Bertolt Brecht was born into an affluent family in Augsburg in southern Germany early in 1898 where he attended local schools. From his early teen age years on, he wrote poetry and skits in which he played with his friends. At the very end of WWI, he was inducted into the army and served briefly as an orderly in a military hospital. He began to study medicine and science at the University of Munich, but dropped out to pursue literary activities. He wrote a play, Baal, which was not produced or published at first, and began to write theater criticism, all the while working on pieces of his own. He attempted several times to gain a foothold in Berlin, but, unsuccessful, returned to Augsburg several times. Nevertheless, in the course of the mid-twenties several of his theater pieces were produced in Germany, including Baal, and he establish himself as an avant-garde playwright and writer. One of his plays, Drums in the Night, broke through in 1922 in Munich and in Berlin, and was awarded an important literary prize.
It was Three Penny Opera that made Brecht famous. (Many know its most famous song, 'Mack the Knife.') To say that it was a collaboration is an understatement. There had been a revival of The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay (1728) in London in 1920. Elisabeth Hauptmann, one of Brecht’s lovers and collaborators, brought it to his attention and helped shape the script. Kurt Weil’s excellent compositions did much to make this musical successful. Chaos reigned in its production but it became an enormous hit, and a financial boon for its author. Even as Brecht’s literary fame rose, he was all the while changing, less enfant terrible and more the committed intellectual, studying Marx and Engels, and aligning himself with leftist causes. The poetry he produced during this period included one collection that was not published, A Reader for City Dwellers, 1926 -‘27, and one that was, Manual of Piety (1926) which also won an important literary prize. Brecht became involved in many projects during this period. Brecht and Weil collaborated once again on The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which was met with derisive cries from Nazis during its premier in Leipzig in 1930. Another project to which Brecht contributed was Kuhle Wampe, (1932) a film about the lot of the unemployed in Berlin.
The backdrop to Brecht’s rise was the decline and unraveling of German society in the 1920's and early ‘30's. Brecht himself witnessed the fighting between the Nazi’s and left factions in Berlin. When the Reichtstag, Germany’s parliament building burned in early 1933, the Nazi’s blamed a Dutch Communist. It was the Nazis themselves who were responsible, having no use or interest in a democratic form of government.
Brecht had married Helene Weigel in 1929. They had already had a son, and a daughter, Barbara, was born in 1930. The day after the Reichstag fire, Brecht and his family fled via Austria, Switzerland and France, to Denmark, the start of a fifteen year exile. During this time Brecht, attempted to realize projects with some of his exile connections. He traveled to Paris, London, Moscow, and New York, promoting his plays and writing ant-Nazi material for print or radio broadcast. His main allies were communists in Denmark and later, when the Nazis invaded Denmark, Swedish communists, who found housing for him and his family in Svendborg. In 1940, like-minded friends help them relocate to Finland. When he and his entourage were granted visas to the United States in 1941, his friends and allies in the Soviet Writers Union aided them into the Soviet Union, and across it to Vladivostok where they boarded the very last boat before the outbreak of war with Japan to the United States.
Brecht was a hard worker and an anti-fascist. In Denmark he tried to stage plays until it become no longer tenable. He was all the while at work on other plays and wrote many of his best works during the period of his exile in Scandinavia. In the U.S., where he felt generally uncomfortable, he tried to have some of his pieces staged or adapted for films, but found few takers for his services. One film, Hangman Also Die, is based on a story by Brecht. It was directed by Fritz Lang, a German director, who is best known for his films, Metropolis and M. There was a large German emigre community in Los Angeles, and Brecht made the rounds among them, taking up again with Hanns Eisler, the composer, meeting Fritz Lang, the director, and Leon Feuchtwanger, the novelist. He met Thomas Mann, too, whom he intensely disliked. He also met Hollywood notables such as Charlie Chaplin, whom he greatly admired, and the actors Charles Laughton and Peter Lorre. He liked Laughton in particular, and tailored his play, The Life of Galileo, to him. Brecht and Laughton then translated the play and it was staged in Los Angeles in 1947. He traveled to New York and tried to have his plays produced there. He worked with W. H. Auden on an adaption of the The Duchess of Malfi, a classic English play, in New York. – He wrote poems throughout his exile, as he always had and would until his death.
Brecht had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but relented in 1947 on the grounds that he was a guest in the U.S. and felt he should cooperate to that degree. He told them he was not a member of the Communist Party, and they soon lost interest in him after that. (This was not a lie, technically speaking. Most writers in communist countries abstained from Party membership, citing the need for objectivity and freedom. ) He later said that at least the Americans permitted him to have a cigar in his hand, and that he manufactured pauses with it. His accent and his feigned astonishment at the poor translations of his poems or songs that were read to him, had the audience in laughter. The committee sensed it was losing momentum, and they dismissed him with no further action. He left the very next day for Switzerland.
Brecht’s was active in Switzerland, too, staging several plays. In 1948, he moved to East Berlin, where he and Weigel were given a theater, actors and unlimited rehearsal time by the East German regime (German Democratic Republic). Brecht produced one of his plays, Mother Courage, starring Helene Weigel. On the strength of its success, Brecht’s theater company, the Berliner Ensemble was given its own theater, the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, where it is still housed to this day.
In 1953, workers in East Berlin and then throughout the GDR rose in defiance of state mandates for higher productivity. Brecht wrote a letter that laid the fault at the door of the regime prefaced with standard assurances of allegiance to it. The powers in charge published only his assurances with Brecht’s name under them. In general, Brecht did not feel at home in the GDR, and had no love loss either for West Germany, the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany). He neither trusted the people themselves of either half of Germany, whom he considered prone to fascism, nor the electoral process, feeling that the German people were so easily misled that they would elect their own hangmen. His reflections of this period found form in a poetry cycle, Buckow Elegies, named after a small town west of Berlin where he had a house by a lake. In these poems he sifts his disappointments and lets the precipitate fall on the bucolic setting. – Another elemental disappointment and discouragement was the continual struggle he faced viz-a-viz pinch-minded cultural bureaucrats, who deemed his works formalist, a term that connoted experimental, and by extension, decadent. Brecht fought them at every turn.
In 1954 the Berliner Ensemble presented Mother Courage at an international festival in Paris, where it was an enormous success, winning top awards. Brecht was acknowledged as the most important director and playwright of his time. This clear fact made things easier for him back in East Berlin and indeed created increasing breathing room for the arts, easing them away from the hide bound constructs of the communist officialdom.
The success of the previous year was repeated in 1955 when Brecht’s troupe won again in Paris, this time with another one of his plays, The Caucasian Chalk. In addition, the Soviet Union awarded him the Stalin Prize for which he traveled to Moscow, insisting that Boris Pasternak translate his acceptance speech.
Brecht was quite ill by this time, and but worked until he was no longer able. He died in mid-1956 of heart problems that had underlying causes stemming from a childhood sickness.
In the dark times,
Will there be singing, too?
There will be singing, too.
About the dark times.