Bertolt Brecht in America

Bertolt Brecht in America

JAMES K. LYON
Copyright Date: 1980
Pages: 424
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7ztrjg
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  • Book Info
    Bertolt Brecht in America
    Book Description:

    This colorful account of Bertolt Brecht's move from Germany to America during the Hitler era explores his activities as a Hollywood writer, a playwright determined to conquer Broadway, a political commentator and activist, a social observer, and an exile in an alien land.

    Originally published in 1983.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5590-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    James K. Lyon
  5. I. PROLOGUE TO AMERICAN EXILE
    • 1 BRECHT AND AMERICA — THE NEW ATLANTIS
      (pp. 3-5)

      In his mind he had been to America many times as a young man. To live there was quite another matter. When Hitler’s advancing troops forced him to flee Europe in 1941, he was a mature man with few illusions about the fabled “New Atlantis” of his youth. But necessity and lack of options compelled him to come and stay from 1941 to 1947. Out of that exile experience arose some of his most significant works. It also brought out the worst in him as he fought to maintain himself in an alien culture. He spoke of this period as...

    • 2 NEW YORK, 1935
      (pp. 6-20)

      On February 28, 1933, the day after the Reichstag fire, Brecht joined hundreds of artists and intellectuals who fled Germany for fear of their lives. Later he insisted that he had been number five on a Nazi death list.¹ That story probably had its origin in his imagination, but clearly he was in jeopardy. After a flight that took him through Prague and Vienna, he stopped briefly in Switzerland and in Paris before beginning nearly six years of exile in Denmark on the island of Fyn near the town of Svendborg. With him were his wife and his two children,...

    • 3 “CHANGING COUNTRIES MORE OFTEN THAN SHOES”
      (pp. 21-29)

      Except for the multitude of enemies and handful of friends he left behind, the only mark Brecht made on America at this time was onPins and Needles,the musical review presented by the Labor Stage and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in 1936. Emanuel Eisenberg, a well-known figure in the New York leftist theater, wrote a satire entitled “The Little Red School House” based on what had happened in rehearsals and production of Brecht’sMother.Like many leftists, he had had no sympathy for Brecht as a person or for his type of theater. Presented as one of...

    • 4 CULTURE SHOCK
      (pp. 30-40)

      Shortly after Marta Feuchtwanger, wife of the emigre novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, and the refugee actor Alexander Granach picked up his party at the San Pedro harbor and drove them to the small apartment the Dieterles had arranged for them at 1954 Argyle Avenue in Hollywood,¹ Brecht began to suffer from symptoms of the culture shock experienced by most people transplanted into an alien environment. A year passed before he overcame the initial trauma, and there is some question if he ever felt completely at ease. Comparing Los Angeles to Europe, he inevitably found it wanting. He suffered from the summer...

  6. II. BRECHT AND HOLLYWOOD
    • 5 “SPELL YOUR NAME”
      (pp. 43-47)

      In his “Sonnet in Emigration”(GWx, 831) written during his first year in America, Brecht described how he was forced to go out and “sell what I think.” Though uncertain where to go, he perceived himself to be treading “the old ways worn smooth by the steps of those without hope.” Wherever he went he always encountered the same response: “Spell your name.” Sardonically he added: “This name once belonged to the great ones.”

      Though he exaggerated his fame, Brecht did enjoy a considerable European reputation before arriving in America. In the thirties he had found doors open wherever...

    • 6 PLAYING “ROULETTE” WITH FILM STORIES
      (pp. 48-57)

      The tradition that writing for Hollywood is fatal for literary talent never affected Brecht. Absolutely sure of his own genius, he tenaciously wrote the only kind of film stories he could. Inevitably, they were not what Hollywood wanted. Though he learned the norms of Hollywood writing quickly, he was constitutionally unable to adjust to them.

      Within weeks of disembarking from the “Annie Johnson,” Brecht undertook several story projects that he hoped to sell to studios. Hollywood called this “writing on spec,” i.e., without a contract or firm offer. To do this required the optimism of a gambler, and Brecht seized...

    • 7 A QUALIFIED WINNER—THE FILM HANGMEN ALSO DIE
      (pp. 58-71)

      On one spin of the wheel that looked no more promising than a dozen others that year, Brecht in mid-1942 hit the right number with a story that became one of the best anti-fascist films produced in Hollywood during World War II—Hangmen Also Die.Contrary to claims that he disavowed the final film version after seeing his efforts mutilated, Brecht in fact tried to gain more credit for it than he received. And more of his presence remains in the film than many Brecht purists care to admit.

      Following the pattern of a common Hollywood mistake, his work on...

    • 8 MORE HOLLYWOOD ROULETTE
      (pp. 72-79)

      Until the end of his exile, Brecht looked on film-writing as many people do gambling. He knew the odds against him, but, knowing that he stood to win big money for a small expenditure of time and effort, he went right on playing. Interspersed with playwriting, his major activity in 1943-1945, were interludes devoted to writing notes, sketches, and outlines for film stories. Some never progressed beyond the talking stage, such as an idea Brecht discussed with Hans Viertel for a film showing Shakespeare's struggle to keep his theater afloat financially. Reading Ward’sHistory of English Dramatic Literatureagainst the...

    • 9 FILM-WRITING TILL THE END
      (pp. 80-86)

      After the war ended, Brecht turned away from war-related topical subjects, but he did not abandon film-writing altogether. In September 1945 he interrupted work onGalileoto join his friend Reyher, who was visiting Los Angeles, in writing a “Macbeth-copy for the movies.” His journal states that “Shakespeare’s grand motif, the fallibility of instinct (indistinctness of the inner voice), cannot be renewed. I’m emphasizing the defenselessness of the little people against the prevailing moral codex, their limited capacity for criminal potential.”¹ Originally Brecht and Reyher conceived of it as a vehicle for Lorre, which they hoped to sell on the...

  7. III. THE DIFFICULT BRECHT
    • 10 OBDURATE GENIUS
      (pp. 89-96)

      As someone who knew his way around the theater world, Brecht should have found more open doors to Broadway than to Hollywood.

      To a limited degree this was true. In spite of it, he never enjoyed significant success in the American theater during his exile. More than anything else, the limiting factor was the obdurate nature of his genius.

      In recent years, a number of oral and written recollections of Brecht by those who knew him in America characterize him as a “dictator” or “tyrant.” Variations on this leitmotif include the terms “megalomaniac,” “egomaniac,” “a field marshal,” a “militaristic German,”...

  8. IV. BRECHT AND THE AMERICAN THEATER
    • 11 BUILDING UP TO BROADWAY
      (pp. 99-107)

      In an interview with the German-language newspaperNew Yorker Staats-Zeitung und Heroldgiven less than a month after he had arrived in New York City, Brecht states that in view of completely different theatrical conditions in America, he sees “no possibility for performance of his plays, which, with all their revolutionary innovations, arose in the soil of a tradition that simply does not exist (here).”¹ He was not speaking from ignorance. Seven frustrating years of trying to place his plays in America between the Mother debacle of 1935 and his arrival in New York in 1943 had prepared him for the...

    • 12 HOPE, FRUSTRATION, AND SCHWEYK IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
      (pp. 108-120)

      After a four-day trip which took Brecht through the Chicago stockyards he had described in his playSt.joanof the Stockyards,he arrived in New York City on February 12th. Then, and on each subsequent visit, he stayed with Ruth Berlau in her fourth-floor walk-up apartment at 124 E. 57th St.

      Renewed contacts with refugee friends and acquaintances had two purposes—to indulge Brecht’s interests in politics and the theater, and to make connections that would help him on his exploratory venture into the New York theater world. With Karl August Wittfogel and Heinz Langerhans, this playwright who openly acknowledged his...

    • 13 BROADWAY AND THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE
      (pp. 121-131)

      If one can accept at face value a poem Brecht wrote shortly after reaching New York City, his first impression of Broadway was one of disappointment. Entitled “The Son’s Report”(GWx, 876), it describes how, upon reaching the city his father had characterized as the “most beautiful,” the son sets out from the train station in search of this famous street. Finally asking someone where that street is, he is told he is standing on it.

      Just as the sight of Broadway failed to overwhelm him, so Brecht failed to overwhelm Broadway, though it was not for lack of...

    • 14 OFF-BROADWAY, 1945: THE PRIVATE LIFE OF THE MASTER RACE
      (pp. 132-141)

      In May 1945 Brecht travelled with Hanns Eisler to New York to supervise the English-language production of a play he considered conventional enough for American audiences to understand. Nearly four years after he arrived in the United States,The Private Life of the Master Race,his first play to reach New York, flopped badly. And it flopped because Brecht insisted on doing it on his own terms under circumstances which did not allow it.

      Master Raceholds a unique place among the works Brecht tried to stage in America. Because he supervised its translation, it was the first work in...

    • 15 BROADWAY AND BUST, 1946: THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
      (pp. 142-150)

      After H. R. Hays withdrew from theMalficollaboration in December 1943, Brecht set to work on it with W. H. Auden, with whom he met during January and February 1944. Their most intense collaborative efforts, however, fell between February and March 1946 during Brecht’s fourth stay in New York. In a letter at the time to Bergner, to whom he was sending completed portions of the latest adaptation, Brecht reported that “the discussions are interesting, Auden very amiable and open. Let me know if you have any objections.”¹ A version they completed at this time bears each of their...

    • 16 “ORGANIZING HIS FAME”—MISCELLANEOUS DRAMATIC ACTIVITIES
      (pp. 151-166)

      Since his youth, Brecht had been grooming himself for posterity. If anything, lack of success in American exile intensified these efforts. Careless about letter-writing and conventional sources of documenting his life, he devoted his attention to preserving what he considered more significant—a record of his thought, and his works themselves. One such record is his “working journal.” This unusual work, which contains more entries between 1941-1947 than from any period of his life, makes no attempt to document his daily activities in detail. Long periods elapse without an entry; incorrect dates show that Brecht sometimes recorded events days or...

    • 17 CHARLES LAUGHTON AND GALILEO—ACTING AS A MODE OF TRANSLATING
      (pp. 167-173)

      In late March 1944, Brecht met at Salka Viertel’s salon the single most important person for him in his American exile—the actor Charles Laughton. Their meeting inaugurated a three-and-one-half-year collaboration which culminated in what a critic calls “one of the most successful jobs of translation and adaptation ever done for the American stage”¹—Galileo.

      Before coming to America, Brecht knew Laughton from several of the British-born actor’s films, among themRembrandtand the Academy-Award winningThe Private Life of Henry VIII,²a performance Brecht reputedly liked because of the way Laughton tore a chicken apart while eating it. No...

    • 18 MORE GALILEOS
      (pp. 174-183)

      From late 1945 until 1947, American occupational officials and theater directors in Germany and Austria eager to stage Brecht’s plays wrote him repeatedly for permission to perform them. Without exception, he refused; he had chosen to defer almost certain success in Europe for a more immediate goal expressed in a letter to Berlau dated August 1945: “I still hope to getGalileoon its legs in New York, which is important in many regards.” Before leaving America, Brecht was determined to conquer Broadway, andGalileowas to be his weapon.

      After Laughton completedCaptain Kidd,they worked together briefly in...

    • 19 GALILEO AT LAST!
      (pp. 184-202)

      Writing to Reyher aboutGalileoin mid-March 1947, Brecht states that “Laughton will finish shooting [The Big Clock] in mid-April. It’s unclear what will happen then. Perhaps you should call Losey (in Ruth’s apartment). He knows more than I do.” Losey, who was in New York directing Arnold Sundgaard’sThe Great Campaign,deserves almost sole credit for arranging the circumstances and bringing together the people who made possible an American production of this play which absorbed Brecht completely from mid-April to early August.

      While directingThe Great Campaign,Losey told its producer T. Edward Hambleton, a philanthropic young man with...

  9. V. BRECHT AND FEELINGS
    • 20 TOUGH TENDERNESS
      (pp. 205-209)

      In his life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell attempts to show the existence of “humanity and real kindness in a man represented as having been harsh and destitute of tenderness.”¹ The same case needs to be made for Brecht. When one discounts biographical reminiscences by friends, most of them Eastern European Marxists from the last years of his life who wished to “canonize” him,² what remains appears to some critics as “coldness of character” and a “sleazy, nasty opportunistic life.”³ Both extremes overlook the complexity of this difficult man and ignore a tough tenderness evident throughout his life, especially in his...

    • 21 BRECHT AND PETER LORRE
      (pp. 210-214)

      Bentley has observed that Brecht tended to be possessive about people he liked. Peter Lorre was one of those. Ever since his appearance in a 1931 production ofA Man’s a Manin Berlin, Lorre had been one of Brecht’s favorite actors. Lorre reciprocated with a dedication to Brecht that verged on adulation. Abe Burrows recalls hearing Lorre speak of Brecht as the greatest director of all,¹ and, according to Lorre’s biographer, the actor proclaimed that Brecht was a genius, “one of the greatest writers of our time.”²

      In addition to admiring Lorre’s keen intellect and broad reading, Brecht saw...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 22 FERDINAND REYHER
      (pp. 215-220)

      Brecht’s closest American friend, and perhaps one of the best male friends in his lifetime, was Ferdinand Reyher.¹ From the time they met in Berlin in 1927, they sensed a kinship that persisted for nearly three decades. To the degree that Brecht was able to let his hair down and expose part of his real self, it seems to have happened with Reyher.

      During Brecht’s first year in America, Reyher came to his home frequently. A welcome friend, he entered into discussions that contrasted sharply with the way Brecht spoke to exile friends—boisterous laughter, loud talk, and perambulating conversations...

    • 23 BRECHT’S WOMEN
      (pp. 221-232)

      Photographs of Brecht fail to convey the uncanny attraction he held for women. A famous German actress once told a friend he was the most sexually exciting man she had ever met.¹ Losey, who associated closely with Brecht during his last year in America, remembers that he was always accompanied by two or three women, and that “he ate very little, drank very little, and fornicated a great deal.”² A number of Americans who knew him well noted (or complained) that he was constantly surrounded by women—his “harem,” his “female followers,” his “lady admirers,” and his “coterie of mistresses”...

  10. VI. THE CHARISMATIC BRECHT
    • 24 COLLABORATION WITH BRECHT
      (pp. 235-240)

      Working alone on plays had never been Brecht’s forte. Before he ever discovered Marxism, he had surrounded himself with associates (often minor writers themselves) who discussed ideas, fed him material, rewrote his own, and generally helped to “produce” his work. Had the Marxist concept of the collective and collective productivity not existed, Brecht would have invented it.

      By buttonholing almost any willing listener and drawing him or her into his current writing project, Brecht attracted willing and talented people who became collaborators, translators, informants, promoters, discussion partners, and catalysts for his writing. Most of them found it flattering to be...

    • 25 YOUNG AMERICAN DISCIPLES
      (pp. 241-248)

      In Berlin during the last years of his life, Brecht became a living legend among aspiring young directors and actors who sat at his feet in the Berliner Ensemble and recorded many of his words. But his association with a small group of young people in America illustrates that he was already drawing those of the next generation under his spell.

      Throughout the first twelve years of exile, Brecht had associated chiefly with refugees of his own generation. In America he began to draw around him a group of young college-aged men and women from his son Stefan’s generation that...

  11. VII. BRECHT AND THE GERMANS
    • 26 “WHERE I AM IS GERMANY”—THE REFUGEE GHETTO
      (pp. 251-262)

      In 1939 the German exile philosopher Ernst Bloch described two categories of refugee artists he observed in America. Those in the first group had written off Nazi Germany and severed connections with German life and culture. They scorned their native tongue and became “Americanized” with such fervor that their acquired manners and behavior often made them appear foolish, if not grotesque.

      Members of the second group wanted to create a German cultural island in America. Clinging to naive concepts of American life gleaned from European sources, they felt themselves superior to a culturally underdeveloped land that existed as a minor...

    • 27 BRECHT, THOMAS MANN, AND GERMANY
      (pp. 263-270)

      It is one of the ironies of German literary history that a bitter enemy, Thomas Mann, considered by many to be that country’s best prose writer in this century, first introduced its greatest dramatist of the century to American readers. As the German literary correspondent for the American magazineDial,Mann’s description of the Munich production of Brecht’sDrums in the Nightin the September 1923 issue displays neither sympathy nor hostility toward this rebellious young dramatist.¹ But the opening sentence of another review by Mann in the November 1924 issue, dealing with Brecht’s adaptation and performance of Marlowe’sEdward...

  12. VIII. THE IDEOLOGICAL BRECHT
    • 28 ANTI-FASCIST POLITICAL ACTIVITIES
      (pp. 273-281)

      When Brecht took out immigration papers in Helsinki in May 1941, he signed a statement required of all applicants which disavowed any intent to overthrow the United States government by force or violence. Having made no such promise about Hitler’s Germany, Brecht engaged in a variety of anti-fascist activities in America that had one purpose—to topple Hitler and to establish a new social order in postwar Germany.

      Probably the only thing in his life that Brecht took more seriously than his writing was his ideology. His anti-fascism was synonymous with the struggle to help the working classes. Hitler, he...

    • 29 ANTI-FASCIST WRITINGS
      (pp. 282-287)

      In a poem written in Danish exile that refers to Hitler as a housepainter, Brecht speaks of a tension in his works:

      In my songs, a rhyme

      Would almost seem presumptuous to me.

      Within me struggle

      Enthusiasm over the blossoming apple tree

      And horror over the house-painter’s speeches.

      But only the second

      Drives me to the desk.

      (GWIX, 744)

      In a sense this poem might be considered un-Brechtian, for it suggests an artificial dichotomy between his anti-fascist writings and his less engaged works. Yet he himself did not subscribe to this view. Since all his writings arose from the...

    • 30 BRECHT AND THE AMERICAN LEFT
      (pp. 288-306)

      When Brecht testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities in October 1947, he appeared in the company of eighteen Hollywood leftists and liberals, many of whom he had never met. This association raises the matter of his relationship to the American left during his exile years. Almost from the beginning, it had been an uneasy one, though it was not Brecht’s fault alone. Mutual antagonisms arose from a variety of reasons, including widely differing understandings of Marxism; false preconceptions on the part of American Marxists about their European comrades, and vice versa; national and cultural differences;...

  13. IX. THE LAST ACT IN AMERICA
    • 31 THE PROMISE OF EUROPE
      (pp. 309-313)

      Almost from the day he landed, it was no secret that Brecht did not intend to stay in America. In contrast to Thomas Mann and to others who either took out American citizenship or declared their intent to remain in the country, Brecht continued to style himself an “exile.” The FBI knew and understood this. Amid rumors circulating in the German exile colony in 1943, Brecht, according to an FBI informant, learned “that refugees now in the United States had already been listed by the government for purposes of custodial detention after the war. . . . Brecht is alleged...

    • 32 BRECHT BEFORE “HUAC”
      (pp. 314-338)

      When Egon Breiner first met Brecht in a Vladivostok bookstore before they sailed for America in June 1941, the dramatist was buying German editions of Lenin’s writings. As they arrived at San Pedro, California, Breiner reports, Brecht threw these works into the harbor with the explanation: “I don’t want any trouble with the U.S. authorities.”

      This anecdote contains an element of poetic truth regarding one aspect of Brecht’s life in exile. In most respects, the revolutionary dramatist behaved like a law-abiding German burgher. He observed the curfew for enemy aliens while it was in force; he registered annually with the...

  14. X. EPILOGUE
    • 33 AMERICA BEFORE AND AFTER
      (pp. 341-348)

      In a letter written to George Pfanzelt in the spring of 1946 summarizing five years of American exile, Brecht remarks: “I have gone on writing plays . . . but of course not about America, which is not badly described in my earlier ones.” As surprising as this seems in light of the mythical America portrayed in his earlier plays, Brecht’s statement is not intended literally. It refers to the specific political/poetic idea called “America” that he had carried in his head since the early thirties. An outgrowth of his Marxist ideology and of his poetic imagination, that idea had...

  15. A WORD ON SOURCES
    (pp. 349-352)
  16. NOTES
    (pp. 353-384)
  17. PUBLISHED WORKS CONSULTED
    (pp. 385-394)
  18. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY OF BRECHT’S WORKS IN ENGLISH
    (pp. 395-396)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 397-408)