youth of brecht

In classics long after on November 19, 2009 at 12:44 am

Reading Ronald Hayman’s biography of Betrolt Brecht. Still toddling through the early, pre-production chapters, but there have been some formative notes + quotes I thought worth recording. And so…

School: ‘…teachers tried to encourage patriotism, and the boys were subjected to inflammatory lectures from pioneer pilots and captains of submarines’ (awful, monsters, etc). Likewise, Brecht’s lifelong love of the parable form was rooted in extensive Lutheran bible studies (the first play of his juvenalia was titled Die Bibel – one can well imagine his wolf-cub relish).

“In nine years of being marinaded in an Augsberg Gymnasium, I didn’t succeed in helping any of my teachers to make any real progress…”

‘When a friend of Brecht’s tried to cheat by rubbing out some of the red underlinings [denoting mistakes], the teacher could easily spot the erasing. Brecht…drew additional red lines under sentences that had no mistakes in them and then complained…the teacher improved Brecht’s mark.’ Looking back on his school days:

“[the teacher] teaches his pupil to be a replica of himself. The pupil learns everything he needs to succeed in life. It’s the same as what’s needed to make progress in the school – deceit, a semblance of knowledge, the ability to revenge oneself with impunity, speedy mastery of commonplaces, obsequiousness, servility, willingness to betray one’s equals to the higher authorities, etc etc.”

Brecht and Paula Banholzer

Brecht and Paula Banholzer

It wasn’t long before he took the liberty of introducing himself, naturally enough, to the guitar, the opposite sex, and the ballad: ‘He loved the way that popular songs tacked cursorily from one subject to another or reduced a major natural disaster to a rhythmic couplet…discontinuity appealed to Brecht more than the idea of a single form which is ‘right’… Interruptions served as a reminder that there was no such thing as inevitability. The course of history could have run quite differently if events had been interrupted in different ways’.

His main influences as he started to write himself were ‘Villon (who became the model for Brecht’s first anti-hero, Baal), Buchner, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Wedekind’ – the latter especially (his line “Morality is the best business in the world” reads as positively proto-Brechtian).

An early incarnation of Baal was written as a direct response to Expressionist playwright Hanns Johst’s painfully-titled The Lonely One: Downfall of a Man. ‘Johst’s play was merely a clumsy restatement of the assumption that artists are generically different from other people. As a poet himself, Brecht could see that the poet must be an ordinary creature of physical habit’.

‘Brecht’s father, like his teachers, often inflamed his anticonformism. After losing a suitcase of his, he was defiantly unrepentant: “First, you could have done the same yourself; second, I hope you never get it back; third, I hope the new owner of the things more than you did, and fourth, you can easily get new things”.’

Brilliantly, he sent a copy of Baal to Johst along with a letter brassily compounding pugnacity and hauteur: “I quite understand if you say Baal and anything else I go on to write if I feel like it are nonsense, but if you say nothing, then I must think you want me to take offence” (Feel no pity for the Expressionist dinosaur – in time he would rise to high cultural office under the Nazis).

As political tumult increasingly overtook the domestic scene, Brecht’s next proposed play, Spartakus, starred a Spartacist, Glubb, but also his shadow, Kragler: ‘…who refuses to do any more fighting. He has had enough. “Everyone is top dog inside his own skin.” His girl may be pregnant by another man, but he will still be more comfortable in bed than on the barricades… Like Brecht, who had pretended to study medicine and took pleasure in defying expectation, Kragler makes weakness into strength: he has the courage of his own cowardice. And like Baal, he is fortified by indifference to bourgeois morality’; ‘What Kragler seemed to be disrupting was the bourgeois twilight, “sentimentality and business, domesticity and turpitude, high-mindedness and opportunism” (Ernst Fischer).’

Around this time, Brecht saw the comic, Karl Valentin, who would influence his ideas about performance (as Charlie Chaplin would, later):

“One immediately had the strong feeling that this man won’t make jokes. He is himself a joke.”

Karl Valentin

Karl Valentin

Brecht was now twenty, had sired his first child (“…among the peasants. May it grow fat and wise and not curse me!” – he would not see him often) and was moving to Berlin. Stafan Zweig sets a new scene: ‘Boys – and not only professionals – paraded up and down the Kurfurstenedamm wearing make-up and false waistlines; every schoolboy was set out to make money, while senior government officials and bankers were to be seen shamelessly flirting with drunken sailors…Girls boasted about their perversions, and in every school in Berlin they would have been in disgrace if they were suspected of virginity at the age of sixteen’.

His mother died. He regretted her suffering (“I no longer remember her face when she wasn’t in pain”) and that he had not been more forthright about his debt to her (“I loved her in my way, but she wanted to be loved in hers.”)

“I search for new forms and experiment with my feelings like other writers. but then I always come back to knowing that the essence of art is simplicity, grandeur and sensitivity, and the essence of its form, coolness.”

And so, another new play was begun, with the others still unperformed. Many of his love affairs had long since ended in estrangement (“like a whirlpool that forms where there’s a hole, an empty place”) and some of those he still maintained proved irritants (“her laughter’s no less unsettling than a haemorrhage”).

By 1920, ‘Brecht was already fantasising about having a theatre of his own. He would hire two clowns, and in the interval, pretending to be spectators, they would chat loudly about members of the audience and about the play, making bets on what was going to happen in the second half’. An occasional position writing reviews for a paper ended when the fledgling critic refused to rein in his scorn, as evidenced in the resulting farewell toward the owners: “… [they] understand as much about literature as a train driver does about geography.”

More blah on the actual beginnings of his actual stage career soon. I know you’ll wait.


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