Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, Stephen Parker

The Brecht Industry rolls on: doctoral dissertations, journals, blogs, websites, YouTube, and memoirs comprising millions of pages, much to the consternation of the boys at the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, who must be musing on how it is that an ardent anti-capitalist has entranced the cognoscenti and, much like Che, taken the moral high-ground despite the ubiquitous mercantilist hard sell at Fox News. Is there a credible pro-capitalist playwright, or are we still drifting with the platitudes and prose of an Ayn Rand as counter example?

One of the answers to that riddle may be that Brecht in his short 58 years wrote forty extraordinary plays; created an exemplary body of German poetry and song, and wrote twenty volumes of theoretical work, in addition to the journals, media analysis, letters, film scripts, drafts, rewrites and dramaturgical notes. Much of this work was created while Brecht was on the run from the Gestapo, and with his name on a Nazi hit list. Still in his early twenties, he had been the toast of theatrical Berlin.

His life was played out between lethal Stalinists, flaccid Hollywood types, and Hitler’s murderous regime. He loses a number of friends to both Hitler and Stalin.

Shadowing Parker’s detailed biography is the taboo topic of the Russian holocaust Stalin’s military mistakes were of course a catastrophe, but twenty six million Russians died defeating the Nazis. Russia today is the forlorn shell of what might have been, had the Stalinists not been in charge, and the German attack not been so devastating. America’s Cold War on the Soviets carefully obliterated this historical possibility.

Enter Steven Parker’s biography of Brecht, 689 pages of carefully researched and foot-noted conjecture about this paradoxical, irritating, overbearing, brilliant Marxist whose love life would shame a Casanova, and whose intellectual praxis suggests that after Shakespeare he is one of the greatest theatrical thinkers and playwrights. Charles Laughton repeated this appraisal to Brecht’s Hollywood detractors; who like Brecht himself were wont to point out that the playwright just wasn’t a “nice guy.”

He wasn’t. Brecht’s early life seems a catalogue of obsessive, compulsive misogyny. He abandons the children of his first two serious relationships (Bie Banholzer, and Marianne Zoff). Despite a long and successful marriage to the actress Helen Weigel, but she too is victim to his infidelities. He ritually requires that his sexual partners sign “contracts” obligating them to obey Brecht’s rulebook, which he then flagrantly violates. Like Welles, Brecht is born into the world as radio, film, and modern theater come into being, and he will write original work for all of these mediums. Parker is good at the infinite detail that all of this involved, but after a few hundred pages Brecht’s immense erudition begins to overwhelm all.

Brecht left his mark on so many areas that his significance will still be debated in a hundred years. This is especially true for America where his reception has been grudging and carping at best, and studiedly obtuse and reactionary at worst. In having fallen victim to the professoriate, who quote him endlessly, his survival has come at the cost of his comprehensibility, which remains problematic. He remains the middlebrow intellectual’s nightmare: sexually avid and promiscuous; unceasingly disciplined and prolific; poetically so gifted that he changed the German language; and steadfast in his belief that capitalism must be destroyed and replaced by a revolutionary class dedicated to ending the Mercantilist putsch for all time. He was ‘”solitary, lonely, reckless and wise,” and remained to the end a self-described “Bolshevik without a Party.”

As Parker notes, Brecht was beset all of his life with failing health, heart problems, and a malfunctioning liver and spleen, which, as he predicted, shortened his life. Like D. H. Lawrence, the specter of his own mortality was ever-present. He was made instantly famous with the success of the Three Penny Opera, in 1928. His obsessions were eclectic and legendary: Kipling, poetry and song, Chicago, women, Marxism, market capitalism, even as he declares that his real subject is the migration of masses of people to the great cities.

In the 1920’s, while researching a play on the Chicago Futures Exchange, he declares: “these are people who do not want to be understood.” Out of this realization and association with Marxist thinkers like Karl Korsch, his political mentor, he is drawn to the German Communist Party (KPD,), which pays some faint homage to his work but never embraces him. Like Korsch, he remains too radical for the Communist Left. Although never officially a Party member, Brecht, in a few years, is considered the Poet Laureate of the international communist movement. A label that will see him forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and provide him with an FBI file that rivals the OED in size and scope. His publisher and friend Peter Suhrkamp remarked that had Brecht not encountered Marxism he would have become another in a long line of German decadents, wavering between a feeble Liberalism and the nihilism that the Nazis define.

But Brecht’s Marxism came at a price: he is relentlessly attacked, vilified, and distorted from the Left, both in East Germany, where he finally settles, and during his Exile when he attempts to write for a Communist exile journal obsessed with the Realist vs. Formalist debate so dear to Zhdanov, Lukacs, and the Party hacks. Brecht sees the SA Brown shirts marching in Berlin and remarks to a friend: “When Mahogany comes: I go.”

On the night of the Reichstag fire he enters a small bar, and hears two customers debating the event: “It was the Nazis.” “No, it was the Communists.” He does not return home but flees Germany within hours. Those who could not read events were soon either dead or in concentration camps. Parker’s primary contribution to the mountains of Brecht scholarship is his analysis of Brecht’s medical history: which is complicated, and sporadic. Diagnosed at an early age with heart problems, he is so fearful both of dying and being buried alive that his Will required that a ceratoid artery be cut before he is interred.

Brecht’s genius for survival keeps him in exile for well over a decade, and he spends the Forties in Hollywood, where he is unemployable, though there he manages a long relationship with Laughton, which produces Galileo, and one film script (Hangman Also Die), which Fritz Lang directs. Laughton will later denounce him on the advice of his manager, producing a short, bitter memorable poem from Brecht.

The critic John Fuegi will later claim that Brecht exploited his many women, who he insists wrote his work. Fuegi’s book prompts an essay from the International Brecht Journal detailing its myriad howlers. Brecht’s ever tenuous relationship with the Soviets, does get him an exit visa through Russia, and ever alert to Stalin’s whimsical penchant for murder and the Gulag, he settles in Hollywood for the duration of the Second World War; a fact which did not endear him to the German Communists who survived Stalin in the USSR and returned to found the East German state.

Western critics of Brecht’s Marxism ignore his continual problems with Marxist critics and with the East German elite who Brecht urged, following a worker rising, to simply “elect another People.” He founds, with his wife the actress Helene Weigel, the Berliner Ensemble. They create a world-class company despite government interference, three successive campaigns against him in West Germany, and continual attacks from the Cold War intelligentsia. There are repeated attempts to carve him away from his politics, and sanitize his overt support for the USSR and the many Communist parties. Martin Esslin’s biography is but one classic instance of this. Hannah Arendt insists, in print, that he had written an ode to Stalin. The Brecht scholar John Willett contests this and Arendt, wisely, refuses to engage. The charge is never proved, but remains evidence that the playwright’s enemies were legion.

Brecht was well aware that the Hitler-Stalin pact signaled the end of any Soviet pretenses to Marxism:” The USSR saved itself…at the cost of leaving the workers of the world without guidance, hope, or help.” And when Stalin adopts the nationalist, fascist terminology (“blood brotherhood, Pan Slavism”) he is quietly critical. Like so many, he discovers that the anti-Nazi’s had almost nowhere to go: the United States as late as 1940-41 is refusing to accept German anti-Nazis with Communist sympathies, in favor of relatively apolitical art figures like Max Ernst and Andre Breton.

Brecht was adept in mastering, and then putting into practice a Communist anti-aesthetic, and his Labor Theory of Value, remains one of the singular attempts to build a dramaturgy and praxis around Marxist ideas. Marxist insights abound in his dramatic and poetic work. Brecht names Heartsfield, Eisler, Grosz, Piscator and Anna Seghers as the five artists who had stood up for the German worker. His growing disillusion with Stalin culminates in the 1950s with a poem dedicated to “the honored murderer of the People.”

Brecht’s critical and theatrical reception in the U.S. remains befuddled and antagonistic. So fogged is the critical aura around him, both academics and theatrical folk find him complicated, confusing and inapplicable without that forbidden essential, a Marxist schooling. The day that one is solved, Brecht may have a chance, but not before.

His impact in the U.S. extends to the San Francisco Mime Troupe, R.G. Davis Epic West Theater, university productions, Chicago’s Second City, Theatro de Campesino, Luis Valdez, Story Theater, Paul Sills, and an equally impressive list in Europe. His early American disciples like Mordecai Gorelik and Marc Blitzstein went on to have distinguished careers.

The antipathy for Brecht is evidence of just how far behind the American theater has fallen, spurred on by the success of a corporate/defense contractor TV industry which has carried all before it- not least in its reductive, Know-Nothing attack on progressive content (consider Fox News viewer stats versus Link TV.) David Mamet has devolved to an increasingly strident right winger, and Sam Shepherd’s cowboy mystic poses are now overshadowed by materialistic Hollywood success.

Professor Parker’s book is laudable in its comprehensive attempt at fixing the history of a great thinker, poet, playwright, and perpetual goad in the battered sides of a triumphalist capitalism whose legacy is now tied to the destruction of the planet.

The plays are as potent today as when they were written but there are some mistakes; among them The Round Heads and Peaked Heads, which woefully underrated the Nazi’s anti-Semitism. But the mistake was not Brecht’s alone: the world reads the Holocaust well after its terrible success, abetted by an official indifference. Parker’s excellent book will remain a reference for years to come, but Brecht, for now, remains a carefully obscured theatrical Meister- whose message and life revile all that a media obsessed capitalism now calls Truth.


Warren Leming is a writer/director who divides his time between Chicago and Berlin. He most recently is co-director of the award-winning documentary ‘American Road’ ( and a producer of the forthcoming documentary ‘Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All.’


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