Monday, July 23, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“BRECHT AND CO. – Sex, Politics and the Making of the Modern Drama” by John Fuegi (first published 1994 ; revised edition 2003)

            James McNeish’s sprightly memoir Touchstones makes mention of the left-wing English theatre director Joan Littlewood as the “Mother Courage of British theatre”. It gives McNeish’s testimony that Littlewood extensively re-wrote at least one play that was supposedly by a young playwright (McNeish is referring to Shelagh Delaney, but Littlewood is also widely reputed to have largely re-written the plays that were supposedly by Brendan Behan).

            The Brechtian reference and the matter of murky authorship all put me in mind of a great iconoclastic biography I read a few years back.

            There’s an important place for the debunking and iconoclastic biography, as I noted earlier on this blog (look for the posting “Why write a new biography?” in the index at right). Debunking biographies are sometimes intemperate and sometimes go too far. But they are necessary when their subject has previously been regarded too uncritically or has been the subject of hagiographies only.

            The example I gave earlier of a necessary iconoclastic biography was Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia – a Biographical Enquiry (1955). An even better example, I think, is John Fuegi’s Brecht and Co., the British edition of which was first published under a more provocative title (not of the author’s choosing) The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht.

            I’m assuming I do not have to explain who Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was, what an important figure in world drama he is and how much he is usually taken to be the foremost German dramatist of the twentieth century.

            Brecht and Co was written by somebody who greatly admires Bertolt Brecht’s  drama, but intensely dislikes Brecht as a man. It is a very long and very well documented biography of Brecht and the theatrical and political circles in which he moved – in the edition I read, 620 pages of text followed by c.100 pages of notes and index.

            John Fuegi was Professor of Comparative Studies at the University of Maryland and founder of the International Brecht Society. He had previously edited such works as The Essential Brecht.  But in Brecht and Co. he paints such a negative picture of the dramatist that the book has been intensely disliked and negatively reviewed by those who prefer a more hagiographic picture of the man. It is especially hated by left-wingers who want to preserve the image of the politically-committed proletarian genius. Brecht and Co. has been extensively attacked in print, with one irate Brechtian calling it “600 pages of character assassination”. A group of Brecht’s defenders brought out an article specifying “450 factual errors” in Brecht and Co. On inspection, however, most of these supposed “errors” turn out to be minor things such as typos and the odd misspelling, suggesting only that the first edition of the book might have benefited from more rigorous proof-reading. It is perfectly right that factual errors be pointed out in reviews, but the pointing out of these 450 was motivated solely by the critics’ annoyance at what the book was arguing. Nobody has yet been able to disprove Fuegi’s essential theses. The book is well-researched and its case is a convincing one.

            I will not summarize everything Fuegi says about Brecht’s life and works, but I will note his main lines of argument.

            First, says Fuegi, despite his carefully-cultivated image, Brecht was of bourgeois origins and had bourgeois habits his whole life. He was the son of a wealthy south German factory-owner, brought up in a milieu of servants and material comfort. He was used to having his needs serviced by others. His early affinities were largely right-wing and conservative. His younger brother Walther was one of von Epp’s Freikorps troops, putting down the half-cock “Bolshevik” republic in Bavaria just after the First World War. The image of the cloth-cap-and-leather-jacket-wearing prole, which Brecht cultivated in the later Weimar years, was pure theatre and was sustained only with the help of generous hand-outs from his family and the services of expensive, exclusive tailors who made his proletarian costumes (leather jacket, cloth cap etc.). It was as much a “dressing-down” image as the ones currently deployed by rock stars. Throughout his years in exile from the Nazi regime, in Denmark (1930s) and the USA (1940s), Brecht lived very comfortably, usually in the best parts of town, thanks to generous patrons and big royalty cheques. This was even more true in the years (1948-56) when he lived in Communist East Germany and was willing to be used as one of the state’s propaganda assets. Like others in privileged inner-party circles, he had both the best possible apartments and a large country estate (he had also bought a large country estate in Bavaria in the early 1930s). He was always looked after by servants.

            Second, like many who give interviews about themselves, Brecht routinely falsified details of his life, particularly when it came to claiming how early he had been aware of the Nazi menace and had opposed it. Until the late 1920s, as Fuegi demonstrates, Brecht’s views on German politics tended to be more Right than Left. When he shifted to being a Communist-sympathiser (if not actually a card-carrier) he adopted the party line that it was better for Hitler to come to power than the Social Democrats, as a Hitler regime would be bound to last only a short-time before the proletarian revolution overthrew it. This Communist delusion – which was at least as opposed to parliamentary democracy as the Nazis were – was one of the many things that helped destroy the Weimar Republic.

            Amplifying this point, Fuegi further argues that Brecht was very tardy at protesting against Nazism, despite the later legend. He occupied some of the early Nazi years (in Denmark and elsewhere) writing The Threepenny Novel, which ignores what was happening in Germany and is the usual attack on decadent capitalism, with a British setting. For Communists and their sympathisers Nazism was, after all, just another form of decadent capitalism – an attitude that resurfaced in the period 1939-41 when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were virtual allies. Only in the mid-1930s, when the official Communist party line had changed into the short-lived “Popular Front”, did Brecht and his collaborators produce the play Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. As for the other totalitarianism, Brecht privately wrote criticisms of the East German Communist statelet in which he lived in the 1950s – including the unpublished witticism abut having to “change the people” after the abortive 1954 rising against the Communist government. But he never publicly challenged it in his lifetime. The same was true of Stalinism in general. It has been left to hagiographers to find what was unpublished in his lifetime and declare it as evidence of his resistance; or to reinterpret his Life of Galileo as a coded attack on Stalinist show-trials. (Absolutely nobody interpreted the play in those terms at the time it was written, and certainly not Brecht). Meanwhile in America, his testimony to the HUAC was at best ambiguous and certainly didn’t make any sort of stand.

            Third, Brecht was a sexual predator throughout his life. Fuegi implies that in his earlier adulthood, his tastes ran to both men and women, but he gradually settled on women exclusively. He preferred young and vulnerable ones. His first child (Frank Banholzer) was produced out of wedlock. Basically young Brecht abandoned both mother and child. The child was brought up by foster parents and died while serving in the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. Brecht was married in the late 1920s, divorced, and then had his long-running second marriage to the actress Helene Weigel. However, both his wives quickly became used to the fact that he took mistresses as a matter of course – many are documented in Brecht and Co. Brecht fathered three other children, but his mistresses were usually advised to abort their unwanted offspring, which they did. Fuegi says that as a theatre director, Brecht took it for granted that young actresses were his property. Most of them willingly submitted to him, being awed by his power and public reputation and having been convinced that he was serious about them. It has to be said that some of the longer-lasting mistresses were clearly under the illusion that marriage was an outmoded bourgeois convention in the new socialist consciousness – which was just dandy for the guy who wanted to sleep with them while his wife looked after his interests at home.

            It is Fuegi’s fourth point, however, that is the heart of the book and has caused most outrage among Brecht’s admirers.

            Fuegi argues – and I think actually proves – that a very large part of Brecht’s supposed work was actually the work of collaborators, particularly Margarete Steffin, Elisabeth Hauptmann and Ruth Berlau, some of whom were his mistresses at different times. Fuegi does not doubt that nearly all of Brecht’s poetry was his own work. But he argues that when it came to drama, Brecht really ran a “factory” system, in which he might suggest the idea of a play – or have somebody suggest it to him – and then leave his collaborators to actually write the text, often coming in again only in the later stages of writing to make “improvements” or suggest changes.

            This might sound like an idealistic socialist “workshop” concept of collaborative effort – except that Brecht always made sure that he himself held exclusive copyrights and materially benefitted (as have his heirs subsequently, who were hopping mad at this book of course). Brecht had multiple bank accounts, some in Switzerland. Fuegi estimates that up to 80% of the text of “Brecht’s” most lucrative effort, The Threepenny Opera, is actually the work of Elisabeth Hauptmann. He is able to produce evidence that Brecht privately acknowledged his debt in letters etc. – but never admitted it publicly. Basically, Fuegi believes Brecht was full of ideas, but had neither the stamina nor the skill to turn them into plays.

            Furthermore, he notes that most of Brecht’s unacknowledged collaborators were female. He sees this as accounting for the fact that there is a switch from the immature violent macho posturing of Brecht’s earlier plays (Baal, Drums in the Night) to themes that involve stronger female characters in later plays (Mother Courage and her Children, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person [Woman] of Szechwan, Saint Joan of the Stockyards etc.). The fact was, says Fuegi, it was basically women who conceived these later characters – not the male chauvinist cigar-chomper who slept with actresses while talking proletarian revolution from his comfy apartment.

            Finally, Fuegi makes it clear that Brecht was a tyrant as a director – and that he frequently and deliberately sabotaged other people’s plays if they seemed on the verge of success. Fuegi says that Brecht wrote many interesting pieces of dramatic theory, but that in the end it was belied by the actual practice of “his” plays. The ideas of ‘epic theatre’, which Brecht mainly lifted from the director Erwin Piscator, and of alienation/Verfremdung and the cold, intellectual response, are in fact not how his best plays work at all – they work by emotionally involving the audience in the familiar Aristotelean manner.

            This brief summary does not do justice to the book, and doubtless makes it sound shriller than it actually is. I have simplified. I think Fuegi makes a very good case and certainly he documents it well. It is possible, of course, that he sometimes goes a little over the top – and some speculation does have to come into it. But if the end result is a bit of a hatchet-job, it’s only because the subject was waiting for the hatchet. This is a very good example of the necessary iconoclastic biography.

            Do I have any misgivings about it? Not really. Fuegi nowhere suggests that the best of “Brecht’s” plays are anything other than great plays and worthy of their place in the canon. This may be a debunking of the man, but it is not a debunking of the works, which Fuegi knows better than most of his critics.

            One final point. As I’ve made clear in earlier postings, “alternative authorship” theories about Shakespeare’s plays are pure moonshine, based on no reliable evidence. Fuegi’s questioning of Brecht’s authorship is nowhere in the same ballpark, and of course (unlike “alternative” authorship theories about Shakespeare’s plays) he nowhere proposes one other person as the author of all of Brecht’s works. What Fuegi says has very firm evidence to prove it.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice piece. And curiously enough, the public subsidies in the name of St. Bertolt continue to gush freely to this day. My regular train runs past Brecht's old theatre, the Berliner Ensemble, on the riverside in Berlin, a temple to the old poseur that none would ever dare to close: http://www.berliner-ensemble.de/geschichte