top of page

Brecht and Women

Elisabeth Hauptmann


Margarete Steffin

Ruth Berlau

While most Brecht scholars have been kind to him, John Fuegi has not.  His 1994 book, Brecht and Company, also known as The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht, details Brecht’s interactions with collaborators, publishers and others, and finds them wanting.  It portrays him as a complete scoundrel, especially in regards to the talented women in his life.  The book is widely regarded as a hatchet job, and has had considerable negative influence on Brecht’s reputation  in the U.S. and in England. Fuegi had devoted most of his life to collecting every possible scrap of information about Brecht, and had founded (1970) and headed the International Brecht Society for many years before issuing his parricidal pronouncement. The book has many critics. Fuegi’s colleagues found it riddled with errors and generally sloppy. Even the average reader finds the book abrasive in its contempt for its subject. After finding Brecht comparable in his personal life to Hitler and Stalin, we are expected to believe astonishing about-faces in the manner of ...‘Why, it baffles the understanding as to how Brecht could write a poem (or a piece) that shows such regard and sympathy for humanity.’  Such puzzles are left for the reader to reconcile, a difficult  task when the only tools at hand are a methodology that combines implacable accounting with a prosecutorial attitude.


Fuegi’s main contention is that Brecht exuded sexual charm, seduced women and exploited them unmercifully in terms of producing plays and pieces that he then claimed as his own, publishing rights included. – Indeed, a good case can be made against Brecht for exploiting the women in his life. Brecht clearly behaved like a pasha when it came to women.  In his childhood home, there were female servants who cooked his meals, and in his teenage years, a secretary from the paper mill that his father ran was pressed into service to write up his poems.  A cook from Augsburg was with Brecht and his family from the earliest days of his success in the Berlin days in the ‘20's and even went on with the family into exile in Denmark, where eventually she married a Dane.  It is easy to see how Brecht grew up with the attitude that women were simply very useful in a number of regards.


Post-WWI theater world in Germany was a heady mix, and it becomes easy to imagine that as a reasonably attractive young man, Brecht, the anti-bourgeois avant-garde playwright, must have had a touch of rock star glamour about him.  Taking to Marxism (1926) and the success of Three Penny Opera simply seemed to enhance his allure. – On divorcing his second wife, by which time he had two children (one by Paula Banholzer, an Augsburg woman, the second by Marianne Zoff. an actress and singer,) he married Helene Weigel, who probably suspected there was little hope of traditional fidelity in her marriage, but who pursued that policy anyway, with tenacity, hope, patience and bitterness.


In Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht found a congenial, almost perfect collaborator.  Hauptmann was the daughter of a German physician and an American mother.  She became a teacher, but moved to Berlin with the intent of making her way in publishing and as a writer. She met Brecht at a party and the two soon became friends. Hauptmann would bring ideas for projects, plays or poems, and often provide a translation if the original was in English or French, or a translation of a translation as in the case of Brecht’s ‘borrowings’ from the Chinese or Japanese, where the source was the translations of Arthur Waley.  Brecht would re-work the material, and after some give and take, Hauptmann would produce a final copy.  In the case of the Three Penny Opera, the initial idea was brought to Brecht by Hauptmann, who was very able with languages, and was aware of a 1920 London production of John Gay’s Beggars Opera.  There is no doubt that part of the authorship of this work is hers. – In the end it was an enormous success, the product of Hauptmann’s instincts and efforts; Brecht’s ability to write song lyrics and create the anti-capitalist dramatic context; wrangling with the cast and the producer who insisted on their changes; and finally then, a potpourri held together by Weill’s brilliant music. The audience loved one song in particular, the 'Kanonen Song,' which is a direct re-working from Rudyard Kipling, whose work Hauptmann had introduced to Brecht. – When  it came to publishing rights for 3PO Hauptmann received very little, maximally 12.5 to 15%. – Hauptmann aided and abetted Brecht’s efforts during the war, first in Denmark, then later in the U.S., where she too had fled.  She was thrown severely on her own resources, but helped Brecht in California and in New York with plays that he wanted to produce.  She married the composer, Paul Dessau in California and returned with him to the GDR after the war.  When Dessau left her for a younger woman, Hauptmann was despondent.  Eventually, Brecht employed her to sort out his manuscripts, a long term effort that eventually became the cornerstone of the Brecht-Archiv.  Later, she also assisted in staging Brecht’s plays at the Berliner Ensemble. Hauptmann was never completely in Brecht’s thrall, but worked diligently for years with publishers and scholars on ordering Brecht’s files and papers, collecting his manuscripts and published works  and bringing them into new, more fruitful editions. She had the full support of Brecht’s wife, Helene Weigel.

Sabine Kebir, a German author and scholar, wrote a book about Hauptmann (1997) entitled I Didn’t Ask for My Share, a phrase that sums up the situation aptly.  The American scholar, Monika Krause, makes an important and over-arching point: the entire construct of authorship was at that time and for some time thereafter, male dominated. All the works with which Brecht had been involved benefited from the strongly rooted societal belief that authorship resided in one figure to the exculsion of collaborators, especailly if they were women.  Brecht was the brand name, convenient then for him and to this day for his heirs, his publishers and academicians.


Ruth Berlau, a Danish journalist and actress, the wife of a physician, left her life in Copenhagen to be with Brecht in 1933 after he and his family had fled to Denmark.  Highly spirited, she was famous for bicycling through the Soviet Union in 1930, and for spending time in Spain during the Civil War.  She was involved with Workers’ Theater in Denmark before meeting Brecht and had promoted his work. –  For years she was devoted to Brecht, documenting the theater work with her camera, organizing his everyday affairs. During their stays in Denmark and Sweden, she helped with the play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and staged  plays under difficult circumstances. She followed Brecht and his family to Sweden, Finland, across the USSR to California, but left him after a falling out to take up residence in New York, where he visited her (1943).  A child she bore from the relationship lived nine days. After WWII, she worked with the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht’s theater group.  Ever more dependent on Brecht, financially and emotionally, she drank, made scenes, spent time in psychiatric hospitals. Brecht made provision to buy her a house in Denmark to be rid of her.  After Brecht’s death, she returned to Berlin, but was soon blacklisted by Helene Weigel from the Berliner Ensemble theater. She died in 1974 in Berlin, alcoholic and alone.  


Margarete Steffin’s relationship with Brecht began in 1931 in Berlin. The daughter of working class parents, she worked for the phone company at 14, and rose to become a bookkeeper.  She was drawn to Social Democratic politics, but moved farther to the left. She worked in publishing and was interested in theater. For Brecht, the convert to Marxism, who came from a comfortable  background, Steffin was the woman who constantly provided the proletarian point of view, his “little teacher.”  She was part of the Brecht menage in Denmark, then Sweden and Finland.  Steffin suffered from tuberculosis for many years.  In the ‘20's she sought treatment in the Soviet Union.  Fleeing from Finland in 1941 with the Brecht clan, she became severely ill.  Brecht’s Soviet friends arranged to have Steffin stay in a hospital near Moscow. The family resumed their trip and Steffin died several weeks later at the age of thirty-three. Brecht is said to have been devastated, unable to work for months afterward.  Steffin was a gifted student of  Russian, which she translated, and the Scandinavian languages.  She is credited with a creative role in The Private Life of the Master Race, The Life of Galileo and Mother Courage, as well as Mr Puntila and his Man Matti, The Good Person of Szechwan, and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.   –  Some of Brecht’s most intimate, tender and passionate love poems, a series of sonnets in particular, are addressed to Grete Steffin.


Writers, journalists and scholars responded to the assaultive charges in Fuegi’s book from the date of its publication. The book itself, Brecht and Co., has in the two decades since publication been set aside as being poorly written and researched.  John Willett, who knew Brecht and studied him since the 1930's, led the charge, calling it "a book whose structure is worm eaten with at least 450 ... mistakes and repetitions ... Be a little less trusting, prod this book’s vast assemblage of notes, and it crumbles." –  While the many countervailing arguments that Fuegi’s book incited might written off as mere damage control on the part of the pro-Brecht faction, they seem to me an honest attempt to reveal the often contradictory truth about the man and his times.  In the two decades Fuegi’s indictment, Brecht’s  relationships have been closely examined from multiple perspectives.  Whereas men,  ever the stout champions of women and their causes, were in the forefront of the charge against Brecht, women who looked closely at the matter decided that the case against him is exaggerated.  Sabine Kebir has written a book apiece about Hauptmann, Berlau and Steffin that do not exonerate him, but find that he was an ‘acceptable man.’  The upshot of her books is that working with Brecht meant a great deal to them, and that in each instance, Brecht helped them with their own individual efforts at authorship, but never took credit for this.  Kebir’s conclusion is that they did not have the ability or talent to produce high quality work on their own.  Brecht had both and was himself a consistently hard worker. 


Marx’s insights into the structures of capitalism were a perfect fit to Brecht's own world view and anti-bourgeois stance.  He met Karl Korsch, a Marxist writer and activist, in Berlin in 1926 and studied with him for a time. Korsch had already been dismissed by the Party by that time, advocating a third way, akin to Trotsky’s position. Later, during exile in Denmark, Brecht discussed Marx with his friend, the critic, Walter Benjamin. “Here was no fly-by-night intellectual acting out a brief romance with the revolution before returning excused to the comfort of bourgeois patronage. Instead, he immersed himself lifelong in the method of Marxism so as to enrich his skill and focus his play writing.” (Dave Riley)  Hauptmann, Berlau and Steffin joined the Communist Party. (Brecht never did, however,  preferring to maintain some distance from regime.  This allegiance to Marxism that never wavered for Brecht, nor those around him, is dismissed by Fuegi as dilettantish, and represents his deepest attempt to wish Brecht away completely.

For Hauptmann, Berlau, Steffin and his wife, Weigel, it was the utter conviction and belief in Marxist ideology that gave their collaboration with Brecht meaning. With the Weimar Republic disintegrating outside of their windows, where Nazi thugs fought communists and socialists in the streets, the premise that the old order was going under seemed very real. They were convinced that a new socialist order would emerge, and that it was their duty to work as hard as they could to realize it. And work they did.  “They disciplined each other to increase the output of the workshop.” (Monika Krause)  And these collaborations produced effective theater. Hauptmann wrote to Brecht later after they had fled, saying that for her, their collaboration had been the best work she had done, and that he should admit the same for himself.  Above and beyond all that, it  was their devotion to the enormity and importance of their task that tied them to each other.




Brecht and his son, Stefan

Helene Weigel


bottom of page