Absolutely Infamous

HAS THERE EVER BEEN A FIGURE whose name so signals in equal parts cottage industry and relative neglect, at least in the English-speaking world, as Bertolt Brecht? Nearly six decades after his death, he continues to cast a long shadow across the history of the theater, but many audiences (and readers) think of him as a sententious Cold War relic—both politically and aesthetically. Certainly, new productions of Brecht’s classics show no sign of abating—and not just the warhorse Threepenny Opera, which established itself as a certified money machine and perennial seat filler from the moment the adaptation of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera opened at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin on the evening of August 31, 1928. In the past year and a half alone, productions of Mother Courage and Her Children, Good Person of Szechwan, and A Man’s a Man have opened on and off Broadway. Yet any production of Brecht still has a numbing aura of historical closure about it. Is there really anything new to be learned about the work in 2015? And do audiences actually enjoy it? In her new book, The Partnership, Pamela Katz relates the story of Brian Kulick’s recent proposal to stage Brecht’s Life of Galileo. Kulick “noticed the dismayed look on a colleague’s face. . . . ‘Galileo is one of those “eat your vegetable plays” . . . it’s supposed to be good for you,’ the colleague replied. ‘And anything that’s good for you,’ Kulick understood, ‘can’t possibly be entertaining.’”

Dismissing Brecht as a peddler of vitamin-rich but bland produce may be the most anodyne insult in the long list of harangues leveled at the playwright. In his lifetime, he managed to piss off everyone at one point or another—Nazis and Communists, Soviets and East German bureaucrats, HUAC and Hollywood, his troupe of actors and cowriters, a menagerie of directors, dramaturges, scenery designers, and composers—and he seemingly bit the finger of anyone who dared to extend him a hand. He endured charges of plagiarism and admitted having a loose appreciation for intellectual property; worse, he still stands accused of hypocrisy in his politics. Theodor Adorno, who worried about Walter Benjamin’s friendship with such a shabby Marxist, once said that Brecht spent a couple of hours each day shoving dirt under his fingernails to pass for a proletarian. Anecdotes of complicity abound, dating to the artist’s earliest moments of provocation. When Brecht made the stridently pro-Communist movie Kuhle Wampe in 1931 with the Comintern-sponsored film company Prometheus—which went bankrupt during production—he completed the job thanks to money donated by an entrepreneur, which Brecht secured by promising to include the mogul’s car in the footage. (In an outcome that would become a familiar experience for Brecht, who always seemed to be offending someone, the film was temporarily banned and later clipped by the censor’s scissors in Germany on the eve of Hitler’s ascent to power.) Yet his perseverance got the film made, despite hostile circumstances. One man’s complicity is another’s ambition and ingenuity in getting work accomplished.

We are beginning to see stirrings of interest in reexamining Brecht’s life and legacy—at least in this regard, English speakers are catching up to German publishers. Witness Stephen Parker’s new biography of Brecht. In this magisterial combination of minute detail and complete command of the social, political, and aesthetic landscape that Brecht surveyed—from provincial Augsburg to cloudless Santa Monica, and above all to the “cold Chicago” of the asphalt city of Weimar Berlin and, later, East Berlin—the contradictions and complexities of the writer are foregrounded in a way that makes any simple gloss on his character unthinkable. The issue has never been Brecht’s relevance for the history of the stage, which is as unmistakable today as it was in the 1960s and ’70s, whether the playwright is Tony Kushner or Richard Maxwell. What Parker has brought into focus is the man himself and his network of associates, and if a new appreciation for what it meant to be Brecht, warts and all, emerges, so too does a disruption of the familiar biographical coordinates along the way. Gone is the simplistic halftime split of Brecht’s conversion to dialectical thinking and his decisive encounter with Karl Marx in the second part of the ’20s, when Brecht had already emerged as the leading figure of the theatrical avant-garde in Germany. Nor is there a before and after to the founding of the Epic Theatre movement, or, later, Brecht’s concept of Verfremdungseffekt, which would cement his place as the most significant theoretician of theater in the past century. Parker’s biography eschews conversion narratives in favor of presenting a figure whose ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances was less a liability than a recipe for literary, social, and political vitality.

Parker’s Brecht is remarkable for surviving at all. The son of a Catholic manager of a paper concern and a Protestant mother who instilled in the writer a love of Luther and the New Testament, Brecht was a sickly child, a victim of heart ailments (he apparently suffered a cardiac arrest at age twelve) and bad kidneys that left him with a nonexistent appetite for his entire life. But if he avoided as an adolescent listening to Chopin and Bach out of fear that the excitement would stop his bad ticker again, he was ferociously hungry for literature. Growing up in Bavarian Augsburg, he developed into a charismatic young man with an intense love of the Plärrer carnies who performed ballads of sex and murder on barrel organs. He had cultivated an entourage of similarly talented friends, who would meet in his family’s attic—which Brecht called the Kraal, and which would become a model for his artists’ circle in Berlin—for performances on guitar and unending conversation. Drawings by Caspar Neher, the remarkable set designer who went on to work with Brecht in Berlin, were gathered in the Kraal. As were the schoolgirls that Brecht somehow always managed to surround himself with, despite his dismal hygiene and emaciated body.

Brecht learned early on the value of an energetic social life for his work. Too young for the initial call-up during World War I, he later briefly deferred by enrolling in medical school (he spent the last month or so of the war working as an orderly treating sexually transmitted diseases). But school in Munich also provided him access to a number of prominent writers and critics, whom he baldly approached, including Lion Feuchtwanger, a novelist who desperately needs rediscovery today (if even Stefan Zweig can get a second hearing, why can’t the author of the unjustly forgotten Success, a remarkable 1930 novel about the persecution of a Munich curator?). Against the backdrop of economic collapse and bloody battles between the ultraright and Communists in the streets of Munich, his scandalous first plays, when they could be staged, began to attract the attention of critics and audiences. When his antiwar Drums in the Night premiered in September 1922 at the Munich Kammerspiele, the important critic Herbert Ihering (whom Brecht had also pursued) announced that he had changed “the face of German literature.” That same year, at age twenty-four, he received the prestigious Kleist Prize.

By the time Brecht set his sights on Berlin, his characteristic ways of working—and surviving—had already been established. He surrounded himself with a network of collaborators and ensured that writing would always have, as Parker puts it, “a social dimension.” The method, both in the garret and at the theater, was one part production line, one part Fassbinder film—complete with a famously frenetic directing style and a fluid troupe of intimates that became something like an extended family, including the women who became Brecht’s lovers and mothers to his children. When he arrived in the city in 1924, he had already had one child by an Augsburg girlfriend and a second by his first wife, Marianne Zoff, an actress he would divorce a few years later. He was also expecting a third by the woman who would become his second wife and partner for life, Helene Weigel, who accompanied Brecht into exile in Denmark and California and later became the face of the Berliner Ensemble. (Their son, Stefan, himself became an important writer on underground theater in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s.) Soon after his move to Berlin, he met and hired Elisabeth Hauptmann, who in addition to serving as his secretary would crucially translate texts for him from English—including his beloved Kipling—pull him further along the path to Marxism, and play a huge role in turning Gay’s eighteenth-century Beggar’s Opera into The Threepenny Opera. Proud to work for Brecht, she signed her correspondence “Chief Girl,” and she too became his lover. Brecht, Weigel once wrote, was “a very faithful man—unfortunately to too many people.” (Further reflection on Brecht’s romantic life is provided by the new Love Poems, a surprising cache of seventy-eight works nimbly translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn, with an introduction by Barbara Brecht-Schall, Brecht and Weigel’s second child. “Papa loved women, many women,” her introduction begins, with incomparable understatement. Some of the poems memorialize women who had departed from his circle, while others are records of Brecht’s tenderness and playfulness in love. They span a range of forms and formality, from tightly written sonnets to jaunty doggerel, and a marvelous scale of voices, from the filthy to the forlorn. For many, they will be a revelation—at the least, they shine a new light on “promiscuity” in Brecht’s universe.)

Keeping track of Brecht’s writing career and political evolution in the 1920s and ’30s is almost as taxing as following his romantic adventures. Berlin offered not only a cauldron of political and economic upheaval but the chance for Brecht to meet virtually everyone who was anyone in the city, from George Grosz to the boxer Paul Samson-Körner. Despite his weak constitution, he wrote with ferocious speed and deadly precision, revisiting and reworking his early plays while pursuing the publication of his poetry; directing his collaboration with Feuchtwanger, The Life of Edward II of England (a Marlowe adaptation); completing his play A Man’s a Man; rewriting his first play, the scandalous Baal; mounting attacks on “bourgeois” literature; and immersing himself in American and English fiction. Endurance was a work of art in itself, a self-creation. Parker frequently juxtaposes two seemingly diametric sides of Brecht glimpsed through his work: the amoral and cynical monster of appetites, Baal, and the “skeptical, ascetic producer of wisdom,” Mr. Keuner, the fictional alter ego Brecht developed in a series of short texts he began writing in the late ’20s. Like Mr. K’s favorite animal, the elephant, whose “trunk supplied his enormous body with even the smallest items of food, even nuts,” survival in the jungle of the cities depended on growing “a thick skin, knives snap in it; but he has a gentle disposition.” That thick skin was just as beneficial to the playwright as it is to the pachyderm. Parker humorously writes, “Brecht was deeply concerned to protect his body and conserve his energy in order to concentrate as much of it as possible upon his twin obsessions which could be pursued from a reclining position: writing and sex.”

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera, 1928. Performance view, Atlantic Theater Company, New York, 2014.
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera, 1928. Performance view, Atlantic Theater Company, New York, 2014.

THE WORK THAT WOULD MAKE Brecht a financial success was something of a fluke and a lark. He was as usual ensconced in difficult-to-realize projects and battles on multiple fronts with publishers and producers when he first met Kurt Weill in Berlin in 1927 at Schlichter’s, the legendary intellectual haunt. The elegant young composer, who moonlighted as a critic, had recently broadcast his praise of Brecht’s A Man’s a Man and was eager to see if there might be any interest in collaboration. As Katz writes in The Partnership, the classically trained and politically idealistic Weill too was eager to reach a broad audience. (When he dedicated his first orchestral piece to workers, farmers, and soldiers, his mentor Busoni quipped, “What do you want to become, a Verdi of the poor?”) Brecht and Weill had both been associates of the Novembergruppe of left-wing artists, and they both believed in the value of artistic collaboration. They likewise drew on the support of strong women—in Weill’s case, his Austrian-born partner, Karoline Blamauer, who changed her name to Lotte Lenya.

Brecht and Weill’s first collaborative project was an adaptation of Brecht’s poetry collection Die Hauspostille (translated as Manual of Piety),which Weill composed as the thirty-five-minute-long, six-song “little epic play” Mahagonny for the Baden-Baden festival of new music in the summer of 1927. Presented in a boxing ring with Casper Neher’s enormous rear-screen projections, the Songspiel featured Lenya in her debut as a singer on the composition “Alabama Song,” which had been written in English by Hauptmann. (However odd a phenomenon “Mack the Knife” offered when it became a gold record for Bobby Darin in the United States in 1959, “Alabama Song” has the strange claim to fame of being attributed to Weill and Brecht despite its umbilical connection to Lenya and Hauptmann, and even though its purported lyricist didn’t know that in English “Alabama” and “mamma” don’t actually rhyme.)

On the heels of the success of Mahagonny—and with Weill’s desire to turn it into the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny—Brecht continued to collaborate with the composer. Approached by Ernst Josef Aufricht to create a show that would open on the producer’s thirtieth birthday—August 31, 1928—Brecht came up with the idea of adapting The Beggar’s Opera, which had been undergoing a popular revival in Britain (and which Hauptmann had been translating for him). Under extreme pressure to produce a work of musical theater in breakneck time, Weill and Brecht retreated to the South of France. Brecht’s penchant for collaborative festival and fast writing met Weill’s feel for music that worked dynamically against the expectations of words and actions. The Threepenny Opera would be not just a popular success but one that allowed the spectator a critical distance on what was taking place onstage. It would be as entertaining as it was politically and aesthetically relevant. Or so Brecht and Weill both thought.

The run-up to the opening of the Threepenny Opera is notorious in theatrical history. Work on the production began without even a title for the “opera.” (Feuchtwanger, who with Karl Kraus and Elias Canetti crashed rehearsals, christened it Dreigroschenoper for its penny-press cheapness.) Text was written and rewritten up to opening night; Carola Neher, who played the character Polly Peachum, angrily quit the show after the first run-though, and Harald Paulsen, who played Macheath, almost did the same the day before the opening (to placate him, Weill and Brecht wrote a leadoff number for him—“Moritat of Mack the Knife”—on the spot). Rehearsals ran until 5 am of the opening day, and Lenya, who sang “Pirate Jenny,” had her name left off the bill. Such a disaster was anticipated that on the eve of the production, Aufricht was searching for another play that could take its place.

Yet its success was phenomenal. It ran in Berlin for the entire 1928–29 season, and Parker recounts that, by 1929, there had been some 4,200 performances mounted at nineteen different venues throughout Germany. Between 1929 and 1931, twenty-one recordings of the music were produced on the German market. (Threepenny flopped when it was first performed in the US, but its subsequent West Village production in 1954 at the Theatre de Lys, with Lenya, in Mark Blitzstein’s translation, ran for seven years.) In Berlin it became a cultural phenomenon overnight. There was Threepenny wallpaper depicting the work’s characters, and on Kantstrasse the “Dreigroschen-Keller” pub was packed.

For all its box-office returns, the Brecht-Weill collaboration was doomed from the beginning. Critics on the Left were the first to note that it wasn’t clear just what the critique at the heart of The Threepenny Opera, with its juxtaposition of criminality and business, was. Canetti agreed with Hannah Arendt that theatergoers were “forced to confront on stage their own unchristian, villainous traits. They were not repelled however. They liked it . . . The people cheered themselves, they saw themselves and were pleased. First came their food, then came their morality, no one could have put it better, they took it literally.” Brecht knew it, too: The play failed to be more than a scandalous farce, and it became an embarrassment to him. (“Her success is most gratifying,” he wrote with a touch of sarcasm to Erwin Piscator. “It refutes the widespread view that the public is incapable of being satisfied—which comes as something of a disappointment to me.”) Brecht demonstrated his dislike of the work in his usual fashion—attempting to rewrite it to sharpen the satire, update its contents, and jettison the music, all of which infuriated Weill and hastened their creative divorce. Brecht finally went so far to recuperate its potential and reclaim its ownership that he rewrote the work as The Threepenny Novel. There would be other works created between Brecht and Weill—the last, the ballet they collaborated on in Paris in 1933, titled Seven Deadly Sins, is dismissed by Parker as “arguably [Brecht’s] slightest work”—but also animosity. (Brecht went out of his way to dismiss The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny as “culinary opera,” a swipe at Weill’s ambitions, after it debuted in 1930.) Their most successful later collaboration was arguably their legal action against G. W. Pabst and Nero Films, responsible for the movie version of The Threepenny Opera, which tampered with both the music and the story of the original. Weill won his case and Brecht lost, but he at least received generous funds from Nero in exchange for not pursuing an appeal.

Katz, who was the screenwriter on the Margharethe von Trotta films Rosenstrasse (2003) and Hannah Arendt (2012), is extremely good at capturing the centrality of Lenya, Hauptmann, and Weigel in the creation of Brecht and Weill’s collaborations—as well as a third woman in Brecht’s circle of collaborator-lovers, the tubercular working-class writer Margarete Steffin, who would follow Brecht to Denmark in 1933 and whose death eight years later prompted Brecht’s haunting poem “In the Ninth Year Fleeing from Hitler . . .” (included in Love Poems). Emblematic of the newly liberated women of Weimar, they do not recede to the sidelines; Weigel relaunched her career in Paris in 1937, acting in Brecht’s Señora Carrar’s Rifles before going on to become one of the most celebrated actresses in East Germany after the war, while Lenya became the face of Brecht and Weill’s greatest collaboration in New York after Weill’s death in 1950. Hauptmann, who later married the composer Paul Dessau, would become a well-known writer on her own. Katz is sensitive to the perils of collaborative creative work but also open to its pleasures and possibilities—which Brecht, not just with Weill, but with Feuchtwanger, Hanns Eisler, and many others, reinvented as a form of literary production.

Exile was immeasurably easier on Weill than on Brecht. Weill, settled in New York, moved into new collaborations with Ogden Nash and S. J. Perelman, Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin, Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes. In Denmark, imagining that the Nazi rule would be short-lived, Brecht was productive, writing Mother Courage and Her Children and Good Person of Szechwan as well as five other plays, but California proved to be a disaster. He hated his life in the Hollywood “narcotics industry” and was frequently at odds with his Frankfurt School neighbors in exile. “Even in the backwoods of Finland,” he wrote, “I never felt so out of the world as here.” (It must be recalled how few of his plays had been translated into English at that point.) He made a bit of money writing the screenplay of Hangmen Also Die, Fritz Lang’s 1943 film about the Czech resistance to the Nazis, but few other opportunities came his way. When he returned in a roundabout fashion to East Germany in 1949, his career was reborn with the Berliner Ensemble, but still he didn’t feel at home. He was spied on in East Germany just as he had been in the United States, and as Katz notes, he lamented his lack of ease in a poem: “Even now / On top of the cupboard containing my manuscripts / My suitcase lies.” Somehow fittingly, given his improbable rise and fall and rise again, when Brecht traveled abroad for the last time, in 1956, it was to see a production of the improbable Threepenny Opera in Italy, six months before he died in Berlin.

“Everywhere he is both loved and feared,” Mr. Keuner enthused about the elephant. “A certain comic aspect even makes it possible for him to be venerated.” Parker’s biography, alongside Katz’s group biography and Constantine and Kuhn’s collection, may make it possible to love and fear Brecht anew. Love Poems could even open the door to veneration. Regardless, all three are alert to Brecht/Mr. Keuner’s last three remarks about the elephant: “He can work hard. He likes to drink and become merry. He does his bit for art: he supplies ivory.”

Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.