘emptying his gonads’, or his women being ‘pushed, pulled, and periodically fucked into providing him with the life-style that Brecht felt was essential if he, the great master, was to publish “his” masterworks on the needs of the poor’.

This isn’t just low-grade, malicious and badly-handled: it’s not new and not important. Along the way, as hapless and omnivorous in his fury as Erisychthon, Fuegi quotes familiar statements that make his book redundant: for instance, Auden’s remark about having known three great poets who were ‘prize sonsofbitches’ (Or that’s how the remark was always relayed to me; it appears here, apparently gentrified by Charles Monteith, as: ‘Auden said to me ... that of the literary men he had known only three struck him as positively evil: Robert Frost, Yeats and Brecht!’) Paul Tillich saying: ‘We have two and one-half Communist representatives on the council. The half is Bert Brecht.’ And Eric Bentley and Lotte Lenya lament Brecht’s lack of decency and manners. It would be one thing to introduce such material for the first time, or even to come round to sharing such a point of view: but to believe it from the outset and stuff it behind the dripping cover is something else. The real drama, the only drama, is the palace revolution in John Fuegi’s mind some time in the last thirty years, and we’re not made a party to that.

Halfway through, I felt I had to bale out for a while, and read Klaus Völker’s 1976 life of Brecht, to try and preserve my responses. After Fuegi, it did seem bland, undetailed and occasionally servile (what wouldn’t?) – but you could also hear Brecht in it, and that was just so much more interesting. Fuegi, either wilfully, or because of limited capacity, tends only to tell half the story. Repeatedly – but then everything in the book is repeated – he makes little connections between Brecht and Hitler: ‘When Fritz Kortner directed Dorothy Thompson’s Another Sun in 1939, he shouted at her, as she put it, “like a crazed gorilla, his face purple, his eyes bulging”. Brecht, Viertel and Kortner, opposed as they were in theory to Adolf Hitler, repeatedly used an apoplectic style of directing in the American theatre.’ (Note the contrived seep from the descriptiveness of the first sentence into the second, and the planting of that ‘1939’, as though Brecht and the others were in the business of invading Poland.)

Twenty years before Fuegi, Völker pointed out that Brecht liked having a good shout in the theatre (especially at technical incompetence); that he would call people Nazis very readily; and that, where possible, he avoided unplanned ‘scenes’, for ‘Ruhegehört zum Regieführen wie alles andere’ (‘quiet, like everything else, is a part of directing’), the kind of mildly provocative Brecht sentence Fuegi has no ear for. Such remarks as the ‘nice little dictatorship’ he needed to set up to get his 1935 American debut on the right lines, or – of Stalin’s victims – ‘the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die’ may contain more wit than judgment, but they are meant as provocations, and Fuegi falls for every one of them with reflex outrage. I much prefer Völker’s response, which is to speak of ‘shock sentences’ and to comment on Brecht’s ‘passionate injustice’ when faced by stupidity and narrow-mindedness (not that Brecht couldn’t on occasion be stupid and narrow-minded himself).

The longer one spends over Fuegi (with or without the palliative of Völker), the more unsatisfactory he appears. Time and again, he pulls out, as though his case had been made. He harps on and on about Brecht’s wealth and his diddling of publishers (Völker quotes Brecht quoting Ramsay Macdonald to the effect that while all contracts are sacred, none lasts for ever), but he gives very few figures. It should have been the backbone of his book, but accountancy interests him less than moralising. Brecht’s meanness is a primary quality, and not interesting per se: some people just are mean. His need for money, though, and presumably for far more than he could ever spend, interests me – though unfortunately not Fuegi. Insecurity, to measure his success, out of an arithmetical cast of mind? No word from Fuegi.

On the other hand, Fuegi is forever accusing and hanging Brecht for faithlessness: but why did he keep the one promise in his life he did keep, his 1940 agreement never to harm the Soviet Union by anything he wrote or said? Fuegi doesn’t say. And again, Brecht is accused of chasing big productions of his plays (nothing that much wrong with that, one might think); but then he lets slip something about an all-black production of the Threepenny Opera in California. What about that?

A small amount of the book’s effort goes into establishing or rehabilitating the reputations of Hauptmann, Steffin and Berlau, Brecht’s principal cohorts (pictured on the back cover). But if Fuegi had been properly serious about this, he would have made them, or one or two of them, the subject of a book, not the done-to-death-and-beyond Brecht. Secondly, though the case for these sexually and literarily exploited women as the originators of much of Brecht’s dramatic work in particular is very strong – and again, not new – Fuegi makes it badly. The fact that Hauptmann contributed translations from English, French or Chinese (via Arthur Waley) does nothing for the claim that she was an original writer; quoting her as saying, ‘up until ’33 I either wrote or wrote down most of the poems,’ isn’t a great piece of evidence; and describing a poem by Steffin as ‘one of the many that Steffin wrote capturing his style precisely’ isn’t exactly impressive either. Nor does Fuegi do much to individuate them. Each makes the plays she is involved with centre on a ‘strong female character’. Well, thanks for nothing.

In the end, this is not just a nasty book, but an obtuse one. If one wants a description of the Sirens’ song, one would ask Odysseus, who had himself chained to the mast to be able to hear it, and not one of his earplugged oarsmen. But that’s what Fuegi is. He doesn’t hear Brecht, and doesn’t let his readers either. References to Brecht’s wit, charm, irony and playfulness come about every hundred pages, and, from Fuegi, don’t sound terribly convincing anyway. (Brecht in Fuegi’s translations, as often in English, is charmless, witless, generally voiceless: it might have been done deliberately.) Ironically, then, Fuegi is repeatedly drawn into descriptions of Brecht the Singing Seducer. These become, like much else in the book, unintentionally comic. Brecht picks up a guitar and sings one of his ballads, and people are all over him. But not John Fuegi. No.