Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bertolt Brecht: Genius - or Misogynist Fraud?

That Bertold Brecht was a rat has been known for years. Even in the 1960s and 1970s when his word was law - when his photo beamed slyly down over any respectable Literary Manager's desk and drama students used to puzzle over 'alienation' - there was a widely acknowledged dodgy side to him. Everyone knew that He Who Says Yes was ripped off from Arthur Waley, that Happy End was mostly written by others, that Puntila was swiped from its author, a kindly Finnish lady who had very unwisely given Brecht the play to read while sheltering him and his entourage at her own expense in the early years of World War II. ...

So begins Nicholas Wright's Independent review of John Fuegi's 1994 book The Life and Lies of Bertold Brecht. Interesting, don't you think? With apologists like that, who needs enemies? The basic point of Wright's review appears to be that none of these things really matter very much. Fuegi's charges of systematic, unacknowledged plagiarism of his various collaborators' original compositions simply amount to "a matter-of-fact description of the way Brecht worked."

Wright's use of jaunty terms such as "ripped off" and "swiped" give a jolly tone to the whole procedure which also conspires to rob it of any sting. Handel "ripped off" other composers, too, and no-one seriously blames him for it. When taxed with his thefts of others' material, he replied that his competitors didn't know what to do with their own musical ideas.

Fuegi's book is also (apparently) riddled with errors, according to such long-time Brecht disciples and translators as John Willetts (witness his January 1995 letter in the New York Review of Books where he calls it "a book whose structure is wormeaten with at least 450 ... mistakes and repetitions ... Be a little less trusting, prod this book’s vast assemblage of notes, and it crumbles.")

Michael Meyer, whose review of Fuegi Willetts was reacting to, replied as follows to his various critics:

I am grateful to Ronald Speirs, John Willett, and Ian Strasfogel for pointing out these additional errors. But Fuegi’s main thesis, that many of Brecht’s best-known works owed much to collaborators whom he failed to acknowledge and repeatedly swindled, seems to remain valid, much as Brecht’s disciples would have it otherwise.
- Michael Meyer, "Giving the Devil His Due" New York Review of Books (1994)

John Fuegi: Brecht & Co. (1994)]

I have to say that one of the most interesting things about Fuegi's book, which I've now finally got around to reading almost twenty years after it first appeared is the almost hysterical over-reactions it seems to have provoked in reviewers.

Probably the funniest of all is this article in that most objective of leftist periodicals Workers' Liberty, where the author first summarises Fuegi's devastating list of charges against Brecht, then concludes:

However, on balance I don’t believe Brecht was a talentless, Svengali figure whose abuse of power was akin to a Hitler or a Stalin. Work like The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie and Days of the Commune and poems like The Song of the Class Enemy and Questions from a Worker Who Reads are the work of a very gifted writer who contributed enormously to theatre theory and practice.
- Peter Burton, "Was Brecht a misogynist and fraudster" Workers' Liberty (2010)

I love that "on balance." Not even Fuegi denies Brecht's basic brilliance as a poet, and even as a writer of individual scenes in plays. What he is claiming - with almost a superfluity of evidence - is that Brecht never finished a play in the whole of his working life, and that this inability grew more rather than less pronounced as his career progressed. Denying a charge which has not been made does seem to be the basic technique of Fuegi's critics, then and now.

Returning to Nicholas Wright's Independent review, the twists and turns he is forced to go through to discredit Fuegi's mountain of evidence have to be read to be believed:

Fuegi wrote two previous books about Brecht, both perfectly respectful and orthodox, and even went to the trouble of founding something called the International Brecht Society. He seems since then to have performed one of those Oedipal flip-flops - common to disillusioned acolytes - which turn the father-figure into a monster and his women into stainless victims (echoes here of Jeffrey Masson's In the Freud Archive).

Alas, as most of you no doubt know, In the Freud Archive[s] is actually the title of a 1984 book by Janet Malcolm which is (partially) concerned with Jeffrey Masson's revisionist The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. Masson subsequently - unsuccessfully - sued her for libel over the book. But what all this has to do with Brecht is anybody's guess.

Is the point supposed to be that anyone who has ever written "respectfully" about a literary figure's work is thereby debarred from subsequent criticism of that person's private and professional life? Or is that too absurd a stance even for Wright? Perhaps another way to read it would be as a general statement about "Oedipal flip-flops." Because Fuegi was once "respectful and orthodox: it therefore follows (the argument seems to go) that he has a need to turn "the father-figure into a monster and his women into stainless victims."

But was he a monster? And were they stainless victims? I doubt Fuegi would endorse either term, but he certainly does his best to rehabilitate the reputations of some very unfairly denigrated writers whose work was subsumed under the "Brecht" label, often actively against their will, and never with their full consent. Nor - it seems - have their heirs ever received any adequate acknowledgment (let alone a fair share of the royalties) in posthumous editions of Brecht's "collected works."

Wright continues:
... the result is that he confuses his two main claims. The first is that Hauptmann, Berlau and Steffin played a crucial role in writing the plays, the second that they were swindled out of the credit and money due to them. Fuegi, for whom Brecht can do no right, treats both accusations as though they were equally heinous. But the first is simply a matter-of-fact description of the way Brecht worked.

Brecht the playwright died young, somewhere in his early twenties, during the hideous writer's block which hit him between the completion of Jungle of Cities and Man is Man. After that, he remained a great poet and became a great director. His vision of theatre was unimpaired, he was a fabulous wordsmith and he knew how to shock. But sitting alone in a room and writing - from start to finish - a play he actually believed in was now beyond him, and would remain so for the rest of his life.

This happens to most playwrights sooner or later. Some give up cheerfully, some creep away into a hole, some grit their teeth and carry on churning out rubbish. Brecht's response - to create a studio where he could animate plays to be written via a process of challenge, inspiration, mutual criticism - seems to me to be not at all (as Fuegi supposes) a proof of his failure as man and writer. On the contrary: it is one of the most interesting things he did.
- Nicholas Wright, "Owing to the women: The Life and Lies of Bertold Brecht - John Fuegi" The Independent (1994)

This is great stuff. I particularly love that phrase about the "hideous writer's block" which afflicted poor Bertolt somewhere "between the completion of Jungle of Cities [c.1923-24] and Man is Man [1926]." In other words, according to Wright's own chronology, the only time he could actually be described as a working playwright was up to the age of 25, by which time he had "completed" Baal and Drums in the Night - pretty slight works on which to base a reputation. By his mid-twenties, then, a spent force in writing terms, he decided to "create a studio where he could animate plays to be written via a process of challenge, inspiration, mutual criticism" - a little like Walt Disney's dream factory in Hollywood, perhaps?

The trouble with this clever piece of face-saving is that Baal, Drums in the Night and In the Jungle of Cities are no more "original" than any of his subsequent works. Of course there is writing by Bertolt Brecht in each of them. But how much? And was he any more capable of completing a play on his own before the "great block" than he was afterwards? It would appear not, according to Fuegi's account, at least (and it's noticeable how much time is spent dwelling on trivial misquotations and mis-weighting of evidence by his denigrators - how little on the cumulative weight of his charges).

Wright's claim that "he remained a great poet and became a great director" requires a little more scrutiny. No-one denies Brecht's power as a poet. As poem after poem has to be corralled off as the work of Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau, though, one begins to realise how powerful a "manner" can be. None of these women seems to have had any difficulty in producing "Brecht" to order. And when one adds in the innumerable plagiarisms from Villon, Kipling and Arthur Waley's translations from the Chinese committed by all the members of his "studio," then I think it's time to stop being quite so blithe about the whole thing.

What is "Brecht"? The question becomes increasingly legitimate and compelling as Fuegi's book (and BB's career) continues. In the final analysis, it is hard to see "Brecht" as much more than a tradename - something analogous to "Warner Brothers," "MGM" - or even "Marvel Comics."

There's no real need for any of us to concern ourselves with the matter further, though, according to Bob Wake's review of Fuegi's work on the website Culture Vulture (subtitled "choices for the congnoscenti"). He rounds off his piece by stating that:
Bertolt Brecht's position in the pantheon of 20th century literary giants appears secure as the millennium approaches. His stature is such that no single biography, whether hagiographic or insulting, is going to be the last word on his life and art. John Fuegi's Brecht and Company is worth no one's time. Virtually any other Brecht biography is preferable ...
- Bob Wake, "Brecht and Company" Culture Vulture (n.d.)

Once again, with disciples like that, who needs ... Wake's funniest passage is where he says: "Vilifying Brecht as a plagiarist is by no means new. All Brecht biographers touch on the well-known accusations, such as uncredited passages from the poetry of Verlaine and Rimbaud that show up in the 1927 play, Jungle of Cities." He doesn't mention that the reason these accusations are so "well-known" is because they happen to be true. Nor does he add that the same charges can be substantiated for Brecht's earliest play Baal. He goes on:

Fuegi compounds the old charges by adding scores of new ones and expanding Brecht's misdeeds to previously unimagined dimensions. We're told that manuscripts in Elisabeth Hauptmann's handwriting (or her "strike pattern" on typewritten texts) prove that she was responsible for 80 to 90% of the script for The Threepenny Opera. Brecht's sole contribution to the play, according to Fuegi, was writing the lyrics for "Mack the Knife" and incorporating a few "nips and tucks" to the overall design of the script and production.

Leaving aside that this is an inaccurate summary of the evidence Fuegi presents (in fact he is himself unconvinced by the reliance of earlier critics on handwriting and "strike patterns", preferring to supplement this with correspondence and witness testimony), the curious thing here is that Wake quotes these claims of Fuegi's as if they were self-refuting. They're "by no means new," he tells us. Nor does he go on to talk of the outrageous royalties claims made by Brecht on the profits of the opera, far ahead of those allotted to his avowed, legitimate collaborators Hauptmann and Kurt Weill.

    Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht (1898–1956)

  1. Brecht, Bertolt. Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan. 1955. Ed. Margaret Mare. 1960. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1965.

  2. Brecht, Bertolt. Leben des Galilei. Ed. H. F. Brookes & C. E. Fraenkel. 1975. Heinemann German Texts. London: Heinemann, 1958.

  3. Brecht, Bertolt. The Life of Galileo. 1955. Trans. Desmond I. Vesey. 1960. A Methuen Modern Play. London: Eyre Methuen, 1978.

  4. Brecht, Bertolt. The Caucasian Chalk Circle. 1955. Trans. James & Tania Stern, with W. H. Auden. 1960. Methuen Student Edition. Ed. Hugh Rorrison. 1984. London: Methuen Drama, 1991.

  5. Brecht, Bertolt. The Messingkauf Dialogues. 1963. Trans. John Willett. 1965. London: Eyre Methuen, 1971.

  6. Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children: A Chronicle of the Thirty Years War. 1949. Trans. Eric Bentley. 1962. A Methuen Modern Play. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.

  7. Brecht, Bertolt. Parables for the Theatre. Two Plays: The Good Woman of Setzuan / The Caucasian Chalk Circle. 1949 & 1953. Trans. Eric Bentley. 1948. Penguin Plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

  8. Brecht, Bertolt. Plays. Volume 1: The Caucasian Chalk Circle; The Threepenny Opera; The Trial of Lucullus; The Life of Galileo. 1960. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1965.

  9. Brecht, Bertolt. Collected Plays. Volume 1: 1918-1923. Ed. John Willett & Ralph Manheim. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1970.

  10. Brecht, Bertolt. Collected Plays. Volume 5: Life of Galileo; The Trial of Lucullus; Mother Courage and Her Children. Ed. Ralph Manheim & John Willett. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

  11. Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Trans. John Willett. 1964. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1965.

  12. Brecht, Bertolt. Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition. Trans. H. R. Hays. 1947. New York: Grove Press / London: Evergreen Books, 1959.

  13. Brecht, Bertolt. Poems 1913-1956. Ed. John Willett & Ralph Manheim, with Erich Fried. 1976. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.

  14. Brecht, Bertolt. Die Hauspostille / Manual of Piety: A Bilingual Edition. 1927. Trans. Eric Bentley. Ed. Hugo Schmidt. New York: Grove Press, 1966.

  15. Brecht, Bertolt. Threepenny Novel. 1934. Trans. Desmond I. Vesey. Verses trans. Christopher Isherwood. 1937. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  16. Brecht, Bertolt. Collected Short Stories. Ed. John Willett & Ralph Manheim. Trans. Yvonne kapp, Hugh Rorrison & Antony Tatlow. 1983. London: Minerva, 1992.

  17. Brecht, Bertolt. Diaries 1920-1922. Ed. Herta Ramthun. 1975. Trans. John Willett. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.

  18. Brecht, Bertolt. Journals 1934-1955. 1973. Ed. John Willett. Trans. Hugh Rorrison. Brecht's Plays, Poetry and Prose. Ed. John Willett & Ralph Manheim. Methuen London. London: Reed Consumer Books Ltd., 1993.

  19. Fuegi, John. The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht. 1994. Flamingo. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

  20. Lyon, James K. Bertolt Brecht in America. 1980. London: Methuen, 1982.

I have to say that I'm no keener to have Brecht exposed as a liar and a trickster than the rest of these people. As you can see from the list above, I've devoted a great deal of time and trouble to poring over the Master's works, early and late, and it's no great pleasure to find out just how much of an opportunist he really was.

Fuegi does try to put a brave face on it in passages such as this:
There can be no serious doubt that right up until his death, Brecht's charmed circle was a place where greatness gathered and where the lightning of extraordinary creativity very frequently struck. [p.209]

But it rings a little hollow, one must admit. I don't think this syndicate approach is quite what we mean by a "great writer," even in a medium as necessarily collaborative as the theatre. At the very least it's important to know how the process operated, whether or not we accept Brecht's contention that this "must have been" how Shakespeare, too, operated to produce the body of work now ascribed to him.

At the very least Fuegi's book deserves a hearing. I've seen little in the critical reactions to it to challenge seriously his major claims. Read his book. See for yourself.


Richard said...

Is this connected to April the First?

Jack - you know too much!

I settle for reading the plays and poems. Whoever (or however they were written) wrote them they are good!)

I wrote a poem once using the poem Brecht (or one or more of his writers!) wrote about a tree burning.

I recall Sebastian Black talking about alienation in 1968.

Interesting post.

Looking at Shakespearean times it is interesting how they all took ideas and even lines from each other. Edmund's first speech in 'Lear' is pretty much certainly influenced by another play that Shakespeare acted in. Just noticed that reading Edwin Muir's edition.

But there are many such examples throughout literature.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Well, some of them are good - I& I'd say that those were mostly the ones written by Elisabeth Hauptmann and Grete Staffin. There doesn't seem much reason that those particular plays and poems couldn't be published under their names, with royalties going to their estates -- except that there'd be precious little to put under the name of "Brecht" in that case.

You're right about Shakespeare, of course -- the difference is that it's now all out of copyright, and the proofs are largely circumstantial. With the Brecht corpus, there's actually pretty direct evidence about who wrote what.

Richard said...

I suppose I've got so used to thinking of Brecht's plays written by him. I'd never really read anything much about Brecht, except the was a Marxist.

I suppose so much interest is focused on Joyce, Eliot and Pound etc

In Pound's case the debate or discussion focuses often on his life etc

Is the Hauptmann woman related to the famous playwright? (I'll Google any case).

Richard said...

I looked up Brecht on Wikipedia and realised that I actually know very little about him. I have read quite a lot of his poems but I think I only ever read or studied 'Old Mother Courage' and once started 'The Caucasian Chalk Circle'.

He (or his collaborators or whoever they were) certainly wrote a lot of plays in 58 years of life.

I must have read about him in the intros to (his collected poems and some books of his plays I have).

I seem to have thought I knew a lot about him but actually know almost nothing. Or have forgotten.

Richard said...

And if its true - yes, of course, they (the women or others concerned if they did write so much of his works) - then yes they should be accredited.

Dr Jack Ross said...

There's no real doubt that Brecht was a confirmed plagiarist from the very beginning of his career (his first play had extensive "borrowings" from a German translation of Villon - he knew hardly any French, so couldn't even translate them himself).

As far as the later plays go, there's been much debate about the significance of his "team approach" to writing, but no serious attempts to refute the facts. They're too obvious and blatant.

Elisabeth Hauptmann (no relation to Gerhart) fled to America to try and get away from his tendency to divert all her royalties in his own direction. Even there she couldn't get away from him, though.

It's a significant body of work, certainly, but wildly various -- which makes more sense when you realise how many different people wrote it.

Richard said...

Fascinating. I realise now I THOUGHT I knew all about Brecht maybe as I read 'The Theatre of the Absurd' by Estlin and from my memories of Sebastian Black lecturing on him and others in 1968.

It seems from your knowledge there has been an injustice.

I wanted to organise mnay people to make my The Infinite Poem so that I then would NOT be the author, although I would be the 'instigator' but if it had ever happened there would be no pretending it was all done by me...Sad that Brecht did not acknowledge those with whom he worked and indeed those who (it seems) wrote many of his plays.

Is this generally accepted in Greater Academia?

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

There are really significant sums of money involved, so it's hard to say exactly who acknowledges what at this point.

I don't know anything about German copyright law, but of course in the British 50-year system the whole lot would be out of copyright by now anyway ...

I'm sure the concept of bricolage / collage could be applied to your infinite poem to make it clear what was and wasn't being claimed by you ...

Jean Betts said...

Absolutely delighted to read this column. Even more delighted to be able to plug my play (published by The Play Press), 'The Collective', a dramatisation of John Fuegi's book (which he approved of course) which went on to be a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. I've received much flak for championing these 'lost' writers, for daring to criticise the great god Brecht! THANKYOU!!

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Jean,

Yes, it's interesting how the wagons of the critical / dramatic establishment have been circled on this one. Why shouldn't future performances of the Caucasian Chalk Circle, say, attribute the play to Grete Steffin rather than Brecht? Super to hear about your play.