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Long Bio with a view towards  Brecht's poetry

Casper Neher

Hanns Eisler

Kurt Weil

Bertolt Brecht was born in Augsburg in southern Germany, where his father was a manager in a local paper company.  He grew up in a well-to-do household with a sickly mother and an indulgent father, attended local grammar schools and at the age of ten, the Koeniglich-Bayerisches Realgymnasium, where he learned Latin and other languages, and read foreign and classical authors. He showed an early gift for imitation and parody. It is said that in his Gymnasium (upper form school) years he would garnish his essays with Goethe quotations of his own invention, a practice that went unchallenged since the teachers would have had to admit not knowing their source in the Great Man’s oeuvre.

During Brecht’s teenage years he was part of a group of young friends him who enjoyed reveling through the long summer nights, often on the banks of the Lech, the river that runs through Augsburg. Some were artistically inclined and intellectually curious. There were drunken nights, young love affairs, forays into the countryside and nature, travel to the south in the summers. Brecht played guitar and sang the latest ballads and songs, and was known to compose his own as well. The models for these were the songs and poems of Villon and Rimbaud, and Frank Wedekind, and accordingly, purposely provocative, anti-bourgeois, free-wheeling, nihilistic and anarchistic in tone.  Plays were improvised at Brecht’s home. Fraught with dilettantism as the activities of this period may have been, important things were to emerge in future. Some of the friendships that were formed during this time lasted throughout his life, especially the one with Casper Neher, who went on to become internationally famous as a set designer. Music was always important to Brecht’s work throughout his life. Many of his poems begin as songs, some of which he wrote to the tune of songs popular at the time. Some were set to music by composers like Hanns Eichler, a longtime friend. Later on,  Brecht’s collaboration with Kurt Weill, whom he met in Berlin, became famous for Three Penny Opera (sets by Neher) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Brecht was born when Germany was still an imperial power.  This ended in 1918, the year the twenty year wrote The “Legend of the Dead Soldier” (Die Legende vom Toten Soldaten), a poem that Kurt Weil later set to music, in which Brecht conjures a soldier killed in the fourth year of the war, exhumed  by a military conscription commission, resurrected and sanctioned by doctors and priests, marched off to war again accompanied by hookers - anything to get him back to the front.  Still later, this poem was one of the chief reasons the Nazi’s put Brecht in fifth place on their list of wanted writers. They had no scruples about murdering dissident writers, artists and performers of any nationality.

The German Empire ended with the conclusion of WWI.  Brecht did not serve in the army, but put in some time as an orderly in a hospital tending wounded soldiers. He lived and worked in Germany through the years of the of the Weimar Republic, unstable from its inception, always struggling to rid itself of its past, until Hitler consolidated his hold on Germany. His main focus was of course the theater.  Working throughout Germany, he wrote a number of experimental plays, many of which were highly regarded.  In 1928 Brecht and Kurt Weill had an enormous success in their creation, The Three Penny Opera (Dreigroschenoper).  In the late 1920's and early ‘30's Brecht drew closer to Marxism, mainly as an antipode to the rise of Fascism, and his poetry reflected that turn.  As hope for a revolution to put an end to Fascism faded, the clearer mission emerged: to fight Fascism relentlessly in all its aspects.

Brecht left Germany on February 28, 1933, the day after the Reichstag was burned: what followed was a fifteen year exile which began in Scandinavia. (1933-1941). After an initial lengthy stay in Denmark, he moved to Sweden, but then  with the war at his heels, to  Finland.  As war approached Finland, Brecht went to the Soviet Union where he had connections who helped him with arrangements and money to leave for the United States. How Brecht managed to traverse the Soviet Union to Vladivostok with his wife, children and Ruth Berlau, one of his secretary/mistresses in tow, remains a source of puzzlement. Sergei Tretyakov, his Russian translator, had already been liquidated by the Soviets, who were at least as brutal with artists and writers as the Nazis.  

His luck held. Brecht and his party managed to get the last ship to San Pedro, the Los Angeles port - via Shanghai and Manila - before the beginning of war in the Pacific. Brecht’s friends in Los Angeles, writers and actors, like Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Leon Furchtwanger, helped him find footing. The emigre community in L.A. was diverse. The great bourgeois German author, Thomas Mann was there, as well as his brother, the left-leaning Heinrich Mann. The year – 1941.  Brecht was never comfortable in the United States, but managed to do important work on plays and write against fascism. In late 1947, on the day after his evasive testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he boarded a plane for Switzerland.   

A year later, he went to East Berlin, where he worked with a theater troupe that over the course of several years became world famous for their productions of his plays. Suspect in the United States for his communist leanings, he was equally uneasy with the East German variant of socialism where his art was viewed as deviant from socialist norms.  But throughout this embattled life, Brecht wrote poems the way others might keep a diary.  One must bear in mind, too, that he was foremost a playwright who wrote several novels, many stories, writings about the theater and such, and carried on an extensive correspondence. The 2500 poems he left form a unique and continuous reaction to the multiple battles he confronted;  a personal history of ‘making art in dark times by singing about the dark times.’  He worked hard until the end.  In 1956, he died in East Berlin of a heart condition from which he had suffered since his youth. The passport he carried from 1950 shortly after returning to Europe to the day he died was an Austrian one.
Brecht’s life and art exemplify the forty five year split between East and West Germany. While his work and his life had its home in East Germany, he owned several houses in the West, and his publishing rights were held with S. Fischer in Frankfurt-am-Main, where his editor was Peter Suhrkamp.  In terms of his art, Brecht remained the star author of the GDR during his lifetime, no matter how ill at ease he felt there, or how much suspicion he evoked.  The main issue in Brecht’s relationship with the communists was that he was a formalist, who did not hew to the party’s artistic guidelines of social realism, i.e. one whose work was experimental.  And then there was June 1953, when a worker’s uprising took place in East Germany. It was widely assumed in the East that agents provocateurs were responsible for the uprising and Brecht avowed that he, too, believed this, but criticized the government for being deaf to the workers’ demands.  He did however avow his support for the regime.  Using only a portion of the letter, the regime indicated that Brecht supported them completely.  Then the truth became more clear, namely, that the uprising was not incited by provocateurs, and that the workers of East Germany had legitimate grievances. Brecht salved his wounds with a poem suggesting the government elect another people.  He was written off of course in West Germany as a ‘communist poet.’  The intelligentsia in West Germany however recognized the value of his work and continued to prize him. After his death editions of his works were produced in the East and the West, none of them complete, until a  joint East-West German edition of Brecht’s work, accomplished with close cooperation was completed before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany.

Brecht’s poetry did not rely on a subjective tone, nor did he develop a style that relied on expression of emotion. At the most, such models served only as a purpose for parody. From the very beginning, we see in his poetry his ability to parody and imitate. He signed two sonnets Thomas Mann, both excellent imitations of the novelist’s lengthy sentence style, but with sexual content so explicit that Mann would have been outraged.  His poems attain their singularity through their multiplicity of motifs and images, their language and thematic richness.  They deal with the quotidian, with frivolities, some with obscenities and some with volatile political matter.  Then, too, he would take traditional themes into his poetry and present them in new, surprising and provoking garb. Satire, parody,  political and humane commitment and his own peculiar sort of friendliness are the stuff of Brecht’s poetry.

He wrote in a multiplicity of forms and styles, composed hexameters, wrote odes and epigrams, wrote children’s verse, sonnet sequences, ballads and employed classical poetry forms, as well as free verse, poems in the form of epigrams, didactic poems as well as prose poems, plus poems in single word lines and as wall slogans.

Brecht published five books of poetry in his lifetime, The Manual of Piety (Die Hauspostille) (1927), Reader for City Dwellers, (Lesebuch für Städtebewohner)(1926-1927) The Songs of the Three Penny Opera, (Die Songs der Dreigroschenoper) (1928), Songs, Poems, Choruses, (Lieder, Gedichte, Chöre) (1934) and Svendborg Poems (Svendborger Gedichte) (1939).  His last book of poetry was Buckower Elegies (Buckower Elegien) (1953)  Others were planned but never came to fruition.  And then there were the hundreds of poems that were uncollected - some published in journals, some scattered in war time emigre publications throughout the world. - until major editions of his works were published long after his death.

Most of Brecht’s poems of the 1920's such as those in  The Manual of Piety were written in the form of rhymed verse, but as his focus changed to challenging fascism’s rise in Germany, and fighting it head on in during the exile years, free verse forms predominated. This poetic voice is more direct and urgent.  The rhymed verse poems and songs that Brecht continued to write during the late ‘twenties and into the ‘thirties contributed to the Communist movement;  homages to the worker as a positive force in history; or set to music by composers like Hans Eisler, battle hymns that had lasting value.  

The poems of Brecht’s prolonged exile from Germany at first (Svendborg Poems) explore the lot of the political emigre, the contradictions and implausibilities of this status, the waiting for signals from home, for positive news that never comes; he constantly inveighs against the House Painter, the name he coined for Hitler.  Poems written in Sweden and Finland testify to the author’s increasing isolation.  He watches nature, reflecting all the while on the political situation and the deepening war.  The Hollywood Elegies (Hollywood Elegien) (1942) is the Brechtian equivalent of Lorca’s Poet in New York.  He was not comfortable in paradise, scratching for work, a German writer trying to sell leftist movie plots to Hollywood.  The studio executives  probably regarded him as another schmuck with an typewriter, and an alien to boot.  Except for his work on  Hangmen Also Die!  he had very few takers.  In the Hollywood Elegien the writer and poet vents his frustration and rage with his new, exotic locale.  

The end of WWII brought new problems.  The western powers and the Soviet Union had smashed German fascism, but fascist states in Spain and Portugal, where the proxy war had begun, were permitted to continue. Along with many other leftist emigres, Brecht was convinced that at the end of WWII Germany would become a socialist state. There was great disappointment for the left as two Germanies emerged: - the western, capitalist, the eastern, communist. To most, the western part, constructed under the aegis of the Allied forces, seemed encumbered with old school nationalists and impenitent Nazis in positions of prominence, a white-washed version of the United States. The brought out Brecht’s satiric streak in poems like Freiheit and Democracy (Freedom and Democracy).

Brecht returned to Europe in 1947 immediately after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, whose questions he deftly parried. At first he settled in Switzerland where he sought to mount some of his plays without much success.  Brecht’s next fight came to be known as Cold War. He was not welcome in the western part of Germany, which was divided into zones at the time, but finally he and  his wife, the actress, Helene Weigel, were offered a state supported theater in East Germany, where he mounted productions of his plays.  During this period, Brecht’s efforts were expended on staging and producing the plays he had written during his years abroad.  His theater troupe, the Berliner Ensemble, played to audiences in Berlin and on tours throughout Europe, garnered honors and distinctions, especially for Mutter Courage starring Helene Weigel. . His efforts at verse during this time included poems intended to promote peace and prevent any possible backsliding to fascism in his part of the new Germany. These poems, many of them tendencious, do not reflect his best work

That Brecht should run afoul of the GDR’s Stalinist bureaucracy is no surprise. In East Germany, he was suspect to the regime because of his exile in the U.S.  In the West he was un-desirable.  The Cold War had  no room for shades of gray that Brecht favored.  It took all of Brecht’s cunning, very hard work and some real luck to maneuver past the SED party functionaries who were pitted against him. Overall, we can view Brecht’s behavior in the GDR as a tactic, as cowardice, as deference or as a survival instinct in action.  It did permit him to have a productive life as a playwright and man of letters, and a decent lifestyle.  But right off, in his first years there, he found himself increasingly under the pressure of East Germany’s cultural policy.  

In June of 1953 there was a worker’s uprising in East Berlin, which put both east and west on edge. Contrary to the East Germany’s politburo it was not inspired by West German fascists agitators, not a counter-revolution, but an actual proletarian revolt against Soviet-style work polices. As mentioned above, Brecht wrote a wire to the regime, supporting the workers, criticizing the regime for its methods, but  pledging his solidarity at the end. The regime published only the final sentence of his message  throughout its media. Unable to retract, nor have the final word, Brecht went about to his friends, showing the original text of the message that he kept in a pocket.  Ensnared in the East, he was derided - especially in the West - as a tool of the onerous Stalinist regime. Brecht spent his final years vexed with his situation, writing tersely worded wistful poems, the Buckower Elegien in his ultimate exile at his summer home on a lake west of Berlin.  In these, he sees latent fascism at work in both East and West, trusts the citizens of neither half of the country, hates the party cultural apparatchiks of the East, and they in turn distrust him, the “unorthodox and undisciplined Marxist,” who had preferred exile in the U.S. rather than in Moskow.  In the Buckower Elegien, he courts his readers assent and agreement, looking to the future, but is unable to confront the stark reality of past or present Stalinism. It is true that he avoided any fundamental criticism of the SED, his host, the party that sustained his artistic life, his precious theater troupe, choosing instead to chafe at symptoms of its misrule. But he was paying a hard price.  He had been under strong pressure from the early ‘50's onward to make his work conform to strict cultural standards of the regime. Co-workers and subordinates had already received long jail sentences. His health, precarious from the start, declined markedly.  

Towards the end came a series of successes. Working behind the scenes, Brecht helped bring about a transformation in the cultural politics in the GDR. He insisted that artists should have full freedom of expression; that the Stakhanovite labor policies that had brought about the June uprisings were wrong for Germany; that the formalism campaign was a Nazi phenomenon, as was the SED’s constant use of the term “Volk.”  After the debacle of June 1953, the East German regime tacked in a different direction, and loosened up a bit in cultural matters. --Events in the Soviet Union serve as background.  After Stalin died in early 1953, Khrushchev denounced the errors of Stalin’s heavy-handedness in a ‘secret speech,’ and initiated the period known as The Thaw. – In the GDR hardliners let up momentarily and put an end to the worst of the culture policy abuses. Finally with the appointment of his friend, Johannes Becher, as the head of the Academy of the Arts and then, Minister of Culture, the pressures of Kulturpolitik subsided, though never completely.  In March 1954, the Berliner Ensemble moved into its new home in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm where it resides to this day.  In mid-1954, the Berliner Ensemble took its production of Mutter Courage to Paris where it was awarded  first prize at the first Festival International d’Art Dramatique. In December of the same year,  Brecht was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize in the Soviet Union. International recognition trumped regional parochialism.  He had one and a half years to live.  

Brecht maintained his customary pace at the Berliner Ensemble, staging his own productions, supervising the work of other directors, planning and writing a number of projects. Now he began to delegated more of work to his the up and coming directors of the Ensemble. With Cold War tensions becoming more critical,  Brecht also took part in a series of panel discussions on East-West relations held in West Berlin.  In late 1955, he and his troupe returned to Paris where they played the Caucasian Chalk Circle, a performance which was again distinguished with an important prize. There, Brecht received a standing ovation from the international audience.  After several hospitalizations in 1955, Brecht died of heart failure and associated complications in August 1956.    

In 1953, after Brecht’s reputation was tarnished with the brush of Stalinism in the West German press, politicians called for a boycott of Brecht’s plays from the stages of state-supported West German theaters.  Brecht had real supporters in the West, who rallied to him, but they could not prevent that.  When tensions decreased Brecht could be played, but when they increased,  Brecht was off the playbills of West Germany again.

Brecht’s legacy is fraught with contention; there is no peace about him to this day.  In Germany, now long united, the ‘Communist’ Brecht has achieved classic status. His politics seem to be forgotten by most, or forgiven. He is celebrated, even in his hometown, Augsburg, which had formerly disavowed him. His poems and plays are part of the curriculum in many schools. His plays continue to be performed throughout the German-speaking world.  While their  anti-capitalist message seems to some to be either superceded or irrelevant, others point to the clearer reality that global capitalism yaws and flounders. The poetry in particular has become more deeply popular as time goes on.  There are many German websites devoted to his poetry established by Brecht’s fans.
The academics, who were already well in gear in Germany and abroad during Brecht’s lifetime, have never ceased since his death in their production of books and theses on Brecht. Most of this industry exists in Germany, England and the United States, but is rising rapidly in the developing world.  Every nuance of his theories on literature and politics is inspected and compared to the principles of Gramsci, Derrida, Foucault, Badiou, and others by experts in literature, theater, history and political science.  And by and large, Brecht’s work and thought finds the approval of academe, who still applaud Brecht’s view that human beings are mutable and that change is possible.



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