Letter from Berlin

Hardly any playwright in the last century has attracted as much controversy as Bertolt Brecht. A focus of controversy in his lifetime, he remains so on this day marking the 50th anniversary of his death. I consider myself lucky to have experienced his theater, the original Berliner Ensemble in its period of glory in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet I cannot answer this question: What was he all about? To start with, he certainly was no saint. And that may sound astonishing coming in these pages, since Greeks are so prone to canonizing luminaries such as Brecht. Though Greeks dislike facts, we do like soap operas, especially about sexual misbehavior. Brecht may have been a celebrated writer, but the playwright also had strong views on the position women. To put it bluntly, he simply preferred the woman under the man. «Was he really acceptable?» asked Sabine Kebir in a lecture I participated in last March in Dessau during a Kurt Weill festival. Ms Kebir may have mused on this question but she didn’t seem 100 percent convinced of Brecht’s shortcomings, either. Brecht is still an intriguing man, open for discussion. Sex and literature By equating sex with literature, some Brecht critics expressed themselves openly. In «Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics, and the Making of the Modern Drama,» a 700-plus-page biography by John Fuegi, the question is raised as to who really wrote some of the plays that are considered cornerstones of modern drama. Fuegi claims to offer documented evidence that women who were his collaborators and lovers, including Elisabeth Hauptmann and Ruth Berlow, did the work for him. Fuegi portrays Brecht as a person who exploited women such as Hauptmann and Berlow, as well as other women such as Hella Wuolijoki, a Finnish writer of Estonian origin who wrote under the name Juhani Tervapaa. Apparently, Brecht got the idea for his «Herr Puntila» from Wuolijoki – and milked the creativity of the other women – in a «sex for text arrangement,» using the «sexual magnetism he could exert at will.» Exploding with snappy generalities (the idea of Brecht as a plagiarist is by no means new) and opinions (Brecht’s sole contribution to «The Threepenny Opera» was writing the lyrics for «Mack the Knife») plus questionable facts (Hauptmann was responsible for 80 to 90 percent of the script for «The Threepenny Opera»), Fuegi maintains that a woman’s hand was steadily at work. Fuegi founded an International Brecht Society in 1970 and also edited its annual journal until 1989. He wanted to prove that Brecht’s literary crimes were «eerily similar» to case studies of psychopathic individuals. I met some of Brecht’s women during my years at the Berliner Ensemble. His second wife, Helene Weigel, who after his death managed the theater with the tenacity of a guard dog and died in 1971, is rumored to have said at his grave to their daughter Barbara: «Your father was a faithful husband. Unhappily, faithful to many.» Just for the record when I once brought her a Greek recording of Manos Hadjidakis’s music for a Karolos Koun production of «The Caucasian Chalk Circle,» she was so outraged that someone dared to present the play with a different score than the one Paul Dessau composed that she ordered a stop to all further performances. And when I told Weigel that Katina Paxinou was intending to star in «Mother Courage and Her Children,» she was equally irritated. «Never!» she declared. «The character in the play is first of all an unscrupulous businesswoman who lives off the war. You see, Anna Fierling has the nerve to sell her children to the war. Paxinou will make a tragic character out of her!» Another Brecht woman celebrated her 80th last March. She is the actress Kathe Reichel and she lives in a tiny white-washed lakeside cottage outside the town of Bukow, some 40 miles from Berlin. Nearby is a bigger house – a Brecht museum. A few years ago there was a German film titled «The Farewell» by Jan Schütte. It portrayed Brecht, then 58 and ailing, three days before his death in the late summer of 1956. The movie is set during the red-scare years of Communist East Germany. In the movie, the Stasi informs Brecht’s wife Weigel (played by Monica Bleibtreu) that they are planning to arrest two of their houseguests: Wolfgang Harich (Samuel Fintzi), a young political hothead, and his mistress Isot Kilian (Rena Zednikowa), for high treason. Brecht doesn’t know about the Stasi visit. But everyone, including Wolfgang, knows that Brecht sleeps with Isot whenever it pleases him. Kathe Reichel, (Jeanette Hain), then young and beautiful, also appears in the film, worshipful and at his sexual disposal. Letters to Brecht Today, so many years and so many incarnations later, Reichel is preparing an autobiographical book, «Windbriefe an Bertolt Brecht» (Letters to Bertolt Brecht). Perhaps this book by a former Brecht lover will shine further light on how this playwright exacted his sexual charisma.

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