Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life 
by Stephen Parker.
Bloomsbury, 704 pp., £30, February 2014, 978 1 4081 5562 2
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In​ his Svendborg Poems, written in exile in Denmark in the 1930s, Brecht wrote: ‘In the dark times/Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing/About the dark times.’ His life was shaped by these dark times. He came of age during the First World War, became a successful writer in the years before Hitler’s rise to power, spent 16 years as an émigré, and returned to Berlin only to clash with the East German apparatchiks. Stephen Parker’s superb biography of a great iconoclastic writer is impressively sourced, rich in detail, well-paced, highly readable yet serious. His Brecht was chastened by the dark times, but remained what his friend and stage designer Caspar Neher called him in his youth, Hydratopyranthropos, the Water-Fire Man, made up of contrary elements.

Brecht was born in Augsburg in 1898. His father, a Catholic, was a sales assistant at a paper mill; his mother was a devout Protestant who taught him the Bible. Autobiographical fragments describe his Bavarian childhood: snowball fights and roller skates, the butcher’s dog and spinning tops. He ran a puppet theatre and he recorded the moral precepts of his upbringing: ‘Having to eat sauerkraut is healthy. Father must have his rest … One doesn’t say shit.’ Eugen (he started calling himself Bert in 1916, and after 1922 Bertolt) was diagnosed as a ‘nervous child’; serious illnesses left their mark: untreated bacterial pharyngitis led to rheumatic fever and from there to a weakened heart and Sydenham’s Chorea, which caused a facial grimace and uncontrolled movements. As an adolescent he was gaunt, emotionally erratic and intellectually precocious. Bored at school, he read what you would expect a clever young man to read – the French symbolist poets, Stefan George, Rilke, Wedekind, Nietzsche – but he was also interested in street cries and fairground songs, whose rhythms found their way into his earliest ballads.

When war broke out he was attracted by the idea of heroic sacrifice, and the first money he earned from his writing came from patriotic verse. But idealism turned to disillusion and his anti-militarism caused a rift with his father and strait-laced brother Walter. He now immersed himself in British and American literature: Robert Louis Stevenson, Melville, above all Kipling. He became the leading figure in a bohemian gang who wrote and sang songs together, drank, chased girls and shocked respectable burghers. He narrowly avoided being expelled from school: a teacher argued in his defence that he had been seriously disturbed by the war, a claim Parker is more inclined to take at face value than earlier biographers. (The date of his conscription was repeatedly deferred thanks to paternal string-pulling.) In October 1917 he enrolled as a medical student at Munich University; the following year he served briefly as an orderly, first in an amputation ward, then in a ward for sexually transmitted diseases, which provided material for the scurrilous work that was becoming his trademark. He knew which side he was on during the revolutionary upheavals at the end of the war – ‘I’ve completely gone over to Bolshevism’ – but he didn’t take part. His life was chaotic in those years. He was writing theatre criticism, verse, parodies, essays, one-act dramas and his first, not yet produced plays, Baal and Drums in the Night. He was no less energetic sexually, seeing five or six women at the same time. One of them, Paula Banholzer (‘Bi’), gave birth to his son Frank in 1919. Brecht as a young man is easy to dislike. He was volatile and sarcastic, often cruel to his male friends, and treated women appallingly. There is an element of self-portraiture in his 1918 obituary of Wedekind, whom he describes as ‘ugly, brutal, dangerous’. Brecht’s ambition comes through in a diary entry written when he was 22: ‘I am seized with a wish to have the whole world delivered: I wish all things to be handed over to me, along with power over all animals; and my grounds for this demand are that I shall exist only once.’

From 1920 to 1924 he moved between Augsburg, Munich and Berlin, which he called ‘cold Chicago’ and wanted very much to conquer. Drums in the Night was produced at the Munich Kammerspiele in September 1922 – it was the first performance of one of his plays. Herbert Ihering, an influential Berlin critic, wrote that Brecht had ‘changed the face of German literature’ and ‘brought to our age a new voice, a new sound and a new vision’. In the same year, Brecht married the opera singer Marianne Zoff; their daughter, who became the actress Hanne Hiob, was born in 1923. Hired as a dramaturg at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, Brecht moved permanently to Berlin in September 1924. His favourite restaurant there, Schlichter’s in Schöneberg, was run by the brother of the painter and Communist Party member Rudolf Schlichter. Works by Georg Grosz hung on the wall; Kurt Tucholsky, Alfred Döblin and John Heartfield were regulars. Brecht and his crowd were fascinated by America, by its new, brutal version of capitalism which was remaking the world, by its technology and its popular culture. The fascination found its way into his verse and his plays. He went to boxing matches, became an enthusiastic driver (very fast and reckless, according to Grosz), and drew up a list of things he wanted to learn about that included photography, technology, finance and sailing. The early influences of the fairground and the cabaret were now joined by the movies. His play Lindbergh’s Flight (1929) captures the period: its protagonist is American, its subject is aviation and it was written for radio.

He had started an affair with the actress Helene Weigel before he moved to Berlin – their son Stefan was born in November 1924. Weigel had a stronger personality than Brecht’s other women, including Marianne Zoff (whom he divorced in 1927). Brecht and Weigel married in 1930 just before the birth of their second child, Barbara, and although he was never monogamous, far from it, his relationship with Weigel was to anchor his life. As Parker notes, he had already made efforts to concentrate more effectively on his work: ‘My appetites should be regulated,’ he wrote in the summer of 1925, ‘so that wild turns might be eradicated and long-term interests made tractable. So that, for example, I could write plays very quickly.’ He began to follow a routine: he rose early, worked, ate and rested at set times before going to bed at nine. Around this time, he estimated that he had enough material for forty plays. The prediction turned out to be remarkably accurate, even if the works to come were mostly not those he’d envisaged in 1925. He was interested in the role of the city in producing a new kind of human being – this was the ‘heroic landscape’ mapped in the poem cycle ‘Reader for City Dwellers’. It had been the setting for an early play, In the Jungle of Cities; now it provided the backdrop for two of his great works, Mahagonny and Saint Joan of the Stockyards (only performed once – on the radio – in his lifetime). Little Mahagonny, written in 1927, was his first collaboration with Kurt Weill, who had read the Mahagonny poems in Brecht’s collection Domestic Breviary, and suggested that they be put to music. The following year they worked on an adaptation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. Written very quickly in the spring and summer of 1928, The Threepenny Opera was a huge success. It ran for the whole season in Berlin and by January 1929 was playing in 19 German towns as well as Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

Not everyone was happy. Weill was outraged when his wife, Lotte Lenya, was left off the cast list, an early sign of the difficult relationship both of them would have with Brecht. There were charges of plagiarism: Brecht had used K.L. Ammer’s translation of ballads by François Villon to replace some of Gay’s songs without acknowledging that he had done so. Ihering, the Berlin critic and one of Brecht’s strongest supporters, described The Threepenny Opera as a ‘light ancillary work’. And then there were its politics. Like other works by Brecht it was condemned by the National Socialists. The response on the left was more complicated. The theatre critic of the Communist newspaper Rote Fahne (‘Red Flag’) complained that it contained ‘not a trace of modern social or political satire’. There was a back story to this remarkable judgment. Brecht was scornful of the Social Democrats’ timidity and sympathetic to the Communist cause. He began to read Marx and Lenin seriously in 1926 and later said: ‘when I read Marx’s Das Kapital I understood my plays.’ The point of what became known as ‘epic theatre’ was to break with naturalist drama, which encouraged identification with the individual, and to deny the audience any kind of catharsis, forcing them instead to leave the theatre with a sense of being socially engaged. Hence the back-projections, the well-lit auditorium, the actors who speak directly to the audience: all this was designed to achieve the Verfremdungseffekt – not so much the ‘alienation effect’, the common translation, but, as Parker points out, ‘estrangement’ or ‘defamiliarisation’. Brecht’s Lehrstücke, or dramatic ‘lessons’ (Lindbergh’s Flight was the first), had the same purpose. There were clear affinities here with the revolutionary theatre of Erwin Piscator, a rival, but someone with whom Brecht also collaborated and from whom he learned. Those who pushed the orthodox Marxist line complained that Brecht failed to provide heroes with whom workers could identify and accused him of bourgeois formalism. Georg Lukács comes out of this account particularly badly, both in the last years of the Weimar Republic and in the later years of exile, when the stakes were higher.

Brecht was intellectually most at ease with other unorthodox Marxists like Walter Benjamin and Karl Korsch. He remained a ‘Marxist heretic’, Parker’s title for the third section of his book, which describes Brecht and Benjamin in the South of France, discussing Proust and Schiller’s court case, debating whether a play could be made out of a detective story, and plotting to set up an International Society of Materialist Friends of the Hegelian Dialectic – this organisation was established, improbably enough, with some of its statutes drafted by Brecht (one noted that the society was separate from the cultural organisations of the German Communist Party). Brecht believed that left-wing politics and formal innovation were not antithetical, but he didn’t want to wash the left’s dirty linen in public. The hostility he encountered from Party members didn’t stop him working on a film for the Comintern-sponsored company Prometheus, run by Willi Münzenberg. Kuhle Wampe took its name from the campsite on the Müggelsee where many homeless and unemployed people lived. It ends with Brecht’s ‘Solidarity Song’, the lyrics of which would be read to him years later when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kuhle Wampe was initially banned, but after cuts it was released in May 1932 and attracted large audiences.

In July that year the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag. A month later, with a perverse sense of timing, Brecht borrowed money from his father to buy a house on the Ammersee in Bavaria. Any hope he had of an anti-fascist popular front had gone by the time Hitler became chancellor in January 1933. At a meeting of left-wing writers in February, Leonhard Frank said playfully to Brecht that he thought the idea of the meeting was to start a revolution. ‘Then you’ll be pleasantly disappointed,’ Brecht replied. Two weeks later, the morning after the Reichstag fire, Brecht and Weigel took a train to Prague and then to Vienna. Their apartment in Berlin was searched the day they left. Several destinations were considered. One was Switzerland, to which Brecht made an exploratory trip (it allowed him to see Grete Steffin, the Communist agit-prop actress with whom he’d begun an affair in 1931). Another possibility was Paris, where his friends Walter Benjamin, the novelist Anna Seghers, and Hanns Eisler, who wrote the music for Kuhle Wampe, lived. They settled on Denmark, where a friend of Weigel’s lent them a house near Svendborg. Brecht, Weigel and their two children remained there until 1939.

Emigré​ writers faced the loss of their books and papers, difficulty in publishing, irregular or frozen royalty payments and statelessness (Brecht was stripped of his German citizenship in 1935). Weigel was unable to continue her career as an actress. Brecht eventually got most of his books and papers back, but faced particular problems as a writer of plays. The Nazi regime, he later said, had proletarianised him: ‘Not only have they robbed me of my house, my fishpond and my car, but they’ve also stolen my stage and my audience.’ He wrote in one of his poems about the ‘man to whom no one is listening’:

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

Brecht needed people to challenge him. He did have visitors: his father, childhood friends, Korsch and Benjamin, with whom he played chess under the plum trees and talked about Kafka. Grete Steffin also moved to Denmark to be closer to him. Brecht himself made trips to Paris, London and Moscow, trying to arrange productions of his work, which were invariably unsatisfactory when they happened at all – only in Zurich were his plays successfully staged during the years of exile. The Frankfurt School Marxists in New York condemned him as an apologist for Stalin, while the ‘Moscow camarilla’ of party-line intellectuals still denounced him as a decadent formalist. His friends were dying in the Stalinist purges. He called what was happening in Moscow ‘a catastrophe for everything we’ve committed ourselves to for twenty years’. Despite all this, he produced his greatest works in exile: Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, as well as the Svendborg Poems, which in Parker’s view ‘refashioned the idiom of German poetry’. To these can be added anti-fascist writings like ‘Five Difficulties in Telling the Truth’ and publications that developed his theories of drama and the kind of actor they required, in which he took issue with his bête noire, Stanislavsky.

The threat of war led the Brechts to leave Denmark in 1939. When American visas came through they travelled to Vladivostok, where they boarded a small freighter, arriving in Los Angeles in July 1941. Brecht loathed California, ‘this mausoleum of easy going’. He disliked the food, hated the gaudiness and artificiality (he felt like ‘Lenin in the Prater’, the Viennese pleasure garden, or ‘a chrysanthemum in a coalmine’), found the Hollywood ‘narcotics industry’ even more contemptible than Broadway and complained that the studios had ruined Peter Lorre, an actor he hoped to work with in Berlin after the war. It was, in short, ‘a shithouse’. This was Brecht’s worst experience in exile and one of the most financially insecure and intellectually isolating periods in his life. He wrote film treatments, mostly unused apart from Hangmen Also Die!, based on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, which was directed by Fritz Lang with music by Eisler. The money from it allowed him to begin writing plays again. With Lion Feuchtwanger, a loyal supporter since the Munich years, he wrote The Visions of Simone Machard, about the fall of France. As the war came to an end he turned, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, to the question of how German society might be reconstructed after Nazism. The directly political counterpart to this was his role in the Council for a Democratic Germany, organised by the theologian Paul Tillich. Critics complained that it was full of communists. Not so, Tillich said: ‘We have two and a half communist representatives on the council. Brecht is the half.’ Or, at least, that’s what an FBI informant quoted him as saying. The Brechts themselves were under FBI surveillance, their letters opened, their phone bugged. Brecht appeared before HUAC in 1947. His often very funny responses to the woodenly stupid questions can be heard in Eric Bentley’s documentary, Bertolt Brecht: Enemy Alien.

Brecht left for Europe the day after the hearing. The family settled in Zurich, but a decision by the State Department to deny him re-entry to the US caused problems with the Swiss authorities. Then a chance of working at the Munich Kammerspiele fell through when he was banned from the American Zone – we might otherwise be talking of the Münchener Ensemble. Berlin emerged as Brecht’s only option. The Berliner Ensemble was established in 1949, quickly acquiring a reputation abroad. ‘For the first time I see what theatre is,’ said Max Frisch, visiting from Switzerland. Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud and George Devine came in 1955, and The Good Person of Szechwan was staged at the Royal Court the following year. Kenneth Tynan announced that Brecht was ‘this generation’s pathfinder’. At home, however, he and his productions were relentlessly attacked for decadence and formalism. He fought constant battles with the Party bureaucracy over censorship and political interference. As his young assistant (and lover) Käthe Rülicke recorded, ‘Brecht does not want to learn how to write from Ulbricht.’ The 1953 revolt prompted him to write ‘The Solution’:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

In February 1956 Brecht took what turned out to be his last trip abroad, to see a production of The Threepenny Opera in Milan. Two months later he was admitted to hospital. Discharged in May, he worked on his last dramatic project, ‘The Life of Einstein, but his condition worsened rapidly and he died in Berlin on 14 August. He was buried in Dorotheenstadt Cemetery; the headstone gives only his name.

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