Today is the birthday (1898) of Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, known professionally as Bertolt Brecht, a German theorist of theatric practice, playwright, and poet. I played the role of the singer in a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle when I was 17, so I have been aware of Brecht’s work for 50 years. His writing collective adapted John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, with Brecht’s lyrics set to music by Kurt Weill, and retitled it The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-threepenny-opera/ It was the biggest hit in Berlin of the 1920s and remains popular worldwide. Thus, it is the work most people think of when they think of Brecht (if they think of him at all). I am much more attracted to his other works, although I find their political message a bit overplayed and the humor, forced (or, maybe, dated).
Some time in either 1920 or 1921, Brecht took a small part in the political cabaret of the Munich comedian Karl Valentin. Brecht’s diaries for the next few years record numerous visits to see Valentin perform. Brecht compared Valentin to Charlie Chaplin, for his “virtually complete rejection of mimicry and cheap psychology”.
Brecht’s first full-length play, Baal (1918), arose in response to an argument in a drama seminar, initiating a trend that persisted throughout his career of creative activity that was generated by a desire to counter another work (both others’ and his own). He wrote (ironically, of course), “Anyone can be creative, it’s rewriting other people that’s a challenge.” Brecht completed his second major play, Drums in the Night, in February 1919.
Between November 1921 and April 1922 Brecht met many influential people in the Berlin arts scene, at the time an extraordinary mix of ideas and creativity. Amongst them was the playwright Arnolt Bronnen with whom he established a joint venture, the Arnolt Bronnen / Bertolt Brecht Company. Brecht changed the spelling of his first name to Bertolt to rhyme with Arnolt. In 1922 while still living in Munich, Brecht came to the attention of an influential Berlin critic, Herbert Ihering:
At 24 the writer Bert Brecht has changed Germany’s literary complexion overnight”—he enthused in his review of Brecht’s first play to be produced, Drums in the Night—”[he] has given our time a new tone, a new melody, a new vision. […] It is a language you can feel on your tongue, in your gums, your ear, your spinal column.
In 1923, Brecht wrote a scenario for what was to become a short slapstick film, Mysteries of a Barbershop, directed by Erich Engel and starring Karl Valentin. Despite a lack of success at the time, its experimental inventiveness and the subsequent success of many of its contributors have meant that it is now considered one of the most important films in German film history. You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGJ3pATeJPY
In 1924 Brecht worked with the novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger (whom he had met in 1919) on an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II that proved to be a milestone in Brecht’s early theatrical and dramaturgical development. It constituted his first attempt at collaborative writing and was the first of many classic texts he was to adapt. As his first solo directorial début, he later credited it as the germ of his conception of “epic theatre.” A new version of Brecht’s third play, now entitled Jungle: Decline of a Family, opened at the Deutsches Theater in October 1924, but was not a success.
In 1925 in Mannheim the artistic exhibition Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) had given its name to the new post-Expressionist movement in the German arts. With little to do at the Deutsches Theater, Brecht began to develop his Man Is Man (Mann ist Mann) project, which was to become the first product of the ‘Brecht collective’—a shifting group of friends and collaborators. In 1925, Brecht also saw two films that had a significant influence on him: Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Brecht had compared Valentin to Chaplin, and the two of them provided models for Galy Gay in Man Is Man. Following the production of Man Is Man in Darmstadt that year, Brecht began studying Marxism and socialism in earnest. He wrote, “When I read Marx’s Capital I understood my plays. Marx was the only spectator for my plays I’d ever come across.”
In 1927 Brecht became part of the “dramaturgical collective” of Erwin Piscator’s first company, which was designed to tackle the problem of finding new plays for its “epic, political, confrontational, documentary theatre”. Brecht’s most significant contribution was to the adaptation of The Good Soldier Shweik which he later described as a “montage from the novel.” The Piscator productions influenced Brecht’s ideas about staging and design, and alerted him to the radical potential of stage technology (particularly projections).
In 1927 also, Brecht began collaborating with the young composer Kurt Weill. Together they began to develop Brecht’s Mahagonny project, along thematic lines of the biblical Cities of the Plain but rendered in terms of the Neue Sachlichkeit’s Amerikanismus, which had informed Brecht’s previous work. They produced The Little Mahagonny for a music festival in July, as what Weill called a “stylistic exercise” in preparation for the large-scale piece. From that point on Caspar Neher became an integral part of the collaborative effort, with words, music and visuals conceived in relation to one another from the start. The model for their mutual articulation lay in Brecht’s newly formulated principle of the “separation of the elements”, which he first outlined in “The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre” (1930). The principle, a variety of montage, proposed by-passing the “great struggle for supremacy between words, music and production” as Brecht put it, by showing each as self-contained, independent works of art that adopt attitudes towards one another.
Brecht spent the last years of the late Weimar-era (1930–1933) in Berlin working with his collective on the Lehrstücke. These were a group of plays driven by morals, music and Brecht’s budding epic theatre. The Lehrstücke often aimed at educating workers on Socialist issues. The Measures Taken (Die Massnahme) was scored by Hanns Eisler. In addition, Brecht worked on a script for a semi-documentary feature film about the human impact of mass unemployment, Kuhle Wampe (1932), which was directed by Slatan Dudow. This striking film is notable for its subversive humor, outstanding cinematography by Günther Krampf, and Hanns Eisler’s dynamic musical contribution. It still provides insight into Berlin during the last years of the Weimar Republic.
Fearing persecution, Brecht left Nazi Germany in February 1933, just after Hitler took power. After brief spells in Prague, Zurich and Paris he and his wife, Helene Weigel, accepted an invitation from journalist and author Karin Michaëlis to move to Denmark. The family first stayed with Karin Michaëlis at her house on the small island of Thurø close to the island of Funen. They later bought their own house in Svendborg on Funen. During this period Brecht also traveled frequently to Copenhagen, Paris, Moscow, New York and London for various projects and collaborations.
When war seemed imminent in April 1939, he moved to Stockholm where he remained for a year. After Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark, Brecht left Sweden for Helsinki where he lived and waited for his visa for the United States until 3 May 1941. During this time he wrote the play Mr Puntila and his Man Matti (Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti). During the war years, Brecht became a prominent writer of the Exilliteratur. He expressed his opposition to the National Socialist and Fascist movements in his most famous plays: Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and many others.
Brecht co-wrote the screenplay for the Fritz Lang-directed film Hangmen Also Die! which was loosely based on the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Deputy Reich Protector of the German-occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man in the SS, and a chief architect of the Holocaust, who was known as “The Hangman of Prague.” Hanns Eisler was nominated for an Academy Award for his musical score.
Hangmen Also Die! was Brecht’s only script for a Hollywood film. The money he earned from writing the film enabled him to write The Visions of Simone Machard, Schweik in the Second World War and an adaptation of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.
In the years of the Cold War and “Red Scare”, Brecht was blacklisted by movie studio bosses and interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Along with about 41 other Hollywood writers, directors, actors and producers, he was subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC in September 1947. Although he was one of 19 witnesses who declared that they would refuse to appear, Brecht eventually decided to testify. He later explained that he had followed the advice of attorneys and had not wanted to delay a planned trip to Europe. On 30th October 1947 Brecht testified that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. He made wry jokes throughout the proceedings, punctuating his inability to speak English well with continuous references to the translators present, who transformed his German statements into English ones unintelligible to himself. HUAC vice-chairman Karl Mundt thanked Brecht for his co-operation. The remaining witnesses, the so-called Hollywood Ten, refused to testify and were cited for contempt. Brecht’s decision to appear before the committee led to criticism, including accusations of betrayal. The day after his testimony, on 31st October, Brecht returned to Europe.
He lived Zurich in Switzerland for a year. In February 1948 in Chur, Brecht staged an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, based on a translation by Hölderlin. It was published under the title Antigonemodell 1948, accompanied by an essay on the importance of creating a “non-Aristotelian” form of theatre. In 1949 he moved to East Berlin and established his theater company there, the Berliner Ensemble. He retained his Austrian nationality (granted in 1950) and overseas bank accounts from which he received valuable hard currency remittances. The copyrights on his writings were held by a Swiss company. At the time he drove a pre-war DKW car—a rare luxury in the austere divided capital.
Brecht died on 14th August 1956 of a heart attack at the age of 58. He is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery on Chausseestraße in the Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin, overlooked by the residence he shared with Helene Weigel. According to Stephen Parker, who reviewed Brecht’s writings and unpublished medical records, Brecht contracted rheumatic fever as a child, which led to an enlarged heart, followed by lifelong chronic heart failure and Sydenham’s chorea. A report of a radiograph taken of Brecht in 1951 describes a badly diseased heart, enlarged to the left with a protruding aortic knob and with seriously impaired pumping. Brecht’s colleagues described him as being very nervous, and sometimes shaking his head or moving his hands erratically. This can be reasonably attributed to Sydenham’s chorea, which is also associated with emotional lability, personality changes, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and hyperactivity, which matched Brecht’s behavior. “What is remarkable,” wrote Parker, “is his capacity to turn abject physical weakness into peerless artistic strength, arrhythmia into the rhythms of poetry, chorea into the choreography of drama.”
Brecht’s wife, Helene Weigel, was apparently the household cook, and she has published some recipes, but they are mostly from their time abroad. So, for example, she obviously loved Southern fried chicken. I am not going to give such recipes here to honor Brecht. Instead I will turn to Man Is Man. The play begins with the protagonist, Galy Gay, going off in search of fish for dinner, and the theme of the fish pops up throughout the play, including at the beginning where it is mentioned that Galy Gay’s wife is boiling the fish. So . . . a German poached fish dish. German mustards come in different varieties, so take your pick. You can use any fish, of course.
Cod with Mustard Sauce
1½ lb cod fillets
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 small onion, peeled and sliced
¼ cup chopped parsley, keep stalks separate
6 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf
5 cups water
2 tbsp German mustard
6 tbsp butter
Sprinkle lemon juice on fillets.
Put the onion, peppercorns, clove, parsley stalks, and bay leaf in a large frying pan. Pour in the water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the fish, cover, and simmer very gently for about 10 minutes or until the fish flakes. Do not overcook. Remove the fish gently, cover with foil, and keep warm.
Strain 2 cups of poaching liquid into a pan and simmer until reduced to about half. Stir in the mustard. Whisk the butter into the reduced stock, a little at a time – this will thicken sauce slightly. Season with salt and pepper.
Return the fish briefly to the poaching liquid to re-warm.
Serve the fish with sauce.
Makes 4 – 6 servings.