BOOKS / Owing to the women: 'The Life and Lies of Bertold Brecht' - John Fuegi: HarperCollins. 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THAT Bertold Brecht was a rat has been known for years. Even in the 1960s and 1970s when his word was law - when his photo beamed slyly down over any respectable Literary Manager's desk and drama students used to puzzle over 'alienation' - there was a widely acknowledged dodgy side to him. Everyone knew that He Who Says Yes was ripped off from Arthur Waley, that Happy End was mostly written by others, that Puntila was swiped from its author, a kindly Finnish lady who had very unwisely given Brecht the play to read while sheltering him and his entourage at her own expense in the early years of World War II.

But none of this dented Brecht's reputation. So adroitly had he crafted his public image that the more his pilferings were exposed, the more impishly attractive he seemed. If the great man turned out to be a rogue - well, wasn't that precisely what was great about him? These were, after all, the days when anyone who nicked a frozen chicken from the supermarket was a revolutionary. 'Literary property is an item that should be classed with allotment gardens and such things', Brecht had announced when another writer's Villon translations were discovered nestling in The Threepenny Opera. Right on]

News of his bed-hopping did him no harm either. (When does it?) His wife, Helene Weigel, was a woman of many talents, but delivering a nice, warm cuddle seemed unlikely to be one of them. Could you blame him for looking elsewhere? And if, as rumoured, two of his most steady mistresses, Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau, did a spot of typing here and there or a bit of research; and a third, Elisabeth Hauptmann, did somewhat more; well, so what? Wasn't their brush with genius reward enough?

All have traditionally been described patronisingly: Hauptmann the earnest researcher always ready to whack the straying author back into the Party fold, Steffin the tubercular floozie, Berlau the drunken broad. The last-named earned a sharp rap over the knuckles only the other day from the Brecht expert, John Willett. 'Troublesome and unhelpful' was his headmasterly report. Berlau, Fuegi now reveals, was one of the authors of The Visions at Simone Machard and contractually entitled to 20 per cent of the sales. Brecht sold the film rights to MGM for dollars 50,000, never told her and kept her share of the money. She was broke and pregnant with his child. And she complained . . . ?

The best thing about thisbook is that all three women are at last accorded dignity. So is a fourth and even more haunting creature: Marieluise Fleisser, a first-class playwright in her own right, whom Brecht destroyed. Helene Weigel is a shadowy figure for most of the story - one imagines her grimly stalking the corridors like Mrs Danvers while peals of laughter echo from the study - but she gets her chance at the end, magnificently ensconced as boss of the Berliner Ensemble, queening it over her one-time rivals Hauptmann and Berlau, cramming them into the smallest offices available and firing them at whim.

Brecht himself emerges very much as we'vealways known him: brilliant, wily, self-serving. What's new is that these qualities are portrayed by Fuegi in an evil light. Brecht's disregard for people's feelings becomes a robot-like inability to understand that other people have feelings at all, his mischievousness becomes malign, his opportunism a Hitlerian lust for power. This is where the book goes wonky. No accusation is too lurid or too trivial, and some are ridiculous. Anti-Semitic chapter-headings turn out on inspection to have nothing to do with Brecht at all. As a boy (it seems) Brecht peed on his mother's laundry. Even his childhood cowboy games had unpleasantly misogynistic overtones.

Fuegi wrote two previous books about Brecht, both perfectly respectful and orthodox, and even went to the trouble of founding something called the International Brecht Society. He seems since then to have performed one of those Oedipal flip-flops - common to disillusioned acolytes - which turn the father-figure into a monster and his women into stainless victims (echoes here of Jeffrey Masson's In the Freud Archive).

And the result is that he confuses histwo main claims. The first is that Hauptmann, Berlau and Steffin played a crucial role in writing the plays, the second that they were swindled out of the credit and money due to them. Feugi, for whom Brecht can do no right, treats both accusations as though they were equally heinous. But the first is simply a matter-of-fact description of the way Brecht worked.

Brecht the playwright died young, somewhere in his early twenties, during the hideous writer's block which hit him between the completion of Jungle of Cities and Man is Man. After that, he remained a great poet and became a great director. His vision of theatre was unimpaired, he was a fabulous wordsmith and he knew how to shock. But sitting alone in a room and writing - from start to finish - a play he actually believed in was now beyond him, and would remain so for the rest of his life.

This happens to most playwrights sooner or later. Some give up cheerfully, some creep away into a hole, some grit their teeth and carry on churning out rubbish. Brecht's response - to create a studio where he could animate plays to be written via a process of challenge, inspiration, mutual criticism - seems to me to be not at all (as Fuegi supposes) a proof of his failure as man and writer. On the contrary: it is one of the most interesting things he did.

The swindling accusation is both more serious and more fun, because if - as Fuegi claims - it can be proved that Brecht's 'helpers' were in fact penning plot, themes and dialogue, then not only were they entitled to a slice of the royalties, but so are the present beneficiaries of their estates. Royalties - which continue to be paid for 50 years after the author's death - can be up to 10 per cent of the takings of each performance, and Brecht is performed world-wide, so the sums of money involved are truly enormous. To make matters more complicated, Hauptmann died in 1973 and Berlau the following year, which means that writings which can be proved to be theirs will remain in copyright until the 2020s. The disruption and dismay all this will cause within the Brecht industry will be incalculable. I can hardly wait.

(Photograph omitted)