THAT BASTARD BRECHT

The play is, in large part, a consideration of genius and the license that attends it, if any. Certainly, there’s enough evidence to suggest that those delineated ‘genius’ in various fields, have often operated by a code of conduct that would not do for lesser mortals. Exceptions to social norms and expectations have been accepted. This is easily demonstrated with reference to the arts: composers, painters and sculptors, writers, producers, directors, musicians and actors. Excess is a defining feature: alcohol, drugs, sexual relations. It goes with the territory with scant regard for rules and largely with few exceptions ( Oscar Wilde didn’t fare that well despite an initial self belief that his genius would protect his ‘effrontery’ ) it was rather more expected and even celebrated than criticized.

We have liked our ‘artists’ to be bad without the slightest consideration of the recipient(s) of their behavior. And if the behavior was downright distasteful not to mention unlawful, then it was easy enough to hush it up. Threats and intimidation could do that and of course money and lots of it. Oh so many obvious case studies.

Having said that, there is the temptation to lump ordinary people blessed with good fortune and guile into the genius category simply because of their notoriety. Celebrity is not genius. Jimmy Saville was certainly not a genius. Roman Polanski? Rolf Harris? Harvey Weinstein? Kevin Spacey?

Shakespeare was a genius, Rembrandt was a genius, Van Goth was a genius. Einstein was a genius, Bernstein was a genius. They’re all dead of course and what remains to celebrate is their work more so than their life. ( Not that we know much about Shakespeare’s life, while wishing we did. Perhaps he possesses the luxury of being an unqualified genius and certainly it would be a very great disappointment to discover that he was a prat.. )

In any case, my interest here is in Bertolt Brecht and it is pure coincidence that the play and the themes of the play have been made so terribly relevant in the current social, cultural climate, particularly the abuse of women although not exclusively so.

Brecht, like his protagonist Mother Courage ( faced with survival or extinction in circumstance way beyond their control ) often excused his excesses with reference to the times in which he theorized about and practiced the art of theatre.

As a young man, Brecht was very self assured. He knew exactly what he wanted, even if his collaborators were less certain. He was somewhat unscrupulous in his attitude to plagiarism. I refer to him as a magpie and it seems a reasonable characterization. He picked up bits and pieces where they fell, added to them and claimed the result as his own. Erwin Piscator was the father of Epic Theatre but ask any Year 12 theatre student and they will protest that it was Bertolt Brecht. He is on record as saying that he was not good when it came to issues of ‘literary propriety’.

And we excuse him with a wink for stealing a poem or two without due recognition of the author. He was a Marxist, presumably believing in a redistribution of wealth and the plight of the poor. That’s the general tenor of all his best works. Yet this is at odds with his lack of desire to share his own wealth, even amongst his closest and utterly deserving of collaborators. They must have been paid but little in proportion to Brecht and then there’s the old, tasteless joke ( no pun intended ) that he paid most of them in semen and as for literary recognition, most of them never received other than a footnote of that in their lifetime.

Did they complain? Seemingly not publicly until Ruth Berlau had a falling out with the Brechts in the early 1940s. Why not as soon as inequities were apparent? Well, first and foremost, Weigel, Hauptman, Berlau and Steffin were all besotted with him. We are told that he was utterly charismatic ( if disheveled and on the nose through a disregard for personal hygiene. ) Brecht cultivated the air of the bohemian artist…an enfant terrible….a bad boy. Young, talented and ambitious women and men were drawn to him and to everything he represented at a particular epoch in time. Berlin was the sin capital of the world in the 1920’s of the Weimar Republic. Anything went, rather like the swinging sixties with Mick and the Stones and young people chased it and embraced it with a passion. They sought freedom in all its manifestations and sexual liberation was at the forefront of the movement. Women, on the average, fared rather badly. Jagger survived the sixties and seventies at the expense of Marianne Faithful who was left literally in the gutter, until she resurrected herself and metamorphosed into the most creative of artists. No such good fortune for Brecht’s women. Margariee Steffin died from consumption in a Russian sanatorium as the Brecht entourage made its way to California. Carola Neyer, a victim of Stalin’s purge died in a Siberian gulag. Brecht might have done something to intervene but figured there was no point. He apparently wrote a letter but failed to post it. Stalin wasn’t going to listen to anyone, Ruth Berlau was blacklisted from the Ensemble in 1943 and later dropped a cigarette in her hospital bed and burned to death. Elizabeth Hauptman went the distance, Brecht died in 1956 leaving Hauptman the performing rights to The Threepenny Opera: recognition at last. But sadly not so. The will was contested by Helene Weigel. Hauptman got nothing.

Is abuse only abuse if it is perceived that way by the recipient? Weigel, Hauptman, Steffin and Berlau in particular were willing lovers. They didn’t complain about their situation and apparently, were happy enough to be a part of it. Is Brecht reprehensible for indulging in behavior that appears debauched? Did he recognize the power he held over all his euphemistically titled ‘co-workers’ and did he knowingly and willfully exploit this? Probably, if the few remaining video clips are a clue to his general behavior and that’s not to say that when it suited him he could not be perfectly civil and charming.

There are two significant issues here, the sex and the business albeit the two are inextricably linked. The collaborators, male and female were invariably ambitious. They wanted, more than anything, to be at the epicenter of a new movement in art, specifically in theatre. Ruth Berlau came to Berlin from Scandinavia, an actress, director, photographer and aspiring writer. Elizabeth Hauptman was an accomplished writer and poet, Margarete Steffin, an actress and aspiring writer. They all wanted a part of the action knowing that association with Brecht and Kurt Weill was their best bet. As women, their chances of being published were next to non-existent. Brecht knew it too. With Brecht, they were someone even if that meant no literary recognition. Without him, they were nothing. That’s just how it was. They were sadly born into an age that wasn’t terribly interested in crediting women with literary skills.

The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, that was something. The Threepenny Opera by Elizabeth Hauptmann: no one would be interested. Now his co-workers in name, each of the young women would have found it very difficult to extricate themselves from the group had they a desire to do so and a large part of the cement holding the ensemble together was the sex, the sex and the profound sense of belonging: the work and the notoriety, the celebrity. And then there was everything else going on around them, forcing them to become ever increasingly co-dependent and insular. There were producers who found them too political and then there was Hitler and the Nazis with a brutal determination to crush them.

Brecht wasn’t just a mentor, he was a protector. He offered sanctuary. His collaborators didn’t perhaps make a pact with the devil but they made a pact nonetheless. Like disciples, Steffin, Berlau and Hauptmann along with Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya followed Brecht into exile, on the torturous road to America, to the ‘city of mahogany’. It was everything Brecht anticipated, the epitome of capitalism and the antithesis of all he the diehard Marxist held sacred. He hated California. Things didn’t go well despite the eventual success of The Threepenny Opera. He had already had an irreconcilable falling out with Weill and Lenya, Weill rejecting the Marxist dialect in Brecht’s work and direction. The composer did not want his music to be the accompaniment to the communist manifesto. Weill and his wife assimilated and found the new life they sought in America.

Steffin had already become a casualty, left behind in Stalin’s Russia to die of consumption. Brecht was hardly to blame and his affection for her was obvious in the poems he wrote for and about her. She reciprocated in kind. Nevertheless, the happy band of artist co-workers was disintegrating. Soon, Ruth Berlau was a millstone around Brecht’s neck. I thank my German friend Angelika for the following translation of the Youtube video dramatization: “Die Liebe Der Ruth Belau.” She writes:

‘The clip: Ruth assures herself of being able to overcome her drinking problem by taking pills and finds there is nothing wrong with occasional aggressive fits. Ruth reproaches Bert for never coming to see her on Sundays, of having had to share him with Helene, of all his lying and the secrecy about his relationships with other women, of breaking his promise to adopt a child with her and then live in a small apartment together as a family in Berlin. Was that so "petty bourgeois" or narrow-minded, she asks the imaginary Bert. ( She admonishes him for )staging "their" play without her and not showing up at the premiere because he might be embarrassed by her. ( She resents the fact that he told her ) not to present herself as a great theatre person. She admits having been aggressive when drunk, but had he not liked her for her being different? She labels him as "asshole"

Angelika goes on:

‘Ruth's psychological problems after losing her and Bert's baby son Michel a few days after his birth, drove her to depression which she tried to fight with drinking. She became addicted to alcohol and, in connection with that, increasingly aggressive, losing control in life and also on stage. Her relationship with Bert obviously had a strong trait of emotional and sexual dependence on her side. He tried to get her out of the way several times, basically because of her ‘misbehaviour’ Brecht responded by having her hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic. Effectively, he got rid of a great irritation and embarrassment while protecting Berlau from herself.

There is no question that Brecht cared about her but Ruth Berlau had outlived her use to him. He bought her a house, and hoped, forlornly, that she would quit her addiction and leave him in peace. However he had lost patience with her constant nagging. She was disdainful of his attraction to other women, younger and less demanding, less complex. Her emotions about him were a mix of intense longing for at least one more kiss in spite of him having rejected her so often and despair about being rejected by him. Her reproaches about him "exploiting" her or not paying her well flowed into the expression of her emotional frustration about their relationship as man and woman, but the latter was obviously predominant. She seems to have been stranded in life: no child, no reliable loving relationship, no satisfying professional acknowledgement: instead loneliness and unfulfilled longing for love, for understanding, for acceptance and for the comforting warmth of a family.

Ruth Berlau died in hospital when she dropped a cigarette in bed and burned to death. That left Hauptmann who would remain loyal and devoted and largely unacknowledged for the rest of her life.

In thinking and writing about this, I suppose it’s logical enough. What started, without restraint, in the heat of passion and the exhilaration of creativity couldn’t last forever. Eventually, cracks would appear in relationships and arrangements. Promises made would be conveniently forgotten and passions cool. Recrimination would surface and sides would be taken. That’s life as I understand it and that’s the play to an extent which takes me back to the beginning. I rather suspect Brecht wasn’t a particularly nice person, an asshole, a bastard. I sympathise with the women. Just because they were willing accomplices to their own predicament doesn’t mean that they deserved to be exploited. As a mentor, lover, co-worker, whatever, Brecht had a fundamental responsibility to nurture, defend and protect them. He didn’t and ultimately neither did Helene Weigel.

Finally, it seems to me that the cleverness, the genius in The Threepenny Opera was not in discovering a play written in 1782 by John Gay and it extends way beyond the translation from English to German. I find it particularly in statements like Macheath’s exhortation, “ What’s a jemmy compared to a share certificate, What’s employing a man compared to murdering a man?” I honestly don’t know who wrote that but for the dramatic purpose of my play, I accredit it to Brecht because he was the fervent Marxist. And then there’s nothing like the lyric to Mac the Knife.

They say Elizabeth Hauptmann wrote 80% of The Threepenny Opera.

Even if that was the case and I seriously doubt it given the fact that the plot, characters and themes remain very similar to those developed by John Gay in The Beggars’ Opera and translation doesn’t equate to writing. In any case, it’s the remaining 20% give or take the poems by Villon, that make it compelling. Welcome comment.


  • Facebook Basic Square
Follow Us