Those hoping to learn something innocuous about Bertolt Brecht through his biographies shouldn't start with John Fuegi's chunky page-turner Brecht and Company, which takes a controversial stance on "the authorship question" backed by decades of serious research and interviews of the people who knew the innovative German playwright best. Didn't know there was an "authorship question"? Fuegi is one of the few writers to raise the issue. Brilliant works such as The Threepenny Opera, Galileo, and The Good Woman of Setzuan are widely understood to be Brecht's and Brecht's alone, and are studied as products of a single brilliant mind. If you read Fuegi first, almost every other biography and commentary seem careless by comparison. According to both Fuegi and (less directly) Brecht lover/collaborator Ruth Berlau in her memoir Living for Brecht, the playwright and theorist would have been adrift without the help of his numerous lovers, all of whom were talented writers and designers themselves. A diplomatic way to put it would be that, depending on your tastes, Brecht may or may not have been a brilliant playwright, but he was certainly a brilliant scavenger and collaborationist.
An undiplomatic way would be to note that Brecht was widely known for his mysterious sexual mesmerism; creative men and women alike fell prey. Once Brecht had them in the fold, their artistic efforts were incorporated into his work, often with little or no public acknowledgment.
There was Caspar Neher -- the stage designer who created the stark, iconic "Brechtian" look -- one of Brecht's lovers until the playwright apparently decided it wouldn't look good to be perceived as gay. Neher overlapped the writer and translator Elisabeth Hauptmann, who may have written as much as 80 percent of Threepenny Opera yet never got her fair share of either the credit or profits (neither, for that matter, did Kurt Weill, who wasn't sleeping with Brecht -- one didn't have to screw Brecht to be screwed by him, as a string of publishers could ruefully testify). "Red Ruth" Berlau, the independent-minded Danish Communist and adventuress who left her husband to join Brecht's harem (there was already one wife, Helene Weigel, and one resident mistress), camping out on the lawn when Weigel refused to allow Berlau into the house. After Brecht's death, Berlau carried around his plaster death mask in a hat box, which she frequently threw to the ground so hard that eventually the nose broke off.
The resident mistress was the tubercular Margarete "Grete" Steffin, who very likely destroyed herself for love of Brecht. Subsisting on scraps of his time and affection, ignoring her own health so she could focus on the work he needed done, Steffin is usually referenced in Brecht biographies as his secretary and nothing more. Even the disciple/critic/playwright Eric Bentley, who was reasonably clear-headed about Brecht and not sleeping with him, refers to Steffin only once in his Commentaries, mentioning that had she not been refused a visa, the merry band of Brecht, his wife, their two children, and his two mistresses might have successfully sought asylum in Mexico during WWII. (Instead, they ended up in California without Steffin, who, ironically, had succumbed in Moscow midflight after making many of the arrangements -- and much of the money --for the family's safe passage.)
With the current production of 1939's astonishing Mother Courage and Her Children, it is time to give Grete Steffin her due. According to Fuegi, "It is clear from clues in the Harvard and Moscow collections and from Steffin family papers that she was directly involved in the creations of all the plays written between late 1933 and the middle of 1941." This includes thirty major texts such as Galileo and the first versions of "Brecht" plays The Good Woman of Setzuan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle; others have noted that Brecht didn't produce a single great entirely new work after 1941 -- the year Steffin died. While it's unclear how much of Mother Courage is Steffin's -- Brecht's collaborative writing process was intense and interactive -- indications are that her name belongs beside his.
Some wonder how Brecht wrote such strong female characters. The answer's easy, according to Fuegi: He had female collaborators. Note that the works Brecht clearly wrote by himself, such as Galgei or Baal, are flush with virulently misogynist characters and situations. Fuegi sees the bright side of this creative conjugation when he says that "I believe the best plays published under the Brecht label ... combine the talents of the primary writers in a dramatically effective playing off of one point of view against the other. It is this internal contrast and conflict, I believe, that often raises the work to an entirely new level of universality."
Why have these collaborators not been credited for their effort? Fuegi posits what he calls the "Zelda Syndrome" after Zelda Fitzgerald, who often published under her more-famous husband's name because it paid better than her own. That could certainly be part of it -- as Hauptmann, Steffin, and Berlau all discovered, the work they produced under their own names sold fitfully if at all.
But there's a bigger story here, about a man who believed that the strong are free of the constraints of decency and honesty that limit lesser souls. Brecht showed time and again that he wasn't above deceit and misdirection in any of his doings, whether they were financial, political, or romantic. He cheated his wives, lovers, collaborators, and publishers; begat children for whom he paid no support; lied like a rug in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee; played both sides on the Hitler question up to the very last minute; and generally acted like a little emperor.
And yet, the work is brilliant, the vision extraordinary -- whoever deserves credit. What Fuegi calls "an entirely new level of universality" is supremely manifest in Mother Courage, a take-no-prisoners vivisection of war and the profit motive that drives it. Written from self-imposed exile in Sweden as an eloquent protest against WWII, Mother Courage recycles the shrewd, self-reliant Widow Begbick and her cart from the earlier A Man's a Man (Brecht/Hauptmann). Brecht and Steffin also used ideas from Johan Ludvig Runeberg's tale of Lotta Svörd and Grimmelshausen's early-seventeenth-century Narrative Description of the Arch-Rogue and Camp-Follower Courasche.
Mother Courage is a tough old broad following the armies engaged in the Thirty Years' War through northern Europe with her rattling cart and three ragtag children. She stands in diametric opposition to another powerful woman, her mute daughter Kattrin, who has the moment Bentley referred to as "possibly the most powerful scene, emotionally, in twentieth-century drama," which actress Gwen Larsen nails as Kattrin. I knew what was coming, but I cried anyway.
The Shotgun Players looked at the way Brecht liked Mother Courage done -- stark, mercilessly lit, and with actors trained to evoke in their audiences an intellectual instead of an emotional reaction -- and decided they had a better idea. And they do. Their production is brash, vivid, and heartbreaking; yet the political message isn't lost. Trish Mulholland is her reliably brilliant self in the title role, singing "In doubt? Sell out! It's what God wants from you!" This woman is no victim -- she's a complex, morally ambiguous character, speaking articulately against the idea of war yet horrified by the prospect of peace and the negative effects a cease-fire will have on business.
There are too many correspondences to our own time to count, from the implied statement "How dare the invaded be ungrateful for our intervention?" when a general complains about the peasants hiding their cattle from his troops, to the savvy "A war always has friends," and Courage's pragmatic "The great mercy is that you don't ask a businessman what they believe in, just 'how much?'" Shown from the eye level of the lowest soldiers griping because they're not getting paid, the peasants whose homes they ransack, and the hangers-on who raise whatever flag is most fiscally convenient, this Mother Courage is clean, tight, and stunning, a fitting installment in Shotgun's ongoing and vital examination of the causes -- and costs -- of war.
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