Ghosts of Brecht's women lay claim to his plays

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The Independent Online
The celebrations in Germany of the birth 100 years ago of the country's greatest modern dramatist are being marred by claims that Bertolt Brecht's plays were really the work of his mistresses. Ghosts are being awakened, reports Imre Karacs from Bonn.

East Germany is dead. Its revolutionary playwright lies in a Berlin cemetery, pinned down by a stake driven through his heart. Bertolt Brecht's Dracula-style send-off, at his own behest because of his paranoia about being buried alive, was regarded as a little strange in the workers' paradise in 1956. But as the ghosts of the women upon whom he had feasted return to haunt the bard, the metaphor is beginning to seem thoroughly apt.

Next Tuesday marks the 100th birthday of Germany's greatest modern dramatist. Celebrations are in full swing, theatres are dusting off scripts unrehearsed for decades. Letters are unearthed purporting to prove that Brecht was not half as dedicated a Communist as previously thought. And, just as rehabilitation is at hand, along comes a party pooper from the United States claiming that most of the plays attributed to Brecht were in fact written by the author's doting concubines.

It has always been beyond dispute that the Marxist icon tyrannised women, drove them to suicide and forced them to abort his children. But only now is it emerging that Brecht exploited the spirit of his companions, too, harnessing their creative energies to the glory of his name.

According to John Fuegi, an American scholar, Brecht's women penned most of the words in such hits as The Threepenny Opera and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The Brecht collective, Mr Fuegi argues, was in reality a capitalist enterprise. Brecht was the master, and his women the assembly line workers who toiled night and day, expecting nothing in exchange but sexual gratification from a spindly little man afflicted with a rasping voice and a serious hygiene problem.

Mr Fuegi's first attempt to explode the Brecht myth, in a book published in the US in 1994, was denounced by the German literary establishment. The International Brecht Society, of which he was a founding member, spotted 600 errors in his work, and drummed him out from its midst. The author has spent the last three years removing the howlers with the help of a German expert. The result is an improved German edition entitled Brecht & Co, fortified with testimonies from witnesses and buttressed by more than 1,000 footnotes. It has just been published, in time for the centenary.

Brecht's most important muse, Mr Fuegi states, was Elisabeth Hauptmann, credited by the playwright with the translation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. But Hauptmann, a literary editor, in fact wrote "80 to 90 per cent" of the "Brecht" adaptation - The Threepenny Opera - which catapulted him to fame. She became Brecht's life-long mistress, accompanying the writer to exile in Denmark, Russia, and the US.

Hauptmann was to co-author many other "Brecht" plays, without ever appearing on the cover of any of them. Her niece and legal heir is now suing the publishers for back-dated royalties which, according to Mr Fuegi, might run into "seven or eight figures".

Margarete Steffin, a writer who Brecht bedded in 1931, is thought to have been the inspiration behind Galileo and The Good Woman of Setzuan. She accompanied the entourage to Moscow, where she died en route to the United States in 1941.

Finally, Mr Fuegi cites the influence of Ruth Berlau, a Danish stage director, who joined the Brecht coterie in 1933 and followed him all the way to East Berlin. While she was not roped into writing, Berlau's ideas came to the fore in production, an important dimension to the Brecht experience.

In all this time Brecht also had a wife, Helene Weigel, who was to become the custodian of the Brecht archives after her husband's death, as well as the head of the Berliner Ensemble, the theatre in East Berlin founded by Brecht and dedicated to his oeuvre. Two other members of the extended family, Paula Banholzer and Marianne Zoff, took care that the playwright's genes were propagated, but are believed to have contributed little to his literary legacy.

In this collective, says Mr Fuegi, were born some of the century's greatest plays. Brecht was full of ideas, but he did not have the attention span to carry them through. He would start the women out on a theme, and they would come back with a complete dialogue. The creative tension in the workshop stemmed from Brecht's manipulative skills; mutual jealousy kept the employees on their toes.

For all his progressive ideas, Brecht was old-fashioned in sexual politics. Relations between the genders, he declared, was a contract in which "the man can demand a tremendous amount and the woman must give a tremendous amount". He got away with it perhaps because, as his daughter recalled later, "he could charm the birds off the trees".

That leaves Mr Fuegi having to rely on scraps of documents and hearsay, because the down-trodden proletariat of Brecht & Co never complained. Critics have, therefore, been able to charge that his book is "fuelled by hatred", though they can no longer fault his scholarship. Mr Fuegi, the son of a Swiss waiter at the Savoy, has spent 33 years ploughing through the Brecht archives. But that still makes him an interloper in the eyes of German literary circles - whom Mr Fuegi likens to the Mafia - and a threat to the earnings of Suhrkamp Verlag, the Frankfurt-based publisher which holds Brecht's global copyright.

Some German academics are now willing to concede that Mr Fuegi may have a point, but not Suhrkamp. As the company's chief, Siegfried Unseld, recently proclaimed: "Brecht's works stem from no one else but Brecht." But it has been noted that Hauptmann's name, at least, has surfaced on the cover of some of the latest reprints.