Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life by Stephen Parker

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From the Latin, delirium (de + lira) is the ridge between the plowed furrows on one side and the unplowed field on the other—an unusually pliable metaphor for modernism. In 1978, Rem Koolhaas published Delirious New York. A “theater of progress,” Manhattan was a “cyclical restatement of a single theme: creation and destruction irrevocably interlocked,” a city whose residents simultaneously inhabited its past structures and dreamed of re-engineering them. In Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity, Gordon Teskey would argue that he was the last European poet “for whom the act of creation is centered in God and the first in whom the act of creation begins to find its center in the human.”

Let me be the first to call for more readings of “delirious” Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). He grew up in a time when the literary marketplace was primarily shaped by the middle class’s insatiable appetite for magazines, books, and plays. He also stood at the beginning of a period in which the nation-state had the resources to appropriate writers, poets, and artists and could police their work and thought to unexampled lengths. Casualties in the first half of the twentieth century would include Isaac Babel in the USSR, Federico García Lorca in Spain, Bruno Schultz in Poland/Ukraine, and the Hollywood Ten in the US. Anticipating that turn, many writers, such as T.S. Eliot, Osip Mandelstam, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, explicitly codified their ideologies in essays and manifestos. Brecht’s pronouncements on “Epic Theater” are some of the most famous.

An ambitious new biography, Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, arrives twenty years after the last full-length biography was published in English. Stephen Parker, the Simon Chair of German Studies at the University of Manchester, has sifted through Brecht’s prodigious writings—plays, poems, diaries, journalism, lectures, letters, and notes—as well as the work of his contemporaries, the colleagues and the adversaries. The references to secondary sources—Brecht is among the most-written about authors in 20th-century literature—are also a strength of this book.

Brecht had an unusually eventful life. He witnessed the rise of Kaiser Wilhelm II, catastrophically traumatic trench warfare of the First World War, the worker-led Spartacus League’s seizure of power during the 1919 German civil war, the conservatives’ resumption of power, the rise of Nazism and Soviet Communism, and the Second World War. Life-writing was a literary preoccupation of his, as were distant periods of political and social upheaval: Life of Galileo and Mother Courage and Her Sons, among many others, are dramatically structured as historical biography.

Brecht, a commanding presence in international theater, was a domineering, jealous child. He sabotaged his friends’ romances and was over-eager to assume a posture of intellectual and personal superiority. Unfortunately, this foreshadowed his manipulative behavior with women throughout the 1920s and 1930s—using his lovers as secretaries and gofers, callously misrepresenting his intentions, and discarding women and children when they became too much of a burden. Two of his exes attempted suicide.

In the chapters concerning Brecht’s childhood, A Literary Life is articulate and authoritative. Parker details Brecht’s physical ailments, including a severe heart condition. Though Brecht’s physical condition clearly shaped his views as an adult, Parker seems to under-explore what is a deep-seated pathological aversion to feeling. After the death of an aunt, as his family was going through the early stages of grief, Brecht expressed disgust at the extremes of their emotion.

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In his mature work, Brecht would develop an approach to theater that denies any sentimental attachment to the characters or action. Cue cards signaled the events in the scene, reminding the audience of the play’s fictiveness. His actors cultivated a highly stylized technique that was diametrically opposed to the more prominent methods taught by Stanislavski.

What seems so painfully transparent, though, is Brecht’s own attachment to wish fulfillment and catharsis. His Galileo, an astronomer persecuted by willfully obtuse church officials, is a man who commands absolute loyalty from his circle of and views his own moral and professional genius as self-evident. One of the most moving passages in the play belongs to a young monk, who first meets Galileo after he has been condemned and censured:

Forgive me if I talk about myself. I grew up in the Campagna. My parents are peasants, simple folk. They know all about olive trees, but very little else. As I observe the phases of Venus, I can see my parents sitting by the stove with my sister, eating lasagna. I see the beams over their heads, blackened by the smoke of centuries, I see distinctly their work-worn old hands and the little spoons they hold in them. They’re very poor, but even in their misery there is a certain order. There are cyclic rhythms, scrubbing the floor, tending the olive trees in their seasons, paying taxes. There’s a regularity in the calamities that descend on them. My father’s back wasn’t bowed all at once, no, a little more with every spring in the olive grove, just as the child-bearing that has made my mother more and more sexless occurred at regular intervals. What gives them the strength to sweat their way up stony paths with heavy baskets, to bear children, even to eat, is the feeling of stability and necessity they get from the sight of the soil, of the trees turning green every year, of their little church standing there, and from hearing Bible verses read every Sunday. They have been assured that the eye of God is upon them, searching and almost anxious, that the whole world-wide stage is built around them in order that they, the players, may prove themselves in their great or small roles. (trans. Wolfgang Sauerlander and Ralph Manheirn)

Parker is especially insightful on how an outlier like Life of Galileo fits into the playwright’s corpus. It picks up the familiar theme of appetite—depicted by Brecht ambivalently as a sign of strength and a sign of greed. The play stands as one of his most accomplished dramas and a fulfillment of his early promise.. But, Parker observes, Brecht viewed it as “technically a great step backwards” and too “opportunistic.”

This biography is also moving when Parker explores the years of American exile. The playwright, after writing several masterpieces while hiding from the Nazis in Scandinavia, thought working in Hollywood was a creative “tundra.” He was estranged by the back-biting and small-mindedness of the German émigré community, including Alfred Döblin and Thomas Mann. When he reached out to old friends, his requests met with either silence or, worse, indifference. His old collaborator, Weill, then a Hollywood success, was non-committal about helping him find work. Brecht proved difficult when one of his patrons did finally secure a teaching and writing jobs for him. As the Allies began retaking cities in Western Europe, he sadly followed the military advances on a map hung on his wall.

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I have come to think that a common failing of many biographies is the insistence on a kind of secular predestination. (To slip into academic jargon, these biographies are teleologically overdetermined.) Since life-writing consumed so much of his literary production, maybe we should look to Brecht’s technique. As Brecht’s chess partner and friend Walter Benjamin observed, in a long essay titled Understanding Brecht,

Brecht goes still further in the same direction by asking himself whether the events portrayed by the epic actor ought not to be known in advance. ‘In that case historical events would, on the face of it, be the most suitable.’ One must, however, expect the dramatist to take a certain amount of license in that he will tend to emphasize not the great decisions which lie along the main line of history but the incommensurable and the singular. ‘It can happen this way, but it can also happen quite a different way.’

For example, in a recent discussion of Brecht’s collaborator Kurt Weill, the musicologist Stephen Hinton pointed out how differently Weill’s career would have turned out had he gotten his wish and worked with Arnold Schoenberg. He would have fallen into a less populist path, and we would have no Threepenny Opera, no “Alabama Song,” no Lost in the Stars. How different would Western art and philosophy be if Benjamin himself hadn’t been denied asylum after illegally crossing the Spanish border and committed suicide in despair—and how different would Brecht’s life and work have been?

To his credit, Parker is alert to “the incommensurable and the singular.” The most surprising Brecht to emerge in this volume is the would-be arch-nationalist, writing propaganda for the Kaiser and later composing proto-Nazi poetry. All young people must spend their youth sorting through influences and that is what Brecht did. However inchoate his own ideas might have been in the early 1920s, he would be forcibly dragged into a confrontation at one of his earliest premieres.

In 1923, during the second performance of In the Jungle of Cities, the Nazis bombed the theater. The play closed. The theater director was sacked. Thomas Mann, the éminence grise of German letters, responded with a blinkered piece in The Dial that perfectly misunderstood everything about the situation and also seemed to align himself with the right wing.

In 1947, Brecht would be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He more or less performed a vaudeville routine in front of his inquisitors. Chief Investigator Robert E. Stripling read from the song, “Forward, We’ve Not Forgotten.” Brecht claimed not to recognize his poem in English, saying, “No, I wrote a German poem, but that is a very different thing.” Astonishingly, the Committee declared him a cooperative witness, and Brecht left for East Germany that week. If you have time, it is worth spending a few minutes listening to the dark comedy of the HUAC-Brecht recording.

The clearest example of Brecht’s haphazard and provisional life is the role that confidantes like Lion Feuchtwanger and Helene Weigel played in his success. For most of his early career, Brecht drove away potential mentors and advocates, such as the scholar Artur Kutscher, with his tactless contrarianism. By chance, Feuchtwanger, a friend and novelist, and Weigel, an actress and his second wife, would help him smooth over his professional persona. Otherwise he might have become the world’s most talented unproduced playwright.

Brecht was consistently plagued by charges of plagiarism. Parker recounts a joke about two German theater-goers. The first recommends a popular new play, and the man asks, “Who is the play by?” After the first person answers, “Brecht,” he is asked, “Then who’s the play by?”

Parker is also convincing in how place shapes a literary persona. Augsburg, Brecht’s longest-lived home, claims a decisive place in Protestant history. Luther barely escaped the grasp of a cardinal who was eager to turn him over to the Papal authorities. His close escape managed to preserve the Reformation, which, Parker suggests, might have been one of the small, essential accidents that history relies on. The austerity and emotional restraint of post-Reformation Germany and Augsburg, Parker suggests, informed Brecht’s aloofness.

Unfortunately, Parker does not explore Brecht’s literary influences or how he shaped the stuff of his life for his own literary work. Despite having a profound influence on non-commercial theatre, Brecht was an unsophisticated and conventional political thinker. He was unable to grasp the failings of the German left during the 1920s and mostly accepted the prevailing political commonplaces of his time. He underestimated exactly how committed to racial supremacy the Nazis were and how committed to state terror Stalin was.

Contrary to the image that Brecht tried to project–the cold intellectual with adamantine theories–and in refutation of the eugenic fantasies that destroyed his Germany, the playwright’s imperfect humanity only serves to enrich his work. That Brecht was a man who struggled—often inconclusively and unsuccessfully—with the emotional and intellectual challenges posed by the 20th century should not diminish our appreciation of him. It lends new pathos to his work.

“Was it not noticeable at the end of [the First World War] that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer but poorer in communicable experience?” Walter Benjamin once wrote in an article on the writer Nikolai Leskov. “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile body.”

Benjamin was not exaggerating. In fact, he may have been understating the violence of early-20th-century change and the vulnerability of each fragile body, not least his friend.


John Yargo is a writer and teacher living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Follow him @GiveUsThisNada. More from this author →