Brecht, Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill

Bertold Brecht put Marxist collectivism and dialectical materialism into his art as few other Western writers. His avidness for money? No matter. The German poet-playwright belied any doubts about his ultimate goals: ed-u-ca-tion of the people. Education in Socialism. The existence of thirty volumes of Brecht’s works will bewilder people who limit his art to The Threepenny Opera and images of Satchmo singing Mack the Knife.

From the moment Brecht became a Marxist in his late twenties he applied dialectical materialism to his theatrical work, intransigently: his chief targets were European post-WWI culture and in particular the German bourgeoisie and war, reflecting his generation’s disillusionment with the civilization that had crashed in the Great War. And, like the better part of that generation, he aimed at the defeat of capitalism.

Bertold Brecht was born in Augsburg near Munich in1898 and died in East Berlin in 1956. He studied medicine at Munich University (1917-21). A revolutionary city at the time, Munich was part of Germany’s November Communist Revolution (1918-19) and at the same time the birth place of the Nazi movement led by Hitler and his Brown Shirts. Brecht was meanwhile writing his poetry and conceiving his arts.

At age 24, while still living in Munich, Brecht had changed Germany’s literary complexion. The Berlin critic Herbert Ihering wrote in his review of Brecht’s first produced play, Drums in the Night (Trommeln in der Nacht) that “he has given our time a new tone, a new melody, a new vision … a language you can feel on your tongue, in your gums, your ear, your spinal column.” That year of 1922 Brecht won the prestigious Kleist Prize—Germany’s most significant literary award—for his first three plays (Baal, Drums in the Night, and In the Jungle).

Though his collaboration with the progressive Viennese composer Kurt Weill was important in his creative life, his major work was not The Three Penny Opera; his chief contribution was his dramaturgy, poetry, theoretical works, and his own theater ensemble influenced by Meyerhold and Piscator. Brecht and Weill were keen to revolutionize the tired bourgeois opera tradition. From that desire emerged the 1927 Mahagonny Songspiel, an operetta based on Brecht’s Mahagonny poems which Weill set to music. Radical theater, set in a boxing ring the story relates the greed in the godless pleasure seeking city of Mahagonny.

The editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica write extensively about Brecht’s creative work: “The essence of his theory of drama … is that a truly Marxian drama must avoid the Aristotelian premise that the audience should be made to believe that what they are witnessing is happening here and now. For he saw that if the audience really felt that the emotions of heroes of the past—Oedipus, or Lear, or Hamlet—could equally have been their own reactions, then the Marxist idea that human nature is not constant but the result of changing historical conditions would automatically be invalidated. Brecht argued that the theatre should not seek to make its audience identify with characters on the stage; it should rather follow the epic poet’s art, which is to make the audience realize that what it sees on the stage is merely an account of past events that it should watch with critical detachment. Hence, the “epic” (narrative, nondramatic) theatre is based on detachment, on the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect, or defamiliarization), achieved through devices that remind the spectator that he is being presented with a demonstration of human behavior in a scientific spirit rather than with an illusion of reality, in short, that the theatre is only theatre and not the world itself.”

Brecht could have written that readers of this account here should not be made to identify with the Brecht of the 1920s and 30s and his generation’s disappointments. Yet today we can see him as an “epic hero.” A hero who faced historical conditions much different from ours. For a different set of reasons, we too will likely be depicted by later historians as a disillusioned generation, a generation searching for solutions to threats of nuclear war and the destruction of planet Earth.

However, we can appreciate Brecht for his accomplishments in his era as a result of his application of the dialectical process: the underlying evil of capitalism marked his times as it does ours., Though there are similarities between the conditions facing the Brechtian generation and ours today, there are major differences of degree: his generation had witnessed the destruction of a civilization but nonetheless searched optimistically for the regeneration of society; instead we today tend to be a demoralized but also placid generation, facing an Armageddon we perceive but ignore.

Read Brecht and you perceive the energy and hope of his generation; we today instead see around us a hopeless and/or disinterested generation, the majority of which is largely ignorant of the reality of our situation.

We face the super power USA led by Strangelove-like psychopaths. “Take it all” and “après moi le déluge”. Brecht’s generation faced traditional old regional power blocs; we face the rise of immense geopolitical blocs covering the globe, hostile one to the other.

The writer, Walter Benjamin, noted that his friend Brecht considered the task of the epic theater less the development of actions than the representation of conditions. That is, Marxism in action. Brecht aimed at depriving the stage of sensations derived from the subject matter; he recommended dwelling on “historical incidents and purging them of the sensational”. Brecht’s theater was conceived to speak didactically to the masses. For that he wanted a relaxed and receptive audience who could better follow familiar easy to receive and digest situations. The class struggle, always present in Marxist writing, “is a fight for the crude and materials things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.” (Walter Benjamin)

Bertold Brecht in the USA

But Brecht’s epic theater didn’t work in the capitalist USA where he spent six of his twelve exile years, from 1941-1947. He lived in Los Angeles and was frequently in New York. But neither Hollywood nor Broadway understood his genius, no more than did the House Un-American Activities Committee understand his political orientation. James K. Lyon wrote in BERTOLT BRECHT IN AMERICA (Princeton University Press) that Brecht “after five years in the hated capitalist U.S. could write: ”No wonder that something ignoble, loathsome, undignified attends all associations between people and has been transferred to all objects, dwellings, tools, even the landscape itself.” The Marxist Brecht continued to see the USA as he did in his play Mahagonny. And in true Brechtian style he had no intention of conforming to America but instead tried to confirm his earlier model of it.

A key to Brecht’s Marxism was his emphasis on the collective, while downplaying the individual. His association with a new, post-Expressionist movement in German arts, New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkei)t prompted him to develop his Man Equals Man (Mann ist Mann) project, a kind of collective—varying groups of collaborators with whom he henceforth worked. Following the idea of the collective vs. the individual, two films, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, introduced Brecht to dialectical materialism and prompted him to closer studies of Marxism and socialism. In 1964 he revealed in (BRECHT, pp 23-24): “When I read Marx’s Capital I understood my own plays….Marx was the only spectator for my plays I’d ever come across:” Brecht praised Bolshevik collectivism (the replaceability of each member of the collective in his play Man Equals Man.

The collective adaptation of John Gray’s The Beggar’s Opera with lyrics by Brecht and music by Kurt Weill, The Three Penny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper), was the big hit in 1920s Berlin, influencing music worldwide. Hildegard Knef sang Mackie Messer after WWII. Popular singers such as Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong made hit recordings of the song called in English, Mack the Knife. A famous line from the work underscored the hypocrisy of the Church and the establishment in the face of working-class hunger.. Erst kommt das Fressen, Dann kommt die Moral. First the Grub, (literally: eating like animals), then morality.

MAHAGONNY: The Opera Hitler Hated

Bertold Brecht who visited the Soviet Union was partial to the Soviet form of Socialist Realism. Even if he earlier recommended familiar old themes, historical themes, for his epic theater, he did not mean that the “good old days” of bourgeois culture were good. “Better to start with bad new ones,” he wrote, “rather than those good old ones.” Brechtian theater as a rule was representative of his theory of using unusual and intriguing situations for holding the attention of his audiences and for educating them—as in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Der Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny is considered the masterpiece of the Brecht/Weill semi-collective. Its premier in Leipzig in 1930 caused an uproar by Nazis in the audience, but its Berlin premier in Berlin in 1931 was a triumph. The story of the operatic play is that three criminals create the city of Mahagonny. Drinking, gambling, prize-fights and such are the sole occupation of the inhabitants. Money rules. Mahagonny is threatened by a hurricane which after causing much distress bypasses the city. But after the hurricane nothing is forbidden anymore and scenes of debauchery occur. The opera ends with discontent destroying the city, which burns as the inhabitants march away. Has a very contemporary ring!

The following excerpts from the article “The Opera Hitler Hated” by right-wing Rupert Christiansen published on March 10, 2015 in the conservative London Telegraph, bombed Mahagonny on the eve of its performance at Covent Garden.

“Does it belong in an opera house? And if not, where should it go? These are the twinned questions confronted by anyone addressing Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s vituperative musical satire Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny…. The text is barbed, ironic and challenging, the score richly textured and glitteringly seductive. But the great majority of attempts to give it theatrical life have fallen flat – it has bombed at both ENO (English National Opera) and the Salzburg Festival … Mahagonny’s origins lie in a half-hour concert cantata Mahagonny Songspiel (“sung play”), in which Weill set a selection of Brecht’s poems about Mahagonny, a fictitious city in North America presented as a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by its worship of graft and fraud, whisky and dollars….

Weill was happy with the idea that Mahagonny should be classified as an opera … He wanted success, in other words, while Brecht wanted revolution.

In Germany, Mahagonny caused an even bigger scandal as an opera than it had as a Songspiel, and the fact that Hitler’s insurgent Brownshirts often disrupted performances chanting the hideous Nazi Horst Wessel anthem only added to its notoriety. The catchy Alabama Song (sung by Lotte Lenya) became a popular hit, but Brecht was probably right in thinking that his insistence that capitalism rots the soul and screws us all was being swamped by the éclat of mere showbiz….”

Brecht was known to “eat little, drink little and fornicate a great deal”. He was certainly loved by a few but hated by many, including Thomas Mann a fellow exile in the Los Angeles paradise and W.H. Auden, Brecht’s most illustrious collaborator and translator and who knew him well. As the English actress and singer of bawdy songs Elsa Lanchester  observed: ”He was anti-everything, so that the moment he became part of a country, he was anti-that country.”

James K. Lyon in his book, Bertold Brecht in America, writes that people who knew him in America found him at least one of the following: rude, arrogant, dictatorial, opinionated, selfish and self-centered to the point of egomania, exploitative, unfeeling, lascivious, male-chauvinistic, parsimonious, shrewd, duplicitous, envious and mean-spirited. Professor Lyon explains his stance as a means to keep alive his indignation about social injustice. Brecht did drink sparingly, nothing stronger than an occasional glass of beer. Hence one of the most human moments in Lyon’s book comes when a depressed Brecht, reeling from the unpleasantries and professional disappointments of his first encounter with New York and America back in 1935, resorted to carrying a flask of whiskey at all times. “I can’t stand it here without whiskey,” he complained to his fellow exile Hans Eisler. Lyon also notes that Brecht never really criticized East Germany where he finally settled, with however Austrian citizenship, and he did not support the workers’ uprising in East Germany in 1956. Nor did he come out against ‘Stalin’s crimes’, (he won a Stalin prize and deposited the money in a Swiss bank).

Still, whatever his personality, Brecht was a genius and a Marxist, and a great epic artist.