Only Half Marx - Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life

What a predicament it is to be an artist or a writer. You are never fully in control of your productions. You paint a cheerful Florentine housewife and, a few centuries later, some jumped-up critic decides she is a castratingfemme fatale. You write an opera on Switzerland's national hero and the overture is endlessly used in stuff like The Lone Ranger andYankee Doodle Daffy. The worst fate is that of the playwright. You write a text with, at most, a few notes on scenery and cast (exits, enters). Then the product is snatched from your hands by actors, designers and directors. It becomes their play. You sit in a corner sulking or, more frequently, you turn in your grave. Pity, then, Bertolt Brecht, who regarded himself, with considerable justification, as the great dramatist of his age, yet was condemned to have so little control of his plays and of his life. His health was poor; his erstwhile communist comrades disagreed with him about what political theatre should be; he was forced into exile in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the USA, all places where staging his works proved difficult. He became, as he wrote, the 'man to whom no one is listening':

He speaks too loud
He repeats himself
He says things that are wrong:
He goes uncorrected.

Only one aspect of his life did he manage to control: his lovers, towards whom he behaved appallingly, betraying them all but becoming enraged if he suspected them of cheating on him. And he could not bear to break with anyone - not with his women, not with his friends and not with communism and the Soviet Union. Yet somehow, against the odds, he revolutionised the theatre and left us some of the greatest dramatic masterpieces of the 20th century: Life of GalileoMother Courage and Her ChildrenThe Good Person of SzechwanThe Caucasian Chalk Circle and many others. One might be tempted to resort to a cliché: a flawed genius. Or, better, somebody who succeeded in making his flaws serve his genius.

This, and much else besides, emerges from Stephen Parker's masterly biography of Brecht, the first in twenty years. It is an astonishing tour de force based on impressive scholarship. For once the subtitle, 'A Literary Life', is apposite, for, as the complex strands of Brecht's life are revealed, we never forget that he is above all a writer. He speaks to us not only through letters and pronouncements but also through his poetry, abundantly quoted by Parker throughout the book.

If we had met Brecht in 1920 we would have found him a boorish young man, someone who used his verbal skills as a means of sexual conquest in the way other men manage to impress some women by flexing their muscles or flashing their cash. One gets a little lost in the list of affairs: Marianne Zoff, the wannabe diva, Margarete Steffin, Elisabeth Hauptmann and Ruth Berlau among others. He bedded Zoff, a ravishing beauty, when he was an unknown 22-year-old and five years younger than her. He barged into her dressing room at the end of one of her opera performances. As she recalled, she saw a thin little man holding a battered cap, wearing scruffy old trousers, unwashed (neglect of personal hygiene was one of his enduring traits) and speaking non-stop in a thick Swabian accent.

The nearest Brecht got to a revolution was during the political unrest after Germany's defeat in 1918. But while the revolutionaries were being routed and murdered, Brecht was in nightclubs chasing girls. He cared little for theory unless it involved the theatre. His Marxism was always a little jejune. He wrote: 'A man with one theory is lost. He needs several of them, four, lots! He should stuff them in his pockets like newspapers, hot from the press.'
Yet his plays are overtly political, in a way that those of the great playwrights of the past never were, not even the plays of Ibsen or Shaw. Brecht's commitment to socialism stemmed from his desire to break with bourgeois convention. Unfortunately for him, the communists, whether in the USSR or later in the GDR, were deeply committed to a bourgeois conception of art. They liked their drama to be straightforward and uplifting, with clearly demarcated goodies and baddies. Brecht satirised the 'communist' playwrights of Weimar days by writing:

For 3,000 marks a month
He is prepared
To put on the misery of the masses
For 100 marks a day
He displays
The injustice of the world.

Parker takes us through the various stages in the evolution of Brecht's method - Epic Theatre, followed by the 'alienation effect' or Verfremdungseffekt - but the basic premise was constant. While Stanislavski (and his main American epigone, Lee Strasberg) insisted that the actors had to 'be' the character they were impersonating and that the audience had to identify with what was happening on the stage, Brecht wanted the spectator's 'splendid isolation' to be left intact and not to fuse with the hero. Of course, Brecht was not alone in propounding these views. Erwin Piscator had pioneered, as part of the alienation effect, the use of slides, films and banners. Brecht himself traced the origins of this distancing to an older tradition, found in medieval plays and, above all, Chinese theatre (the performance given by Mei Lanfang's Beijing Opera that he saw in Moscow in 1935 was formative). Brecht explained: 'I'm sick of the new. I'm starting to work with very old material that's been tested a thousand times over ... I'm a materialist and a lout and a proletarian and a conservative anarchist.' Actors, too, contributed to his 'choreographed' theatre. They included Helene Weigel, whom Brecht married in 1929 and who remained at his side throughout, in spite of the indignities she had to endure. Her acting, notably in a production of Oedipus in 1928, was an important factor in Brecht's development of his method.

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