Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Bertolt Brecht—Always a Refugee

Brecht in Berlin before exile.

Well I guess it’s time for a dead white male, but probably not one of the usual suspects.  German born Bertolt Brecht is best remembered as a daring playwright who overturned many of the conventions of established theatrics with his epic theater and its ironic acknowledgement of the artificiality of the performance, didactic concerns, integration of music, and sets reflective of German Post Expressionism and other movements.  But he was also a poet and a Marxist radical who had to flee rise of the Nazis. 
Yes, yet another refugee who sought safety successively in Prague, Zurich, Paris, Denmark for nearly six years until the outbreak of World War II, Stockholm, and Helsinki.  In 1941 he finally got permission to immigrate to the United States where he finished the war years working on his most famous anti-fascist plays and doing the screen play for Fritz Lang’s anti-Nazi film noir Hangmen Also Die!  Many of the plays he wrote during these years are among his most famous and widely produced. 
But after the war Brecht’s fierce anti-fascism and Marxism fell quickly under suspicion.  By 1947 he was blacklisted by Hollywood and was one of 42 writers, directors, actors, and producers subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  At first he was among the 19 who declared that they would refuse to testify, but he reconsidered and went before the Committee on October 30.  He truthfully denied ever having been a member of the Communist Party.  Even in Germany he had never joined the Social Democrats or the Communists.  He was an intellectual and theoretical Marxist who had been tutored in a variant heresy taught by Karl Korsch.  I am not an expert on the theology of Western Communism, but this put Brecht at odds with the international line laid down by the Comintern under Stalin. 

Brecht testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Brecht testified in German with a translator through whom he played with his interrogators pretending not to understand their questions or the meaning of their terms, even subtlety mocking them.  He did not name names, but neither did he employ the Constitutional claim to a Fifth Amendment Right to Silence used by others. 
His appearance would cause some of the Hollywood left to consider him a traitor to solidarity. 
But Brecht recognized the danger he was in.  He had been to this dance before when Nazi goons threw stink bombs and tomatoes and rushed the stage of his productions on the Berlin stage.  The day after his HUAC appearance, Brecht and his wife and long-time collaborator Helene Weigel fled to Europe, refugees once more.  The couple lived in hotels in London, Switzerland, and Austria mounting productions in the latter two countries.  He applied for Austrian citizenship, which was granted in 1950 and which he maintained the rest of his life.
Meanwhile the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)—East Germany offered sponsorship of his own theater company and eventually to build it a permanent home if he would return to East Berlin.  Ordinarily his espousal of Korsch-style Marxism, his refusal to join the German Communist Party, or to take GDR citizenship would have resulted in arrest and long term imprisonment, but by this time Brecht was regarded by many as the preeminent  playwright of the 20th Century and as such a cultural jewel that legitimized the East German regime in the world.  He got promises for the right to control his own company and produce plays without censorship or government interference.  This extraordinary request was granted and—mostly—adhered to by the government.  Brecht and Weigel returned to East Berlin and in January 1949 founded their collaborative Berliner Ensemble. 

Brecht, second from the left and his wife Helene Weigel as Mother ionCourage in the intial Berliner Ensemble production.
The new company opened with a fresh production of Brecht’s greatest work, Mother Courage and Her Children with Weigel as Mother Courage.  That 1939 play set in the brutal Thirty Years War of 1618–1648, was an Epic examination of the brutality, futility, and anti-heroic waste written in “white heat” in the month after the Nazi invasion of Poland.  Coming to the stage while the East Germans and Soviets were blockading land access to Western Powers occupied West Berlin and the American and British Berlin Airlift to supply the beleaguered half-city, the East Germans considered it a rebuke to Allied aggression.
Brecht, in declining health, wrote no new plays in his hears with the Berliner Ensemble but oversaw new productions of previously staged work including The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Life of Galileo.  The company also mounted first productions of his un-produced plays including The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Schweik in the Second World War, and The Visions of Simone Machard.  All of these were anti-fascist plays written in the period of his first refugee exile in Europe and the U.S. during World War II.
In 1954 the company moved into the completely State refurbished and modernized Theater am Schiffbauerdamm—the same theater where one of Brecht’s earliest triumphs, the Three Penny Opera premiered in 1928.  In that play he wrote the lyrics for songs by the young composer Kurt Weill including the songs known in English as Mack the Knife and Pirate Jenny.  That’s right, if you listen to version of Mack the Knife famously performed by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin you are hearing Brecht’s words as translated by Marc Blitzstein.  The same with the song first made famous by Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya and covered by Judy Collins and Nina Simone.
Although the theater, company, and Brecht’s work continued to draw the international accolades, his tenure in East Berlin was not without controversy.  Brecht tacitly supported the suppression of the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany which had its origin with a construction workers’ strike and spread to towns throughout the East often led by dissident leftists. It was violently put down by the State Volkspolizei and Soviet occupation forces including tanks.
He came to regret that silence and later wrote Die LösungThe Solution—a highly critical poem that was published posthumously in West Germany in 1959 and widely, but secretly distributed in the East.
Brecht died on August 14, 1956 of a heart attack at the age of 58 and was buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery which is overlooked by the home he and Weigel shared.  She continued as managing director of the Berliner Ensemble until she died on May 6, 1971.  She was laid to rest beside her husband.  The company endures in the home built for it by the GDR.  It is now operated by a private foundation but remains true to Brecht’s vision of a cooperative and collaborative troupe and is still considered one of the top international theater companies which still produces revivals of Brecht’s work as well a newly commissioned original plays.  
Brecht and his editor, collaborator, and dramaturge  Elisabeth Hauptmann in the 1920's.

Brecht, who was born in Augsburg, Bavaria on February 10, 1898, arrived in Berlin after World War I and in the chaotic era of the Weimar Republic and hyper-inflation.  The post-war uprisings by workers and soldiers had been crushed.  After early success with plays like Baal, Drums in the Night, and In the Jungle he published his first collection of poetry, Devotions for the Home was edited by Elisabeth Hauptmann who became a long-time collaborator and dramaturge.  The loyal Hauptmann, who had survived the war in Berlin, rejoined Brecht and Weigel in the post-War Berliner ensemble. 
Hauptmann was also the first to encourage Brecht to seriously study Marxism.  After that much of his poetry, like his plays castigated Capitalism.

Brecht late in life.

Questions From A Worker Who Reads

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year's War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man?
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

Bertolt Brecht

The Solution

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Bertolt Brecht

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