The twenty-year-old Bertolt Brecht began writing Baal in 1918 as a response to Hanns Johst’s drama Der Einsame: Ein Menschenuntergang (1917; the lonely one: a human decline), an expressionist work about the nineteenth century poet Christian Dietrich Grabbe. Brecht had seen a production of Johst’s play and discussed it in a seminar led by Arthur Kutschler at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. Brecht despised the play for its idealism—the notion that artists are different from other people—and for its sentimentality. He set out to write an antithetical play, using as his models for the protagonist the fifteenth century French poet François Villon, German expressionist balladeer and playwright Frank Wedekind, and Brecht’s own bohemian experiences.
Suggestions of the relationship between the French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud also appear in the play. Brecht’s first draft, written in 1918, closely follows the structure and episodes of Johst’s play; later drafts move away from his antimodel, de-emphasizing Johst’s influence.
As Brecht’s first mature play (he had written a short play during his school years), Baal is “indispensable reading for anyone who would understand Brecht’s development,” according to critic Ronald Speirs. The play is a heady brew of disparate influences and impulses that continued to be played out in many guises throughout Brecht’s career. The tension of the play is dialectical: Decay is linked to existence, destruction to productive energy, and Eros to Thanatos. Brecht allows no triumphant rebirth or transcendence.
The paganism implied in the protagonist’s name is not simply a reflection of a naïve and innocent longing to return to nature. Baal is the Semitic-Phoenician fertility god, associated with storms and the figure of the bull. His attraction for Brecht, no doubt, in part derives from the knowledge that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Baal is the embodiment of evil. Brecht’s character has strong associations also with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Dionysian principle and with Wedekind’s neopagan, antiheroine Lulu.
Although the action of the play takes place over many years, the essential movement is seasonal, as befits its roots in a mythic paganism. The play begins in spring with an emphasis on Baal’s erotic desires. He successively seduces Emily, Johanna, and Sophie. The friendship between Ekart...
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