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Donald Sassoon

Only Half Marx

Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life
By Stephen Parker (Bloomsbury 689pp 30)
Brecht: couldn't bear to break with anyone

What a predicament it is to be an artist or a writer. You are never fully in control of your productions. You paint a cheerful Florentine housewife and, a few centuries later, some jumped-up critic decides she is a castrating femme fatale. You write an opera on Switzerland's national hero and the overture is endlessly used in stuff like The Lone Ranger and Yankee Doodle Daffy. The worst fate is that of the playwright. You write a text with, at most, a few notes on scenery and cast (exits, enters). Then the product is snatched from your hands by actors, designers and directors. It becomes their play. You sit in a corner sulking or, more frequently, you turn in your grave. Pity, then, Bertolt Brecht, who regarded himself, with considerable justification, as the great dramatist of his age, yet was condemned to have so little control of his plays and of his life. His health was poor; his erstwhile communist comrades disagreed with him about what political theatre should be; he was forced into exile in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the USA, all places where staging his works proved difficult. He became, as he wrote, the 'man to whom no one is listening':

He speaks too loud
He repeats himself
He says things that are wrong:
He goes uncorrected.

Only one aspect of his life did he manage to control: his lovers, towards whom he behaved appallingly, betraying them all but becoming enraged if he suspected them of cheating on him. And he could not bear to break with anyone - not with his women, not with his friends and not with communism and the Soviet Union. Yet somehow, against the odds, he revolutionised the theatre and left us some of the greatest dramatic masterpieces of the 20th century: Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and many others. One might be tempted to resort to a cliché: a flawed genius. Or, better, somebody who succeeded in making his flaws serve his genius.

This, and much else besides, emerges from Stephen Parker's masterly biography of Brecht, the first in twenty years. It is an astonishing tour de force based on impressive scholarship. For once the subtitle, 'A Literary Life', is apposite, for, as the complex strands of Brecht's life are revealed, we never forget that he is above all a writer. He speaks to us not only through letters and pronouncements but also through his poetry, abundantly quoted by Parker throughout the book.

If we had met Brecht in 1920 we would have found him a boorish young man, someone who used his verbal skills as a means of sexual conquest in the way other men manage to impress some women by flexing their muscles or flashing their cash. One gets a little lost in the list of affairs: Marianne Zoff, the wannabe diva, Margarete Steffin, Elisabeth Hauptmann and Ruth Berlau among others. He bedded Zoff, a ravishing beauty, when he was an unknown 22-year-old and five years younger than her. He barged into her dressing room at the end of one of her opera performances. As she recalled, she saw a thin little man holding a battered cap, wearing scruffy old trousers, unwashed (neglect of personal hygiene was one of his enduring traits) and speaking non-stop in a thick Swabian accent.

The nearest Brecht got to a revolution was during the political unrest after Germany's defeat in 1918. But while the revolutionaries were being routed and murdered, Brecht was in nightclubs chasing girls. He cared little for theory unless it involved the theatre. His Marxism was always a little jejune. He wrote: 'A man with one theory is lost. He needs several of them, four, lots! He should stuff them in his pockets like newspapers, hot from the press.'

Yet his plays are overtly political, in a way that those of the great playwrights of the past never were, not even the plays of Ibsen or Shaw. Brecht's commitment to socialism stemmed from his desire to break with bourgeois convention. Unfortunately for him, the communists, whether in the USSR or later in the GDR, were deeply committed to a bourgeois conception of art. They liked their drama to be straightforward and uplifting, with clearly demarcated goodies and baddies. Brecht satirised the 'communist' playwrights of Weimar days by writing:

For 3,000 marks a month
He is prepared
To put on the misery of the masses
For 100 marks a day
He displays
The injustice of the world.

Parker takes us through the various stages in the evolution of Brecht's method - Epic Theatre, followed by the 'alienation effect' or Verfremdungseffekt - but the basic premise was constant. While Stanislavski (and his main American epigone, Lee Strasberg) insisted that the actors had to 'be' the character they were impersonating and that the audience had to identify with what was happening on the stage, Brecht wanted the spectator's 'splendid isolation' to be left intact and not to fuse with the hero. Of course, Brecht was not alone in propounding these views. Erwin Piscator had pioneered, as part of the alienation effect, the use of slides, films and banners. Brecht himself traced the origins of this distancing to an older tradition, found in medieval plays and, above all, Chinese theatre (the performance given by Mei Lanfang's Beijing Opera that he saw in Moscow in 1935 was formative). Brecht explained: 'I'm sick of the new. I'm starting to work with very old material that's been tested a thousand times over ... I'm a materialist and a lout and a proletarian and a conservative anarchist.' Actors, too, contributed to his 'choreographed' theatre. They included Helene Weigel, whom Brecht married in 1929 and who remained at his side throughout, in spite of the indignities she had to endure. Her acting, notably in a production of Oedipus in 1928, was an important factor in Brecht's development of his method.

He had to struggle to become successful. What would turn out to be his most popular play, The Threepenny Opera, was actually a flop when it was first performed in New York. When The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (also with music by Kurt Weill) opened in Berlin it was disrupted by the Nazis. Saint Joan of the Stockyards (probably his most 'Marxist' play) was performed only once in his lifetime, on radio, in 1932. With the exception of The Threepenny Opera, none of his plays were performed in the Soviet Union during his lifetime.

The typical Brechtian hero is out of joint with the times, whether it is Jimmy Mahoney in Mahagonny, seeking pleasure under a capitalist system where pleasure is a commodity, or Schweyk and Mother Courage trying to survive during a war, never entirely conscious of the price they pay, or Galileo seeking to save his science in an anti-scientific age. Parker brilliantly analyses the Danish draft of Galileo from 1938, in which the Church resembles Stalin's 'clerical camarilla' in Moscow (a term Brecht himself uses), and contrasts it to the 1944 version in which Galileo, a naive believer in the power of reason, does not understand politics.

Brecht remained silent during Stalin's purges, though he interceded on behalf of friends. He wanted to believe in the USSR in spite of everything, convinced that any overt word against Stalin would play into the hands of Hitler, though he realised that in Russia 'a dictatorship rules over the proletariat'. He wrote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

And in his famous 'To Those Born Later' he asks posterity to 'Think of us/With forbearance'. Brecht was miserable in the USA when he fled there in 1941. He tried to get some work as a jobbing scriptwriter:

Every day, to earn my daily bread
I go to the market where lies are bought
Hopefully
I take up my place among the sellers.

He was unhappy in the claustrophobic émigré world of the German exiles in Hollywood and New York: 'Even in the backwoods of Finland', he wrote, 'I never felt so out of the world as here.'

The war over, he was not sure where to go. The Swiss did not want him. He was barred from the US zone in Germany. Even the East Germans were not very keen to have him, but they could not afford to turn away a now-famous anti-Nazi playwright. He finally acquired his own theatre and company, the Berliner Ensemble. He was prepared to compromise while being supported by a genuine popularity that terrified the communist hierarchy. And with reason: there were 56 curtain calls at the first night of The Caucasian Chalk Circle and the play was performed 175 times in its run; however, it was attacked or ignored by the Party press. Prudently, Brecht did not publish his famous poem 'The Solution', written in response to the workers' uprising of 17 June 1953, where he ironically declared that the people had lost the confidence of the government:

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?


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Donald Sassoon is Emeritus Professor of Comparative European History and the author of The Culture of the Europeans.


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