Though major artists routinely come in for critical tarrings, never has one fared so badly and so deservedly at the hands of a biographer as Bertolt Brecht does now. With "Brecht & Company," Brecht scholar John Fuegi shatters all our assumptions about the premier theatrical artist of the 20th Century, including the notion that Brecht actually wrote his own works.
Brecht's importance to 20th-Century theatre cannot be overstated. His operas and plays champion alienation the way Kafka epitomizes anxiety. Characters confront audience members, move their own props or break into rough song--all on an epic scale as Brecht works to snuff out Ibsen and Stanislavsky and their "realistic" drama. Brecht combines text, balladry, stagecraft, imagery, movement and spoken word in a way now associated with performance art. Audiences are led to think rather than feel, or, if they must feel, it should be horror at the mirror held up to them from the stage.
These by now familiar devices are evident in the work of playwrights as seemingly unrelated as Tony Kushner, John Steppling and Reza Abdoh and directors such as Peter Brook, Robert Wilson and Peter Sellars. Rarely a day goes by that critics do not describe something odd and disturbing as "Brechtian."
And yet, as Fuegi shows in punishing detail, Brecht himself had little to do with the writing of his major works. This includes masterpieces known around the world, such as "The Threepenny Opera," "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," "Mother Courage" and "The Good Woman of Setzuan." Despite his purposely shabby dress, unwashed stench, rotting teeth and icy persona, Brecht was some sort of modern Mesmer, able to hypnotize almost everyone he met into doing his bidding--and his writing. Part of this may have been his virtuosity in the bedroom. He often kept several regular mistresses; when he fled Nazi Germany he left with not only his wife and two children, but two other women, both of whom were actively writing plays for him in exchange for promises of marriage or, even sadder, sometimes just an occasional dollop of attention.
The saddest case is that of Margaret Steffin, a young German writer from the provinces who had the misfortune to fall under Brecht's spell at an early age. Fuegi shows that Steffin, who suffered a lengthy decline from tuberculosis as she toiled ceaselessly for her thoughtless master, was almost single-handedly responsible for "Courage" and "Setzuan," as well as "Galileo," early drafts of "Chalk Circle," at least four other major plays, a novel and countless poems and stories, all published solely under Brecht's name. This was despite the obvious questions raised by his inability to read French or any other of the languages of the source material for these works, or the fact that all of the manuscripts are in the handwriting of Steffin. At most, Brecht served as editor to this work, sometimes contributing 10% of the actual writing.
As for Steffin, she was left behind to die anonymously in a Moscow TB ward after arranging Brecht's safe passage to America. He mourned for four days and then promptly swindled her family out of her royalties and all inheritance. While Brecht became a millionaire, secretly depositing thousands of gold marks in a Swiss bank account, Steffin's family was left to beg for enough money to buy a down comforter.
There is little doubt that in person Brecht was a magnetic personality to all and sundry. Fuegi's descriptions of a young Brecht performing his own songs cabaret-style in 1920's Germany betokens a young Elvis Presley:
"In secretary or business tycoon, male of female, knees weakened and inhibitions slipped away as Brecht, in his favorite performing stance, stood above them on a table at bars, brothels, or fashionable apartments . . . With his feet spread apart, guitar pressed close to his crotch, almost concave belly thrust forward, he made the animal-gut strings howl to back up his high, scratchy voice. People came and saw and heard and were conquered."
Exiled in Los Angeles during World War II, Brecht worked his charms most successfully on Charles Laughton, who put up half the money for a production of "Galileo," in which Laughton then starred, and on various film producers who paid him for hack-work jobs on other people's scripts. No less than W. H. Auden was seduced into working on "Brecht" manuscripts. Brecht in person was so persuasive he was even able to gull the House Committee on Un-American Activities into believing that he was nothing more than an absent-minded playwright who had never been a Communist and who rarely associated with them. This was while the world-famous Brecht had a tacit agreement with Stalin whereby he would receive a regular stipend in exchange for his silence about the dictator's slaughter of millions.
If Brecht's treatment of Steffin was tragic--she was clearly a world-class writer whose life could have been spared with regular medical treatment, treatment Brecht surely could afford--his complicity with Stalin is monstrous. It was also of a pattern. Brecht said nothing against Hitler during his rise, and only after he had fled Germany did he unearth sheaves of poems "proving" that he had opposed the madman all along. When Brecht needed safe transport through the Soviet Union so that he could escape to America, he assured Stalin's agents that he would never utter a word against the murderous regime. This was even though he was by now fully aware that Stalin's killing machine had consumed scores of his own friends and lovers. (The Soviet Union later repaid Brecht by installing him as the head of the Berliner Ensemble in East Germany, where the dramatist of the workers lived like royalty and treated his hundreds of employees like chattel.)
Space does not permit a full list of Brecht's unscrupulous acts, stretching as they do through his entire lifetime until his death in 1956. Suffice it to say, he rode roughshod over everyone he met, from composer and partner Kurt Weill (Brecht routinely resold "The Threepenny Opera," which had over 10,000 productions in its first five years, without reporting any earnings to Weill) to activist-writer Ruth Berlau.
And yet, somehow, he got away with it all. No one's services were ever recognized or repaid, and only death allowed an escape from his spell. Even Elizabeth Hauptmann, who is shown to be the actual author of many of Brecht's poems and early plays, returned to his employ after an absence of 20 years. After breaking away from Brecht, she had found it nearly impossible to publish under her own name, especially since all her best work had been internationally established as having been his.
It is difficult to imagine any writer so gladly creating one masterpiece after another in complete anonymity and with no hope of future income, as did Steffin, Hauptmann and Berlau. Even more so than death, writers fear being plagiarized. But Fuegi's 25 years of research have unearthed a wealth of corroboration, and he backs this searing portrait of artist as monster with extensive footnotes. Perhaps if Brecht were indeed the major artist we had assumed, his actions might be somewhat more forgivable; arrogance is often a requirement for genius. But as Fuegi deflates Brecht's stature, he correspondingly forces us all to hold him more accountable.
Brecht himself once said, "What I don't like to admit is that I myself have contempt for the unfortunate." That his meteoric rise in Weimar, Germany, reflected the prevailing attitudes of the time should come as no surprise. Brecht was not the only German theatre artist with similar feelings. A would-be set designer of similar outlook, who was unfortunately not hired for a Brecht production, later went on to even greater fame and fortune. His name was Adolf Hitler.
BOOKMARK: For an excerpt from "Brecht & Company," see the Opinion section.