Brecht's contradictory personality is apparent in his private record

February 06, 1994|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times

Title: "Bertolt Brecht Journals, 1934-1955"

Editor: John Willett; translated from the German by Hugh Rorrison

Publisher: Routledge

0$ Length, price: 556 pages, $39.95

Bertolt Brecht was ostensibly a Marxist playwright, but that is a bit like saying that George Bernard Shaw was a vegetarian playwright. Brecht, like Shaw, in fact, juggled ideas like flaming torches while trying, less successfully than Shaw, to keep his distance from the heat. In his theater the ideas are primarily characters; their role is far more dramatic than intellectual.

This profoundly contradictory man (thank goodness for the switchbacks, because his straightaways could be repellent) was believer in dialectic, the pulsing of opposites, and more than a believer. It gave him energy, as love traditionally gave poets energy.

No genius, though, can inhabit another genius' scheme without breaking it, and Brecht (1898-1956) quite thoroughly disarranged the Hegelian-Marxist theory of progress through contradictions. Thesis and antithesis were his heartbeat, but he couldn't stomach synthesis.

This put him at cautiously simmering odds with his fellow Communists, at least from the mid-1930s, when Stalin decided it was synthesis-time and began to shoot intellectuals by the thousands.

"Cautiously" is the key. Brecht stayed out of Moscow, and when he returned from exile to East Germany after the war, it was in a complicated balance of convenience, acquiescence and disagreement. Allergic to synthesis, he could no more abide the anti-Stalinist than the Stalinist variety.

There are those who regarded him as an opportunist, with an all-too-convenient ability to temporize. This may be partly true, but if so it is part of the contradictions.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Brecht left Germany and settled in Denmark with his wife, the actress Helen Weigel, and their two children, Stefan and Barbara. In 1939, after the fall of Czechoslovakia, they moved to Sweden; in 1940, after the invasion of Norway, to Finland; and in 1941, to California.

After the Allied victory, they moved to Switzerland and then to East Germany, where he remained until his death.

Translated by Hugh Rorrison, the journals Brecht kept irregularly between 1934 and 1955 are a new volume in the mammoth collection of his writing, edited and annotated by John Willett and, until his death, by Ralph Manheim.

They are a record of both human and artistic contradiction, a frozen surface punctuated by a volcanic rumbling that doesn't quite break through. Their silences and the laconic formulations that signal what they conceal have a power that we have come to think of, in fact, as Brechtian.

As the exponent of distanced or non-Aristotelian drama -- no pity, no terror and, above all, no purgation, or you fall into sentimentality -- he stood against what he regarded as the empathetic squashiness of the Stanislavskians. He would have liked actors to remain so aloof from their roles that they would add "he said" or "she said" at the end of each speech. He treated his feelings the same way.

Although he wrote much of his best work in exile -- "The Good Woman of Szechwan," "Galileo," "Puntila," "Mother Courage" -- there is relatively little account in the journals of the writing, apart from a discussion of how difficult it is to make the final detailed decisions in a play he has not seen staged.

Though much of his theoretical discussion is dry, there are gems. Accused of coldness, of divorcing ideas from emotions, he turns the accusation back on the Stanislavskians. They work endlessly on hunting for an emotion and then having it; he, on the contrary, works in the faith that "every thought that is necessary has its emotional correlative, every feeling its intellectual one."

From Scandinavia, he followed the course of the war, pasting photographs and news accounts into the journals. Hitler, he remarks, is simply a late-capitalist free-trader. "The borders that goods cannot cross will be crossed by tanks which, in turn, are goods."

There are glimpses of emotion, though. After accounts of the massive Allied bombings, he writes that "one can see no end to the war, just the end of Germany."

He continues his battle with the German national character. "We Germans have materialism without sensuality," he writes, complaining that his countrymen divorce spirit and intellect from the body.

Assisted by the German exiles who were already there, Brecht settled with his family in the Hollywood area. He struggled to write film scripts, with not much success.

Fritz Lang gave him a job helping to write "Hangmen Also Die," but he hated the work. "The client takes the brush and smears the picture so that nobody will ever know what it really looked like," he writes, adding that it was ruining his handwriting.

He socialized with fellow exiles but complained that their intellectual horizons had shrunk.

Deeper than all this was his sense that he and the other German artist-refugees who had played such a role in the political and aesthetic battles of the '20s and '30s had taken refuge from history in an urban Tahiti.

"I felt an exile from my era," he writes, and when Pearl Harbor is bombed he notes, "We are in the world again."

Entries from the last years in East Germany diminish and grow more distanced. Brecht produced theater for the regime, and tried to be positive as possible. He had powerful friends and his prestige protected him, but he had to endure the official campaign for socialist realism.

He invents an officially correct slogan: "No drunken orgies on mountaineering tours," a reference to the need to mobilize to build Communism. Then, dialectically, he reverses it: "But mountaineering tours cause their own type of intoxication."

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