Bertold Brecht is well known for his plays, poems, short stories and contributions to theatre theory and practice. His influence is also extensive in the films of Lars von Trier, Werner Fassbinder, Nagisa, Oshima, Ritwik, Ghatak and Jean Luc Godard.
Yet since the publication of John Fuegi’s biography of Brecht in 1994 — Brecht and Company — a debate has raged about whether Brecht was a fraud, with perhaps as much as 80% of “his” writing being the work of others, most notably three women — Elisabeth Hauptmann, Greta Steffen and Ruth Berlau.
Fuegi’s central argument is that Brecht had neither the talent nor the will power to write or finish much of the most famous work that he is credited for — The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and Her Children and Galileo. The book claims the Threepenny Opera is 100% the work of Elisabeth Hauptmann.
The 700-page biography, researched over 25 years, represents Brecht as an arch-manipulator of people and a misogynist who engaged in “sex for text” deals. Brecht had extraordinary charisma and charm that seduced figures such as Kurt Weill, W H Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Charles Laughton, as well as the three lovers and creative collaborators Hauptmann, Steffen and Berlau.
Brecht was a product of a middle class upbringing in Augsburg, Germany — an environment and culture that saw “the denigration of women” as “wholly natural”. Plays with strong female characters such as Saint Joan of the Stockyards, The Good Woman of Szechuan,Mother Courage and Her Children and The Caucasian Chalk Circle could only have been written by these politically committed communist women, argues Fuegi.
Fuegi goes on to accuse Brecht of being a plagiarist, stealing works from French symbolist poets Verlaine and Rimbaud — in the 1927 play Jungle of the Cities for example.
Manuscripts in Elisabeth Hauptmann’s handwriting or her strike pattern on typewritten texts prove beyond doubt that The Threepenny Opera was written by Hauptmann without either credit or royalties going to her. To the theory that Brecht might have dictated the text, Fuegi responds that the times and dates of when they were together don’t back this up. Brecht’s own contribution was the song “Mack the Knife” and a few “nips and tucks” to the look of the script.
Brecht’s relationship with women followed a pattern — use them to the point where they break with him. At that point, focus exclusively on the one who has broken away to get her back into the fold, then go back to the same maltreatment that went on before.
By far the most controversial part of the biography is Fuegi lumping Brecht in with Hitler and Stalin.
“To understand this century, it is essential to recognise the wholly irrational power these figures — whether Hitler, Stalin, or Brecht — exerted when they were encountered in person. Brecht is very much a part … of the charismatic, irrational yet effective Pied Piper powers that could, in the case of both Hitler and Stalin, lure hundreds of millions of supposedly intelligent beings to embrace their butchers.”
Hauptman, Steffen and Berlau were intriguing women, and Fuegi does a service in relating their stories and showing that they were both talented and more politically committed and ethical than Brecht. When Brecht went into exile in 1933 , Hauptman risked her life by remaining in Berlin in order to gather together and secure all of Brecht’s papers and manuscripts and get them out of Germany.
Hauptmann, according to Fuegi, was the author of most of the short stories. Margaret Stefan contributed significantly to Mother Courage and Her Children and The Good Woman of Szechuan. She continued to help Brecht while suffering from TB, dying painfully at the age of 33 from the disease. Her death in 1941, argues Fuegi, meant the virtual death of Brecht as a playwright. Berlau contributed to The Caucasian Chalk Circle,Simone Machard, and The Good Woman of Szechuan. She loved Brecht in her words “not wisely, but too well," and was not credited by him for her contribution.
In 1997 Sabine Kebir replied to Fuegi in I didn’t ask for my share: Elisabeth Hauptmann’s Work with Bertold Brecht. Kebir examined the Hauptmann archives at Berlin’s Akademie der Kunste and referred to previously unknown notes and letters as well as Hauptmann’s 1926 journal. Kebir suggest that as members of the Communist Party in the mid-twenties, they were drawn to the collective of artists, writers and intellectuals around Brecht precisely because it was a collective collaboration that promised to shorten the road to women’s liberation and socialism.
The women were openly interested in sex, sexual experimentation and autonomy in relationships free of ownership claims, including claims to mental property and sexual partners. Open marriages, triangular and bisexual relationships were part of the social utopia they pursued. These sometimes collided with more traditional needs and expectations, resulting in great personal pain — but this was a very different complex, contradictory reality from the passive women-as-victims story that Fuegi represented.
Fuegi’s book makes a strong case for Brecht being an overly controlling, self-centred miser who repeatedly used people and took credit for other’s work. Perhaps he was a misogynist also (in his will he asked to be buried with a stilletto heel through his heart).
Fuegi makes an undeniable case for these women being better known than they are and the book is worth reading for their stories alone.
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.
• John Fuegi, Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama