(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Bertolt Brecht’s status as Germany’s greatest twentieth century dramatist is by now securely established. Many critics also regard him as his country’s leading modern poet, with an astonishingly wide lyric range spanning folk ballads, Rimbaudesque prose poems, political epistles, and luminously concrete sonnets. On a personal level, he struck many who encountered him as sly, cunning, guileful, opportunistic, and perfectly prepared to play devious, treacherous games with love, friendship, and ideological evil for the sake of some selfish advantage.

To do justice to such an ambiguous titan is an enormous task, at which no German, British, or American writer has yet succeeded. Among the many who have tried to take Brecht’s measure, the most ambitious has been Klaus Volker, who compiled a faithful daily chronicle of Brecht’s life and work (1971), then wrote a full-scale biography (1976) that makes him out to be a tame, comfortable bourgeois, with no awareness on Volker’s part of the extraordinary complexity of his subject. Max Spalter, in Brecht’s Tradition (1967), traced his dramaturgy back to Georg Büchner, Friedrich Hebbel, and Frank Wedekind. Eric Bentley, who befriended Brecht in Santa Monica during World War II, translated most of Brecht’s plays and many of his poems into sometimes brilliant but often unfaithful English and wrote a number of incisive introductions to their Grove Press editions. The most scholarly English edition of Brecht’s plays is the British-American enterprise of Ralph Manheim and John Willett, published by Methuen in England and Random House in the United States. It has variant texts and scholarly notes for each play—a daunting achievement when one considers that Brecht loved nothing better than to revise continuously each of his texts, up to and often beyond their premieres.

The latest adventurer into the jungle of Brechtiana is Ronald Hayman, a Cambridge-educated man-about-the-British-theater who worked as an actor and director before turning critic and biographer. His two dozen books include short monographs on John Osborne, Tom Stoppard, Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett, and biographies of the Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Franz Kafka. Hayman’s biography of Brecht is obviously a painstaking, comprehensively researched text: He worked on it, off and on, for many years, consulted the authorized archive in East Berlin, and interviewed dozens of Brecht’s relatives, friends, and foes. Like Volker’s biography, his exceeds four hundred pages; also like Volker’s, alas, his blurs the profile of Brecht’s stormy personality and is generally unable to illuminate the masterpieces Brecht contributed to the canon of Western drama: Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (1931; Saint Joan of the Stockyards, 1956), Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (1943; The Good Woman of Setzuan, 1961), Herr Puntila und sein Kneckt Matti (1948; Mr. Puntila and His Hired Man Matti, 1954), Der Kaukasische Kreide Kreis (1949, 1956; The Caucasian Chalk-Circle, performed 1948, revised version published 1960), and what may be two of the contemporary theater’s three greatest plays: Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1941; Mother Courage and her Children, 1948) and Leben des Galilei (1943; Galileo, 1947). The third is, of course, Beckett’s En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954).

In an early ballad, Brecht told of having been descended from shrewd, hardheaded peasants, carried “from the black forests... into the towns” while in his mother’s womb. Actually, Hayman notes, Brecht’s genealogy was solidly middle-class and could be traced back to the sixteenth century. His father was managing director of a paper mill in Augsburg, forty miles northwest of Munich; he was Catholic, his wife Protestant, and both Brecht and his younger brother, Walter, were reared in their mother’s faith and primarily by her—the father was a workaholic. Brecht’s boyhood and adolescence were marked by self-confidence, quick-mindedness, and vitality—all characteristics that stood him in good stead throughout his life. His skill in manipulating people and his ruthlessness in pursuing his goals were also evident even in his youth.

During World War I, Brecht took up medical studies at the University of Munich to delay an early conscription call-up, but the only medical lectures he attended dealt with venereal diseases. Instead, he studied theater history with a Professor Artur Kutscher, the friend and biographer of Frank Wede-kind, who became Brecht’s idol. Wedekind not only wrote avant-garde Expressionistic plays advocating sexual liberation but also composed and sang ballads with enormously aggressive bravado. Wrote Brecht,Never has a singer made me feel so excited, so shaken. It was the enormous vitality of this man, his energy, that gave him his personal magic and enabled him, while showered with ridicule and scorn, to perform his brash hymn to humanity.

Like Wedekind, Brecht discovered that, given audacity, aplomb, and a guitar, one did not need a trained voice or handsome looks to excite and manipulate an audience. Not only did he compose and bawl out his own ballads, but also he wrote his first play, Baal, about an amoral, vagabond bard-balladeer who follows his instincts cruelly, exploiting and then discarding friends and lovers of both sexes. His only love is for the natural world, which he celebrates eloquently in lyrics of raw Expressionism.

Perhaps the best—and surely the most enigmatic—of Brecht’s early works was Im Dickicht der Städte (1923; In the Jungle of Cities, 1961), in which two men, Shlink and Garga, engage in a relentless but seemingly motiveless duel of wills. Shlink, a Malaysian lumber dealer, seeks to buy Garga’s soul but is himself shown to be a victim—one whose skin has been so toughened by life that he can no longer feel. He stages his battle with Garga to penetrate his own shell of indifference, crying out, “If you cram a ship full to bursting with human bodies, they’ll all freeze with loneliness.”

In the 1920’s, Brecht became a celebrated personality in the urban jungle of postwar Berlin: sexually perverse, intellectually brilliant, brutally predatory toward women, affecting a part-bohemian, part-proletarian persona. His trademarks were a seminarian’s tonsorial haircut, steel-rimmed spectacles, two days’ growth of beard, a leather jacket and a trucker’s cap, a cheap but large cigar, and chronic rudeness. People found him either charismatic or disgusting as he played ringmaster in Berlin’s grotesque circus of artistic innovation and political savagery. Many women found him irresistible.

Hayman’s biography is deficient in bringing to life the special texture of Berlin’s atmosphere in the 1920’s, but it does illuminate Brecht’s voracious sexual appeal to a phalanx of gifted and harrowed women. There was the rich and darkly beautiful singer-actress Marianne Zoff, whom he charmed with his “grating metallic voice” and lack of inhibitions. They married in November, 1922, and she bore him a daughter, Hanne, the following March; they separated before the end of 1923 and divorced in 1927. In 1924, he met the blond, chubby-cheeked Elisabeth Hauptmann, who became a lifelong, on-and-off mistress and assistant. Hauptmann spent the exile years during World War II in Manhattan, where Brecht would occasionally visit her when working on a New York stage production; they collaborated most successfully in organizing adaptations for the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950’s. His most turbulent relationship was with the alcoholic, manic-depressive photographer-actress Ruth Berlau: They met in Danish exile in 1934 and managed to form part of an erotic trio, quartet, or even quintet until his death. In 1944 in Los Angeles, she bore him a son who lived but a few days. Probably Brecht’s most tender romance was with the tubercular, sacrificial Margarete Steffin, whom he loved from 1932 until her death in Moscow in 1941.

Withal, the most important woman in Brecht’s life was the Viennese actress Helene Weigel, Jewish, Communist, and staunchly feminist, whom he met in 1923, married in 1929, and with whom he had a son, Stefan, in 1924, and a daughter, Barbara, in 1930. His decision to marry Weigel shocked his sexual commune—Elisabeth Hauptmann even attempted suicide—but it was eminently practical: Weigel was stable, strong, and protective; her devotion to his talent and person caused her to give up her stage career willingly for fifteen years during their wanderings through Europe and stay in the United States. On the deficit side, she was too masculine to fascinate him physically, and her party-line Marxism prevented him from examining Soviet policies with a sufficiently open mind. Weigel’s greatest stage successes were as the protagonist of Brecht’s Die Mutter (1932), his openly Communist play, and Mother Courage and Her Children, his most...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Library Journal. CVIII, October 1, 1983, p. 1871.

New Leader. LXI, December 12, 1983, p. 6.

New Statesman. CVI, September 30, 1983, p. 27.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, March 15, 1984, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, November 27, 1983, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, September 9, 1983, p. 55.